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Anticommunism and Barriers to Liberation

Jodi Dean

June 18, 2022

The communist project has long involved envisioning emancipatory futurity within the conditions of dystopian capitalism. From analyses that demonstrate how capitalism is itself the dystopia, to practical engagement in political struggles, to revolutionary political movements themselves, communists find the seeds of the future in the present. The contradictions that make capitalism a system where few benefit while many suffer, where great riches accompany greater immiseration, where producing more value devalues those who produce it — for communists these contradictions are the cracks in the present that make another future possible.

The injunction to communism also encounters resistance. Even on the Left it engenders fear, doubt, and disunity. The Left has to move beyond the knee-jerk anticommunism chaining us to dystopian capitalism. Organized struggle is the way to break those chains.

How Can We Envision?

What makes envisioning emancipation possible? It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, spontaneously, or alone. Envisioning requires supports, some kind of infrastructure, a community or collectivity that makes it possible. Envisioning depends on elements that exceed it. We can’t do it without our comrades. More formally put, the collectivity, the us that envisioning presupposes, makes a difference — is our envisioning supported by comrades, by colleagues, by NGOs or some kind of granting agency, by markets? Some of us likely imagined for a while that the university was such a collectivity, probably not so much anymore.

Global Trends 2040 is a forecasting document put out in 2021 by the National Intelligence Council (an office that provides the “intelligence community” with strategic planning; its experts come from government, academia, and the private sector). In no way are the possible futures it projects “emancipatory.” The report suggests one “revolutionary” scenario arising from a climate catastrophe that results in global famine and thousands dying in riots in Philadelphia (a weirdly specific imaginary detail). In this scenario, mobilized civil society actors, the EU, and China take the lead in moving the world toward cooperation and sustainability. The US joins in slowly (which reminds us that the US establishment literally cannot imagine the US voluntarily doing anything that would lessen the wealth and power of the US ruling class). The infrastructural supports for the Global Trends 2040 visioning effort — which, I should add, fails to mention capitalism, even as it predicts continued overall decline in economic growth and obsesses over China and the loss of US hegemony — are massive, powerful, and well-funded. Major think tanks and universities are thanked in the acknowledgements, specific renowned professors, US governmental agencies, and foreign governmental agencies. The project is said to be “heavily indebted” to the “can-do attitude” of program managers from the management and information technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Reflecting on the infrastructural supports for envisioning pushes us to consider the underlying collectivity or “we.” That “we” is inextricably tied to what the vision is or might be. If the concern is with an emancipatory futurity, then the “we” is the collectivity that conditions the horizon futurity denotes. Is the “we” capitalist, a market, or industry? Might it be religious — the communion of saints, an afterlife of heavenly glory? Or perhaps our sense of emancipatory futurity recognizes that any emancipation can only be equal emancipation premised on the end of exploitation and oppression. The collectivity that enables efforts to envision an emancipatory egalitarian future is committed to the view that no one is free until everyone is free, that the premise of liberation is equality. Here the “we” is the party of communists in the broad historical sense. Our comrades support our conviction that a better world is possible, engendering the will and capacity to fight for it. We believe that they believe in the future. Our organized work together builds the practical optimism that keeps us going.

Their Victories are Our Victories

To think more about the necessary supports for envisioning an emancipatory egalitarian future and to introduce the problem of anticommunism, I draw from a forthcoming collection co-edited with Charisse Burden-Stelly, Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing. Rather than emphasizing separate axes of difference or domination that they then attempt to bring together, Black Communist women in the first half of the twentieth century recognized capitalism’s incitement of race hatred and sex stereotypes so as to fragment workers and maintain class power. The power of the capitalist class was always and necessarily raced and sexed, as was clear to anyone trying to organize workers and fight for relief aid.

