Red scare and yellow peril: challenging the New McCarthyism

This article has also been translated into Greek.

Freedom of speech is one of the key trademarks of capitalist democracy. For decades, people living in the West have been brought up with the idea that they live under an objectively superior political system. This assumed superiority derives from a high degree of individual freedom, in particular the freedom to criticise the government or hold beliefs that differ from mainstream political thought. This specific, idiosyncratic notion of freedom is fundamental to Western capitalist ideology. For our societies, freedom means “not the freedom to be fully alive to have the resources to eat, to learn, to be healthy – but to have free elections and a free press.”1

Of course, such a definition is not uncontested. While the law may allow freedom of speech at a theoretical level, the reality is that we live in a class society that affords a far louder voice to the owners of capital. The major news outlets are owned by private companies; even supposedly impartial state-run media organisations such as the BBC reflect the interests of capitalist governments, and therefore fit comfortably within the prevailing ideological hegemony. In that sense, freedom of speech cloaks a more prosaic reality in which power and ideology are dominated by the capitalist class and protected by “special bodies of armed men”2. As Chomsky puts it: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.3

Nevertheless, modern capitalism’s apparent ability to exist without the need for political authoritarianism is considered proof that it is a better fit for humanity than socialism, which is associated with highly centralised one-party states. In the Cold War era, the US had two major political parties and two major cola brands, and that was freedom. The Soviet Union had one major political party and no major cola brands, and that was tyranny.

That freedom of speech is not an absolute and non-negotiable value of the Western ruling classes is brutally demonstrated by their refusal to allow it when it doesn’t suit their interests. For example, Britain never upheld the principle of freedom of speech in its vast colonial empire; in India, in Ireland, in Kenya, in Southern Africa, in Hong Kong, in the Caribbean, democratic principles were nowhere to be found. Since the end of World War II, the US has engaged in regime change operations around the world, overthrowing elected governments and propping up ruthless dictatorships quick to silence dissent with guns and prison cells. The US-backed military regimes in Brazil, Indonesia, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere did not offer freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech under attack

Caveats, limitations and duplicity notwithstanding, people in the capitalist democracies have come to expect a level of freedom of speech, which they consider – along with the right to decide “once in three or six years which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent the people in Parliament,”4 – to constitute the pinnacle of freedom and democracy. And needless to say, freedom of speech is to be defended by progressive forces – long historical experience shows that attacks on freedom of speech are overwhelmingly directed against the left.

But even this right is inclined to disappear in times of political crisis. The legitimacy of the dominant neoliberal capitalist model has taken a series of tough blows in recent years: the financial crash, declining living standards, the startling failure of the major Western countries to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the deepening environmental crisis, and the ongoing systemic oppression of minority communities. In much of the West, disillusionment is taking the place of optimism; confidence in the basic assumptions of modern capitalism is being undermined; and there are signs of a growing resistance to the status quo. This in turn is stimulating an increasingly repressive political atmosphere.

While Western capitalism is in a period of (quite possibly terminal) decline, China continues to rise. China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy within the next few years; it is the largest trading partner of most of the world’s countries; it is becoming a global leader in science and technology. Worst of all, China’s emergence isn’t taking place under US guidance and doesn’t rely on US leadership. Since the end of World War II, the US has run a sort of protection racket in which it facilitated the economic development of its allies (most prominently, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and Taiwan) on the understanding that they accept and bolster its hegemonic position. China does not belong in this category. Indeed, US backing for the ‘Asian tigers’ was to a significant degree aimed at undermining and discrediting socialist China.

China is now widely seen in Western foreign policy circles as the most serious threat to the imperialist world system since the heyday of Soviet socialism. It has become an enemy and a scapegoat. This is filtering into the mass media in the form of relentless anti-China hysteria, and those that refuse to go along with it are being targeted for repression.

During the Cold War, to talk positively about the Soviet Union was to exist outside the limits of political acceptability. Equally during the New Cold War, to talk positively about China is to exist outside the limits of political acceptability.

