This is a version of the talk I gave at 'Historical Materialism' recently, with a few of the more contentious points fleshed out. A more detailed paper will probably appear online at some point.
The countersubversive network
I thought we could approach this subject through a contemporary analogy, that of the Tea Party. It is in some senses a classic 'counter-subversive movement', resembling in many ways the ‘anticommunist network’ of the Cold War. It is, after all, out to neutralise a putative threat to property and free markets from a socialist who has captured executive power. Of course, all of this is suffused with racial affect. Thus, Tom Tancredo argued recently that “People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House ... we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote.” In my opinion, though, Dinesh D’Souza gave the argument its most interesting spin, suggesting that while there may be some merits to the charge of Obama’s socialism, matters were in fact much worse. He charges that Obama hates the West and everything it stands for. Far from being driven by MLK’s “dream”, or the “American dream”, the dreams from his father are those of anticolonial radicalism.
What to make of all this? Anti-racist liberalism charges that the allegations of ‘socialism’ are coded racial epithets – per Tim Wise, it expresses the white fear that black men are going to elope with their possessions. But this unduly flattens the discussion, reducing the Tea Party’s anti-socialism to a decoy. This is also a problem with most historical writing on southern anticommunism. As with the South's red-hunting, the Tea Party's anti-socialism is not a decoy. It is real. Hayek, who upbraided “socialists of all parties” would have understood the expansive definition of socialism that the Tea Partiers are using. Second, their property concerns may be exaggerated, but the modest reforms proposed by Obama did alarm certain interests – obviously the Koch Brothers among them. Thirdly, D’Souza is a fantasist, but he does understand that there is an historical connection between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism. The relationship between racism and anti-socialism just has to be theorised a bit more carefully.
I mentioned that the Tea Party is similar to classical anticommunist networks, but it differs in some key respects. It lacks a coherent global narrative. The charge that Obama is an occult Muslim by no means has the same power as the claim that communists were infiltrating the government and engaged in sabotage, which had some empirical basis however exaggerated. Moreover, the classical anticommunist network could be seen as composed of three coordinates: civil society groups and coalitions, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Minute Men, etc; business alliances and departments of commerce; and the state. The latter is the vital unifying element, what really gives these networks teeth. The Tea Party, of course, has no equivalent to to J. Edgar Hoover in the Justice Department, no Dies Committee, and no HUAC. It has no executed traitors, no public testimonials and no police forces and para-state mobs concretising its countersubversive intent with illegal raids. Failing thus far to colonise the state, denied the unifying properties of state power, it has remained the name for a disarticulated and ideologically unstable rightist rump. Its anti-socialism, far from becoming hegemonic, remains sectional.
Hegemony, and the historical bloc
The classical period of anticommunism that I will discuss is that between 1945 and 1965, a twenty year period during which the US was ruled by a Fordist ‘historical bloc’ – that is, an alliance between monopoly capital, the state and the trade union bureaucracy. This hegemonic moment was achieved through the destruction of the CPUSA-dominated Popular Front left and the incorporation of many of its scattered elements. This was crystallised in the outcome of the 1948 presidential election, but punctuated along the way by a series of moments, such as the Taft-Hartley anti-union legislation. Very importantly, the fight against Popular Frontism was won inside the trade union movement, inside the bureaucracy. And if, as Volosinov argued, the word is the most sensitive index of social change, then at the discursive level, this change was registered with the popularisation of terms like ‘communofascist’ among workers, which had first appeared after the Hitler-Stalin pact. This indicates that, as much as anything else, the Cold Warriors were exploiting the limitations of Popular Frontism and specifically the practices of the CPUSA which had alienated working class supporters.
For it to be effective, Cold War anticommunism had to condense and articulate highly antagonistic subject-positions. In particular, it had to plausibly incorporate elements of popular ideologies and aspirations. The extolment of the ‘free’ American worker whose income would rise with productivity, in contrast with the Soviet worker, who was enslaved and impoverished, is an example of this. [It was pointed out in the discussion that one reason for the Tea Party's failure to gain real traction in the working class is that the system can't deliver real wage rises any more, because all productivity rises are accumulated as surplus value.] The symbolic element of this hegemonic practice can be overstated. Nonetheless, it is worth looking at how hegemonic languages are constructed, and how they successfully bind together opposing interests.
