As the popularity of the idea of socialism surges in the U.S., especially among the younger generations and within the most oppressed communities, such as African American communities, and as the number of 18 to 35 year olds who identify as working class continues to climb, now at nearly 57%, the time is perhaps right for exploring why anti-communism has dominated not only US dominant society, but the Left as well. While it should be expected that bourgeois society would be dominated by anti-communism, it is more troubling to consider the rampant anti-communism of the Left. Anti-communist rhetoric has dominated progressive educational circles in the U.S. since at least the 1930s and 1940s when George Counts (1947) juxtaposed the U.S. as a “liberal democracy” on one hand, and the Soviet Union as “authoritarian communism” on the other. This dichotomy has become deeply entrenched within critical pedagogy, especially in the U.S. It is problematic because engaging the evidence regarding actually existing socialism tells a different story. If the Soviet Union and other workers’ states have not, in reality, been the evil empires branded into the American consciousness, then why has the vast majority of the Left been so unable to offer an accurate account?
The most common response is to focus on the very real anti-communist propaganda campaign that has been in operation since at least 1917. Americans are raised on anti-communism in schools and in the media, this much is obvious. The Nazi party contributed to these efforts by coopting the social movement aesthetics of communism providing Western propagandists a readily available visualization to say communism equals fascism (Parenti, 1997).
A less common, but related, answer to this question, I believe, resides within the history of America’s both overt and covert wars against political dissidents within the U.S. itself. A similar campaign was waged against the Soviet Union via the CIA for the same reasons, that is, “to encourage divisiveness and demoralization and to eliminate some of the most effective communist leaders” (p. Szymanski, 1979, p. 208). The magnitude of this war within the U.S. has been so extreme I think it is worth reviewing some of the central points.
The FBI’s War on Communism
One of the first major pieces of legislation signaling the emergence of the bourgeois states’ war against political dissidents within the U.S. was the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal to engage in public speech or writing that could potentially influence citizens to refuse to serve in the military during times of war. Socialist leader Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act in a public speech where he offered a class analysis explaining WWI as a war between competing imperialists encouraging the working class to oppose it. The Smith Act of 1940 (i.e. the Alien Registration Act) extended the Espionage Act beyond times of war. In addition, the Smith Act made it illegal to advocate for the violent overthrow of the government or to belong to any group that did, which included socialist and communist parties based upon the Marxist-Leninist tradition. The Communist Control Act of 1954 effectively outlawed the Communist Party suspending the citizenship rights of CPUSA members. Perhaps because the Act has remained dormant and because the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on its constitutionality, it remains law. The combined result of these Acts has been the silencing of dissent allowing the anti-communist propaganda to run its course largely unchallenged.
Long before the Communist Control Act of 1954 the Communist Party USA was targeted for “special attention” when it emerged in 1919. In 1920 a massive purge was initiated leading to thousands of arrests across the country, which resulted in hundreds of deportations for the crime of being affiliated with communism or even for attempting to bail a suspected communist out of jail. The fact that African American organizations like the African Blood Brotherhood and their prominent leaders such as Harry Haywood merged with the CPUSA and played a central role in the party’s leadership should help us understand why communism was so reviled by America’s bourgeois state. Haywood, for example, adopted Lenin’s concept of national minorities with the right to self-determination to the American context in his theory of national oppression within what he called the Black Belt. The self-determination of America’s formerly enslaved population could not be tolerated. The CPUSA eventually changed its position on “the negro question” causing Haywood (1958) to leave the party as he could not tolerate its capitulation to bourgeois reformism. The CPUSA nevertheless suffered extreme external attacks and in just six months its membership fell from nearly 28,000 to just 8,000. Finally in 1920 U.S. District Court Judge George Anderson condemned the actions of the FBI effectively ending mass deportations (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1990).
