The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. When asked by HUAC to name names, he refused—and then almost immediately offered to sing songs instead. Much to the consternation of the Committee chair, Francis Walters, Seeger followed up with a more personal offer.

I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

Parenthetically, I should note that Seeger’s hearings were not the only such circus of absurdity.  If you want to treat yourself to an afternoon of giggles, check out Ayn Rand’s testimony, where she insisted that no one in Russia ever smiled. Or this wondrous exchange between Zero Mostel and two members of HUAC.


Mostel: If I appeared there, what if I did an imitation of a butterfly at rest? There is no crime in making anybody laugh. I don’t care if you laugh at me.
Congressman Donald Jackson: If your interpretation of a butterfly at rest brought any money into the coffers of the Communist Party, you contributed directly to the propaganda effort of the Communist Party.
Mostel: Suppose I had the urge to do the butterfly at rest somewhere?
Congressman Clyde Doyle: Yes, but please, when you have the urge, don’t have such an urge to put the butterfly at rest by putting some money in the Communist Party coffers as a result of that urge to put a butterfly at rest.

But I digress.

While Seeger’s HUAC appearance, and its legal aftermath, is making the rounds of his eulogists, it’s important to remember that HUAC was probably not the most difficult of his tribulations during the McCarthy era. Far more toxic for most leftists was the blacklist itself. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (the dates are fuzzy, and it depends on which particular medium we’re talking about), Seeger was prevented from performing on a great many stages and venues. First with The Weavers, and then on his own.

The blacklist did not work independently of the state. It was the transmission belt of the state, both a feeder to, and an enforcement mechanism of, the government. Men and women who didn’t cooperate with the government were subject to the blacklist, so it was a useful means of securing cooperation and providing information. The secret enforcers of the blacklist were often ex-FBI men or ex-HUAC staffers, and the FBI and HUAC supplied critical information to industry executives and their underlings. Who then used it for either political or narrower self-interested purposes.

That said, the blacklist, and the more general specter of private penalties, touched more people than did HUAC or the state. For most men and women during the McCarthy years, the immediate point of contact with political repression and coercion was their employer, their teacher, their therapist, their lawyer, their supervisor, their co-worker.

And that raises a larger question. It is easy today to look back on that time, to read the transcripts and case histories, and tut-tut at all the nastiness or laugh at all the foolishness of the blacklist. With everyone from President Obama to the New York Times delivering warm encomia for Seeger, we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama, like the editors of the New York Times—who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.

To be sure, there were many hard-right ideologues behind the blacklist: the writers at Red Channels, an anticommunist handbook that named names in the entertainment industry, were conservative propagandists of the first order, anatomized to brilliant effect by a young researcher by the name of Michael Harrington.

But the blacklist would never have had the reach it did—not merely in Hollywood or the academy, but throughout virtually every industry in the United States—had it not attracted a wide range of men and women to its cause. The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:


If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.

The blacklist, as Victor Navasky reminded us long ago, was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Everyone pursued their own private or personal definition of the good; the result was cooperation, exchange—and coercion. What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.

Most amazingly, these differences didn’t matter. Despite what virtually every modern political theorist—from Hobbes to Montesquieu to Madison—maintains, pluralism and diversity did not lead to liberty, anarchy, or disorder. Instead, they provided more avenues and opportunities for collusion, collaboration, and coercion.

Beyond the collusion and collaboration, there’s another dimension of the blacklist worth mentioning: the intense and dense infrastructure of support, at the lowest levels, that made the machine go. When we think about political repression, we tend to focus on elites, officials on high, industry executives, and the like. But the blacklist was the work of hundreds of thousands of men and women, operating at the middling and lower tiers of institutions and organizations.

In some way, we could say that the blacklist is the dark answer to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads.” Long invoked by the left as a tribute to the anonymous laboring heroes of history, the poem can also be read as a more unsettling account of the invisible but necessary labor that goes into the production of political crimes like aggressive war or imperial conquest.

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

“Did he not even have a cook with him?” That question is often with me. Not just in the context of the blacklist, but in other, far more terrible circumstances. Like genocide.

This past weekend I watched “Conspiracy” on Youtube. It’s a BBC reenactment of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which various officials (many now forgotten) of the Nazi regime gathered to draw up plans for the deportation and mass murder of the Jews. The opening sequence of the film—in which the house staff at the villa on the Wannsee scramble to prepare for the arrival of regime’s elite—does a brilliant job of answering Brecht’s question. Yes, there were cooks at Wannsee. Lots of them. And maids, waiters, butlers, secretaries, transcriptionists, drivers: an entire army of support staff helping to make the conference go off without a hitch. Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the conference, comes off less as an architect of mass murder than as an anxious host of a dinner party, the Martha Stewart of the Shoah.

Hart Crane marveled at the Brooklyn Bridge: “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” And like the Brooklyn Bridge, large-scale enterprises like genocide or the blacklist—needless to say, I am in no way equating these phenomena—entail the aligning of choiring strings. Not only through spectacular mobilization of the masses or ideological indoctrination from on high but also through the most mundane and individual calculations of career.

Political crime is work. Whether the crime is mass murder or persecution, someone has to do that work. And to help the people who do that work. So men and women must be hired and paid, supervised and promoted.

At the height of European imperialism, Disraeli wrote, “The East is a career.” So was the Holocaust. So was the blacklist.

While we rightly recall today the heroism of Pete Seeger in refusing to make the blacklist a career—indeed, sacrificing his career in order to unmake the blacklist—we have to ask ourselves how many of us would have chosen the path he did. Particularly in the United States, where the obligations of career are nearly the first item on our list of civic duties.



Lynne 01.29.14 at 7:52 pm

What a wonderful post. The holocaust as career. The blacklist as career. I won’t forget this—thank you.


Pasha 01.29.14 at 7:58 pm

Collusion as civics, I think. Duty and honor are powerful ideas that keep us proles in line.


Plume 01.29.14 at 8:06 pm

It’s also interesting that there is no corresponding echo on the right. No right-wing purge. America never had a HUAC for fascists or tea party types. And, from where I sit, American communists had the interests of the masses at heart, to better their lot, to improve quality of life, and deserved support rather than attacks . . . whereas the right’s Prime Directive has always been defense of the 1% and the wonders of capital. If anyone deserved a blacklist — and I’m against the idea — it was and still is those lovers of the 1% and the system that created them.

It’s rather amazing that right-wingers, to this day, still feel “victimized” by liberals and whatever bogeymen they’ve created. In reality, they’ve always been in the driver’s seat or left alone pretty much from the beginning. In short, America is a reactionary nation, as far as its Establishment goes. Incredible that the right has successfully peddled the idea of right-wingers as outsiders and martyrs. In America, that’s actually the domain of the left.

Thanks, Corey. Excellent post.


FredR 01.29.14 at 8:11 pm

“America never had a HUAC for fascists”

HUAC started out investigating fascists…


Anarcissie 01.29.14 at 8:20 pm

‘… Political crime is work. Whether the crime is mass murder or persecution, someone has to do that work. And to help the people who do that work. So men and women must be hired and paid, supervised and promoted. …’

Hence the politics of everyday popular culture, the Situationists, Vaneigem, and so on. The personal is political; the state and its crimes arise out of daily life.


Anderson 01.29.14 at 8:22 pm

“Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the conference, comes off less as an architect of mass murder than as an anxious host of a dinner party, the Martha Stewart of the Shoah.”

Well, that was what he did for the Holocaust too – organized the logistics of getting the Jews on trains and to the death camps. Not sure that irony came through in the movie (which I keep meaning to see but haven’t).


bob mcmanus 01.29.14 at 8:23 pm

1) OMG. Conspiracy, Branagh and Tucci (the Eichmann he played is almost type-casting) made it work. So excellent. And you got it right, what makes it terrifying is that the power and evil in the room doesn’t really have a locatable source or center (Hitler is very very distant). Branagh as Heydrich is at times so obviously bluffing, just daring someone to make a fuss and you can watch as nobody dares. Cause social inertia? Cause, as you say, they just have work to do, to get things done? I never got the feeling that the Mayor of Poland or whatever was gonna get shot or even lose his job. A terrific movie about politics in general.

2) I love this post, and am liking the sociological turn of your recent work. It is an arguable and controversial tenet of my Marxism that social structures are created and maintained bottom-up and at ground-level, and ideology and hegemony do their work in living rooms, dining tables, and bedrooms.


Emma in Sydney 01.29.14 at 8:42 pm

Seeger, despite the blacklist, could not keep from singing. As a result he found work in summer camps, and school concerts and from the 50s built himself a whole new audience which came of age in the 60s. I like to think it is justice that the folk and protest music of the 1960s was built on the foundations laid by the attempted destruction of Pete Seeger. When he came to Australia in 1963 and his concerts were recorded by the ABC, it was the first time he had been on radio or tv for years. His sister Peggy, also blacklisted, was a founder of the folk revival in the UK after her US passport was revoked.


Plume 01.29.14 at 8:50 pm


Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “fascist.” But you will admit, won’t you, that the vast majority of committees, investigations and outright witch hunts (through the decades) were conducted against leftists and people who may have known leftists, or have bumped into a leftist once?

The American establishment, being itself right-wing, has never gone after the right with as much passion as the left. It basically sees the left as “un-American” right off the bat. It saw Pete Seeger as un-American for a long, long time. At least until he died. It sees itself as the embodiment of American culture and ideals, and a leftist movement like OWS as being against all of that.

IMO, the right is the home for all that’s wrong with America, its racism, homophobia, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, worship of the markets, etc. etc. . . . and none of what is “right” about it. If it really does embody American culture and ideals, then I could never call myself American. I’d be too ashamed to.


Z 01.29.14 at 8:51 pm

Thanks for the post, Corey.


politicalfootball 01.29.14 at 8:55 pm

Branagh, who somehow generally rubs me the wrong way, was magnificent in Conspiracy.

I think the thrust of the post is incorrect, though, or maybe the emphasis is misplaced. I’m prepared to let the chefs at Wannsee off the hook for the Holocaust.

It’s true that we are all cogs in brutal machines, but our culpability is proportional to our volition. Voters have something to answer for. Poll attendants do not.


theodop 01.29.14 at 9:03 pm

This is a great post.

But @Plume, you seem to miss the entire point of it — that is it took the left and the right and those in between to make the choiring strings of the Blacklist sing.

And your use of “right wingers” and general attack on the right completely undercuts your point. Certainly the left of today isnt the left or communists of the 40s/50s (tho they are getting close with the us and them stuff). But consider what communism, of the Soviet/Mao/Deng strain (and countless others), brought to the world: the persecution and murder of many many many millions of people. It’s no wonder that that left was attacked. It ultimately was wicked. Sure, the American strain may or may not have led to this, but who knew?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The left does just as much paving as anyone else.


Corey Robin 01.29.14 at 9:07 pm

Bob McManus: “I love this post, and am liking the sociological turn of your recent work.”

I’m chuffed by the praise, but I have to correct you on this point. This isn’t a recent turn for me. The basic argument of the post, with some of the attending details, are all in my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which came out in 2004.

No reason you should know this. Just wanted to set the record straight.


