Friday, March 06, 2009

Right wing cries of "Socialist" are nothing more than racist Cold War red-baiting

In case you haven't noticed, some of your friends and neighbors are acting more than a little strange lately--even strange for Republicans or your garden variety Libertarian. Some of them are crying out--pathetically and impotently since it's their lot to do so--that, "There are socialists taking over!" What does that mean?

It doesn't make a lot of sense, even to those exclaiming it since they don't tend to know much at all about American history. Such are the vagaries of the ignorant and the terminally afraid.

According to Webster's newest edition, the term "red-baiting" arose around 1928,
only eleven years after the Bolshevik counterrevolution in Russia against a revolutionary coalition (mostly of the left) that had deposed the Tsar in February 1917 (hence, the Bolsheviks called their own seizure of power, "The October Revoultion"). In many respects, 1928 was a flush year, a time when the bloated markets and an unregulated economy seemed to offer a "permanent" prosperity, which seems as laughable today as it did then. Systematic regulation of the economy was almost unheard of at the time, and the good times seemed to have no end. We know what happened after that: the Great Depression and another world war. Cries of "socialist" were being heard everywhere after 1933, just as they had at the end of WWI.

1928 was part of the tail-end period of Republican rule that began with the end of the Progressive and Wilsonian eras, meaning a feeding frenzy for the financial and business sectors, it being a venerable (and convenient) cycle in American politics and economy. But Republicans didn't invent red-baiting: It has a long and sordid history in America that reaches as far back as the labor clashes of the late-1870s, well into the 1900s, and came out of key events like the Haymarket bombing and the countless strikes, clashes, and protests that came afterward.

Today, we're hearing it come from the mouths of former presidential candidate John McCain, conservative pundits like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, and free market extremists of every stripe inside and outside of the beltway. That they're reactionary nuts is a given, but they are part of a very sad tradition in American politics and culture. They're no different than the scabs, the lynch mobs, Indian killers, the company goons and Pinkertons, and the bought newspaper editors, writers, and journalists of America roughly one hundred years ago.

Some moments truly define our times, and 1886 was one of those years.

1886 is one of those flashpoint years that tend to define the next few decades.
There would be other key years that would contribute to the genesis of red-baiting, and the Haymarket bombing was one of those catalysts that come along and change everything, and sometimes for generations.

On the night of May 4th, 1886, several hundred Chicago immigrant workers assembled at Haymarket Square to protest the shootings of locked-out workers by the police the day before. Their radical demands? A call for an eight-hour workday. Many of the same police
"shooters"were there to meet them that night and ordered the workers to disperse. Sometime after 10:00 PM, someone threw a bomb close to the police lines and the shock waves have reverberated ever since, partly in the form of future red-baiting. The reaction couldn't have been stronger, and many innocent workers were stripped of their rights and detained illegally if not outright killed in the subsequent hysteria. Sound familiar? It wasn't to be the first or the last time.

The newspapers of the time wrote that the organized immigrant workers were anarchists (in reality, a tiny minority were) who were ..."
long-haired, [and were] wild-eyed, bad-smelling atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour's work in their lives, but who, driven half-crazy with years of oppression (before coming to 'the land of the free') and mad with envy of the rich... [came to America]."(Albany Law Journal, 15 May 1886) A cultural theme was created out of events like the Haymarket bombing, but its roots came from an already prevalent racism and anti-immigrant nativism, not unlike today's, but with its hands untied and its mouth un-gagged, so it ran riot. Was it all really about "radicals" and "anarchists" threatening the status quo? We don't know this entirely, but we can see from the results of this social behavior over the decades that red-baiting was once a very effective tool in limiting organized labor and movements working for civil rights.

In essence, the GOP is trying to play an old game that has--for all intents--ended. But who threw that bomb on May 4th, 1886?

Ironically (or not), nobody ever discovered who threw the bomb that harmed dozens of workers (killing a policeman, wounding seventy others--police shot four workers to death during the melee) that day, but the red-baiting that followed has continued into our own era. There's a good reason for this. Until very recently, red-baiting worked, keeping down efforts of immigrants, minorities, and workers, from organizing to protect their basic rights from employers and ownership. With the Soviet Union gone, the game has become a dead one, not that the truth ever stopped the Republican Party from doing something inadvisable. Their love of "the good old days" (that never were) is legendary.

To the current GOP, it's still 1919, the Cold War generally,
1949 specifically, or even 1889. But never mind that, there are careers to be made as well in our market economy, even in the ranks of the police:
As the city [of Chicago] writhed in fear, kept at a high pitch by a frenzied press, [Police Captain Michael J.] Schaack took center stage as a detective-hero, casting himself in the role of master detective, a figure that in the nineteenth century gripped the popular imagination, whose daring and skill would unlock mysteries and bring him acclaim as the man who had not only solved "the crime of the century" but rescued the city and nation from destruction. How could his vision be marred by such piddling details as apprehending the actual bomber? Instead, he bragged unceasingly of his cleverness and courage in rooting out secret conspiracies, confident that no one in the fear- ridden city would dare challenge his boastful disclosures, however absurd or incredible.

This self-styled master detective left no stone unturned to keep himself in the public eye. Not only did he falsely announce the discovery of bombs, but he actually sought to set up anarchist cells on his own.
(Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), pp.12-22.)
We've heard similar bragging and a general lack of results in our own era. The effect of Haymarket and the media hysteria that was whipped-up virtually destroyed the first genuine national union, the Knights of Labor, founded out of the bloody railroad strikes of 1877. Later, elements of the Knights would go on to form the radical I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) in 1905, the first American union to admit women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Sometimes, there are unintended consequences to repression, and sometimes things simply happen on-accident.

