Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes appears at a time when, thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union, new information about the subject of communism is becoming available. The sporadic release of classified documents here and abroad has settled matters hotly disputed only decades ago. We know now that the American Communist Party served from its inception in 1919 as an outpost of the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern) and that a disciplined espionage “apparatus,” controlled by Soviet intelligence, infiltrated the US government in the 1930s and 1940s and placed spies inside the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.
How does this knowledge affect our understanding of anticommunism, particularly McCarthyism and the excesses committed in its name during the 1950s? Did those years, as Schrecker maintains, produce the “most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history”? Was anticommunism, at least in some of its forms, an often reasonable, although overzealous, reaction to a serious danger? In the post-Communist world, these questions have assumed new importance, and Schrecker is not alone in raising them.
Indeed her book is in effect a counterstatement to Richard Gid Powers’s Not Without Honor, a neoconservative survey of American anticommunism published in 1995. Reviewing the opposition to Russian communism from its origins in 1917 to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Powers concluded that “there was no one thing that was American anticommunism” but rather “many American anticommunisms.” He praised “responsible anticommunists,” including the liberals and leftists who in the 1930s tried to keep the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) from taking over labor unions and who supported organizations like John Dewey’s Commission of Inquiry, which challenged the legitimacy of the Moscow Trials.
At the same time, Dewey and his fellow liberal anti-Communists opposed right-wing anti-Communists who weakened the cause by adulterating it with longstanding prejudices against immigrants, ethnic minorities, and all forms of liberalism. In Powers’s account, the contest over anticommunism grew most intense during the early years of the cold war, when by a kind of Gresham’s law the bad anti-Communists drove out the good. The movement touched bottom with the ascendancy of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose “rabid charges that there were Communist traitors among the nation’s most trusted leaders…eclipsed the sober and truthful accounts of communism that anticommunists had provided over the past half decade, making anticommunism seem nothing more than the ravings of a dangerous madman.”
But in fact, the two strands of anticommunism, high and low, could not be so easily disentangled. Sidney Hook, a social democrat and strong critic of McCarthy, was willing to jettison civil liberties in order to keep Communist teachers out of American schools. Just being a member of the Party was, in his view, enough to bar a math teacher from the classroom. James Burnham, a former Trotskyist and Partisan Review editor, drafted one-sided reports for Red-hunting Senate investigating committees. Powers neglected to consider that it was as much the contradictions and excesses …