We’ve been here before

“Communism is a way of life – an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic, and like an epidemic a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.” (J Edgar Hoover)5

After the allied victory in World War II, extreme right-wing forces in the US quickly concluded that the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union would have to be replaced with a policy of aggression and hostility towards the socialist world. Having led the efforts to defeat fascism and restore peace – making extraordinary sacrifices in the process – the USSR and its allies enjoyed great prestige around the world. Even in some of the leading capitalist countries such as France and Italy, the communists had won broad popular support. In the first few years after the conclusion of the war, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania embarked upon a socialist path of development.

At that juncture, the US ruling class could have opted for a policy of peaceful coexistence. This was certainly the preferred policy of the Soviet Union. Instead, the Truman administration chose a path of relentless hybrid warfare against the socialist world: the Cold War, which lasted from 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War had a parallel process in US domestic politics, ie McCarthyism, named for the erratic Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, the most visible face of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The purveyors of McCarthyism sought to set clear parameters around legitimate political thought and activity. From around 1947 onwards, anti-communism became the US’s national religion. Michael Parenti recalls that “anti-communist propaganda saturated our airwaves, schools, and political discourse”.6 Members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) and its affiliated organisations were vilified. Many thousands were thrown out of their jobs. It became illegal for communists to hold positions in government or to work as teachers. Laws were put in place preventing communists from holding leadership positions in trade unions. To be accused of being a communist often meant being rendered permanently unemployed and alienated from friends and family. And one did not have to actually be a communist in order to be accused of being a communist; the accusation was hurled at anyone deemed liberal or progressive.

The most notorious incident of that period is the state murder of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Julius had been implicated in providing some low-level non-atomic intelligence to the Soviet Union – a crime commensurate with a brief prison sentence. But in the prevailing anti-communist hysteria, it was possible for the judge to (illegally) collaborate with the Justice Department and hand down the outrageously disproportionate sentence of execution. As Julius himself commented upon hearing the sentence:

There had to be a Rosenberg case, because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna get five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for contempt of court, but we’re gonna kill ya!7

Immigrants were subjected to special scrutiny. Describing a situation that sounds disturbingly similar to the recent treatment of Chinese academics in the US, the late Chinese diplomat Ji Chaozhu wrote that, in 1950, “there were rumours that some of the more accomplished overseas Chinese students, engaged in technical research as part of their doctorates, had been called in for interviews about their politics.”8 Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born CPUSA leader, was imprisoned in 1948 and deported in 1955 (she would go on to be a leader of the black left in Britain, inaugurating the Notting Hill carnival). Celebrity provided little succour: the FBI managed to amass a 2,000-page file on Albert Einstein.9 Charlie Chaplin was placed on a Hollywood blacklist in 1948 and barred from the US in 1952.10 (It’s worth noting that the witch-hunters were especially concerned about the entertainment industry, which they considered to be a bastion of radical ideology – over 300 actors, screenwriters, directors and musicians were prevented from working in their chosen field).

Progressive African-Americans also merited extra attention. The legendary singer, actor and campaigner Paul Robeson was subjected to an extended offensive by the FBI. His passport was taken away; he was hauled in front of the HUAC on numerous occasions; he was denied access to concert venues; and friends and associates were put under immense pressure to distance themselves from him. Gerald Horne writes: “The harassment of Robeson, the denial of his passport and the like were designed to turn him into a non-entity. Making Robeson radioactive was the intention.”11 In 1951, the great intellectual and writer WEB Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and by then 81 years old, was put on trial for alleged subversive activities (incidentally Einstein offered to appear on his behalf as a character witness),12 and had his passport taken away.

The purpose of McCarthyism

The reactionary classes have always used every method to condemn and slander new ideas. Thus, all the paper and all the resources at their disposal are not sufficient to slander communist ideas; to slander the desire for a society in which human beings no longer exploit one another, but become real brothers and sisters… The ancient dream of humankind – a dream that is possible today – of a society without exploiters or exploited, has aroused the hatred and rancour of all exploiters. (Fidel Castro)13

The anti-communist frenzy whipped up by the US ruling class had a number of objectives, all subservient to the overall vision of bolstering the hegemonic position of US capitalism at home and abroad. McCarthyism also played a role in the internal struggle within the ruling class: the most reactionary conservative elements used anti-communism as a stick with which to attack the more progressive elements – supporters of the New Deal and proponents of racial integration. It’s telling that Senator McCarthy first made a name for himself by spearheading the attacks on those politicians (ie members of the Franklin Roosevelt administration) deemed responsible for the so-called ‘loss of China’ to communism in 1949.