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:08 pm

Good post, and I particularly liked (among other things) the reference to Michael Harrington.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 9:08 pm

Though I can believe the blacklist had more liberal support than is now acknowledged, the tie in to the Nazis seems off to me. If we’re reaching for hyperbolic comparisons why not mention the *more relevant* campaign of mass murder that had occured in the Soviet Union, which had the (at best implicit or ignorant) support of a number of left radicals. This would complicate the morality tale and add context to the paranoia of the time.
If all must don the sackcloth and ashes for flimsy ideological connections from 70 years ago ..


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:16 pm

This would complicate the morality tale and add context to the paranoia of the time.

Maybe but maybe not. The blacklist probably swept up a number of people who did not support, however passively, Stalin’s purges and who were not even CP members. McCarthyism destroyed the careers of a number of people who were not Communists. And besides, ignorant support, from afar, of tyranny is probably not grounds for dismissal from all gainful employment, etc.


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:18 pm

Also, there was nothing comparable applied to admirers of Hitler such as, e.g., Charles Lindbergh.


FredR 01.29.14 at 9:19 pm

“But you will admit, won’t you, that the vast majority of committees, investigations and outright witch hunts (through the decades) were conducted against leftists and people who may have known leftists, or have bumped into a leftist once?”

Sounds right to me, although I’d be interested to run the experiment over again and see what would happen in postwar America if it ended up squaring off in a nuclear Cold War against a Nazi empire rather than a Communist one.


Pub Editor 01.29.14 at 9:20 pm

Excellent post.

Although, it is interesting that OP quotes a Bertolt Brecht poem, when we consider that Brecht’s decisions and behavior vis-a-vis HUAC were very different from Seeger’s.


mpowell 01.29.14 at 9:27 pm

IMO, the right is the home for all that’s wrong with America, its racism, homophobia, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, worship of the markets, etc. etc. . . . and none of what is “right” about it. If it really does embody American culture and ideals, then I could never call myself American. I’d be too ashamed to.

So half the population holds all the beliefs that are wrong and the other half holds only good beliefs? This is an oversimplified view of the world.


Pub Editor 01.29.14 at 9:28 pm

LFC @ 17:

“Also, there was nothing comparable applied to admirers of Hitler such as, e.g., Charles Lindbergh.”

Maybe not the best example. During WWII, Lindbergh applied for restoration of his officer’s commission in the Army Air Force, and, iirc, the White House told Secretary of War Stimson to decline the request, b/c of Lindbergh’s having previously carried water for the Reich.

Not as bad as a blacklist, certainly, but not nothing. (Lindbergh did become a civilian technical adviser and aircraft test pilot for the companies building planes for the USAAF, so the practical effect was mooted. But we might say the same of some blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters who worked as ghostwriters for much of the 50’s.)


Plume 01.29.14 at 9:29 pm


American communists like Seeger were opposed to the Soviet union, which never implemented communism, btw. Or socialism for that matter. It made zero sense to assume that American communists were somehow supporters of Soviet Russia, especially when so many communists, socialists and anarchists in (and outside of) Russia opposed that system. They opposed the state capitalism there, which Lenin was okay with. Perelman quotes Lenin’s support for capitalism . . . for instance. From many other quotes and actions, it’s easy to see that Lenin and those who followed him even practiced “primitive accumulation” in Russia, basically destroying village life in hopes of forcing and speeding up industrialization . . . just like his western counterparts from an earlier point in time.

As in, the core tenets for leftists (then and now) are in direct opposition to the tyrannical governments in place in Russia, North Korea, China, etc. It was indefensible that American authorities persecuted leftists here, based upon governments elsewhere. It’s akin to the persecution of Christians now because of the Crusades and the Inquisition, etc.

HUAC being a modern day reproduction of said Inquisition, in a sense . . .


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 9:35 pm

LFC – I’m not looking to excuse the blacklist, I just find the OP’s framing a little off. (and not just tying the Nazi’s in) What *is* more relevant than the Nazi’s – to my eyes – is the ideology *some* were supporting (to various degrees of certainty, with varying degrees of knowledge) that had been responsible for crimes comparable to Nazism.
It would complicate the morality play in the OP, which shows ‘moderate’ liberals and conservatives working within the system, behaving in a deeply inhumane way, but then makes no mention of the context or others who were also implicated (in a lot of ways) in supporting even more oppressive political systems. Or just opting out.
I dont say that against Seeger, or in support of the blacklists, but I think its worth mentioning.


FredR 01.29.14 at 9:39 pm

“American communists like Seeger were opposed to the Soviet union”

“It made zero sense to assume that American communists were somehow supporters of Soviet Russia”



Plume 01.29.14 at 9:41 pm


I never said there was some 50/50 split. I’d bet that most Americans aren’t political enough to fall into a left or right “camp.” Most, I’m guessing, haven’t fleshed out their political philosophy to that extent, and could be considered apolitical.

That said, to me, it’s an oversimplification to assume some sort of equivalence across the spectrum. That left and right are equally bad or good or mixed with both, etc. For those who actually have fleshed out their political stance as right or left, I see no equality of good or bad, or degrees of same. And while the left is definitely flawed, it just doesn’t encourage or draw racists, homophobes, jingoists, xenophobes, misogynists and lovers of inequality like the right. It’s not without them, of course. But its central tenets don’t attract the above, as the right does.

The further left you go, the more in favor of equality, egalitarianism, real democracy and social justice you are. Generally speaking. The further right, the more in favor of Social Darwinism. I think the latter encourages the pathologies listed above.


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:47 pm

Pub Editor @21: Thanks for the note re Lindbergh. I didn’t know that.

Ronan @23: ok, I get your pt., I think. I don’t know too much about the blacklist in detail.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 9:50 pm

LFC, I dont know if I fully get my point, so im not expressing it well. Its more a reactive positions than anything particularly coherent


Passing By 01.29.14 at 9:52 pm

Professor Robin —

Your post seems to say that “the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama … worked together to make it work”. Perhaps I’m mis-reading the statement. But if you meant what it seems to say, would appreciate knowing your reasons for this slam at Mr. Obama.


Plume 01.29.14 at 9:54 pm

Boiled down:

To assume that Seeger and people like him were “un-American” simply because they were communists is indefensible. To act on that assumption, immoral. It should have been illegal, too. The First Amendment says it should be.

Corey’s ideas along the lines of the banality of evil . . . . that would make for a great next book for him. Bought and loved his last book.


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:55 pm

I’m not saying anything about Seeger here, but it is indisputable that the U.S. Communist Party followed the USSR’s line. Some other American leftists didn’t and not every U.S. CP member nec. agreed w everything the CP did. But the the U.S. CP as an entity followed the twists and turns of Stalin’s line and allegiances, afaik. And btw this has nothing to do w communism (small c). It has to do w Soviet Communism (capital C).


LFC 01.29.14 at 9:58 pm

To assume that Seeger and people like him were “un-American” simply because they were communists is indefensible. To act on that assumption, immoral. It should have been illegal, too. The First Amendment says it should be.

The blacklists etc. were directed — ostensibly; in practice they swept much wider — against Communists (big C). Your reference to communism (small c) is just muddying the waters.


Plume 01.29.14 at 10:18 pm


Can you provide any support for that? I don’t think HUAC or any of the witch hunts were as careful about those distinctions as you are here. From day one. Which was the whole point. It was a dragnet, not a parsing of individual beliefs or loyalties in the here and now. It was all about mass assumptions and bigotries. And at the risk of drawing more complaints, the hidden rationale seems obvious to me. The perceived threat was not to our nation or its people. But to the bank accounts of the financial elite and their ability to call all the shots.


godoggo 01.29.14 at 10:18 pm

Well, looking at the obits, I see that Seeger did write anti-war songs when that was the party line (for which he later got in trouble), and then reversed when that was the party line. Pretty typical for party members. Later on he left the party and referred to himself as a “small-c communist.” I hate to seem like I’m playing devil’s advocate or whatever, but there’s no sense in denying this.


godoggo 01.29.14 at 10:20 pm

That was crossposted with Plume, I think, assuming I correctly understand what “crossposted” means.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 10:28 pm

Its when you post whilst angry


Phil 01.29.14 at 10:29 pm

What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.

This reminds me of a point made by Francis Mulhern in his Red Pepper review of Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who paid the piper?. (I can quote it because I’ve got it on my hard drive, having been RP’s Culture Commissa^WEditor at the time.)

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

“T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. ” Ouch.

There were – to a lesser extent, there still are – very good reasons for being anti-Communist; I’ve been a more or less anti-Communist Leftist since I was 16 (after a couple of years as a vague and not very well-informed enthusiast for Che and the Cultural Revolution). But to be anti-Communist – or perhaps I mean, to be an anti-Communist – gets you into the wrong company and steers you the wrong way, whatever your own core politics continues to be. Something similar is going on right now with regard to the Islamist threat.

And no, nothing like this has ever been operated by the Left towards the Right. To be found to have Fascist sympathies is an embarrassment, and may even be a career-ending embarrassment, but it doesn’t trigger off an endless round of “what did X know and when did he know it, and why didn’t Y break with X sooner, and can we trust Z after his public support for Y?” Politics would be a lot cleaner, in one way, if it did.


Plume 01.29.14 at 10:34 pm


I need to do more research on Seeger regarding that subject. But it’s not easy finding “objective” work on anything to do with communism in America. It’s incredibly difficult, given the bias against it, the myths surrounding it, the massive overreaction even to the word itself. And online? So many phony sites on the topic, some of them being CIA fronts.

Oh, and have you ever looked up “Marxism” for Apple podcasts? The Apple Store gives us a lecture by — I’m not kidding — Which is a bit like taking a class on Mandela from David Dukes.

For me, personally, I respect small “c” communism (especially with aspects of anarchism added), in the way Graeber, Chomsky, Saramago and others have used the term. And I despise the large “C” version, which was, of course, not real communism in any way, shape or form. It was state capitalism, tyrannical, anti-democratic, etc.

But I still find it a huge stretch to say that Seeger and others, even if they were in the official Communist party, wanted tyranny here. I just don’t buy it. And a belief should never be illegal, regardless. HUAC was, in a sense, acting like the police force in “Minority Report.” Condemning people for what they might do in the future.

To me, there is no angle that legitimates the persecution or blacklisting of American communists or Communists.


Plume 01.29.14 at 10:40 pm


Agreed. The left has never done this to the right in America. The left, of course, has never held real power, while the right (center-right) has always been “the State.” And the economy behind the state, pulling its strings, has always been center-right, roughly speaking. Never, ever “left.”


godoggo 01.29.14 at 10:49 pm

I’m not legitimizing the blacklists. But if you’re going to talk about the history, you ought to try to get it right e.g. that the Communist Party was taking orders from Moscow.

A long time ago I read a book on the subject called Reds by Ted Morgan. Seemed pretty scholarly, if maybe overly detailed. Worth a look if you’re curious.


