The Red Scare Scarred the Left — But Couldn’t Kill It

The postwar Second Red Scare successfully smashed the American left. But in the midst of its devastation, a small number of old leftists refused to be shut up by the climate of fear. Without their heroism, the New Left could never have emerged.

Congressman Martin Dies Jr of the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigates American actor in films, radio, theater, and television Lionel Stander circa 1947 in New York, New York. (Irving Haberman / IH Images / Getty Images)

In one scene in E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, a fictionalized Abbie Hoffman lectures a fictionalized son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that his parents were “pathetic” for “playing the game” by the “rules” and making legal motions as “defendants,” as if under a fair legal trial. This view is rather common among analysts of McCarthyism: that because of the Communist Party of the United States of America’s (CPUSA) bureaucratic and top-down nature, because of the general cultures of conformity in the 1950s,  the widespread purge of the Old Left from public life was met with little resistance, and that the doctrinaire and wooden Communists lined up quietly to march off to their demise.

Ed and Jean Fagan Yellin’s memoir, In Contempt: Defending Free Speech, Defeating HUAC, gives the lie to this persistent myth, showing not only the spirited and principled resistance of many left-wing House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) defendants but also how their resistance helped open spaces for the emergence of a New Left that could only come into being after HUAC’s power was publicly defeated.

As Ellen Schrecker describes in her classic Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, McCarthyism “was the most widespread and longest wave of political repression in US history.” The roots of political repression, as Schrecker and others have noted, are broad and deep in US culture, and one can draw many genealogies for the counterrevolution that lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1960s.

The wave of white terror that ended Reconstruction after the Civil War must be a starting point. And shortly after, the repression of the Knights of Labor and the International Workingmen’s Association in the 1870s after the Haymarket riot could be called America’s first red scare, as the public execution of prominent labor leaders and jailing of activists would be repeated over and over for the next century. The First Red Scare of the early 1920s all but crushed what was left of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), going so far as jailing the most popular socialist in the country, Eugene Debs; deporting prominent anarchists such Emma Goldman to the Soviet Union; and violently arresting, clubbing, and even gunning down IWW protesters on the street.

Shrecker, Joel Kovel, James Ziegler, and others have further pointed out how the roots of McCarthyism could be traced to the 1930s, with the anti-communist and antisemitic radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, the Dies Committee that investigated Communist influence in teachers’ unions and New Deal programs such as the Federal Theater Project, and vigilante violence against farmworkers’ unions, as well as the many attempts to deport the Communist-aligned and militant labor leader Harry Bridges.

Yet even these preludes cannot grasp the totalizing nature of the Second Red Scare. In one sense, the cultural amnesia around the decade-and-a-half of repression is a sign of its success. Many of the broad cultures and institutions of the Old Left were so utterly eviscerated from US civic life that little trace of them remains. While some highlights are widely known — the blacklisting and jailing of the Hollywood Ten, the execution of the Rosenbergs, and the introduction of widespread loyalty oaths required of faculty and union officers — less well known is how far reaching the political repression was and how many institutions and organizations on the Left vanished or were closed down.

While the most immediate effect was to end the Communist Party as a major force in US politics, the Communist Party’s impact on building the Left was less through its centrally directed campaigns as much as through organizations it funded and its members actively supported. CPUSA members were instrumental in building the progressive and racially inclusive labor unions in the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and were key to the success of the sit-down strikes that birthed the United Auto Workers. Other Communist “front” organizations, from racial justice groups such as Civil Rights Congress (CRC), the Council on African Affairs (CAA), and El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (El Congreso) to radical student organizations such as the National Students Association, secular left-wing Jewish groups such as the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) and Morgen Freiheit, labor and immigrant defense legal organizations like the American Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born (ACPFB) and the International Labor Defense (ILD) recruited CPUSA members and nonmembers to create a broad left-wing culture focused on labor organizing, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and social democracy.

The decline and in most cases the collapse of these organizations by the mid-1950s, along with the expulsion and demise of eleven left-led unions that refused to have their officers sign loyalty oaths, meant that an entire left-wing civic culture and political movement involving millions of Americans vanished within a few short years.

The lasting impact of the Second Red Scare can be felt throughout American civic life.  From the alignment of the principal American labor federation, the AFL-CIO, with the Cold War and the CIA to the narrowing of unions’ focus to wages and benefits, the whittling away of the more progressive elements of the New Deal, and our lack of a national health system, McCarthyism not only destroyed a vital left political culture in the United States — it institutionalized a kind of liberal technocracy in the institutions that the Old Left helped to build. The Red Scare not only destroyed the Left; it also remade and weakened liberalism.

