Monday, October 31, 2016


← The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social ConsentRed Scare: FBI & The Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States

Posted on April 13, 2011 by sdonline  Socialism and Democracy

Regin Schmidt Red Scare: FBI & The Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States (University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000).

The young lack a sense of history-of the Cold War, of anti-communism, of the vibrancy of progressive movements in the United States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, older activists discoursing on their history at first engaged in long needed self-criticism. The self-criticism then shifted, however, to blanket rejection of our progressive pasts-our victories as well as our defeats, our brave and honorable moments, and particularly a recollection of the hegemonic power of the U.S. state as a primary cause of our defeats. Plainly, the horrific record of state repression in America is being forgotten by the older radicals and is unfamiliar to the younger ones.

Regin Schmidt’s book can help enormously in revisiting and reconstructing the role of state repression in manipulating, subverting, jailing, deporting, and killing leftists in the twentieth century. Schmidt has provided us with a data-rich account of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation took on its special role in crushing the left in America. His book is about the origins of the FBI in the old Bureau of Investigation in 1908 and its transformation into a state weapon in the struggle against perceived Bolshevism, anarchism, and communism in the aftermath of World War I. It is also about the continuity of state repression from the era of the Palmer Raids to Cold War America.

Schmidt argues that recently declassified information points to new explanations for the FBI’s rise to prominence. Some researchers view the agency’s rise as a response to mass hysteria, placing the root cause of anti-communism in the public at large. Schmidt, however, shows how popular attitudes about the Bolshevik/communist/anarchist threat emerge only after Attorney General Palmer and the FBI launched their campaigns of harassment, arrest, and deportation. In short, anti-communism as a public ideology was the creation of state institutions.

Another body of scholarly and journalistic literature places primary, indeed sole, responsibility for FBI misdeeds on the shoulders of its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover. While Schmidt sees Hoover as the major protagonist in the FBI drama, he grounds Hoover’s conduct in the context of state policy and bureaucratic interest.

Further, most studies of the FBI emphasize its role in shaping anti-communism after World War II. Schmidt, however, takes the reader back to the first Red Scare and the Palmer Raids for the origins of anti-communism. And, he claims, the campaign was constant from then through the Cold War period. The FBI and anti-communism are less visible from the mid-1920s until the depths of the Great Depression only because of the diminution of radical activities.

Schmidt clearly states his central thesis early in the book and demonstrates its accuracy through historical examination.

Just as the mushrooming federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions were employed to regulate the economy and ameliorate the most severe social consequences of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, [so also] the state during the first decades of the century increasingly used its resources to control, contain, and, in times of crisis, to repress social unrest and political opposition. Thus, the institutionalization of the FBI’s political activities from 1919 was at bottom a part of the federalization of social control in the form of political surveillance.

This book provides an engaging, rich, detailed history of how the FBI served the social control functions of the state: harassing the left, supporting federal, state, and local politicians in their anti-communist campaigns, and responding with sympathy to corporate requests for assistance. It covers the campaign against the IWW, the 1919 strike wave, the Palmer Raids, the Seattle General Strike, and the deportation of radicals.

Red Scare is an important book. It should be read by older progressives to refresh their memories of real state repression in the United States. The book should be passed along to young activists, most of whom were not old enough to remember FBI harassment of Central American solidarity activists in the 1980s. And this book should be included as supplementary reading in university classes on U.S. history, American politics, and social movements.

Finally, the book makes crystal clear an important reality of struggles for social change. Social movements do not fall apart solely because of ideological rigidity or factionalism or egotism. The errors that come from our ranks have to be understood in the context of a continuous pattern of state repression. The sorry record of the FBI in the United States must not be forgotten. Red Scare will help us remember.

Reviewed by Harry Targ, Department of Political Science, Purdue University

Monday, October 24, 2016


Harry Targ

Tom Hayden (1939-2016) was an activist and intellectual who, with others, inspired a generation of young people to oppose racism and war. He drafted a visionary statement that is still relevant today. He launched a youth movement in the late 1950s when the larger society was still crippled by virulent anti-communism and a sanctimonious view that the United States was the leader of the “free world.” He remained an anti-war and human rights activist throughout his life.

The ideas of community, empowerment, and social justice were articulated for the Sixties in the Port Huron Statement, written by founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, particularly Tom Hayden. While written by and for a relatively privileged sector of disenchanted youth in a period of booming economic growth and military expansion, the document spoke to the passion for justice, participation, and community, and an “…unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.”

It called for the creation of “human interdependence,” replacing “…power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance…” by “power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity.”