Corey Robin 01.29.14 at 10:50 pm

I’m about to teach so I don’t have time to get into this, but I think people are radically conflating and confusing two different issues here. The first is the CPUSA. My view of the party is that it was both at the center of, and even the driver of, a vast array of progressive social movements in the 1930s and the 1940s — particularly the labor movement, but also civil rights and early feminism — and that it was a hierarchical, undemocratic, often conspiratorial party that slavishly followed the Soviet line. Those two things are not, as a fact of history, incompatible, and indeed, a good argument could be made that the second helped drive the first (and also compromised the first). So that’s the CPUSA. McCarthyism, by which I mean the comprehensive and repressive rollback of the left after WWII, was really not terribly interested in the internal practices of the CPUSA. There were radical anticommunists and Trots and liberal anticommunists who were, but the overall machinery of the thing really had very little interest in that. It wasn’t even much interested, as it turned out, in the CPUSA at all. It was very interested in the assemblage of groups, parties, unions, and organizations that orbited around the CPUSA and that were attempting to democratize the American workplace, the South, and other aspects of American life. If you read the transcripts of the loyalty boards — in other words, don’t just read HUAC speeches or McCarthy speeches, but really get into the nuts and bolts of the machine — you’ll see an obsession with maintaining white supremacy (loyalty boards used to ask people if they supported desegregating the blood supply of the Red Cross) and the authority of employers. Again, Hoover was at the center of it all, and he was about as anti-democratic and anti-liberal a specimen as you get in this country. You can’t reduce McCarthyism to that; as I say in the OP, it was a cross-cutting movement of a variety of interests and agendas, some of which were quite liberal. But sometimes I think the democratic left –which rightly reacts against the internal autocracy of the CPUSA, and its apologias for the Soviet Union — conflates its own anti-Stalinism with that of the McCarthyites. To do so is to completely miss the forest for the trees.


Chris Warren 01.29.14 at 10:51 pm

Pete Seeger was one of many victims of capitalist totalitarianism.

Menzies ran the same system in Australia, and vestiges remained right through Whitlam and Hawke.

Even today, companies run blacklists against unionists and environmental activists, across capitalism whether in UK, USA, Canada, or Australia.


TM 01.29.14 at 10:52 pm

“Although, it is interesting that OP quotes a Bertolt Brecht poem, when we consider that Brecht’s decisions and behavior vis-a-vis HUAC were very different from Seeger’s.”

Why don’t you tell us how they were different? And please don’t lmgtfy me. It’s rude to bring up a point in a way that forces readers to look up what was meant by it, rather than just saying what you mean.


roy belmont 01.29.14 at 10:53 pm

The climate of fear and community distrust created by HUAC didn’t subside when HUAC was shut down and McCarthy was thoroughly disgraced. It grew, until it became part of the general social atmosphere of the US.
Seeger talks about the probability of microphones under the bed and tapped phones and read mail. Not the actual identifiable fact of it. The unprovable truth of it.
That’s vague but it’s just as real as a subpoena. And it was impossible, that vague plausible fear, to shut down.
Just part of the gig back then. As opposed to now, right?
By the 60’s all that fear was invisible in the larger culture. But it was in the air, and in the wires.
And Hoover was a massive presence, far more dangerous to American liberty than in the previous decade.
By the 70’s and cointelpro HUAC was like some kind of historical founding event. Cathartically closed, with Sen. Joe driven back into the wilderness.
But it was sort of like the fight stopped because the loser didn’t get up again, because of being whupped.
If you’re going to link HUAC and the Nazis you might have to consider the analogy as taking place in an alternate universe where the Nazis, in this case, won.
The assassination log of the 60’s and 70’s. Viet Nam.
The prosecution of one branch of American organized crime and the total elision of an equally powerful one from Hoover’s catalog of Fearless Fosdickery.
What happened to the Panthers and other less-well known groups.
It’s a long sad list.
Rosencranz and Guildenstern have their own karma, and it’s an interesting question, enabling, and its culpability down to the granularity of the service industry.
But the comforting notion that what that was was defeated isn’t available here, without complicity in a false narrative.
HUAC and its public face were retired. The hammer of American persecution never stopped falling, even when Pete Seeger had his own TV show.


Plume 01.29.14 at 10:56 pm


Corey pretty much said what I was trying to say above.

It wasn’t about the party or even its connection with the Soviets. It was about rolling back the democratic left and any perceived threats posed against capitalist hegemony — which was and is every bit as anti-democratic as the Soviet Union. Sorry if that bothers people here. But it’s the truth.


Plume 01.29.14 at 10:59 pm

Oh, and by “democratic left” I don’t mean the Democratic party. Rather, the part of the left that believes passionately in real, unadulterated democracy.


js. 01.29.14 at 11:00 pm

So is the idea that liberal/centrist support for McCarthyism broadly conceived, that this support was grounded in broad ideological agreement (anti-red, let’s say)? Or is that you had liberals, centrists, etc., pursuing their various private interests, and this pursuit amounted to a collusion with McCarthyism, though the collusion was even broadly speaking not motivated by ideological agreement? (There’s another version you don’t seem to explicitly consider: the interests, for some sense of interests, of liberals/centrists were forwarded through their collusion with McCarthyism—is this part of the point?)

I’m not sure that this sort of question is all that central to what you’re saying, but I did find myself confused about it. Great post though.


P.M.Lawrence 01.29.14 at 11:04 pm

In case anybody missed it, that reference to “the transmission belt of the state” appears to be an allusion to Stalin’s description of what Trade Unions and other such extramural arrangements did for the Soviet Union (cross-posted at Corey Robin’s site).


rootlesscosmo 01.29.14 at 11:17 pm

@Plume (and Corey):
“It wasn’t about the party or even its connection with the Soviets. It was about rolling back the democratic left and any perceived threats posed against capitalist hegemony — which was and is every bit as anti-democratic as the Soviet Union. ”

Corey, I should and will read your book. Meanwhile I still find the timing of the HUAC hearings a puzzle (though I didn’t for many years.) The CIO Exec Board had already (during the years between the Nazi-Soviet Pact and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR) unanimously voted to “resent and reject” any efforts by Communists (or fascists) to influence the labor movement. By 1947 the CPUSA was tying itself into sectarian knots, reviling Browder, castigating Albert Maltz (later one of the Hollywood Ten) for suggesting that maybe art need not always be a “weapon,” defending (in the person of Sidney Finkelstein) the “anti-formalist” purge of Soviet composers–in short it was already disrupting its connection to the democratic left as energetically as possible. Yet the hearings, and the demand that witnesses abase themselves under threat of blacklisting, dragged on and on, after the Smith Act trials and state sedition trials, after Watkins v. US made the Smith Act more or less a dead letter, after the CPUSA first “went underground” and then emerged into a post-Khrushchev world but chose continued irrelevance over whatever alternatives might have seemed available at the time. HUAC was still on the circuit in 1960 when a batch of us got washed down San Francisco City Hall’s marble steps for protesting our exclusion from its hearings; only later did the committee become an object of derision. (I believe Dagmar Wilson, of Women Strike for Peace, was the first to point out the Emperor’s bare tukhes–1962 iirc.) In short I don’t think your explanation is wrong but I think there must have been more going on; I don’t know what, but something.


rea 01.29.14 at 11:26 pm

we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama . . . who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.

[Otter (to Boon)]: President Obama?
[Boon]: Forget it, he’s on a roll.

Joseph McCarthy–1908-1957
Barack Obama–1961-


js. 01.29.14 at 11:29 pm

He means centrist liberals. Really not that hard to tell?


js. 01.29.14 at 11:32 pm

Also, you do realize that the ellipsis you’ve introduced and m-dash you’ve eluded totally changes the sense of the sentence?


js. 01.29.14 at 11:33 pm

Elided, not eluded. Sorry, autocorrect.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 11:37 pm

But the centrist liberal narrative is disengenuous, especially when no context is given, (which it wasnt in the OP), and where the ground where ‘the radicals’ stood isnt drawn out. And there is no straight ideological line between early cold war liberals and liberals today, or even a coherent, homogenous liberal ideology that can be culpable for these crime in pertutity. (rather than specific actors working in specific context with specific pressures) Its no different than trying to put the crimes of Stalin on ‘small c communists’ today.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.14 at 11:40 pm

I think the idea that these ideologies matter *this much* (more so than political pressures, context, public pressure etc) is wrong


js. 01.29.14 at 11:53 pm

And there is no straight ideological line between early cold war liberals and liberals today, or even a coherent, homogenous liberal ideology that can be culpable for these crime in pertutity.

Not in perpetuity, yes, but otherwise I’m inclined to disagree with you. For starters, there’s the Democratic party which still very much avows its anti-communist past, which I think makes it quite disanalogous to the Commie/commie case. Somebody like Schlesinger is entirely in good standing within the mainstream of the Democratic party. More generally, I’d think there’s a really clear lineage between mid-century American liberalism and contemporary American liberalism—just see who and what contemporary liberals appeal to as historical antecedents. It’s very much the mid-century folks that as CR is pointing out were Hoover enthusiasts.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 12:03 am

Okay I do mostly agree with you, and the ‘disengenous’ line about the OP was unfair. I dont think it was disengenous. Im not sure whats annoying me so much about it so Ill leave it there


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 12:04 am



Plume 01.30.14 at 12:07 am

I kinda feel like dancing that there is even a slight acceptance of small “c” communism here. Makes me want to go out into the cold, onto a pub, and toast CT a time or two.

In other forums, mention the word, and all hell breaks lose. “It’s the devil!!! Run for your lives!!”

And some of those people say they’re liberal Democrats.

Anyway, this is a really good subject, IMO, and Corey Robin is an asset to this site. And I would still love to see CT give David Graeber another try. I think Corey would make for a very good moderator for a discussion with the author of Debt. Perhaps with George Scialabba as well?


otpup 01.30.14 at 12:24 am

On Hoover. Were liberals Hoover enthusiasts or was everybody in Washington already deathly afraid of him by the 50’s given his systematic blackmailing of Congressionals? Honest question.


adam.smith 01.30.14 at 12:27 am

was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand

I like the post, but I really wish Corey — especially as a political theorist interested in the history of political thought — wouldn’t write stuff like that. That’s maybe how Chicago school economics understands the “invisible hand” but it has very little to do with Smith’s own use and understanding of the term (which may very well have been ironic). The Wikipedia article is quite good on this:


js. 01.30.14 at 12:29 am


And I do agree with you insofar as I’m not sure how much I’d want to stress ideological factors vs. various kinds of private motives, interests, etc. Kind of along the lines of what you say @54—I was trying I get at something similar @46, but I don’t think I was very clear there.


otpup 01.30.14 at 12:34 am

Corey. You seem to make out that there was a conspiratorial, instrumentalist logic to McCarthyism as a project to rollback progressive reform. While that’s not totally inaccurate, I think Occam’s Razor might favor the interpretation that many (most?) actors on the Right sincerely identified progressive reform with the advance of communism.

I.e., the instrumental story would be more in line with a narrative where the Right made strategic choices about which reforms to advance in order to guarantee the stability of the system (such as in the New Deal or the Progressive Era). Was there such a uncelebrated theme in McCarthyism?


Plume 01.30.14 at 12:42 am

adam.smith 60,

Have you read Michael Perelman’s book, The Invention of Capitalism? He pretty much destroys Smith using his own words.

I don’t think Corey is using any Chicago School version of the term. Smith truly was an elitist, and pushed for a highly destructive and detestable economic system by continuously lying about its actual effects — past, present and future. There has been all too much push in recent years to try to turn him into a “liberal,” which only fits if by liberal one means anti-democratic and anti-worker. He was also just fine with colonial rule and imperialism. In short, he presented a fairy tale about capitalism in much the same way as our history books once talked about slavery in romantic terms.

