In 2012, the dictionary site Merriam-Webster announced that the words most looked up that year were “socialism” and “capitalism.” This was undoubtedly because the Republican Party had spent so much time calling President Obama and his health insurance program “socialist.” This was false propaganda – both Obama and his policies are firmly capitalist – but it clearly stirred interest among large sectors of the population, and it failed politically.
Among large sectors of the population, the right-wing’s virulent appears to have even backfired. A December 2011 Pew Research Center poll showed that 49 percent of people aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism while only 43 percent have a negative view. The same poll found that 55 percent of African-Americans have a positive impression and just 36 percent consider socialism negative.
This was confirmed this year when socialist and radical candidates won or posted impressive results when intervening in the capitalist electoral realm. Chowke Lumumba, a long-standing leader in the Black liberation movement, was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi in May. Socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle city council in November and another socialist, Ty Moore, nearly did the same in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their opponents attempted to discredit them on the basis of anti-communism but this had little effect on the final result.
This does not mean that tens of millions of people already consider themselves socialists, but it says a lot about the diminishing power of anti-communism. It presents opportunities for organizations like the PSL who see the revival of socialism as a top priority.
For decades, because of the extremely hostile political environment, socialists and communists often kept their core beliefs in the background, censoring themselves instead of speaking and organizing openly as socialists. That is beginning to change.
The unofficial religion of the United States
In addition to their cops, prisons, judges and generals, the bankers and CEOs have a powerful arsenal of ideological weapons to shape the political beliefs of working-class and oppressed people. Through the corporate media, schools and other institutions, they are able to spread values that cement their rule. Anti-communism has long been the most useful and widespread dogma they have at their disposal.
It can be said without exaggeration that anti-communism functioned as the unofficial religion of the United States for the second half of the 20th century. This ideological regime promoted as an article of faith, learned very early and reinforced constantly, that anything relating to socialism and communism was inherently evil, or at least tragically misguided.
Proponents of anti-communism falsely taught people to believe that capitalism, a system where a tiny clique of owners controls the economy and the wealth, was the only system in line with “human nature” and history. They attributed every deficiency or mistake made by any socialist state, whether real or invented, as proof that the entire project of working class political power was futile.
The leaders of socialist states were described as crazed lunatics and their populations as mindless robots. The ruling class labeled all communists as potential agents of a foreign country and foreign conspiracy.
Equating an opponent with socialism was an easy way to score political points and block their ideas.
All progressive movements in the United States that included communists – and communists indeed did play a key role in the labor movement, women’s movement, civil rights movement and LGBT movement –were demonized.
Because anti-communism was the main point of unity for ruling-class politics, from the liberals to the most conservative, for an organization or individual to be deemed “legitimate” and “respectable” they had to first swear off any allegiance to communism.
This had a tremendous impact in stunting the growth of communism and socialism in the United States. All over the world, whenever poor and working people come into struggle it tends to generate new interest in socialism. Their movements and their core organizers often gravitated towards socialist revolution and the construction of a revolutionary party.
The Red Scares and the Cold War
Anti-communism has been tied to both international events and the level of class struggle at home.
One of the first anti-communist frenzies came in the late 1800s, as labor organizations, with communists and anarchists often on the front lines, fought for the eight-hour day. Fearing that the working class would follow the example of the brief revolution in Paris of 1871, U.S. capitalists persecuted, imprisoned and shot down many leaders and rank-and-file workers.
The next major anti-communist frenzy came in 1919 and 1920, directly following Russia’s socialist revolution and a major strike wave in the United States. In this period known as the first Red Scare, legislative committees, immigration authorities, the Attorney General and white racist mobs launched an offensive to suppress the growing movement demanding power for poor and working people.
But the communist movement was able to survive and rebuild after this period of intense repression and started to thrive again in the 1930s and much of the 1940s.
As capitalism descended into economic collapse and fascism, a growing section of the working class along with prominent intellectuals and artists were drawn towards socialist groups, most prominently the Communist Party. By the end of World War II, CP membership had grown to 100,000 members with mass organizations that reached millions.
But the end of World War II dramatically reshaped the world. The old European and Japanese empires were reduced in power, while the United States emerged as the world’s leading capitalist power. Socialist revolutions triumphed in Korea and China, while Eastern Europe entered a bloc with the Soviet Union. Anti-colonial movements heavily influenced by socialism began to stir across the globe.
In this context, the period of “McCarthyism” was launched at home. In this second Red Scare, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy emerged as the figurehead of an effort to purge radicals from all positions of influence.
Along with the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy held hearings to defame prominent progressives, and anyone sympathetic to socialism, creating an atmosphere of right-wing terror.
The Smith Act, which had been passed in 1940, made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Beginning in 1949, leaders of the Communist Party were put on trial and imprisoned under the Smith Act, and the Party’s membership and influence declined dramatically.
The law was changed to require labor unions to break any affiliation with communists in order to be recognized by the government. Anti-communist labor leaders used the opportunity to expel communists, many of whom had built the organizations and were their most authentic leaders.
While the frenzy of McCarthyism subsided, after reaching truly absurd heights, anti-communism was the dominant political ideology over the next five decades known as the “Cold War.” In popular culture, movies, books, and everywhere else, the country was reminded of the “Soviet menace,” threatening nuclear destruction.
“Red-baiting”—the practice of de-legitimizing movements and leaders by accusing them of being communists—became the norm against everyone who fought for justice and equality. This tactic was used repeatedly against civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin and Rosa Parks. White supremacists pointed to the communists’ support for racial equality to say that desegregation was a Soviet plot.
Communism and socialism returned to play a prominent role in the late 1960s and 1970s, as radical young people, inspired by the civil rights movement and resistance to the Vietnam War, gravitated to the examples of Cuba, China and Vietnam. Revolutionary socialist groups grew in the Black, Puerto Rican and Chicano communities, on college campuses, and increasingly at the rank-andfile level among the labor movement.
But that movement was repressed and defeated before a new explicitly socialist movement or party could develop with mass influence and staying power.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, China reversed course and moved in a pro-capitalist direction. The overthrow of the Soviet Union was the most celebrated event in history for anti-communists, who claimed that it had proven capitalism was the only way and final stage of history. From the previous era—in which a worldwide tide of revolution seemed to be unstoppable—the dominant global trend became counter-revolution, an offensive attack by the capitalist class on workers’ living standards, unions, socialist states and revolutionary movements.
The end of the Cold War presents socialists with a contradiction. It has on the one hand deprived the bankers and CEOs of war footing that they could use to heighten the climate of fear and hatred against communism.
That is why the post-Cold War generation is far less anti-communist.
On the other hand, without a strong socialist state as an example, this world situation provides the impression that there is no alternative to global capitalism. This is the case even among the recent movements made up principally of unemployed young people, who see the problems of the world and greatly desire an alternative. While the capitalist crisis has led to the breakout of new class and social struggles from Egypt to Spain, Greece and the United States (the Occupy movement), these movements have not gravitated to socialist revolution, and thus have relapsed into a form of capitalism.
Interest in Marxism and socialism is definitely growing. The continent-wide revolt against neoliberalism has revived movements for socialism in Latin America.
Socialist-led revolutions continue in East and South Asia.
But it will take the intentional and fearless advocacy of socialist ideas, particularly among the half of society in or near poverty, to change this equation—so that the next spontaneous movements, which inevitably arise, grab hold of socialism as the goal.
Large sections of society are looking into an increasingly bleak and uninspiring future, and understand they have been lied to about the fraudulent war in Iraq, the bank bailouts and so much more. The PSL is dedicated to exposing how the working class has been lied to about communism as well.