Overstreet, Harry and Bonaro

The Strange Tactics of Extremism

(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1964 [pp. 13-22])


The extravagances of extremism their forms of expression, their impact upon our society, and what we can do about them will be our concern in this book.

It must be stressed at the very outset that our war against extremism is a two-front war: against extremists of the Left and of the Right. On both fronts, we have ranged against us those who want to change the character of our society by splitting it down the middle into mutually warring camps.

We in America having given extremism, as it were, a constitutional right to exist have been able to afford the active presence of a far Left and a far Right because we have been overwhelmingly a nation of moderates. Extremism of Left and Right, home-grown and imported, has been with us always. But the liberal-conservative, or conservative-liberal, center has been the native habitat of the vast majority of our people.

A certain proportion of those who belong to the center have recurrently, under the impact of abnormal conditions, felt the pull of the left or right extreme and have moved away from their customary standing place; but not, as a rule for keeps, or even for long. The danger now is that too many of us will move too far and too permanently away from the moderate center. To the extent that we do so, we give the extremists among us a more disruptive power over our common life than we can afford to let them have.

This two-front war in which we are engaged may well outlast our century. It seems certain to outlast our generation. Yet most of us, up to now, have scarcely begun to gear our efforts to its two-front character. Rathersometimes by reason of circumstances, and sometimes by reason of personal slantings of mind we have focused on only one front, or on only one front at at a time. The aggressive force at the other extreme, meanwhile, has thrived on being ignored or on being accepted as, perhaps, not too bad after all.

Much of the evidence to this effect is an old story. Thus, when Stalin was our ally against Hitler, we so far credited him with having a code of alliance similar to our own that the Soviet Union was able to grab for itself a satellite empire before we learned the score.

In the first years after the war, this unwariness continued to mark a host of good-willed groups. Bent upon one or another reform, and reluctant to admit that victory had not brought peace to the world, they designated right-wing elements as the enemy to be opposedwhile keeping in mothballs their suspicion of the far Left. Communists, accordingly, found it possible to move in on one situation after another. They pretended to make common cause with the reformers but used to their own advantage the chance to maneuver without being scrutinized. While their incautious allies were trying to solve problems or rectify injustices, they concentrated on publicizing these and on implanting enough hostility to make a solution impossible. And while we have put our verbs, here, in the past tensespeaking of the postwar periodthe design of Communist effort remains the same.

But a similar design is operative, also, at the other extreme. During recent years, anxiety about Commumism has fostered both the growth of right-wing extremism and an unwary tolerance of it. Such tolerance has expressed, in part, a reluctance to criticize those who say they are anti-Communists. In other part, it has expressed a feeling that such extremism is so much the lesser of two evils that concern about it can be postponed till the greater evil of Communism has been dealt with. Not least, however, it has expressed a hope on the part of many conservatives that they could, with respect to certain issues, make common cause with right-wing extremists without letting their influence get out of hand.

This might be called the reverse side of the coin of hope; for it matches almost point for point the hope of many liberals, through the years, that they could, with respect to certain issues, enter into a united-front effort with Communists without endangering the non-Communist character of their cause or their own organizations.

But surely the time has come to recognize that it is of the nature of extremism to go in for protective coloration. For the Communist, the most useful disguise that can be donned is that of the anti-imperialist, the peace-lover, and the seeker after social justice. For the Radical Rightist, it is that of the anti- Communist.

Wearing this guise, the Radical Rightist can often achieve a remarkable freedom to practice his special type of legerdemain: that by means of which he converts into a Communist or pro-Communist anyone with whom he disagrees on domestic or foreign policies. Most far-right action-programs are, in plain fact, as gigantically irrelevant to the real threat of international Communism as Communist action-programs are to the cause of freedom, peace, and justice.

"In order to fight an enemy you must know him," wrote Ernst Cassirer, in The Myth of the State. This would seem to be rudimentary wisdom. Yet we have been laggard learners, almost all of us, where twentieth-century extremism is concerned. The aims and tactics we have needed to understand have not been concealed from usexcept in so far as we have permitted propaganda to hide them. They have been clearly spelled out by those who have needed to communicate them to their followers, and who, not without reason, have trusted the rest of us either to ignore the word on the printed page or to be blocked in our comprehension of it by our own psychocultural makeup.