Subsequent to Smith, others have tried to paint a fairy tale about him.


Plume 01.30.14 at 12:51 am

otpup 62,

But what did the people in power on the right actually think “Communism” was doing and why it was a threat? A Communist system in Vietnam, for example, was no skin off their teeth — unless they saw it as a way to close off markets to American capitalists, or actually, heaven forbid, control national (Vietnamese) resources.

And American communists (or Communists) were so few in number, no one with any sense could logically view them as an internal, existential threat to the state — unless by the state one meant GE or GM, or Jim Crow, etc.

There is a huge difference between rank and file righties and the people pulling the strings. I can see those rank and file people honestly viewing progressive policies as a slippery slope toward communism or Communism. But I don’t buy that those who actually conducted geopolitics, directly, would still buy into the fearmongering. As in, the fearmongers most likely didn’t believe their own nonsense.


Jim Henley 01.30.14 at 1:00 am

Passionate liberal anti-Communism was a real thing. My favorite body of evidence would be Silver-Age Marvel Comics. We know that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby* were passionately liberal, and wove progressive (by the standards of the era) themes into their stories and (in Lee’s case) editorial matter. At the same time, it’s amazing to read those stories and see just how many villains in mid-60s Marvel were “Red agents.”

* We of course bracket off Steve Ditko here.


bob mcmanus 01.30.14 at 1:06 am

Just dropping in to quote a line from Nancy Fraser in a chapter on Foucault, nothing really new, just Regulation School stuff been around a long time, but another perspective on the dissemination and purpose of ideological and political repression.

“Also central to the Fordist conjuncture was anti-Fascism and anti-Communism.”

Marshall Plan, Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, military Keynesianism, International Organizations as hegemonic economic and political direction and control, etc blah blah.

The Blacklist as an aspect of a mode of production.


bob mcmanus 01.30.14 at 1:18 am

I haven’t gotten to the original Regulation School Texts yet, it is forty years old, and assimilated by most Marxians and left social scientists so I get it secondhand. They have entries in Wiki for a start.

Regimes of accumulation and modes of regulation are the technical terms.

The idea is that anti-communism is to Fordism as Imperialism was to 2nd wave Industrialization (late 1800s) and just as say racism was important to imperialism, anti-racism and a politics of feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and inclusion (in the name of anti-fascism and anti-communism) was important to the Fordist era of the short 20th century 1914-89. Among many other facets


bob mcmanus 01.30.14 at 1:33 am

Well darn, here ya go. I keep finding the individual chapters online, but Scales of Justice is still worth buying.

From Discipline to Flexibilisation Rereading Foucault in the Shadow of Globalisation …pdf


adam.smith 01.30.14 at 1:38 am

Plume – I’m talking about a specific, often abused, phrase, not a general appraisal of Smith’s work, which is rather complex and often contradictory (so contradictory, btw., that Chomsky frequently refers to Smith as an anti-capitalist. That’s probably not right either). Those contradictions are common among early modern liberal writers like Smith, I think that’s what makes them interesting and fun to read (I skimmed Perelman’s book, which is online at and didn’t find it very enjoyable, mostly because he tries to explain these contradictions away or dismiss them).


rea 01.30.14 at 1:50 am

JS: You’re right that I put the ellipses in the wrong place, and made it sound like I think Corey was accusing Obama of refusing to hire people in the McCarthy era, but my point is that the passing reference to Obama was as incongruous as talking about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, even though I thought Corey was making a great many good points otherwise.

Sure, you can find people who in the arc of history are centrist liberals-like Robert Kennedy–who were supporters of McCarthy and blacklisting back in the 50’s. But, I’m a bit older than Obama . By the time I was in my mid-teens, conventional wisdom was that McCarthyism and HUAC had been witchhunts, to the point where if you looked up “witchhunt” in the dictionary, you’d find a refence to McCarthy. That was the environment in which Obama grew up. And, indeed, he has written about his close boyhood relationship with his grandfather’s friend Frank Marshall Davis, a blacklisted writer. And, while you can (and perhaps will) accuse Obama of a great many wrongs, involvement in blacklisting is not among them. And, in the statement Corey links above, Obama praises Seeger effusively for his courageous political stands. There is simply not the slightest basis in the world to link Obama with blacklisting that occurred before he was born, and which there is not the slightest reason to believe he would in any way support.


Pub Editor 01.30.14 at 2:18 am

TM @ 42,

The discussion in this thread has gone in a different direction, and I don’t want to derail it. But since you do ask, and since I don’t want to be rude:

Seeger courageously refused to answer HUAC’s questions concerning his associations and beliefs; this led to his conviction for contempt of Congress and to his place on the blacklist.

Brecht was subpoened by HUAC in September 1947. Initially he said that he would refuse to testify, but he changed his mind and testified on 30 Oct. 1947. In his testimony, Brecht equivocated, he deflected questions with jokes, he feigned confusion over matters of translation, and he used subtleties of translation to downplay or disguise the revolutionary character of some of his poems and plays. The day after his testimony, Brecht left for Europe, and I believe he never returned to the US (he died in 1956).

To my knowledge, Brecht did not name names or anything of that sort. But he was the only one of the 11 witnesses at the time who did agree to testify — the other witnesses subsequently constituting the Hollywood Ten. I wasn’t alive then, and I will happily yield to others who have superior knowledge of the era and the topic, but I believe Brecht’s cooperation with the Committee was controversial in many left circles at that time.

So, Brecht’s cooperation with HUAC (even if evasive and subtly mocking) stands in contrast to Seeger’s unequivocal stand on principles. That is all.


Pasha 01.30.14 at 2:28 am

Oh man. I’ve visited this site for seemingly forever and I never comment – I’m mostly content to sit back and listen to those far more intelligent than I weigh in.

But could someone do something about Plume? S(he)’s killing me.


Plume 01.30.14 at 2:49 am

So, Pasha, you authoritarian coward. You want “someone to do something” about me? As in, what? Silence me? Fascist, much?

Ya know, for a website created as a kind of clearing house for academics, who should be all about free expression and the exchange of ideas, there sure are a lot of readers here (or sockpuppets) calling for the suppression of speech.

And all too many who seem not to realize they have full control over what they decide to read or ignore — online or otherwise. Perhaps, instead of trying to suppress the speech you don’t like, you might consider just scrolling past it. If it offends you so much, don’t read it.

. . . .

adam.smith 69,

Perelman’s book really isn’t the kind you can skim. He actually does talk about contradictions and changing points of view among the classical political economists, and he doesn’t try to explain them away or dismiss them. But that’s a subject for a different thread.

Again, I recommend a full read.


LFC 01.30.14 at 2:55 am

I think Corey’s remarks @40 are to the point. I was going to add something else but decided not to. Restraint is my new watchword. ;)


LFC 01.30.14 at 3:09 am

I’m a bit older than Obama. By the time I was in my mid-teens, conventional wisdom was that McCarthyism and HUAC had been witchhunts

I think rea and I are roughly the same age (as it happens, I was born the year Joseph McCarthy died). Sometime in junior high school (I forget now exactly which grade), I wrote a paper comparing McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials. So that theme (meme perhaps we’d call it now) was in the air, or had been for some time. I’m quite sure that whatever activities I got up to in 8th or 9th grade, pathbreaking advances in historiography were not among them.


clew 01.30.14 at 3:18 am


Chris Warren 01.30.14 at 3:22 am


S(he)’s killing me.

Interesting self-admission.


Anarcissie 01.30.14 at 3:37 am

@ 75 — Reminded me somewhat of Eric Berne, Structures and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups.


godoggo 01.30.14 at 4:21 am

OT Could people please stop talking about “derailing” the “thread?” Almost any alternative would be better, if someone would like to suggest something, but, for God’s sake, no more of that.


godoggo 01.30.14 at 4:23 am

It’s killing me!


christian_h 01.30.14 at 4:25 am

Great post, thanks Corey.


adam.smith 01.30.14 at 5:06 am

@LFC –

Sometime in junior high school (I forget now exactly which grade), I wrote a paper comparing McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials. So that theme (meme perhaps we’d call it now) was in the air, or had been for some time

I mean The Crucible won the Tony for best play and had a successful Broadway run in 1953/1954, so this was hardly new then.
But as other have suggested, that all misses the point. Corey writes people like Obama. And if we look at surveillance as perhaps the primary civil rights challenge of today and look where Obama stands, I don’t feel so good about people like him and their willingness to incur political costs to defend civil liberties.


js. 01.30.14 at 5:46 am


what adam.smith says. And you’ve had the FBI in the Obama era colluding with NYC in unconscionable kinds of targeting of Muslims, e.g. And so on. So the fact that Obama can now talk just how awful blacklisting was is perhaps a bit besides the point.


Harold 01.30.14 at 6:17 am

The Hollywood Ten took a principled first amendment line and were ruined for it as was anyone who supported them. Many left the country. Brecht left before he could be deported, as he certainly would have been. Lawyers thereafter advised those who were subpoenaed to take the fifth. Seeger was the first person take the first amendment in seven years. His conviction was overturned in May, 1962 during the Kennedy administration when the national mood had already changed. The next month, in June, John Henry Faulk won 3.5 million dollars in a lawsuit against AWARE, the FBI-backed company whose blacklist had caused him to be fired from CBS.


Harold 01.30.14 at 6:28 am

Guilty by Suspicion (1991), with Robert De Niro and Annette Benning is a pretty good movie, I thought.


roy belmont 01.30.14 at 6:32 am

rea at 1:50 am 70
There is simply not the slightest basis in the world to link Obama with blacklisting that occurred before he was born, and which there is not the slightest reason to believe he would in any way support.
I’m genuinely curious why you feel this to be so.
Are you talking about his moral character. or some kind of political alignment that’s predictable in these matters?
Because of it’s character, the continued deployment of kill-drones – whose efficacy is about like that of firing a high-caliber weapon randomly into a dark room you know the suspects are in and who cares who else is in there – doesn’t seem to me to be evidence of a sufficiently rigorous moral character at all.
And it isn’t rebutted by his friendship with someone blacklisted years before, especially considering his forthright denunciation of Jeremiah Wright , when that became politically expedient.
Add in his blithe disregard for the economic damage, the complicity in economic degradation, of a good strong core of his advisers and cabinet sec.s, and I don’t see the justification for assumptions of righteous and indignant disapproval of blacklisting in the 50’s. Which was marketed to the country when it occurred, not as a rogue coup from the militant right, but as a necessary purge, from the center of the American enterprise, a cleaning up of the subversive, for security.
Of the Homeland, though it wasn’t called that then.
Nothing in his performance so far for Obama to be automatically assumed to be opposed to blacklisting. In the 50’s.
Drones killing, on executive order from the White House, people who are suspected of being terrorists, doesn’t sound morally dissimilar to HUAC investigating, and Hollywood and the worlds of publishing and academia blacklisting, people suspected of being communists.


Plume 01.30.14 at 6:50 am

js. 83,

Obama also used the surveillance state to go after the OWS movement. I have heard countless righties claim he invented that movement to shore up his popularity, or to go after the tea party, or some such nonsense. They seem to really not get how center-right our president actually is. He’s far far from the leftist radical they dreamed up.

