Representative Allen West’s comments about “members of the Communist Party” in the US Congress continues to be a hot political topic. Now the NAACP chapter in his home district has rescinded an invitation for West to speak at a fundraiser.
West is on solid ground when he criticizes the radical politics of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but he really should issue a statement clarifying his position. The specificity of his accusation is the only thing really wrong with it.
Calling the CPC members “Marxists” would be quite accurate, and easy to defend. A quick look at the CPC’s website shows that Karl Marx famous slogan “from each according to ability, to each according to need” describes the CPC’s position on just about every issue. But a person can be very far left in his political ideas without becoming a card-carrying Communists.
During the 1940’s and 50’s the question of whether a government employee was literally a Communist Party member was frequently the subject of Congressional hearings and criminal trials. The cliched question “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” was a very specific and important question.
I’ve just finished reading Whittaker Chambers book Witness, and in describing his own experiences as a Party Member Chambers makes it very clear what a serious commitment Party membership was: “The members of the Communist Party are bound by a semi-military discipline which each man and woman agrees to submit to when he joins the Party…This discipline is a Communist’s pride. It means that each of his acts is a contribution to the total action of an army…Every Communist shares this organic sense of functional solidarity and effectiveness.”
As Chambers relates, actual Party members like himself used the term “fellow traveler” to describe sympathetic leftists who supported the Party’s agenda but were unwilling to make the kind of commitment that Party membership entailed.
Even Treasuray Department official Harry Dexter White, who spied for the Soviets, was not a Communist Party member. This was a source of frustration for Chambers, because it meant that White was not subject to Party discipline. “Since White was not a Party member, and was only a fellow traveler,” said Chambers, “I could only suggest or urge, not give orders. This distinction White understood very well, and he thoroughly enjoyed the sense of being in touch with the Party, but not in it, courted by it, but yielding only so much as he chose.”
After Chambers left the Party and agreed to cooperate with the authorities, he once testified under oath that Party members were forbidden to attend church. This prohibition applied even to undercover agents like Alger Hiss, who were expected to pass themselves off as ordinary Americans. That fact alone underscores that the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are not really Communists. Co-Chairmen Keith Ellison and Raúl M. Grijalva are Muslim and Catholic, respectively.
Representative West’s carelessness with words was unfortunate, because it downplays the existential threat to our nation’s survival that real Communist Party members once posed.