Tuesday, June 28, 2005

TBS: "You're a Communist!"

This will be the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of posts giving some leisurely consideration to common comments, arguments, rhetoric, and situations faced by people who support justice and liberation. "TBS" stands for "Thinking Before Speaking."

I've decided to start off by lobbing myself an easy one: Who to the left of Pat Buchanan (U.S. readers) or Preston Manning (Canadian readers) has not at one time or another been ritualistically dismissed from the bounds of acceptable opinion by that dread label, "Communist"? Even moderate conservative, destroyer of welfare, and starver of Iraqi children Bill Clinton was at times so labelled by prominent rightists without giving rise to a wave of laughter from sea to shining sea. Although, except for the hardcore right in Canada (who wanted it to be met with a chorus of, "Well, now, if an American says it, it must be true!") when Buchanan (I think) branded the country "Soviet Canuckistan," giggling and eye-rolling were quite widespread north of the 49th parallel.

Most of the people to whom the "C-word" is applied have the option of responding, "Don't be silly. Of course I'm not." While I have used that response myself, it has some drawbacks that mean further consideration might be useful:

  1. People likely to use such a label (particularly category 2 in the next numbered list) probably don't care about the actual facts and have less than no interest in the detailed schemes that liberals, progressives, radicals, and leftists of various stripes have for distinguishing amongst ourselves, so it's not as if sticking to this point and avoiding more difficult issues will actually win any kind of argument.

  2. It leaves unchallenged the ways in which the power of the label is used (often effectively) as a slander against all progressive ideas, particularly any which try to get beyond simplistic liberalism.

  3. It breaks solidarity with our comrades who are Communists. I'm not saying I would necessarily want 'em running the world, but they often do good work in the community and they don't deserve to be the butt of "Oh, I'm not one of those" from supposed allies.


So who is likely to resort to such labelling?


  1. People who have little experience with politics at all, especially with politics outside the mainstream. They encounter a political stance or action that is a bit unusual and reach for a framework in which to place it, and all they've been given by the mainstream media and education systems is the vague, scary label "Communist."

  2. Those on the right who either know an actual thing or two about the left and intentionally use the rhetorical power imbued in the "C-word" by decades of hysteria to demonize the broader left, or those in the intellectual/emotional/rhetorical thrall of such people. Lots of right-wing commentators use this kind of attack-by-association; David Horowitz, for example, does it all the time. Mike Harris, when Premier of Ontario, made comments using this device to trivialize the quarter of a million citizens that closed down Toronto to demonstrate their opposition to his policies during the Toronto Days of Action. I encountered it when doing anti-war leafletting in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the months after 9/11 -- a disgruntled passer-by responded to my assertion that the lives of all innocent civilians are worth the same, whether they were residents of Pearl Harbour or janitors in the World Trade Centre or residents of Hiroshima or villagers in Afghanistan, by saying, in effect, that my point was the kind of argument that Communists used during the Vietnam era, therefore I was a Communist, therefore basic points made by me (or anyone) about the universal value of human life did not need to be taken seriously.

  3. Left-liberals and social democrats who use a more sophisticated version of the same thing. In this approach, the speaker or writer styles themselves as having the key to the absolute most progressive social change that can be reasonably accomplished, and anyone pushing for something more than that must therefore be a Communist and therefore be deluded, and perhaps evil. I've heard the label used this way, for example, by a Hamilton city councillor who at times styled himself as a left-liberal (though the accuracy of this was very much debatable) and by a prominent NDP trade unionist in Hamilton, and it is used this way by former NDP Premier of Ontario Bob Rae in his book, The Three Questions. It has also been a common device among cold war liberals in the U.S.


The label doesn't come up as often as it used to, of course, because with the fall of the Soviet Union it just isn't as ideologically useful to those who wish to support hierarchies of power and privilege. But it still does get used. This is despite the fact that the Communist Parties have not exerted decisive influence on the broader left in North America since at least the early '50s. Though a resurgence in groups that could realistically carry the label occurred in the late '60s and early '70s, they were still a small and divided minority, and not a dominant one in the broad mass of people struggling for social change in that era. But the use of the label persists because it has power.

The power of the "C-word" is built from (a) the historical crimes committed by some people and groups and states that have worn the label proudly; (b) the hysterical distortions built upon that base by those who have opposed them; and, (c) a willful blindness towards the evils of capitalism.

Yes, Stalin was a monster. He killed millions. He had no interest in the liberation of working people, just in his own power. The historical and organizational and personal factors that lead to those events need to be understood and they need to be prevented from happening again (even as we refuse to let the crimes of a statist bureaucrat scare us away from useful analytical and political tools presented by the many disparate things that can be semi-accurately labelled "Marxism"). Later Bureaucrats-in-Charge in the USSR and its satellites were significantly less flamboyent about drinking the blood of opponents and innocents, but there were still lots of reasons to seek a more just and free social order in the so-called "workers' states."

