McCarthyism in the Academy


In an Italian movie, The Conformist, a Fascist assassin goes to confession and tells the priest of his many crimes. When the priest asks if he is a member of a 'subversive organization,' he replies that he hunts down the subversives. The priest answers that all is forgiven.

In US media, right-wingers lie routinely about the left and liberals without confessions. Today, liberals like comedian Al Franken (in US politics comedians are often more insightful than media talking heads) and FAIR, the progressive media watchdog, have begun to expose the lies and the liars.

In the academic world such attacks still occur where Communists are concerned. Previously, in the HUAC tradition, only anti-Communist voices were officially heard. Today, former Communists and scholars studying the CPUSA, anti-Communists and those with mixed opinions of the movement are acceptable. Yet, in the Catch-22 tradition, Communist Party USA activists and scholars are not considered 'reliable' interpreters of CPUSA history.

A 'gentleman’s agreement' exists in both establishment circles and even among some on the academic left to recognize respectfully the academic red-baiters and ignore the academic Reds. In essence, what this does is create the impression that the CPUSA or any socialist movement doesn’t exist in the country.

I’ve been attacked as a Communist party member in both rightwing and establishment media for decades. I try not to hide my political beliefs and affiliations. When these sources contend that I am a regular writer for the People’s Weekly World and an 'editor' of Political Affairs (which is very unfair to Joe Sims and Joel Wendland, who do the day to day editorial work) I take it as a compliment, albeit a 'left-handed' one. I hope that their attacks will boost circulation, Yet, I realize that it is more important for non-Communists to answer such attacks because anti-Communism is really aimed at them as much as it is aimed at me, for whom the word Communist is a badge of honor, not a stigma, as the ruling classes through the world have sought to make it since the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Recently, John Haynes and Harvey Klehr, leaders since the Reagan years of what I call the 'HUAC school' of CPUSA scholarship (compiling party documents in the HUAC tradition as police dossiers) launched an attack on me in their polemical book, In Denial, as part of a general attack on contemporary liberal and left scholarship on the CPUSA. Their aim, I think, is to compel scholars and journalists writing about CPUSA-related history to put some statements concerning espionage and Soviet domination as the equivalent of the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packs. In the Encyclopedia of American National Biography (1998), a major reference work, I wrote six articles, including one on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which they targeted. My article, they claimed, was 'dishonest' and dangerous in such a reference work. Why had the editors let me write this entry? I was 'accused' by reviewers of having said that the so-called 'Venona' files had been 'discredited.' Right-wing reviewers used the work to assert that I had written that the Rosenbergs were 'orthodox Jews' rather than Communists. First of all, the editors asked me to write the Rosenberg entry because my name had been suggested to them positively by some scholar (I still don’t know whom, although Klehr and Haynes might want to investigate and have the editors name names). I presented the facts of the Rosenbergs’ life, their trial and execution, and the fierce and unresolved political debate concerning the case, which has now lived significantly longer than they lived. I wrote that the Rosenbergs had been born into Orthodox Jewish families, not that they themselves had been Orthodox Jews as adults. I wrote that stories former Soviet KGB agents had sought to sell in the 1990s accusing prominent figures of being Soviet agents had been discredited, not that the Venona project decryptions of Soviet messages had been discredited. I have strong doubts about the so-called 'Venona documents,' but I didn’t include those doubts in my article. What I wrote had very little to do with what Klehr, Haynes and reviewers had said, but for them that was never the point.

A generation ago, I met Harvey Klehr at an event at the CPUSA’s national headquarters. He was not yet the leading professional anti-Communist that he was to become. When I mentioned that he had not interviewed CPUSA members as against ex-Communists, he said that such people always lie. When I told him that I was a Communist, he looked at me as if I were a vampire and said something to the effect that 'you call yourself that.' Klehr and Haynes and their red-baiting allies will continue to scavenge through Communist documents here and abroad searching for spy and conspiracy stories. Most liberal and progressive scholars will mention, footnote and then try to ignore them. However, it is far healthier to confront their distortions and delusions, which have both trivialized and demonized the Communist movement. Their work is to scholarship what the 17th century Catholic Church was to science when it compelled Galileo to repudiate his theory that the earth traveled around the sun because it contradicted Catholic dogma.

When he was a young anti-Fascist in Vichy controlled Martinique during World War II, Frantz Fanon remembered a teacher warning him and his fellow Black students that whenever they heard talk about the Jews, they should know that the Fascists were talking about them. When the red-baiters of the Right and Center in the US talk pejoratively about Communists, we should all know that they are now and have always been talking about progressives and the broad left.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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