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Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and perhaps the next president of the United States, is waging war against something he and many others on the right identify as “woke communism.” DeSantis even persuaded the Florida legislature to pass a “Victims of Communism” law, mandating that every November 7 (the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), all public schools in the state must devote 45 minutes of instruction to the evils of the red menace.
You might reasonably ask: What menace? After all, the Soviet Union fell apart more than 30 years ago and, long before that, communist parties around the world had dwindled in numbers and lost their revolutionary zeal. The American Communist Party was buried alive nearly three-quarters of a century ago during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s.
How then can there be a muscular rebirth of anti-communism when there’s no communism to face off against? The Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank, explains the paradox this way: The powers that be of the present moment, including “education, corporate media, entertainment, big business, especially big tech, are to varying degrees aligned with the Democratic Party which is now controlled by Woke Communism.”
All clear now? A “cold civil war” is afoot, so we’re assured by DeSantis and crew, and if we don’t act quickly, “woke communism will replace American justice.… the choice is between liberty or death.”
Naturally, Donald Trump has joined the chorus, declaiming that the Democratic Party functions as a cover for “wild-eyed Marxists.” People like Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, formerly considered proud defenders of capitalism, are now censored as socialists. Steve Bannon, right-wing populist organizer and one-time Trump adviser, has attacked the Business Roundtable and venture capitalists like Larry Fink of Blackrock, the largest asset management firm in the world, because he’s determined to defend a “government of laws, not Woke CEOs.”
At the January gathering of the Republican National Committee, angry that Ronna McDaniel had held onto her position as its chairperson, right-wing activist Charlie Kirk put the matter in stark class terms: “The country club won today. So, the grassroots people who can’t afford to buy a steak and are struggling to make ends meet, they just got told by their representatives at an opulent $900/night hotel that ‘We hate you.’”
How surpassingly odd! Somehow, the “specter” invoked nearly 200 years ago by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, reflecting his urge to see the exploited and impoverished mobilized to overthrow capitalism, now hangs out at country clubs, corporate boardrooms, and the White House—all the redoubts of capitalism.
Listen to DeSantis. At a rally in Sarasota during the 2022 midterm elections, he got his loudest applause for denouncing corporate America—and not just for assaulting the Walt Disney company’s criticism of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” policy. He went after Wall Street, too, noting that the “masters of the universe are using their economic power to impose policies on the country that they could not do at the ballot box” and promising to “fight the Woke in corporate America.” A recent Gallup poll signals that he might be onto something, since the percentage of Republicans unhappy with big business has soared.
Once upon a time, anti-communism was the ideology of a ruling class under siege, warning that its enemies among hard-pressed farmers and industrial workers were intent on destroying the foundations of civilized life: private property, the family, religion, and the nation. Now, of all the unlikely suspects, anti-communism has become part of the ideological arsenal aimed at those very dominating elites.
Bankers and Bolsheviks
What happened? There’s certainly a history here. Start with Henry Ford, a folk hero to millions of Americans during the early decades of the 20th century. He not only invented the Model T Ford but also helped articulate a new version of anti-communism. He was a notorious anti-Semite, even publishing a book in 1923 called The International Jew that warned of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. (It became a bestseller.)
Anti-Semitism had long traded on the stereotype of the Jew as Shylock, the usurious, heartless banker. Ford, who also hated bankers, sought something far grander than classic anti-Semitism. As he came to see it, the International Jew was conspiring not just with the titans of high finance but with their supposedly inveterate enemies, the Bolsheviks, whose tyranny in Russia was but a foretaste of the future. In America, as he saw it, financiers were secretly plotting with the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party to make war on capitalism, an unholy alliance of Wall Street, Jewish financiers, and the Kremlin, the Rothschilds and Lenin, seeking to unravel the very moral fiber of western civilization.
