James Baldwin and the White Roots of Anti-Communism

By Jeremiah Kim.

It was the summer of 1961 in New York City, and James Baldwin was speaking at a forum hosted by the Liberation Committee for Africa titled, “Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve.” Amid the backdrop of the Cold War and the growing Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin made an argument — that anti-communism was a form of white supremacy:

“If I point out that you cannot conceivably frighten an African by talking about the Kremlin, panic ensues, and I’m promptly called a Muslim. […] This panic is the real key… to what we call, in this country, anti-communism. The people who are running around throwing people in jail and ruining reputations and screaming about Communists wouldn’t know one if he fell from the ceiling. And wouldn’t care! What they are concerned about is propping up somehow the doctrine of white supremacy, so that they can seem to have given it up, but really still hold the power. Now this is not only obvious in American relations with South Africa in terms of economics. Nor is it only obvious in such things as the invasion of Cuba. It is obvious on a much more subtle level, and that is what attacks us here.”

These words may strike us at an unfamiliar angle today. And yet, thrust as we are onto the doorstep of a New Cold War, it is well worth examining Baldwin’s analysis of his own times so that we can understand and define our own.

The first thing we must recognize is that Baldwin was not alone in voicing this argument. There was a universal consensus among committed participants and leaders in the Civil Rights Movement that anti-communism was a form of racism, with figures such as Rev. James Lawson of the Nashville Student Movement confirming this explicitly. Terms like ‘outside agitator’ were hurled against the Freedom Riders in the South — or against Martin Luther King Jr. practically anywhere he went — in an effort to divide, discredit, and destroy the movement. Baldwin would point out the Cold War underpinnings of the term in Nobody Knows My Name:

“When the South has trouble with its Negroes… it blames ‘outside’ agitators and ‘Northern interference.’ When the nation has trouble with the Northern Negro, it blames the Kremlin.”

The sheer senselessness which led White America to insinuate that Civil Rights Movement activists were agents of the Soviet Union finds a clear purchase in the dumbfounding attitudes of today. Faced with a shifting world order, the American mind chokes out fevered cries of panic and paranoia as it suffocates under the viselike grip of a self-imposed fear. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our present reaction toward the rise of China. Without hyperbole, for many Americans the thought of uttering a single positive statement about China is more existentially terrifying than the contemplation of suicide.

Looking closer at this climate of fear, we find it gives rise to a whole host of questions: What compels our media and liberal politicians to fly into a frenzy when, for instance, President Trump simply meets with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un? Why is a certain section of America still so obsessed with some sinister Russian conspiracy to undermine our elections? How is it that the anti-China protesters in Hong Kong have managed to occupy our front pages and news feeds for nearly a year? Do Americans really care about the Uyghur minority in China or do they just want to feel less insecure about their own failure to take responsibility for the political and moral disaster of this country? And why — in addition to rising discrimination against Asians in the West — does the American media insist on obsessively scrutinizing the Chinese government’s rapid, highly effective response to coronavirus until the whole affair assumes the tired, familiar outlines of brutal dictatorship and draconian suppression?

Any attempt to answer these questions must turn first to the thought of a figure like Baldwin, who said, “It is the black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people.” Taking this principle to heart, we ask: How can we understand Cold War anti-communism as a form of white supremacy? And what does that mean for us today?

James Baldwin listens to Martin Luther King Jr. following the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965

If we take on Baldwin’s perspective and get underneath the surface of anti-communism, we find that it rested upon certain key principles of the white view of the world. First, anti-communism assumed that the rest of the world should want to become white. This was the real meaning behind the Truman Doctrine, which broke the American people’s optimism for US-Soviet cooperation immediately following World War II and gave them, instead, the “great responsibilities” of advancing the American ideals of freedom and democracy in every corner of the globe. (What was an ennobling phrase like — “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms” — if not a new lyric in the old hymn of the White Man’s Burden?) On the one hand, this doctrine came despite the glaring contradictions and deficits in American democracy: Black disfranchisement, racial segregation, and poverty. On the other, it created a mystique out of concepts like freedom and democracy, so that the means of a political system — democratic elections — became more important than the ends of a political system — the general uplift of people. And so we find that when Baldwin wrote, “The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white,” he was describing not only a domestic attitude but a world-encompassing doctrine that provided America with a special, God-given mandate to go into other countries and tell them how to govern — even if America could not yet answer the fundamental question of why one governs in the first place.

