By Sean Matgamna
In the 1940s, so recently-released government papers show, the BBC discriminated against “Communists”, among them Ewan MacColl, the Stalinist folk-singer, and his wife, who would later become well known as the theatrical director Joan Littlewood.
The recently-released and much-acclaimed film, Good Night And Good Luck, is about Edward R Murrow, a famous radio and TV journalists of the time, standing up to the arch commie-hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy. It is a very good film, which incorporates fascinating old footage of McCarthy in action.
“Witch-hunting”... It was the crude and clumsy weapon with which the rulers of rough and tumble bourgeois-democratic America put down the Stalinism that had by the mid-40s become a great power — acting under the control of the state’s chief enemy, the rulers of the USSR — in the USA. They put down the authentic left as well.
It did not, as many think, start in the ’50s, but in the ’40s. The purge of alleged communists in America was initiated among government employees and others by President Harry Truman in 1947. In the next seven years it spread through American society like fire through dry grass.
It spread through the unions, where the Communist Party had been very strong, and through the media. It hit those on the left who were bitter enemies of Stalinism.
The Socialist Workers’ Party of the USA and the Independent Socialist League, Trotskyist organisations, led by men who had been fighting Stalinism since 1928, were put on the Attorney General’s subversives list.
The expression of even vaguely left or liberal ideas brought the risk, and the likelihood, of being targeted as “communistic”.
A couple of states purged the story of the “communistic” Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and helped the poor, out of school textbooks. You can still see such idiocy in John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man — though Ford was not himself a heresy-hunter, but their open opponent in Hollywood — where an Irish song about an Australian Robin Hood, “The Wild Colonial Boy”, is sung bowdlerised, with the line “he robbed the rich to help the poor” cut.
The purge was initiated by the Government, but it was picked up by vast networks in civil society and prosecuted by zealots — zealots by conviction, and zealots by fear that they themselves would otherwise be targeted.
It was a weapon in the hands of employers against “bolshy” workers, who were sometimes driven out of the plant by mobs of inflamed right-wing workers.
The American Marxist Max Shachtman, writing in 1949, compared the situation to the relentless spraying-down on the working class and the left of a fine rain of corrosive acid.
“The mounting ideological war against Stalinism carried on by the American bourgeoisie... precisely because it is carried on by the bourgeoisie, is also directed against communism, against the revolutionary Marxist movement, and not least of all against the working class, here and everywhere else.
“There has never been anything like it.Not even the war, military and political, that the imperialist world conducted against the Russian Revolution of 1917 can be compared with it. That war deceived very few of the people and won the support of even fewer. The Russian Revolution had comparatively little difficulty in defending itself against this war in the ranks of the working class.
“Even the conservative workers looked upon the great revolution with sympathy or friendly interest. It did not take too long to spread among them the truth, the simple facts, about what was actually going on in Soviet Russia.
“The bourgeoisie had at its disposal nothing but lies and calumnies. Now it is different. In its war against Stalinism, the latter has given the former such weapons as it never dreamed of having thirty years ago.
“What could the bourgeois press do then with its stories about Lenin as an agent of the Kaiser, about Lenin’s Chinese and Latvian terror-troops, about Lenin’s nationalisation of women? Very little, and not for very long; in a word, practically nothing. But just think of what this same press is able to do with its stories about Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, about Stalin’s GPU terror, about Stalin’s nationalisation of slave labour, about all the cynicism, perfidy, knavishness, cruelty, the hideous oppression and exploitation of the mind and body of the people that characterise the Russian regime today”.
The witch-hunt is now perhaps best known for what happened in Hollywood. The Communist Party of the USA had been strong there.
The movie moguls called in a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution, Ayn Rand, a batty ideologist who ran a cult which made a quasi-religion of capitalism at its most red-in-tooth-and-claw brutish. (A biographer of Rand who entitled his work With Charity Towards None, did not misrepresent her). She drew up guidelines for how films in future would show employers and the very rich.
There was to be no more of the criticism of such people that had occasionally appeared in films in the ’30s and early ’40s. Now they had to be presented in a positive light.
The immortal Ginger Rogers publicly denounced those responsible for a movie she made in the early ’40s in which women whose partners are away to the war organise a small housing co-op to cut out a landlord!
It was nasty, disgusting, destructive, corrosive, vicious, and, once started, hard to control. People who broke and “named names” in order to save their careers have not been forgiven by modern-day American liberals and people vaguely to their left.
The going liberal and “left” wisdom is that the CP was victimised for its left-wing ideas. The CPers were the good white hat-wearing people — misguided liberals really. Almost.
It is not so simple. The CPUSA never had more than 100,000 members (at its peak in 1945), but it had vast influence — a staggering array of “front organisations” able to enlist the services of people as far away from it in politics as, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of president Franklin D Roosevelt. In some areas, the CP was a real mass party, most notably in New York. They had not only the party’s Daily Worker there, but also, unofficially, the evening daily PM. (There is a very good book on the CP fronts — despite its title, The Red Decade — written by Eugene Lyons, an erstwhile socialist journalist).
And within and around the party worked the Russian Stalinist political police force, known variously as the GPU or NKVD. The GPU ran the affairs of Communist Parties, had its representatives on their leading committees, and used the open parties as its own “front”.
