Better Dead than Red
By Michael Barson
Plexus, 1992. $15 (pb)
Reviewed by Arun Pradhan
"A Commie. She was a jerky Red. She owned all the trimmings and she was still a Red. What the hell was she hoping for, a government order to share it all with the masses?"
So reads the novel One Lonely Night, one of countless Mike Hammer detective books written in the 1950s. Its not too subtle anticommunist propaganda, as Mike Hammer saves the United States from hordes of red thugs, earns it a place in Better Dead than Red, which through movie posters, magazine clippings and even comic book extracts begins to give us a feel for the ideological war that was waged against communists in the USA.
Many people are vaguely aware of this propaganda, the years of McCarthyism and the reign of terror of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But it doesn't really hit home until you see the "Children's crusade against Communism — Fight the Red menace" bubblegum cards: instead of a picture of Michael Jordan, imagine a picture of an atomic bomb exploding in a US harbour or an evil-looking Ho Chi Minh. The back warns of the Red menace and encourages children to beware.
For the more mature audience, there were films such as Red Menace. The promotional material encourages us to "see how a man is driven to suicide rather than bend to the yoke of tyranny and see how a man is brutally murdered because he challenges gangster rule!".
Much of the material in the book reads like a send-up of McCarthyism. But it was all too real for its victims.
Michael Barson seems to have a greater interest in popular culture than any left sympathies, but his glib and sarcastic commentary shows his contempt for the blatant propaganda that he has collected. His work is certainly a great record of the ideological pressure that Western communists came under.
The reality of this hadn't really struck me until a visiting US socialist described the plight of an organiser of a Communist Party branch in California. Much of his time was spent collecting people's belongings and driving them to hospital after they had had breakdowns because of continual harassment, arrests, phone tapping etc.
In Barson's eyes the story ends quite abruptly, the final page showing headlines such as "Soviet Union to officially die Jan. 1".
However, for many of us who would still consider ourselves red, this just reflects the new ideological offensive. Today a new generation of activists must come to terms with the "end of history" thesis and the claim that capitalism is the only option. It's a different struggle, one with new potential since the fall of Stalinism, but the ideological battle continues.