In 1932, Angelo Herndon was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia.
Herndon was only 19 years old, a labor organizer fighting for unemployment benefits during the Great Depression, but the case against him was strong for one reason: he was an avowed Communist. Prosecutors found “communist literature” in his hotel room and used it to argue that he was trying to overthrow the government of the state of Georgia.
The charge was absurd, of course — Herndon was the son of a poor mining family who left home for a full-time job at 13. He had little education and no grand political agenda. He had come across communism while working on his belly in the mines in Alabama and attached himself to the cause because it rejected both Jim Crow racism and the starvation wages paid to working-class blacks and whites alike. What he wanted was equality — equality of black people with white people and equality of people who worked in mines and factories with people who worked in offices.
Equality was too much to ask in 1932 Georgia. Based on his communist past, an all-white jury convicted him to 20 years of hard labor for insurrection against the state of Georgia. Only after 5 years of bitter struggle was his conviction finally overturned by the US Supreme Court.
And Herndon’s communism? He was loyal as long as it helped working-class black people, into the 1940s, becoming an editor of a communist-affiliated black journal in New York City. But when the Communist Party became more interested in spreading Soviet-style governance than in helping workers, he exited the party and became an insurance salesman in the Midwest.
Communism has been a justification for some of the worst atrocities in the world. In the name of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Stalin and Mao killed millions of people and built oppressive security regimes which destroyed families, cultures, and freedoms. Castro threatened the United States with missiles. Chávez and Maduro ruined the economy of Venezuela. And Kim Jong-un continues to strip North Korea of wealth and liberty to enrich his family and friends.
But such atrocities beg a question: How could such ruthless leaders amass power? Why do people follow them?
The answer seems to be that communism is more complicated than we assume. We can divide most of its expressions into three classes:
Philosophical communism came first, based largely on the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It is a theory for intellectuals, with roots in Hegel’s philosophy of dialectical idealism. As far as I am aware, it is a philosophy only embraced by radical intellectuals, generally from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, who theorize that all capitalist societies will eventually be replaced by proletarian governments. The working class, in their view, will someday tire of poverty and exploitation and turn on the wealthy and powerful to establish an equal society ruled by workers. In its pure form, this goal resembles the law of consecration as practiced by early Christians or the idealistic view of rural life where neither lords nor peasants exist and the villagers share their possessions freely. Unsurprisingly, such a society has never successfully been established on a large scale.
Working-class communism is the communism of Angelo Herndon. It does not try to establish grand theories of history or philosophy nor try to predict the course of coming centuries. And while it was formalized in the wake of Marx, its roots are much deeper than philosophical communism, stretching back to populist lower-class movements in Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Imperial China, and around the world. These movements have always had one common goal: a fair share of economic output for all people, rich and poor, black and white. When one working person cannot buy food or pay rent while another enjoys expensive dinners and vacation homes, the injustice of the situation is all too clear. Angelo Herndon, working on his belly in the dark mines of Alabama, saw it. Thousands of poor peasants and workers in China and Russia saw it. It can be seen today.
Totalitarian Communism has its roots in Marxist thought and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” but its principles were laid down even more recently — by Lenin, Stalin, and every Communist dictator who has followed them. These men — always men — used the rhetoric of working-class communism to build massive movements, then the rhetoric of philosophical communism to justify the dictator status they gave themselves. But they built governments and societies which were never envisioned by either philosophical or working-class communism and which bore more similarities to absolutist monarchy or fascist dictatorship than to any Marxist state. Totalitarian communism manipulates the poor by promising vengeance on the rich, then when it comes to power only enriches itself and its close allies. Stalin and Mao never truly cared about the working classes: they cared about power, about comfort, and about national glory. The poor suffer as much in totalitarian Communist states as the rich.
When we look at the communism of Angelo Herndon and the Communism of Josef Stalin, the difference is plain: Herndon’s is simple working-class communism; Stalin’s is totalitarian. The Soviet leader used the rhetoric of philosophical and working-class communism to win the support of millions of honest people like Herndon, then leveraged that popularity to instead create a violent, totalitarian state.
