The US Taboo Against Socialism

America’s Unofficial Religion: the War on an Idea

Abby Martin (Empire Files) 2015

Film Review

America’s Unofficial Religion is a documentary about the origin of the American taboo against socialism.

At present, the US is the only western democracy without a prominent socialist party. This hasn’t always been the case. A powerful socialist movement arose alongside the progressive, populist and union movements of the late 19th century. All were a reaction to the brutal industrial oppression that characterized this period.

In 1912, the US had 13 socialist newspapers, 12 socialist monthlies and 57 socialist mayors 23 cities. Socialist Eugene Debs campaigned for president that year and won 6% of the popular vote (at a time when women and blacks were barred from voting).

Concerned about the detrimental effect of strong mass organizing on profits, the corporate elite leaned on president Woodrow Wilson to pass two laws – the Espionage Act, which criminalized dissent, and the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to oppose US involvement in World War I. Following passage of the Sedition Act, Eugene Debs was arrested for making an anti-war speech and sentenced to ten years in prison. The Wilson administration also imprisoned more than 90 International Workers of the World (IWW)* leaders, in addition to sanctioning the murder of IWW members by Pinkerton’s guards and organized lynch mobs.

US Organizing and Strikes in Response to Bolshevik Revolution

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would inspire a wave of organizing and strike activity in the US, leading one in five American workers to go out on strike in 1919.

Wilson responded by authorizing Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and his assistant J Edgar Hoover to launch the Palmer Raids, arresting more than 10,000 suspected socialist and communists and deporting thousands more.

In the 1930s, the cruel economic conditions of the Great Depression led to an enormous upsurge in mass organizing. Many historians argue that Roosevelt had no choice but to bring in sweeping New Deal legislation to prevent a socialist revolution.

Taft Hartley, HUAC and Cointelpro

Following World War II, during which US unions won major concessions, a Republican Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act, which made it illegal for union members to be socialists or communists (in 1945, roughly half the union leadership was socialist) and the Smith Act, which made Communist Party membership Illegal.

The enactment of these laws was accompanied by aggressive activity in the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). During the fifties many HUAC subpoenaed Hollywood actors, directors and producers – as well as teachers and college professors. Many were permanently blacklisted from working on the mere suspicion of socialist/communist sympathies.

In 1956 Hoover, a rabid anti-communist, would launch Cointelpro, a program conducting massive illegal surveillance, infiltration and sabotage of civil rights groups and other social change organization. Cointelpro also carried out clandestine assassinations and false imprisonment of numerous black liberation leaders, many of whom are still in prison.

*The International Workers of the World (IWW) is international labor union started in 1905 that has strong ties both to socialism and to anarchism.

Where Have All the Unions Gone?


Loss of union protection is catastrophic for millions of American workers with no way to protect themselves against layoffs and wage, benefit and pension cuts. In 2013, only 11.3% of US workers belonged to unions. Many Americans are unaware of the deliberate 95-year campaign by Wall Street to destroy the trade union movement. It all started in 1919 when the National Association of Manufacturers engaged Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, to destroy public support for a steel workers strike. Following a brief rise in union activism during the Great Depression, it continued with the punitive 1948 Taft Hartley Act, the expulsion of militant unionists during the McCarthy Era, and the cozy cold war collaboration between the CIA and AFL-CIO bureaucrats. The most decisive blow would be the trade liberalization of the 80s and 90s and the wholesale export of skilled union jobs to third world sweatshops.

Edward Bernays’ Campaign to Demonize Unions

In his 1995 Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, the late Australian psychologist Alex Carey describes how the National Association of Manufacturers engaged Edward Bernays to launch a massive media campaign to reverse public support for steel workers striking for the right to bargain collectively. Bernays first got his start helping President Woodrow Wilson sell World War I to a strongly isolationist and antiwar American public. Following the war, Bernays was immediately engaged by major corporate clients that included Proctor & Gamble, CBS, the American Tobacco Company, Standard Oil, General Electric and the United Fruit Company.

Bernays is also regarded as the father of “consumerism,” the transformation of Americans from engaged citizens into passive consumers by bombarding them with thousands of pro-consumption messages. He was also instrumental  in convincing doctors and dentists (without a shred of scientific evidence) that disposing the industrial toxin fluoride in municipal water supplies would be good for peoples’ teeth.

His media campaign to convince the American public that striking workers were dangerous radicals, Bolsheviks and anarchists was an instant success. The anti-Red hysteria it created ushered in a decade of severe repression, enabling Bureau of Investigation J Edgar Hoover to launch a Red Scare and illegally arrest, detail and deport several hundred suspected radicals.

The 1948 Taft Harley Act

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, unions became popular again. Then, as now, corporations took advantage of high unemployment rates to cut wages, increase hours and force employees to work under unsafe sweatshop conditions. Led largely by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), organized labor fought back with scores of sit down and wildcat strikes.

Immediately following World War II, the National Association of Manufacturers sought to reverse union gains by ramming the Taft Hartley Act through a Congress dominated by Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. Among other provisions restricting worksite unionization drives, Taft Hartley prohibits mass picketing, as well as wildcat and sit down strikes.

The McCarthy Era

The effect of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act on union membership was almost immediate. In 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, when it merged with the AFL, this number was down to 4.6 million or 34.7% of the American workforce. This percentage steadily declined as union officials used the anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy Era (1950-56) to expel militant trade unionists from their ranks. The original Taft Hartley Act included a provision preventing members or former Communist Party members from holding office in a labor union – which the Supreme Court struck down in 1965 as unconstitutional. .

