What Democratic Socialists Should Think About Anti-Communism

A deep commitment to democracy is at the heart of the socialist project. Anticommunists have historically claimed they oppose states like the Soviet Union out of a concern for democracy. But those anticommunists’ real project has nothing to do with democracy — and everything to do with smashing the Left.

Joseph McCarthy addresses the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. (Michael Ochs / Getty Images)

Interview by
Meagan Day
Micah Uetricht

Over the course of the summer, we’ve seen a sharp increase in conservatives’ use and abuse of the term “Marxism.” They are incapable of defining it, but it’s usually clear from the context that their usage is intended to scare, particularly to tie all socialists, progressives, and even liberals to what they perceive to be a legacy of totalitarianism and terror.

The Right’s understanding of Marxism is so off base that reasoned debate about the actual meaning of Marxism seems impossible. Which isn’t what they’re interested in, anyway — their aim is to use Marxism as a cudgel to smash progressive political projects of any kind. But as Kristen Ghodsee and Scott Sehon argued to Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day, we shouldn’t gloss over this dynamic or shrug it off just because it’s absurd.

Instead, we should attempt to understand what ideology is really being mobilized by it and to what ends. That ideology is anti-communism, which is a set of assumptions and false equivalences that has been shored up for decades. As Ghodsee and Sehon argued in a 2018 Aeon essay, its purpose is “to ensure that calls for social justice or redistribution are forever equated with forced labour camps and famine.”

The democratic-socialist tradition has always been one opposed to the abuses of Stalinism. Any socialism worthy of the name must have democracy at its core. But anti-communism has never been about defending freedom and democracy — it’s about destroying the Left and defending the atrocities committed in the name of capitalism. As Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman wrote in 1984, anti-communism

condemns the political and human abuses of Communist dictatorships, but very often condones or simply ignores the abuses and crimes of right-wing regimes. Such regimes, however tyrannical and criminal they may be, can count on the steadfast support of the United States and other capitalist states, all of course in the name of the defense of democracy and freedom.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht spoke with Ghodsee and Sehon for the Vast Majority podcast, touching on topics ranging from the origins of American Red-baiting to the logical problems with the implicit anti-communist argument, and from what life was like in the Eastern Bloc to how the “twin totalitarianisms” narrative equating communism and Nazism paves the way for the rise of fascism.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Micah Uetricht

What is anti-communism, and what uses has it been wielded toward in recent American history?

Kristen R. Ghodsee

Anti-communism has a history in the United States going all the way back to 1919 and the first Red Scare. Since then, it’s been as American as apple pie and baseball.

The success of the 1917 revolution in Russia created hope among a lot of American workers that they would be able to reimagine the workplace so that it would be more equitable, maybe own some of those means of production. From the beginning, there were deep-seated fears that this nefarious ideology was going to undermine the plutocracy of the United States, which would be threatened by workers demanding their rights.

After the Second World War, there was a strong communist and socialist movement in this country, but there were also deep anti-communist sentiments. When Truman was up for reelection in 1948, Henry Wallace was running as a candidate for the Progressive Party, and the level of Red-baiting was severe. Supporters of Wallace lost their jobs. This was happening against the backdrop of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Young people today learn a lot about McCarthyism, but McCarthy comes after the House Un-American Activities Committee, and after this terrible Red-baiting during the 1948 presidential campaign.

Of course, the whole reason we were supposedly against communism was that it was antidemocratic, so this was ironic. But the reason why anti-communism continues is because it works. You can say whatever you want about the ideals of socialism, about workers having more rights or taxation and redistribution, or God forbid, regulations on the banking and finance industry, and all the other side has to do is go, “Gulags, purges, famines: it’s all going to end in totalitarian hell,” and the debate is pretty much over.

In the current election, we can see that Trump is running out of imaginary enemies. Immigrants aren’t scary enough, terrorists aren’t scary enough, so I’m not at all surprised that it’s happening again. But it’s very important that people understand that this has a history, and it’s not necessarily rooted in historical reality. There are crimes, but those are not the entire history of communism or socialism.

Meagan Day

Right, there are real crimes of twentieth-century communist regimes that we can allude to — crimes that are extremely important to examine. But as you argue in your Aeon essay, the allusion to those crimes is then followed by the political conclusion that we must write off and dismiss anything remotely related to the ideology espoused by those regimes. We’re missing an intermediary step, which is the step where you establish that the ideology of a regime was responsible for those crimes.

