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 SPIDER WEB: THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN ANTICOMMUNISM

By Nick Fischer

University of Illinois Press. 345 pages. £25.99. ISBN 978-0-252-08151-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is, perhaps, a general idea that American anticommunism was largely a product of the Cold War, starting around 1947 and reaching a peak in the early-1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy was rampaging around the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. It could be said that he was only carrying on in a tradition that had a long pedigree and is still active. The fact is that anticommunism wasn’t simply about opposition to what was said to be an alien ideology. It involved much more than that, and communism was often simply a handy peg on which to hang many other concerns.

Nick Fischer reaches back to the post-Civil War period for the initial intimations of allegations of communism as a threat to democracy, Christianity, civilised living, and bourgeois values generally. Events in France during the short-lived Paris Commune gave an impetus to those who saw what they claimed were communist aims and ideas. Communism hadn’t yet been identified with Russia and it’s unlikely that many people knew much about Karl Marx. But by the 1870s capitalism was in full swing in the United States, and as labour-intensive services and industries developed, unions were formed to further the interests of workers. Employers saw them as a direct threat to their rights to hire and fire at will, pay whatever wages they thought suitable, and generally run their businesses without interference from either unions or government. To them, any attempt to force employers to negotiate with workers, or for government to impose restrictions or guidelines in terms of working conditions, meant communism:

“The evolution of anti-communism was an important element in the construction of the modern American state and corresponds with profound changes in state, social, and corporate methods of dealing with conflict, especially economic conflict. Over time, a reliance on brutal, physical repression of targeted individuals and organisations gave way to more sophisticated forms of repression and control. What began with antistrike injunctions and the fatal beating of striking workers evolved into a political ideology that eventually claimed a greater hold on the concept of Americanism than any other competing force or notion”.

Fischer goes on to say that “This doctrine provided vital and effective political cover for a campaign of repression that was unleashed not only to suppress the working classes’ industrial organisations  and aspirations but also to altogether discredit the politics of class”.

American labour wars were often prolonged and bloody, with armed police and troops frequently involved, ostensibly to maintain law and order, but usually with an inclination to act on behalf of the employers. The courts were similarly prejudiced in favour of big business, and legal niceties relating to blacklisting, arrests, imprisonments, and treatment of strikers were often ignored. It is relevant to note that strikes frequently involved workforces comprising immigrant labour and those involved were consequently seen as behaving in an “Un-American” way. This was an attitude cultivated by business leaders, self- proclaimed patriots and politicians.

Fischer says that the government became fully involved in surveillance of supposed radicals when America entered the First World War in 1917, though a precedent had been set during the campaign in the Philippines to subvert claims for independence. Military personnel carried forward the lessons they had learned about infiltration of suspect groups to the concerted attack on opponents of American entanglement in the Great War, and according to Fischer, into the 1920s when they were active in anticommunist groups.

There was opposition to the idea of the United States becoming embroiled in a European war prior to 1917, and understandably so. Many newer arrivals in the country had moved there to escape from the “old world” and its problems, and when conscription was introduced they were reluctant to be caught up in fighting a war they felt they had no part in. Radical elements among immigrants, and some native-born Americans, also took the view that it was essentially a war for profits and the working-classes in every country should ideally refuse to fight each other.

As a result, both government and citizens concerned to promote “Americanism”  began a campaign of harassment, imprisonment, and worse, against anyone not willing to wear a uniform, or heard speaking out against the war. Normal rules relating to matters of free speech, arrest, confinement, and conviction were quickly overturned . And the use of anticommunist tactics became widespread. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia gave added emphasis to the claims that godless communism was about to sweep across America. Stories about the oncoming imposition of “free love” and the wholesale seizure of private property, should communists come to power in the United States, convinced many people that it was legitimate to oppose radicals by any means necessary.

The claims about communist influence became even more prevalent following the cessation of hostilities when the ending of war production led to mass layoffs, wage cuts, and other problems. There was a wave of strikes, especially in the steel industry and coal-mining, and in Seattle a general strike involving the city’s unionised workers caused a near-panic among the authorities.

Among the organisations, and their members, heavily targeted by both state and federal leaders were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the famed Wobblies. They were not communists, but right-wing elements, anxious to mount a case against any kind of voices dissenting from the status quo, weren’t likely to make fine distinctions between communists, anarcho-syndicalists, and industrial unionists. There always had been a campaign of harassment directed against IWW members, no doubt because they appeared to be so effective in organising among people often looked on by both conservative unions and management as being previously unorganisable. Immigrants, unskilled workers, transients following the harvests around America. It was not easy to get them together enough to persuade them that unionisation could be to their benefit, but for at time the Wobblies seemed to be doing it. They were energetic, colourful, and the strike was their greatest weapon. They were, some of them, at least, also prone to making outrageous statements about sabotage and the forthcoming revolution. Big and small businesses alike, and many individuals, took fright at what the Wobblies might do.