In the symbolic field of anticommunism, 'freedom' is the master-signifier, not 'capitalism'. (In the symbolic field of communism, this position was occupied by 'peace'). Yet, 'freedom' for a unionised worker in a northern Ford plant meant something different than for someone in the White House, or the White Citizens' Council, or the Civil Rights Congress, or the Southern States Industrial Council, and so on. Should we say, following Laclau, that 'freedom' is a 'tendentially empty signifer', one of several such, enabling “common nuclei of meaning” to be “connotatively linked to diverse ideological-articulatory domains”? I think there is some validity in this, provided we bear a few caveats in mind.
First, that Laclau did not pioneer this insight, merely attempted to give it some rigour and systematic clarity, with the use of Althusser's concept of 'interpellation' - the process in which subjects are constituted by an ideology. Second, that the purported 'tendentially empty' character of these signifiers has to understood in light of Laclau's political project at the time. In opposition to what he saw as 'economism', in which the apparent contingency of ideological and political struggles was firmly anchored in economic class struggles, he was attempting to construct a relationship between ideology and class struggle based on articulation (the way in which a signifier is brought into relations with other signifiers) rather than reduction (in which a signifier can be reduced to a class connotation). Thus, the ideological valence of a given signifier (democracy, freedom, etc) is not given by a direct class connotation, but rather by the overall ideological framework in which it is articulated. Such signifiers could be adopted by different classes for different purposes, depending on their political project. The sense of this tended to shift from the correct claim that there is no necessary class connotation to specific ideological signifiers, to the unwarranted claim that there is necessarily no class connotation to specific ideological signifiers. This is what the term 'tendentially empty' means, and it becomes especially problematic when applied to signifiers such as liberalism and nationalism, which are not glittering generalities in the way that democracy and freedom are. Laclau, then still a marxist, was in part trying to formulate a theory of populism which would validate a populist (effectively, Eurocommunist) political strategy by communist parties. He argued that class and populist interpellations related to two distinct kinds of antagonism: class, to the conflict between the working class and the ruling class; populism, to the conflict between the people and the 'power bloc'. Populist interpellation was of itself neutral in terms of the class struggle, a raw material with no determinate class content. Therefore, populism was a field of ideological class struggle, in which rival classes would attempt to achieve a hegemonic, or counter-hegemonic, position by articulating popular ideas. The Italian Communist Party, then leading the Eurocommunists, was - he maintained - pursuing a populist strategy. It is important to note that class struggle still plays a dominant role here. The 'people', Laclau notes, don't exist at the level of productive relations. It is a purely a political and ideological category, whereas class antagonisms dominate at all levels. Still, the shift from marxist to post-marxist, and with it the abandonment of class politics as an inadequate basis for socialist struggle, did not take long. With the theory ringing so many alarm bells, then, what do I want with it? Well, bearing in mind that a theory is not reducible to its political uses, I think that with suitable modification it can help explain the contingent element in the determination of ideological signifiers. If not 'tendentially empty', we can say that such signifiers are relatively (and differently) tendentially versatile, and thus more or less capable of being used as raw material in the contruction of a hegemonic language. Racism, then, has some limited versatility, but also can be said to be connotatively linked to certain class projects more than others; and is clearly incompatible with communism. I also think that the notion of articulation correctly specifies the mechanism by which the valence of such signifiers is fixed, or contested.
