Q&A with Spider Web author Nick Fischer

FischerS16Nick Fischer is Adjunct Research Fellow of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, Melbourne. He answered some questions about his book Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism.

Q: How does the term “spider web” describe the anticommunist movement more so than the term describes international communism?

Nick Fisher: When the ‘Bolsheviks’ or Communists seized power in Russia, in November 1917, international socialism suddenly had a focal point. The anticommunist movement began to refer to international communism as a ‘spider web’ because its members believed that a broad range of social, political and economic ideas and movements – which they feared and disapproved of – were all directed by a central power: the Communist International in Moscow. As I describe in Spider Web, the concept of the communist ‘spider web’ as the master controller of socialist, pacifist, feminist and other objectionable movements was powerfully expressed in a ‘Spider Web Chart,’ produced in 1923 by a librarian in the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army. This chart depicted the ‘interlocking directorates’ of ‘International Socialism’ and showed where these directorates were thought to intersect with the ‘Socialist-Pacifist Movement in America.’ The chart became totemic for the American anticommunist movement, summarizing and projecting all of its views and objectives.

My argument, however, is that the term ‘spider web’ better describes the American anticommunist movement of the interwar period, rather than international communism. This is because the Anticommunist Spider Web was far more powerful than the radical left, and because its members were able to pursue their objectives with far greater purpose and success.

The Anticommunist Spider Web comprised a broad but informal system of public-private and state-society networks in government, the judiciary, the intelligence community, police forces, the armed services, industry, the media, and what would now be described as society’s conservative base. It commanded formidable resources and was able to publicize and execute its objectives and activities with great effect.

But for all its importance, the Web has been neglected in the historiography of American anticommunism, especially in comparison with Cold War figures such as Senator McCarthy. So a principal task of this book was to map this network with unprecedented thoroughness. Other scholars such as Ellen Schrecker, Alfred McCoy and Kim Phillips-Fein have shown that a broad range of organizations and individuals were involved in anticommunist repression, particularly after the Great Depression. Spider Web extends this scholarship by exploring the significance of the interwar period to the emergence of anticommunism as a significant influence in American politics and culture. It does this by tracing the ways in which myriad groups and individuals were interconnected and collaborated in the production and dissemination of anticommunism.

I think Spider Web can be viewed as a rescue mission: it brings back into the spotlight a broad range of activists whose contributions to anticommunism have been overshadowed by such successors as McCarthy and the John Birch Society.

Q: Many are familiar with the Anticommunism that was prominent in the 1950’s. But you write that the efforts began after World War One. When and how did the American anticommunist crusade begin?

Fischer: The American anticommunist crusade began as soon as the word ‘communism’ became a dirty byword for efforts to redress the terrible economic imbalance of the Gilded Age. In other words, anticommunism was becoming a label and a justification for opposition to labor organization, unemployment relief, workplace health and safety laws, and so on, from the 1870s. It was always used to associate these ideas with foreigners, including German and Jewish Marxists and, later, Italian anarchists. But the impetus for these demands was not foreign, it was structural and emanated from America’s economic and social conditions.

Even so, anticommunism was used intermittently as a political strategy until the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. It was really the war that made modern anticommunism both possible and then politically necessary.

Because US participation in the war was widely regarded as unnecessary, the federal government was forced to engage in systematic industrial and political repression to bring the nation into the war, and then support the war effort. So the government expanded the use of draconian and quasi-legal methods of suppressing strikes and other activity that threatened industrial output. For example, the US Army routinely put down industrial disturbances. In addition, the war intensified the association of nonconformism with treachery and subversion. The war also provided political cover for big business to broaden its assault on labor organizations. Republican and Democratic leaders similarly used the war to pit the state against rival and smaller political parties. The destruction of organizations such as the Nonpartisan League paved the way for subsequent assaults on the Socialist and Communist parties.

The war also prompted the federal government to develop new techniques and instruments of repression that soon empowered anticommunists. National security agencies became essential organizations. Government worked with major corporations to spy on alleged malcontents and militants, and to deport unnaturalized ‘radicals’ en masse, to demoralize and subjugate radical organizations.

