Free to agree: Exposing the fallacy of political freedom in America

Feb 23, 2017

In the opening weeks of the Trump administration, thousands of progressive students on college campuses in Seattle and Berkeley shut down professional demagogue and Breitbart propagandist Milo Yiannopoulous. Leftists in the United States were unanimous in their declaration that white supremacy, misogyny and xenophobia must not be tolerated anywhere in our society. The racist “alt-right” movement rallied to protect and support this intentionally provocative speaker under the broad justification of “free speech.” The state also played a role in protecting the right of white supremacists to spew vitriol against oppressed people, repressing the massive demonstrations and corralling protestors into barricades in an attempt to limit their visibility.

Political freedom is widely assumed to be a foundational tenet of government in the United States. According to the U.S. ruling class’s own mythology, a citizen of the U.S. has the freedom to hold and expound any political views they choose, even ones that are wildly unpopular. We are reminded over and over again in the public discourse that it is precisely the freedom to criticize the government and their policies that defines American freedom, and that this should be regarded as standing among the most sacred of American values. According to the cliché—freedom is the foundational pillar of liberal democracy because a government “by and for the people” thrives on the ability of the people to exchange ideas freely.

Endless quotations from myriad bourgeois sources—most recently repeated by John McCain in his war of words with Trump—emphasize over and over the right to dissent, claiming on this basis that the United States leads the world in political liberty! But does all this triumphalism stand up to scrutiny?

Anti-communism: the unofficial religion of the U.S. ruling class

Socialists in the United States have always understood this purported freedom to be illusory. The police line up in riot gear to protect hate speech and outright fascism, and yet we’ve seen the same police bringing fists, truncheons and the weight of the law down on a broad constellation of left activists.

American anarchists, progressives, Black nationalists, socialists of various stripes, and others, have been prosecuted and jailed for political speech. Socialist luminary Eugene Debs served 10 years in a federal prison for giving a speech opposing U.S. intervention in WWI on pacifist grounds. Many in the same era served prison sentences for distributing leaflets on censored subjects ranging from Marxism to the nascent science of birth control. Government agencies such as the FBI have directed their resources to discrediting and disrupting radical organizations. This frequently included conducting raids on printing presses and leftist offices, and infiltrating unions, workers’ parties and other organizations. In some cases, this included outright subversion and sabotage. Communists in the United States have been a particular target for these tactics, suffering sustained assaults on their activities by the state.

McCarthyism: the crime of not being “loyal”

Perhaps the most glaring example of anti-communism is the legacy of paranoia and toxic nationalism known as “McCarthyism.” Senator Joseph McCarthy through a series of hearings allegedly sought to purge the United States Government of all traces of communist insurgence. This stands out as one stirring example of a political witchhunt that crushed first amendment speech rights. In Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anti-Communism and the Making of America, Joel Kovel notes that “in the atmosphere of the inquisition, the touchstone of loyalty becomes not whether one is a Communist; it becomes, rather, whether one is not an anticommunist.”

In the patriotic post-war America, the committee framed themselves as committed Americans who would tolerate no challenge to the infallible United States “democracy.” In response to the new geopolitical reality of the Cold War and as an extension of prevailing doctrine within American ruling-class circles, this new policy eventually crystallized into an all-out war on the American left.

Lives destroyed

Beginning in February 1950, Senator McCarthy used the Tydings committee (a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) to investigate his own claims that hundreds of communists and communist sympathizers were working within the U.S. State Department.

During these hearings McCarthy focused on nine individuals whom he believed were “disloyal” to the United States and presented a risk to national security. As Ted Morgan relates in Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-century America, McCarthy accused Owen Lattimore of being the most senior Soviet spy within the U.S. Armed Forces with only a single accusation provided by defector Alexander Barmine to substantiate his theory. Senator McCarthy dismantled Lattimore’s public reputation. Though cleared by the Tydings Committee of any wrongdoing, Lattimore was again called to a Senate subcommittee (The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, or SISS) to answer accusations of disloyalty. In 1952 this committee released their report, harshly condemning Lattimore as a “secret communist” and a “conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.” Though his charges were eventually dismissed, he was indicted on six counts of perjury as a result of the inquiry and suffered the crippling professional and personal ostracism of “blacklisting” as a result.