Thanks to the Taft Hartley Act and the purging of militant grassroots unionists, a trade union bureaucracy arose that felt closer to management than the workers they supposedly represented. This stemmed, in part, from perks they received for delivering “labor discipline” (i.e. preventing disruptive industrial action). Thus instead of lobbying to repeal Taft Hartley and relying on well-organized rank and file and industrial action, union officials became more focused on “sweetheart deals” they made with managers.

Enter the CIA

According to former CIA officer Tom Braden, many AFL-CIO officers were also on the CIA payroll for their work with USAID in suppressing foreign unions with anti-US leanings. In 1967 Braden bragged about this in the Saturday Evening Post. Founded by prominent Wall Street lawyer Allen Dulles, the CIA has always played a major role in protecting Wall Street interests. They have a long history of overthrowing democratically elected governments that threaten US corporations with overseas investments (e.g. major oil companies and United Fruit Company and Coca Cola in Latin America).

Killing Off American Manufacturing

With Reagan’s election in 1980, numerous trade laws protecting US industries and workers were repealed through the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades. Clinton continued this process by fast tracking both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization treaty through Congress. Once protective quotas and tariffs were repealed, there was nothing to stop Wall Street corporations from shutting down thousands of US factories and reopening them as sweatshops in the third world. In the process millions of US workers lost union manufacturing jobs to take minimum wage jobs at MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

The loss of the US manufacturing sector has clearly played a major role in the failed recovery and declining US global influence. This seems an enormous price to pay for the sake of destroying trade unions. Our children and grandchildren, who will reap the consequences, will not look kindly on the neoliberal presidents (Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama) who enacted these disastrous policies.

photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

A Primer on Anarchism


Revolt! – The Next Great Transformation from Kleptocracy Capitalism to Libertarian Sociasm through Counter Ideology, Societal Education, and Direct Action

By Dr John Asimakopoulos (2011 Transformative Studies Institute Press)

 Book Review

The general public has a lot of misconceptions about what anarchists believe. The problem is that the word “anarchism” is used to describe a lot of different ideologies. Revolt!, a 159 page booklet directed at an academic audience, is a good introduction to some of the theoretical beliefs that underpin the anarchist movement.

The author, the executive director of the Transformative Studies Institute (TSI)* identifies himself as a “libertarian socialist.” He begins Revolt! with a detailed description of kleptocracy capitalism, the label he gives America’s corrupt, corporate-controlled political system. He goes on to outline the theoretical framework of libertarian socialism. The latter maintains that legislative reform inadequate to remove the corrupt oligarchs who have usurped America’s democratic institutions. Libertarian socialists believe the only solution is to build a working class movement to dismantle capitalism altogether.

Asimakopoulos’s formal definition of libertarian socialism is “a group of political philosophies that aspire to create a society without economic or social hierarchies, in which all violent and coercive institutions are dissolved and everyone has free and equal access to the tools of information and production.” As with other anarchist tendencies, a key goal of libertarian socialism is to eliminate all forms of government in favor of self-government and direct democracy.

The Hazards of Violent Revolution

Rebel! also expresses serious reservations about the role of violent revolution in overthrowing capitalism, for two main reasons: 1) sudden spontaneous riots lack organization and leadership and the resulting chaos can cause massive social dislocation and a cataclysmic loss of human life and 2) historically all violent revolutions (i.e. Soviet Union, China, Cuba) have led to the rise of new totalitarian regimes.

Instead it argues mainly for “evolutionary” change brought about through militant direct action that forces the ruling elite to adopt reforms that shift the balance of power towards workers. Examples of the “evolutionary” reforms Asimakopoulos envisions include universal government-funded health care, free tertiary education, and the replacement of corporate boards of directors with worker councils like they have in Germany and France.

The kind of direct action he calls for forces the corporate elite to agree to reforms by inflicting real damage on their ability to produce profits. He sees a rejuvenated labor movement, in coalition with grassroots community organizations, as spearheading these direct actions. According to Asimakopoulos, the current US labor movement has allowed itself to be co-opted by the capitalist system, with its meek acceptance of Taft Hartley Law restrictions, as well as state and federal laws outlawing strikes by public workers. For labor to regain the effectiveness it enjoyed in the 1930s, large numbers of workers need to be prepared to commit civil disobedience by holding wildcat and sympathy strikes (both illegal under Taft Hartley) and engaging in illegal public worker strikes.

Organized Lootings, Subversive Financial Activities, and Electronic Resistance

Other types of direct action he proposes include mass organized lootings (in 2008 Greek anarchists organized mass supermarket lootings and gave the food away to the poor), subversive financial activities, high stakes tax resistance, electronic resistance, and establishment of counter institutions (such as TSI) organizing for radical change. Examples of subversive financial activities include organized credit fraud, in which workers refuse to pay their mortgages and credit card and car payments. Asimakopoulos sees another role for unions helping people file for bankruptcy and organizing mass actions to keep their homes and cars from being seized. “Electronic” resistance includes hacking and denial of service attacks, similar to those carried out by Anonymous on corporate and government websites.

The Role of Violent Direct Action

Asimakopoulos advocates a cautionary approach towards violence. He believes demonstrators have an absolute right to defend themselves against police and military aggression. He also argues that violence against corporate property (looting, rock throwing, vandalism, and arson) is always more effective than nonviolent civil disobedience in pressuring the ruling elite to agree to radical change.

He offers several historical examples to make this point, including the Black Power movement of the 1960s, whose violent direct actions forced the federal government to negotiate with Dr Martin Luther King about enacting major civil rights reform.

*TSI ( is a fully volunteer social justice think tank managed and operated by a global team of scholar-activists and grassroots activists. Their goal is to establish a tuition-free accredited graduate school to foster interdisciplinary research that will bridge theory with activism and encourage community involvement to alleviate social problems.