LBO News from Doug Henwood

fresh audio product: varieties of correctional control, challenging mainstream economics

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

June 1, 2023 Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative talks about some underappreciated aspects of the carceral state: probation, parole, and civil commitment • Francisco Pérez of the Center for Economic Democracy on why mainstream economics is so terrible and an online course that can help civilians break through the discipline’s mystifications

Fresh audio product: rising seas meet small islands; libertarian enclaves

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 25, 2023 Tina Gerhardt, author of Sea Changeon the effects of rising oceans on small island nations • Quinn Slobodian, author of Crack-Up Capitalismon libertarian enclaves insulated from democracy

Fresh audio product: Trump & the fascist creep, urban governance via nonprofits

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 18, 2023 Jeff Sharlet talks about his new book, The Undertow, essays on the increasingly violent and authoritarian politics on the right unleashed by Trump • Claire Dunning, author of Nonprofit Neighborhoodson urban governance by philanthropists

McCarthyism: a primer

Here is the lightly edited text of a talk I gave to New York City DSA’s Night School, May 9, 2023. I restored a few passages I cut for length and added a few minor bits. There’s a video version of the full event here, which also includes Chip Gibbons’s presentation on J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. I’m not much to look at but Chip is well worth hearing. For a note on sources, see the bottom of the page. The graphics were shown as slides during the presentation by way of visual amusement. I thought they’d add some pizzazz to this medium.

setting the stage

Strictly speaking, the term McCarthyism is misleading. As we learned a few weeks ago in s Night School session, it wasn’t the first Red Scare; the first Scare, which ran from 1918 to 1920, may have been shorter than the second, but it was plenty intense. The Second Red Scare is usually dated as running from 1946, as we were adjusting to a world where the Soviet Union was no longer our wartime ally, to 1956, when, among other things, a liberal turn in the federal judiciary made the holy war hard to prosecute.

The heyday of McCarthy himself ran for less than half that decade, from 1950 to 1954. The Red Scare II was much larger than McCarthy himself—and, paradoxically, his fall gave the Scare a few more years of life, by replacing his frenzy with more measured forms of persecution—though saying the scare was larger than him shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that he was unimportant. His frenzy did a lot of political work by scaring the hell out of everyone.

The House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, was founded as a temporary panel in 1938 and led by a Texas Democrat, Martin Dies. On becoming a permanent committee in 1946, it was suggested the Klan might be an appropriate target of investigation. But that was rejected, leading Mississippi Democrat John Rankin to comment, “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” True enough.


HUAC cut its teeth on the investigation of Alger Hiss, which began in 1948. Hiss, who’d served in a variety of government posts in the 1930s and early 1940s, was denounced as a Communist and a spy by a former Communist who’d turned to the right, Whittaker Chambers. Although the statute of limitations for espionage had expired, Hiss got indicted for lying to Congress and convicted; he served almost four years. Chambers, though he admitted having lied in earlier testimony under oath, was never indicted.

04 Hiss and Chambers

This isn’t the place to go into the Hiss–Chambers affair; one can go mad pursuing it, like JFK assassination arcana. Some argue that documents released after the collapse of the USSR confirm that Hiss was an agent, but several Soviet historians and former officials rejected such claims. Whatever the truth, the Hiss affair really helped get the Red Scare going. It also helped launch the career of HUAC member Richard Nixon, who would plague the country for decades to come.

From the first, certain intra-class tensions were prominent. (The contrast in appearance between Hiss and Chambers makes the point.) The more fervent Red hunters were generally from nonmetropolitan areas in the South and Midwest. They were mostly of modest origins and didn’t go to fancy colleges. Their targets were often aristocratic products of high-end prep schools and the Ivy League. Mostly anti-Communist themselves, some flirted with radical politics in the 1930s—but to their antagonists their cosmopolitan matter reeked of Communist sympathies, and maybe gay ones as well.