The author of the above article, Michael Hastings, died in a car accident in June of last year. Given the nature of his reporting, some thought the accident rather suspicious. The FBI was also tracking him, and released their files in September. Hastings confided in others before he died that he feared for his safety, due to that tracking.

With the massive increase in wealth and income inequality in America, and our relative slide on so many quality of life metrics, the powers that be appear more preemptive than they were in the 50s and 60s. It’s not a good time to be a dissident like Seeger, or in a movement like OWS. But our need for dissidents just might be at an all time high.


otpup 01.30.14 at 8:00 am

@Plume 64. You give the fearmongers too much credit.

As to there being “few” communists I am not sure what you mean. Possibly as much a million people passed through the membership of the CP in the 30’s there being a peak membership of maybe 100K. Part of what drove the some of the McCarthy hysteria was the Popular Front tactic of organizing or influencing political supposedly independent political groups and unions (in a way that many leftists then and now consider highly problematic). So the influence of the CP was even larger than is indicated by the size of its membership (and there was Soviet money channeled by the party). So there was enough of a germ of reality to feed right wing paranoia.

But whether “justified” in their paranoia or not, the Right’s historical anti-communist fears were not just a convenient charade to battle progressivism, I think it is largely heartfelt and in parallel to their enmity for social reform.


hix 01.30.14 at 8:53 am

Finnland turned out alright. Greece didnt. So for KP scare we do have a good case study. Democracy does not colapse and the economy is doing much better when you leave the Sowjet financed communist party alone. In contrast, right wing atempts to save the country from a communist revolution that is just in their heads, well that does ruin a country with long term effects fealt after decades and abolish democracy.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 11:09 am

” I don’t feel so good about people like him and their willingness to incur political costs to defend civil liberties.”

I see this point, but my I’m still thinking what do people expect? Mainstream political figures (most of all the President) aren’t going to break any ground here. Democrat hawks aren’t going to want to roll back the NSS in any meaningful way (any more than they did the war on drugs. At the very least – despite what they might think personally of the policy – its politically irrelevant most of the time) I also agree with js that the security services targeting Muslim communities (across western countries) is a big problem.
But still, any change is going to come from within the system, and a lot of people are going to have to make compromises within the system while doing anything. I guess that’s neither here nor there, but if the argument is that politicians behave like politicians, well yeah ..


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 11:15 am

Using the rhetoric of the ‘civil rights movement of our time’ (which I don’t really like, b/c there was a civil rights movement and its work is still continuing afaict) I would argue (across developed counties) less restrictions on immigration is ‘the civil rights movement of our time’. But a lot of people (even people with ‘the right politics’) have very negative – at best ambivalent views – towards immigration. I wonder how future generations will look at that.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 11:25 am

I guess give me Gareth Peirce over Noam Chomsky is my argument, though I don’t think that’s fair as it takes all sorts etc


LFC 01.30.14 at 2:17 pm

adam.smith @82:
I mean The Crucible won the Tony for best play and had a successful Broadway run in 1953/1954, so this was hardly new then.

Well, my point was precisely that it was *not* new. I went on to say in the same comment: “I’m quite sure that whatever activities I got up to in 8th or 9th grade, pathbreaking advances in historiography were not among them.” But it’s quite possible that The Crucible might have been ahead of the general conventional wisdom by several years. When exactly ‘conventional wisdom’ came to see McCarthyism as equivalent to witchhunts might be a matter of some debate.

Eisenhower didn’t really, iirc, distance himself from McCarthy or criticize him openly until McCarthy’s power was on the wane. And that waning might be dated symbolically to the famous moment when Joseph Welch called him out in the Army/McCarthy hearings with “At long last, sir, have you no shame?” [maybe not verbatim quote but close]


LFC 01.30.14 at 2:18 pm

I have a comment in moderation (twice in a row now).


godoggo 01.30.14 at 2:39 pm

Well, it is the key to moral virtue.


Anderson 01.30.14 at 3:03 pm

Off topic to Corey Robin: surely you’ve quoted this somewhere, but I thought of you when reading this line from Allan Bloom (Closing at 159): “The Right–in its only serious meaning, the party opposed to equality (not economic equality but equality of rights) ….”

Bloom of course wants us to think this died out with Hitler & Franco, but the definition is at least candid.


Ben Alpers 01.30.14 at 3:05 pm

Excellent post and interesting conversation. Thanks especially, Corey, for your comment @40, which say a lot of important things about complicated issues very succinctly.

I’m frankly surprised at all the surprise about the OP’s reference to Obama. The President is, like most mainstream politicians from major parties throughout US history, pretty bad on issues of civil liberties, and, like all presidents since WWII, quick to use national security as an excuse for denigrating those liberties. Why is it outrageous to think of most mainstream Democrats of the early Cold War as “like President Obama”?


Ben Alpers 01.30.14 at 3:07 pm


Allan Bloom always thought of himself as a liberal.


Corey Robin 01.30.14 at 3:12 pm

Anderson: Holy shit, I didn’t know about this, and I’ve taught that book many a time. Somehow I skipped over that. Yikes, thanks!


adam.smith 01.30.14 at 3:19 pm

@LFC – wasn’t necessarily contradicting you, just moving the timeline back a bit.

@ Ronan:

see this point, but my I’m still thinking what do people expect? Mainstream political figures (most of all the President) aren’t going to break any ground here.

I don’t think we disagree for the most part. I have, in fact, repeatedly argued here that post-election disappointment in Obama is based on misplaced pre-election optimism/projection.
So “politicians are going to behave like politicians” is pretty much my point here: We shouldn’t expect much help or political courage from people who are invested in gaining power within the US political system.
There’s certainly room for working for change from within the system – as you may recall from other threads I’m a huge defender of the ACA, which I think by itself is enough to justify lending electoral support to Obama, for example – but expending political capital standing up for the rights of unpopular groups – communists, US Muslims, Pakistani civilians, Guantanamo prisoners etc. – isn’t among the things we’ll get from people working within the system.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.14 at 3:59 pm


Yeah we do agree. I guess my problem is just that I *don’t* think these topics (how the state treats ‘security threats’, and to use my example above lessening immigration restrictions) are ones that the organised left will care about in any significant way, which is understandable given the need for economic and social reform. (although perhaps its different in the US)
Most pushback will come from relatively neutral (politically, by left/right standards) groups: like civil rights lobbies, from within communities affected by these policies, from people working within the justice system etc
Has there been any real outrage over, say, FBI entrapment tactics or spying on Muslim communities? as opposed to just a general outrage over privacy and a general mistrust of the NSS.


Sebastian H 01.30.14 at 4:32 pm

It seems deeply weird that you would write so strongly against the blacklist, when you were so recently advocating the BDS blacklist against Israeli scholars and institutions. The defenses of that blacklist (that is ok to go after weaker cases that you can win while ignoring Tibet et al) look really strange in reference to this one. Is the principle: anti communist blacklists are bad but anti Israeli action ones are good? I’d maybe buy: government blacklists are bad but private ones are ok, except you argue against that in this post. Is it not-yet-powerful blacklists are ok because we don’t expect them to gain traction but if they do we should flip against them?


Plume 01.30.14 at 5:00 pm

otput #88,

The CPUSA had all of 28,000 members in 1928, falling to just 6000 in 1932. By the end of the 30s, it had reached 75,000, but fell again when the Soviets made their pact with Germany.

As mentioned, they were too few to pose any existential threat. I think you exaggerate their numbers a great deal. Which is similar to the exaggeration of the Soviet’s military power, which we discovered after it collapsed.

The CPUSA did have influence beyond their numbers when it came to organizing labor and civil rights protests, however. They were excellent when it came to those things, and Americans owe them a debt of gratitude. Ironically, instead of receiving thanks, communists were purged out of the labor unions and movements they helped form.

I think it’s safe to say if they had not been engaged in organizing labor or minorities, they wouldn’t have run up against so much demonization and suppression by the powers that be — capital. It’s what always happens in America, with ACORN and OWS being recent examples. Make a public move against capital, and you’re going to get crushed, or at least hounded.


Plume 01.30.14 at 5:05 pm


America tends to demonize those groups, and then assume their good deeds later as their own. Liberals, today, often take credit for pretty much all labor and civil rights victories. And conservatives are starting to join in on that game, too. But the actual history shows that leftists, of all stripes, were typically the engine for change, with liberals coming on board later. With exceptions, of course.

And I say this as a former liberal who once believed that liberals had done pretty much all the work and made just about all of that change happen.


Anderson 01.30.14 at 5:06 pm

Ben: you can’t trust those Straussians’ openly-declared labels ….


Corey Robin 01.30.14 at 5:21 pm

Sebastian H: If you can show me how the ASA boycott — and I want very specific citations, with links, and quotations, not abstract moralizing or theorizing — or the broader BDS academic boycott is like the McCarthy-era blacklist (and if you can also demonstrate some knowledge that you know what the McCarthy era-blacklist actually was, how it functioned, and what it did to individuals, that’d also be helpful, though is not required), I’ll engage your question. Just to give you an example, when you make reference to “the BDS blacklist against Israeli scholars,” right off the bat, you show that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because when we say that there was a blacklist against members of the Communist Party, what we mean is that institutions — the New York Times mentioned above, all the culture industries, all of academia, and most employers in the US — refused as a matter of policy to hire members of the Communist Party (and there were formal standards by which one had to prove that one was not a member of the CP). Now if you can find me anything comparable in the US — i.e., BDS advocates stating that no scholar with an Israeli passport is to be hired by an American university or cultural institution unless that scholar revokes her passport (and that is what the blacklist during the McCarthy era essentially did) — I’ll entertain your argument.


JG 01.30.14 at 5:37 pm

The CP wasn’t all labor unions and minorities: many parent associations led by socialists in NYC, for instance, battled against CP takeovers for years. The CP members, usually a minority, would prolong meetings until everybody else went home, then vote. And they were key to the very early civil rights, and organizing in the CIO. Also, there were permanent costs in the left and music movement to red baiting: those who did name names, like Josh White, Jr. and Burl Ives (and Brecht) were (correctly in my view) held responsible for their actions for the rest of their lives. And the real CP was a closed universe: when Browder was expelled by the Soviets, he literally did not know a single person who would speak to him.



Plume 01.30.14 at 5:38 pm

Corey, I haven’t followed the ASA boycott, and just looked it up.

Would you say this article is fair, unfair, needs a lot of work, etc.? Could you recommend others for further study?

I think treating Israel along the lines of (racial apartheid) South Africa is valid, with divestment and boycotts, etc. — until that government returns to pre-1967 war boundaries, without hedging. Complete withdrawal from all settlements. Turn all lands back over to the Palestinians, and 100% end the occupation.

The US government should refuse all aid to Israel until this is done, which is the carrot and stick that would really make it happen. Of course, that wouldn’t happen in a million years, but it’s the road to peace.


Plume 01.30.14 at 5:43 pm


They were definitely not without fault. Sometimes major. But the problem has never been that they were portrayed with too much love and an absence of critical distance. Hagiography isn’t the problem. They’ve been portrayed as virtual demons, and their lives ruined because of that.

It’s time for an accurate, honest reassessment of political dissidents in America. And it’s long past time we were adult enough to allow Marxist, socialist, communist, anarchist (etc.) philosophies and analyses in our national conversations.