Second, anti-communism advanced the project of white supremacy, which was to divide humanity into inhuman pieces in order to build a towering structure of wealth and profit without parallel in history. There is a reason why Baldwin, in 1961, was speaking about Africa in connection to anti-communism. We already know how anti-communism was used to sow division in the Civil Rights Movement. But anti-communism was also levied against the peoples of Africa and Asia to sabotage their freedom struggles against colonialism as well as their newly formed governments. When Baldwin insisted that “you cannot conceivably frighten an African by talking about the Kremlin,” he was not being hypothetical. The US State Department literally attempted to fearmonger about “Russian imperialism” in Africa during the Cold War, disseminating the idea that African freedom fighters who struggled for national independence and sought to establish social and economic policies that served their people were “Communist agents” who would lead Africans towards “Russian slavery.” And going beyond the propaganda front, we can take the so-called Congo Crisis and assassination of Patrice Lumumba as a case study of the United States’ role in Africa during the Cold War: the beloved leader of the newly independent Congo, seeking to unify his people and counter the interests of Western business leaders in the country’s long-exploited diamond mines, turned to the Soviet Union for technical aid — after being turned down by the UN and US — at which point he was summarily ousted in a CIA-backed coup and executed, leading to a civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and a reactionary dictatorship that devastated the country for decades. Lumumba was one of many African freedom fighters who found a reliable source of support in the Soviet Union, and came to see the United States as an imperialist enemy — for good reason. (It is also worth noting that when Black Americans protested at the UN in New York City in response to Lumumba’s assassination, they were dismissed, according to Baldwin, as “a handful of irresponsible, Stalinist-corrupted provocateurs.”) Everywhere we look, we find parallel stories from the Cold War. Under the banner of ‘containing communism,’ the United States manufactured sectarian divisions, toppled governments, and instigated wars in an effort to keep the former colonies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America poor, disunited, and powerless to shape their own destinies.

Third, anti-communism insisted upon the white ideals of a certain kind of safety and innocence which are, in practice, the antithesis of life. What the transatlantic slave trade did to the West was to create a people who could not face the suffering they had inflicted on other human beings. Instead, they created myths about the purity of white people and the dirtiness of Black slaves in order to justify a flagrantly unjust system. This inability to accept the full truth of Black suffering led to an unspoken yet widespread denial of suffering — in general — as an integral part of human life. Fleeing from life itself, the white world clung to its imaginary innocence and yearned for the most sterile dreams of safety. In the context of the Cold War and McCarthyism, Baldwin saw these attitudes blown up on a new scale. As America went to war everywhere, its citizens needed to preserve an image of themselves as clean, upright people defending a pure, noble cause. This led Baldwin to remark sardonically in 1968 that, “The Americans are not imperialists. According to them, they’re just nice guys. They’re just folks.” At the same time, these Americans encountered the laboring masses of the socialist countries — who had willingly sacrificed and endured great hardship in order to build a better world. Where America had proved incapable of truly accepting the experience of its slaves, it likewise could not respond to the long and bitter, yet beautiful struggles of the Soviet Union or the new China with anything other than fear. It was thus the white dream of safety and denial of suffering which foregrounded the American reaction to communism, and Baldwin watched as his countrymen became the victims of their own self-image through their terror at the Communist movement abroad and in their dealings with one another at home. Brought into the Cold War, the ideals of whiteness produced a unique crisis of widespread cowardice and social disintegration within America. 

McCarthyism exposed just how cheap and disposable the relationships of the white “community” were, as many of the nation’s most esteemed, educated individuals indiscriminately turned on their friends, family members, neighbors, teachers, idols, and lovers in a desperate attempt to cling to their safety and avoid taking a stand for basic human dignity. We see this clearly in Baldwin’s reflections on McCarthyism from No Name in the Street:

“It was a foul, ignoble time: and my contempt for most American intellectuals, and/or liberals dates from what I observed of their manhood then… Some of the things written during those years, justifying, for example, the execution of the Rosenbergs, or the crucifixion of Alger Hiss (and the beatification of Whittaker Chambers) taught me something about the irresponsibility and cowardice of the liberal community which I will never forget. Their performance, then, yet more than the combination of ignorance and arrogance with which this community has always protected itself against the deepest implications of black suffering, persuaded me that brilliance without passion is nothing more than sterility. It must be remembered, after all, that I did not begin meeting these people at the point that they began to meet me: I had been delivering their packages and emptying their garbage and taking their tips for years. (And they don’t tip well.) And what I watched them do to each other during the McCarthy era was, in some ways, worse than anything they had ever done to me, for I, at least, had never been mad enough to depend on their devotion.”