By the late Sixties many were identifying a new society based on the Port Huron vision built on core principles. These included:

  • local control and participatory democracy;
  • racial justice;
  • gender equality;
  • equitable distribution of resources and the collective product of human labor;
  • commitments to the satisfaction of minimal basic needs for all of humankind;
  • the development of an ethic that connects survival to human existence, not to specific jobs;
  • human control over technology; and
  • a new “land ethic” that conceives of humankind as part of nature, not in conflict with it.

The vision led to the exploration of the impediments to the construction of a society based on human scale that would celebrate both individual creativity and community. Growing familiarization with the critique of capitalism suggested that the capitalist mode of production, dominant over two-thirds of the world, was based upon the exploitation, oppression, dehumanization, and repression of the vast majority of humankind.

Incorporating an understanding of the workings of capitalism reinforced the vision that philosopher Martin Buber called the decentralized social principle embedded in Port Huron’s eloquent call for “community.” Building a new society entailed class struggle which would manifest itself in factories and fields, in rich and poor countries, and in political venues from the ballot box to the streets.

Bringing about positive change was a much more complicated affair than activists originally thought, but the sustained and sometimes brutal opposition to visions, like that reflected in The Port Huron Statement, validated the general correctness of them.

Today, new generations of activists, along with older ones, are reflecting and participating in diverse social movements in our cities and towns. They observe with enthusiasm the mobilizations, the militancy, and the passion for justice still unfolding in the Middle East.

The efforts of Venezuelans, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, and the Cubans who inspired us so much over the years are applauded. Important debates about social market economies, workers’ management of large enterprises, this or that candidate or political party, are occurring on the Internet and in the streets.

Although the times are so different from the 1960s, perhaps the vision of community that animated thinking then (which we in turn learned from those who preceded us) may still be relevant for today.

Tom Hayden and his comrades proclaimed that we must remain committed to the sanctity of human life, to equality, to popular control of all our institutions, to a reverence for the environment, and to the idea that the best of society comes from communal efforts to make living better for all. Hayden’s vision survives.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Harry Targ

Chicago’s iconic journalist, columnist, pundit, and Cubs fan, Mike Royko once ruminated on what he learned from his years as a Chicago Cubs baseball fan:  "It taught a person that if you try hard enough and long enough, you'll still lose and that's the story of life."

He lived through a lot of history of Cubs defeat. Sometimes the Cubs got close to world  series play only to let errors or faulty complaints about how a fan interfering with an outfielders catch of a foul ball led to a playoff game loss. Or going back further to Royko’s youth, the Cubs acquired a colossally slow home run hitter to play one outfield position along with another great home run hitter who was even slower; or the trade of a future hall of fame outfielder/base stealer for a washed up pitcher. While railing with vigor against the corruption, racism, and authoritarian rule of the first Daley machine in Chicago,  Royko followed with sorrow and despair a baseball team that was in Steve Goodman’s words, “the doormat of the National League.”  In fact, Goodman, the author of the powerful song about Middle America, “The City of New Orleans,” despite his disappointed love affair with the Chicago Cubs, sang about wanting to be buried in Wrigley Field.

Chicago’s love affair with their failed baseball teams prompted a disagreement between Royko and his friend and the other Chicago hero, Studs Terkel, on what the Cubs and the Chicago White Sox stood for. Studs correctly pointed out that the Southside White Sox were the working class team coming from a part of the city where there used to be “stockyards and steel mills.”  And in contradistinction, Cubs fans “…are from the suburbs, brought in by big buses. It’s like going to an air show or ‘Cats’—something tourists do.” Terkel pointed out in his New York Times October 28, 2005 op ed essay that for attendees at Cubs games “…it’s not about baseball. It’s about having been to a place to be.” He goes on to compare Wrigley Field, the “hallowed” ball park, with U.S. Cellular Field, “a dump.” The White Sox park only surpasses the Cubs venue in its toilets, “…the cleanest I’ve ever seen in a public place.”   

Royko, Terkel (and Goodman) are Chicago heroes (in the same tradition as the Haymarket Martyrs and Lucy Parsons). But they are both wrong.  The history of struggles, workers, women, African Americans, gays,  suggest  just the opposite of Royko’s despondency. In fact, if groups of people try hard enough and long enough they can win. In Cubs history, great stars planted the seeds of victory—Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo. They raised the possibility of victory that, while not experienced in the short term, has to be seen as part of a historic process that led to the 2016 season. This is even more  clear as we look at the social movements of today. Where does the passionate rejection of the reactionary politics of the Trump campaign come from if not from past struggles? What about the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, and movements for climate change?  Can social change ever occur if  Royko’s defeatist consciousness predominates?  

