If you grew up in the 1950s, as I did in a lefty American family, the name Joseph McCarthy elicited as much loathing as that of John Wilkes Booth and Benito Mussolini. The zeitgeist of the late 1940s and early 1950s—fueled by the Cold War—were, as troubadour Peter Seeger sang, while he strummed the banjo, “a terrible time,” though it was also, he added, “a wonderful time.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution, begins on a similar note: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I remember the best and the worst: the resilience and the fear. The era left its mark on me and many of my contemporaries who also grew up in lefty families. It lasted decades. In a way, those times have never really ended. The culture of the American left, which I imbibed from my parents, was deeply rooted. The personal was political and the personal was political. Radicalism was entwined with family.
Donald Trump carries on the anti-communist legacy—the demonizing, the polarizing and the self-aggrandizing—which he learned from Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s noxious sidekick. If Trump returns to the White House, “witch hunts” will likely return in force, though name-calling has already begun. Maybe if Trump returns to the White House, I’ll describe myself as a communist with a small letter c.
March 2024 will be the seventieth anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 See It Now program that kicked McCarthy’s butt all over the TV screen. Murrow ended with these words: “The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully.”
My father woke me that evening—I was 12—to tell me about Murrow’s blast and to predict McCarthy’s downfall. He would indeed be censored by his colleagues in the US Senate, but “McCarthyism” and anti-communism survived and even thrived all through the 1960s. They followed me and millions of other Americans.
Not long ago, at the annual banquet of the Jack London Foundation, Stuart Hume, one of the docents at Jack London State Historic Park, glared at me and said, “You can’t sit here. You’re a communist.” My friend, Jeff Dunn, a Jack London maven, invited Hume to step outside and “duke it out.” I put my body between theirs and asked them to please calm down and enjoy the tributes to London.
Later, I asked Gaye LeBaron, a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the local paper, why she thought that Hume chose to call me a communist. She said, “Communist is an all-purpose dirty word and a red flag.” Indeed, it has been ever since the publication in 1848 of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels and and still a marvel of prose and politics. Chris Smith, another PD columnist thought it was ironic that I was called a communist at the Jack London banquet. After all, he pointed out, London was a socialist.
Yes, London defended the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), when they were arrested and went on trial, but he also condemned anarchists and anarchism. He resigned from the Socialist Party in 1916, shortly before he died, in part because socialists called World War I an “imperialist war.” London wanted the US to join the campaign against Germany and support the Brits. His prophetic novel, The Iron Heel, traces the rise of an oligarchy and a dictatorship in the US. It wasn’t revolution but rather counterrevolution that inspired him.
My maternal grandfather, Aaron Quitkin— who was born in Ukraine, and who ran from the Czar’s army— called himself a socialist, voted for Eugene Victor Debs, and condemned communists, including his daughter Millie, my mother, because she advocated for violence to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society.
In fact, I have never belonged to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), but I have always felt rather thin-skinned whenever I have been accused of being a communist, as Stuart Hume did at the London banquet. My parents were members of the CPUSA from about 1938 to 1948, though they kept their membership a secret from me until 1972, long after Khrushchev famously denounced Stalin and shook the communist world in 1956 and for years afterward.
I grew up in a middle-class secular Jewish family with Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian grandparents who came to the USA about 1900. The slogan, “Go back to Russia,” which I heard at school, rankled me. My parents supported the Soviet Union during WWII, heralded the defeat of the fascists at Stalingrad, identified with the working class and expressed a fierce antipathy to racism.
As a boy, the CPUSA struck me as a patriotic American organization. Earl Browder would have wanted it that way. “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism,” he famously declared. Beginning in grade school, my heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, and Paul Robeson, the All-American football star, whom I heard at Carnegie Hall. My sentiments came from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; from folk music and the blues. When my father joined the CP, he told me, the leadership urged him to join the Democratic Party and “move it to the left.” He advocated for public ownership of utilities. How radical was that? In 1948, he took me to my first political rally, for Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president in the early 1940s and later the Progressive Party’s candidate for the Presidency who was walloped by Harry Truman.
I am to this day a child of the Red Scare and the “witch hunts,” which scared the pants off kids like me. Nothing scared me more than the execution in June 1953 of two New York Jews, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who seemed to be spitting images, culturally and ethnically speaking, of my own parents. With my Brooklyn aunts and uncles, some of whom were investigated as communists, I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV.
One summer, I vacationed with my parents and my brothers at a resort run by the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, which was accused of being “communist-led.” I met folk singer Leon Bibb, progressive politico, Bella Abzug and Martha Schlemme, a Viennese Jew who sang in German—all of them talented in one way or another. My father registered at the resort under the alias “Samuels,” which he thought I could easily remember since his first name was Samuel. Early on, I learned the importance of keeping secrets, underground activities, aliases, and the viability of political strategies like “the popular front” and “the united front” which brought together people from different parties and causes.