But such oppressive realities, particularly spectacular ones a la Stalin, have been used in a very particular way by Western elites and propaganda institutions. For the most part, massacres alone do not evoke sympathy, let alone hysterical name-calling, by Western elites. As other authors have ruthlessly documented, massacres by those who oppose private ownership of the means of production are treated much more seriously than massacres by those who support it. This distortion in how crimes against humanity are treated in the dominant media and historical narratives in North America is vital because for the "C-word" to have the power that it has, Stalin's crimes need to be seen in a certain distorted context and certain other realities need to be forgotten.

It requires conceptual blurring in the minds of the audience.

It requires that all ideas about how to organize economic activity that are other than how it is done in North America be blurred together and considered to be more or less equivalent to each other and to the authoritarian, centrally-planned state economies that existed in the countries that claimed the label "Communist."

It requires that the element of Communism that the capitalist owning-class and their faithful servants actually oppose -- private owners not being able to control the apparatus of the economy any more -- be portrayed as being unavoidably linked to horrible consequences (massacres, repression, etc.) that said people are quite willing to support if done by those on their own side of the ideological divide. I see no reason why other ways of organizing economies are only and inevitably oppressive. Each must be judged on its own merits and, in fact, I think the key to a liberatory economy is opposing authoritarian economic structures regardless of whether they are private or public. However, efforts to try and get beyond the false polarization between the terms "Communist" and "capitalist" to actually understanding the world are usually ignored or treated as some kind of dirty Commie trick.

It requires that the actual oppressive behaviour by parties and states identifying as Communist be exaggerated ridiculously. Gains made in terms of economic productivity, literacy, social equity, and other things are dismissed or ignored. The oppression of stifling, hierarchical bureaucracy in the later Soviet era -- which in itself was bad enough -- is conflated with the mass death of the Stalinist era. Demons like Stalin are much discussed, whereas things like the progress fostered by the CP in its years of governing the Indian state of Kerala are ignored. People who gravitate to CPs as a mechanism which they can use to struggle for their own liberation, in areas where they are active in opposing local state and capitalist and colonial oppression, are falsely equated with Stalin. Here's an anecdote that neatly illustrates the way this exaggeration has wormed its way into popular consciousness: At a lunch in the late '90s, my partner actually witnessed a supposedly highly educated woman from the American midwest make casual conversation by asking a scientist from the former Soviet Georgia how old she was when they took her away from her parents and made her go into biology.

It requires that the actual oppressive behaviour by parties and states that are part of the capitalist world system be downplayed or outright ignored, even when they are comparable to or worse than the Communist supervised crimes mentioned above.

When folks starved or were killed by the state in the Ukraine, or the Prague Spring was crushed, it was -- to take the right-wing line to its illogical conclusion -- because a small clique of wealthy men were prevented from owning all of the factories; when folks starved in India, were killed by the state in Suharto's Indonesia (with U.S. support), or when the U.S. sponsored a coup to overthrow Allende in Chile and tens of thousands of deaths followed, this was all written off as unfortunate accident if it was acknowledged at all, rather than seen as an inherent feature of capitalism. I cannot at this time support this with references, but I would hazard a guess that more deaths between 1925 and 1955 can be attributed to Communism than can be to capitalism, but between 1955 and 1985 I would suspect the reverse would be true. The genius of capitalism is that it does its worst to people outside of its core states, or to groups that are physically within but have been built up as being psychically and socially excluded, like Aboriginal peoples and African Americans. The elites in the core capitalist states can then appeal to their own (white) citizens by saying, "No, of course our system doesn't result in anything bad like that," and have it widely believed, because it doesn't happen (at least not very much) to the folk whose belief matters most to the ongoing viability of those states/economies.

So. Death and suffering and oppression have occurred both under Communism and under the economies dominated by private tyrannies which claim to be its opposite. Despite this, dominant propaganda institutions in the West have done their best over the course of many decades to link death and suffering only with Communist structures in the popular imagination. Also, the "C-word" has been systematically and deliberately applied in an imprecise way so that its power to demonize can be applied as widely as possible. It can now be used to discredit any who attempt to point out the crimes inherent in the domination of the world by capital and who struggle against oppression that occurs under whatever banner, regardless of the actual politics or vision or ways of acting in the world that such people have.

By responding the the "C-word" solely by trying to deny its relevance to us without raising the larger context of where that label comes from and why it is used the way that it is, we leave intact a powerful rhetorical tool that the right uses to police and dismiss us regardless of where in the varied landscape of struggles for justice and liberation our politics actually fall.

2 comments:

George said...

Good piece of work. I wonder though why you have no links at all to any communist sites :-)

Scott said...

Thanks George. And an interesting question...not exactly deliberate, just a product of the haphazard way I link to things. A number of the links in the sidebar are to people, organizations, or publications that are Marxist in one sense or another, though I haven't tended to link to the sites of political parties or pre-party formations.