Would Anyone Care to Defend American Radicals?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I am told that a leading senior and radical American historian quipped last year that a second Trump administration might have given the American Left a chance to gather together – under armed guard “in Yankee Stadium.”

A bit of excessively paranoid dark humor? Maybe. But maybe not entirely. Consider. As President of the United States, Donald Trump:

+ Made repeated fascist-style conflations of corporate and moderate Democrats with the “radical” and “socialist Left.” Trump (and his allies) did this continuously through the summer and fall of 2020, routinely calling the Democrats “the radical left Democrats” and “the socialist Democrats,” preposterously claiming that Kamala Harris was a “communist,” and absurdly calling Wall Street ally Joe Biden “a trojan horse of socialism.”

+ Tried to blame the fascistic white-supremacist atrocities in Charlottesville on something he called “the Alt-Left,” absurdly suggesting moral and practical equivalence between violent white supremacists and fascists who came to defend Confederate (secessionist slave power) statues and the peaceful liberal and progressive civil rights counter-protesters who counter-marched in the name of Black Lives and social justice.

+ Said this during a September 2020 campaign rally in Ohio: “The choice in November is going to be very simple. There’s never been a time when there’s been such a difference. One is probably communism. I don’t know. They keep saying socialism. I think they’ve gone over that one. That one’s passed already.”

+ Repeatedly called Black Lives Matter and anti-racist demonstrators “radicals,” “Marxists,” and “anarchists.”

+ Repeatedly spoke and tweeted in menacing terms about “radical Left ANITIFA,” as if a large and radical Left organization by that name existed and posed a dire threat to American society.

+ Held a July 4th, 2020 celebration event displaying openly fascist Third Reich aesthetics at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he claimed that a “left-wing fascist mob” was trying to end “America” by “erasing the nation’s history and indoctrinating its children.”

+ Gave a July 4th speech in Washington DC featuring high-tech military displays and patriotic pomp. Trump proclaimed that “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”

+ Threatened the tax-exempt status of American colleges and universities, bizarrely claiming that “Too many universities and school systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination.”

+ Told a white Texas audience in the summer of 2020 that “the radical Left” wanted to “abolish the suburbs” and “incite riots.”

+Called the remarkable anti-racist George Floyd Rebellion a “radical Left” attempt to “destroy our country” and described mass protest of racist police violence as “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that was “the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools” that had “gone on far too long,”

+Issued an under-reported June 26th, 2020 “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence” that sought to justify the repression of civil rights and social protesters by falsely claiming that “innocent citizens” were under attack from “arsonists and left-wing extremists” who “have led riots in the streets, burned police vehicles, killed and assaulted government officers as well as business owners defending their property.” Trump’s Order claimed that the George Floyd uprising “paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust,” “shamelessly attack[s] the legitimacy of our institutions,” and challenges “the fundamental truth that America is good, her people are virtuous, and that justice prevails in this country to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the world.” In an especially ominous passage, Trump targeted “Marxism” in particular, saying that: “Many of the rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists who have carried out and supported these acts have explicitly identified themselves with ideologies—such as Marxism—that call for the destruction of the United States’ system of government.”

+Absurdly called the centrist magazine The Atlantic “radical left.”

+ Justified the provocative, constitutionally dubious deployment of federal paramilitaries to Portland by claiming absurdly that Portland’s “radical Left” mayor was “going to lose Portland” to radical Marxists and anarchists.

I could go on.

It wasn’t just Trump. His Christian white nationalist Attorney General Bill Barr went on the television show of the frothing FOX News fascist Mark Levin to call Black Lives Matter “Bolshevik” last summer. And GOP politicos across the country went and continue to go fully neo-McCarthyite in their insane denunciation of mostly centrist and corporate Democrats as “socialist” and “radical Left.” (How many times did the neofascist former Georgia senator Kelly Loughlin called the progressive Reverend Warnock “radical left” and “socialist” before he beat her in a special election last January?)

Absurdly calling the Democrats “radical Left” and “socialist” is a staple on FOX, OAN, Newsmax, right-wing talk radio, and in Republican campaign literature and agitation. It hardly causes a single raised eyebrow to hear the centrist corporate and imperialist ruling class president Joe Biden described as an agent of “socialism” by politicos and talking heads on the right.

All of which raises an interesting question to this writer and historian, for whom open identification as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist socialist has long been a career-killer: has anybody of any prominence in American public life stood up to say a kind, decent, and honest human word in defense of the right of American human beings to actually be left radicals, Marxists, anarchists, socialists, and communists and/or about the remarkable contribution such human beings have made in American history and society?

I haven’t seen or heard any such defense or acknowledgement. Biden last year boasted of how he “beat the socialist” – that is, how he defeated the vaguely social-democratish Bernie Sanders (with some unacknowledged help from the corporate political and media establishment) in the Democratic primaries. Democrats habitually shrug off and deny charges of socialism as if socialism is a virulent and evil disease instead of what it really is: an existential necessity if humanity is going to have any chance at a decent future. Mr. “socialist” Sanders himself eschews radicalism, denying that there is anything radical about his calls for Single Payer national health insurance and a Green New Deal. “We are not calling for radical change!” But what on Earth would be wrong with doing that?

When’s the last time you heard Bernie quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on how “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters is “the radical reconstruction of society itself”? I’ve never heard him or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez quote King or Albert Einstein or Hellen Keller or WEB DuBois or John Dewey on the need for radical societal overhaul.

Does anybody in the mainstream political culture care to acknowledge and remind Americans about the incredible damage that was inflicted on American life and democracy (and many thousands of individuals, including my liberal and distinctly non-radical grandfather) by McCarthyism? Would anybody like to acknowledge the critical role that real actual red-blooded American radicals have played in expanding popular power and fighting for democracy and social justice in movements against chattel slavery, wage slavery, racial oppression, sexism, imperialism, fascism, nativism, industrial oppression, corporate monopoly, financial domination, educational stultification, ignorance, thought control, propaganda, and ecocide?

Would anyone in public life like to publicly acknowledge that obsessive anti-Left radicalism and chronic false conflation of liberals with Left radicals are hallmark parts of the fascist political and ideological playbooks? (Don’t look for this on MSNBC or in The New York Times: FOX News and the Republicans constantly, falsely, and absurdly call the Democrats socialists; the Democrats never accurately and honestly call the Republicans fascists.)

For what it’s worth, my life was saved and turned around at a young age by radicals, by Marxist historians, some veterans of the McCarthy era, many schooled not just in the ivory tower but in battles for industrial unions, civil rights, the antiwar movements, and (in at least three cases) the global war against fascism (1939-45). They were wonderful people for the most part, as were many of the Communist Party activists I studied and interviewed in my later work in labor history. These and other “radical Left” people deserve not only to exist but to be celebrated for their contributions to humanity, justice, and democracy at home and abroad.

In the meantime, there’s this little matter of capitalism (and its fraternal twin imperialism) destroying life on Earth, just as one my earliest radical Left influencers – Barry Commoner – said it was doing and would continue to do unless and until it was replaced by a system that puts life and people, the common good, above profit, class rule, and empire. That system would be socialism, properly understood as predecessor to communism.

Would anyone in a position of at least slight public prominence like to point out that there are no real and lasting solutions to contemporary problems – racial oppression and disparity, class inequality and rule, gender oppression, ecocide (the biggest issue of our any time) and more – short of revolutionary, radical, that is, root-and-branch societal change?

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).