The Between the Lines Column from the October 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
Uncle Sam's half-forgotten purge
In Russia it is now common for many people to feel guilty about their complicity with Stalinism. After all, oppressors are only as strong as they are allowed to be by those who stand by passively. In Germany the sense of self-blame for passive collaboration with the Nazi monstrosity has haunted a generation and appears to be playing its part in a grotesque recidivism in a new one. Guilt gets nobody anywhere; it is a pain felt rather than a lesson learned. But worse perhaps than guilt is that complacent incomprehension of past atrocities which accompanies historical ignorance.
In the main, Americans fall into this latter category. The wretched story of McCarthyism is rarely spoken about and even more rarely recognized as being deeply symptomatic of the pseudo-freedom of US capitalist order. The Un-Americans (BBC2, 8.10 pm. Wednesdays 2nd, 9th and 16th September) was a superb reminder of that period of American political madness. Of particular merit was the series' refusal to dwell solely upon the purge of famous actors, writers and so-called intellectuals. The McCarthy witch-hunt hit vast numbers of unknown workers. Their political views lost them their jobs. Four hundred and fifty workers were imprisoned for political crimes - often for as long as twenty years.
One such ease was Steve Nelson, who in 1950 was chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Communist Party. He was arrested on the order of one Judge Musmanno - a man who had been a supporter of Mussolini before the war, praising the Fascists for "their purification of Italian soil" by “driving Bolshevism from the country". Nelson was charged on the basis of his possession of books, including the works of Marx. At the time of his trial a film was released, based on Nelson, called I Was A Communist For The FBI, in which the Nelsonesque caricature was shown to be a murderer. Nelson argued in court that the film would prejudice the jury. He, after all, was accused of being a CPer and possessing books, not of killing anyone. The film was written by one Harry Sherman, local vice-president of the McCarthyite organization, Americans Battling Communism. Musmanno, the trial judge, was also a member.
At the trial Musmanno declared of Nelson's books that "I regard those books as more I dangerous than any firearms". Nelson was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment, a $10,000 fine and $13,291 court costs to pay the expenses of the prosecution - for which read "persecution". Like others shown on the programme, Nelson now realizes the folly of his old Leninist beliefs and sees how easy it was for the authorities to pursue their purge with impunity. But hostile as we are to the politics of Stalinism, who could watch Nelson's account of how he had a farewell picnic with his wife and kids before he went off to serve his sentence without feeling the utmost sympathy for him and the deepest loathing for the men who persecuted him in the name of freedom?
Lenin at the BBC?
The TV bosses are shouting at one another and in the exchange truths are coming out. It all began at the Edinburgh TV Festival when Michael Grade accused the BBC of becoming an institution which is scared by and sycophantic towards the Government. He accused the BBC bosses of being "Leninist" in their complicity with state demands, of "political appeasement to the Government; abandoning its heritage by axing resources; creating a culture of secrecy through editorial dictatorship; and stifling talent". Quite right. We have long pointed out that the government, in the name of freedom, imposes more and more control over state broadcasting, and, in the name of market forces, is dragging TV down to a lower and lower level. Is there a lower level than Eldorado? Watching it brings back fond memories of Crossroads as a relative example of dramatic sophistication. Marx called it the increasing misery of the working class - and watching Eldorado you get a funny feeling that he might just have been right.
Meanwhile ITV has announced that it is going to cut current affairs out of its peak-time hours altogether. Marcus Plantin, head of London Weekend Television, told the Edinburgh TV Festival that "We're not going to abandon current affairs, but we have to move it to a less competetive slot". By this he meant that advertisers want to put their money behind programmes that pull in the viewers and if game shows attract more soap powder buyers than news analysis, then World In Action will just have to go into the insomniac slot Paul Jackson, head of programmes for Carlton TV. the shoddy little outfit which will replace Thames next year, told the Festival that even though ITV output of news programmes currently constitutes only four percent, that is too much: "Four percent represents tens of millions of pounds and could make the difference between profit and loss". What all this is most clearly leading to is the Americanization of British TV: more tatty soaps like Eldorado, more horrible little game shows, more mindless chat, less news or serious analysis which costs money to research and film. Judge Musmanno and has fascistic friends would be proud: "freedom" (of the market) is flourishing and Lenin is purged from Moscow and well at home at the BBC.