Corey Robin 01.30.14 at 6:04 pm

JG: “those who did name names, like Josh White, Jr. and Burl Ives (and Brecht) were (correctly in my view) held responsible for their actions for the rest of their lives.”

Do you have any evidence that Brecht named names? I’ve never seen any proof of that. In fact I’ve never even heard that allegation before. He did testify to HUAC, that’s true, but I’m fairly certain he never named names.


JG 01.30.14 at 6:18 pm

Thanks, Corey, I should have been more precise. Brecht did not name names, as I recall, but he did play at answering questions from the committee which Seeger (“let me sing you a song”) and others usually via the 5th did not. So Brecht was lumped into the cooperators, even without names, by those who refused or who believed they would have refused if they had been called. I don’t recall anyone except Brecht doing what he did, but if somebody knows better I’d appreciate it.



Corey Robin 01.30.14 at 6:35 pm

Well, there were people who took what was called the diminished 5th — that is, they refused to talk about others but were willing to talk about themselves — but I believe that legal argument was also thrown out of court.


Jeffrey Davis 01.30.14 at 6:53 pm

Did The National Review eulogize William Buckley by denouncing his support for segregation?


Robin Marie 01.30.14 at 7:01 pm

Sorry if I missed it somewhere in the comments, but I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned our contemporary prison industrial complex as an excellent example of this dynamic. Not only are prisons careers for individuals such as prison guards, indeed they are now, in many places, the industry that sustains an entire town or region. I can hardly think of a better illustration than the war on drugs for how social injustice can operate, for thousands of people, as simply a good career choice.


JG 01.30.14 at 7:15 pm

Plume, I agree completely that we need to understand our dissident history to better understand the need for our own. And not just the CP: Debs, Thomas and the Socialists were a powerful force through the ’20’s and ’30’s (easy to forget that socialists got nearly 1,000,000 votes in the 1920 presidential election) and much of what they supported, and were reviled for, has come to be. Thomas in particular was an early supporter of women’s reproductive rights, and a consistent pacifist. We need more of his kind now.



Plume 01.30.14 at 7:24 pm


Very true. Socialists need to be included as well. They’ve been demonized and marginalized almost as much as communists.

That’s my own ID (socialist). Closer to the ecosocialist variety, and with anarchist leanings of the kind talked about by Chomsky in his recent C-Span interview — and the OWS variety.

Definitely agree about Thomas.


MPAVictoria 01.30.14 at 8:02 pm

“And not just the CP: Debs, Thomas and the Socialists were a powerful force through the ’20′s and ’30′s (easy to forget that socialists got nearly 1,000,000 votes in the 1920 presidential election) and much of what they supported, and were reviled for, has come to be.”

Exactly. I will never tire of reminding right-wingers that they have been on the wrong side of pretty much every issue for about 300 years.


DaveL 01.30.14 at 9:03 pm

LFC @ 93: My understanding of Eisenhower’s stance was that he didn’t like McCarthy, but was unwilling to do anything about him as he was popular and was attacking Democrats. When McCarthy moved on to attack the Army, Eisenhower turned against him.


Crickets Chirpping 01.30.14 at 9:14 pm

I’ll shed a tear for the folks caught up in the HUAC, but only one, for the members of the CPUSA were the “little eichmanns” of a system that killed on an unprecedented scale the human dignity they claimed to support.

If Corey took racism as seriously as he takes the anti-semitism within BDS, he’d be here blogging about his support of Prop 209.


Bruce Wilder 01.30.14 at 10:48 pm

A thoroughly thought-provoking post.

The mass psychology of politics and the machinery that both manipulates and makes use of that psychology to coordinate political action is always sinking beneath consciousness, and drawn down the memory hole.

I think I would have emphasized more, as a matter of context, the heightened sense of nationalist political solidarity and extreme conformity put in place by the war effort, which was breaking down in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. On the lee side of total war, every one had had the experience of being a soldier, even those who had never worn a military uniform, with all the psychological implications that come with it. The economic upheaval of the Great Depression and the titanic struggle of the Second World War had pushed a lot of people into an authoritarian psychology.

Homosexuality was a point of non-conformity, which attracted a great deal of attention in this period. In terms of the number of people, who lost their jobs, the effort dwarfed the harassment of ex-commies. I think one of Eisenhower’s first executive orders upon becoming President was to ban federal employment of homosexuals. It was a big deal. And, yes, some people noticed the weirdness of the roles played by J. Edgar Hoover and his good friend, Clyde Tolson, and, of course, Roy Cohn.

I bring this up, because it suggests the element of irrationality in play. There were certainly actors, deliberately and intentionally pursuing material political goals: staying with the country’s pivot from anti-fascism to anti-communism, or rolling back the rise of trade union power. But, there were other cross-currents, which were more irrational. That public irrationality, and its strange interactions with more private and often raw self-interest, was the theme of Miller’s Crucible, as I recall. The element of moral panic at work in the hysteria associated with the HUAC or McCarthy must have made that irrationality palpable.

The moral panic and irrationality at the core of nazi anti-semitism is on display in the Conspiracy, but I wonder if we can really appreciate the distorted and distorting force it must have had. The Nazi’s didn’t invent that antisemitism; they inherited it from the reactionary politics of the Second Reich, and, according to some, from Lutheranism and from Catholicism, both; the Jewish Question had been an irritant to German nationalism, certainly, and arguably to liberal nationalism generally — Marx had something to say about that — but, at base, it seems like some dark emanation from the collective unconscious. One of the themes of that BBC portrayal of the Wannsee Conference is how secretive they were, and, yet, how routinely bureaucratic: the instrumental rationality of bureaucracy alongside the hatred. The motivation for the secrecy, which gave the meeting its titular air of “conspiracy” becomes part of the odd drama, without really explaining itself.

The drama of political reaction and “red scare” in the early 1950s was publicly enacted. There must have been conspiratorial moments, too, when the players conferred, but they would have focused on the public enactments. “Let me sing a song for you” was at attempt to change the drama. So, was “At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?” Can we have any sense of how those dramas held the attention of a nation? Of the dream world in which they were enacted? “At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?” was very much said in the context of an awareness of career, and the damage done to careers by McCarthy. Wikipedia supplied the setup, deliberately calculated to set up the famous peroration:

Joseph N Welch: Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.


Harold 01.30.14 at 11:38 pm

I don’t know about other people but both Josh White and Burl Ives claimed that they only named names of those who had publicly self-identified as Communists. But this did not stop their former friends from turning against them. Josh White was blacklisted anyway. Sowing discord was a planned feature not a bug of the witch hunt.


Harold 01.30.14 at 11:42 pm

The FBI knew the names of all the Communist Party members anyway, so it was all an exercise in the theater of public humiliation.


Wonks Anonymous 01.30.14 at 11:48 pm

Regarding Finland & Greece, Finland had already had its civil war. I wondered whether the Greeks had been convinced by Czechoslovakia that the communist party could not be tolerated, but the Czech coup didn’t occur until 1948, and the Greek civil war began in 1946. Perhaps it was the other way around then.

My understanding of McCarthy is that he was being fed information by Hoover intended to damage Hoover’s enemies in the CIA. The CIA found it useful to recruit people associated with communism, and understandably didn’t like Hoover going after them. Wisner’s “Operation Mockingbird” was instrumental in the turn against McCarthy, and Hoover wasn’t about to reveal to anyone outside the Bureau, including the President, what his actual source of information was. So if the question is “Who won?” in the McCarthy era, the answer is “The CIA”.

The question was raised whether the government ever went after the right similarly. It’s not precisely analogous, but there were some prosecutions under the Smith Act in the 1940s. After the war was over, the government dropped charges from the trial of 1944, but before then George W. Christians had been sentenced to five years. It does seem the act was used more against communists (particularly Trotskyists, early on).

A question for Corey: are you making a general argument that blacklisting an individual for their political views is a terrible thing, or that these political views were not quite so terrible as to merit blacklisting? We can ask about blacklisting a hypothetical pro-Hitler bundist.


Ben Alpers 01.31.14 at 12:05 am


I’m not suggesting that we trust Allan Bloom about anything. Though I guess I would suggest that he meant that self-description honestly (though it needs to be understood within the Straussian uses of the word “liberalism”).

(On a related note, many of the so-called West Coast Straussians hated Bloom and Closing, seeing the former as a hedonist and the latter as an only-slightly-veiled argument for hedonism. And, no, I don’t think we ought to trust what they say about anything, either.)


LFC 01.31.14 at 4:58 am

I see from B. Wilder above that I got the Welch quote slightly wrong (“have you no sense of decency?” was the line I misrecalled @93).

DaveL re Eisenhower: sounds about right. As just indicated, I’m not an authority on any of this.


Meredith 01.31.14 at 6:32 am

“But sometimes I think the democratic left –which rightly reacts against the internal autocracy of the CPUSA, and its apologias for the Soviet Union — conflates its own anti-Stalinism with that of the McCarthyites. To do so is to completely miss the forest for the trees.” From Corey comment@40. In support of his sentiments:

You know you’re getting old when younger folks have such strange convictions about the times of not just your own youth, but your parents’ and grandparents’. (I do remember soberly lecturing my parents on all kinds of things they’d lived through. They argued with me but, I realize in retrospect, were incredibly patient with my callow confidence in the terms of my analysis. Not that I didn’t have something to add to their perspectives. Just that I’d left out so much that was obvious to ‘dem dat had been there.)

My mother was an old WASP New Yorker, not wealthy but still privileged in the ways of that group in the 20’s and 30’s. She grew up in a Republican household (well, that’s complicated; just let’s say, the Republicanism was more Teddy and was complicated by her southern mother’s Dem allegiances — some funny stories there about vote-trading, but I refrain from digressing). Anyway, she liked to tell of her NYU friends and others who switched from opposition to US entry into WWII to support for said entry, almost overnight, after Hitler invaded Russia. That was her way of dismissing their views. At the same time, she loved the story of my older sister, who learned the Internationale through the walls (aged 4 or so!) — their apartment in the early 40’s was in the same building as some CP group. My sister would sing it for everyone, to great mirth. These were nice people you chatted with in the hallway, and that was such a good song.

Did I mention that knee-jerk anti-FDR Republicans like my mother would never cross a picket line? (Verboten!) That among my earliest (very visual) memories are people around a TV set (one of those big pieces of furniture) watching men at tables: those hearings. And the household villain was MacCarthy. Not to mention that my mother’s best friend (and my alter mother) was Jewish and very left (they met in Washington Square Park, tending children playing in the sandbox), raised in an Orthodox household, herself a student at CUNY (in the good old days)….

There are worlds to explore here. Wonderful worlds, but difficult, too. Cross-currents. Very complex cross-currents. One thing missing in discussion here: a true appreciation of working class — nearly everyone’s — hardships in Seeger’s formative years (he’s a year younger than my parents) that no one, except maybe the equivalent of the 1% today, was indifferent to. I mean, we’re talking the f-ing Great Depression, fresh from WWI! Seeger came from a world not unlike my parents’.

He not only sang, he listened. In fact, listening and singing were the same thing for him. RIP.


