Full episode on Patreon: Bill and Rachel discuss the Red Ark (or Soviet Ark) deportations of Russian-born American anarchists in 1919. (Don’t miss our two part series from 2019 on American anarchist history!)
Full episode on Patreon: Bill and Rachel take a look at the Alien Registration (Smith) Act of 1940, still on the books today, which prohibits advocating the violent overthrow of the US government.
Description: Hawaii Communists, Hawaii Democrats, and how to build a multi-racial workers’ coalition in the 1940s and 1950s. Bill, Rachel, Nate.
Links and notes for episode 14 (PDF): http://arsenalfordemocracy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Lend-Lease-Episode-14-Notes-and-Links-Hawaii-Communists-and-the-Hawaii-Democratic-Party.pdf
Music by Stunt Bird.
Description: US-Soviet Relations and Communist Party USA activities under FDR and Henry Wallace. Discussion by Bill, Nate, and Greg.
Links and notes for episode 9 (PDF): http://arsenalfordemocracy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Lend-Lease-Episode-9-Links-and-Notes-US-Soviet-Relations-Under-FDR.pdf
Music by friend of the show Stunt Bird.
I’ve been reading very heavily from the “Debates in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention 1917-1918” (particularly Volumes III and IV) — published by Wright and Potter Printing Company (the state printers) in 1920 and freely available today from Google Books — and it’s pretty fascinating for both its detailed discussions of political theory and practice and its time-capsule-like preservation of the tumultuous historical time period in which the convention occurred.
The convention was convened in early 1917, before the U.S. entered World War I and as Russia was beginning to collapse. By the time it ended in mid-1918, the U.S. intervention was in full swing — as was the Bolshevik October Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The delegates in the heat of debates toward the end of the convention could not help but be swept along by the momentous history unfolding around the world.
While there are many historical points I hope to explore more, the convention’s discussions of the Russian Revolution interested me for a first post. Just a few selections are included below.
One important Somerville delegate thought ballot initiatives were as bad as the Russian Revolution:
Mr. Underhill (Somerville): I may be unduly alarmed. The initiative and referendum are not in operation in Massachusetts as yet, and possibly the recent publicity given to the chief backer of the initiative and referendum, Mr. Hearst, and his newspapers may cause the people of Massachusetts to pause and consider whether anything advocated by that gentleman or his newspapers is for the best interest of the community, and it will be defeated. But, sir, if it should be adopted, I should like to remind you that since the Convention passed the initiative and referendum, we have had an illustration of the will and rule of the majority, in Russia. We have had an example of popular government without restraint and without restrictions, which could occur in Massachusetts as well as in Russia. And, sir, it seems to me that if we are going to open the doors wide, we are going to have every demagogue from Cape Cod to the Berkshire Hills telling the people “All you have got to do now is to vote for a homestead and the Government the State or the municipality is going to give it to you.”
In reality, contrary to Delegate Underhill’s belief at the time, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia proved to be a coup by a small minority faction, rather than an expression of majority will. He made repeat appearances in the convention debates labeling every left-leaning constitutional proposal a Bolshevik plot, including the idea of having state-subsidized housing as a right for every citizen. Another point of contention in the debates was when Underhill implied that the Russian immigrant population in Brockton at the time was a Bolshevik sleeper cell.
Ironically, a Boston delegate argued that ballot initiatives might actually help conservatively counteract the (what he believed to be) undue militant leftist influence upon state legislators, who he felt would actually be easier to pressure behind closed doors than the whole electorate:
Mr. Herbert A. Kenney (Boston): What do we find in this situation? President Wilson has called the initiative and referendum “a gun behind the door.” My distinguished friend from Brookline (Mr. Walker) spoke very forcibly on those lines. Suppose, for instance, that the House and the Senate say that the minimum wage shall be, – as they do in Russia under the Bolsheviki, – say, $100 a week. Now the Legislature must vote for that; why? Because if one single member of the Legislature votes against that the labor element will center its fire on that man. They might not get him in one year but they can get him in two years or three years or perhaps ten years. He is a marked man. The same way with the Senate.
In a discussion of the minimum wage (and whether to guarantee it under the Constitution), one of the more leftist delegates argued that it was a necessity to avoid a revolution or takeover by industrial labor — and described his own evolving viewpoints on the future of labor politics in the U.S. over the momentous course of 1917 and early 1918: Read more
Idle speculations on lost opportunities in US-Vietnam relations.