Scott Sehon

The anti-communists will say, “A hundred million people died under communism,” or they will show a picture of a Chinese man in uniform about to execute a woman and say, “This is socialism,” and the conclusion that’s implied is that we should reject communism and socialism. But the conclusion doesn’t follow. There’s no logical link. You need to provide some sort of intermediate premise to make it follow, and they aren’t explicit about that.

In our article, we attempt to make the argument valid, meaning that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. To make it valid, you could say that if any country is based on a particular ideology, and it did many horrible things, then that ideology should be rejected. Then the conclusion that communism should be rejected would follow from the statement that many horrible things happened under communism.

But if that’s the argument, then of course we could run a perfectly parallel argument about capitalism. We merely need to point out that the United States and the United Kingdom and other countries based on capitalist ideology have done many horrible things, and it would follow that capitalism should be rejected.

If they have a more subtle argument, they could say that if any country based on a particular ideology did horrible things, and if those horrible things are the natural conclusions of that ideology, then it should be rejected. That’s reasonably plausible. But then to make the argument valid, you have to assert that the famines and the purges and the restrictions of rights under Stalin and Mao were the natural outcomes of the communist ideology.

And then this opens up the possibility that countries based on a capitalist ideology have done many horrible things, and these things are the natural conclusions of capitalist ideology, and therefore capitalism should be rejected. Of course, a defender of capitalism will say that the horrible things are not a natural outcome of the ideology of capitalism. They will say, “Where do you find in Adam Smith that we should be enslaving people?” We kind of let it go in our article, but actually it’s a little harder for capitalists to defend their position.

Milton Friedman famously had what he called the Friedman doctrine, which basically held that the capitalist should do whatever makes the most money, and that if they worry about things like social goods, like avoiding pollution or ending discrimination, then they’re violating their obligations to the shareholders because their job is to make as much money as possible so long as they play within the rules of the society. Well, in the Antebellum South, the rules of society allowed enslaving human beings. And so, by Friedman’s own argument, people running plantations had an absolute moral obligation to enslave people, because that was the way they made as much money as possible until the rules of the game changed.

So it’s actually a little harder for the capitalist to say that some of these horrible things don’t follow from the ideology of capitalism, given the right social conditions.

Meagan Day

Not only is there nothing in the writing of Marx and Engels that points to the necessity of any of the processes that culminated in famines or purges, but it is also the case that you had mass famines in India and China and the late nineteenth century, as Mike Davis writes about in his book Late Victorian Holocausts, under colonial supervision from the United Kingdom.

You can find direct quotes from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations that say things like, “Famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting by improper means to remedy the inconvenience of dearth,” the takeaway being that the reason for famine is that the government is meddling too much, so the government needs to step back and allow things to naturally run their course and prices to reset and an equilibrium to reestablish itself. The British simply followed that advice, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people in India and China.

So given that example, I think we can make a much stronger case that capitalism’s body count does owe to the ideology of capitalism in a way that communism’s body count — which we of course acknowledge is a real thing here, though it doesn’t come close to this fictitious “one hundred million” figure — isn’t traceable to the ideology espoused by Marx and Engels.

Micah Uetricht

That number, which was articulated in The Black Book of Communism, has always been disputed since the book first came out in the nineties. But the idea behind it is to equate communism with Nazism, and that has been successful. What’s wrong with that claim?

Scott Sehon

Even leaving aside the fact The Black Book attributes a hundred million deaths to communism and only attributes twenty-five million to the Nazis, because they don’t count the war dead for some reason, the idea of twin totalitarianisms doesn’t hold up. The Nazi ideology was racist to the core. Nazis elevated German Aryans above all others, and they wanted lebensraum and autarchy. The war and the systematic mistreatment and murder of the Jews were right there at the heart of what Hitler had been talking about. The body count of the Nazis goes straight back to their ideology in a way that the body count of twentieth-century communism does not.

Kristen R. Ghodsee

The editor of The Black Book Stéphane Courtois was desperate to get to this number of one hundred million — so desperate, in fact, that two of the most prominent contributors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, disavowed the volume as soon as it came out because they understood that Courtois was fudging the numbers.