There was nothing inevitable about McCarthyism; it was simply a strategy adopted by the US elite in response to its specific circumstances, traditions and preferences. In France and Italy, for example, there were communist parties far bigger and more influential than the CPUSA, but there was no similarly flagrant and ruthless process of political repression.

Handmaiden of the Cold War

Gerald Horne describes the Red Scare as being the “handmaiden of the Cold War.”14 Similarly, Cold War historian Ellen Schrecker points out the inextricable link between US foreign policy and McCarthyism: “Opposition to the Cold War had been so thoroughly identified with communism that it was no longer possible to challenge the basic assumptions of American foreign policy without incurring suspicions of disloyalty.”15

That is to say, anti-communism was used as a means to generate a consensus around US foreign policy, which involved activities that might have been expected to create mass resistance – including but not limited to a genocidal war in Korea (with a death toll in the region of 4 million); the escalation in Vietnam from 1955; the brutal suppression of uprisings in Puerto Rico; and the concomitant extraordinary expenditure on military hardware. Schrecker writes: “The American people had just emerged from over a decade and a half of depression and war and the Truman administration worried that they might not be willing to sustain the effort that was deemed necessary to contain Soviet expansion.”16

McCarthyism effectively criminalised protest and criticism, thereby providing cover for American brutality around the world. By accusing the Soviet Union of being a prison nation, the US aimed to deflect attention from the terrible indignities and privations suffered by its indigenous population and the descendants of African slaves. By accusing the Soviet Union of mass murder, the US aimed to stifle discussion of the mass murder campaigns in Guatemala, Indonesia, Korea and elsewhere. By accusing the Soviet Union of international aggression, the US aimed to mute criticism of its programme of non-stop war. The horrifying wars in Korea and Vietnam could be portrayed not as wars of neocolonial conquest but of containing the communist evil.

As such, this ferocious anti-communism was simply the domestic reflection of US imperialism’s planet-wide war against the socialist countries and the Global South. WEB Du Bois noted very early on – in 1952 – that the nation’s rulers wanted to prevent ordinary people “from daring to think or talk against the determination of big business to reduce Asia to colonial subserviency to American industry; to re-weld the chains of Africa; to consolidate United States control of the Caribbean and South America; and above all to crush socialism in the Soviet Union and China.”17

Criminalising dissent

In addition to creating a broad public consensus around American ‘values’ and foreign policy, McCarthyism also aimed to marginalise and undermine the left – not only its most visible target (the CPUSA) but also the trade unions and the movement for racial equality. Trade unions were subjected to extreme pressure to distance themselves from the CPUSA. Since communists were among the most effective, energetic and militant trade unionists, the result was a weakening of the workers’ side in the class struggle.

In the early post-war period, huge pressure was put on the NAACP and other African-American organisations to disavow communism and disassociate themselves from radical organisations. The NAACP – which by this point had opted for a relatively moderate reformism – was labelled by the witch-hunters as a communist front; in many ways, Gerald Horne writes, “they were the first targets of the red scare”.18 Paul Heideman remarks that the McCarthyite campaign “dealt a hammer blow” to the black liberation movement, “attacking its unions and scattering its activists”, cutting it off from its working class base and thereby “delaying the fall of Jim Crow by a decade or more and narrowing the movement’s focus to legal equality.”19

In the former slave states of the South, the anti-communist campaign was simply a scarecrow for the fight against racial integration. Schrecker observes that “race-baiting and Red-baiting were intertwined… Southern conservatives had always claimed that the region’s African Americans were perfectly content with their subordinate status and that demands for change were the product of ‘outside agitators.’”20

The anti-communist consensus aimed to split all progressive opinion off from not just the CPUSA but the entire global socialist movement. The US elite clearly worried that oppressed minorities in particular might give their loyalties to the socialist countries (which were avowedly anti-racist and anti-colonialist) and the Global South, thus forming a worldwide front against US-led imperialism. According to Robeson Taj Frazier, “the idea of black Americans, and moreover oppressed US workers and racial minorities, as members of a global majority made the US global model of market-oriented economic and political development extremely vulnerable.”21

Accompanying McCarthyism therefore was a process of ‘decoupling’ – turning the Soviet Union and its allies from ideological competitors into mortal enemies, and effectively criminalising constructive engagement with the socialist world.