I suspect, from all that I’ve read over the years (particularly books like “The Last Valley”), that Vietnam is and likely always was probably the least communist of all the “communist countries,” past and present. (Today it certainly isn’t. Even China doesn’t hold a candle to the mass capitalism of modern Vietnam.)
Communism for Vietnam was, in essence, a successful political and material organizing mechanism for national liberation and an ideology for poverty reduction and social modernization. If you look at the World Bank’s inaugural (1977) report on the unified Vietnam, it’s clear that the Communist Party began dismantling communism — particularly the necessary wartime central planning — and began reorganizing the entire economy of both halves of the country within about a year of the war’s end. There’s also a lot of emphasis in the United States – because of who we backed in the war and our many South Vietnam military and political refugees – about the postwar reprisals, but there’s far less acknowledgment of how fast the postwar Vietnamese government reintegrated and reconstructed southern Vietnam’s economy after the war. And all that transformation was happening in 1975 and 1976, before even the sweeping liberalizations of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Politically and governmentally, communism was a good model for supervising the war effort in Vietnam’s wars of independence and unification from 1945-1975. It proved itself in battle for decades. Once they won, it went away because its utility was past.
For Vietnam, even economically, communism was never an interim state before utopian socialism. It was an interim state before broad-based, social, and artisanal capitalism – a capitalism that cares about the little people and gives them a real shot in life.
It was the dictatorship for the proletariat to get the West out of Vietnam and itself out of extreme poverty. Read more
Yesterday in a post about the Uighurs wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, I made an allusion to U.S. Cold War policies toward anti-colonial movements in developing nations, which I want to explore further today:
And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.
We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.
In hindsight, many American intellectuals can see that there were alliances to be made, which we rejected to our detriment. But even today, a lot of people — particularly on the conservative end of foreign policy — are still refusing to make the distinctions.
We saw this come up a few weeks ago in discussions over the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The Cold War mentality produced a lot of tangled, unlikely, and unfortunate alliances all around, for both the Americans and the Soviets. Nelson Mandela, while not a communist himself, was willing to work with communists who shared his core principles of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and often (but not always) a unitary nationalism.
The United States ought to have joined in that approach, rather than siding with the crazed white supremacist regime that Mandela was resisting. But we couldn’t see past the communist involvement in the movement.
The reality of the situation in much of the developing world after World War II was that the communists were often the best organized members of the wider nationalist independence movements in those nations. And their affiliation with the independence movements — while sort of contrary to original Marxian views that all borders, boundaries, and national divisions were lies intended to divide the global working classes and turn them against each other — was not a huge surprise, given the influences of Lenin on 20th century communism around the world.
Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, certainly had a range of terrible policies as a leader. But before he became a dictator, he was a key contributor to communist theory.
Perhaps his biggest contribution was toward explaining the merger of colonial economics and political imperialism. When other thinkers were still purely obsessed with overthrowing industrial governments in Europe, Lenin was actually raising pointed criticisms of colonialism and explaining how the extractive relationship was harming poor and working class people both in the colonized and colonizer nations.
(The low-cost or enslaved labor of colonized nations, Lenin felt, had made possible the manufacture of so many cheap goodies back home in the colonial powers that The People in those countries were content enough not to rise up. He further argued that colonialism was just one tool of a global financial system geared toward big business capitalism and that it provided the cheap, raw resources necessary to fuel the wealth accumulation of the industrialists’ growing mega-companies. Lenin wanted to cut the legs out from under the big capitalists and spur their European workers to rise up, and neither development was helping.)
So the Soviet Union, despite what was essentially its own colonization of the outer periphery of the former Russian Empire, ended up expending a lot of energy and resources in aiding independence movements in developing regions. The deal was that you would get help in exchange for becoming a communist and pledging to support the Soviet Union.
And so it was that many activists in the developing world joined communist movements out of a sense that Lenin’s theories and Soviet assistance offered the best route to political and economic independence for their home countries.
More broadly, they also saw communism as a way toward a more egalitarian and inclusive society than the divide-and-conquer political strategies of the occupying powers and the economic inequality they were fostering as they created ruling elites, whether white or native.
The Soviet Union, while actually quite socially progressive compared to much of the West at the time, was of course deeply flawed in many ways and extremely brutal at times.