Thus, even a sampling of what Lenin made plain in print is enough to make us ask, wonderingly, "Where were our minds when the foundations of Communist power were being laid'

In 1902, in What ls To Be Done, Lenin gave the design for both Party structure and conspiratorial tactics.

In 1913, in State and Revolution, he licensed the Party to make its own dictatorship total and permanent, while calling it "the dictatorship of the proletariat."

In 1917, in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he accomplished two things. He revised the theory of the class struggle to make it embrace the struggle between colonial powers and subject peoples; and thus made underdeveloped countries, not only industrially advanced countries, into proper sites for "Marxist" revolutions. And he provided the definition of imperialism which has, ever since allowed the Communists to hold captive peoples in subjugation while calling themselves anti-imperialists. Only capitalists can be imperialists in the Lenin lexicon.

In 1920, hard-pressed to hold the power he had seized, he gave the international conspiracy its marching orders, in The Conditions of Affiliation to the Communist International.

And in various writings, in the last years of his life, he explained his New Economic Policy (NEP) as simply a plan whereby Western capitalists would be paid to build up the Soviet strength by which they would later be destroyed.

Lenin wrote, but few among us read what was written. For that matter, there were long crucial years when his words were not easy to come by. From the forming of the Comintern, in 1919, to the present, our minds have been constant targets for Party propaganda; but Lenin's Selected Works were not published in this country until 1943, and then by International Publishers, with a dominantly Communist clientele.

To be sure, this same publishing house, in 1932 -- when Stalin hoped to spark a violent revolution in the United Statesput into circulation 100,000 paper-backed copies of Foundations of Leninism, at ten cents a copy. But this was a propaganda item: a tool for making converts. Americans at large did not even think of studying it as a key to what our country was up against. Only since World War II have public concern and responsible scholarship combined to bring into being what might be called a layman's library of basic information about Communism; and even today it is a rare thing to find a non-specialist who knows with any degree of accuracy what Lenin wrote.

Just as Lenin set down his aims and tactics, so did Hitler. But again we did not read what he wrote until after we had been caught off guard by what he did. Hitler moved into Our national consciousness around 1933. From then on, we read news reports of his speeches, rages, and posturings. But these did not recommend Mein Kampf to us as a "must" book.

And where would we have got hold of it in the years when we most needed to read it? It was first published in this country in l939: a year after Munich and Hitler's march into Czechoslovakia, and in the very year of his signing of the pact with Stalin and his invasion of Poland and Norway

Even at that tardy date, moreoveras we can personally recallits issuance by two American publishing houses, Reynal and Hitchcock and Houghton, Mifflin, was widely disapproved. Why should Hitler be paid such a tribute of respect? Would not the book's sales put money into enemy coffers? That the book's reading might put desperately needed knowledge into our own minds was strangely disregarded.

Our major thesis in this book will be that the mistakes we made, during crucial years, with respect to Communism and Nazism, must not be repeated with respect to extremism of the Right. Even while we carry forward that self-education about Communism in which we as a people have become tardily engaged, and which can never be completed because of changes in the Party line and the world situation, we must begin doing our homework with respect to the second front in our two-front war against extremism. Here, we do not have to cope, as we did with Lenin's and Hitler's writings, with the problems of translation. The materials we need to read are being published in our midst every day of the week. The problem we have to cope with is that of our own unawareness of the need to learn.

We recall two incidents so oddly parallel that they serve to underscore the point we are trying to make. One dates from the time when we were shaping up our What We Must Know About Communism. Talking with a friend, we tried out on him our plan for the bookonly to encounter skepticism about the worth of any book for the lay public on the subject of Communism. "Well," we challenged, "if we write it, will you read it?" He hesitated, and then blurted out. "I detest Communism. Why should I read about it?"

The second incident took place in late 1955, in an office in downtown Dallas. An executive friend with whom we were visiting picked up from his desk a publication put out by a man who was then, and still is, a spokesman for the far Right. With measured contempt he read its title aloud: Dan Smoot Speaks. Then he asked, "But who wants to listen?"and dropped the publication into the wastebasket.

To toss into the wastebasket or otherwise ignore that which offends our sense of truth and fairness may be a satisfying gesture; but it may also be a costly one. May we not, as a people, be repeating once more a type of folly for which the world has paid, in this century, an appalling price?

