Saturday, 3 August 2013

Red Scares without Reds

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’ 

These are the opening words of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. Like many such stirring words, they have little or no relation to the truth. Europe was indeed exploding in revolutions that year, but they were nationalist (against the Austrian Empire, for instance) or for extended political rights (for example, in France and Germany).

The international communist movement was basically Karl Marx working in the British Museum library in London, and a handful of his friends and supporters around the place.

When I was working myself in that same library, back in the eighties, a librarian told me an apocryphal story a colleague asked, on his retirement many years earlier, whether he’d known Karl Marx.

‘German gentleman?’ he’s said to have asked in reply, ‘came in here for quite a while and then we never heard much more about him?’

German gentleman who haunted the British Museum
for a while before fading into obscurity
Communism didn’t really come out of its obscurity until a party claiming to be communist in inspiration seized power in Russia in 1917. But, wow, did things change then. If the Nazis came to dominate Germany, it was in part because a great many people, and not just in Germany, saw them as a possible barrier to the apparently irresistible progress of Communism.

Nowhere was as haunted by the spectre of Communism as the United States. America fought an indecisive war in Korea to stem its advance and then, most disastrously, took the first defeat in its history in Vietnam, a glorious example of a self-fulfilling hypothesis: US justification for war in Vietnam was the domino effect, whereby Communist victory in one country would lead to several others going the same way. When US forces had to pull out of Saigon, Communist movements had taken over Laos and, most sickeningly, Cambodia.

Fear of Communism also led to what must be still today the most shameful period in US history: the McCarthy witch hunts against alleged Communists in the fifties. All the worst aspects of a police state were there, including anonymous denunciation, conviction on suspicion and assumption of guilt.

But then along came Nixon and showed that even a right-wing President could make common ground with regimes claiming allegiance to Communist thinking. Ping-pong diplomacy opened up China to US links and, even today, the US finds itself perfectly able to work with those particular Communists.

That left the Soviet Union as the whipping boy for the anti-Communists. Until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then the satellite nations quickly slipped away both from Russia and Communism and the West claimed the Cold War won.

For a brief moment, we were treated to all sorts of panegyrics to the newborn Russian democracy. But then we discovered that what had replaced the Soviet regime wasn’t quite as democratic as had been claimed. An invasion of Georgia showed that the Russian republic was quite as ready to behave unpleasantly towards its neighbours as the Soviet Union had, though it was perhaps incapable of acting on quite the same scale.

Several murders of critics, and the imprisonment of many others, have shown that it’s happy to be just as nasty towards its internal adversaries as those from abroad. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated as in the condemning to hard labour of two members of a punk group, Pussy Riot, for being offensive towards the lay and religious authorities.

But now Russia has gone one step further. It has offered temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who got right up the noses of the US establishment by revealing evidence of its misbehaviour. Putin is clearly not acting out of democratic motives; his action has to be a calculated insult to the US, and it’s had exactly the desired effect. 


Senator John McCain is the man who won himself a reputation for clear judgement and faultless political instinct, by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in his vain bid to win the presidency against Obama in 2008. This was the woman who amazed us with her farsightedness (literally) on matters Russian, by claiming that she could see the place from her home in Alaska.

McCain is now gracing us with his own views on the country in response to the Snowden affair:

‘Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans. [...] We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions.’

McCain: didn't do his reputation for judgement any good
by his selection of a running mate. But he's mad now...


Those of us who lived through the Cold War may recognise the tone of this pronouncement. And yet the Communists are gone. So here’s my question: was the animosity ever really about Communism? Or actually just about Russia? Did the Red Scare have anything to do with Reds?

I only ask because this kind of talk isn’t new. Here’s a rising star from the British Parliamentary Opposition demanding to know whether the best means had ‘been employed by the Government to establish the equilibrium, and put an end to the preponderance of Russia in the Black Sea’.

You can picture John McCain asking that kind of question. But in fact the speaker was Benjamin Disraeli, later to be British Prime Minister. He was speaking in a debate on 4 June 1855, when Britain, along with France, was actually at war with Russia in its Black Sea territory of the Crimea.

An actual shooting war, not a cold one.

Charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War
Good subject matter for poetry, not such smart politics
Seems the West’s had problems with Russia for quite a while now, certainly since long before Communism. 

With Communism way behind us, are we stoking them all up again?

4 comments:

Awoogamuffin said...

I'm a little torn with regards to Snowden; I think it's good in a democracy to have whistleblowers, but then what's to be done with them? Russia's move here was all the more clever seeing as I imagine a large number of Westerners will approve of their decision, even though as you say, it's purely political and I'd hate to think of what they'd do to one of their own if he or she decided to do the same as Snowden...

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

I wonder how communism became such a straw man. As you've said, it seems that the problem is actually with Russia, not communism. Perhaps our leadership fears communism because people here might get the idea that it would be nicer for them than rampant capitalism.

David Beeson said...

Michael, what we need is a public interest defence against espionage charges: 'yes, I revealed confidential information, but only because the public needed to know.' And, as your use of 'she' implies, Russia would have been as ruthless to a whistleblower of its own as it was to Pussy Riot - if not worse (remember Litvinenko).

David Beeson said...

Faith, I'm sure the possible attractions of Communism (or at any rate its underlying principles) got the fear going. But I was just struck by the continuity in the hostility to Russia, from well before Communism to well after.