Finally, anti-communism involved the collision of these pillars of white supremacy, triggering what Baldwin identified to be “something much worse” than mere cowardice: “an absolute panic, absolutely infantile.” The cost of whiteness for many Americans was the inability to achieve a level of maturity which can only come from an honest engagement with all the assumptions, deeds, and desires that have shaped one’s past and present. In the absence of this maturity, Americans allowed themselves to become vulnerable to a simplistic, infantile, and ultimately murderous view of the world. Such a view was necessarily at odds with the immense complexity and potential of the times; was necessarily at odds with the struggles of darker people in America and the Third World to create a new vision of humanity that directly challenged the white version of reality, which had long held that slaves and coolies were happy where the white world had put them and simply desired to become more like their masters. The existence, furthermore, of a society like the Soviet Union — in which millions of ordinary people placed the needs of collective uplift above personal gain, and who did not see the ex-colonial countries as objects to be dominated and exploited — called into question the increasingly materialistic and self-serving character of postwar American life. Trapped in the mirror of their own false history, Americans simply could not believe that any substantial alternative to their own barren lives could possibly exist. In fearful unison, the nation cried that what Black people and colored countries really wanted was to get back at the white man; that the Soviets were all either victims of mass coercion or monstrous conspirators in a plot to overrun the world; and that the free world, consequently, must be defended at all costs. Such reactions constituted the anti-communist panic which Baldwin observed during the McCarthy era — a panic revealing something “obvious on a much more subtle level” that “attacks us here” in America.

James Baldwin reads a newspaper with NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi, 1963

Coming back to today, we can see how America’s supreme difficulty with talking candidly about another country — without devolving into hysterics — is a symptom of a more deeply rooted problem. Our nation has drunk so deeply at the well of anti-communism that the prospect of simply coexisting with China triggers a kind of existential dread for those who buy into the myths of America. Any gesture toward peace appears more threatening than every routine affirmation of further war and division; which is why any American who speaks for peace is immediately branded a puppet of Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. This panic we have inherited from the Cold War attacks us, then, because it so severely shrinks our human capacity to reflect seriously on the character of our own lives and to make moral choices as the situation demands. It attacks us by stunting our ability to imagine an alternative way for human beings and nations to relate to one another.

If we were to actually look at ourselves, we would see that we are all suffering, and not for a righteous cause. Our children see no hope for the future. Our jobs feel meaningless. Our relationships only increase our sense of alienation. Our cities, as Baldwin put it, are “terribly unloved” and reeling with decadence and decay. Our nation — the richest in history — is filled with tens of millions of people living in poverty. This is a collapsing, moribund society, and somehow we are told that the problem lies with Russia, or China, or Venezuela, or Syria, or North Korea. Millions of Americans can barely even live with themselves, and yet we feel gratified when some colored people somewhere say they want to be more like us. We rush to condemn explicit expressions of bigotry, and then scramble to applaud white supremacy when it hides behind a veneer of liberal piousness while calling for war. At the precise moment when we should be re-examining everything and taking nothing for granted, we paralyze ourselves with reassurances about evil regimes that must be toppled and repressed, unfortunate people elsewhere who must be saved — when we are the ones in true need of salvation. As Baldwin put it in that same speech in New York from 1961:

“I’m trying to suggest that in this long and terrifying history, something has happened to the country far worse than what has happened to the Negroes. People are always consoling me by pointing out that if one thinks of this country as an enormous hall, well, everybody got here, and they had to stand in line, and you know that by and by, standing in line, I’ll get to the banquet table too. Well, of course, I got here first, and I helped to cook the food. But leaving that question aside, it has not occurred to anyone yet that the people at the table are starving to death.”

But even so: not everything is lost. Growing numbers of disillusioned Americans are rightly rejecting the country’s elites and corporate media for lying about anything and everything; they see no point in fighting wars that never end, nor in acting as the world’s policeman. Meanwhile, a great many people come to this country from histories and traditions that are not rooted in whiteness — and even if they succumb to the dream of becoming white, this can never be the full revelation of all that they are. And lastly, we have in this country a unique, rich tradition of struggle that was carried down by the slaves and their descendants, who not only built this country but saw through the doctrine of whiteness and envisioned an alternative moral basis upon which to create a new society. It is this history, represented by figures like James Baldwin, which calls us to move beyond bitter cynicism and blind faith, toward a genuine passion for humanity and a renewed clarity about the problems we must face today.

James Baldwin singing with other Civil Rights activists, 1963

For the truth is that we are living in a period of tremendous change and possibility. America no longer bestrides the world with the same authority we once took for granted (not even in Europe, of all places). Asia is not frightened of us, no matter how terrified we are of them. Nothing is certain, except that nothing will stay the same. Anyone who believes they can somehow glide through this particular threshold of world history and remain unscathed — anyone who clings to the doctrine of white supremacy and its manifestation of anti-communism — will perish in the cradle of their moral infancy.

Will we decide to grow up? Will we choose humility over arrogance; passion over safety? Will we realize that we have everything to learn from Africa, Asia, and Latin America about true humanity, rather than everything to teach them? Will we have the prudence to study alternative systems like China’s with calm and sensible eyes? Will we accept the legacy of Baldwin and so many others in the Black freedom movement as our common inheritance and as our task to continue? Will we have the courage to imagine another way of living together in this country? Will we join the struggle to give birth to a new world, or will we die clutching onto the old one? The choice is in our hands.

Further reading

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