Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia 4: McCarthyism Old and New

if russiaJonathan Neale writes: Islamophobia is now the last respectable form of racism in the West. This new fear has eerie echoes of another time and place. I was a small child in the United States during the time of McCarthyism. Much later, I trained as a labour historian, and when I first wrote on McCarthyism several things caught my attention:

The liberal story now about McCarthyism in the United States is that it was right wing. It was not. Republicans and Democrats, studio heads and union leaders joined together. The Red Scare was normal, and largely accepted.

We are now told that the red scare was a witch hunt, that it persecuted innocent people. This was true in a few instances, but overwhelmingly the people who went to prison or lost their jobs were persecuted because they had at one time been communists, or socialists, or worked closely with such people. The authorities went to considerable lengths to find witnesses who said that so and so had gone to such meetings. Of course sometimes they could not prove it for sure, but the people who ran the red scare had a useful saying: ‘If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.’

It is easy now to point to the people who lost their jobs, for instance, because they were part of a campaign to persuade the American Red Cross to integrate the blood supply, using blood donated by black people to help white patients. But we must remember, that campaign to integrate the blood supply was led by the Communist Party, because other groups were very reluctant to tackle such a hot issue.

We are also told, now, that the Red Scare was a witch hunt against an imaginary enemy. But the people who rean the Red Scare persecuted a real enemy – the Communist Party. The Party in the US was not that big – only 100,000 at its height. There was little likelihood of them overthrowing the American government. But communist activists were the core of the left in many unions. In 1936 American unions had been weak and scattered. By 1946 they had organised most of big industry. The winter of 46/47 saw in America the largest strike wave in history, in any country, up until that time.

The Red Scare was designed to break the left in the unions. It did just that. This is why, for instance, more postal workers than any other group of federal employees lost their jobs – they were the most militant unionists, and the most likely to be African-American.

Fear was key here. The most important impact of the Red Scare was not on the communists. It was on the people around them, the other labour unionists, academics, or entertainers who watched them thrown out of the workplace and said nothing. That silence was what broke the left.

At this distance, it is hard to understand how the Red Scare frightened people so much. In the US, two people were executed, a few hundred were sent to jail, and about 20,000 people lost their jobs. As persecutions go, in a country of that size, this is small beer.

The threat of losing your job was part of what did it. People did not say so, but they were careful. And to hold your job you had to be very careful indeed, above all in the university world.

This explains something that now seems odd, and perhaps shameful. In those years many socialist academics, or liberals, or people on the left, would lard ther publications with random virulent condemnations of communism. These passages now seem abject, and unnecessary. They were not. They were ways of saying “I may seem to be for social equality, but I am not one of them”. This was necessary to get a job.

In retrospect, the Red Scare is shameful. This is why it is now called McCarthyism. Senator McCarthy was a drunk, a fantasist, and unstable. He did accuse innocent people. But the Red Scare started years before he joined it, and the Red Scare outlasted him. The key leaders of the Red Scare were:

Walter Reuther, a left union leader


Reuther, left, and Richard Frankensteen after they were beaten up by Henry Ford’s goons

Ronald Reagan, a New Deal union leader at the time
Walt Disney, an anti-union employer


Ronald Reagan and Disney’s Mickey Mouse

J. Edgar Hoover, a secret policeman
Richard Nixon, a Republican

Harry Truman, a Democrat


Calling the Red Scare McCarthyism hides all those people. And it hides all the people who were silent or collaborated because they were afraid.

Moreover, a critical feature of the Red Scare was that it was both an attack on a domestic enemy – the militants in the unions – and an international enemy, world communism. At times from 1945 to 1965 the United States was at war with communist governments and communist, nationalist or socialist movements in different parts of the world. Throughout this period, the US government and the communist governments of the Soviet Union and China were enemies in the Cold War. And the US and the USSR faced each other, all day every day, in a nuclear standoff that everyone knew might destroy the world at any minute.