Together, so this line of thought went, they plotted to saturate a hard-working, family-centered, patriarchal, sexually orthodox, racially homogenous, god-fearing capitalist society with soul-destroying hedonism, allowing the bankers to make money and the Bolsheviks to find their way to power. After all, communists were atheists, who held the traditional patriarchal family in contempt, believed in both woman’s equality and racial equality, and felt no loyalty to the nation. Similarly, bankers worshipped Mammon, who had no homeland.
According to the automaker, evidence of this conspiracy of moral subversion lay in plain sight. After all, the commies were peddling pornography through their control of the movie business, while—it was the prohibition era—they saturated the country in bootleg gin. Because they were also the masterminds behind the publishing industry, they arranged an endless flow of sex and sensationalism in newspapers, magazines, and pulp novels. And “Jewish jazz,” bankrolled by the same circles, was on its way to becoming the national music, its rhythms an open invitation to the lewd and lascivious.
In the years just preceding Ford’s anti-Semitic outburst, the Palmer raids, conducted by United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during and following World War I, had imprisoned and deported thousands of radical political activists, only heightening the panic about a coming communist revolution in America. But no one before Ford had ever imagined communists combining forces with the ruling class they presumably were out to overthrow. That was the bizarre eye-opener of a disturbed and disturbing moment and, mad as it was, should once again sound eerily familiar.
From Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism
That imaginary league of Bolsheviks and bankers would remain an undercurrent of popular superstition, while ant-icommunism began to mutate, coming to have ever less to do with communist movements and ever more with a perverse form of anti-capitalism.
As the giant corporation run by faceless functionaries in suits and ties along with vast government bureaucracies supplanted old-style family capitalism, a whole galaxy of moral and social certitudes about self-reliance, frugality, independence, upward mobility, and piety came under assault. The new order, capitalism on steroids, left a beleaguered and angry world of “little men” in its wake, overwhelmed by a sense of material and spiritual dispossession.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression would only reignite the dark fantasies of Ford’s conspiracy-mongering. In those years, populist demagogue Father Charles Coughlin (known as the “radio priest” thanks to his charismatic weekly sermons listened to by millions) preached about how corporate capitalism was “privately sustaining in some instances the worst elements of Communism.” Coughlin grew increasingly hostile to the New Deal. Its bureaucracies, he claimed, meddled in family life, while its regulatory reforms were a disguised version of “financial socialism.” In 1936, he and fellow demagogues formed the Union Party to try (unsuccessfully) to stop Roosevelt’s reelection.
In the eyes of that radio priest, another anti-Semite by the way, Roosevelt was nothing less than America’s Lenin and his New Deal “a broken-down Colossus straddling the harbor of Rhodes, its left leg standing on ancient Capitalism and its right mired in the red mud of communism.”
Joseph McCarthy vs. The Establishment
Though Ford’s and Coughlin’s outpourings were infected with a deep strain of anti-Semitism, the invective of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name became synonymous with mid-20th-century anti-communism, McCarthyism was not. He was after bigger game, namely the whole WASP establishment.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union provided the ostensible context for McCarthy’s ravings about “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” But his focus was far less on the Russians and far more on the upper-crust mandarins running the post–New Deal state.
Traitors to their class, as he saw it, figures like Secretary of State Dean Acheson or international banker John McCloy were, he insisted, closet communists. Yet, gallingly, they also hailed from the most privileged precincts of American society, places like the elite prep school Groton, Harvard, and Wall Street. McCarthy would mock their cosmopolitan associations, their Anglophilia, their gilded careers as international financiers and the heads of major corporations. He would typically portray Averell Harriman, the scion of a railroad and banking family (and a future governor of New York), as “a guy whose admiration for everything Russian is unrivaled outside the confines of the Communist Party.”
The notorious Senate “hearings” he held and the McCarthyism he promoted would prove potent enough to ruin the lives of countless teachers, writers, trade unionists, civil-rights activists, performing artists, journalists, even librarians who lost their jobs and worse, thanks to his infamous inquisitions. And in those years, much of the Republican Party would mimic his message.
