Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

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:


More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government; War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution Was an Atrocity
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat