Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Eslanda Robeson and others - Photographer Unknown
In this talk prepared for the Albuquerque Anti-War Coalition‘s Anti-Communism & Imperialism panel discussion, Dr. Charisse Burden Stelly discusses how anti-communism and anti-Blackness are intrinsically intertwined structures of white supremacist and capitalist control.
This article originally appeared in Hood Communist.
Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Charisse Burden Stelly and I am a professor of Africana studies in political science and also a member of The Black Alliance For Peace. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be there in-person today, but I do want to offer just a few remarks on anti-communism, especially as it relates to imperialism, to give some sort of broader context for what you all will be discussing today. And so the first thing I’ll say is that anti-communism is more than a political culture or a set of foreign policy concerns or even a brief period of hysteria. But more accurately, especially the context of the United States, it’s a durable mode of governance. And as my work attests to, it’s also rooted in what I call The Black Scare and The Red Scare and how those two enunciate a counter-subversive political tradition that constitutes U.S racial capitalism.
So just briefly, The Black Scare can be understood as historically and contextually situated debasement, distortion, criminalization, and subjection of Blackness rooted in fear-mongering about Black social equality, political domination, and economic parity on the one hand, and with displacement, devalorization, and devaluation of whiteness on the other hand. It’s also the characterization of Black agitation protests, unrest, or descent as dangerous, as antithetical to the interests of the United States, and/ or as spurred by or susceptible to foreign or outside influence or agitation. So The Black Scare has historically been a means of maintaining what we might call the “badge of slavery”, that has legitimated the economic, social, and ideological denigration of Blackness. And this is particularly important because, especially in the context of the United States really irrespective of ideology, Black assertion is considered to be a form of radicalism because it is a fundamental challenge to the white supremacy that is foundational to and constitutive of the United States.
In terms of The Red Scare, I understand this as a criminalization and condemnation of anti-capitalist ideas, politics and/or practices through discourses of radical takeover, of infiltration, and disruption of the American way of life as a means of maintaining a society organized along class and race lines and dominated by a majority white capitalist elite. After 1917, The Red Scare was prominently articulated through the specter of the communist or the Bolshevist and the fellow traveler (so one who didn’t necessarily belong to a party, but who espoused those ideas). The Red Scare is a process by which a fear, hatred and obsession with communism and with radicalism writ large help to mold the United States into what it became throughout the 20th century (and even extending into 21st century) and whereby militant challenges to the status quo came to represent a danger to the nation attributed to agitators or plotters or traders or conspirators.
And so governance aimed at managing and criminalizing racial and political others who threatened to upend or transform the racialized class order actually stoked white supremacy and cross-class collaboration among white folks that has obfuscated economic exploitation in the interests of the ruling class. So this is the basis of the anti-communist mode of governance which includes all three branches of government (also state and local governments) and has been maintained through repressive action, intentional inaction, and also stifling reaction. So anti-communism as a mode of governance uses public authority and societal self-regulation to diffuse throughout society penalty for (and the marginalization regulation and criminalization of) ideas and beliefs that because they challenge racial capitalism and its foundations (not least racial hierarchy, economic inequality and class antagonism) are rendered communist and therefore antithetical to, or threatening or dangerous to “true Americanism.”
So a public authority is manifested in legislation, federal and supreme court decisions, surveillance by government agencies, presidential executive orders, and also ubiquitous federal and state congressional investigative committees. And so these were especially prominent during the era of what we might call the first cold war, at this point, because we’re probably barreling toward another, if not already firmly in one. So anti-communist governance is facilitated through an anti-radical state apparatus that encompasses all three branches of government. And then of course, public authorities aimed to eject, punish, and neutralize communists and their fellow travelers and sympathizers. And those were broad designations that included anybody who criticized or sought to transform a racial capitalist society. And this includes peace activists, civil rights leaders, dissident artists, and progressive labor organizers of all types.
So that is to say that anti-communism is not just about communists, it’s about people who are challenging some aspect of the status quo, who could then be red-baited as communist to protect racial capitalism against the threat of radical transformation. In effect, anti-communist governance as a product of two world wars and numerous revolutions that reflected a failure of the United States to adjust to power, political or revolutionary ramifications that confronted the 20th century world (and now the 21st century). In other words, anti-communist governance is a backlash to these phenomenons. As such, anti-communism imposes a uniformity on communism and all that is said to be linked to it, positioning them as a preeminent threat to US national security and societal organization. And that then encourages an international strategy of military containment and rollback. Domestically, rigid and repressive opposition to change an imposition of adherence to the status quo allows for the vehement attack and discrediting of even reformist ideas and policies (historically, this is like The New Deal) and the eraser of any distinction between act, intention, and ideas. And importantly, through this regime, property becomes conflated with sort of life or human life such that an attack on a property takes on an enormous challenge to the state.
Disloyalty, danger, and subversion also become these mutually reinforcing charges that uphold the discipline and punishment that emanates from anti-communist governance. In addition to public authority, anti-communist governance is practiced through societal self-regulation or soft power insofar as the mere existence of anti-radical laws or restraints cast a shadow far beyond the literal reach. So hundreds of thousands of individuals live in fear and hold their thoughts and opinions to themselves because the atmosphere of freedom is poisoned by the fact that repressive laws are passed.
