- Home Ownership: ‘The best antidote to radicalism’
- Education and research: ‘It’s a Commie sky’
- Desegregation: ‘Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills’
- Global Health: ‘The best breeding place for communism is disease and poverty’
- Human Rights: ‘Profoundly undemocratic’
Capitalism sucks for workers. It’s common to see the obvious failures of our current system as new horrors, and to conclude that we need to return to some time when things were better. Maybe the “better time” is vague — just a general hand-waving and an exhortation to make things great again. Or maybe it’s explicit, with policy nods towards, for example, Roosevelt’s New Deal. Either way, this better time was probably some period after the workday was reduced to only 8 hours but before neoliberalism really kicked off. Not coincidentally, this time period lines up with the existence of the U.S.S.R. (1917-1991). Workers’ lives improved when the West felt threatened by the rise of communism!
To protect their own interests against the growing enthusiasm for communism, the capitalist class of the West permitted the passing of worker-friendly social policies. Here, I’m going to walk through a few examples of these policies that were motivated by fear of the U.S.S.R. and its influence in the world. I want to show how these were strategic concessions by the capitalist class rather than the result of the establishment coming to see reason or bowing to the force of the better argument. I will build this argument by citing contemporary capitalists, mainstream news outlets and government officials, demonstrating how these policies were explicitly linked at the time to fears of communist organizing inspired by the U.S.S.R. I will also highlight how these policies softened the hard edge of capitalism to quell the rising interest in socialism, while still entrenching liberal, pro-capitalist principles.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States was shifting from an agrarian society to an industrial society. Workers were concentrated in the cities, and tended to rent their homes. Factory workers worked closely together to manufacture products under oppressive conditions. It was these characteristics that primed this class to unite and revolt. Across the ocean, the same class of recently industrialized workers brought about the world’s first workers’ state: the U.S.S.R. The terrified capitalist class scrambled for a solution, and identified housing policy as a way to pacify worker unrest.
Take, for example, this Washington Post column by New York banker and financier Simon William Straus:
Widespread and successful home owning activities in the United States this spring would do more to alleviate social unrest and build a bulwark against the encroachments of bolshevism than any other single development. 
A realtor organization concurred with his assessment:
Socialism and communism do not take root in the ranks of those who have their feet firmly embedded in the soil of America through homeownership. 
However, individual capitalist enterprises operating individually weren’t enough to turn American workers into homeowners. Government coordination was required:
Terrified by the 1917 Russian revolution, government officials came to believe that communism could be defeated in the United States by getting as many white Americans as possible to become homeowners — the idea being that those who owned property would be invested in the capitalist system. So in 1917 the federal Department of Labor promoted an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign, handing out “We Own Our Own Home” buttons to schoolchildren and distributing pamphlets saying that it was a “patriotic duty” to cease renting and to build a single-family unit. 
The Southern Pine Association, a lumber trade organization, produced a manual that illustrates this program very succinctly. Aimed at large employers and municipal officials, it detailed case studies in how to promote home purchases. In it, they emphasized both the need to combat “radical cross currents” among workers, and the need for government bodies to coordinate to serve capitalists.
Any great body of industrial workers with little or no property ties are affected to a more or less extent [sic] by radical cross currents. Home-owning is the best antidote to radicalism. Detroit approached the problem from the right direction. The leaders of its industries realized they could not wait for the problem to be solved by individual effort but should co-operate the forces of the city’s industrial greatness for remedying the situation. 
The “Own Your Own Home” campaign eventually fell under the stewardship of future president Herbert Hoover. Hoover continued to push for the importance of homeownership throughout his presidency, referring to it as a fundamentally American, white, and liberal value:
There can be no fear for a democracy or self-government or for liberty or freedom from homeowners no matter how humble they may be. (…) That our people should live in their own homes is a sentiment deep in the heart of our race and of American life. (…) To own one’s own home is a physical expression of individualism, of enterprise, of independence, and of the freedom of spirit. 
Of course, homeownership was not so important as to require housing guarantees, or laws around the maximum proportion of income that could be spent on housing costs, or even direct relief for those who couldn’t make mortgage payments in the Great Depression. To do so would be a step too close to the U.S.S.R., where constitutional protections and rent caps ensured rent made up just 2.4-10.8% of a worker’s income.  Hoover’s administration instead implemented the Home Loan Bank System, which provided liquidity for banks affected by homeowners defaulting on their mortgages. A similar logic — of facilitating homeownership through government support of banks — was continued in the Roosevelt administration, in the form of the New Deal program Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. This program helped many Americans become and remain homeowners, but also originated the practice of redlining, in which financial services were withheld from applicants living in neighbourhoods with Black residents.
