History repeats, said Marx, and the second time it’s comedy. The Bush administration is trying for a repeat of 1950s McCarthyism. I’m not laughing yet – maybe later.

George Santayana said, if we don’t learn from history we’re doomed to repeat it, so let’s look into a document of the McCarthy witch-hunts of 50 years ago, and see what it teaches us.

On my office shelf is a battered copy of such a document: False Witness, by Harvey Matusow (N.Y.: Cameron and Kahn, 1955). This remarkable book has lessons for our times.

Harvey Matusow (1926-2002) was, by his own admission, a scoundrel, a rat, a stool pigeon for Joe McCarthy and big business. And then he recanted, and told all, helping to end McCarthyism.

He joined the Communist Party in the 1940s, more out of a desire for social life and excitement than political principle. He felt he did not get what he was looking for, resented the party for it, and soon became an informer for the FBI.

The FBI used his weaknesses to make him their tool. A small-time actor, Matusow was able to spin pleasing yarns for them, and later for Joe McCarthy and various right-wing political and business interests, that they surely must have known to be false.

Matusow started out wrecking the lives of his former Communist friends, and then branched out into branding as “Communists” anybody whom his wealthy and powerful benefactors wanted to attack. He attacked the Boy Scouts, future senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, and especially the left-wing labor unions.

Much of what he said to the media and in trials and hearings was patently absurd. Even when columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop caught Matusow in a wild lie – he claimed that there were 126 Communist Party members working for the Sunday section of the New York Times, and the Alsops revealed that there were only 87 employees of any kind working there – his career as an “expert” on “Communist subversion” flourished. Then his conscience awoke, he said, and he spoiled the game by writing False Witness. The FBI tried, but failed, to prevent its publication.

Matusow served five years in prison for perjury, and then became a magician and clown (stage name “Cockyboo”), donating many hours to charitable causes until he died last year.

What can we learn from this strange tale for the present situation, in which fear of terrorists substitutes for fear of Communists?

• The FBI and other organs of state security cannot be trusted. The FBI’s own information must surely have contradicted Matusow’s lies (and that of a stable of similar informers) on many points, but they never hauled him in. So when Ashcroft tells us that we can give up constitutional protections because we can trust him not to abuse his powers, watch out!

• Beware the cottage industry of “subversion experts,” “security consultants” and their ilk. Those were rife in the Joe McCarthy days, and they made good money, for example “clearing” people to appear on TV or radio.

We have already begun to see the emergence of similar “terrorism” experts and consultants. These people are motivated by the lure of fame and fortune, which causes them to spin ever wilder fables. They must be exposed as the frauds they are.

• Study their tricks. These include taking things out of context (mentioning that so-and-so had “Marxist” books in his library, but failing to mention that he had a hundred other kinds of books also); guilt by association (Tom Dewey attacked gangsters in the unions, Communists also attacked gangsters in the unions, therefore Matusow suggested that Dewey was working hand in glove with the Communists); and out and out lies (inventing stories of Communist leaders pushing violence, which Matusow admits they never did).

• Look who is behind it all. Harvey Matusow and his colleagues could do what they did because major and minor capitalists supported them, used them and egged them on. A supermarket chain owner from Syracuse, N.Y., used Matusow to promote his vendetta against real and imaginary Communists in the media. The hotel industry in Texas paid Matusow’s bills while he smeared unionists in that state, and mining interests in Nevada and Utah were behind his campaign of lies against the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union (featured in the movie, Salt of the Earth). Matusow documented all this in his book, but don’t expect such honesty from others of his ilk.

Forewarned is forearmed. These lessons from history can prepare us to expose the dangerous game that Ashcroft is playing, making him fall flat on his rump. That will be comedy. Then we can laugh.

Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org