When Liberals Red-Bait Conservatives

by MARK GRUETER

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

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 04, 2015
Vincent J. Roscigno
University Bureaucracy as Organized Crime
Paul Street
Bernie Sanders’ Top Five Race Problems: the Whiteness of Nominal Socialism
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is White Supremacy a Mental Disorder?
Ramzy Baroud
The Palestinian Bubble and the Burning of Toddler, Ali Dawabsha
Pepe Escobar
Reshuffling Eurasia’s Energy Deck — Iran, China and Pipelineistan
L. Michael Hager
The Battle Over BDS
Eric Draitser
Puerto Rico: Troubled Commonwealth or Debt Colony?
Colin Todhunter
Hypnotic Trance in Delhi: Monsanto, GMOs and the Looting of India’s Agriculture
Benjamin Willis
The New Cubanologos: What’s in a Word?
Matt Peppe
60 Minutes Provides Platform for US Military
Binoy Kampmark
The Turkish Mission: Reining in the Kurds
Eoin Higgins
Teaching Lessons of White Supremacy in Prime-Time: Blackrifice in the Post-Apocalyptic World of the CW’s The 100
Gary Corseri
Gaza: Our Child’s Shattered Face in the Mirror
Robert Dodge
The Nuclear World at 70
Paula Bach
Exit the Euro? Polemic with Greek Economist Costas Lapavitsas
August 03, 2015
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington