Creeping McCarthyism

 August 2, 2023

Protest against Moms for Liberty in Philadelphia, July 2, 2023.

Eighteen primarily Republican-led states have passed laws or enacted policies restricting what educators can say about race, history, and racism since 2021. Every day brings another report involving book banning, or new legislation censoring access to knowledge and history.

Across the U.S., books containing racially inclusive and LGBTQ2S+ references are being pulled from school library shelves. High school teachers are told to remove Pride flags and other support for trans youth from their classroom or be fired. For presenting anti-racist lessons or making classroom remarks, college professors are chastised, many also face dismissal.

In February 2023, the state of Florida threw out a promising Advanced Placement curriculum in African American History pilot, claiming it lacked “educational value.” The “Stop WOKE” legislation in Florida, Texas, and several other states represents an effort to purge U.S. history of any references to violence against Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian people by white supremacists.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “anti-woke” campaign would revise how history is taught, including omitting or minimizing the contributions of historic Civil Rights leaders like Rosa Parks. DeSantis is under fire for suggesting enslavement benefited the people held captive in the U.S. by “teaching them new skills.”

For activists, woke is slang for awareness. Calls to “stay woke” echoed throughout the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, reverberating through the recent Black Lives Matter movement. This is not an issue of some white students allegedly claiming discomfort over learning about the brutally racist history of their ancestors – it’s about trying to totally erase that history with textbooks that glorify white supremacy.

Once again, the right wing is rallying around a made-up menace – in a modern-day parallel to the McCarthy period of the 1950s.

‘The Red Scare’

Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was a minor political figure until February 1950 when he falsely claimed to possess a list of 205 card-carrying communists employed in the U.S. Department of State. For the next four years, this paranoia about the threat of communists – the “Red Scare” – reached a fever pitch.

McCarthy pushed the narrative that communists could be lurking anywhere, using their jobs as teachers, labor organizers, artists, actors, journalists, etc., to advance world communist domination. Hundreds of people were imprisoned and tens of thousands lost their jobs. McCarthyism came to mean making public accusations of disloyalty or subversion without evidence and employing questionable methods of investigation and accusation in order to suppress opposition.

The red-baiting movement associated with McCarthy actually began in the 1930s in response to massive strikes by workers in auto and other industries. It was a concerted effort to weaken labor unions, purging leaders affiliated with communist or socialist parties.

In 1946, over 4.6 million workers struck their employers – more than in any other year in U.S. history. In 1947, Congress overrode President Harry S. Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which required every union official above the rank of steward to sign an oath that they were not communists..

Parallels to anti-communist red-baiting during the McCarthy period and the anti-woke crusade of today cannot be ignored. But rather than cause alarm, they should be seen as a call to organize.

The answer: multinational working-class unity 

The far right of the ruling class was especially alarmed by the outpouring of millions of people globally in 2020 in the Black Lives Matter movement following the police murder of George Floyd, when young white workers took to the streets in militant protests side-by-side with their Black and Brown comrades.

While street actions have temporarily declined, their energy helped fuel the growing movement of young workers – multinational and multigender – to organize unions in workplaces from Starbucks to Amazon and beyond. Just the threat of a strike by 340,000 UPS workers forced the company to meet many of their demands.

From California to New York, fights to win reparations for the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. are gaining momentum.

Capitalism is a dying system, propped up through massive spending for war at the expense of all social programs. Youth of every nationality, gender and gender identity feel increasingly alienated and fear for their futures because of the very clear damage capitalism has brought to the environment.

What stands in the way of a truly broad anti-capitalist movement are the same tools capitalism has historically used to divide the global working class: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and ageism.

Fueled by growing labor organizing led by workers who are often people of color and gender non-binary, the working class is becoming more united. The threat of multinational working-class unity is what the ruling class fears most today – just as they feared communism 70 years ago.