Ed Herdman 01.31.14 at 11:05 am

Lovely comment, Meredith, and a nice complement to Corey’s #40, which I am also glad to have pointed out – in a roundabout way Corey has addressed the one slight concern I had with the article, about the “was it really one-sided” question that seems likely to crop up in opposition to the left-right accommodation angle of the original piece. Just, as Corey says, different people independently following their own paths along to different conclusions – which happen to all meet at the same point in this (and many) cases.


MPAVictoria 01.31.14 at 11:23 am

Lovely comment Meredith. Thank you.


GeneralLerong 02.01.14 at 3:57 am

128 posts, and no mention of Mao’s Great Famine or Tombstone, wherein is documented chapter and verse that 40,000,000 people died from being faced with the choice of cooperation and ratting out their neighbors, or death.

And then came the Cultural Revolution.

Hitler and Stalin get a lot of airplay, but Mao made them look like pikers. The history of China from 1949 seems like a gigantic ongoing Milgram experiment.


Harold 02.01.14 at 4:24 am

According one scholar on the BBC program In Our Time (I think they were talking about the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64, which caused an estimated 20-30 million deaths), such massive casualties were pretty much par for the course when talking about the history of Chinese warfare — not to minimize it or anything.


Belle Waring 02.01.14 at 4:27 am

Similarly, no one gives a shit about Churchill’s wartime engineered famine in Bengal in 1943, which seems likely to have killed 4,000,000 people. I mean, sure, nothing compared to the Chairman, but for a single year, in a distant colony, among a population with whom you are not ostensibly involved with any hostilities at all–it’s pretty impressive when you think how Hitler had to work at it, you know? And what about deaths in Congo in our own era, or in King Leopold’s little thing in the 19th century? I think there’s a lesson here: white people don’t give even a tiny pretend fuck about non-white people. There not even embarrassed enough to fake it.


Tyrone Slothrop 02.01.14 at 5:10 am

I think there’s a lesson here: white people don’t give even a tiny pretend fuck about non-white people.

I think if it helps them score ideological points, or can be made to scourge the morality of an opponent, white people can present themselves as giving a fuck. At least a tiny, pretend fuck.


Bruce Wilder 02.01.14 at 6:24 am

Some white people do care, or there wouldn’t be any propaganda value in the rhetoric of competitive atrocity. Still, caring has to compete with ignorance of historical context. What’s an “engineered” famine? I don’t know, but it sounds bad.


Jacob McM 02.01.14 at 8:03 am

1) Weren’t people with left/liberal sympathies like Bertrand Russell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and E.E. Cummings trying to warn people about the real nature of the Soviet Union as early as the 1920s and 30s? Muggeridge and Cummings shifted to the right as they got older, but at the time they weren’t identified as reactionaries.

2) A minor quibble with regard to the last few comments, but Jews technically aren’t “White” either. They are genetically distinct from other European populations.


Belle Waring 02.01.14 at 1:58 pm

An engineered famine is one in which, like the Irish Potato Famine or the famine in Ukraine in the 30s, or people dying in years 0-3 of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, crops do not fail to grow, but are rather harvested and then taken elsewhere, leaving the farmers and their families to starve (in this case it was like spread throughout the system, small business-owners in the cities starved too, it was general mis-allocation). (Well, I guess Pot Pot’s ‘new farmers’ were all terrible at it, also, and everything had been bombed to fuck, so maybe not a good comparison.) The food from Bengal was needed for the war effort, it being 1943, a rather dark time, and so more food was requisitioned than could be spared without millions of people either outright starving to death or dying from preventable illnesses they were too weak and thin to survive. Singapore and then Burma had been lost, and the British needed to feed what troops they had in the region. So they forced the export of rice even though they knew it would lead to certain death from famine, old school Ireland style. Corruption and inaction from intra-Indian government played a big role. The British additionally followed a scorched earth policy in the fear that the Japanese would follow from Burma through to India proper, seizing boats and other means of transport that would normally have been used to normalize trade, and publicly insisting in 1942 that there would be no famine and that talk of one was calumny from profiteers and hoarders. When the propaganda drive failed they tried to locate the alleged hoarded stocks and loot them to supply the British Army.

Churchill personally refused to release ships or stocks of food, there being famine going on in Greece already at the time, and him not giving two fucks about Indian people. And do you know what’s funny? You ain’t never even heard about this at school once ever even one time! I only heard about it because my friend Neal, whose family is from outside Kolkata, told me. Yep. So, it was like I said. With the not caring about white people. I think it was only the retro-active re-casting of Jewish people as white in America that led to the recognition of the true horror of the Holocaust, in some ways, and the continued non-recognition of Roma people as white contributes to the total failure of the story of the Holocaust to include them meaningfully.


LFC 02.01.14 at 2:46 pm

Should have remembered the Bengal famine before posting this.


Anarcissie 02.01.14 at 4:47 pm

GeneralLerong 02.01.14 at 3:57 am @ 129 — Mr. Seeger cannot be blamed for the 40 million since, at the meeting of the Presidium of the Secret Politburo of World-Wide Communism which directed Mr. Mao, Mr. Seeger voted against the plan. After his faction was defeated he was purged and forced to eke out a precarious living singing old labor union songs in North America to sentimental liberals, a harsh fate indeed; the Party didn’t fool around.


Anarcissie 02.01.14 at 4:56 pm

Belle Waring 02.01.14 at 1:58 pm @ 135: ‘… You ain’t never even heard about this at school once ever even one time! …’

There are many things one has not heard about in school. Speaking of Indian famines, there was one in 1900-1901 overseen by the British and their liberal principles that killed 15-20 million people. One of many. No war or revolution; just weather, market forces, and the sacred rights of private property at work.


Harold 02.01.14 at 5:00 pm

@124 “Jews aren’t technically white”.

The latest research on the genetics of European Jews shows that more than 80 percent of the maternal lineages of Ashkenazi Jews can be traced to Europe (mostly Northern Italian, from what I understand), with only a few lineages originating in the Near East. So, no, they are not racially distinct, whatever that means, from other European “whites”, but a are the result of a mixture — of many mixtures, like virtually everyone else.


Plume 02.01.14 at 5:29 pm


Very true. Genetically, we are all the same, plus or minus the most micro (and irrelevant) of differences, which do not break down along any “racial” lines. The theory of racism itself derives from non-existent differences between us, pretty much invented in the 18th century. In reality, we all have common ancestors, out of Africa, and then, obviously, billions of years prior to that from other life-forms.

Really, we’re just stardust, reborn. All of us.


someguy 02.01.14 at 6:07 pm

Stalinists are heros. True Americans. Folks like Orson Scott Card are the real monsters. Ban him from working on Superman. No really. It is that simple.


Bruce Wilder 02.01.14 at 6:58 pm

The Wikipedia entry on the Bengal Famine of 1943 is detailed and extensive.

The idea that Bengal was exporting food — a key point in Belle’s account of “engineered” famine — seems unsupported.

That the British colonial regime was some combination of hostile, indifferent and incompetent in relation to the interests of ordinary Indians is a thesis that Indian nationalism needs, and can use the Bengal Famine to illustrate the point, and is perfectly justified in doing so. The British involved India in WWII for their own purposes, and sacrificing Bengal to those ends is just an extreme illustration of the general pattern of colonial exploitation. That’s a coherent story, and Churchill was an advocate for Empire, and an handy exemplary.

I don’t think the same set of facts works to indict Churchill personally or as the Great Man of British and world war leadership. Churchill was not Hitler economizing on gas chambers, but still getting the job done, exterminating brown people. Natural disaster and the Japanese, and the bureaucracy of the Raj and local government in Bengal itself, bear far more responsibility. It is doubtful that Churchill had viable options in the context of the war. Certainly, he had no magic to unpalsy the hands of local government, and by the time decisions were bumped to his level little could have been accomplished in time, by even dramatic gestures.

Racism has had enough of a role in man’s inhumanity, that we don’t need to be using race to erase all moral distinctions, or any hope of moral reasoning from vast numbers of people.


Jacob McM 02.01.14 at 7:21 pm

In his new book, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, claims that Jews are different, and the differences are not just skin deep. Jews exhibit, he writes, a distinctive genetic signature. Considering that the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews based on their supposed racial distinctiveness, such a conclusion might be a cause for concern. But Ostrer sees it as central to Jewish identity.

“Who is a Jew?” has been a poignant question for Jews throughout our history. It evokes a complex tapestry of Jewish identity made up of different strains of religious beliefs, cultural practices and blood ties to ancient Palestine and modern Israel. But the question, with its echoes of genetic determinism, also has a dark side.

Geneticists have long been aware that certain diseases, from breast cancer to Tay-Sachs, disproportionately affect Jews. Ostrer, who is also director of genetic and genomic testing at Montefiore Medical Center, goes further, maintaining that Jews are a homogeneous group with all the scientific trappings of what we used to call a “race.”

For most of the 3,000-year history of the Jewish people, the notion of what came to be known as “Jewish exceptionalism” was hardly controversial. Because of our history of inmarriage and cultural isolation, imposed or self-selected, Jews were considered by gentiles (and usually referred to themselves) as a “race.” Scholars from Josephus to Disraeli proudly proclaimed their membership in “the tribe.”

Is Judaism a people or a religion? Or both? The belief that Jews may be psychologically or physically distinct remains a controversial fixture in the gentile and Jewish consciousness, and Ostrer places himself directly in the line of fire. Yes, he writes, the term “race” carries nefarious associations of inferiority and ranking of people. Anything that marks Jews as essentially different runs the risk of stirring either anti- or philo-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the factual reality of what he calls the “biological basis of Jewishness” and “Jewish genetics.” Acknowledging the distinctiveness of Jews is “fraught with peril,” but we must grapple with the hard evidence of “human differences” if we seek to understand the new age of genetics.

Although he readily acknowledges the formative role of culture and environment, Ostrer believes that Jewish identity has multiple threads, including DNA. He offers a cogent, scientifically based review of the evidence, which serves as a model of scientific restraint.

“On the one hand, the study of Jewish genetics might be viewed as an elitist effort, promoting a certain genetic view of Jewish superiority,” he writes. “On the other, it might provide fodder for anti-Semitism by providing evidence of a genetic basis for undesirable traits that are present among some Jews. These issues will newly challenge the liberal view that humans are created equal but with genetic liabilities.”

Jews, he notes, are one of the most distinctive population groups in the world because of our history of endogamy. Jews — Ashkenazim in particular — are relatively homogeneous despite the fact that they are spread throughout Europe and have since immigrated to the Americas and back to Israel. The Inquisition shattered Sephardi Jewry, leading to far more incidences of intermarriage and to a less distinctive DNA.

The concept of the “Jewish people” remains controversial. The Law of Return, which establishes the right of Jews to come to Israel, is a central tenet of Zionism and a founding legal principle of the State of Israel. The DNA that tightly links Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi, three prominent culturally and geographically distinct Jewish groups, could be used to support Zionist territorial claims — except, as Ostrer points out, some of the same markers can be found in Palestinians, our distant genetic cousins, as well. Palestinians, understandably, want their own right of return.

When the human genome was first mapped a decade ago, Francis Collins, then head of the National Genome Human Research Institute, said: “Americans, regardless of ethnic group, are 99.9% genetically identical.” Added J. Craig Venter, who at the time was chief scientist at the private firm that helped sequenced the genome, Celera Genomics, “Race has no genetic or scientific basis.” Those declarations appeared to suggest that “race,” or the notion of distinct but overlapping genetic groups, is “meaningless.”