In 1940, Congress passed the Smith Act, which made it a crime “to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise or teach the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence.” The next year, Attorney General Francis Biddle indicted members of the Socialist Workers Party because its manifesto endorsed overthrowing capitalism by force if necessary. The main reason for the prosecution was not fear of Trotskyists but pressure from the Teamsters Union president, because an SWP-run dissident faction was giving him a hard time. Eighteen SWPers were convicted and did time. The Communist Party supported the prosecution because they hated Trotskyists so much.

Before our Trotskyists friends get too annoyed by this, Trotsky himself was going to testify before HUAC but couldn’t get a visa. He was planning to submit written testimony, but he was killed.

The feds showed the CP no gratitude for its support of the Smith Act. In 1948, they indicted eleven of its top leaders for violating the Act—not for anything it had done, but for something Lenin wrote in State and Revolution: “The replacement of the bourgeois by the proletariat state is impossible without violent revolution.” Though the government’s investigation began with suspicions of espionage, it turned instead to this sedition through reading list strategy. It was a way of criminalizing membership in the Party without explicitly doing so.

All eleven defendants were convicted and did three to five years, and the judge also sentenced their lawyers to jail time for contempt. Over the next several years, lower-level officials of the CP were also prosecuted, among them Claudia Jones, a black feminist force within the Party, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founding member of the ACLU. It was extremely difficult for them to find lawyers, given the contempt charges against the first set of Smith Act attorneys, and the government’s threat to declare the National Lawyers’ Guild a subversive organization.

Now I’ll hand things over to Chip Gibbons, who’ll talk about J. Edgar Hoover. There’s J. Edgar in two phases of his life.

05 J Edgar Hoover

And here’s a taste of his files. I’ll be back to talk about McCarthy himself in a bit.

06 Delmer berg files

lying from the first

Joseph McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, in 1908. Personable and ambitious, he eyed politics, and at the age of 31 he ran against a local judge who’d been office for 24 years. He beat him with a campaign that would set the tone for his career, lying about his opponent’s age, mental status, and salary. But McCarthy also had political skills, talking to everyone, even remembering their dogs’ names.

He showed little interest in world events despite his interest in politics. Culture either—a friend said “Joe looked at only one book in his life. That was Mein Kampf.

When World War II broke out, McCarthy joined the Marines; though his judgeship would have given him an exemption, but he figured military service would be good for his political career. At first, he worked in intelligence but wanted to become a tail-gunner (later the source of the mocking nickname Tail-Gunner Joe). His exploits as a tail-gunner were mostly faked. He wanted to break the record for most rounds fired in a single mission, so he took off and fired at coconut trees. He got his frolic written up in the Wisconsin papers and forged an injury report.

07 Tail-gunner Joe s

In 1944, while still in the Pacific, he decided to run for Senate; he lost, but not terribly, and when he came back, he ran again in 1946 and won, beating Robert La Follette Jr., heir to the Wisconsin political dynasty. His campaign again relied heavily on lies about his opponent and he won in a 61/37 landslide.

 At that point, the Republicans were amping up their anti-Communism, equating the New Deal with the Red threat. Along with McCarthy, a whole crop of right-wing Republicans won election in 1946 (Nixon among them), mostly from the Midwest and West. In his biographer David Oshinsky’s words, “They were determined to rid the government of Communists, perverts, and New Dealers, get tough with Joe Stalin, crack down on labor unions.”

McCarthy played along, but after an initial splash, he fizzled out. Halfway through his term, the political obits were being written.

uncorking the sockful of shit

So, McCarthy amped up the anti-Communism. He finally hit the jackpot with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. In it, he claimed to have in hand “a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” When some Wisconsin reporters asked him for evidence, he replied, “I’ve got a sockful of shit and I know how to use it.” Days later, he revised the count down to 57. A few more days later, it was up to 81. He never showed the list to anyone because it didn’t exist. He would go on in this vein for almost four more years.

08 McCarthy in Wheeling

The Wheeling speech energized the right, and much of the Republican Party approved. (He got lots of fan mail.) He could do the dirty work, shielding them from the splattering mud. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, appointed a subcommittee, chaired by a conservative Maryland Democrat, Millard Tydings, to investigate McCarthy’s claims. McCarthy took advantage of the opportunity to launch an extended campaign against Asia scholar Owen Lattimore, which would continue long after the Tydings subcommittee’s final report, which dismissed McCarthy’s charges as bogus. But Republicans wouldn’t sign on, so it was perceived as a partisan document.

