They Will Come for Us in the Morning: Why Redbaiting Must be Challenged

“So let’s all be careful that we don’t play the bosses’ game by falling for the Red scare. Let’s stand by our union and fellow unionists. No union man, worthy of the name, will play the bosses’ game. Some may do so through ignorance. But those who peddle the Red scare and know what they are doing are dangerous enemies of the union.”

Walter Reuther, UAW Leader*

While thousands of social movement forces were excitedly preparing to attend the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit this past summer, so were Glenn Beck and his Beckateers. The goal of their fishing expedition was to continue to target individuals with radical politics and sabotage the momentum the Left would have coming out of the USSF.

After all, Beck was able to put a notch in his proverbial belt when he orchestrated the resignation of Van Jones. Jones, founding member of the Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), had been named Green Jobs Advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality by President Barack Obama but resigned after weeks of on-air red-baiting by Beck. Andy Stern, head of SEIU, was also called out by Glenn Beck as a communist, Marxist and socialist because of Stern’s use of the slogan “workers of the world unite.”

Beck sent his Becketeers to Detroit to identify more victims of his right-wing wrath. They found fertile grounds for their mission in the Motor City gathering of nearly 20,000. Fanning across Cobo Hall, they found the workshop “Glenn Beck’s Nightmare: What it Will take to Build a Movement for 21st Century Socialism.” He had already broadcasted that he would do so on his FOX cable show.

They came across Elena Herrada, a long-time organizer in Detroit. Her comments during a USSF panel which compared the border patrol to the Ku Klux Klan, made it on to Beck’s show. As a result, Herrada received threats and hate words at home and at work, via the phone, electronic and postal mail.

Beckateers also honed in on the staff of social movement organizations who participated in the USSF. They got an immediate reaction from those organizations fearful of losing funding if exposed on Beck’s show. Instead of standing up to the bullish redbaiting, they caved in to the pressure. For example, one organizer of a progressive agency was terminated when Glenn Beck threatened to inform the group’s funders that it had a socialist on staff.

Red-baiting is not a new phenomenon; it has a long and ugly history in this country. Red-baiting associates a person or organization with socialism or communism for the sole purpose of discrediting them and creating a climate of fear. The tactic has continued to be a destructive blow to progressive movements in general and to the labor movement in particular. It has been an effective tool for tarnishing or destroying the reputations and legacies of our most fierce fighters.This has resulted in strategic setbacks for the working and middle class. The two most notable periods were the Red Scare and McCarthy Era. As early as 1880s, red-baiting was used to cause dissention between striking workers during the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, the predecessor event to May Day.

By the 1920’s, red-baiting as a political tactic was thoroughly established by the US government as a weapon against radicals and leftists in labor unions, community organizations and publications. This was about the same time that the Communist Party USA was founded.

Senator Joseph McCarthy ushered in a renewed and reckless form of the red scare as relations between the US and the Soviet Union began to freeze up. The Cold War provided the fertile ground necessary to malign communism and provide the legitimate cover for persecuting and attacking any and everything that looked or sounded Red. The specter of communism was spreading across Europe and was sure to land on US shores. McCarthy and the House on Un-American Activities were double whammies unleashed upon hundreds of Americans suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers such as the Hollywood 10. Many were forced to name others or denounce their communist ties. Lives were destroyed on many different levels.

The Communist Party USA played a heroic role in the organizing of southern sharecroppers in the post-Reconstruction period. Dr. Martin Luther King was accused of being a communist to stifle his popularity. The anti-war and civil rights movements were attacked for being communist-influenced as a way to discredit their influence.

There were many freedom fighters in the forefront of working class struggles and victories in this country.. Some were socialists, others were communists or anarchists; still others were supporters of those movements. They include freedom fighters like Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Mary “Mother” Jones, Ella Baker, Kwame Toure, Jack O’Dell, Rosa Parks, Lourdes Valdes, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, A. Phillip Randolph, Claudia Jones, Anne Braden, Sandra Smith, Audre Lourde and a host of others.

With the 1970s came the New Communist Movement (NCM), a Marxist-Leninist political movement that resulted in the formation of dozens of left collectives and organizations as well as the declaration of several parties. During the decade or so of the NCM, red organizations operated openly and boldly. Line differences were public; ideological attacks could be sharp and unprincipled. The demise of the New Communist Movement added to the isolation of those groups left standing as targets of the State.