Despite this era of massive, overt political repression The Great Depression created the conditions for another surge in the CPUSA’s membership reaching 40,000 or more by the 1930s and nearly 100,000 by the late 1940s. After a period of inactivity the FBI ramped up its actions against the CPUSA (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1990). To avoid the controversies of the earlier era the FBI began implementing its activities covertly and implemented their first formally designated Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, which was initiated by J. Edgar Hoover in 1956.
Hoover directed the FBI field offices to create extralegal “action programs” designed to disrupt the CPUSA’s ability to “influence” the masses, to create “confusion and disunity” within the Party, to penetrate “specific channels in American life where public opinion is molded” and to facilitate “espionage and sabotage potential” (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1990, p. 33). The objective was to “cripple or destroy” the CPUSA as a political rather than as a criminal entity. It was acknowledged that the CPUSA, inspired by the Soviet Union, had made great strides in convincing the American working class that positive social change was immediately achievable. By 1961 the CPUSA, after enduring thousands of COINTELPRO operations, had been reduced to less than 3,000 members.
In 1961 a similar COINTELPRO was initiated against the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Prior to this in 1943 18 members of the SWP were sentenced to prison terms for belonging to the SWP since their Statement of Principles was based upon the Communist Manifesto and therefore found to be in violation of the Smith Act. Again, the message was clear, affiliation with socialism or communism could lead to a felony conviction. It is assumed that COINTELPRO-like operations against political dissidents continue to exist within the FBI (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1990).
It is not difficult to understand how socialism and communism, in this context, came to represent something to fear or even the essence of un-American criminality in the minds of American workers and educators. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s also contributed to the purging of any potential dissent within systems of education and labor unions leading to an anti-communist hegemony dominating the schooling process, an hegemony that persists to this day. Anti-communist bigotry has therefore come to symbolize the very essence of Americanism. However, with anti-communist bigotry slowly fading to a bygone era, new potential exists for once again moving toward the communist horizon.
Anti-Communism in Progressive Education
It is within the hysterical atmosphere of anti-communist propaganda and repression that George Counts’ (1947) anti-communist progressive education initiatives must be considered. The Great Depression had crippled global capitalism, millions of American workers were tossed out of work, the membership of the CPUSA was exploding, American workers were moving to the Soviet Union to fill their labor shortage and, as a result, were being exposed to Soviet Democracy and their great strides in abolishing sexism and racism. In his 1947 Introduction to a translated segment of a Soviet Union teacher education text, Pedagogy, Counts (1947) is forced to acknowledge many of the strengths of the USSR. Consider:
…the opposition to fascist doctrines, the concern over the condition of the working people, the struggle for economic security for all, the dedication to the principle of equality of races and nationalities, the emphasis on humanistic ideals, the devotion to the common good, the respect for the weak and the aged, and the love of family and friends… (p. 21)
However, situated in the anti-communism of the U.S. it is not surprising that Counts would follow this list of positive aspects of the Soviet Union with the contradictory statement that the Soviet Union also stands as a barrier to world peace since it was actively socializing its citizens with a Marxist critique of capitalism and with the skills and dispositions needed to defend itself from external imperialist threats. After praising the Soviet Union for its commitment to anti-fascism, Counts (1947) argues that, “the current emphasis on patriotism in Soviet education has been equaled or exceeded in our time only by the fascist totalitarian powers, notably Germany, Japan and Italy” (p. 23)
By the time critical pedagogy formally emerged with the early work of Henry Giroux in the 1980s, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc had nearly been defeated signaling the restoration of capitalism in those regions and thus the privatization of the means of production and many social programs. Rather than a triumph for democracy these events represent a major setback in the proletarian camp of the global class war. Consequently, there is now a political void where communism once was. Jodi Dean (2012) in the Communist Horizon comments at length on what has filled in the void created by the absence of communism. In U.S. educational theory the praises of the Soviet Unions’ accomplishments, highlighted by Counts, seem to have been forgotten. What remains is Counts’ demonization of communism equating it with the very fascism it worked so hard to eradicate.