09 McCarthy with fan mail

North Korea’s invasion of the South in June 1950 (also the year of Alger Hiss’s perjury conviction) helped spin things in McCarthy’s direction. The Dems lost some Congressional seats that year, though not as many as they could have, but Republicans viewed McCarthy as a hero, and pundits developed an awe for his strength. He got his revenge on Tydings by campaigning against him, a campaign that featured this fake image done by a newspaper friend of his. Put together from two separate photos, it supposedly depicted Tydings in conversation with CPUSA head Earl Browder. It was identified as a composite in the caption, but most viewers either didn’t notice or didn’t know the word. Tydings lost.

10 Browder-Tydings fake

McCarthy took advantage of his strength coming out of the election. and intensified his war against the State Department, headed by someone he despised, the patrician Dean Acheson, holding more hearings, harassing more witnesses, ruining lives. (Here’s a pic of Acheson, featuring the look that so annoyed the anti-elitists of the right, and here’s one of them in a chance meeting in an elevator) The right-wing press cheered him on. The establishment press was critical, but he just dismissed them as taking dictation from Moscow. Time publisher Henry Luce suggested he was doing damage to the anti-Communist cause, but McCarthy sent letters to his principal advertisers. Luce zipped it.

11 Dean Acheson

12 McCarthy & Acheson in an elevator

Along with the right-wing press, McCarthy had the support of in Marxist shorthand we could call a provincial petite bourgeoisie, like Texas oilmen Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt. Mainstream corporate America, while plenty anti-Communist, was uncomfortable with his style however. His popular support came from small businesspeople in the heartland as well as some urban Catholics (including Joseph Kennedy). There were a few intellectuals, like William F. Buckley, his corner, but not many.

no respite for Ike

When Eisenhower became president in 1953 and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, the GOP thought McCarthy’s fervor would cool, but it didn’t. Eisenhower, who despised McCarthy, was afraid to go after him. He tightened up the loyalty checks, thinking that would derail Joe, but it didn’t.

Seeking to appease him, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appointed a cretinous McCarthy crony (who thought “the Foreign Service had been infiltrated by fairies”) and gave him a staff of 350 to investigate the Department; hundreds ended up losing their jobs. Dulles grew alarmed that the State Department’s very reputation was at stake. At the same time, Hoover, who preferred the systematic approach of a seasoned bureaucrat, began having increasing reservations about McCarthy bringing disrepute on the anti-Communist trade. But Dulles never challenged McCarthy—nor did Hoover stop feeding him info.

Dulles had a secret weapon: he’d been putting together a file on McCarthy that had the queer baiter himself haunting gay hideaways. Dulles leaked them to anti-McCarthy columnist Drew Pearson, but Pearson didn’t find them solid enough to print. But Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, did. McCarthy announced his engagement to his long-time associate Jean Kerr soon after.

12a McCarthy's wedding

(A few years earlier, in 1950, McCarthy and Pearson ran into each other in a coatroom. Pearson had attacked McCarthy in 58 columns so far that year and Joe wanted revenge. The senator kneed the columnist in the nuts and then knocked him over with a blow to the cheek. Richard Nixon intervened, yelling, “Let a Quaker stop this fight.” Later, Nixon had to help McCarthy find his car; he was too drunk to remember where he’d parked it.)

The CIA was a tougher nut. McCarthy was convinced it were full of Commies, which it wasn’t. It was indisputably full of the Skull and Bones types (the Yale secret society) he loathed, and in 1953 he zeroed in on Bonesman William Bundy, the less famous brother of McGeorge. (Mac himself acted as an enforcer at Harvard, demanding ex-Communists name names if they wanted a job there.) CIA head Allen Dulles, brother of John Foster, just ignored McCarthy’s subpoenas. Columnist Joe Alsop, who was practically on the CIA payroll, announced that the Wisconsin senator had suffered his first defeat.

the undoing

There were more to come. McCarthy’s undoing was his investigation of the US Army. It started with an alleged cell of Reds at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. He focused on the case of Irving Peress, who may have been a Communist and didn’t fill out all his loyalty forms correctly, but nonetheless got an honorable discharge. An outraged McCarthy dragged in Peress’s superior, Gen. Ralph Zwicker, an insulted him in terms that scandalized many. He then went after the Secretary of the Army. That was the final straw for Eisenhower, who resolved to do in McCarthy.

