Blacklisting

Blacklisting is similar to blackballing. As the latter is associated with the placement of a black marble among the white ones in a bag, signifying that the applicant to a club has been denied membership by a single member, a blacklist is a powerful tool wielded by employers that denies the possibility of work to anyone whose name has been placed on a specific list. The injustice of a blacklist can be seen in its arbitrariness— just as in blackballing, where a single marble can decide one’s fate, the blacklist may, over time, come to include names that no one remembers for sure how or why they got there. The Hollywood blacklist, for example, was designed to prevent leftwing film industry workers from finding employment in the American motion picture business. But because of mistaken identities, misspellings, rumor, and so forth, many individuals were not only blacklisted but effectively denied employment in spite of the fact that their names had been entered on the list through sheer inadvertence or oversight.

The Hollywood blacklist can also been seen as unfair since it targeted for reprisal as communists people whose political sympathies rarely strayed beyond that of California liberalism, and magazine subscriptions or house parties were notorious ways by which the politically naı¨ve and socially harmless managed to get their names in a file that would follow them the rest of their lives. The canard that communists had taken over the film industry and turned the citadel of entertainment into a propaganda arm of the Soviet Union was genuinely hallucinatory in its misreading of the product that the American film industry was selling at home and abroad.

Finally, the detractors of Hollywood radicals and fellow travelers uniformly ignored the fact that without the Red Army in Europe, and the Soviet Union’s ‘‘popular front’’ alliance with Western capitalists, Hitler’s regime might never have been defeated. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union as one of his first acts in office after winning the 1932 national election; that there were warm relations between Americans of all sorts and Russian communism, or its various American outposts during the 1930s and the war itself, should hardly come as a surprise nor be condemned. If even Winston Churchill could embrace Stalin, when the time was right, a Hollywood movie actor ought to be able to read a book by John Reed, or go to meetings where Reed’s politics began to make increasing sense as the Great Depression deepened.

Blacklisting did not begin with the Hollywood studios. In Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, his ‘‘honest-but-doomed working man,’’ Stephen Blackpool, is blacklisted for rebellious comments that he makes to a factory owner, and his inability to find employment, crisscrossing Britain’s brutal mid-nineteenth-century industrial landscape is virtually a death sentence. As labor researcher Mike Hughes documents, the rightwing Economic League operated a blacklist among British employers throughout most of the twentieth century, and was only brought to its knees by a House of Commons select committee investigation in 1990. The tale of blacklisting in American academia is a story that only a tiny handful of academics have come forward to tell. Historian Ellen Schrecker argues that, in fact, McCarthyism in the United States, whose tentacles reached well beyond the film industry and university campus, was a two-tiered process in which the success of the upper tier, led by criminal prosecutors and purveyors of rightwing political ideology, was only assured because it was founded upon a lower tier, the system of economic repression, that is, the blacklist.

Many of the same civil liberties that are at the heart of a democratic society and represent the soul of American constitutional law are the conventional victims of blacklisting—freedom of speech, association, and the press. Yet how does one campaign in the courts or march in the capital against as invisible and insidious an influence as that of a blacklist? The deprivation of civil liberties by blacklisting thus raises a special political problem and necessarily points toward hard philosophical questions about the parameters of liberty in liberal democracies. Many words have been written about the alleged superiority of negative over positive rights, the safeguards unique to negative constitutions, the essentially private and personal quality of liberty, and the transparent virtues of a government of laws and not men. The government that governs best, we are told, governs least. Lord Acton said, ‘‘Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’ But the success of blacklisting as a political tool, the use of a discreet economic weapon for enforcing a grand public program, the destruction of civil liberties through a policy of intimidation, guilt by association, and economic strangulation— all outside the general purview of the law in liberal systems of rule—surely underscores not the strengths but the weaknesses of a politics that places economic processes, including decision making behind the blacklist, far from public regulation and the jurisdiction of the state.

Thus, a certain criticism of civil liberty itself is difficult to deflect. Civil liberty is to be enjoyed in private, but is that much more easily destroyed in private. Congress shall make no law . . . . But what if it is corporations, and other private enterprises, that rule? The state cannot force the private media to report a story or print an article or open its pages to dissident points of view. And when governments close down newspapers or television stations, it is a sure sign of the defeat of civil liberty by totalitarian tactics. But where is the freedom of speech for the citizen who does not own a newspaper or have his or her own television news station? At one level, these realities reveal fault lines separating liberty from democracy. There is ‘‘a contradiction between the sovereignty of the people and universal suffrage on the one hand, placing the fate of the nation in the hands of everyone,’’ wrote historian Georges Lefebvre, ‘‘and the capitalist economy where the wage-earner sees his work, his wages and consequently his life in the hands of those who own the means of production.’’

But surely the illustration of blacklisting reveals contradictions with the system of civil liberty itself. The very private liberty that protects the right to hire and fire, the right to employ or not, the right to maneuver behind the scenes, to plan in secret, to remain silent in the face of injustice, to decline courageous action, to act on one’s own prejudice without explanation, the power of joint economic activity by owners of private property—everything that makes the blacklist work is itself a right and is protected by civil liberty and by law. The house of civil liberty may not be about to fall, but it is all too easily portrayed as divided against itself.

ANTHONY CHASE

References and Further Reading

  • Caute, David. The Left in Europe Since 1789. New York: World University Library, 1966. 
  • Hughes, Mike. Spies at Work. Bradford, UK: 1 in 12 Publications, 1994. 
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

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