Wednesday, March 30, 2016

EXPLAINER: Yes liberals, red-baiting is Bad

As the Cold War recedes into the increasingly distant past, we often suppose that the politics of the Cold War - including the bigotries of anti-communism - are disappearing as well. Sadly, this is not entirely true. Capitalism persists, and as long as it does, it will necessarily foment among its stakeholders all kinds of anti-communist attitudes and biases - and the left will have to keep fighting them.

Unfortunately, one thing that has faded from memory with the Cold War is the political language that the left has used to fight anti-communism. In particular, for decades, the left cultivated popular opposition to what was then known as "red-baiting" - but that term has long fallen out of our political vocabulary, and today the left stands relatively unarmed against the resurgence of anti-communism. It's long past time for the left to start defending itself, and that means bringing back its critique of red-baiting.

What is red-baiting?

Put simply, red-baiting is bigotry. Specifically, it is bias and prejudice against Marxism.

Note that this is different from mere skepticism and criticism of Marxism. Red-baiting is unreasoning opposition to Marxism, opposition grounded entirely in fear, intolerance, closed-mindedness, and hate. Instead of allowing people to draw moral and intellectual conclusions about Marxism based on rational evalution, red-baiting foments reflexive and unthinking hostility to its philosophy and its adherents.

How does red-baiting work?

Typically, red-baiting blames Marxism, without argument, for various atrocities committed in connection with communist governments.

The key phrase here is "without argument". Instead of establishing and defending this relationship between Marxist theory and its alleged consequences, red-baiting simply decrees that the relationship exists. Often, it relies on popular prejudice to get people to accept this decree: it's "just common sense" that Marxism is responsible, and good, decent people don't question that or think about it too hard. Other times, red-baiting relies on abusive shaming and intimidation: people who question Marxism's responsibility for a crime are accused of justifying the crime itself, or trivializing it, or pretending that it didn't even happen.

In this way, the defining feature of red-baiting is that it obstructs rational deliberation over Marxism. It relies on biases and bigotry to prevent us from thinking about it and talking about it, and indicts it while denying it an intellectual trial.

What's so illiberal about red-baiting?

In theory, at least, liberalism is supposed to be rational and tolerant. We should always be able to talk about ideas, to evaluate them intellectually, and to draw our own conclusions about them. They should be argued on the merits rather than imposed with rhetorical bullying that relies on popular biases and emotional manipulation.

Another major reason for liberals to oppose red-baiting is that historically, red-baiting is never just used against Marxists - it always becomes a weapon against liberals, too. As soon as it becomes socially acceptable to bully and oppress Marxists, reactionaries use that as an excuse to bully and oppress everyone to their left, from communists to socialists to progressives to moderates. Like all forms of bigotry, anti-communism is a cancer that inevitably metastasizes into broader forms of oppression.

Even if red-baiting is a problem in theory, what's the actual harm?

This is where historical amnesia becomes such a problem: as the decades pass, we gradually forget just how horrific red-baiting actually was.

For instance: right-wing revisionism aside, anti-communism was always one of the major components of twentieth century fascism. Communists were among the first victims in Nazi Germany's concentration camps, and the rhetoric of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini was riddled with anti-communism. The reason for this, again, is simple: once red-baiting becomes acceptable, it always becomes a potent weapon against all of the political left.

Similarly, in the United States, red-baiting became a major force during the great Red Scares of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Quite often, it fed into broader racist and nationalist bigotry against foreigners and immigrants suspected of harboring Marxist views - particularly against people who came from Eastern Europe and Asia. It also fed into bigotry against people associated in any way with the labor movement, including union members; into bigotry against people involved in just about any progressive movements you can name, such as the women's suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and so on; and into broader bigotries against Democrats that persist to this very day.

Moreover, red-baiting and anti-communism didn't just express itself in the United States as political opposition. Marxists and suspected Marxists were routinely harassed, assaulted, imprisoned, deported, spied on, fired, blacklisted from employment, defamed by the media, and legislated against. Major episodes like McCarthy's HUAC hearings and the Palmer Raids subjected Americans from all walks of life to monstrous incidents of state-sponsored oppression.

What does red-baiting look like today?

The most blatant red-baiting today looks exactly like it did a hundred years ago: it's what we hear on talk radio when Mark Levin warns us that Obamacare's death panels are going to send everyone to the the Gulag. It's still a staple of Republican rhetoric against Democrats, particularly among older generations; as a rule, it creates a slippery slope between every Democratic policy and the crimes of Soviet Russia, between every Democratic official, Stalin, and Mao. Fortunately, this kind of hysteria is usually recognized for what it is, so it only remains influential in the fever-dreams of the radical right.

While the most blatant red-baiting may come from Republicans, the most pernicious and consequential anti-communism actually tends to come from liberal Democrats. This is due to a strange quirk of bipartisan consensus in the United States: albeit for very different reasons, both Republicans and Democrats think of liberals as friendly critics of the radical left. Republicans think this because they see liberals and Marxists as secret allies; Democrats, meanwhile, think this because they like to think of themselves as ideologically neutral and disinterested critics. These motives are at odds, but they both invest liberals with an air of credibility that Republicans lack.

For that reason, when a guy like Jonathan Chait goes on one of his periodic completely uninformed tirades about Marx (as he did again today), people who should know better are tempted to take him seriously. But make no mistake - when Chait writes (and New York Magazine publishes) garbage like this:
[Marxists believe] that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it...It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag.
He is rehearsing the exact same idiotic rhetoric that every red-baiter in history, from Joseph McCarthy to Rush Limbaugh, always wields against the left. Chait is not bringing up the Gulag because it is the inevitable conclusion of a carefully constructed argument about what happens when you insist that some political advocacy enhances freedom and other advocacy diminishes it; instead of actually putting in the work on the obvious task at hand, he is outsourcing his entire argument to the reader's "imagination" so that he can move on to his real goal, which is to scare the hell out of anyone at all sympathetic to Marxism. For Chait, the Gulag isn't a historical reality, a place where real people (including Marxists!) died for quite specific reasons that we should try to understand; it is a rhetoric bludgeon to be wielded against the left.

And ironically, it's Chait's rhetoric that has demonstrably and historically led to the sort of suffering oppression that he's scaremongering about. Marxists obviously won't be Gulaging anyone in the United States anytime soon, but Chait's personal habit of using scaremongering to attack the left has contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the last decade alone. With a bit less red-baiting and a lot more liberal-baiting, there's good reason to believe that our world would be a better place.