About this time, March 1954, the esteemed TV broadcaster Edward R. Murrow put together a report consisting mainly of embarrassing clips of McCarthy—not just fulminating but picking his nose and belching. Days after the broadcast of the report the Army told McCarthy they were about to put together a report on how his top aide, the evil Roy Cohn, had pulled strings on behalf his friend G. David Schine, who’d been drafted into the Army and was looking for an easy time of it. They told McCarthy if he fired Cohn they’d spike it, but McCarthy said “no” so they released it. It showed Cohn pulling the strings. McCarthy’s response was to accuse the Army of trying to evade investigation of the Commies and queers at Ft. Monmouth.

13 Army-McCarthy hearings

He commenced hearings on the subject in April 1954, saying the Army’s charges had “given greater aid and comfort to Communists and security risks than any single obsta­cle ever designed.”

Ed Murrow Slaying the Dragon of McCarthy (Ben Shahn, 1955)

It was his undoing. Going after diplomats is one thing, but going after the military is career suicide. Cohn’s own testimony on the matter was disastrous. The legendary climax of the hearings came when McCarthy badgered an associate of the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch named Fred Fisher. Fisher had a history with the leftist National Lawyers Guild, and rather than risk scandal, Welch told Fisher not to work with him on the hearings. That wasn’t enough for McCarthy, who denounced Fisher. Welch interrupted, uttering the most famous lines of the Army–McCarthy hearings: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The dam broke. McCarthy’s reputation collapsed even among former allies, as did his Gallup approval ratings.

14 McCarthy in Gallup

At the end of 1954, the Senate censured him. It was the last time he made the front pages until his death two and a half years later. Long a heavy boozer, the collapse of his reputation threw it into overdrive, and his liver gave out in May 1957.

15 Crowd awaits McCarthy's corpse s

Lattimore’s anguish

One of the more egregious instances of torture through McCarthyism was that of Owen Lattimore. In March 1950, a month after the Wheeling speech, McCarthy accused Lattimore, an Asian scholar of liberal views, of being a Communist agent. To the right, Lattimore was part of a group of liberal “China hands” who were responsible for the loss of China to Mao’s revolution. Lattimore was associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations, a think tank formed in 1925, which came under attack from one of its members, Alfred Kohlberg, a reactionary businessman with extensive interests in China, for being in the sway of the Reds. (To be fair, there were a few Communists around the Institute, but they had nothing to do with Mao’s triumph.) Kohlberg had a particular animus for Lattimore, which is probably where McCarthy learned of him. One of McCarthy’s star witnesses, Louis Budenz (more on him in a moment), had said in 1947 and again in 1949 that while “misguided,” Lattimore was no Communist. He changed his mind in 1950 and told McCarthy that Lattimore was a Red.

16 Owen Lattimore

In 1951, McCarthy’s comrade in arms, Pat McCarran, launched an investigation of the Institute, and summoned Lattimore to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which he headed. Lattimore spent twelve days testifying; by the end of it, his career was in tatters. On top of professional ruin, he faced criminal charges: McCarran pressured the Attorney General to indict Lattimore for perjury. The perjury charges were ludicrous and were dismissed three years later.

Despite years of trying, the FBI never found anything on Lattimore. As former FBI agent William Sullivan put it in his 1979 memoir, “We investigated the hell out of Lattimore, read every letter and memo, everything he ever wrote, but we never found anything substantial to use against him. McCarthy’s accusations were ridiculous.”

That didn’t stop McCarthy and McCarran from making Lattimore miserable for years. And, as historian Ellen Schrecker pointed out, even though none of the charges stuck, McCarthy & Co. succeeded in making Lattimore “controversial,” and therefore, in that environment, an untouchable.