It’s not a coincidence that it was published in the nineties. Throughout the nineties, there was a historical project to equate Nazism with communism. A lot of it originated in Germany, which at that time was attempting to reunify, and of course, many East Germans were not happy with the way reunification was going. And so the response was a strong Western narrative about how horrible and totalitarian life was in Eastern Germany — the Stasi and the Berlin wall and the consumer shortages and the travel restrictions. That didn’t necessarily jive with people’s own remembrances of that period of time, but it became this powerful overarching narrative that slowly starts to creep out of Germany throughout Eastern Europe.

The reason this narrative was important was that in the nineties, almost all Eastern European countries had depressions that were longer and deeper than the Great Depression in the United States. A lot of people don’t realize how devastating the collapse of these economies was after 1989, or ’91 if we’re talking about the former republics of the Soviet Union. The effort to build capitalism on top of state-owned economies created a massive amount of pain in Eastern Europe.

While that was going on, these countries were being transformed not only into market economies but into democracies, which meant people had the right to vote. And, of course, they wanted to reject all of these neoliberal reforms that were being shoved down their throat. Many people become extremely nostalgic for the communist past, and they’re increasingly thinking about how things might have been if they had taken a third way.

It’s at this moment in Eastern Europe when you get this incredible hegemonic discussion about the crimes of communism, equating it with Nazism. Museums are opened. The European Union creates a day to commemorate the victims of Nazism and Stalinism. In 2008, a bunch of right-liberal politicians in Europe sign the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, which pushes the narrative of twin totalitarianisms.

Some colleagues of mine in Romania call it “zombie communism” or “zombie socialism,” which is a way to keep people from voting for left parties or trying to advocate for any kind of social collective programs. It’s important to know that in Eastern Europe, people whose parents and grandparents had had their property expropriated under communism in many cases had property restituted to them, meaning they were literally receiving property in the privatizations of the nineties. So suggesting that these communist regimes were legitimate in expropriating the property in the first place is actually a threat to their property. This wasn’t just about ideology — it was also about people’s immediate economic interests.

They’ll even do Holocaust denial in service of this narrative. I could give examples from Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria — let’s take the Bulgarian case. One of the “victims of communism” is the minister of interior who signed his name on the warrants that allowed for the deportation of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews to Treblinka.

This discourse of twin totalitarianisms creates the equivalence between Nazism and communism or any kind of left politics. As a result, even democratic socialism, and ordinary workers and citizens getting fed up with plutocracy and using the political system to fight for their rights, get automatically affiliated with the worst crimes of Stalin’s gulags, purges, and famines.

When that starts to happen, elites look around and they say, “We’ve got left-wing radicals and we’ve got right-wing radicals, and since they’re morally equivalent, the right-wing radicals are the ones that are going to best protect our property, and so we’ll go with them.” In that way, the twin totalitarianisms narrative paves the way for the resurgence of fascism.

Micah Uetricht

There’s a long history in the United States of liberal anti-communism, which says that it’s about upholding freedom of assembly and speech and basic liberal values. But if you follow anti-communism to its logical conclusion, as the United States has repeatedly shown, you end up supporting atrocious antidemocratic right-wing regimes.

Kristen R. Ghodsee

Right, the United States installed Pinochet over Allende in Chile. We can think of many, many examples. In Indonesia, a million people were murdered because of a made-up story about a group of supposed communists who killed some generals. The story that incited the violence was that these generals were murdered, supposedly, by communist women who cut off their genitals and then proceeded to have a big communist orgy.

This was the story that was told and promoted by the Americans and created absolute chaos in Indonesia. Eventually, the generals’ bodies were exhumed, which showed that this lie had been concocted, a complete phantasm. And yet if you read about the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965, people are still blaming it on communist women.

Meagan Day

The element of absurdism and hysteria you often find in anti-communism reminds me of a couple of tweets I saw recently.

The first is from Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic, who tweeted, “I wonder if BLM knows Antifa was allied with Hitler and helped him come to power. It feels as if that would be a source of tension, given BLM’s focus on history. Does Antifa owe reparations to anyone who lost a family member or property to Nazi Germany?” So this is a good example of the common equation of the far left with the far right, but utterly incoherent like so many expressions of anti-communism.