Few were safe from such fulminations and McCarthy was anything but alone in delivering them. For instance, the son of a former president, Senator Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Republican” and a leader from the party’s Midwestern heartland, was often hailed as its future presidential nominee. Running in the 1952 primaries, he told his supporters in Ohio that “if we get [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, we will practically have a Republican New Deal Administration with just as much spending and socialism as under [President Harry] Truman.” When he lost the nomination to the former World War II commander, Taft would rage that “every Republican candidate for president since 1936 has been nominated by Chase Bank.”
The imagery of tea-sipping, silk handkerchiefs, and silver spoons that spiced McCarthy’s savage depiction of the supposedly left-wing establishment pointed to a subtle shift in the political center of gravity of the anti-communist crusade. While the economic throw weight of those capitalists cum communists remained in the crosshairs of the McCarthyites, cultural matters tended to take center stage.
Although the moral dangers of a supposedly communist-influenced New Deal-style state still preoccupied the senator and his legions of followers, his archetypical enemy came ever more to resemble Coughlin’s: not just left-leaning intellectuals but Ivy League financiers, bankers with “grouse-hunting estates in Scotland,” whom they saw as an aristocracy of destruction.
Liberty or Death in the Time of “Woke Communism”
Oscillating with the ups and downs of the economy, that version of anticapitalism regularly masqueraded as anti-communism. And all these years later, “woke capital,” the target of so much Trumpublican fury, is once again being labeled a communist phenomenon. That’s because so many Fortune 500 companies, leading banks, and mass-media outfits have had to come to terms with racial and gender equality, sexual and marital choice, and multicultural diversity—with, that is, the latest version of secularism generally.
Coca-Cola and Delta have even criticized Republican state voter-suppression laws. As early as 2015, corporate opposition forced Republicans in Indiana and North Carolina to back off anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation. In 2019, more than 180 CEOs posted a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing that restrictions on abortion were bad for business. A year later, Goldman Sachs established a $10 million fund to promote racial equality to “honor the legacy of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.” After the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, more than 50 companies said they would no longer contribute to the eight Republican senators who objected to certifying the presidential election.
Moreover, dominant financial and business interests depend on the various agencies of the state to subsidize profits and stabilize the economy. This feeds a government apparatus that has long been the bête noire of anti-communists. When the Covid-19 pandemic took down the economy, the 1 percent thrived, enraging many on the right as well as the left.
Refugees from the social revolutions in Venezuela and Cuba, who have gathered in significant numbers in Florida, no doubt resonate to the latest anti-communist dog whistles of Governor DeSantis in a way that echoes the sentiments aroused in the old days by the Bolshevik Revolution. But what really fires up the passions of Republicans is the tendency of modern capitalism to make peace with (and profit from) the social, racial, and more recently environmental upheavals of the past half-century. Resentment about this continues to ferment in right-wing circles.
The Republican Party now claims to be “standing between capitalism and communism.” But the capitalism it promotes—of the self-reliant entrepreneur, the pious family patriarch, the free-booting version of commerce that depended on racial and gender inequalities and brooked no interference from the state—has been on the defensive for a long time.
Yes, the DeSantis-style anti-communists of today do worry about the possible appeal of socialism to young people, but in real life, the “communism” they face off against is modern capitalism, or what one right-wing wit termed “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” “Woke capital” or, if you’re the governor of Florida, “woke communism,” has indeed seized power.
Ironically, the woke-communist persuasion may be loony about “communism,” but they are unintentionally right that capitalism is indeed the problem. Capitalism exploits millions of workers, devours the environment, creates obscene inequalities in income and wealth, depends on war and the machinery of war, poisons the well of democracy, incites resentments, and destroys any instinct for social solidarity. But count on one thing: The wet dreams of today’s anti-communists when it comes to restoring some superannuated, idealized form of small-town capitalism are harmful fantasies of the first order. Indeed, they have already done much damage, and Governor DeSantis and crew will only make things far worse.