That Lattimore suffered pointlessly is bad enough, but the extravagant dishonesty of the charges accomplished a serious ideological goal—making not only individuals but a certain kind of politics radioactive. And it wasn’t just Communist, capital c, or socialist, lower-case s, politics, but anything that fell short of the hardest line.

the professional witness

McCarthyism could never have happened as it did without a low form of life, the professional witness, typically on the FBI payroll. Often former Communists themselves, they claimed special expertise on the movement and its personalities. Among the most notorious were the aforementioned Budenz and Harvey Matusow.

Budenz was a tireless vendor of testimony. He joined the Party in 1935 and quickly rose to be managing editor of its paper, the Daily Worker. Ten years later he fell under the spell of the anticommunist Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen, and soon the magic of the Blessed Virgin Mary led him away from sin into redemption—which meant talking to the FBI and Joe McCarthy.

By his own estimate he spent 3,000 hours describing the inner workings of the Party to investigators. For such services he earned about $70,000—the equivalent of $800,000 in today’s dollars. He had almost no hard evidence, just hearsay.

In his early appearances as a witness, Democrats mocked Budenz. As McCarthy & Co. rolled on, they changed their attitude, treating him, in Oshinsky’s words, in a “fawning” manner.

And then there was two-time turncoat Harvey Matusow, formerly of the Young Communist League, later of McCarthy’s staff who got there by naming names for pay. He appeared before grand juries, trials, deportation boards, Congressional committees. Later he retracted his testimony, saying Cohn and McCarthy had blessed his serial perjuries. For the accusation that Cohn had suborned perjury, the feds indicted Matusow, but not Cohn. Of course, there was no investigation of Matusow’s earlier repudiated testimony; too many cases depended on leaving it unquestioned.

liberal treachery

Most of the major actors in the Second Red Scare came from the right, whether they were frothers like McCarthy or accomplished bureaucrats like Hoover. But they couldn’t have succeeded without the liberals who accommodated them. Victor Navasky’s book Naming Names is an excellent source on this. Victor was a rare liberal of his vintage (born 1932) who was never an anti-communist. In the years he edited The Nation, 1978 to 1995, though the main editorial line was unmistakably liberal, he was always open to the left (including me, I’m happy to say).

It took a few contortions for liberals to adapt to the violation of civil liberties essential to pursuing the Reds. They were helped by the ex-Marxist philosopher Sidney Hook, who argued that Communist conspirators aimed to undermine the free exchange of ideas the First Amendment was meant to protect. For Hook, our moral obligation “is to the toleration of dissent, no matter how heretical, not the toleration of conspiracy, no matter what its disguise.” Civil liberties concerns could be conveniently set aside.

For liberal anti-Communists, proving that they weren’t Reds became essential. That was a stance that predated the McCarthy era; the ACLU kicked the Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn off its board in 1940, and the ACLU wouldn’t touch the Communist issue for decades. Behind the scenes, the ACLU’s performance was even worse. Morris Ernst, who joined its board in 1927, just seven years after its founding, had a private meeting with Martin Dies in 1939 to assure him the ACLU wasn’t Communist and HUAC should leave it alone. Flynn was purged from the ACLU’s board not long after that meeting, and there has long been speculation that there was a quid pro quo. Ernst, who called himself J. Edgar Hoover’s lawyer, tipped off the FBI about ACLUers criticism of the Bureau. The director of its Washington office tattled to the Bureau on behalf of HUAC.

Liberal icon and pop historian Arthur Schlesinger thought the CP should be deemed a criminal conspiracy, making membership in itself a crime. He said of civil libertarians: “None of these gentlemen is a Communist, but none objects very much to Communism. They are the typhoid Marys of the left, bearing the germs of infection even if not suffering obviously from the disease.” Communism-as-disease metaphors were very popular.