One of the pieces in the collection is by Eslanda Goode Robeson. It was initially published in 1953 in Freedom, the newspaper founded by her husband Paul Robeson together with Louis Burnham. Describing “common resistance to oppression,” Eslanda, called “Essie,” writes:

The struggle of the African people in Kenya for the return of their land; the struggle of the African, Indian, and colored people in South Africa against segregation and discrimination; the struggle of the North African people in Tunisia and Morocco for control of their land, resources, and internal affairs; the struggle of the people of Indo-China and Malaya for control of their natural wealth—all these are closely related to the struggle of the Negro people here in these United States for truly representative government and full equality.
And these struggles are essentially another part of the successful struggle of the peoples of India and of Indonesia for self-government and independence. Their victories are our victories.
And, to go a little further back in history, the successful struggle of the Chinese people under the War Lords, and of the Russian people under the Czars, for control of their land, resources, and government, were and are part of the whole picture, and their victories are also our victories.

Their victories are our victories: Eslanda Robeson can envision an emancipatory egalitarian future. Her premise is unity: an internationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and antiracist futurity that she links to the communist revolutions in Russia and China.

Robeson’s biographer, Barbara Ransby, says that “Essie was a ubiquitous figure in international arts circles during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.” Essie was deeply politically engaged, traveling to the Soviet Union (her brothers, like other Black Americans, migrated there; Essie herself enrolled her son in school in Moscow). She traveled to Republican Spain during the war against the fascists (as did other highly visible Black women in the Communist milieu such as Maude White, Louise Thompson, and Thyra Edwards). Essie visited multiple African countries (her widely praised book African Journey describes her trip across Uganda and South Africa). In 1949, she visited the new People’s Republic of China. The FBI kept an extensive file on her speeches and articles praising the Chinese Communist revolution.

In July 1953, Essie was made to appear before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Investigating Committee. She had already had her request for a passport denied because she refused to say that she was not a Communist. Her husband Paul’s passport had been confiscated, a blow to his international singing career which became the focus of a massive pressure campaign. During her appearance before the McCarthy committee, Essie refused to answer the infamous question of whether she was a member of the Communist Party. She pled the Fifth and the Fifteenth Amendments, attempting to shift the discussion away from the Party and to Black disenfranchisement. The Fifteenth Amendment prevents race from being used to bar citizens from their right to vote, which Southern states actively did. As Ranby details in her biography, when asked about Communism and her husband’s and friends’ affiliations, Essie said “I don’t know who, what, or where.” She told the committee what she did know about: “As a Negro, I know a lot about the force and violence used against my people in this country.”

Anticommunism in the United States had long been tied to racism and white supremacy. Already in the first Red Scare in 1919, the white establishment used anticommunism to delegitimize Black fightback. Black soldiers returning from World War I met with racist discrimination. During that violent Red Summer white mobs lynched and terrorized Black people. Instead of acknowledging justified Black outrage, white newspapers blamed the Bolsheviks. Over subsequent decades, the US State Department consistently depicted Black internationalists as subversives, enemies of the state, and prone to foreign manipulation. They presented Black resistance not as the logical response to the lynch law but as a manifestation of Black disloyalty. During the second Red Scare, Communists were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. Because anticolonialism, the peace movement, and desegregation were thought to be dangerously un-American, Black leaders came under particular attack. Anti-communism knit together and intensified anti-blackness and anti-foreignness (an argument Charisse Burden-Stelly makes in her 2017 Souls article).

Essie may not have been a card-carrying Communist (although she refused to sign an affidavit testifying that she was not a Party member), but her life and work were deeply intertwined with Communists and Communist parties in the US and internationally. Thelma Dale Perkins, a Party member, accompanied Essie to her Senate hearing. Essie wrote a long critical response to Eisenhower’s 1953 State of the Union address that was published in the Daily Worker, the Party’s official paper. She wrote the introduction to a pamphlet written by Claudia Jones defending the imprisoned Ben Davis (both leading Black members of the Party). In still another piece, Essie excoriated the “flag-waving patriots” more concerned with rooting out Communists than with ending lynch law in the Jim Crow South. And she presented the enemies of Black people in America not as North Koreans, Chinese, Russians, or Communists but as those who defend “force and violence, hatred and prejudice, discrimination, segregation, and terror.” Anticommunism is on the side of colonialism, imperialism, and Jim Crow. Communism is on the side of self-determination, equality, and peace.