But Collins and Venter have issued clarifications of their much-misrepresented comments. Almost every minority group has faced, at one time or another, being branded as racially inferior based on a superficial understanding of how genes peculiar to its population work. The inclination by politicians, educators and even some scientists to underplay our separateness is certainly understandable. But it’s also misleading. DNA ensures that we differ not only as individuals, but also as groups.

However slight the differences (and geneticists now believe that they are significantly greater than 0.1%), they are defining. That 0.1% contains some 3 million nucleotide pairs in the human genome, and these determine such things as skin or hair color and susceptibility to certain diseases. They contain the map of our family trees back to the first modern humans.

Both the human genome project and disease research rest on the premise of finding distinguishable differences between individuals and often among populations. Scientists have ditched the term “race,” with all its normative baggage, and adopted more neutral terms, such as “population” and “clime,” which have much of the same meaning. Boiled down to its essence, race equates to “region of ancestral origin.”

Ostrer has devoted his career to investigating these extended family trees, which help explain the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. Today, Jews remain identifiable in large measure by the 40 or so diseases we disproportionately carry, the inescapable consequence of inbreeding. He traces the fascinating history of numerous “Jewish diseases,” such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, Mucolipidosis IV, as well as breast and ovarian cancer. Indeed, 10 years ago I was diagnosed as carrying one of the three genetic mutations for breast and ovarian cancer that mark my family and me as indelibly Jewish, prompting me to write “Abraham’s Children.”

Like East Asians, the Amish, Icelanders, Aboriginals, the Basque people, African tribes and other groups, Jews have remained isolated for centuries because of geography, religion or cultural practices. It’s stamped on our DNA. As Ostrer explains in fascinating detail, threads of Jewish ancestry link the sizable Jewish communities of North America and Europe to Yemenite and other Middle Eastern Jews who have relocated to Israel, as well as to the black Lemba of southern Africa and to India’s Cochin Jews. But, in a twist, the links include neither the Bene Israel of India nor Ethiopian Jews. Genetic tests show that both groups are converts, contradicting their founding myths.

Why, then, are Jews so different looking, usually sharing the characteristics of the surrounding populations? Think of red-haired Jews, Jews with blue eyes or the black Jews of Africa. Like any cluster — a genetic term Ostrer uses in place of the more inflammatory “race” — Jews throughout history moved around and fooled around, although mixing occurred comparatively infrequently until recent decades. Although there are identifiable gene variations that are common among Jews, we are not a “pure” race. The time machine of our genes may show that most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Palestine but, like all of humanity, Jews are mutts.

About 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East. The rest entered the “Jewish gene pool” through conversion or intermarriage. Those who did intermarry often left the faith in a generation or two, in effect pruning the Jewish genetic tree. But many converts became interwoven into the Jewish genealogical line. Reflect on the iconic convert, the biblical Ruth, who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. She began as an outsider, but you don’t get much more Jewish than the bloodline of King David!


Tyrone Slothrop 02.01.14 at 7:24 pm

What’s most appalling about the Indian famines is the callous way the British administration shrugged them off as part of the natural state of life in the subcontinent: Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, noted in 1877, during the Great Famine, that Malnutrition is a fact of life in India, and that the tendency of horrified Western witnesses of the Raj’s skeletal populace towards humanitarian hysterics was undignified and unhelpful. Fast forward to the Second World War, and Churchill, as Belle Waring noted above, stoically remarked that the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of Sturdy Greeks – the more so in that apparently the former, notwithstanding their voided bellies, would continue on with breeding like rabbits. Not exactly Our Finest Hour stuff, that.


Nine 02.01.14 at 7:47 pm

Belle@131 – “Similarly, no one gives a shit about Churchill’s wartime engineered famine in Bengal in 1943, which seems likely to have killed 4,000,000 people.”

Not entirely true – see Churchill’s Secret War

It’s quite damning, notwithstanding Churchill fanboys’ array of bs, weasel arguments against the book’s thesis.


Ronan(rf) 02.01.14 at 7:56 pm

Afaik Amartya Sen’s work – which has had a significant impact on the study of famines (and how to prevent them) – was a result of having lived through the Bengal famine. Although Im not an academic, but thats my afaik.


hix 02.01.14 at 8:37 pm

” Jews also account for 20% of this country’s chief executives and make up 22% of Ivy League students. Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115, with their verbal IQ at more than 120, a stunning standard deviation above the average of 100 found in those of European ancestry.”

Read more:

Ok now im sold. Jews are a race! A supirior one on top!

Lets not forget. The other important aspect. Jews arent just smarter than anyone. They are even smarter than other whites, since if you do your iq tests only in homes for the mentally disabled, people in many African countries are really dumb compared to whites.


js. 02.01.14 at 8:54 pm

I don’t know a ton about the ’43 Bengal famine, but Mike Davis, in Late Victorian Holocausts does a really compelling job of showing how late 19th century famines in India were pretty much directly a function of British policy, and in that sense entirely preventable. The book as a whole is harrowing but excellent.


Suzanne 02.01.14 at 9:14 pm

@48: Not really a puzzle if you presume that the committee’s central purpose was publicity, hence the emphasis on Hollywood and hauling in show folk to talk politics.

Neal Gabler, an historian of the old Hollywood studio system, thinks that if the studio executives had presented a united front immediately after the the contempt citations of the Hollywood Ten – not defending the Ten personally, but simply asserting the principle of not hiring and firing on the basis of political beliefs — the business might have been avoided. Instead, after a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that produced the “Waldorf Statement” blacklisting the Ten, they caved. Bad things happen when men know what the right thing to do is and don’t do it. American Communists were often uncomfortable political bedfellows but the collapse of liberal opposition during the period isn’t pretty.

In re: Lindbergh. Lindbergh had also pissed off FDR mightily during the mail fiasco of early 1934, during which he criticized Roosevelt in testimony before Congress for canceling private air mail contracts before the airlines had a chance to respond to the Administration’s charges of fraud and bribery. He had also warned that Army pilots were inadequately trained and did not have the proper instruments needed for flying the mail. Lindbergh was entirely correct and a number of crashes and deaths ensued.

Initially no aircraft company would hire him during the war but Lindbergh did eventually make his way into actual combat as a United Aircraft consultant in the South Pacific. He accompanied pilots on many missions in that capacity and shot down one Japanese plane himself. He also introduced innovations in fuel consumption efficiency, allowing for longer missions.


Harold 02.01.14 at 10:04 pm

@143, Jacob Mcm “About 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East.”

I wouldn’t go by Harry Oster, if I were you. The studies he refers to have been found to be flawed. The science of genetics moves really fast and the Forward article you cite is two years old.. Much more precise measurements is currently available. The latest research finds that the genetic makeup of Ashkenazi Jews, who make up 80 percent of the Jewish population extant today, is overwhelmingly European (predominantly Italian), not Middle Eastern in origin. (See Martin Richards, et al., “A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages.”Archaeogenetics Research Group, University of Huddersfield.) According to the NY Times, “Overall, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe, and 8 percent from the Near East, with the rest uncertain, the researchers estimate.”

You can say that in your view, only the male line counts, but rabbinical law traces ancestry through the maternal line, presenting a big problem for this line of argument.

In fact the whole argument of Jewish “genetic” superiority seems kind of compensatory for deep-seated unconscious anxieties about inferiority.


Bruce Wilder 02.01.14 at 10:26 pm

Suzanne: . . . if the studio executives had presented a united front — simply asserting the principle of not hiring and firing on the basis of political beliefs — the business might have been avoided. Instead, after a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that produced the “Waldorf Statement” blacklisting the Ten, they caved.

I’m sure that none of those studio executives was fiercely hostile to communism, socialism, trade-unionism or movements of the political left. Just like Big Media executives today. /sarcasm


Suzanne 02.02.14 at 5:44 am

Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Certainly some of the studio execs were reactionary, but not all. Dore Schary of MGM was a self-identified liberal. It’s also true that they were no friends to militant unionism. All the same in the beginning there was strong resistance to the notion of a blacklist. They understood the constitutional and legal issues involved and didn’t want to invite lawsuits. Nor did they cuddle up to the idea of congressmen and right-wing groups interfering with their fiefdom and telling them who to hire. Most were Jews whose families hailed from Eastern Europe and they had an idea what it was like to be the popular bogeyman du jour. And of course, they knew those guys. John Howard Lawson might be an obnoxious PITA but he wasn’t any threat to the security of the republic.

It must also be said that the Hollywood Ten did not help themselves. They were noisy, hostile, and needlessly confrontational at their hearings, which subdued a lot of the voices initially raised on their behalf, alienated public opinion, and put the studios in a very dicey position. (Sure, the Ten still had right on their side, but even so their conduct made it much tougher for all concerned.) The execs could still have cut the Ten loose while refusing to take things further, but in the Waldorf Statement they agreed not to hire anyone known to be a Communist. That pretty much did it.

Even then, some studios did try to shield certain of their people – MGM for example cut the Communist writers loose without hesitation but other contractees with radical connections were protected insofar as it was possible.


bianca steele 02.02.14 at 5:38 pm

@143 About 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East.

This sentence ought to make one doubt the usefulness of the research for any purpose whatsoever.

Just putting on my nitpicky science-nerd hat for old times’ sake, I really do know we all know equally well what the author intended.


Harold 02.02.14 at 6:05 pm

They trace their identities back to the Middle East all right — to 10,000 BC, the same time most other Europeans migrated from the Middle East to Europe during the first spread of agriculture. Not from historical Palestine. The ancestry of most present-day Jews is predominantly European and not Middle Eastern. So there goes that theory.


bianca steele 02.02.14 at 6:39 pm

Well, then. Harold could already tell us the research wasn’t even needed, nor was my comment. Looks like I was pretty gullible and should think even more times before I nitpick and show I think there’s even an issue here.


Dan Hardie 02.04.14 at 8:50 pm

One can hardly blame Brecht for getting out of the US before he was deported at the behest of a bunch of thuggish Commie-bashers. But then Brecht’s behaviour in front of HUAC was hardly the first, or the most important, thing to consider when talking about Brecht’s political behaviour: and only an insular American leftist would imagine that it was.

What matters about Brecht’s politics is that he spent most of his adult life (at best) not breathing a word of criticism about Stalin’s Soviet Union and (at worst) acting as a cheerful apologist for that marvellous state.

And don’t, please, imagine that you’ve got a counter-argument if you quote ‘Die Lösung’, that eleventh-hour effort about the leaders of the GDR having to elect a new people. Brecht, such a fearless denouncer of the evils of capitalism, never allowed that poem to be published in his lifetime. It was first published three years after his death, in a newspaper published in the German Federal Republic – ie West Germany, much derided by Brecht as an American puppet state.

Corey Robin thinks that the words of the Stalinist Brecht, of all people, should be quoted approvingly when denouncing the (contemptible and disgraceful, but certainly not Stalinist) McCarthy/Hoover persecution of leftists? That is like denouncing the (contemptible and disgraceful, but certainly not Nazi) miscarriages of justice in the ‘épuration’ of postwar France, and approvingly quoting the words of the Nazi collaborator Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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