When news of the Bolshevik Revolution reached America it intensified this war atmosphere. Political and business leaders realized that the revolution had broadened opposition to their power to include large sections of the labor movement as well as left-wing parties, all of whom were greatly encouraged by the revolution.

It’s hard for us to understand now what a shock the rise of the Bolshevik regime must have been. Communist government on this scale had never been attempted. America had invested heavily – financially and diplomatically – in the provisional governments that tried to rule Russia between March and November 1917, and the government and leading businessmen were furious that the new government was going to withdraw from the war and dishonor the debts of previous governments. Worse, the Bolsheviks were calling on workers throughout the world to engage in violent, class-based insurrection, to nationalize lands and resources. This is why secretary of state Robert Lansing described Bolshevism as the ‘most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived’.

So while the government enlarged its domestic policing powers, it attempted to isolate and militarily defeat the Bolshevik regime, invading Russia with Britain and France and joining the Russian Civil War. And from that point on, the US was at ‘war’ with communism, until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Q: Did Anticommunist propaganda seek to influence the media and seep into American pop culture?

Fischer: Absolutely. Anticommunist propaganda from the 1870s on was designed to influence the media and public opinion, and it seeped very deeply into American popular culture.

We have to remember that anticommunism became a political label and strategy in the 1870s when America was undergoing profound and difficult transformations. There were huge and growing disparities in wealth and opportunity, and major industrial conflicts and economic shocks spread across vast regions and industries. And rather than resolve the underlying causes of these disparities and conflicts, some Americans chose instead to describe labor organization, industrial action, and calls for unemployment relief as illegitimate and even subversive threats to civilization. Hence strikes, unions and unemployment demonstrations were described as ‘communist’ assaults on America. This helped not only to discredit workers’ organizations but also the very notion of collective action, as well as the politics of class.

The notion of protest as ‘Red’ revolution was widely aired by political and industry leaders in regional and national media whenever a major strike or recession occurred. And by the time socialist revolution broke out across Europe during and after the World War, the general public had been conditioned by long practice to think of any and all attempts to redistribute wealth as a revolutionary threat carried into America by diseased and (racially) inferior foreigners.

As time went on, anticommunists became more skilled in developing and spreading their propaganda, as the power and influence of the Spider Web Chart shows. In the 1920s and ‘30s, anticommunist propaganda was a staple of mass media. Regular reports in major newspapers described the heroic counter-revolutionary exploits of government agents and police, crushing communist conspiracies. Spectacular (if irrelevant) raids on ‘communist’ premises were reported, as were deportations, building public fear of subversion and confidence in the counter-revolutionary establishment. Business lobbies peppered workers with anticommunist literature. Anticommunists delivered public lectures and broadcast on radio. Papers such as the Saturday Evening Post published lengthy stories about conditions in Russia, to emphasize the hellish and unnatural state of communism and its terrible effects on national and family life. And because communism was supposedly a wholly foreign and international force, opposition to it could be described as a patriotic duty.

So by the later 20th century, more Americans defined themselves as anticommunists than by any other social category, including being religiously observant. And this process was given great and effective encouragement during the interwar period described in Spider Web.

Q: Were there parts of the country that were less directly affected by Anticommunism and McCarthyism, or was it spread nationwide?

Fischer: It is probably more accurate to say that there were parts of the US, hot spots if you like, that were more affected by anticommunism than other areas. These included major industrial and population centers, particularly with large immigrant populations of Europeans and Southern blacks. New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles were three of the most important centers of industrial dispute and political repression, but anticommunism really did reach into the vitals of every community in the nation. That was its great strength and success. We can see this in the activity of organizations such as the American Protective League, a paramilitary force of around 300,000 recruits that enforced the draft and which meted out vigilante ‘justice’ to the unpatriotic and to striking workers c. 1917-1920. League personnel were active in almost 1,500 units and they were thought to have conducted perhaps three million investigations for government. Similarly, the Committee on Public Information, the world’s first unified government propaganda agency, mobilized thousands of volunteers into dozens of divisions, including public speakers, graphic designers, filmmakers, advertisers and public intellectuals to spread the federal government’s pro-war and then anticommunist messages to every community in the US.