Promotion of homeownership was a strategic move, anticipating that workers who owned their homes would be more invested in the capitalist system, and less likely to overthrow it. By a similar logic, workers’ retirement plans have been entwined with the success of capitalist ventures. Pension plans, which guaranteed income for workers who put in enough hours, have vanished. In their place, we are left with 401(k)s and RRSPs, which shackle our hopes for a comfortable old age to the moods of the stock market and to the profits of the capitalists.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite, which completed a revolution about once every hour and a half and sent out signals that could be tracked from anywhere on Earth. Americans took this as a sign that they were falling behind technologically. The New Republic captured the awe and fear this launch inspired, reporting:
[Sputnik is] proof of the fact that the Soviet Union has gained a commanding lead in certain vital sectors of the race for world scientific and technological supremacy. 
The Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams expressed the same sentiment in verse:
Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
And Uncle Sam’s asleep.
You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball. 
The Sputnik Crisis swept the country at a time when legislative efforts to improve education had stalled. Funding bills for public education failed to garner votes year after year. In a later interview, Stewart McClure, the Chief Clerk of the Senate Committee on Labor, Education, and Public Welfare reflected on the opportunity that Sputnik presented for funding education:
RITCHIE: Why was there such fierce opposition in the House to federal money for school construction?
MCCLURE: I’m not sure that I can answer that. All I know, as I said in an earlier session, is that the Chamber of Commerce of the United States had as one of its major objectives to prevent any federal money going to education, except in specific cases like vocational education and the GI Bill and one or two other things like impacted areas. (…)
RITCHIE: A real stalemate developed between the House and the Senate in ‘55, ‘56, and ‘57, that finally seems to have been broken by an outside force when the Soviets sent up …
MCCLURE: Sputnik, that’s right.
RITCHIE: And shortly after Sputnik went up you wrote a memorandum to Senator Hill saying, essentially, this is the opportunity.
MCCLURE: That’s right. (…)
MCCLURE: Yes, I think if there was one thing I ever did in my work on the Hill, my work for my whole career, it was to focus Lister Hill’s attention on the opportunity which Sputnik, this Russian satellite, gave all of us who were struggling, and had been for decades, to establish a federal program of monetary aid to public education, and private, too, in some instances. And I’m really very proud of that. 
The resulting 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA) made available low-interest student loans for promising students in the fields of foreign languages, mathematics and find other fields considered crucial in the fight against communism. The bill originally included scholarship provisions, but these were eliminated due to concerns about giving students a “free ride.”  The bill also contained language requiring funding recipients to disavow revolutionary goals, attesting no support for or membership of “any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government.” 
For both the example of homeownership policies and education policies, these initial relatively limited governmental forays into social concerns paved the way for bigger interventions. These bills and their successors resulted in real improvements in the lives of workers, but it’s crucial to note that these investments in areas such as education occurred through policy mechanisms like loans and were never cemented as permanent rights, as in socialist constitutions.
Furthermore, these efforts were resisted at every step of the way, and support for government funding of scientific research and training changed as competitive pressure from the U.S.S.R. diminished. As one illustrative example, take the scrapped Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was initially going to be built in Texas and have a collision energy thrice that of the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg had this to say on its cancellation:
Spending for the SSC had become a target for a new class of congressmen elected in 1992. They were eager to show that they could cut what they saw as Texas pork, and they didn’t feel that much was at stake. The cold war was over, and discoveries at the SSC were not going to produce anything of immediate practical importance. 
The defeat of Nazi Germany’s racial supremacist project cast a damning light on America’s own racism. This was not only remarked upon throughout the domestic struggle for Civil Rights, but also among anti-colonial national liberation movements facing a choice between aligning with the capitalist or the socialist bloc.
In the early 1950s, a legal effort to end racial segregation of schools wound its way through the court system. Amicus briefings for Brown v. Board of Education repeatedly referenced the difficulties racial segregation posed for the U.S. in its foreign policy struggles. Attorney General James P. McGranery commented:
Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith. 
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advised that it was not only communist propaganda highlighting these contradictions, but that “the liberal and conservative press” around the world was also taking note:
Our discriminatory practices in education, in employment, in housing, have all been the subject of much adverse press comment in those foreign countries which we are trying to keep in the democratic camp. 
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson further detailed the difficulties this “source of constant embarrassment” was causing in its foreign affairs:
The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination against minority groups in this country. As might be expected, Soviet spokesmen regularly exploit the situation in propaganda against the United States. (…) [T]he continuance of racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations; and it jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world. 
Although the final decision written by the court makes no mention of any foreign policy motives, it’s unquestionable that the SCOTUS judges considered the impact of racial segregation on American Cold War efforts. After the unanimous decision that the prior policy of “separate but equal” couldn’t apply to school, the U.S. Information Agency  immediately spread news of the decision, placing articles in journals all across Africa in an effort to repair its image in the region.  Domestic news outlets were also quick to highlight the benefits to the U.S.’s fight against communism.
