Historians say CNN wrong to compare Communists to Trump’s coup plotters
Communist Party USA leaders Henry Winston, center lower, and Eugene Dennis, center top, are pulled out of a police van at the New York Federal Courthouse on Nov. 3, 1949. The two were among 11 CPUSA leaders indicted on frame-up conspiracy charges in 1948. | People's World Archives

NEW YORK—Dozens of historians and academics, including Angela Davis, Gerald Horne, and Michael Honey, have signed a statement to CNN challenging an article published on the news corporation’s website on Feb. 3 that equated the Communist Party USA with the coup plotters who perpetrated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The article placed the Trump coup in the context of previous supposed attempts to overthrow the government. According to its critics though, the CNN article, titled “With coup label, Capitol rioters join the communist party in plotting against the USA, university project says,” confuses more than it clarifies.

“Not only is CNN’s characterization dangerous, it’s outrageous,” Gerald Horne, the author of over 40 books on Communist, African-American, labor, and U.S. history said.

“CNN’s characterization is dangerous because it flips facts on their head. Far from plotting a coup attempt, Communists in 1948 were in fact the victims of a government plot to deny democratic rights – the right of association, the right to speak, the right to their beliefs.”

“To make this comparison during African American history month is even more outrageous, as a number of prominent Black Americans, such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, affiliated with or were members of the Communist Party USA, an organization that championed equality,” Horne added.

In 1948, 11 leaders of the CPUSA were indicted under the provisions of the Smith Act. It was alleged that they sought the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. However, unlike the Jan. 6 Trump-inspired insurrectionists, the Communists were never charged with any overt act.

The arrest of the Communist leaders came amidst a major pushback by government and business against a surging labor movement and a massive peace mobilization opposed to the Cold War.  Communists were major organizers in both struggles, and in the emerging Civil Rights movement, as well.

“Their crime,” according to CPUSA national co-chair Rossana Cambron, “was thinking about and teaching Marxism. Their crime was building a working-class movement for socialism.”

The Supreme Court later ruled that the Communist defendants could only be prosecuted for their actions, not their beliefs.

Right-wing extremists instigated by President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. A recent CNN article equating the Trump insurrectionists and white supremacists with Communist Party leaders indicted for conspiracy charges in 1948 is drawing criticism from historians and academics. | AP

A renewed interest in the ideas of socialism has seen a surge of growth for left groups like the Communist Party and Democratic Socialists of America in recent years, especially among youth. As it did in the late 1940s and ’50s, the expanding influence of the left and an increasingly active trade union movement have given rise to a virulent anti-communist trend, expressed both in Trump-GOP circles and among a number of centrist-leaning liberals.

“Facts and context matter,” Tony Pecinovsky said. “That is why over 35 historians and academics from across the country have come together to issue a statement calling on CNN to retract the article and apologize to its readers and the CPUSA.”

Pecinovsky, the author of a book of biographies on prominent CPUSA leaders, added, “It is well known that the CPUSA was in the forefront of the struggle for workers’ rights, African American equality, and peace. They were not coup plotters. They were movement builders, a part of the American radical democratic tradition.”

The CNN article, by Eliot C. McLaughlin, took off from research done by the University of Illinois Coup D’état Project. However, the Coup Project itself does not agree with McLaughlin’s characterization of the government’s repression of the Communist leaders and has asked that a correction be issued.

“CPUSA leaders were indicted for their beliefs, not their actions. The Jan. 6 insurrectionists have been charged due to their actions, not their beliefs. Any comparison to the contrary is insanity,” the CPUSA’s other national co-chair, Joe Sims, added.

During the Smith Act court hearings, the government’s “evidence” consisted of rumor, hearsay, and fabrication, often sourced from paid FBI informants who later recanted their testimony.

Government prosecutors’ only other evidence against the CPUSA leadership were the books, newspapers, speeches, and reports that had been published and widely distributed by the party in decades prior. None of these publicly-available materials constituted evidence of a conspiracy.

In a divided political environment already full of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the signatories to the statement see McLaughlin’s article as particularly damaging, a view shared by those in the CPUSA today.

“With red-baiting and anti-communism again a favored tool of the far-right, it is important that all Americans know that Communists have nothing in common with the right-wing, white supremacists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Sims concluded.

The complete text of the historians’ statement and a list of signatories calling for CNN to retract the article and issue an apology to its readers and the Communist Party is presented below.

 

To: CNN, Eliot C. McLaughlin
CC: University of Illinois Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, Coup D’état Project

We, the undersigned professors, historians, and authors, write this letter for two reasons:

First, we wish to strongly disagree with the characterization and comparison of the 1948 Smith Act indictment of the Communist Party USA’s top leadership to the January 6, 2021 insurrectionists who violently stormed the Capitol in Eliot C. McLaughlin’s February 3 article titled, “With coup label, Capitol rioters join communist party in plotting against USA, university project says.”

The CPUSA was the victim of government overreach and malfeasance, and it was not found guilty of any overt act. As is well known today, the CPUSA’s leaders were tried and convicted of holding unpopular beliefs, Marxism-Leninism, not of an actual coup attempt.