When communism — because of its mobilization for economic redistribution, racial equality, and black-white labor solidarity — is presented as antithetical to legitimate political struggle, when it is rendered as totalitarian, antidemocratic, and criminal, Black activism becomes sedition. Here are the words of Dorothy Hunton, a member of the Black Communist women’s group Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Her husband, William Alphaeus Hunton, was the executive director of the Council of African Affairs, an organization designated as subversive by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He served six months in prison for refusing to hand over the names of contributors to the Civil Rights Bail Fund, which was established to help pay for legal support for victims of anticommunist repression. The passage from Dorothy Hunton comes from her book about her husband; the book also details the anticommunist persecution endured by Black leaders such as Esther Cooper Jackson, Essie and Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois. Hunton writes:

Along with the intensified practice of establishing guilt by unsupported accusations, and character assassination by alleged association, there grew steadily a pattern of linking the advocacy of full equality for Blacks and minorities with Un-Americanism. Frequently, in examinations designed to test the loyalty of applicants for government positions, the question was asked whether they believed in equality of the white and black races or entertained Blacks in their homes. It was not unusual in many areas for those defending non-segregated housing to be branded as Communists. Long ago those who pleaded for low-cost housing had been called Socialist.

Anticommunism went hand-in-hand with racism in labeling Black left leaders as subversive, indicting them, imprisoning them, and deporting them (Carole Boyce Davies’ biography of Claudia Jones is a major contribution to this history).

The racist deployment of anticommunism didn’t end with the McCarthy era. As the hearings and show trials wound down, professional anticommunists went to the US South to help organize against desegregation, against civil rights, and in support of the old Jim Crow apartheid system. They worked to spread the sense that to support civil rights was to support communism, that Black liberation was fundamentally anti-American. In an effort to appear as more than just racist, the defense of segregation used anticommunism to give itself moral legitimacy. This false, incoherent “legitimacy” relied on an inversion of victimization where whites were the victims, not the Black people lynched, blocked from decently paid jobs, and denied the right to vote. The new victim status attached to whites was turned into its own weird kind of heroism: Instead of violators of constitutional rights, they were patriots; instead of fascists, they were martyrs to anticommunist resistance and thereby entitled to respect and dignity.

Red Fear

Anticommunism persists. I considered designating our time as a third Red Scare (following the first in 1919 and the second in the fifties). But that periodization feels too choppy, too episodic, as if McCarthyism ended instead of being absorbed into what passes as liberal common sense (not to mention the continuity between the first and second Red Scares — HUAC was established in 1938). Perhaps a better term for what haunts or afflicts us now isn’t Red Scare but its interiorization as Red Fear.

Anticommunism persists as the suppression of knowledge of continuities between anticapitalist, antiracist, anticolonialist, and antiimperialist struggles. Instead of a site where the struggles were unified, communism is treated as an alien ideology. Its role in the fight against white supremacy domestically and internationally is forgotten or suppressed. This suppression distorts our understanding of the Black radical tradition as well as of the struggle of twentieth-century communists against fascism and imperialism.

For anticommunists disorder is foreign — the refugee, the immigrant, the Black, the Muslim, the Jew. Anticommunists disavow the capitalist disorder of competition, markets, innovation, dispossession, foreclosure, debt, and imperialist war. We can also say that it’s disorder itself, disorder without cause, that anticommunists want to address — women out of place, sex out of place, gender out of place, sexuality out of place; the young and the poor, the black and the brown refusing to stay in their place. Dramatic changes in the character of work, communities, and life that accompany disruptive and ubiquitous technology, urbanization, and rural depopulation, shifts from industry and manufacture to services and servitude, the intensification of competition for decreasing numbers of affordable houses and adequately compensated jobs all congeal into a disorder to be dealt with by the assertion of police, family, church, and race. Anticommunism is a lynchpin of this assertion.