So for example, people might not want to join a March or protest or might feel that they need to speak out against something that is characterized as communist or radical like Black Lives Matter, for example, simply because laws and policies exist that repress them. So the soft power of anti-communist governance means that racially, politically minoritized people are forced to genuflect to the status quo less they’d be marginalized, excluded, criminalized, physically attacked or worse. Likewise, ordinary citizens under the influence of anti-communist governance are conditioned to be hostile to and prejudice against communities and other communists, and other political militants, and to enact private anti-communist actions. These individuals include landlords, private employers, book publishers, those working in mass media, teachers, all around people espouse this rhetoric about communism or socialism that they know nothing about, but this is because they’re conditioned by the extent society.
And of course the persecution of communists (and those deemed communists or red-baited) and their right to free speech has especially dire consequences for Black people for whom the right to dissent and disagree is essential to challenging white supremacy and specific annunciations of anti-Black racism. And so while the cold war atmosphere (assisted by ways of repressive laws and congressional investigative committees) victimized hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are communist and anti-communist alike, it was actually entry into world war one that sacralized anti-radicalism and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, that incited radicalism to become increasingly identified with communism.
So the counter-subversive political tradition, that I mentioned earlier, after that moment became governed through anti-communism and then bolshevism became the sort of preeminent boogeyman and so far as, at that moment, the United States found itself confronting a large potentially powerful nation governed by communist committed to an ideological position hostile to bedrock American values. And that fear of an ideologically alien foreign power linked with a subversive domestic movement suddenly seemed grounded in reality. So in other words, 1917 is sort of this takeoff moment for the ubiquity and entrenchment of anti-communism.
And though some laws are indeed addressed exclusively toward communism, the long history of U.S. anti-radicalism means that the anti-communist mode of governance also targets a wide spectrum of political beliefs in association, especially those committed to racial and economic justice and internationalism. Anti-communist governance therefore exceeds the so-called imperative of managing a small minority of communists from attempting to ostensibly overthrow the U.S. government by force or violence and from eroding the American way of life.
In reality, what anti-communism does is transform anything counter-hegemonic or nonconforming into subversion, foreignness, or disloyalty by punishing it as communist, communist inspired, or communist infiltrated and therefore illegal, illicit or criminal. As such, U.S. racial capitalism in the society that engenders is one of the most repressive of all western countries. It has adopted legislation and practices that actually represses democratic liberties more so than any other country in the west. It has refused to accommodate not only communism, but dissenting thoughts and actions of all kinds. And this is relatively— it’s not that it’s only the United States, but it’s relatively unique to the United States. And the United States actually has imported those policies abroad through its practices of imperialism. So, the United States government legitimates repressive domestic and interventionist foreign policy through aggressive rhetoric, coercion of loyalty, grilling people on whether or not they are communists. And if they are considered to be communist or have been communist or socialist or whatever, they’re sort of hampered from holding leadership positions. And then there’s also widespread prosecution and persecution.
So anti-communist governance means that those who are accused, inicted, or found guilty of violating the wide array of anti-communist legislation, policy, and practice, are subjected to severe restriction and enormous penalty not least harassment, ostracism, loss of work and livelihood as well as income. It also calls into question who is deserving of and who can be denied rights and liberties based on beliefs. And that’s provided a path— anti-communism just provided a powerful check on the ostensible freedoms we’re supposed to hold like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, due process and protection against self-incrimination. This red scare logic, which informs and is informed by The Black Scare, is foundational to the passage of repressive legislation that helps the US to sweep racial militancy, worker agitation, and progressive policy into a sort of dragnet of repression or condemnation. And we see this, for example, with Critical Race Theory.
And just to wrap it up, anti-communist governance is especially, though not exclusively, top-down in its character. In other words, it’s popular, but not populous and emanates from the upper echelons of society (namely the federal government) and is dispersed downward. And so support for anti-communist governance is garnered through the harnessing of anti-reform and sentiment to concerns about national security. Federal anti-communism in turn gives rise to derivative anti-communist politics at the state and local levels not least because organizations that lobby for and support federal anti-communism writ large are also active at those other levels. Likewise, state and even some municipal legislators respond very closely to the force of the federal law to implement new or reinvigorate old anti-radical legislation that has been molded from federal legislation or that which is in use in other states, as well. For example, we see this with these anti-protest laws that are popping up in places like Florida.
What we need to understand is that this legislation is very much in place, which is why I emphasize that anti-communism as a mode of governance, it’s not just about communism. We still see these logics operating very much today in targeting Black Lives Matter, which is by no means a communist organization. And we see this happening internationally with attacks on Venezuela, attacks on Cuba, attacks on North Korea. Anti-communism as a mode of governance as a way of sort of implementing rule over society both domestically and internationally is very strong and very ubiquitous. It has a very long history and it still continues into the present. I hope these brief remarks have helped to provide some framing to your overall panel and I thank you all for listening to me today.
Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly is the 2021-2022 Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She is completing a book manuscript titled Black Scare/Red Scare to be published with University of Chicago Press.