Spying was, of course, a part of it. But there was also terrorism, including murder, against labour-movement opponents of Stalinism. The secretary of the Fourth International, Rudolf Klement, was kidnapped in 1938 in Paris, and his headless body eventually found floating in the Seine. Leon Trotsky’s son and comrade Leon Sedov was murdered in a Paris hospital, and Mark Rein, the son of the exiled Menshevik Rafael Abramovich, disappeared. And many, many more.
Stalinist strong-arm methods in the labour movement and on its fringes were commonplace until well into the ’50s, and in France until the events of 1968.
People were recruited from the open Communist Parties to go into the Stalinist underground. The open and secret Stalinist organisations dominated considerable areas of US life — in the media, for example — and there too acted as gangsters to promote themselves and their friends, and destroy and ruin opponents.
That “murder machine” was a danger to every non-Stalinist force in the labour movement.
HAVE I slipped without alerting the reader into describing the plot of an early 50s movie like I Was A Communist For The FBI, or I Married A Communist? The latter was about a successful bourgeois man, Robert Ryan, who in his youth had been part of the Stalinist underground. He had murdered someone, on orders, and was now being blackmailed by them to sabotage, from the bosses’ side, a settlement in a labour dispute, so as to bring on a strike.
That sort of plot does fit the picture I painted above. The point is that, melodramatic as that film plot is, the misrepresentation in it consists in depicting the “communists” as purely a conspiracy, purely gangsters.
The ISL, Max Shachtman’s organisation in the USA, opposed the persecution of alleged communists, and opposed erstwhile leftists such as Sidney Hook when they argued that CPers should not be allowed to teach. But it did not pretend there was no Stalinist gangsterism. It argued in Labor Action that so long as Stalinism was seen as only a conspiracy, and not as primarily a political movement, it could not be properly fought.
But the Shachtmanites were, as everyone influenced by mainstream, official, “orthodox” Trotskyism knows, Stalinophobic? What else would you expect?
Well, the American orthodox Trotskyists, led by James P Cannon, were little different, if they were different at all, in their attitude to the Stalinists. They defended civil liberties, as did the ISL, but that is all. They did not solidarise with the Stalinist party, or forget what Stalinism was.
Take for example, the Ruth Fischer affair. This German CP leader of the 20s, who had for a while in the 30s been a Trotskyist, was a refugee in the USA. So were her two Stalinist brothers (named Eisler), one a well-known musician and one, she knew, a high-ranking GPU officer. She denounced her GPU brother publicly. Someone wrote an editorial in the SWP’s paper, The Militant, calling her an “informer”. In reply she wrote an open letter to James P Cannon — which was published first in Labor Action and then in The Militant — protesting at this epithet and reminding Cannon what the GPU had done and what it was. Cannon responded with a semi-apology in The Militant.
Or go back further. The McCarthy committee of the 50s was known as the Dies committee in the 30s, and in 1939 held public hearings on “Communism and Fascism in the USA”. When it invited Trotsky to give testimony, he immediately accepted the invitation, to the chagrin of some of his American comrades, concerned at the bad odour which surrounded the Dies committee on the left and among liberals.
There can be no doubt that Trotsky intended to use this high-profile committee as a platform for his politics in general. Equally there can be no doubt that one of the things Trotsky intended to do there was expose the machinations of the GPU in the CPUSA and through the CP, in American society.
In principle Trotsky saw nothing wrong with using such bourgeois-democratic state agencies as the Dies committee in the unequal struggle which the Trotskyists and others (for example, anarchists) had to wage against the GPU and the GPU-ised CPs.
This is not a matter that can be misunderstood. Trotsky wrote many articles between 1937 and his death in August 1940 to expose the GPU. The last article he finished (17 August 1940) was The Comintern And The GPU, a long study in which, among other things, he tried publicly to identify the GPU representatives in the leadership of the CP USA. He named what names he had.
Trotsky, of all people, would be most surprised if he came to life today and found socialists, including “Trotskyists”, indulging in a soft-minded a-political sentimentality about the US or any other Stalinists of his time.
That (among Trotskyists) is a product of the softening up of the ’50s that went with acceptance of the idea that the Stalinists were making “deformed” but progressive revolutions in the Third World.
Cannon in 1947 argued that: “The [CP] try to stigmatise every criticism of their wrecking activities as ‘red-baiting’, but... there is no reason why we should take their definition and refrain from the struggle against them just because some stupid reactionaries are also fighting them, from another point of view. The thing is to put the fight on the proper basis and conduct it from the standpoint of the interests of the working class... Stalinism can and will be defeated and cast out of the labour movement. But the workers themselves must do it”.
The CPers were not, of course, all villains or bloody-handed GPU assassins or their direct stooges. Far from it!
Most were people of goodwill who were dupes. Ewan MacColl not only wrote a song called “Joe Stalin was a mighty man” — he never repented of it, either — but also songs defending tinkers and condemning the death penalty — in Britain. He was a confused romantic.
So were many others. Those CPers I knew as a Young Communist League member at the end of the 1950s were good people. I still feel affection for some of them. Instinctively I’d want to defend them from “witch hunters” and “persecutors”. But politics is politics and facts are facts. They were Stalinists. They were bearers of a lethal political outlook. Their political confusion, even when it was not GPU-murderous, helped derail labour movements.
The point of all this? It would be better to learn, and understand, the history of how revolutionary socialists fought the Stalinists then, than to buy into the cheap and ignorant liberal and Stalino-liberal sepia-tinted sentimentality about the Stalinists as tragic liberal and left-wing victims of the bourgeoisie. That’s not what they were. That's not what happened.