With America at war, the IWW became known as Imperial Wilhelm’s Warriors, and their activities were seen as hostile to the best interests of the country at large. It was, of course, an opportunity for employers to use the situation to smear Wobblies with being unpatriotic if they attempted to organise, or made claims for higher pay and shorter houses. There are numerous stories about groups of militant Wobblies being arrested, assaulted, even killed for striking. And two horrific incidents involving Wobblies who were lynched in particularly nasty circumstances were recorded. It’s perhaps indicative of the popular mood that the best-selling author, Zane Grey, produced a novel, Desert of Wheat, in which the Wobblies were portrayed in negative terms, and there was a gloating description of the lynching of one of their organisers. Most of these actions were carried out by local police forces, citizens’ bodies, and organisations like the American Legion.

As for the government, suppression of dissenting voices soon took place. Perhaps one of the best-known involved the radical magazine, The Masses, which was forced to close down and some of its staff placed on trial. It wasn’t the only publication forced out of existence by wartime paranoia, many of them by devious use of postal rules and regulations. The government also arranged the round-up of over one hundred leading lights in the IWW and placed them on mass trial in Chicago. Many received lengthy sentences, some of the major figures fled to Russia, and the IWW was effectively broken, a process accented by a split in the union, with some members deciding to join the communists. American communists had been factionally fighting for a time, and experiencing attacks by the government, but by the mid-1920s were settling down into soon becoming the main radical party in the United States.

As the 1920s progressed the number of local and national organisations dedicated to counter-attacking the alleged communist conspiracy quickly spread. It was the time of the “Spider Web”, a chart which, in Fischer’s words, “presents an informal taxonomy of seven types of Bolshevik-front organisations”. These were, in the view of Lucia Maxwell, a dedicated anticommunist, likely to form the basis for a communist take-over of America. Ranging from church groups to those for women in universities and others for shoppers and young people, and many more, it was an unlikely body of organisations with little in common with each other. No matter, once on the list it could be guaranteed that they would be viewed as suspect. It is ironic that, as Fischer points out, “the anticommunist movement more closely resembled a “spider web”. It had a much better “ideological cohesion than the notoriously sectarian parties of the Left”, and it had backing from various institutions and enjoyed “greater financial stability” than any organisations of the Left.

The 1930s, with increasing militancy on the part of industrial unions, and a certain amount of support from government sources when it came to the right to belong to a union and have it negotiate with management, didn’t see any lessening of anticommunist activity. In fact, there may have been more because business interests felt they were under threat of having their insistence on “open shops” controlled by legislation. For a time it did appear that union power might be able to permanently affect the way workers were treated. And anticommunist rhetoric was scaled down to a degree during the Second World War, when Russia became an ally and workers were badly needed to keep the tanks, guns, and aeroplanes rolling off the assembly lines.

It was a short-lived pause, however, and the post-war period, with Russia taking over countries in Eastern Europe, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, and other factors combined to convince anticommunists that they had been right all along. Purges, blacklists, arrests, and imprisonments, soon re-commenced. And it was, of course, an ideal opportunity for employers to get rid of any union activists, and force others to tone down their demands, under the guise of patriotic measures to deal with the Red Menace. Loyalty Oaths for teachers, civil servants, and others became the norm.  When Joseph McCarthy appeared he was just jumping on a bandwagon that was already rolling merrily along.

Nick Fischer’s book offers an exhaustive account of how and why anticommunism became such a fixture in American society. I’ve necessarily had to shortcut my way through his catalogue of facts and figures, and his stories of some of the odd characters thrown up by the development of an anticommunist “spider web”. There was, for example, a curious man named Jacob Spolansky, who Fischer describes as a “career anticommunist spook”, adept at infiltrating radical groups and providing information about them to both government and private agencies eager to collate information about anyone showing signs of un-American activities. It’s interesting that behind many of the anticommunist pronouncements there was a strong undercurrent of anti-semitism, with Jews often identified as among the leading Bolsheviks in Russia, and among communists in America. Spolansky was himself a Jew, but clearly happy to inform on anyone if the price was right.

A couple of minor points need referring to. On page 180 Fischer refers to Theodore Dreiser’s “American Tragedy, a novel based on the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti”, Italian anarchists who were, in the views of many contemporary commentators, unjustly convicted of killing two people in an attempted hold-up. Dreiser certainly involved himself in the campaign to free them, but his novel (its correct title is An American Tragedy) wasn’t about the case. It was based on a 1906 murder trial and concerned an ambitious young man killing his lower-class pregnant lover to clear the way for him to marry a woman in a better social and financial position.

The other point relates to Fischer’s long and useful bibliography. I realise that any bibliography can always be added to, but one book that isn’t there and deserves to be is Eugene Lyons’ The Red Decade (originally published in 1941), in which he dissected a period when “Never before –or since – had all areas of American society been so deeply penetrated by a foreign nation and a foreign ideology. Never before had the country’s thinking, official policies, education, arts, and moral attitudes been so profoundly affected by the agents, sympathisers and unwitting puppets of a distant dictatorship”.

That statement by Lyons is from a 1970 reprint of his book, and he was referring specifically to the 1930s, but it could well describe how anticommunists felt at any time over the years. One of the interesting aspects of Lyons’ book is that it demonstrates how the anticommunist attack was not just launched against what were seen as political enemies, but was also directed at a broad cultural front covering books, films, plays, music that didn’t fit into the framework of “Americanism” favoured by the anticommunists. The Federal Theatre Project (part of the Works Progress Administration programme) was one of the major victims of anticommunist campaigning.