The Radical Right is by no means a mirror-image of the Communist Left. Its contempt for "reformism" is almost Leninist in character. To a striking degree, its organizations are built on the principle that wisdom resides in a leader or elite group, and that it must be dispensed to the masses in predigested, capsule form. It thinks in absolutes and conquers the complexities of problems by means of pat oversimplifications. Also, it borrows many Communist tactics and stratagems. But, for all this, it is by no means simply Commumism moved over to the opposite extreme.

For one thing, and an important one, it is an indigenous movement; not part of an international conspiracy. Its roots are here; not abroad. Thus, it can best be understood, in many of its aspects, as an nth-degree exaggeration of traits common among us in many gradations.

For another thing, while a considerable machinery has developed for the exchange of materials among far-right groups and for the overlapping of their Boards, the Right extreme is still occupied by a host of organizations each of these having its own leadership. There is no single form of discipline; nor is there any one "top" from which directives can be handed down.

Lastly, while Communism can be studied as a definable theory- practice system, it is often hard to draw the line between Radical Rightism and the farthest right type of legitimate conservatism. This line cannot be drawn, we think, on the simple basis of where people stand on this or that particular issue. If we start cataloguing complex problems as ones about which there can be no legitimate differences of opinion, we play the extremist gameand out goes the baby with the bath.

Hence, we will discuss issues in this book only where they are combined to form the program or platform of groups that are shown to be extremist by the methods they employ. Our stress will be upon methods, and upon the view of man in society which these methods reflect. It is, we believe, in the area of tactics and stratagems that extremists, of Left or Right, most clearly show where the line is drawn between themselves and those who occupy the moderate center.

It is in this area, also, that liberals and conservatives must draw the line. One good reason, in fact, for studying the methods of extremism is to remind our liberal or conservative selves that we cannot make common cause with everyone who happens to be on our side of a particular issue. Some bedfellows are just too strange.

One final point must be made in this Introduction: namely, that we must not try to contain the influence of Radical Rightists by curtailing their civil liberties. We stress this fact because members of the Communist Party are, today, trying to spread confusion with respect to this point.

Thus, at the very time when Communists were protesting, as an infringement of their rights, the Supreme Court decisions that required Party members to register, Gus Hall, Executive Secretary of the CPUSA, was asked by a reporter, "Do you believe the Bill of Rights should cover the John Birch Society?" Hall gave a Communist answer; not a free man's answer: "No, the John Birch Society is out to destroy the Bill of Rights." (1)

Similarly, Herbert Aptheker, editor of the Communist journal, Political Agairs, when he was asked in Berkeley, California, about his stand on free speech, said that he favored free speech "for everyone except racists, fascists, and others with unscientific ideas." (2)

Coming from spokesmen for a Party that has destroyed civil liberties wherever it has seized power, while exploiting them everywhere else, such statements have a grisly humor. But they can be dangerous; for they comprise a theme in the current Party line that is expressly tailored to reach those who have become thoroughly exasperated with the Radical Right and who have never thought their way through to a basic understanding of what freedom of speech means.

It is not only that small virtue resides in opposing rightwing extremism by Communist methods. The matter goes deeper. It goes down to the bedrock paradox of freedom: namely, that our society can afford the presence of extremists only so long as the vast majority of us keep in mind the fact that we are obligated to defend their constitutional right as we would defend our own. The acknowledgment of this obligation is what holds a free society together. If we forget it, or reject it, we help the extremists to split our society into mutually warring camps.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus warned his followers not to make self-satisfaction out of their power to love those who loved them: "do not even the publicans the same?" In parallel fashion, we come far short of proving ourselves to be defenders of freedom if we defend only the rights of those whose opinions we want to have spread abroad: Do not even the extremists, of both Left and Right, do the same?

The stress throughout this book will be upon the printed materials by means of which far-right groups work to shape the minds of their members and of the general public. Part I will concentrate on the John Birch Society. Part II will deal with a representative sampling of other Radical Rightist leaders and movements. Part III will attempt to interpret the practical consequences of what Part I and II reveal.

The Conclusion -- The Task Ahead of Us -- will return the problem of extremism to those who must ultimately solve it. The extremists will not solve it. Those who must do so are men and women who, in their personal lives, and through their involvements in society, affirm the values on which a free society must rest. The problem must be solved, in short, by those who are able to make a balanced outlook and a strict adherence to fair, aboveboard methods into an active, creative, dedicated way of going at the gigantic tasks by which we are confronted.


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