Anyway, within this hegemonic bloc, there is the Deep South. And as I mentioned, there's a tendency to reduce the belligerent anticommunism of the South to an instrumental decoy. In fact, I will maintain that white supremacy, specifically southern white supremacy, was an integral component of an anticommunist praxis cohering this hegemonic alliance of class forces. Part of the means by which this worked in the South was the practice of a kind of 'racial populism'. Now, what is that? I was just talking about Laclau's notion of populism as a form of popular-democratic interpellation, working on the antagonism between the 'people' and the 'power bloc'. This involves "the presentation of popular-democratic interpellations as a synthetic-antagonistic complex with respect to the dominant ideology". This isn't adequate, but it does capture some of the dimensions of what we're studying. First of all, the theory suggests that there is a potentially oppositional content to popular-democratic ideas which, for the purposes of hegemony, must be absorbed and neutralised. Anyone who revisits the local statecraft of people like Governor Talmadge, and particularly his extremely popular oratory, will see this in action. This is done in a racist, folkish manner counterposing the (white, Protestant) 'people' to the (Jewish, Papist) 'power bloc' - Federal bureaucrats and bankers. Secondly, where hegemony breaks down, there is a potential for these same interpellations to be articulated in an oppositional manner - though, as should be clear, 'oppositional' can mean right-wing or even downright counter-revolutionary. One can think here of how the New Right articulated certain popular ideas in an antagonistic thrust not to depose the 'power bloc', but to re-organise it. By 1965, the hegemonic bloc was breaking down, anticommunist ideology was losing its traction, the position of the Deep South was increasingly at odds with US global hegemony (which was under threat from anticolonial movements), and Washington felt compelled to finally abolish Jim Crow. And in response, in the South we have numerous attempts to mobilise racial populism in an attempt either to protect the old system of Dixiecrat-managed white supremacist capitalism, or to re-organise white supremacist capitalism under a new Republican management.
In what follows, I'll try to further specify the position of the South in the 'historical bloc'.
The toxic fusion of anticommunism and racism had seen its entrée in era of haut Wilsonianism, from 1917 to 1921. In response to the socialist and labour challenges following the Bolshevik revolution, the US government embarked on a series of legal-repressive measures to identify and contain subversives. The dominant key of countersubversion was nativist, concerned with the preservation of ‘Americanism’, and racist. Robert Lansing, George Simons, and military intelligence credited the fraudulent thesis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain the success of the Bolsheviks. The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard maintained that the Bolsheviks were race traitors vaunting “the proletarianization of the world”. The Sedition Act (1918) was used pointedly against ‘aliens’, while the J Edgar Hoover used his position in the Bureau of Investigation to raise alarm over the alleged propensity of African American leaders toward communism – a claim that resonated with the previous hysteria over pro-German sympathies among African Americans. The Lusk Commission established in 1919 to look into radicalism “argued that there was ‘not a single system of Anglo-Saxon socialism, nor a single system of Latin race socialism’. The only scientific system of socialism was ‘of German-Jewish origin’.” This was a particularly portentous accusation after the feverish anti-German propaganda that shadowed US entry into the First World War.
In the ensuing period, communist agitation around the issue of race – particularly after the Moscow Congress of the Communist International supporting self-determination for the black sunbelt in 1928 – served to bolster the mutually reinforcing capacities of anticommunist and racial politics. A number of events served to underline this. In March 1931, local police arrested nine black teenage boys in Scottsboro, Alabama, charging them with the rape of two white women on a train travelling through northern Alabama. Four separate juries convicted eight of the boys that same month. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) organised a major campaign of support the ‘Scottsboro Boys’. The prosecution of black CPUSA organiser Angelo Herndon in Atlanta for “inciting insurrection” added to the perception that the red problem was a race problem, and vice versa. And though unions struggled to make progress against the southern business class in the 1930s, communists made gains among most disaffected workers in southern industries, like textiles, particularly among class conscious black workers. Black members of CPUSA made up 7.2% in 1931, but rose to 14% in 1946. Thus, in the prologue to the classical period of anticommunism, the latter was already imbricated with the preservation of Jim Crow and vice versa.
The classical phase of anticommunism
After 1945, the relationship between anticommunism and the racial order became more complex. The complexity arose from the ambiguities of managing different kinds of hegemony, and different kinds of racial order, in different kinds of space. To explain, the US had assumed a hegemonic position among an alliance of capitalist classes opposed to socialism in this period. The rise of anticolonial struggles, often influenced or led by communist parties, demanded that the US government engage in a complex series of operations. While its global interventions were often in defence of racial hierarchies that were perceived to be efficiently anticommunist, the logic of defending worldwide ‘freedom’ against its negative ‘totalitarian’ ideograph placed limits on this and also penetrated the domestic sphere. The issue of segregation “became international in scope”, a fact that its opponents made use of.
