I love American conservatives and rightwingers who have a fealty to outing old Reds. Really. They are so quaint, and that appeals to my antiquarian sensibilities.
The latest feeding frenzy on that side of the political spectrum has arisen these last few days as the FBI has released its files on Howard Zinn
(who I happen to like a lot). And lo and behold, when reading through some of the FBI's files, we find there are two informants who go unidentified (why not identify the informants after all these years so we can test the informants' credibility, too?) who say Howard Zinn was a member of the Communist Party USA from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Robert Stacy McCain
, who even other conservatives have distanced themselves from as white supremacist
and a "fellow traveler" of neo-Confederacy groups
(not to mention a leading editor at the Washington Times, a newspaper owned by the religiously insane Rev. Moon
), is on the story, which you can read here
I throw in the description of Robert Stacy McCain to show that, yes, we can play the guilt-by-association card too, but really, that should simply cause us to filter things, not ignore what people say if it is otherwise accurate. And I think McCain's conclusion about Zinn's membership in the Party may well be accurate, though I find McCain's perspective and world view abhorrent and more important, inaccurate.
The chances are fairly strong that the two informants are stating the truth when they stated to the FBI that they saw Zinn at meetings of the CPUSA in the late 1940s or early 1950s and that Zinn admitted to at least one of the informants he was a member of the Party. It is also likely true there is at least one Communist Party mailing list with Zinn's name and then residential address. Therefore, McCain is probably correct that Zinn lied when he denied being a Communist during that period of history.
But is that really the end of the story? Of course not. First, it is difficult for people in our time to understand that if one admitted to being a Communist in the years after World War II, one lost his or her job, one was subject to harassment from the police, government officials, and sometimes subject to being physically threatened or beaten by other individuals or even mobs of people. During the time of the hysteria generated during the Palmer Raids
following World War I, people in the US who were Communists were lynched
or otherwise beaten to a pulp. There was a fear among such people after World War II that this could happen again. The Peekskill, NY
riots that began with a singing appearance by "Communist fellow-traveler" Paul Robeson is a case in point. It does not take more than one of those events to keep people from saying "Yes, I'm a Communist."
Second, what I have said to people for over three decades while reading extensively on this subject is, so what
if someone was a Red. The very different question and issue is: Was the person spying for the Soviet Union, and if so, what was that person actually providing to the Soviets? And it is here that one sees how Robert Stacy McCain goes off the rails and falls into a polemical ditch. McCain desperately wants to make the case that Zinn was a spy, but refrains. He knows, though, if he could prove Zinn was a spy, it would discredit Zinn and people would not be apt to read Zinn's public statements and essays. Try as he might, however, the FBI files for which McCain provides a link do not make a case that Zinn was a spy for the Soviet Union. Zinn was merely (and admirably) an activist and academic who performed important research and commentary.
One must also say, isn't it amusing that one can attach Robert Stacy McCain himself to Nazis and white supremacists who preach violence and act violently more easily than one can attach Zinn to anyone who was a spy for the Soviet Union? One might think that people like McCain would be more judicious, or is it projection
on their part based upon their own shadowy associations?
The liberal-left blogsophere is more likely to react as Mahablog
has, and say there is insufficient proof of Zinn being a Communist Party member. One may argue that the FBI obviously did not convince the government lawyers that there was a strong enough criminal case to bring against Zinn (there were laws against lying under oath about being a Communist and laws against being a Communist at that time). This is especially so at a time when when Zinn was very active in "front" organizations, and vocal in his activism. The failure to prosecute may mean the informants were determined to be less than reliable once they were cross-examined by a district attorney or attorney general. Still, the list and the two informants make a fairly reasonable case for Zinn's membership in the Party.
Nonetheless, Mahablog is absolutely correct in stating that the hounding and spying on unarmed radicals such as Zinn is the real crime here, not whether Zinn was a member of the Communist Party USA (See also this
post from Josh Marshall's place focusing on Zinn's employers at Boston University supporting FBI spy efforts against Zinn). And it is also true that people such as Robert Stacy McCain would more likely want to support an American secret police that would attack liberals and leftists. It cannot be stressed too often that even Bill Buckley, in his co-authored book defending Joseph McCarthy, had admitted that a primary purpose of the Red Scare was to attack "Liberals" with a capital L. (see: this
post where I happen to discuss Buckley's defense of red-baiting in the modern world and note his consistency dating back to the 1950s).
I will not say "There is nothing to see here." There is. It's very interesting for any future biographers of Zinn if a biography is worthwhile. Where it does mean nothing
is that Zinn's alleged Party member status for a decade during the 1940s and 1950s does not undermine the power
of Zinn's "People's History of the United States"
. The FBI files also mean nothing regarding Zinn's public
statements and essays on public policy issues, which statements and essays stand on their own merit (or sometimes lack thereof).
BONUS POINT: Here
is an article from Reason.org attacking Zinn's book and Zinn when Zinn passed away. In the comments, I go to war against the author (who never responds) and then against some other folks. I think I acquit myself well factually, though I find when debating business-oriented libertarians, I get very angry. They are smart and often decent people, but their ideological rigidness frustrates me, the same way I feel about Stalinists and Communists from the 1930s, whom modern business oriented libertarians resemble in their mindset of "Don't let the facts and consistency get in the way of my ideology!"