There were some misunderstandings that resulted from my previous article on the failings of the liberal understanding of McCarthyism and the Cold War. This forum was even mistaken for being a source of conservative commentary. Perhaps the appearance of Ron Paul and the Tea Party as frequently mentioned subjects may have led to the impression that we were in the business of peddling elephants. It isn’t so.
Am I therefore arguing that McCarthyism was justifiable? I am reiterating that, from the perspective of Capital, it was. Justifying it is different from condoning it, or approving of it. The point of the previous piece was to emphasize that far from presenting an Orwellian (and for once, this term is being employed in a wholly appropriate sense) image of humans functioning as machines crushed under the heel of an merciless state, the USSR presented a technologically advanced, sophisticated, and egalitarian image during the early-to-mid Cold War. The benefits offered by employing a hack like Joseph McCarthy outweighed the costs in terms of collateral damage.
Yet it is easy to revert to the standard narrative through which we have been taught to understand McCarthyism. The victims of McCarthyism are depicted as such not because they were seen as having a right to explain history, politics, and economics from a Marxist perspective, but because they were not actually Marxists. The premise that Marxism was the crime is accepted. The defense, then, is: “No, they were not Marxists at all; they were merely liberals and political opponents of the Right; they were good Americans.” The liberal explanation has largely acquiesced to the conservative notion that “Good Americans” are not radicals.
It is unquestionably correct that red-baiting existed throughout the twentieth century in the United States, and on many occasions the subjects of such charges were liberals. Proclaiming a foe to be a communist served a great many politicians very well. However, the existence of many false claims does not make communism in the U.S. phantasmal. Why was McCarthy convinced that there were communists in government? He was being fed reports by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Some of these reports were credible.
Yet the Congress as a whole was more concerned with radicals in labor unions and the entertainment industry. It was suggested in response to my previous piece that this demonstrates clearly that anti-communism was no more than a self-serving exercise — an opportunity for members of congress to thump their chests and make a name for themselves. It did present this opportunity, but again that does not escape the reality and the seriousness of communism.
It is very understandable that from the perspective of 2012, labor unions should seem to be of little relevance. It was much harder to come to that conclusion in the early Cold War. During the 1930s, the percentage of the work force that was unionized had more than doubled. By 1945, more than a third of workers belonged to a labor union. Outside of agriculture, most of the central planks of American productivity were subject to collective bargaining: steel, coal, lumber, rubber, lumber, automobiles, meat, farm equipment, and electrical goods. The leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the union responsible for dockers in all major Pacific coast ports, was a known communist named Harry Bridges. When the Republicans regained control of Congress in the 1946 midterms, it was the first order of business for Senator Taft and Congressman Hartley to pass legislation that would exempt unions with communists in their leadership from being eligible for National Labor Relations Board oversight. This would essentially induce the CIO to launch its own purge. It is hard to see why anyone would judge labor unions to be something of a soft target for the Right during the 1940s and 1950s.
What of the entertainment industry? In this case it is somewhat harder to ascertain the extent of Hollywood radicalism. But I’ll pose three questions:
- Does it seem plausible that radicals were able to find positions in an artistic enterprise like filmmaking?
- If radicals were able to find positions, is it conceivable that they may seek to use their leverage to advance some sort of political message?
- Why would the American government doubt the capacity of the most popular form of mass entertainment to exert some measure of influence upon the general population?
One must consider the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. This group included Alvah Bessie, who was a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. For the purposes of this article, however, I am more interested in highlighting the case of Herbert Biberman, another member of the group. After he was released from prison, Biberman could no longer gain employment from the major studios, and in 1954 he directed Salt of the Earth, a largely forgotten film that was banned from most theaters. The film depicts the true story of a strike held by Mexican-American members of the Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, a union expelled from the CIO in 1949 for suspected communist influences. While we are unable to ascertain the nature of Biberman’s political views with complete accuracy, Salt of the Earth clearly depicts a radical message of an organized proletariat challenging the power of Capital, in this case the Empire Zinc Corporation. The film is available to watch on YouTube, I have posted a link below, and I would encourage readers to invest the time in watching it.
So where does this leave us? The Cold War brought about internal investigations concerning employees of the state, labor, and the arts. In all of these areas there is verifiable evidence that Marxist radicals were present, sometimes working on a covert basis, on other occasions less so. Since 1991 the endeavors of many creative and bold individuals have been diminished in a politically expedient and ahistorical effort to depict the Right as deranged. In doing so, liberals have sought to convince the American worker that they offer the sole alternative to the unbridled power of Capital. Having earnestly endeavored to elaborate upon my previous article and fill in any holes left in it, I now predict that some witless observer will still get the wrong end of the stick and accuse me of “being biased,” whatever that means…