I admit that I have a soft spot for American communists. During the Communist Party’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, these people helped to create the modern American labor movement. They fought for racial integration and equality. They went to Spain in disproportionate numbers to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. They were idealistic, self-sacrificing, intelligent, and intensely dedicated to their cause.
But alas, American communism was also anti-democratic to the core, doctrinally rejecting the values and practices of American self-government in favor of what we might call the authoritarian style. This authoritarian or “red” style was defined by seven key traits.
- The rejection of manners.
For American communists, playing nice was for sissies, a tell-tale sign of what they termed “bourgeois decadence.” Arguably the first and clearest sign that a communist was trustworthy, a person who would do what needed to be done, was his or her willingness to abandon the veneer of manners, courtesy, and generally decent behavior in the name of political intensity.
Communists did not view manners as a trivial topic. Neither should we. Humanity’s foundational moral rule is equal moral regard, or the principle of loving thy neighbor. The Christian tradition calls it the golden rule, which states that we should treat others as we wish to be treated, and the secular philosopher Immanuel Kant calls it the categorical imperative, which states (in its famous second formulation) that “all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as an end in himself.”1 Manners, or common courtesy and decency in everyday behavior, is how I signal to others, particularly strangers, my embrace of this fundamental rule. Democracy, more than any other form of government, requires for its success precisely this type of public signaling. My rejection of manners in the name of political necessity is me telling you that this essential expression of the democratic spirit may be for you, but not for me.
- The widespread use of lies and disinformation.
American communists were prepared to lie and spread disinformation at any time about nearly anything because they believed that doing so served the world’s highest and most important purpose, which was advancing communism. Telling lies and telling the truth were just different tactics, each to be used or not used according to the same single criterion, that of political effectiveness.
One obvious purpose of lying in politics is to convince others that something untrue is true. A second is to create public confusion about what the truth is or whether the truth can ever be known. A third purpose, central to understanding the authoritarian style, is to display dominance. The authoritarian who lies publicly and blatantly is telling you: “Whatever I say, however I say it, is powerful enough to control you—I am powerful enough to render powerless what you or anyone else says is the truth.” American communists were never powerful enough to lie for this third purpose, but many communists in many other places were, and did. Today the former communist KGB leader Vladimir Putin of Russia does it all the time.
Public lying is to democracy what air pollution is to air. It fouls the entire democratic ecology, since public debate, the life-blood of self-government, is futile the exact degree to which public lying is practiced or tolerated.
- A rhetorical style based on aggression, exaggeration, and insult.
Marxist language radiates aggression. Every red utterance arrives with sledgehammer force and certainty. Nothing is gray, everything is either black or white. Nothing is partial, in-between, or mostly, everything is “totally” or “completely” whatever it is. An early American communist slogan—“No Compromise, No Hesitation”—perfectly captures this style of communication.2
Starting with Marx himself, Marxist language is also infused with invective. Through constant practice, American communists raised defamation and personal insult to art forms and created an entire lexicon based on the idea that, when it comes to attacking your enemies, all restraint is counterproductive. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s wasn’t simply a terrible President, he was a “fascist” whose policies were “the same as Hitler’s,” the agent of a “dictatorship of capital” determined to “crush the masses to the ground,” and a “Wall Street lackey” plotting “fascism and war in order to hold the workers in industrial slavery.”3
- The portrayal of America as a dark dystopia on the verge of collapse.
Almost always for American communists, it’s one minute until midnight. Things in the United States are terrible and getting worse. The ruling class has sunk to new lows of lying and corruption, the economy is collapsing into carnage before our eyes, the rich are grinding the poor more mercilessly each day, and the final crisis of the capitalist system is just around the corner. At this late stage of the crisis only a revolution—only a complete overthrow of the failed existing order—can save us from ruin. And only the communists know how to make such a revolution.
- Hostility to the independent media.
American communists called them the “capitalist press,” whereas German fascists supporting Hitler’s rise to power called them Lügenpresse (“lying press”), but both of these terms of abuse referred to the same sector of civil society—independent journalists and news organizations. For American communists, an article of faith was that mainstream media organizations are hopelessly dishonest. Much better, therefore, to get your information directly from communist leaders and their followers.
Some Americans today argue that, when authoritarians come to power, the first thing they do is take away your guns. I’m not so sure. My reading of the history of authoritarian movements in the United States and elsewhere suggests that the first thing they do is seek to delegitimize the independent media, vehemently attacking their integrity and essentially treating them as an opposition party.
- Hostility to all politicians.