17 Arthur Schlesinger

For liberals, the problem with McCarthy was his style, not his pursuit of Communists. Navasky said it concisely: “A. A. Berle, Jr., a founder of New York’s anti-Communist Liberal Party, in his collection of papers Navigating the Rapids…makes clear the theory of liberalism as a two-front struggle: primarily against the left and secondarily against the right. It is their desire to advertise their anti-Communism that helps to account for the liberals’ otherwise surprising support of positions that even President Truman couldn’t stomach.”

naming as ritual

Naming names was crucial to the Red Scare. Many of the those named were already familiar to the investigators, but the process wasn’t just information gathering. As California Congressman Donald Jackson explained, “The ultimate test of the credibility of a witness is the extent to which he is willing to cooperate with the Committee in giving…the names of those who participated with him in the Communist Party.” As Navasky comments, “The demand for names was not a quest for evidence; it was a test of character.”

If you were called, you had a few options: You could take the Fifth Amendment (the one that protects against self-incrimination), which was taken as a tacit admission of guilt and would ruin your career and possibly your life, you could plead the First Amendment and go to jail for contempt of Congress, or you could sing.

To question the informer system was seen as subversive in itself. This point of view predates McCarthy; Truman’s loyalty decrees required the investigation of hundreds of thousands of federal employees, inquiries that relied heavily on anonymous tattletales. Only those who had something to hide could doubt them.

the lavender scare

In the weeks after the Wheeling speech, McCarthy repeatedly said the security risks he was screaming about weren’t just Communists, but homosexuals as well. He wasn’t alone in seeing these as two fronts in the same struggle. The State Department was busily purging as well; they counted 91 expelled on morals charges. Instead of getting the State Department off the hook with the homophobes it did the opposite, putting the agency under even more suspicion.

The New Deal attracted a lot of gays and lesbians to government work, and Washington developed a rich homophile culture, to use the old word. (Anti-New Dealers frequently complained about the influx of long-haired men and short-haired women.) With the postwar conservative turn, a moral panic ensued that blended with the war on Communists.

18 Carolyn Ware

The State Department was a particular target here as well. The masculinity of diplomats was always in question; real men go to war or send other men to war. Liberal men constantly had their masculinity questioned. The gossip columnist Walter Winchell, a friend and ally of J. Edgar Hoover, announced on his radio program, on Election Day 1952, “A vote for Adlai Stevenson is a vote for Christine Jorgensen” (the first American to make a gender transition publicly).

The whole Cold War project was suffused with male sexual anxiety. In a 1997 paper, Frank Costigliola, who’s just out with a biography of George Kennan, the architect of containment, pointed to his use of imagery of penetration to explain the risk of what a badass USSR was going to do to the West. And Kennan got squeezed out of government for being too soft.

Acheson’s State Department began the purge, but it went into higher gear when Eisenhower took office in 1953. Over the next two decades, the Department fired something like 1,000 people—mostly on morals charges—and probably four times that many got purged elsewhere in the federal government.

It’s striking how many of the warriors weren’t immune to same-sex desire. Hoover had a lifelong relationship with Clyde Tolson, who served as his deputy for 42 years. They not only worked together—they went everywhere together. We don’t know how sexual the relationship was. Maybe it was a male version of the Boston marriage, but there were also tales of lurid photos. Who knows? (The stories about him wearing a dress are very thinly sourced.) Roy Cohn, who denied he had AIDS up until his death from it in 1986, had plenty of male lovers. As Roger Stone told former New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed.” Even Whittaker Chambers had a gay past, which he disclosed to the FBI; shedding it was part of his moral regeneration as much as shedding Communism. These were not peripheral figures in the Red scare. You have to wonder if their passion to repress what they often described as a disease (just like Communism) was an externalization of some inner repressive drama.

As the 1960s progressed, political activism and a changing judiciary put an end to the sex purges (though it wasn’t until 1975 that the Civil Service formally dropped “immoral conduct” as a firing offense). But they were also a great spur to organizing. Inspired by the State Department carnage, former Communist Harry Hay founded the first chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1950; other branches, including one in DC, were founded soon after. They became the roots of a gay and lesbian movement that would flower in the late 1960s.