I would emphasize, however, that regional organizations were incredibly important to this process. The power of regional business lobbies like the Better America Federation in California was essential to creating a national audience for anticommunism, which was later expressed in Congressional vehicles such as the Special (and then the House) Committee on Un-American Activities. It was also vital to the local activity of national agencies such as the Bureau of Investigation, which depended greatly on the cooperation and intelligence it received from regional anticommunists.

Q: Were there ever any protests against the McCarthy-era witch hunts?

Fischer: Yes, of course. McCarthy enjoyed his notoriety, beating up on vulnerable targets for several years, but he eventually was undone in 1954, first by the prominent television journalist Edward R. Murrow’s on air criticism in April, and then by an exasperated U.S. Army legal counsel, Joseph Nye Welch, in June. Some of your readers will have seen Murrow’s actions dramatized in the George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

Before this, Lauren Bacall, John Huston and other Hollywood entertainers had formed the Committee for the First Amendment, and Bacall (with several others) had traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1947, to protest anticommunists’ abridgment of suspects’ freedom of speech and thought.

To my mind, however, the bravest protests were led by people like Paul Robeson, who refused to state whether he was a member of the Communist Party, as was his right, and who suffered immense personal and professional harm by doing so. Robeson was the precursor of Muhammad Ali: he said ‘Why should I hate the Soviet? It’s the American white man who kills me and my people,’ and he was absolutely vilified for it. The FBI tried to murder Robeson, probably on three occasions, and the State Department waged a personal vendetta, confiscating his passport and making him a prisoner in his own land; he once had to broadcast a concert into Canada, standing on the border and singing!

There were plenty of other less noted but equally brave protesters. I’m thinking of everyday union leaders, like Bill Sentner of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers in and around St. Louis, whose life and work has been described by another Illinois author, Rosemary Feurer. Sentner defended his beliefs in worker organization and empowerment, as a Communist Party member, but hewing his own course, often defying Moscow, enduring frequent arrest, surveillance and vilification from more conservative elements of the labor movement, as well as attacks on his family; Sentner’s wife was an immigrant from Yugoslavia whom the government attempted to deport because she was married to Bill.

And Sentner reminds me of many people described in my book, such as the Centralia Wobblies, who endured unjust prison sentences for between 12 and 19 years, just for being members of an unpopular organization. Think also of Eugene Debs, the railway union and Socialist Party leader, who endured several, long stints in prison for his beliefs.

There is always protest and resistance, but people should be under no illusion: repression breaks people and families, and it can and has killed them. Not just through vigilante violence and murder, but through stress and misery.

Q: Do you see any similarities between today’s political situation and the political environment of the 1950s?

Fischer: Yes I do. There are always parallels between eras. The so-called ‘war on terror’ is a partisan political weapon, just as McCarthyism was. Back then, anticommunism was an instrument that leading Republicans such as Senator Robert Taft wielded to undermine the Truman administration. Similarly, any failure in the fight against militant Islam is currently styled as failure by the Obama administration.

But to my mind, current conditions are actually much more reminiscent of earlier periods of US history, especially the Gilded Age and the first years of the 20th century. And this is, to a significant extent, due to the legacy of anticommunism. I think millions of Americans have come to understand that their country now suffers the worst disparities of income and opportunity since probably the Depression and, before that, the Gilded Age. We’ve just witnessed how people on Main St have borne the debts of Wall St, and this is exactly what was occurring c. 1870-1900, and the very reason why the progressive movement was spawned.

And now, thanks to 70 years of relentless assaults on labor organizations and employment rights, people have found that they have very little ability to resist economic events and policies. As I note in Spider Web, these assaults didn’t matter quite so much for 20 or 30 years after the Second World War, because the US economy was booming and it was still the world’s industrial powerhouse; there were plenty of manufacturing jobs to go around. But since the 1970s, more and more jobs have been exported to the developing world and the relative wealth of America’s middle and working classes has declined. And Reaganomics has accelerated that decline, by distributing wealth upwards and by smashing workers’ rights.

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