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The New International, Spring 1957

Don Harris

Books in Review

The Post World War I Witchhunt


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 125–126.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


RED SCARE, A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920
by Robert K. Murray
Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press.

The red scare which followed World War I is not only an integral part of the history of American socialism �a background against which the development of the early Communist movement must be pictured �but also a measure of the brittle quality of bourgeois democracy in the face of social conflict. For both of these reasons it is ordinarily given less importance than it merits by historians who wish to gloss over the role of socialism and the imperfections of American democracy. The more contemporary phenomena of McCarthyism was the obvious inspiration of this first full- length study of the Red Scare, which indeed set precedents upon which its successor has built. The 1919–1920 red scare produced the forerunner of all congressional investigative committees in the New York State Lusk Committee on Revolutionary Radicalism; it saw the widespread introduction of teacher’s loyalty oaths and attacks upon the liberal professions; and it marked the introduction of laws for limiting freedom of speech and the use of such laws against socialists, communists and anarchists. Even more important, the red scare served as the means of mobilizing the fears and force of the middle classes behind the drive to break the hold of the labor movement over its newly-won positions, and to reinforce the preponderant role of business over national politics. As such it served as the political source of the conservatism which dominated the entire decade of the twenties.

Mr. Murray’s book recounts in adequate detail all of the major events of the Red Scare, including the labor struggles, the race riots, and the bomb incidents, as well as the deportations, prosecutions and lynchings, which marked its anti-radical aspect. Mr. Murray’s viewpoint with respect both to the phenomena itself and the specific events remains throughout that of a conservative democrat, untinged by sympathy toward the victims of the witchhunt, and more particularly their social views, tempered only by the civil libertarians consciousness of the consequences of the application of curbs on freedom.

The author’s bias against social radicalism, however, is far less of a deficit than the inadequacy of his comprehension of the source of the events of 1919–20. For by identifying “public opinion” with the expressions of opinion by major newspapers, Mr. Murray makes the red scare into a matter of popular hysteria, in which all but a few negligible and maniacal radicals participated. Thus it is easy for him to interpret the behavior of legislatures and government agencies as the reflection of widespread demands for the suppression of radicalism.

Insofar as the middle classes, together with groups like the American Legion, were actually permeated with widespread fear and hostility toward the “reds,” the press and the government can hardly be assigned a minor role in creating this hysteria. The various agencies of government continued the process begun during the war of “mobilizing” public opinion. The attorney general’s office in particular played a major role in the attitude of the press by widely circulating general anti-radical and super-patriotic material. More important, the newspapers merely reflected the public statements and anti-Bolshevik diatribes of leading public figures.

Far from being the source of the hysteria, “the average American” had first to be infected with the hysteria of America’s ruling circles. For the American bourgeoisie, then as now, does tend to become hysterical when faced with social threats. It is far too simple to imply, as Murray does, that insofar as business interests were concerned, anti-radicalism was a convenient tool with which to discredit and destroy the budding labor movement in the mass industries. The period of the Red Scare coincided with the first widespread expression of the class struggle. During the years 1919–20, as Murray indicates, not only did almost every segment of the organized labor movement embark upon strikes, but these strikes embraced millions of hitherto unorganized workers in basic industries. In addition, it witnessed such innovations and “characteristically un-American” forms as the general strike in Seattle, the police strike in Boston, and violent race riots in Washington and Chicago.

The exceptional form of development which enabled American capitalism for decades to avoid the class struggle, also left it unprepared to deal with it when it erupted on a massive scale. The almost direct control of government by business; its adherence to unalloyed laissez faire economic and social policies; and the absence of any social reformist movement, left the American bourgeoisie unskilled and unprepared in the face of serious social challenges. The capitalist class was unwilling to accept the class struggle as anything less than the harbinger of revolution.

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