The 1901 assassination of big business ally President William McKinley by the lone (and deranged) anarchist Leon Czolgosz also inflamed the passions of a racialist and anti-immigrant, nativist America against the progressive left and unionization. It was a short walk. Ongoing and brutal labor violence and economic downturns only aggravated things, and the situation continued to feed on itself, and the cops and the politicians were there to fan the flames. It should sound familiar that there was a feeling by the end of WWI that things were coming-apart in America. In the backdrop of this were the ongoing public lynchings of African-Americans, often created and attended by the same mobs that were hanging union organizers. This escalated at war's end. The tone of the time was one of incredible violence and anger, and scapegoating was commonplace.

Just one hundred years ago, Americans were still working 10-14 hour work days, sometimes as many as 16 hours if they were working in immigrant-filled sweatshops and factories for starvation wages. To say that there were plenty of reasons for American and immigrant workers to be angry about would be understating the issue, and change was long-in-coming. It wasn't until 1916 when the Adamson Act made an eight hour workday national law, affecting private workplaces. But this didn't end things...

A 1917 Supreme Court decision confirmed the Adamson Act's constitutionality, but most Americans didn't get that eight hour workday until 1938 with the New Deal and the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. Ch. 8). There would be many more labor battles and more unnecessary violence in the years between the wars, and it was all avoidable.
After decades of brutal back-and-forth between organized labor, politicians, the police, goons, and ownership, things started coming to a head during WWI. This became particularly acute in its aftermath when an economic downturn brought the Seattle General Strike in early-1919, a national coal strike, the Boston Police Strike, and a national steel strike. Ever wonder why you were never taught about any of this?

Strikes in solidarity with American workers also broke-out in several parts of Canada, especially in its Northwest provinces. To America's wealthiest, it seemed that things were coming apart and that their position was endangered. This wasn't necessarily true, but it's an indicator of how tenuous American elites have viewed their position as for some time. They still do. There were definitely warning-sings back in 1919.

True, small-scale bombings by anarchist groups had gone on for decades without much attention given to them, but in the postwar climate of fear and paranoia, all it took was a series of them to set things off like never before. These acts came first at the end of April, and once again on June 2, 1919 in a wave of bombings that targeted America's wealthiest, including the home of President Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer (FDR's neighbor at the time), major banker J.P. Morgan, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and numerous other "captains of industry"and government.

Out of this general state of paranoia and an anti-immigrant and racialist hysteria came the first national Red Scare. Race riots and lynchings of unionizers, immigrants, and African-Americans would also occur during the panic, showing that a significant portion of the fear was racially-inspired, including a specific racism directed at Eastern European immigrants thanks to the Russian Revolution. The irony is that several of the bombing attacks probably came from Italian "Galleanist" anarchists, many of them operating out of New Jersey, and that they were actually known to law enforcement at the time.

All these kinds of confrontations were avoidable through the passage of progressive legislation that would merely give the working-class some marginal breathing room, but they met strenuous opposition, and from both major parties until the advent of the New Deal. As one can imagine, the Republican Party was violently opposed to these kinds of pieces of social legislation at the time, and still are today. Republicans labeling the New Deal as "socialist," "communist," and even went so far as to later label them as "Kremlin inspired" during the Second Red Scare of late-1940s into the 1950s, the era of Joe McCarthy and HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee, an apt name) and the communist witch hunts. For some reason, the GOP of today thinks this is going to work again in a climate where they're disgraced, where the public is fully-aware of their primary responsibility for the current economic crisis.

But what red-baiting really constitutes are attempts at keeping the "little people" at the bottom by dividing them and diverting them from their own economic interests through scapegoating, by throwing the attention off of ownership and big money. Issues of racism and hollow nationalism fit that bill nicely in the past, and many chomped at the bit of bigotry and ignorance to their eternal shame. How little has changed since then, but ignorance is a double-edged sword: the kids don't remember most of this, or red-baiting's emotional appeal to earlier generations.

For most young Americans of this historical moment--many-of-whom weren't even alive during the Cold War--little of this registers or matters and red-baiting has not only lost its effectiveness, but its original context and meaning. It's a dead horse. Nowadays, red-baiting is just the babbling of scared racists and bigots who are becoming more and more culturally and demographically isolated. The reality is, that that's all it ever was, ultimately: little people who felt their way of life was being threatened throwing the ugliest fit imaginable and accomplishing their own downfall.

To most Americans now, it's weird watching footage of Dixiecrats and Republican politicians of days old calling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and desegregation activists "communists," "pinkos," "commies," "socialists," and much worse. And that's exactly how weird Republicans yelling "socialist" sound today. Not only do they sound out-of-touch, they sound as demented and bizarre as they all really are. It was a long road to this present state of affairs, but one thing's certain: red-baiting no longer works, and the GOP and red-baiters everywhere are obsolete examples of those still living in the back alleys of America's very dark racialist and classist past.

If the Republican Party wishes to continue engaging in this self-flagellation, why not cut to the chase? Why not call our new president what you're thinking he is--that he's a "socialist" (check) and a "nigger" (unchecked)? Because, that's become unacceptable to the average person in the United States. But leave it to the GOP to channel the black heart of where our culture has been for the new age, they're doing the lord's work, they'll tell you. Thanks for the reminder, and thanks for letting us know where you really stand. Time's up, but at least there's Google so that they can spell "socialist" correctly. Fat chance.

29 U.S.C. CH. 8:

"The First Red Scare: Facts, Discussion Forum, and Encyclopedia Article," Absolute, 2009:

Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), pp.12-22. :