Fast forward to the election of the country’s first African American president in 2008. Again, we see the rise of anti-socialism with the rightist populism of the Tea Party. The characterization of President Obama as a socialist or his policies as socialism seems laughable by those who genuinely understand socialism unless you understand the code words that help to play on the racist fears of white citizens.

Tim Wise, a white, anti-racist activist, made such an analysis in his article Obama Red-baiting: Socialism as a New Black Bogeyman.

Says Wise, “ socialism is little more than racist code for the longstanding white fear that black folks will steal from them, and covet everything they have.” He goes on to state that whites have ”a deep, abiding suspicion that African American folk can’t wait to take whitey’s stuff, as payback, as reparations, as a way to balance the historic scales of injustice that have so long tilted in our favor.”

This suggests that there is an economic element twisted into the racial fears. The political Right has successfully used the current crisis of capitalism to fan those racist flames. The implication of a black man in the White House during a recession has erroneously been framed as the redistribution of the wealth and a shift in power. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the government’s protection of the corporate class flatly refutes the myth of wealth redistribution under the Obama Administration. Ask any unemployed worked who waited with bated breath to get their unemployment benefits extended by Congress.

But something interesting happened on the way to Obama’s White House. The eight preceding years under George Bush were so oppressive that Americans began seriously looking at alternatives to capitalism. Last year, a Rassmussen Report noted that a significant number of those polled favored socialism. Earlier this year, a Gallup Poll concluded that nearly 40% of Americans viewed socialism positively.

What is the social movement left doing with this encouraging information? The same thing they did when Beck took Van Jones down or when USSF activists were attacked by Beck. Not a whole lot. Yet, here’s an opportunity that must be seized if we are to take advantage of the class discontent and their search for something different.

The fear of losing funding for being too anti-capitalists has muted the voices of too many social justice agencies. Even explicitly left organizations have not been as forthright in their stand against redbaiting. This may be due to lack of skill but can only be claimed as a temporary reason. The Left and its allies must have a ready and immediate response to redbaiting wherever it rears its ugly head. We must be confident that we have each others’ backs.

During this period, the working class needs a clear analysis of the rules, policies and laws and shifting conditions that make more vulnerable and hardest struck by intersecting crises, including economic exploitation by global capitalists, resource scarcity and ecological crises. They also need the tools to wage class struggle in an effective manner. They also need the tools to wage class struggle in an effective manner. Knowing how to stand up to these age-old tactics in new clothes is part of that struggle.

Being rooted in the community and having good mass work is the first line of defense to redbaiting. It also helps if people are doing that work openly as socialists, when and where appropriate, so socialist ideals can be tied directly to on-the-ground work for social, racial, economic and environmental justice. It is understood that some comrades may not be open for reasons related to their job or other security issues. However, when the Left hides its full identity, it makes those who do open socialist organizing more vulnerable to redbaiting forces.

The leftist community has been repeating the quotes by James Baldwin and Pastor Martin Neimoller for years: “For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night” and “First they came for the Communists…” These warnings are empty if we don’t heed their essence. These are dangerous times. Right now, our competition is stiff but not unbeatable. Between conservative media and corporate-run government, we must step up our organizing efforts. If we are effective in our actions, we should be prepared that it could bring the scarlet letter to our door whether we are socialists or not.

It is unconscionable to allow red-baiting in our midst without denouncing it promptly and forcefully. With the kind of witch-hunting by Fox News and others, it is critical that we are proactive and not reactive. Our movements must engage in discussions about how to confront redbaiting so that we protect ourselves and our organizations. Those of us who profess to uphold family values, who respect the human rights of all peoples and who are committed to the total transformation of the society cannot let our role be diminished. Now is the time to be bold in our analysis and even bolder in our strategy and tactics. Now is the time to build upon the best practices and the successes of the Left if we intend to win the hearts and minds of the people. Now is the time for our communities to know who the socialists are among them struggling against racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and religious bigotry. Now is the time to openly talk about what a socialist society could look like.

*Walter Reuther, once a proud socialist and working class champion later became a fierce anti-communist, indulging in redbaiting himself, proof-positive that the fight against anti-communism must be ongoing and ever vigilant.

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