For the American ruling class, the destruction of communist ideas mattered both at home and abroad. For the American ruling class, the red scare was a two for one. But this also meant that communists were not just dissidents. They were traitors. The rhetoric about this was explicit. So were the laws – most of the communists who went to jail were sentenced for refusing to admit that they were agents of a foreign power.

Finally, one reason the American communist party collapsed was that they had a sick feeling about the tyranny in the Soviet Union. The socialists and liberals around them felt the same way. After all, what the authorities and the media were saying about the Soviet Union was true. The gulag, the camps, the show trials – it was all real. The communists could not admit this and stay communists. But many communists in these very years were sick at heart. And their friends and allies could see clearly what was wrong with the Soviet Union.

However, the demonisation of the reds internationally was not really about stopping the Soviet Union. It was about stopping the communists and socialists in Latin America, Western Europe, Africa and Asia. It was about Cuba, Vietnam and South Africa. About smashing movements of people who looked to the Soviet Union because they wanted to make their societies more equal.

Any of this remind you of anything?

Maybe in 40 years it will be hard to find anyone in America who approved of hating and persecuting Muslims. Maybe we will all be told it was just George Bush and Dick Cheney being crazy. Maybe there will be reunion picnics of Europeans who went to fight in Afghanistan, and young people will shake their heads in surprise at bygone days.

Maybe. We certainly hope so, and it is perfectly possible. But for now, the resonances of the Red Scare are everywhere:

The ugly ritual condemnation to save your job, once of the Taliban, now more often of ISIS.

The fear for your job.

The way Muslims are left to be persecuted alone.

The fact that Jihadis are real, and so are terrorists. The way that people who bomb civilians in Paris or New York are persecuted alongside people who want to overthrow a dictatorship in Syria or restore an elected government in Egypt.

The way governments are keeping lists of forbidden organisations.

The way the European and American left is divided, and confused, and weakened, and are made ashamed of themselves.

During the Red Scare, it was true that the gulags in the Soviet Union were an obscenity. But that fact was used to justify wars that killed millions in Korea and Vietnam, and to persecute people who were trying to build strong unions to defend workers in Italy and America. Now it is true that the Islamic State is cruel and oppressive, although a much smaller scale than Stalin’s Russia. But that fact is used to allow intense bombing and ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria. It is also used to justify the persecutions in Egypt, where hundreds have been sentenced to death, thousands have been shot down on the street, and tens of thousands have been arrested and tortured – all for protesting against a military coup and in support of the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fear of the government and employers was also central to the Red Scare, of course, and it is central to Islamophobia. It is not just that Muslims in the West are afraid, and careful what they say, and to who. Non-Muslims are also afraid they may sound sympathetic to extremists. And that fear is so pervasive that there is very little public discussion of the fear, because it could be dangerous to mention in public that people are trying to make us afraid.

Islamophobia is not really about women’s rights, any more than anti-communism was really about democracy. Of course women’s rights and democracy are causes worth dying for. But the actually existing Islamophobia that we see in the West today exists to justify fear, war, dictatorship and torture. These are not worthy causes.


Throughout the 1950s former communists were blacklisted in Hollywood unless they recanted in public and fingered other communists. Actors and crafts people who refused to testify were driven out of the industry. Screenwriters could sometimes work under aliases. But in 1960, the actor producer Kirk Douglas gave public screenwriting credit for Spartacus to Dalton Trumbo, a former communist and founder of the Writers Guild. The blacklist was over. Here is a scene Trumbo wrote for Douglas:


I am Spartacus

Further Reading

On McCarthyism, start with Ellen Schrecker, 1988, Many are the Crimes; McCarthyism in America, Boston, Little Brown; Jonathan Neale, 2004, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, New York, The New Press; Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, 1994, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960, Champagne, Illinois UP; Nancy Lynn Schwartz, 1982, The Hollywood Writers Wars, New York, Knopf, 1982.

Related Posts

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (1)

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (2) ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ in Turkey

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (3) The New Grand Alliance in the Middle East

Gendering Abu Ghraib

ISIS, Sexual Violence and Killing Gay Men

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