This is a slightly more extensive version of the essay featured in Black Agenda Report on September 8, 2010.
On progressive “red-baiting”
Tamara K. Nopper
September 4, 2010
In response to a critic, a popular progressive figure commented, “I’m defender of republican democracy, US Constitution and liberty and justice for all. I’m progressive dem, not authoritarian leftist.” While perhaps correct in the self-description, such comments hint at an intellectualized version of red-baiting.
Red-baiting of course is not new and today many people throw the word leftist as well as radical, revolutionary, Socialist, Communist, or Anarchist, around like they are accusations rather than developed albeit perhaps diverging positions regarding capitalism, the state, and for some of us, white supremacy. Most of the people who are the most vociferous in publicly denouncing leftists are white conservatives, including corporate news personalities and members of the inherently racist and white nationalist Tea Party. Yet progressives critical of racism, poverty, corporations, and government officials have their own ways of red-baiting.
Not all of the targets of this red-baiting of which I speak are associated with Marxist organizations or have specific organizational affiliations. Nor do most progressives publicly use pejoratives such as “Commie” or “Pinko.” Yet some will strategically use terms such as “authoritarian leftist,” “radicals” or “revolutionaries” or “Marxist” when trying to deflect questions posed by people unimpressed with their political positions but whose opposition cannot easily be dismissed as driven by white supremacy or conservatism. Such gestures are consistent with red-baiting; individuals can simply shut down inquiry or interrogation of their political positions by strategically using labels unpopular among a general public trained to hate such terms; the strategic use of these labels plays upon white nationalist fears and pan-racial bourgeois sentiments by invoking the specter of revolutionary and liberation movements, armed struggle or armed resistance or rioting (as opposed to pacifism or non-violent resistance), militant Black power, and a classless society. In the process, such gestures take advantage of, and implicitly condone the aggressive campaigns by the mainstream press, most academics, and the state to demonize and criminalize stances that are too oppositional against white supremacy or capitalism or state violence. The use of such labels, while sometimes correct in their assertion (since there are many who proudly identify as having certain affiliations), often work to insulate progressives from having to explicitly articulate their positions and why they are committed to the ones they take, thus situating their stances, as undefined as they may be, as logical or natural as opposed to ideological and up for debate.