McCarthy furthered his campaign by using the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations to launch scandalizing investigations into the private lives of both high and low-ranking government employees. From early 1953 through 1954, the Senator led this committee on a government-wide campaign to purge it of “disloyal elements.” This eventually resulted in the dismissal of over 2,000 employees from the State Department and other offices, almost all from the ranks of the office workers and low-level bureaucrats.

The purge was even extended to include the ranks of the military, particularly the Army. Notable among these was George C. Marshall, the author of the famous “Marshall Plan” credited for the reconstruction of Western Europe and its inclusion in the western sphere of influence, increasingly dominated by the United States. Marshall drew sharp criticism from McCarthy on the topic of his failed post-war diplomatic mission to bring the Chinese communists into a coalition government with the Nationalists under Chang Kai-Shek. In light of the sweeping 1949 victory of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, McCarthy viewed the U.S.’s failure to limit the spread of communist influence in China as evidence of Marshall’s secret communist affinities.

The committee interrogations were spectacular public show-trials, exposing the myth of political freedom in the United States. The shadow of censorship hung over all of society. Every day people of all political stripes were forced to ask: if one can be blacklisted for being a communist, could one be jailed for being a trade-unionist? Could one be exiled for being a progressive?

A history of censorship

The McCarthy hearings were by no means the first or the only instance of the official censorship of political speech. In the years during and following WWII, Congress enacted several pieces of legislation as a direct action against anti-capitalist organizing nationwide. Many of these, such as the Communist Control Act of 1954, focused primarily on the Communist Party of the United States of America. In part, this was a result of the strength of the CPUSA, which had over 66,000 members during the Great Depression. The CPUSA’s adversaries tried to say the party was directly controlled by the Soviet Union. As the Act itself declared, the CPUSA was to be treated as “an instrumentality of a conspiracy to overthrow the Government of the United States.” This act banned the CPUSA as a legal entity in the United States and remains in effect today, although it is no longer fully enforced.

The investigations headed by McCarthy in 1954 were themselves part of a much wider wave of anti-communist repression, including the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the 1950s. Commissioned in 1938 to investigate communist activities in the U.S., the committee reached a fever pitch of activity during the “Red Scare” of that decade.


Paul Robeson

The HUAC continued on into the late 1960s. Anti-communist fervor resurrected itself in different ways in the wake of hundreds of convictions under the Smith Act, which outlawed the act of advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government by violent means. By upholding those convictions, the Supreme Court sent a clear signal to the American public that anyone who was a political radical could be imprisoned or socially ostracized. The intense pressure put on the CPUSA and the American left in the early 1950s led to fractures. Years of Senate testimony and infiltration by law enforcement took their toll on relationships within these organizations. There was a stifling atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that effectively sabotaged organizing and recruiting efforts for years to come.

Though the intimidation and pressure tactics of McCarthy and other committee members silenced many, some struck back against the blatant political repression. Renowned civil rights activist and world-famous entertainer Paul Robeson offered an exemplary, unbowed defiance to charges of “communist conspiracy.” Refusing outright to answer questions of political affiliation, Robeson charged the committee itself saying “…you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” When pressed on his membership in the Communist Party and his political views he similarly refused to answer, instead telling the committee “…wherever I have been in the world, Scandinavia, England, and many places, the first to die in the struggle against Fascism were the Communists, and I laid many wreaths upon graves of Communists.”

Towards true democracy, working class democracy

As Lenin pointed out in State and Revolution: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.” The interests of the working class are not represented by either of the major political parties. The attempt to systematically neutralize genuinely working class parties has left workers with a choice between two bourgeois candidates in every race. No matter which candidate receives the most votes, the capitalist class wins. The system then is democratic for its rulers and is a dictatorship for the vast majority.iii

In spite of this history of oppression, the myth of political freedom in the United States still endures. Exposing and confronting this misconception is one of the many tasks facing Marxists today. As revolutionaries, it is our job to expose the class oppression at work in government and the real nature of political power in the United States. The intense repression that leftists have endured in the U.S. in all eras is a testament to the threat that an organized working class represents to its class enemies. The swift and violent treatment of political dissenters also clearly demonstrates that the capitalist class will go to any lengths to preserve their position in society. Nothing short of a socialist revolution can secure meaningful political freedom for the working class and begin the formation of a truly democratic society.


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