During the Smith Act court hearings, the government’s evidence consisted of rumor, hearsay, and fabrication, often perpetrated by paid FBI informants, like Harvey Matusow, who later recanted their testimony.

The government’s only other source of evidence were the speeches, articles, pamphlets, books (including century old quotations from Karl Marx), and reports, all widely disseminated by a legal political party.

Again, the CPUSA and its leaders were never convicted of any overt act. Only their beliefs were on trial. The Supreme Court later ruled defendants could only be prosecuted for their actions, not their beliefs.

This is an important – perhaps, essential – point omitted from McLaughlin’s article. And as any student of history knows, willful omission is falsification. Of course, any number of other sources – including the authors listed below – are able to provide important historical context missing from McLaughlin’s article.

In a divided political environment already full of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” McLaughlin’s article is very damaging. A Google search shows that it has been republished numerous times. We hope you see how this is not only bad journalism, but also bad history.

In short, the CPUSA was indicted for its beliefs, not its actions. The January 6 insurrectionists have been charged based on their actions, not their beliefs. Any comparison to the contrary is outrageous.

The second reason we are sending this letter is because the University of Illinois Cline Center for Advanced Social Research Coup D’état Project also does not agree with McLaughlin’s characterization likening the CPUSA to the January 6 insurrectionists, and has asked that a correction be issued.

They label the events surrounding the CPUSA and the Smith Act as a “dissident coup conspiracy,” not an attempted coup. This is an important distinction, one CNN should clarify.

We urge CNN to retract McLaughlin’s article and issue an apology to its readers and to the Communist Party USA.

This isn’t only a question of historical accuracy. It is a question of news integrity. Many Americans rely on CNN for accurate, objective, informed news. When an organization, such as the Communist Party – which has been vilified throughout its history – is yet again vilified, CNN should at least make sure it has its facts correct.

We look forward to your reply.

Respectfully,

Alan M. Wald, University of Michigan, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor Emeritus

Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Yale University, Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration

Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University, Professor of History

Angela Davis, University of California-Santa Cruz, Distinguished Professor Emerita History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies

Anita Waters, Denison University, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Sociology

Anna Louise Bates, Empire State College, New York, Associate Professor of History

August H. Nimtz, University of Minnesota, Professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies

Barbara Foley, Rutgers University-Newark, Distinguished Professor of English

Benjamin Balthaser, Indiana University-South Bend, Associate Professor of Multiethnic U.S. Literature

Bill Fletcher, Jr., executive director of GlobalAfricanWorker.com and former director of the TransAfrica Forum

Blanche W. Cook, John Jay College & Graduate Center, CUNY, Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s Studies

Daniel Rosenberg, Adelphi University, Senior Lecturer, General Studies

David Laibman, City University of New York, Professor (Emeritus), Economics

David Roediger, University of Kansas, Foundation Professor of American Studies

Denise Lynn, University of Southern Indiana, Associate Professor of History

Dennis Laumann, University of Memphis, Dunavant University Professor of African History

Elisabeth Armstrong, Smith College, Professor of the Study of Women and Gender

Frank T. Fitzgerald, College of Saint Rose, Associate Professor of Sociology

Gary Murrell, Grays Harbor College, Professor of History Emeritus

Gerald Horne, University of Houston, Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies

Gerald Meyer, Hostos Community College, CUNY, Professor Emeritus Behavioral and Social Sciences

James Smethurst, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Professor of Afro-American Studies

Joel Wendland-Liu, Grand Valley State University, Associate Professor, Liberal Studies Department

John Bellamy Foster, University of Oregon, Professor of Sociology

Joshua Morris, Wayne State University, Instructor of History

Kirstin Munro, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

Lisa Brock. Academic director. at Kalamazoo College Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership

Lukas Moe, Lecturer, Yale University English Department

Michael Honey, University of Washington-Tacoma, Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities

Norman Markowitz, Rutgers University, Associate Professor of History

Patricia Bombelyn Esq., Perez & Bombelyn

Paul Buhle, Brown University, Senior Lecturer, American Studies

Paul C. Mishler, Indiana University-South Bend, Associate Professor of Labor Studies

Penny Von Eschen, University of Virginia, Professor of History and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American Studies

Rachel Peterson, Grand Valley State University, Associate Professor, Integrative, Religious, and Intellectual Studies Department

Rachel Rubin, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Professor of American Studies

Renate Bridenthal, Brooklyn College, CUNY, Professor Emerita of History

Robin D.G. Kelley, University of California, LA, Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair of U.S. History

Steve Ellner, Universidad de Oriente Venezuela, Professor of Latin American History (retired)

Timothy V Johnson, New York University, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives (retired)

tonya thames taylor, West Chester University, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies

Vijay Prashad, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

William Robinson, University of California-Santa Barbra, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Global and International Studies, Latin American and Iberian Studies

See previous People’s World coverage:

> Is CNN jumping on the red-baiting bandwagon?

> Communists like my uncle were sent to prison because they fought for democracy

> ‘We Accuse’: The Communist Party USA’s answer to 1948 conspiracy charges

> Republicans’ rabid anti-communism is a sign of their political weakness


CONTRIBUTOR

Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR