Thursday, 9 April 2015

RED APPLE: Communism and McCarthyism in Cold War New York PHILLIP DEERY

RED APPLE: Communism and McCarthyism in Cold War New York
Fordham University Press, 2014, 252 pages, $41.95 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The mouth-foaming Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, who chaired the House Committee on Un-America Activities in the 1950s, added extreme vigour to the perpetual war by the American state against dissent, says Professor Phillip Deery of Melbourne’s Victoria University in Red Apple.

Deery explores this particularly “virulent strain of persecution of leftists” through vivid case studies of selected New York radicals who were active in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC) which assisted some of the half million refugees from Franco’s Spain after the fascist defeat of the left-wing Republican government in the late 1930s.

All the JAFRC activists had refused to hand over the organisation’s financial records which identified tens of thousands of aid donors and recipients who would have potentially been exposed to persecution by the FBI and by Franco.  All the activists paid a ruinous price for their non-cooperation through jail, career loss and financial adversity, including a hospital surgeon, two professors, a writer (Howard Fast, author of Spartacus) and others of eminent professional standing.

Some of the JAFRC activists were members of the Communist Party of the USA, most were not.  All were motivated by wanting to see a fairer, kinder, cleaner world.  Not that any of that mattered a jot to the Red-hunters because any Communist association enabled a political body to be deemed a ‘communist front’ and declared a ‘subversive organisation’.  As Deery points out, however, the concept of a ‘front’ is “problematic not axiomatic” because there were widely different degrees of communist influence on broad-based progressive movements.  There was “not a whiff” of communist frontism about JAFRC.  Such subtleties, however, were entirely lost amidst the “rudeness, intimidation and sheer bullying” of the hearings held by McCarthy and other Washington demagogues.

The JAFRC activists fought back but the dice were loaded with the weight of a vast bureaucratic network of government inquisitorial committees, Congress (which voted overwhelmingly to cite non-cooperators for contempt of Congress), the Justice Department (which prosecuted the defiant ones for their contempt), the FBI which dug up (or made up) red dirt on their targets, and university administrations (which feared that not sacking their ‘commie’ staff would affect their corporate and government funding).

Deery shows a microscopic but grimly illuminating slice of the immense human, and political, cost of “one of the most savage assaults on civil liberties in American history”, one that destroyed hundreds of progressive organisations and devastated many thousands of lives.  But the “corrosiveness of Cold War anti-communism” is to be truly measured, he says, by the unquantifiable toll from propagating fear and stifling dissent - “reforms that were never implemented, unions that were never organised, movements that never started, books that were never published, films that were never produced”. 

McCarthyism is not, concludes Deery, just a historical matter for scholarly dissertations.  It remains relevant in showing the fragility of democratic rights and the vulnerability of free speech when the capitalist state, in the service of private power and wealth, comes spruiking the latest lines in political panic and alarm.

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