But from the perspective of someone already living under a brutal, unequal, and impoverished colonial occupation (or post-colonial system like the apartheid regime in South Africa), it makes sense to consider communism as a way out.
Communism was offering colonized and occupied peoples self-determination, a path toward industrialization, and the promise of widely distributed and improved living standards that were probably higher than what colonialism and apartheid were offering. Even if the improvements communism could achieve might be less than what well-regulated and politically free market-capitalism might have been able to achieve, neither of those — simply put — were on offer under colonial and white supremacist rule. So communism would have looked pretty good at that point.
Rebuffing potential friends
Even so, many communists in emerging nations during their independence and early post-colonial movements actually tried to befriend the United States because they saw it as a freer alternative to following the Soviet model and they believed Americans — who had thrown off mercantilist colonial rule first and held certain truths to be self-evident for all men — would be sympathetic to the struggles of people who wanted freedom from colonialism, national independence, and upward social mobility for all.
Unfortunately, Americans were often too blinded by ideological taxonomies — and, of course, concerns over maintaining business interests of American multinational firms in developing nations. This resulted in classifying everyone as Red or Not-Red, even if that meant opposing friendly movements that identified as predominantly communist during their resistance phase against oppressive colonial and post-colonial regimes.
It also often meant supporting brutally undemocratic regimes who happened to identify as anti-communist, usually because that country’s main national opposition was communist or because pitching one’s self as a guardian of American business and political interests was a convenient means of acquiring military aid to suppress one’s populations.
Nelson Mandela wasn’t communist himself. But in the communists, he saw brothers-in-arms who shared many of the same beliefs and were willing to help oppose the apartheid regime of the Afrikaner white minority rulers. The United States was ambivalent toward the regime at the best of times and actively refused to oppose the apartheid government at the worst of times.
Rather the criticizing these past associations as we consider the passing of Mandela, Americans should reflect on how ideological blinders have warped our global relations in past eras and what we can do to ensure we are helping the right people and not helping the wrong people in future.
The more we provide help to those who need it and the less we offer aid and comfort to oppressive regimes, the less likely people will be to join radical and violent movements or to associate with movements and ideologies we consider harmful.
The United States must lead by example, not lecture, and must help economically and politically oppressed populations wherever we can.
The challenge today
With the end of the Cold War and the fizzling of many of the remaining “communist” movements in the developing world, “communism” is no longer the source of dangerous American foreign policy conflations. These days, as I suggested in my earlier post, the United States needs to do a better job of making distinctions between resistance movements that use political Islam as a convenient and unifying force against their oppressors or poor living conditions (but which do not pose a threat to the United States and likely don’t even oppose us) and those movements that use an extremist twisting of Islam as part of a delusional plan for a “global caliphate” or whatever.
The latter are angry, unemployed young men who have heard too many conspiracy theories explaining their circumstances and just want to watch the world burn. The former are also dissatisfied with present conditions and see the organized structure and shared identity of political Islam as a means of reorganizing a society away from corrupt and failed rule that benefits a few and toward a system that distributes benefits to the needy and provides basic social services as well as law and order. Some in that category also see a need to incorporate the militarism of early Islam as a motivating force to overthrow the status quo whether it derives from bad local/domestic leadership, a distant and unrepresentative central government (as in Russia or China), or foreign occupation. But this doesn’t automatically mean anti-Western/anti-American views. It’s just one type of response to local conditions.
We shouldn’t be the arbiters of the right to armed resistance oppression, but we do need to recognize who is resisting their oppressive local circumstances — poverty, corruption, occupation, inequality, dictatorship — and isn’t just trying to burn down everything for the sake of it. Between alienating moderate Islamist political parties and frequently blowing up civilians accidentally in predominantly Muslim nations because they might be near someone with a gun, we’re doing pretty badly on that front right now. And again, we don’t need to arbitrate the issue of whose armed resistance is most legitimate if we are pursuing policies that support liberation of all oppressed populations and encourage non-violent solutions.
Unlike with the past “threat” of “global communism,” there are way more people today who identify as Muslim than those who identified as communist at its peak. Learning to employ and display a nuanced understanding of who the real enemies are — the dangerous radicals who seek global revolution, chaos, and general violence — will be crucial to earning trust and good will from a large portion of the planet, whether they live under oppressive or free governments.