For those on the Left seeking to overthrow the capitalist order, showing any susceptibility to “politicianism” was an unforgiveable sin. “Politicianism” was the misguided belief that it is possible for professional politicians and regular political institutions to produce good results. To reject “politicianism,” as all good communists were expected to do, was to embrace the doctrine that all politicians are liars and crooks and that none of them, ever, can be trusted even to try to do the right thing.
- The cult of the great leader who is the sole champion of the people.
Communist doctrine teaches that political progress comes from the people, the masses. But that doctrine also teaches that the will of the people is represented by the working class, and that the will of the working class is represented by the communists, and that the will of the communists is represented by the great leader. Communists called this theory of representation “democratic centralism,” but there was nothing democratic about it. Quite the opposite. In practice, democratic centralism meant that, when the great leader said “jump,” the party, the working class, and the people were supposed to jump.
In the United States, where communists never had much political power, the doctrine of democratic centralism had its strongest influence in the party’s internal operations. But typically, wherever communists actually gained control of government, the forms of political representation and the institutions of democratic accountability that communists mocked as “bourgeois democracy” soon enough gave way to a much simpler and more primitive idea.
Why am I thinking today about the red style in American public life? Take a wild guess.
No, President Trump is not a communist. For starters, a communist adheres to a worked-out body of thought, a doctrine, whereas Trump’s core philosophical commitment appears to be to his id. Nor is President Trump a fascist, as many on the Left have suggested. For starters, a fascist typically wants a well-ordered and all-powerful state, whereas Trump is quite tolerant of chaos and appears in important respects to want a smaller and weaker U.S. national government.
But Trump certainly and importantly has this trait in common with both communists and fascists: He is contemptuous of democratic norms, which he disdains as marks of unmanly softness, a code for weaklings and the indecisive.
What does this fact mean for our democracy? I don’t know. I have no idea how much abuse the American experiment in self-government can take. Do you? But I do know—I believe growing numbers of us now know—how to recognize the abuse, what it looks like in its pure, unvarnished forms.
We certainly undermine democracy’s purpose when we insist falsely that it’s all “rigged.” We certainly increase mistrust of democracy when we deliberately spread disinformation about its procedures and results. We blind ourselves to our government’s possible flaws when we allow its officials to target and threaten those whose job it is to report to us independently about government’s functioning.
We strip democracy of its dignity when we allow the use of its highest office to settle personal scores and defame individual citizens. We make democracy uglier and more threatening when we remove from its public expression any semblance of decent manners, replacing the democratic norms of civility and self-restraint with the privatistic norms of a brass-knuckled street fight.
We begin to replace democracy’s lodestar, the rule of law, with authoritarianism’s lodestar, the rule of power and intimidation, when candidates for office and their supporters openly threaten opponents with jail (“Lock her up!”) or prosecution. And we begin in earnest to enshrine the anti-democratic principle of personal rule (“I alone”) when we indiscriminately shower abuse upon politicians as a class, and when we encourage a self-proclaimed great man with no political experience to ridicule all of our democracy’s institutions as failed and corrupt and all of its leaders until now as “all talk, no action.”
We can deliberately do or permit our leaders to do all of these things—we can collectively take steps each day to replace the democratic style in American politics with the authoritarian style—and we may wake up one fine day and still have our democracy. Or not.
Several weeks ago, a report from the Britain-based Economist Intelligence Unit, a global, pro-business consulting group affiliated with the Economist magazine, downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” because of record levels of political polarization, a continuing decline of social and political trust, and growing numbers of Americans who say they’ve “lost faith in American democracy.”4 If the worst happens, we won’t be able to say that no one warned us.
1Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Hackett Publishing, 1993), p. 39.
A “Handbook of Philosophy” published in 1949 by the New York-based publishing arm of the U.S. Communist Party dismisses Kant’s categorical imperative as “a reflection of the limited ethical ideals of the bourgeoisie” and, quoting Engels, historically “impotent,” insofar as it is “demanding the impossible and therefore not consonant with human activity.” See Howard Selsam, ed., Handbook of Philosophy (International Publishers, 1949), pp. 22-3.
2Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (Viking Press, 1957), pp. 155, 159. The slogan was used by the Left Wing of the Socialist Party of America in the spring of 1919, about three months prior to the Left Wing (consisting at the time of about 70,000 members) separating from the Socialist Party to become the American communist movement. The earliest use of the slogan I could find in English is from the Scottish churchman and hymn-writer Horatius Bonar, “The Solemn Sentence,” The Christian Week (January 28, 1880), p. 1.
3Cited in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Upheaval (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960), pp. 190-91.
4“US no longer a ‘full’ democracy in 2016 Democracy Index,” Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2017.