Matthiessen and Sweezy

A largely forgotten angle on the joint Red and Lavender scares is the story of Harvard literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen, who was both gay and a socialist. He suffered terribly from the fear and shame that was the lot of a gay man in his time. He was frequently plagued by thoughts of suicide because of that, a sense that was compounded by, as Randall Fuller put it in an essay on Matthiessen, “sociopolitical failures.” Some of those feelings were attenuated, Fuller argues, by the political movements of the 1930s, notably the Popular Front, with its unifying anti-sectarian tendencies. He got involved not only in the Harvard Teachers Union and defending leftist professors whom the university was denying tenure but also harder-core political activism around labor conditions in New Mexico and tenant support in Boston. For all that, he got investigated by the FBI. Towards the end of his life, Matthiessen was redbaited in the increasingly hostile environment of the late 1940s, but his anxious shame about his gayness also contributed to his distress. Time magazine hit both notes in a 1948 review of his last book, mocking him as “a bald, mild-mannered little bachelor who thinks the job of U.S. intellectuals is to ‘rediscover and rearticulate’ the needs for Socialism.”

19 Matthiessen & Cheney

Matthiessen was no Marxist, he was more a Christian socialist. But he did American Marxism a great favor: Not long before he jumped out a hotel window in April 1950 (less than two months after McCarthy’s Wheeling speech), he gave the economist Paul Sweezy $15,000 out of an inheritance, the equivalent of nearly $200,000 today. Sweezy used the money to start Monthly Review, one of the foundational publishing houses of American socialism. Sweezy himself, the son of a banker, had an independent income; where would socialism be without inheritances?

20 Paul Sweezy


Time to draw some conclusions. First, where did it all come from? I’ll probably be accused of sounding too much like Richard Hofstadter, whom I admire despite his being seen as uncool on the left, but there is a deep paranoid streak in American political culture. And an anti-intellectual streak, a distrust of book learning. That all fluoresced in the McCarthy years. And I don’t dismiss Hofstadter’s arguments about status anxiety either: the provincial small-business men felt crushed between big business and big labor, and they were happy to have McCarthy and the rest making the city slickers tremble.

21 Richard Hofstadter

But it was all part of something larger than status too. You may not think highly of the USSR, but it stood as a constant threat to the ruling class, a reminder that capitalism was not the only imaginable set-up. Coming out of World War II, conservatives who never liked the New Deal were looking to step back in time, to make American great again. As anyone who follows the American right knows, even the slightest incursion on private capital’s freedom of maneuver is seen as the first step in an expropriation. That instinct was heightened by the existence of the USSR and a once-significant domestic Communist movement (which, while reduced by the end of the war, was not nothing). As Engels once said of the reaction to the uprisings of 1848, “the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them.” Should our movement get stronger, we could find ourselves on the sharp end of that reaction (and liberals would almost certainly feel the pull of the right).

It’s also important to reflect on the damage McCarthyism—the long-period of McCarthyism, not just Joe’s heyday—did to us. (The last chapter of Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes is very good on this.) There was considerable personal destruction—suicide, premature death, unemployment. It decimated the left, and not just the Communist part, but the broad Popular Front of the 1930s—the cultural apparatus, the skilled union and tenant organizing. As Schrecker, no Communist, put it, McCarthyism destroyed a “vision [that] was also expressed in a set of ideas, a Popular Front sensibility that created con­ceptual linkages between race, class, and international affairs. While other groups and individuals also wanted to ban the bomb or support liberation struggles in the Third World, few of these single-interest groups did so within the broader framework that the communist movement encouraged.” Seven decades later we’re still feeling it.

And while there’s no USSR and no CP, there are some real McCarthyite vibes floating around these days. It’s easy to see the likes of the Senator in today’s Republican Party—and the era’s liberals in the cowardice and complicity of mainstream Democrats who once again seem more eager to discipline the left, such as it is, in their party than to fight the right. That’s what happens when you’re a party of capital that occasionally has to pretend otherwise for electoral reasons. But it should also be a reminder to us to be careful about throwing some of our more militant fellow thinkers under the bus.

