McCarthyism

McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 10 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ron:

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       Here we go again. No matter how carefully I make distinctions, you simply won't acknowledge them. I never said that "American Communists 'did not send anyone to the gulag.' " I said that "most ordinary party members" didn't do that. There is a considerable difference between the party's leadership--which, as Harvey Klehr and John Haynes have documented, knowingly acquiesced in some pretty nasty things--and its thousands of rank-and-file members, who (albeit willfully) did not always know what was going on. That these people associated themselves with the undemocratic and morally flawed Communist Party is, we both agree, tragic, but it does not erase everything else they did from the record. They justified Stalin and they threw themselves into the main social reform movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Viewed only top down, American communism does seem like a monolithic monster. The more wide-ranging perspective that most contemporary historians take reveals a more complicated beast.
       But, enough already. Obviously, we disagree about more than the historical methodology for understanding communism. For some reason, you treat my refusal to demonize American Communists as the moral equivalent of their own failure to repudiate Stalin's crimes, something you apparently regard as just as heinous as those crimes themselves. To paraphrase McCarthy's most effective antagonist, "Have you no sense of proportion, Sir?" Actually, I must confess to being flattered that you find my ideas "a danger to our contemporary culture." Didn't know I had such clout.
       What's the danger? I can understand why someone at the height of the Cold War might be upset about the Communist Party. (I did, after all, just write a whole book about it.) But the Cold War is over, and American communism, long a powerless political sect, is now, as you put it, "a thankfully defunct" one. Whatever threat it once posed to the United States (and I think you exaggerate it considerably) had been effectively eradicated by the anti-Communist loyalty-security measures adopted within the federal government and elsewhere 50 years ago. In the 1950s, McCarthyism, not communism, was the main internal threat to American democracy. Not only did it directly subvert the Bill of Rights, but it also diverted attention from more pressing problems, such as racial discrimination, economic inequality, and the nuclear arms race.
       Similar problems exist today. Victory in the Cold War has not ushered in a golden age. Ethnic rivalries, suppressed for generations by the superpower standoff, now generate real bloodshed. Within the United States, the gap between the haves and have-nots increases, while the traditional commitment to social justice that once mitigated the worst abuses of the system disappears. Given the conservative drift of contemporary public life, those of us who still profess some sympathy for the welfare state, the labor movement, and the kinds of social and economic reforms the Popular Front CP and its liberal allies once backed must certainly seem anomalous. But "dangerous" ...
       Still, it is clear that how we interpret the past affects how we perceive the present. The nuanced version of contemporary American history embodied in the mainstream scholarship you reject puts today's world into perspective and lets us envision alternative ways to cope with its problems. Transforming the complicated reality of our recent past into a morality play, as you tend to do, reduces the intellectual options available to those who want to understand or even change society. Worse yet, it deprives the losers and their ideas of all legitimacy. Red-baiting can still stifle debate. Though communism no longer exists, the antiquated ideology of anti-communism you seem so bent on resuscitating does have a present function. By exaggerating the past threat from the enemy within, it justifies America's triumph in the Cold War and shoves all questions about the consequences of that victory under the rug.