For example, echoing Counts, Henry Giroux (2004), in his book, The Terror of Neoliberalism, suggests, with stunning conviction, that Soviet communism is on par with the cruelties of neoliberal capitalism and the outright genocidal fanaticism of Nazi capitalism. Making this point Giroux (2004) argues that, “newer forms of authoritarianism” are “emerging under the banner of democracy” but are “taking different forms from those twentieth-century regimes of terror that marked the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and fascist Italy” (p. 147).
What is most striking about the anti-communism within critical pedagogy is that there is an overwhelming tendency for it to be reproduced without a shred of evidence violating the most basic norms of the scientific community. And it is not as if such evidence is not available. For example, in 1979 Zed Press published Albert Szymanski’s book, Is the Red Flag Flying: The Political economy of the Soviet Union today where he systematically and rigorously reviews the evidence regarding the nature of the Soviet Union. Szymanski thoroughly and comprehensively offers all the evidence necessary for countering nearly every anti-Soviet sentiment ever expressed. A more known political scientist, Michael Parenti, had a similar book published in 1997 that also makes significant contributions to countering anti-Soviet propaganda.
Rather than engaging this evidence Michael Parenti (2001) argues that the American Left is “busy fighting the ghost of Stalin, dwelling on the tabloid reports of the ‘horrors’ of communism, doing fearless battle against imaginary hordes of ‘doctrinaire’ Marxists at home and abroad, or in some other way flashing their anti-Communist credentials and shoring up their credibility” (p. 158). Hopefully the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the effects of Occupy Wall Street, the movement for Black lives, and the harsh material conditions of escalating immiseration amongst the proletarian class camp will continue to erode the bigotry and self-destructiveness of anti-communism.
To facilitate this process a new emphasis on the forgotten history of communism, especially within Black and Brown communities, must be embraced by progressive educators (see, for example, Malott, 2016). An engagement with Marx is also necessary so there is no confusion regarding the critique of political economy and an understanding of the internal logic of capitalism itself. An engagement with Lenin is also important to better understand the role of the state and revolution in creating socialism and eventually communism. Lenin’s classic text The State and Revolution is also fundamental for challenging the use of concepts that have been at the heart of progressive education since Counts, such as the notion of authoritarianism.
Henry Giroux, who continues to be one of the leading theorists in critical pedagogy, uses the idea of authoritarianism to name what is wrong with the current era. For example, Giroux often describes an aggressive assault on democratic modes of government by a new authoritarianism that detracts attention away from the real plight of working people. Giroux correctly critiques current neoliberal rhetoric and its use of false notions such as the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and now with Trump an extreme escalation of proto-fascistic tendencies promising increasingly impoverished white workers to make America white again, which falsely assumes the plight of the white working class is a result of America’s changing demographics.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Lenin (1917/2015), on the other hand, argues that concepts such as authoritarianism should not be dismissed outright. Lenin notes that the state exists only where there are class antagonisms and the existence of the bourgeois state can therefore only ever serve the purpose of maintaining capitals’ domination over labor. For critical pedagogues to talk about the new authoritarianism and a departure from the common good suggests that the bourgeois state can reconcile the antagonisms between labor and capital. While liberal reforms alluded to by critical pedagogy and advocated for by Sanders can keep the savageness of capital temporarily in check, the state will only ever really serve the class that is the ruling class. The goal of a proletarian revolution, from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, is therefore to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a temporary proletarian state. That is, to change the class that rules from the capitalist class to the working class.
Lenin therefore observes that one of the most serious mistakes of the anarchist is failing to understand that “authority and autonomy are relative terms, that the sphere of their application varies with the various phases of social development, that it is absurd to take them as absolutes” (p. 153). Lenin is alluding to one of the central points in The German Ideology. In this text, Marx and Engels (1846/1996) argue that it is incorrect to believe in, “a universal principle in the existing world” (p. 41). That is, they challenged the utopian belief that the fight for a just society is primarily an ideological fight, and is thus a battle for a predetermined consciousness, and the imposition of a fixed ideology.
