Florida Congressman Allen West was wrong when he suggested that there were dozens of communists in the current Congress. Misled by crank websites, the out-there Republican from Florida said Tuesday, “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party… They actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”
It would be generous, indeed, to suggest that West is confused.
The Congress is not currently a haven for followers of Karl Marx.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has over the years included a few friends of democratic socialism—which espouses an economic and social justice vision every bit as far removed from the Stalinist excesses that West seems to be decrying as the current Republican Party’s views are from those of its radical founders.
The democratic socialist connections and tendencies that exist are no secret. The CPC was once led by US Senator Bernie Sanders, who has always identified as a socialist, and it is includes as a longtime member former House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, who (like former US Senator Ted Kennedy and the Reverend Jesse Jackson before him) has worked with groups such as Democratic Socialists of America to advance proposals for single-payer “Medicare for All” healthcare reforms.
But the vast majority of CPC members are run-of-the-mill progressive Democrats, very much in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson when it comes to domestic policy and to their support for civil rights and economic fairness.
As for Marxists, they’re in short supply in this current Congress.
But West might take a measure of comfort in knowing that he is not entirely wrong about the fact that the Congress has included readers of Marx, ideological allies of the Communist Party and members who were elected in alliance with the Socialist Party.
For the most part, these radicals have operated under a single banner. But it is not that of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—and certainly not that of the Democratic Party.
The banner around which radicals have historically gathered in official Washington has been that of the Republican Party.
Founded at Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854 by utopian socialists and militant abolitionists, the early Republican Party included many German-American immigrants who had come the United States after the wave of European revolutions that stirred in 1848 fell short of its radical goals. Among the first Republicans were allies and associates of Karl Marx, such as Joseph Weydemeyer, who would eventually serve as as a Civil War colonel.
Abraham Lincoln, who like so many of the leading Republicans of his day read Marx and Engles in the pages of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (where they served for many years as European correspondents), spoke often about the superiority of labor to capital and was highly critical of concentrated wealth. Among Lincoln’s White House aides was Charles Dana, Marx’s editor. And the sixteenth president accepted the congratulations of Marx and his fellow London Communists after Lincoln’s 1864 re-election.
The radical Republicans of the late nineteenth century and the progressive Republicans of the early twentieth century often worked closely with Socialist Party stalwarts. Indeed, when Robert M. La Follette, a lifelong Republican, sought the presidency in 1924, he did so with the backing of the Socialist Party.
In the 1920s, New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, another lifelong Republican and the future mayor of New York, was elected on the Socialist line. When LaGuardia served as mayor in the 1930s and 1940s, Manhattan’s Republican borough president hired the political writer for the Communist-aligned Daily Worker newspaper as one of his top aides.
La Guardia’s successor in the US House, Vito Marcantonio, was elected on the Republican line but with open support from Communists. Though Marcantonio often voted for policies backed by the Communists and was hailed in the pages of the party press, it is not believed that he ever joined the Communists. He identified as a Republican, and he served as a independent man of the left who was beloved by his working-class constituents.
Marcantonio’s Republicanism was in the tradition of the party’s founders, very radical and very committed to breaking the grip of racist and segregationist Democrats on the policymaking of the country. It happened that this stance, in this regard, paralleled that of the Communist Party—which during the period of his Congressional service elected members of the New York City Council from Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Marcantonio, who represented part of Harlem, worked to bring African-Americans into the Republican Party and championed their candidacies. He would have delighted in the fact that a once-segregated Southern state such as Florida now sends an African-American Republican—Allen West—to Congress.
But Marcantonio, a student of Lincoln and the radical Republican tradition, would probably have encouraged West to read a bit more of the real history of the Republican Party.
John Nichols is the author of The “S” Word: A Short History of a American Tradition—Socialism (Verso).