The ghost of Senator McCarthy

The McCarthyite period was characterised by a narrowing of the limits of political respectability, combined with an elaborate witch-hunt against those that operated (or were accused of operating) outside those limits. We witness a similar phenomenon today, albeit not yet on the same scale as the 1950s.

As noted earlier, the imperialist ruling classes (led by the US) consider China’s rise a serious threat to their interests. With China being both a communist-led state and a nation of non-white people, the modern shade of McCarthyism combines anti-communist ‘red scare’ with anti-Asian ‘yellow peril’, fomenting a social panic that draws on multiple layers of 20th century propaganda. The Communist Party of China, with its “designs for hegemony” is insistent on “exploiting our free and open society”, imposing its “absolute rule” and “expanding the Chinese empire.” If you substitute China with the Soviet Union, the lunatic utterances of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are eerily reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover: “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time, and America is perfectly positioned to lead it because our founding principles give us that opportunity.”22

China is accused in Newsweek of attempting to “transform our prized academic institutions into a system that is submissive to the objectives of China’s totalitarian dictatorship.”23 China is “cultivating relationships with county school boards and local politicians”; Chinese groups are “practising their nefarious actions in the shadows” and, worst of all, “groups loyal to communist China are operating out in the open.”24 This new reds-under-the-bed narrative replays a script from the 1950s, and is to a significant degree being carried out by the same institutions. The FBI has opened up extensive investigations into Chinese scientists, for example hounding cancer researcher Juan Tang for her alleged links to the Chinese military.25 The National Institutes of Health have fired dozens of scientists for receiving funding from Chinese institutions,26 and over a thousand Chinese researchers have had their visas revoked.27 In the realm of entertainment, US Attorney General William Barr has accused companies including Disney and Apple of “enabling the government in Beijing to amass influence and wealth at the expense of the US and Western democratic values.”28

This hysteria hasn’t been limited to the realms of far-right US nutcases. The British media has paid inordinate attention to a new book by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, which purportedly exposes the extent to which British politicians and institutions are putty in the hands of China’s sinister communist overlords. Reviewing the book in the left-of-centre Guardian, Will Hutton warns that “the Chinese Communist party aims to construct a world in which Enlightenment values are subordinate to its own,” and that it is engaged in repression “even as I write.”29 The 48 Group Club, a network promoting business links between Britain and China, has been the target of a series of exposés in the British media, and has been routinely slandered as a proxy for Chinese efforts to “groom the British elite.”30

Unite against repression

Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking. (Martin Luther King)31

As with McCarthyism in its original form, the New McCarthyism aims to build a consensus around US-led imperialist foreign policy, and to weaken progressive forces at home and abroad. It is not simply directed at China and its supporters; it is about resisting the whole trajectory of global politics towards multipolarity; it is about preventing the emergence of any alternative to the dictatorial rule of capital. For example, the British politicians and journalists leading anti-China witch-hunts have at the same time been engaged in the relentless denigration of Jeremy Corbyn and his political project.

The New McCarthyism seeks to demonise and isolate those people and movements that work for peace and multipolarity. The situation demands that all potential targets of this repression unite against it, regardless of their political differences. However, elements of the liberal left are already erring on the side of participating in the witch-hunt rather than opposing it. Paul Mason is a prime example, taking to the pages of the New Statesman to denounce “two left-wing publications in the UK that appear committed to whitewashing China’s authoritarian form of capitalism.”32 This is but a sad echo of the US liberal left’s failure to adequately stand up to anti-communist repression in the 1940s and 1950s.33 Gerald Horne notes that “broad swathes of liberals turned away from Paul Robeson, unable to overcome antipathy to his defence of existing socialism.”34 The American Civil Liberties Union even opted not to oppose the removal of Robeson’s passport, on the grounds that there exists “no absolute legal or moral right to a passport.”35

To accept McCarthyism is to seriously compromise our ability to produce meaningful change – to stand up to war, oppression, exploitation, discrimination, poverty, and climate breakdown. Those that are serious about building a future of peace, justice and equality must defend our collective right to engage in that work.