Mary Dudziak summarises the thrust of this logic: the world in which America wished to operate was in some senses like a panopticon. Egregious abuses would be witnessed by world opinion, which would in turn apply pressure. Dudziak maintains the US government was deeply reluctant to implement changes to the racial order and did so largely on the basis of global hegemonic considerations, fortifying the American model as an attractive one for decolonizing populations. As Richard Nixon put it, following a visit to the newly independent state of Ghana in 1957, “We cannot talk equality to the peoples of Africa and Asia and practice inequality in the United States”.
Southern statesmen and businessmen were the most belligerent anticommunist component of the Cold War ‘historical bloc’. And they had to fight for their own version of Americanism against that which might be necessary to secure US global hegemony. They didn’t lack for resources. The classical Jeffersonian discourse of ‘states rights’ for one. The lexicon of antitotalitarianism – against egregious Federal centralism, imposing equality from above, etc. – for another. Anticommunism was their most important weapon. This was not merely opportunistic. The evidence is that they did believe, as the Southern States Industrial Council put it, that civil rights legislation was a “blueprint for totalitarianism”. Moreover, the same anticommunist techniques used by Northern liberals against militant unionism and leftism could be just as plausibly used against anti-racist struggles in the South. If McCarthy said there were communists in the federal government, how hard was it to believe that the civil rights movement was the result of communist agitation? If global communism was, as all elements in the political establishment agreed, bent on a conspiracy of subversion and sabotage, determined to overthrow ‘Western civilization’, what was paranoid or disproportionate about attention to Martin Luther King’s communist associations, or Senate investigations into the activities of civil rights groups? Why shouldn’t HUAC have something to say about the Congress of Racial Equality? Was not the Civil Rights Congress, which embarrassingly charged the US with genocide against African Americans when it was representing itself as the vanguard of global democracy, actually a communist front? At any rate, much of the information used to discredit the foes of white supremacy was coming directly from Hoover and the FBI, who were engaging in extra-legal spying and repression programmes aimed against radicals
Anticommunist legislation was primarily used in the South to target organisations like the NAACP, the Southern Regional Conference, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Deep South could defend its ascriptive hierarchy using precisely the same hegemonic language and institutions that its occasional critics in the North had already deployed. Moreover, this intersected with international concerns that were shared in Washington. If Southern politicians deemed decolonization a danger due to the unfitness of former colonial subjects for self-government, so Washington feared “premature independence” on the same grounds – and its policies in Vietnam, the Congo and Latin America reflected this commitment.
Anticommunism also secured the unity of a panoply of forces in the south, from the White Citizens’ Council, hardline anti-radical statesmen like Senator James Eastland, ‘pragmatic segregationists’ like Governor J P Coleman of Mississippi, and business advocates of the ‘new south’, and white workers socialised in a peculiar combination of southern paternalism, evident in the Mill Towns, and southern racial populism. To understand the efficacy of racial populist interpellation, we can avail ourselves of Gramsci’s writing on ‘The Southern Question’, wherein he discusses the uses of regional variations and locally embedded cultural patterns, as well as northern quasi-colonial chauvinism toward southerners, in dividing subaltern classes and frustrating the formation of counter-hegemonic movement. To give this its specific relevance, though, it is necessary to appraise the manner in which ‘race’ is constitutive of class relations in the US. Historically, class consciousness among white American workers has taken the form of a ‘white labour republicanism’, in which white workers were bound to the racial system through fear of being reduced to the level of the ‘slave’. Their aspirations for self-determination and dignity in labour were thus incorporated into the ruling ideology. This accounts significantly for the failure of unionisation drives such as ‘Operation Dixie’, which was also the subject of red-baiting. It was, in particular, “the racialism of communism” that alienated Southern white workers.
