When Liberals Red-Bait Conservatives


As a consequence of the shutdown drama, Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats and liberals such as journalist Jonathan Chait are now describing their fiercest Republican adversaries in the House as “anarchists,” on the grounds that the latter supposedly oppose government. This accusation is bogus on many levels — for instance, where would Republicans be without corporate welfare? — while it also produces the rather absurd spectacle of liberals actually red-baiting conservatives.

Though the shutdown is temporarily over, charges of “anarchy” against the Tea Party are not likely to go away any time soon, so let’s explain what’s wrong here. Reid made the following comments in September, which he repeated on several occasions over the last couple months:

“When I was in school,” said Reid, “I studied government, among other things, and prior to World War I and after World War I we had the anarchists…they [Tea Party] have the same philosophy as the early anarchists: they do not believe in government.”

For one thing, the comparison overlooks the non-trivial fact that the anarchists of the period he mentions were exclusively leftwing revolutionaries: anti-capitalist and anti-military, in addition to being anti-government. Moreover, for the anarchists, capitalist governments were mere puppets of the banking and financial class, the real rulers. In short, anarchist Emma Goldman could not be any further away ideologically and culturally from…Ted Cruz.

As most CounterPunchers are aware, anarchism emerged as a part of the broader international socialist movement in the latter half of the 19th century. By favoring immediate revolution while simultaneously rejecting calls for the seizure of state power, anarchists were positioned not only to the left of liberals and reform-minded socialists but also, arguably, to the left of Marxists and other socialist revolutionaries. Goldman — nicknamed “Red Emma” by a hostile press — and her anarchist comrades saw government and business as inseparable allies, colluding against the interests of ordinary people.

Anarchists organized labor strikes, denounced industrial tycoons, and took part in many other acts not calculated to warm the hearts of conservatives. As a result, powerful interests began targeting anarchists and other Reds, culminating in the period in American history during and after WWI known as the First Red Scare, where leftists (esp. foreign radicals), namely socialists, anarchists, Wobblies, and communists were subjected to official persecution.

In addition to state persecution, vigilante mobs of “superpatriots,” such as the American Defense Society and the Ku Klux Klan, gathered to attack radicals on the streets. It would be much more accurate to say Tea Party Republicans are the intellectual and spiritual descendants, not of the anarchists, but of these vicious reactionaries who sometimes literally tarred and feathered anarchists and other leftists.

Reid’s silly remarks should have been dismissed, regardless of what one makes of the actual tenets, practices, and history of the anarchist movement; instead, liberals ran with them, turning Reid’s folly into something like official party talking points. Republicans in Congress who shut down the government, we are solemnly told, are “anarchists.”

Reid’s essential mistake is to greatly oversimplify anarchist philosophy in order to make sense of his claim. Anarchism can be confusing, so if Reid had merely misinterpreted a finer theoretical point, it would have been forgivable. But to reiterate, in this case he refers specifically to anarchists who were militant revolutionaries in favor of the elimination of such institutions as Wall Street exchanges, all police, prisons, military, Congress itself, etc. — in other words, the entire imperial capitalist state, rather than simply “the government.”

It is difficult to see how Reid’s claim could be more wrong: the only aspect of government that anarchists might seek to preserve are wealth transfers to the poor along with pooled investment programs like Social Security — the very parts of government the Tea Party most eagerly hope to destroy.

Of course, there is now something called anarcho-capitalism, but it is a right-wing affair that has no connection to the anarchist tradition and in any case was not invented until the second half of the 20th century, long after the period of “early anarchism” to which Reid refers. As far as actual anarchists who exist in the present, the two most well known are probably Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, who are not exactly the sort of thinkers one lumps together with the Tea Party. If Reid had compared Tea Party Republicans to anarcho-capitalists, however, he might have been on to a point worth considering.

But it appears he and other Democrats are not particularly interested in either historical accuracy or major distinctions of political theory. After all, members of the same Democratic administration also branded Chelsea Bradley Manning and Julian Assange “anarchists,” which suggests this move by Democrats to label people anarchists is just an unprincipled rhetorical tactic designed to undermine disparate enemies, never mind the actual meaning of the term.

Anarchists have always been misunderstood, but mistaking them for nothing but a gang of unscrupulous bomb-throwers, the more traditional insult, is somehow less offensive than comparing them to Republicans, partly because it is less accurate. In the past, people were at least conscious of the fact that anarchists are on the left side of the political spectrum.

For decades, conservatives have been smearing their liberal counterparts as “commies,” “pinkos,” “Reds,” and so on; now in a ridiculous reversal of historical roles, Democrats are unwittingly engaging in red-baiting propaganda, by trying to stir up fear and hatred against those awful Republican Anarchists.

The most irritating thing about all this is how almost nobody called out Reid’s nonsense. It was widely reported in U.S. media, but the coverage generally presented Reid’s comment without response, as if it were somehow reasonable to assert that Republicans are closet admirers of the writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and long for the day when private property is gone and everybody makes the same amount of money.

Mark Grueter is a PhD candidate in history at Simon Fraser University. His dissertation focuses on Russian anarchist workers in North America during the period of WWI and the First Red Scare. Contact: mgrueter@sfu.ca


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