Anticommunism persists through the mobilization of fear. It condenses the real fears and anxieties of those living under capitalism and displaces them onto the fantastic figure of a communist threat — typically rendered as alien and other, a threat to the nation, and, in the US, combined with and amplified by anti-blackness, as Burden-Stelly argues. This condensation and displacement imbue hate with a sheen of moral dignity and political drama in the attempt to stabilize a grossly unequal, oppressive, and exploitative political-economic order.

The fear that anticommunism mobilizes is a fear of loss, a fear that what you have will be taken from you, what Slavoj Žižek theorizes as the “theft of enjoyment.” Recall that Marx and Engels call out this mobilization of fear already in the “Communist Manifesto” when they address charges that communists want to take people’s property as well as their wives and women. The anticommunist mobilization of fear conceals the absence of property, of wealth, of job security, of success, of sovereignty, of freedom. It posits that we have them by positioning them as stolen. It’s like, communism is what prevents you from being rich, widely admired, having lots of sex, and so on. The “theft fantasy” obscures the fact that under capitalism one percent of the people have twice as much as the lower ninety percent. By positing communism as a source of deprivation, as an ideology based on taking away your property, anticommunism conceals the fact that you don’t actually have any property, security, or freedom. At the same time, it provides the affective sense that the Right gives and the Left takes.

Anticommunism intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health measures were demonized as government overreach, threats to liberty, and encroaching communism. In the US, anticommunism has reinforced and been reinforced by anti-Asian racism, egged on by the anti-Chinese orientation of the US political establishment. Anticommunism appears throughout right-wing media, often flying below the national radar. Examples include an editorial in the Galveston County Daily News, the “US passing through socialism on way to communism”; charges that vice president Kamala Harris is communist; and characterizations of Black Lives Matter protests as Marxist and communist. Typical is a story that appeared on “BLM Clenched Fist Symbol has Little-Known Communist History, Critics Say.” The lede: “Symbol ‘used by movements that establish oppressive regimes,’ scholar says.” The scholar is identified as “Murray Bessette, a former professor of government at Morehead State University” who is now affiliated with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The foundation was founded in 1993 by a unanimous act of Congress. According to its website, its vision is of “a world free from the false hope of communism.” In his statement to Fox News, Bessette says that “The raised fist is primarily used by organizations and movements that are heavily influenced by Marxism broadly understood.” He ignores the history of the raised fist as a statement of Black power – one of its most iconic moments being the medal ceremony for the 1968 summer Olympics when medalists Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos raised their fists during the national anthem. Erasing Black Power entirely, Bessette links the raised fist to a “common thread” — the “understanding of all social, economic, and political relations as a contestation for power between a class of oppressors (i.e., rich, White, heterosexual, male) and a class of oppressed.”

This statement is worth noting for several reasons. First, it repeats the pattern of using anticommunism to delegitimize Black fightback. Second, it insinuates that there is something wrong, something objectionable, about struggles of the oppressed. And third, the statement is correct: the symbol does point to a common political orientation toward building the power necessary to overthrow the oppressors. Communism is that modern political ideology always and everywhere on the side of the oppressed. When labor is strong, when those who have been racially, sexually, ethnically, and colonially oppressed become more visible, more organized, and more militant, anticommunism intervenes to set up barriers. Anticommunism tries to structure the political field by establishing the terrain of possibility: what is available, what is off the table, what is impossible — unthinkable. And notice, even as anticommunism claims that communism is itself impossible, it mobilizes social forces to oppose it. It fights against the impossible.

Anticommunism isn’t just an empty right-wing gesture deployed to demonize opponents. It activates opposition to equality, collectivity, and the struggle to build and take power. Given the right-wing recognition of the underlying commonality of struggles against oppression, a commonality associated with Marxism and communism, it’s counterintuitive, to say the least, that so much energy on the Left has been expended disavowing this common legacy and history of struggle. We should recognize this disavowal as an effect of anticommunism and a barrier to liberation. It’s an effect of anticommunism when it is literally premised on the rejection of communism as well as when its premises reinforce anticommunist attempts to deflect attention from the absolute necessity of taking power. I have in mind here idealist critiques that want to move beyond power (John Holloway) as well as materialist rejections of organized political struggle in favor of the creative potentialities of the multitude (Hardt and Negri) and the proliferation of local economic experiments (the approach associated with J.K. Gibson-Graham).