The anti-communism which put Angelo Herndon behind bars was a cover for racism, classism, and greed. But it was also genuine, in that it saw totalitarian Communism for what it was: devoid of humanistic compassion and ruthlessly ambitious. People like Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, who saw the word in black-and-white terms, were rightly scared that the spread of such communism to the United States would destroy the country. And when they heard that Moscow was sponsoring US labor unions or paying Americans to steal nuclear secrets, they feared a vast communist conspiracy to take away everything they held dear.
But imprisoning Angelo Herndon for being a stooge of the Soviet Union is like blaming a company accountant when the CEO embezzles millions of dollars. Perhaps the accountant should have noticed the discrepancies, perhaps not, but the crime was not her fault— she was just trying to earn a living while the CEO made off with a stolen fortune.
In the same way, communists exist who despise the totalitarian form of communism practiced in Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and elsewhere. Indeed, Stalin and Mao both killed hundreds of rivals and functionaries who dared to openly say that their movements were not conforming to true working-class or philosophical communism. Leon Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929 for objecting to the totalitarianism of Stalin and founded a “Fourth International” international communist organization to compete with the “Stalinism” of Moscow. A glance at a socialist/communist 1954 US newspaper indicates a revulsion for Stalinism and its anti-working-class orientation. The same revulsion for totalitarianism exists among many communists today.
So why have we often failed to grasp the multifaceted nature of communism in the United States? There are at least two causes which I see in the historical record: (1) Historically, the wealthy and powerful have opposed socialism because it threatens their position; and (2) The Russian Revolution and Cold War stoked this fear into an international frenzy against working-class rhetoric, especially communist rhetoric but even against more moderate and democratic arguments. I do not blame the wealthy for their fear of losing their way of life. I do not blame the “Cold Warriors” for their fear of totalitarian communism. I merely point out how these fears have helped shape the American reaction to communism.
The peculiarly American loathing of communism, however, has produced a strange result: our focus on communism as the enemy has frequently caused us to overlook the real enemy, that is, totalitarianism. North Korea and Iran are both dangerous dictatorships which threaten world peace on any given Tuesday. Communism is not what they share — it is totalitarianism. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both ideologically driven, murderous, expansionist states. Communism was not what they shared — it was totalitarianism.
Indeed, if we look at a partial list of enemies faced by the United States military and diplomatic corps since the beginning of World War II, we find it not dominated by Communist states, but by totalitarian and authoritarian governments. Not only that, but with its reflexive fear of communism, the United States actually financed or supported several of its future enemies during their rise, usually to oppose communism (except in the case of China and Cuba, where Mao and Castro respectively convinced US administrations that they were anti-Soviet). You can quibble with the categorizations or selections below, but the patterns are remarkable:
If this list is correct, it becomes clear that the enemy was not and has never been communism; it was and is totalitarianism.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … no longer exist[s].”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
Totalitarianism uses the rhetoric of communism to build mass movements and justify its pursuit of power, but it can also use Islam, or democracy, both of which have served as justifications for dictatorships. As Hannah Arendt says in her seminal book on totalitarianism, that requires blurring the lines between fact and fiction, radicalizing any ideology it adopts. That does not mean communism is an inherently good ideology: it calls for a fundamental restructuring of society which would cause immense pain and suffering, a call which should be anathema to humanists and liberals. But that does not mean that every individual and every government which embraces communism should be feared. Rather, we should be seeking signs of potential totalitarianism, whether right, left, or center, and exercising all the means we have to discourage it abroad — and defeat it at home.
So the next time Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are labeled as communists, remember Angelo Herndon. Herndon didn’t want an international Soviet government or concentration camps for the wealthy. He wanted an unemployment check and fair hours in the mines. Being on the left, even being a socialist, does not make someone totalitarian. Leftism and communism come in many shades. It is totalitarianism that is the real enemy.