THE ‘C’ WORD: COMMUNIST ERASURE IN LIBERATION ACTIVISM

by Kasper Hassett

From the first Red Scare in the US, terms like ‘communism’, ‘socialism’, and ‘anarchism’ have been subject to suspicion and scrutiny. Despite describing common views, they are considered subversive, chaotic and threatening, and cause others to be wary. Many of society’s role models, however, have been communists – especially those most associated with struggles against oppression, imperialism and bigotry. Forgetting this is no accident: when centrists and the right-wing express a shared sense of pride for achievements in activism, they place history under a rose-tinted lens, carefully side-stepping mention of their role in enforcing the barriers which required lifting in the first place.

The establishment relies on liberation activists housing a leftover fear of being labelled communists to subdue them and make them act more conservatively. To be presentable in the media, activists must dress smartly; speak politely and in moderation; and push only a small portion of ideas in ‘palatable’ ways. We must also be seen to align with common political ideas or be dismissed as idealistic or ridiculous. In 2018, when journalist Ash Sarkar famously denounced accusations of loyalty to Obama with the phrase ‘I’m literally a communist’, the room shuddered: communism being mentioned as something other than an inherent evil was so shocking that there was no response ready for it. Her proclamation was mostly ignored by Piers Morgan, who continued to staple her to centre-left ideology.

We remember Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners as a powerful movement which caused a massive shift in public opinion towards LGBTQ+ people, and ultimately consolidated more rights for them. Although the 2014 film Pride beautifully captures the lives and friendship of some of the first members, many do not realise just how radical the group was. Mark Ashton, a key figure in both the movie and the history, was openly a communist, and the group’s activities invoked a strong solidarity between communities impacted by Thatcherism. 

The establishment relies on liberation activists housing a leftover fear of being labelled communists to subdue them and make them act more conservatively.

Even those heralded for peaceful approaches to liberation are often victims of ideological erasure. Martin Luther King was a socialist, but the image of him taught since his assassination is placid, simple – even simplified: one of a man who would fit neatly into American capitalist society if only he had not been living in a deeply racist one. He is celebrated across the so-called ‘presentable’ political spectrum – which is to say, by almost anyone short of neo-Nazis.

Conveniently forgetting the roots liberation activism has in fighting economic injustice inevitably leaks into media and public opinion, alienating radicals and stunting progress. Radical activists are forced to work harder than others to push for change, and even though these views are entwined with liberation struggles, knowledge of this is fading and it is becoming more acceptable for members of marginalised groups to align with centrist or even right-wing beliefs. A comfortable, middle-class person may survive in the right circumstances for some time if they are gay or Black or female or Jewish, maybe long enough to accept the political norms and believe that centrist and right-wing politics can truly speak for them – but eventually, the harsh realities of a society wherein capitalism exacerbates hate and injustice must kick in.

Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners - Mark Ashton Trust
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 patrickdevries2003

In defence of the right’s co-opting of liberation struggles, many cite the legalisation of gay marriage in the UK as a Conservative government action. While this change was admittedly enacted under Cameron’s government, there has historically been major opposition from right-wing politicians to LGBTQIA+ rights. Often, voting in favour of basic human rights is done by career politicians merely to look better – such as is the case with rainbow-washing, greenwashing and pinkwashing – when the inevitable comes: when the efforts of grassroots activists enact actual societal change.

The damage of this discourse framing has been a seed of ignorance and vilification planted into public opinion: many activists avoid suitable and accurate radical labels because we know that, though our ideas are easy to communicate, it is alienating to state the name of our camp and we immediately lose potential audiences. If you have been canvassed by young members of the Labour party in 2017 or 2019, the chances are that many of those activists identified somewhere within socialism, communism or anarchism, but avoided telling you – because those words have become dirty words. 

many activists avoid suitable and accurate radical labels because we know that, though our ideas are easy to communicate, it is alienating to state the name of our camp and we immediately lose potential audiences.

When the right point at liberation activists and say, this is us, they tell younger generations of oppressed people that they are part of the majority; that there is a sense of togetherness encompassing them and that they are safe if they remain part of the herd. To steal liberation role models and to depoliticise them makes human rights struggles themselves seem separate from politics. Life is far from perfect for members of marginalised groups, but the right have spent decades delivering the impression that it is equal, and that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it – all the time benefiting from their struggles. Capitalism hangs as a shadow over oppressive hierarchical societies, and the link between capitalist oppression and the suffering of marginalised groups is intrinsic: we cannot solve one while still shackled by the other.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 Francisco Anzola


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