As an effect of internalized anticommunism, the allergy to thinking in terms of building and taking power impacts how the Left understands organized struggle. Two of the most pronounced symptoms are fragmentation and state-phobia. Both respond to the very real defeats inflicted (sometimes self-inflicted) on the communist movement at the end of the twentieth century. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of neoliberalism (with the structural adjustment policies imposed on countries throughout the Global South) accelerated tendencies that had been building since the economic crises of the seventies. We can mark these developments with Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “There is No Alternative.” Some on the Left in the US, UK, and elsewhere in the former West turned to issue-based or lifestyle politics, seeking changes at the level of civil society or even the individual rather than the state. With revolution out of reach, the best that could be hoped for was a kinder, gentler, more inclusive capitalism, capitalism with a human face. At times, even that has seemed too much to hope for: the Left turns its political energies in on itself, eating its own instead of directing its anger outward against the capitalist system. When we should be sharing Essie Robeson’s conviction that their victories are our victories, the presumption too often devolves to their victories are our defeats.

The loss of a clear alternative to capitalism resulted in the dispersion of Left political energies. Blocked in one direction, they proliferated in others, their diffusion celebrated as democratic pluralization when it was really a melancholic loss of desire. The Left fragmented into singularities, welfare and social benefits declined, and police and carceral power intensified. Rather than an effective swarm of multitudinous successes eating away at capitalist and state power, the dispersed efforts of the fragmented Left encountered the forces of capital and the state at every turn, consistent barriers to liberation. Resource problems let movements get coopted, whether by NGOs, opportunists, or corporations trying to pink-wash or green-wash their harmful, exploitative practices. Following the 2020 George Floyd protests, Amazon announced its solidarity with the Black community. This solidarity didn’t extend to the Black workers of Bessemer, AL, where the company engaged in notorious union-busting efforts.

With respect to state-phobia: the fear of taking and using state power masks a continued attachment to capitalism and liberalism (there is no alternative), especially in the refusal to recognize that the only form of organized power capable of replacing markets with planning is the state. This state-phobic element of Left anticommunism may be withering away. Since the pandemic, more came to recognize the benefits of a centralized state response to large-scale crises. As Kai Heron and I have argued, this recognition is now part of the climate change discussion. In place of individualist emphases on consumer choice, the policy recommendations packaged as Green New Deals take state intervention as a necessary response to global heating. Generating the political power and political will to effect these changes becomes the primary task, not, say, encouraging consumers to replace their lightbulbs and buy local. Of course, state involvement has to go much further, replacing market domination altogether. Yet even this does not feel as far away as it did a couple of years ago. Everybody knows that the state can and does redistribute wealth and land. It directs and funds production, the only question is for whose benefit.

Nevertheless, to the extent that those on the Left remain enamored of spontaneity, weakness, and vulnerability, they manifest a continued state-phobia redolent of anticommunism.

A fetishistic attachment to immediacy holds the place of a missing strategy, covering over the gap left by the reluctance to develop enduring communist organizations oriented toward state power. Instead of enabling us to think strategically, to analyze and plan, the Left embrace of affective immediacy operates more moralistically than politically. I have in mind here Judith Butler’s “performative theory of assembly.” For Butler, the improper, unexpected gathering of bodies where they are not supposed to be is “a direct expression of the condition of precarity and a protest against it.” But precarity is not a category that enables us to distinguish between the vulnerability expressed in a fascist assembly and that expressed in a progressive one. Reports on those arrested for the January 6 Capitol assault find that sixty percent had histories of financial problems such as bankruptcy, tax liens, foreclosure, and eviction notification. Their bankruptcy rate was twice the American average; twenty percent had faced losing their home. Expert commentary on the motivations behind the assault on the Capitol identified people’s feelings as being about “more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation.” Precarity “combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away” mobilized many of the rioters.