Its impacts on anti-racist struggles have also been well documented. The civil rights movement emerged at the very moment when organizations such as the CAA and the CRC were hounded into collapse. While this did not stop the rise of Martin Luther King Jr and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — nor prevent them from being baited as communists and harassed by the FBI — it did mean that much of the internationalism, the focus on labor and working-class demands, and the connections to anti-fascism that the CAA and CRC made central to their work were stripped from the early civil rights agenda. Promoting liberal American democracy, rather than anti-imperialism and working-class struggle, became the byword of civil rights. The fact that it took until the late 1960s for major civil rights leaders to even begin to critique the invasion of Vietnam would have been unthinkable for CRC and CAA leaders, who understood imperialism abroad and racism at home to be inextricably joined.

Enter the Yellins, American Communists

To understand both the role of the Communist Party at mid-century and the shattering force of HUAC, one needs to enter the lives not just of celebrities such as Paul Robeson and Dalton Trumbo, but the workers, students, and activists who made up the base of the party. Ed and Jean Yellin’s story begins in the dense mesh of the Jewish Communist world of the 1940s. Born of immigrant parents, Ed was raised in what are known as the Coops, aka “Little Moscow,” a cluster of cooperatively owned apartment buildings in New York City that housed hundreds of Jewish leftists — predominantly members of the Communist Party, though with a smattering of Trotskyists and Socialist Party members as well. The Coops housed Yiddish schools, political education sessions, youth groups, political discussion groups, dances, and, of course, a great deal of political organizing.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were executed after having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. (Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

Also born of political parents who ran a progressive newspaper, Jean joined the Communist Party in her late teens when she enrolled at the University of Michigan. “It was the only game in town,” she wrote.

And in some ways, Ed’s and Jean’s stories of the Communist Party — both in the vital and vibrant Jewish subcultures of NYC and in the burgeoning student movements of the 1930s at a public university — were typical. The Communist Party was certainly considered radical in the 1930s, but in no way was it seen as treasonous. People joined because they saw it building from the ground up the nucleus of a new, anti-racist, pro-labor, anti-imperialist world, one in which skipping school to go to a May Day march was expected, the central festival of the year.

Ed’s activism eventually took him and Jean to Gary, Indiana, where Ed worked as what used to be referred to as a “colonizer” for the CPUSA in the steel mills on Lake Michigan’s south shore. “Going into industry” or “salting” was typical practice for the rank and file of the party. Rather than the subversive and sinister “infiltration of key industries,” as it was understood by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, “colonizing” was a way to bring party members in direct contact with working-class people, help build left-wing leadership on the shop floor, and generally align activists with their principles.

Ed and Jean lived in Gary for eight years, during which they made friends, met comrades, were active in the union, and also experienced for the first time the “sexism, classism, and racism” that is a daily part of life outside of small left-wing enclaves.

Ed’s subpoena to appear before HUAC ironically came as his time with both the Communist Party and the steel mills had come to an end. Breaking with the party in 1956 over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Joseph Stalin’s crimes, Ed was also badly burned in an accident at the plant. For both of them, it was time to go.

The letter that appeared, hand-delivered by a marshal in a ten-gallon hat nearly a year after the Yellins left Gary for Colorado State University, began what was a four-year odyssey through the press, the courts, and the subtle and not-so-subtle machinations of the final, bitter wave of the Red Scare.

As Ed and Jean demonstrate, if you were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, you had a variety of unsavory options. If you testified, you would be called upon to publicly denounce communism and then “name names” of other Communists and former Communists, then subjecting them to the same investigation. If you refused to testify, then you could be cited under the Smith Act, which effectively banned membership in the Communist Party. If you were not a citizen, you could be further indicted for failing to register as a Communist. And if you did as Ed did, appearing at the hearing and refusing to answer questions on the grounds of the First Amendment right to free speech and free association, then you could be indicted and sent to prison for contempt and noncompliance with a congressional committee.

The other punishments of the Red Scare were less legalistic but no less devastating. As the Supreme Court ruled, Communists and former Communists could be legally denied jobs, fired from jobs they had, denied federal student aid and research funding, and denied a place to live.  There were no rights a Communist had that the state or a private citizen was bound to respect.

And in many cases, vigilante violence solved what the state could not: torchings of Communist and left-wing summer camps, labor halls, personal homes, and public beatings, most famously at Peekskill, New York, were common. And yet Ed — like thousands of other Communists, former Communists, and unaffiliated radicals — refused to answer questions for his HUAC hearing, scheduled in Gary on Communist subversion in the steelworks.