So, those are the very rough outlines of the protocols of my research. At each step, the idea is to descend from these very general historical and theoretical contours to the level of specific social formations, to the sites of racial and anticommunist practises. We can start, for example, by asking: did capitalism underdevelop black America? This forces us to clarify what the capitalist mode of production consists of; what its relationship to 'development' is; how it can relate to other modes of production either as a determining or determined factor; how combined and articulated modes of production can sustain racial caste systems; whether it makes sense to speak of residual modes of production; and from there what the actual southern pattern of development discloses regarding its evolving productive relations, up to the period under discussion, and therefore the relationship between capitalism and the region's system of racial oppression. There is an argument about whether the continuing practice of sharecropping in the Fifties was in some sense feudal, or a kind of capitalist labour tenancy. The answer to this matters, because the planters were one of the main constituencies supporting Jim Crow. How did they fit into the hegemonic bloc? Were their forms of production ultimately incompatible with the successful capitalist development of the United States? Did the industrial and service industries of the 'new South' have a fundamentally different interest with respect to segregation? (I have some provisional answers to all of these questions, but I deliberately omit them here). And so on.
At last, what I intend to do is study the archives of the southern textile industry. This is because the textile industry was the single largest industry in the period under discussion; it was the core segregated industry, employing black workers only for menial occupations, and practising paternalism toward white workers; and it was politically influential. The mill owner Roger Milliken was Nixon’s finance chairman in 1968, a strong supporter of Pat Buchanan, and a funder of Strom Thurmond. Southern politicians worked hard to reach out to the ‘mill vote’. The textile industry was also culturally significant, a source of resonant mythologies. Billy Graham, for example, appealed to the old ‘mill hands’; and it was a prominent target of unionisation efforts by CIO as the Cold War began, and later the subject of federal de-segregation campaigns. The textile industries also had a peculiar emphasis on paternalism. The bosses, by providing amenities and services for their white workers in mill towns, also exerted a degree of influence and control over their lives, regulating not just the production of goods but the reproduction of labour – their family life, everything (this was also evident in early 20th Century Fordism) - and promoting a kind of folkish cross-class solidarity that undercut unionisation and contributed to the failure of the CIO's organising drive, Operation Dixie. Black workers' lives were controlled but less intimately regulated by the bosses, and thus they tended to be a lot more open to unionism.
Obviously, I can’t say exactly what the archives of the textile industry, southern business lobbies, civil rights groups, and the relevant unions will disclose. But I’ve been into some of the background of bodies like the Southern States Industrial Council, which I think is a hugely important business alliance organised around virulent anticommunism and the defence of racial hierarchies as a delicate cultural ecology, an appropriate form of diversity for a healthy America. It coordinated a number of class practises – industrial policy, political interventions both domestically and overseas (Rhodesia, for instance), ideological and propaganda campaigns. And what one tends to find is an articulation of anticommunism and white supremacy as distinct elements in these class practices. One finds the council mainly avoiding direct references to Jim Crow, beyond opposing "civil rights propaganda" and declaring that the issue was a "temporary and typical national vagary". They did organise against the inclusion of Hawaii as an American state, because they believed that the inclusion of another people who were not white would dilute the republic. But as importantly, they maintained that the place was some sort of Bolshevik outpost, where the ILWU ran the place like some sort of socialist dictatorship. Generally speaking, they tended to link a defence of free market conservatism to a discourse of Southern cultural vitality and diversity as a necessary element of a cosmopolitan culture. They were also profoundly belligerent in the Cold War, supporting the wars in Vietnam and Korea, and opposing Nixon’s detente with the PRC; like most southern politicians, they opposed those aspects of foreign policy designed to win the Cold War with ‘soft power’ such as the Marshall Plan (this was ‘socialism’ as far as they were concerned) and especially de-segregating measures. These are some of the concrete ways in which racism and anticommunism were articulated in the South during the Cold War.
Labels: anticommunism, cold war, hegemony, historical bloc, marxism, populism, racism, socialism, tea party, US imperialism