Lenin (1917/2015) is contesting the tendency of anarchists to be informed by a fixed, narrow ideology that rails against the authoritarian state demanding it be immediately abolished, even before the well organized, persistent, counter-revolutionary capitalist class is defeated. Forfeiting the authoritarian tools (i.e. the state) needed to defeat one’s class enemy before victory has been secured, for Lenin, is to surrender before the final battle has even begun. Marx agrees that the state as such will vanish when class structures are once and for all time dismantled. However, until the capitalist class is defeated, even after the initial seizure of state power and the destruction of the bourgeois state, the proletarian state (i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat) must exist to fight the capitalist class.
Making this point even more concrete, Lenin draws on Engels by noting that the revolutionary act is perhaps one of the most authoritarian human actions possible since it consists of one portion of a population exerting its will by means of violent, deadly force on another portion. In conclusion, Engels argues that anti-authoritarians either do not know what they are talking about, or they are counter-revolutionary, capitalist-class colluders. Marx, Engels, and Lenin all agreed with anarchists that the state, as such, should not be regarded as permanent, but, contrary to the anarchist position, the proletarian state, in which workers have gained state power, must persist until all external and internal imperialist threats have been defeated.
Jodi Dean (2012), in The Communist Horizon, offers an important insight to further our understanding of the idea of communism not as a lost dream, but as capitalism’s theoretical opposite and thus as its ever-present ontological potentiality. Following Haywood (1958) here, the potential and actual central gravitational force of revolution resides within the most oppressed and exploited segments of the globe. The explosive uprisings that have gone through waves of emergence in African American communities and within Native American nations speak to this insight in the context of the U.S.
Another problematic trend in the Left’s contemporary position is the tendency to take democracy as its object of desire. For Dean, this is troubling since democracy already exists in bourgeois society and has not been able to protect the interests of the poor and oppressed. Unlike in slave and feudal societies where democracy does not exist, advocating for more participation in a society based upon participation makes little sense. Fighting for more of what already exists does not represent a revolutionary position, and thus does not offer a way out of the cycle of unfulfilled desire. In this respect Dean suggests that much of today’s left is actually driven by a liberal impulse that finds common ground with conservatives and capitalists in that communism is treated as a lost horizon that history has proven will inevitably lead to violent authoritarianism. Again, it is foolish to not allow the working class to defend itself against the counter-revolutionaries. Once they are defeated, then we can begin talking about the withering away of the state and all forms of authoritarianism.
Churchill, W. & Vander Wall, J. (1990). The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the The FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. Boston: South End Press.
Counts, G. (1947). Introduction. In George Counts Nucia Lodge (eds.). “I want to be like Stalin”: from the Russian text on pedagogy. New York: The John Day Company.
Dean. J. (2012). The Communist Horizon. London: Verso.
Giroux, H. (2004). The Terror of Neoliberalism. New York: Routledge.
Haywood, H. (1958). For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question. Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/1956-1960/haywood02.htm.
Lenin, V.I. (1917/2015). The State and Revolution. In Ben Becker (Ed.). Revolution Manifesto: Understanding Marx and Lenin’s Theory of Revolution. San Francisco: Liberation Media.
Malott, C. (2016). History and Education: Engaging the Global Class War. New York: Peter Lang.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1846/1996). The German Ideology: Part I. New York: International Publishers.
Parenti, M. (1997). Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. San Francisco: City Lights.
Parenti, M. (2001). Rollback: Aftermath of the Overthrow of Communism. In George Katsiaficas (Ed.).After The Fall: 1989 and the Future of Freedom . New York: Routledge.
Syzmanski, A. (1979). Is the red flag flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today. London: Zed Press.
About the author: Curry Malott is the co-author of Marx, Capital, and Education: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Becoming and his latest book,History and Education: Engaging the Global Class War will be published this year. He is a regular contributor to the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studiesand co-runs the book series Marxist, Socialist, and Communist Studies in Education through Information Age Publishing. He is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.