At Columbia College, along with half a dozen other sons of CP parents, including Eric Foner—who went on to become a stellar teacher and writer— I created a campus political party called “Action,” which was meant to eradicate apathy and persuade undergraduates to come out of their shells and call for the end of nuclear testing, support for the integration movement and the abolition of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC).
We brought Peter Seeger to Columbia and provided a stage for the Black CP leader Benjamin Davis after the City College of New York banned him from speaking. We carried on the legacy of our lefty parents. McCarthy would have called us “Reds” or at least “pinkos.”
As a junior, I was interviewed by Daniel Bell, the author of The End of Ideology, (that was wishful thinking), who asked me “Do you know any communists?” Of course, I did. Shocked and alarmed, I “took the Fifth,” refused to answer his question, stormed out of the conference room and immediately reported the incident to my friends in Action who were no less outraged than I was. Columbia University was no ivory tower, though our professors liked to think of it as a “House of Intellect,” as the Provost, Jacques Barzun, called it in a book we were required to read.
For three years, from 1964 to 1967, I studied at the University of Manchester, in large part because I felt I would have more academic freedom in England than at Columbia and could research and write a thesis about the British novel and British imperialism. I met and befriended British Marxists and British Communist Party members including Arnold Kettle in Leeds and E. J. Hobsbawm in London who taught at English universities and didn’t hide their political affiliations. England was freer than the States; my adviser, Frank Kermode, resigned from his position at Encounter magazine when he learned it was financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
When I spoke to Communist Party members in Manchester, where I lived, I usually emphasized race and racism, the Third World and anti-colonial insurrections. I was often asked, “What about the workers?” I did indeed downplay class, class consciousness and class conflicts. British labor organizers in Manchester aimed to prevent Pakistanis from trade unions and keep them white.
Back in the US, I protested against the War in Vietnam, and the assassinations of two members of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. In December 1969 I rioted in midtown Manhattan, along with a thousand or so demonstrators. I was arrested, beaten on the street and tortured by the police in the 19th precinct. Detective John Finnegan, who headed up “The Red Squad”— originally founded to keep tabs on Reds— fingered me and gave officers the green light to teach me a lesson. “If you want war, we’ll give you war,” one of them said and beat me over the head with his truncheon.
In court, I was charged with “criminal anarchy” and attempted murder of two police officers. The Village Voice ran a story about the riot and the beating/torture, which my ACLU lawyer, Paul Chevigny, called “the worst” he had ever seen in decades. The Voice might have called me a Red. Instead, the paper called me a “Moratorium Man.” By then I identified as a Yippie and ran in the streets with Abbie Hoffman and Ed Sanders.
At a press conference in the Diplomat Hotel called to denounce police brutality, a member of the CP denounced me as “an agent provocateur.” How ironic I thought. For much of my life, I had aimed to avoid overt connections to communism and communists. Now, a Communist Party member accused me of working in tandem with the police to discredit the anti-war and peace movements.
In 1995, I wandered about Vietnam, witnessed the ways that the Vietnamese Communist Party ran a capitalist economy and listened to idealistic Communists denounce the betrayal of communist values. They insisted I not use their real names in any report I wrote for fear of reprisals. On the street where I stayed in a hotel—and met men who had fought against the French in the 1950s—a loudspeaker broadcast the International every morning to wake citizens and prompt them to go to work.
A decade later, in France to promote the publication in French of my book about marijuana, French anarchists were the only lefties to host me and to help publicize Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War. French cops sat in a car parked outside an anarchist bookstore that featured my books and kept tabs on everyone who came and went. The anarchists ignored them and went about their daily activities.
The host of an anarchist radio show, who had invited me to be on the air, insisted I meet him at a stop on the Paris Metro and then walk to the studio to make sure we weren’t tailed. I was reminded of the New York Red Squad and the FBI agents who monitored my activities all through the 1960s and 1970s, and compiled a file on me, which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Much of it was redacted, though agents seemed to think I was a communist. J. Edgar Hoover would insist that New Left organizations were funded and directed from Moscow.
In Bordeaux in 2010, French anarchists took me to the four-story house and headquarters which they inherited from Spanish anarchists who had fled from Franco and fascists in the late 1930s. I was in good company; fed and housed and welcomed as a comrade. As a lefty and an internationalist, I had been embraced by lefties in Italy in the 1960s.
“Anarchism,” one of my hosts explained, “means community control, by, of and for the people of power, money, politics, cultural activities, the police and tourism.” I remember that as a boy, my father liked to quote Marx, who said that the communist society of the future would be guided by a slogan I can still live by, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.