And although Terkel’s baseball “class analysis" of the Cubs and Sox is historically correct, baseball like life changes.  Transformations can occur. The Chicago Cubs have become the city’s team: for workers, men and women, and more people of color than before.  In fact, as a metaphor, the Cubs have transcended their upper class roots. In addition they have become a national phenomenon.

There is something about the inspiration that traditional ‘down and outers’ in the sports world have for most of the citizenry. Perhaps sometime in the future, progressives will look back to 2016 and remember that an older, Democratic Socialist, Jewish politician inspired young people to think about building a better society. And they will remember also that the Chicago Cubs won the National League championship and came close to or won the World Series.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Kirsten West Savila wrote: “Angela Davis—scholar, freedom fighter, former political prisoner, icon and my personal hero—told attendees at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism” conference at the University of Texas at Austin, that she is not so “narcissistic” to say that she won’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” in The Root, September 30,  2016.

Harry Targ

The Dickens opening to The Tale of Two Cities—it was the best of times and the worst of times-- continues to be relevant again and again. That is what dialectics is all about. 2016 gave us an exciting and inspirational presidential campaign led by Bernie Sanders: an older, Jewish socialist. Best of all was the enormous enthusiasm he generated among millennials, who were excited by his political vision and not deterred by his age.

On the other hand, the Republican pool of presidential candidates were among the most reactionary, racist, sexist, and homophobic collection of politicians ever assembled in national political life. This characterization was not always true of past Republican leaders who occasionally stood up for social and economic justice and against war. However, Republicans since 2008 have sought to rekindle the deep structures of racism for their own political gain.

The long-time presumptive Democratic Party nominee, at least from the standpoint of the mainstream media, offered a program of national policy that more or less supported finance capitalism at home and “humanitarian interventionism” overseas. 

But the Democratic contest energized the passions of the young, expanded political discourse to include visions of a more just future, and buried the virulent anti-communism that undergirded the political rhetoric of American politics since the onset of the Cold War. The vibrant support for the Sanders candidacy shifted domestic political discourse to the left and led to the construction of a Democratic Party platform that spoke to the needs for achieving a single payer health care system, raising the minimum wage to a living wage,  providing free tuition to students entering public universities,  creating real banking reform, passing meaningful immigration policies, reforming the criminal justice system, and addressing climate change, the most fundamental threat to humankind. Although platforms are just words, they articulate guides for policy advocacy and social movement mobilization. 

Finally, the Sanders campaign has stimulated the continuation of grassroots mobilizations to support progressive candidates for local, state, and national office. At this stage at least, the Sanders “Our Revolution” organizing efforts promise to continue the democratic socialist upsurge between elections as well as during them.

The “best of times” leaves much undone and gives pause to the most excited Sanders activists but the seeds have been planted for a new politics among the progressive majority and inspiration for older and younger sectors of the left to participate in mass movements in the years ahead.

As to the November, 2016 election, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is close enough to be frightening. The Trump/Pence candidacy has mobilized white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, citizens virulently hostile to immigrants, second amendment dogmatists and others who stand for returning to a past that can only be recreated with even greater state violence.The complicated election season raises questions about where progressives, particularly Sanders activists, should channel their political energies.

First, the Trump/Pence candidacy must be defeated. Trump has mobilized reactionary sectors of American society who support reversing gains made by women, people of color, and workers. The long march for economic and social justice of workers, women, African Americans, Latinos, and religious minorities has taken too long and required too many sacrifices, to be reversed.

Second, the centrists Democrats who support candidate Clinton might blame the new progressive majority if the Democratic candidate wins only by a narrow victory or loses. In fact, a Clinton victory will clearly depend upon the support of the masses of people, young and old, black and white, many of whom worked with passion for Bernie Sanders. A Clinton victory will be a Sanders victory. 

And in the 2016 context, the progressive majority will be in a position to demand that the Democratic Platform be supported in policy. The new administration will be obliged to put its full resources behind significant reform in health care, wages, the criminal justice system, immigration, and bank regulation. And, in addition, the new progressive majority will be in a position (even beyond former candidate Sanders) to challenge the military-industrial complex and demand a withdrawal from the expanding US empire in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

In fact, a Hillary Clinton electoral victory will be a defeat for the legitimation of racism and reaction and a demonstration that it was the progressive majority that insured it. The new progressive majority will have the right to “sit at the table.” If not it will be fully justified in hitting the streets.