  1. Vijay Prashad, Washington Bullets (p91) ↩︎
  2. This is how Lenin describes the state apparatus in his pamphlet State and Revolution (1917). ↩︎
  3. Noam Chomsky: The Common Good (2002), p43 ↩︎
  4. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871) ↩︎
  5. Voices of Democracy: Speech Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 26 March 1947 ↩︎
  6. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism (1997), p25 ↩︎
  7. Workers World: Petition demands justice for Ethel Rosenberg (2016) ↩︎
  8. Ji Chaozhu, The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry (2008), p58 ↩︎
  9. Chicago Tribune: McCarthy-era witch hunters did not spare Einstein (2004) ↩︎
  10. The Telegraph: Why was Charlie Chaplin banned from the US? (2016) ↩︎
  11. Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (2016), p70 ↩︎
  12. Smithsonian Magazine, How Albert Einstein Used His Fame to Denounce American Racism (3 March 2017) ↩︎
  13. Fidel Castro Internet Archive: Speech delivered by Fidel Castro Ruz during the presentation of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, at the Chaplin theater (3 October 1965) ↩︎
  14. Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, p100 ↩︎
  15. Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism (1994), p93 ↩︎
  16. ibid, p26 ↩︎
  17. WEB Du Bois, In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (1952), p104 ↩︎
  18. Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro American Response to the Cold War, 1944–1963 (1985), p60 ↩︎
  19. Jacobin: How McCarthyism and the Red Scare Hurt the Black Freedom Struggle (21 May 2020) ↩︎
  20. The Age of McCarthyism, p85 ↩︎
  21. Robeson Taj Frazier, The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (2014), p32 ↩︎
  22. US Department of State: Communist China and the Free World’s Future (23 July 2020) ↩︎
  23. Newsweek: Infiltration: Communist China’s Campaign to Reshape US Education (13 September 2020) ↩︎
  24. Fox News: Pompeo warns governors of Chinese infiltration into US: ‘It’s happening in your state’, (8 February 2020) ↩︎
  25. Nature: US investigations of Chinese scientists expand focus to military ties (3 September 2020) ↩︎
  26. Science Magazine: Fifty-four scientists have lost their jobs as a result of NIH probe into foreign ties (12 June 2020) ↩︎
  27. South China Morning Post: Over 1,000 Chinese researchers leave US amid tech theft crackdown (3 December 2020) ↩︎
  28. Bloomberg: Barr Says Disney, Apple and Other Firms Are Now Pawns of China (16 July 2020) ↩︎
  29. The Guardian: Hidden Hand review – China’s true global ambitions exposed (11 August 2020) ↩︎
  30. For example the Daily Mail: Minister is accused of ‘kowtowing’ to China after ‘praising President Xi’ at a dinner for a pro-Beijing lobby group (24 October 2020) ↩︎
  31. People’s World: Progressive politics is possible only if it rejects anti-communism (13 February 2019) ↩︎
  32. New Statesman: Why the left must condemn China’s brutal authoritarianism (5 August 2020) ↩︎
  33. For example Jacobin: When the ACLU Betrayed Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the Left (8 May 2020) ↩︎
  34. Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, p141 ↩︎
  35. Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990), p199 ↩︎

3 thoughts on “Red scare and yellow peril: challenging the New McCarthyism”

  1. In an otherwise authoritive piece, it is unfortunate the Senator McCarthy is conflate with the House Committee on Un-Ametican Activities. As a member of the Senate, McCarthy had no connection with the House of Representatives. In fact, HUAC was resentful of McCarthy’s Senate Internal Security sub-committee. McCarthy was the mutant variant of the HUAC bacillus.

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