Under capitalism, the majority of us are in a precarious condition. The role of organizers is to politicize this precarity. The role of communist organizers is to direct outrage against the white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist state. The politics of assembly isn’t simply from the gathering; it’s from the political content that stimulates, leads to, calls for, the gathering. Focusing on the act of appearing, as Butler does, erases that content. Organizers have to make it explicit. Protests, demonstrations, and assemblies are means, not ends in themselves.

Red Future

Anticommunism is not the result of an empirical analysis of communist power or the specific political strength of actual communists. Anticommunism is broader, more abstract, affective, and ideological. It’s a feature of the general setting of capitalist society, and it has been since the 19th century. The anticommunist script is repeated to assert, over and over, that there is no alternative to capitalism, that, no matter how destructive its crises or how damaging its processes, the system must remain. Capitalism will be supported and fortified, which really means that the ruling class of owners and financiers will be supported and fortified. Capitalism is lauded as the ground of freedom and individuality, when, in actuality, it drives imperialism and racism. Capitalism’s contradictions are denied, its necessary immiserations reduced to individual failings, pervasive attitudinal bias, or threatening, subversive, others.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation mentioned above notes on its website that “positive attitudes toward communism and socialism are at an all-time high in the United States.” This is an exciting indication that more and more people recognize that collectivity isn’t opposed to freedom, it’s the condition of freedom. Such a conception of liberation inspired a call and response I heard at a Black Lives Matter march in Rochester, NY. The chant leader taught the crowd that Black Lives Matter means all Black lives matter: Black women’s lives matter; trans Black lives matter; Black elders’ lives matter; Black Muslims’ lives matter; incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Black lives matter; noncitizen Black lives matter; Black workers’ lives matter; disabled Black lives matter; Black addicts’ lives matter, and so on. The chain of solidarity knit together through the chant brought out the stark difference from neoliberal diversity capitalism where most lives don’t matter. Especially in the dual context of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others and the COVID-19 pandemic, the unity performed by the chant produced a sense of collectivity opposed to white supremacy and capitalism and determined to bring it down.

Engagement in organized struggle lets us envision an emancipatory egalitarian future. The experience of unity lets us make it happen. We diminish the hold of hopelessness and despair when we involve ourselves in actual political work. There are always good excuses — too busy, no time — but the struggle for justice forces us to make time, to change. Part of what made the 2020 protests powerful was the way the demand for justice broke through the fear and isolation of the pandemic. Where before we stayed apart because lives depended on it, now it was clear that lives depended on our coming together. Justice, demanding an end to the war on Black people, an end to police violence and the carceral state, was stronger than fear, something worth dying for.

The sense of power and purpose that comes from a march or demo doesn’t last forever. You get home, maybe alone, look at your feed, and all the horrors rush back in — fires, mass shootings, billionaires, war. Maintaining the capacity to envision liberation and the will to keep fighting for it can’t happen by yourself. You need comrades. Our comrades give us capacities we can never have alone; they reshape our sense of time and possibility. We do more so that we won’t let them down. Comrades make each other stronger, better, than any of us could ever be alone, changing us by doing, by action. Sometimes when we are given a task as a comrade, we feel like our small efforts have larger meaning and purpose, maybe even world-historical significance in the age-old fight of the people against oppression.

The problems we face can only be addressed through communism, as comrades — the class struggle today is the fight for a future. Capitalism can never meet the needs of the majority of people; it must exploit, oppress, and immiserate them, that’s how the system works. It can’t provide the basis for an adequate response to climate change — it has one priority: accumulate. And of course, capitalism had no response to the pandemic — except “get back to work!”

How can we envision emancipatory futurity within the conditions of dystopian capitalism? By ridding ourselves of anticommunism and its crippling effects. Anticommunism mobilizes fragmentation; we escape from it through unity, rejecting capitalism’s incessant push to fragment and divide. And we do that through collective practice. Anticommunism is part of the dystopia we live in; in fact, it’s the ideological presupposition that enchains us in the present dystopia. We break these chains with organizational forms like the party.

A full Sublation Media interview with Jodi Dean on the subject is available at this link.

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