The second is from Katie Daviscourt, a Turning Point USA representative, who tweeted, “You know what’s ironic? LGBTQ+ Democrats rioting, looting, and burning down our cities to bring Marxism to America when Karl Marx literally murdered everyone who was gay!” Here we see the equation not just of the broad left with the worst abuses of twentieth-century communism, but literally of Karl Marx with Joseph Stalin, which I think is the error that explains this nonsensical tweet. And again, it’s filtered in kaleidoscopic fashion through the insanity of contemporary culture.

Scott Sehon

Those are pretty stunning. I liked Dilbert, you know, it seemed like a pretty good cartoon. Anyway, one thing you can see here is the anti-communist strategy of just putting everything in one evil bucket. Rand Paul does this explicitly in his book The Case Against Socialism from last year. He has a whole chapter dedicated to attempting to show that the Nazis were socialists. He has terrible arguments for this claim, the main one being that the word “socialist” is right there in the name of National Socialists. But then the German Democratic Republic wasn’t particularly democratic, so that falls apart immediately.

But they aren’t really trying to appeal to reason. That’s not really the strategy. The strategy is to just make these emotional connections and create a pitchfork effect or a halo effect. You either have a halo or a pitchfork, all nuances are gone. Everything is black and white, and nothing can be worse than being aligned with the Nazis, and if you can successfully imply that someone is aligned with the Nazis, they just get thrown into the evil bucket. Likewise, we can’t learn anything from the successes that the Soviet bloc countries had because they also had many failures. They have a pitchfork.

Of course, conservatives like to claim that they have a monopoly on logic and reason, that communists and socialists don’t think clearly and rigorously while they claim to be defenders of logic and reason. But look closely at their arguments, and they fall apart.

Kristen R. Ghodsee

The incoherence is part of the point. They’re trying to trigger people. They’re triggering us by being stupid and absurd, but they’re also triggering people who are less aware of the nuances of history by doing word association with words that invoke something bad. It doesn’t matter what the relationships are. It’s word salad, but it works on people emotionally. People think, “I’m going to stand with Trump because I need to stand against these Nazi-ANTIFA-Jew-gay-killing-looting-black —”

Micah Uetricht

— who will cut off your genitals!

Kristen R. Ghodsee

Right, and I think it’s worth pointing out here that it’s effective. Even if it’s stupid, it’s effective. It’s very easy for them to do what Scott was saying, to create this pitchfork effect, where they take the entire history of communism and democratic socialism and Marxism and anarchism and everything and reduce it down to the worst crimes of Stalinism in the 1930s. And all of the nuance and complexity in the region disappears.

There’s no consideration of fact that Yugoslavia was nonaligned, the fact that Hungary had what was called “Goulash Communism” because they had a secondary free-market system, the fact that there were democratic impulses in places like Czechoslovakia that were trying to do socialism with a “human face,” the fact that Solidarity in Poland was a reform movement among the workers, the fact that even in the Soviet Union Glasnost and Perestroika were policies that were designed to reform what they recognized as a system that was falling apart.

All of the nuance is stripped away from what life was like in Eastern Europe under communism. I have spent the better part of twenty-five years doing research in Eastern Europe, and I have many family and friends in this part of the world. Anybody who lived under communism will tell you there were some definitely negative things. But everybody also has home movies and photo album after photo album of what appears to them as totally normal life under socialism.

My book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism has been translated into Polish, Czech, Slovak, and German, and just came out in Russia. And I’ve had so emails from people who’ve said, “Thank you for telling people that our lives weren’t that bad. They weren’t great, but they weren’t that bad.” People who lived in the region under communism, and especially people who are still in the region, have a much more nuanced sense of what life was like. One way to mitigate the effects of anti-communism is to peel back this scrim, this terrible lens that we’re always viewing Eastern Europe through.

And none of this is to mention what happens when we look outside of the Eastern Bloc, to Yemen and Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or Vietnam or China, not to mention the social-democratic parties in Western Europe and the communist parties that are participating in the democratic process in places like India. You can’t reduce all of this to the crimes of Stalin.

But the reason they create this pitchfork effect is because it can be used as a cudgel to smash leftist political dreams. It’s a really insidious way of putting a straitjacket on young people’s imaginations.

Scott Sehon

A. E. Housman has a great quote: “A moment’s thought would have shown him. But a moment is a long time, and thought is a painful process.”  I think that underlies a lot of the debate. People don’t want to think it through. They want simplistic narratives, because that’s so much easier.