While the fictionalized Abbie Hoffman ridiculed the noncompliance of Communists and their allies in E.L. Doctorow’s book, noncompliance was a conscious strategy on the part of HUAC defendants in real life. As noted socialist Albert Einstein wrote in 1953, “non cooperation” with HUAC was “revolutionary” and the defendant should be “prepared for jail and economic ruin. . . . for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of the country.” If defendants complied with HUAC, Einstein followed, then they “deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.”

This noncooperation took its toll on the Yellin family. Ed was indicted and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to answer questions. While his case was on appeal, he lost needed fellowships to complete his graduate studies, including a National Science Foundation grant, as no federal funding was allowed for Communists or even former Communists. Even the dean of the University of Illinois who refused to overrule a faculty committee that determined Ed could stay in school was denied a raise and a promotion and eventually left the university for other work.

While denying a dean a raise and promotion are clearly not major human rights violations, it shows the long reach of the Red Scare: any noncompliance, no matter how minor, even from someone not affiliated with the Left or communism, would be punished. “I’ve been blacklisted,” Ed ruminated, after no one in the scientific community came to his aid to defend his right to funding.

The Fall of HUAC and the Rise of the New Left

Ultimately, this is not a story of personal or political tragedy. The Yellins’ memoir is full of gestures of kindness and solidarity: strangers showing up to offer them money as their employment dried up, anonymous letters of support with checks attached, school officials and faculty quietly refusing to deny Jean a teaching assistantship and finding ways to fund the Yellins — even as the FBI directed Ed’s final school, Johns Hopkins, to deny him support.

That their final appeal in the Supreme Court won in 1962, overturning Ed’s contempt conviction if not ultimately HUAC’s breach of the First Amendment, points to the larger story of the Yellins’ memoir. Ed Yellin won not because the Supreme Court finally recognized the meaning of human rights, but rather because, by 1962, HUAC was increasingly discredited. Protesters in 1960 stormed a HUAC hearing in San Francisco, with police on camera shown violently dragging protesters down the marble steps of City Hall. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a film, Operation Correction, blasting a HUAC propaganda film released the year before. In 1968, Jerry Rubin showed up dressed in a Revolutionary War costume and offered Nazi salutes to the committee and later showed up as Santa Claus. A 1966 hearing was disrupted by activists and prevented from continuing.

Paul Robeson appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The New Left was thus born both of anti-communism and the resistance to anti-communism. Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) emergence did not only signal a political and stylistic break with the Old Left, but it also signaled a break with anti-communism, as it accepted red diaper babies, former Communists, and even current Communists in its ranks and at its opening convention. This break with anti-communism wasn’t just a new blossoming of liberalism, but the rejection of a whole set of assumptions that descended, as one historian put it, like a “black hole” over the American left: that one can advance liberalism while destroying the Left, that political thought is a crime, that one can ban one of the largest left organizations in the United States and somehow claim to be a democracy.

This is not to say that the Second Red Scare left no scars. When SDS held its first major rally in against the Vietnam War, then president Paul Potter gave what has come to be known as the “Naming the System” speech, in which he asked what kind of political system would allow for US brutality in Vietnam and Jim Crow in the South. Yet Potter could not name the very system he demanded must be identified — even as a leftist heckler shouted “capitalism” from the crowd. Labor unions could not be counted on as allies in either antiwar or student struggles. A whole generation of activists had been silenced and their organizations crushed. The vibrant Jewish and African-American Marxist left had not only been wholly purged from progressive institutions but severed from their communities, with both the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP backing the Red Scare and even the execution of the Rosenbergs.

And we are still living with the consequences, as one of the only industrialized countries in the world without a national health program, without a strong labor movement, with an eviscerated public sector from transport to education. While one cannot blame a million COVID-19 deaths on Joe McCarthy, that the United States leads the world in COVID deaths — like it has led the industrialized world in mass incarceration and child poverty — is surely connected to the counterrevolution of Cold War. While not classless utopias by a long stretch, one can still look to the relatively robust welfare state of France or Sweden to answer what a country might look like that did not purge its Left in such an aggressive fashion.

Yet the Yellins’ story is a story of resistance. That the New Left was able to emerge at all in the 1960s and the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, Jacobin, Black Agenda Report, and the rest of the contemporary American left’s institutions are able to function at all owes to the courage and example of the thousands of brave Communists and their allies who refused to testify, faced unemployment, public censure, vigilante violence, and even the electric chair in the name of resisting what they saw as the onset of fascism. A new right is emergent on the streets and in the legislature and would love to launch their own twenty-first-century Red Scare; hopefully we won’t have to show the same courage.