So many of Hofstadter’s status anxieties are at the basis of Trump’s appeal—men who feel threatened by the erosion of patriarchy, people who are anxious about the erosion of the gender binary, white people anxious about challenges to their sense of racial superiority, traditional moralists terrified of wokeness, small-business people crushed by globalist behemoths. There’s even a personal connection between McCarthy and the current right wing via Roy Cohn, who taught Trump a lot of what he knows.

22 Roy Cohn & Donald Trump

The McCarthy period was one when our side did very badly. Silver linings are very elusive. Thankfully, our next sessions will be about better times for our political ancestors.

I am far from an expert on this topic, but in much of our political education work in NYC DSA, we educate ourselves to help educate our comrades. In lieu of footnotes, which fit awkwardly with the web, I’ll say my principal sources, in descending order of intensity, were Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Little Brown, 1998); David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (Free Press, 1983); Victor Navasky, Naming Names (Penguin, 1980); David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (University of Chicago Press, 2004); Landon R.Y. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton University Press, 2013); Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right (Routledge, 2017); Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking, 2022); William Buckley and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy And His Enemies: The Record and its Meaning (Regnery, 1954).

Fresh audio product: unionizing content moderators, what’s behind Atlanta’s Cop City

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 11, 2023 Michaela Chen of Foxglove on efforts to unionize the exploited workers who moderate content on social media • Micah Herskind, author of this article, on the political economy of Atlanta that’s behind Cop City

Fresh audio product: Chicago politics, Ukraine & Scandinavian neutrality

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

April 27, 2023 Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht explains how Chicago elected a progressive mayor, Brandon Johnson • Lily Lynch, editor of Balkanist and contributor to New Left Review‘s Sidecar blog on how the Ukraine war destroyed Scandinavian neutrality

Fresh audio product: can we save the climate before overthrowing capitalism?, getting the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

April 20, 2023 economist Josh Mason of John Jay College on how we can save the climate before we get to overthrowing capitalism • Jen Duggan of the Environmental Integrity Initiative on a lawsuit to get the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act

Fresh audio product: discard the hair shirts—for an alternative hedonism

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

April 13, 2023 philosopher Kate Soper talks about her book, Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism, just out in paperback: living on less but without the hair-shirtism

Fresh audio product: Israeli collusion with Trump, the Rutgers labor battle

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

April 6, 2023 James Bamford, author of this article in The Nation (and of the just published Spyfail) on Israeli collusion with Donald Trump in 2016 • Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers and president of the New Brunswick campus’s faculty union, on why the teaching staff is on the verge of a strike and why it matters well beyond that institution

Fresh audio product: Israeli uprising and AI

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 30, 2023 writer and political adviser Nimrod Flaschenberg discusses the popular uprising in Israel against Bibi’s reactionary government • software engineer Dwayne Monroe revisits the (useful) hype around ChatGPT

Fresh audio product: surveillance of sex workers (and others), varieties of Italian fascism

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 23, 2023 Maxine Doogan and Tara Burns, contributors to this report, on how cops are snooping on sex workers, and using what they learn to spy on the rest of us • David Broder, author of Mussolini’s Grandchildrenon the fascist heritage behind Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and her party

Fresh audio product: bank failures; carceral state; China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran

Just (well, a few days late) added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 16, 2023 DH comments on the bank failures • Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative on the state of the carceral state • Annelle Sheline on the Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Fresh audio product: reaction and resistance in Florida and Israel

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 9, 2023 Florida follow-up: historian and union president Paul Ortiz on the DeSantis agenda and resistance to it • human rights lawyer Noa Levy on the far right agenda in Israel and resistance to it (the Ayelet Shaked Fascism ad is here)

Fresh audio product: crackdown on sex, crackdown on academic freedom

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 2, 2023 Judith Levine on moves to defund the Kinsey Institute, and on the trans kids panic • Phil Wegner of the University of Florida on Gov. Ron DeSantis’s moves to quash academic freedom in that state

fresh audio product: the European energy situation, the case for nationalizing the railroads

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

February 23, 2023 Jamie Webster of BCG on Western Europe’s energy situation • Kari Lydersen, author of this In These Times article, and Ron Kaminkow, locomotive engineer and organizer with Railroad Workers United, talk about the miseries of the industry and why it should be nationalized

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