The international effect may be scarcely less important. In many countries, where U.S. prestige and leadership have been damaged by the fact of U.S. segregation, it will come as a timely reassertion of the basic American principle that all men are created equal. — Time
…the psychological effect will be tremendous … segregation in the public schools has become a symbol of inequality, not only to Negroes in the United States but to colored people elsewhere in the world. It has also been a weapon of world Communism. Now that symbol lies shattered. — Newsweek 
Just as the fight for education funding for white Americans long preceded the passing of the NDEA, Black Americans had been fighting for quality public education since the Reconstruction Era. Brown v. Board of Education was not decided on the basis of any sudden realization by the court that Black children were harmed by segregated education. For a brief moment, in its fight to stop the spread of communism, the interests of white America, its courts and policymakers, aligned with those of Black Americans, and the country took a small step towards racial justice.
Desegregation of schools was insufficient to combat the specter of communism haunting the West. Instead, some material concessions were necessary to improve the lives of those in the Global South. In a memo from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, a government official described the stakes of this human suffering:
Two-thirds of the human race lives on less than $100 per year, with a life span of less than 35 years, and besieged by infectious disease… What does this mean for the United States? I leave aside all soft-spoken questions of humanity and brotherhood. I speak only of hard-headed self-interest. The best breeding place for Communism is disease and poverty. If we are going to lead the free world in its fight against the bondage of Communism, we have to do something about the health of these poor people. 
By the 1950s, Europe and North America had largely eliminated smallpox via mandatory vaccination programs. Every year, however, two million people around the world were still dying of the disease. While the U.S.S.R. had eliminated smallpox within its borders, it faced intermittent flare-ups associated with travelers crossing into its borders from countries with endemic smallpox. Recognizing that a coordinated global campaign would cost less than fighting off outbreaks indefinitely, in 1958 the U.S.S.R. proposed that the WHO should aim for the eradication of smallpox. The Soviets thought this plan would succeed because smallpox had been successfully eradicated within particular countries and a heat-stable vaccine was already available. While the WHO adopted this motion, it allocated few funds for it, in part due to a lack of support from the U.S. The U.S. was instead very publicly backing the expensive Malaria Eradication Program. Over the next few years, the promise of the Malaria Eradication Program evaporated, as malaria-spreading mosquitoes developed resistance to the pesticides used to eradicate them, and the environmental and ecological impacts of those pesticides became clear.
Each year at the Health Assembly, [Deputy Minister of Health for the Soviet Union] Zhdanov expressed his dismay and frustration at the slow rate of progress and demanded that the Organization make a greater effort, pointing out that smallpox eradication (as compared to malaria eradication) was perhaps the only programme that could be completed in the foreseeable future. A number of other countries joined in the protests but little changed. 
It was only in 1965, after repeated lobbying from the U.S.S.R., after the MEP was clearly failing, and after the Johnson administration stressed the importance of addressing infectious diseases to clear the “breeding places” for communism that the WHO chose to adequately fund the Smallpox Eradication Program. Even then, the budget passed on the narrowest voting margin in WHO history after opposition from France and the U.S. on its price tag. The project cost 98 million dollars, and over 80% of the 2 billion vaccines required by the program were donated by the U.S.S.R., who alone had the vaccine manufacturing facilities to support the efforts.  The program very nearly didn’t happen at all; it did only due to the Soviet Union’s advocacy and material support, coupled with Western fears of Communist takeover in the Global South. It remains the only human disease we have eradicated, and is one of the most remarkable achievements of humankind.
In the United States, the constitution is so central to cultural identity that they write hit musicals about it, but it’s rare that you see it explicitly compared to the constitutions of other countries. Whereas liberal democracies’ constitutions emphasize property rights and limitations to state power, socialist constitutions include things like the right to rest and positive demands made of the state by the people:
Article 43: Working people in the People’s Republic of China have the right to rest. The State expands facilities for the rest and recuperation of the working people and prescribes working hours and vacations for staff. 
Article 119: Citizens of the U.S.S.R. have the right to rest and leisure. The right to rest and leisure is ensured by the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people. 
After World War II, the United Nations drafted, debated and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The U.S.S.R. was active in this process, and brought to the table a very different conception of rights than that of western liberal democracies. Their socialist conception of the relationship between people and the state emphasized social and economic rights, like the right to education and to work, over negative or individualist rights like freedom of religion. For example, the Soviet delegation proposed an amendment requiring the state to “provide every human with protection against crimes, make sure that the risk of death out of hunger is prevented, and etc.”  Even though some of these amendments did not make it into the UDHR, the impact of the U.S.S.R. on this foundational document did not go unremarked upon by liberals in the West. Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, fumed at the absurdity of adding these social and economic rights to the Declaration:
[The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights] is admittedly an attempt to fuse the rights of the Western liberal tradition with the altogether different concept deriving from the Marxist Russian Revolution. It adds to the list of the classical civil rights enumerated in its first twenty-one articles seven further guarantees intended to express the new ‘social and economic rights’. (…) The conception of a ‘universal right’ which assures to the peasant, to the Eskimo, and presumably to the Abominable Snowman, ‘periodic holidays with pay’ shows the absurdity of the whole thing. (…) What are the consequences of the requirement that every one should have the right ‘freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to share in the scientific advances and its benefits’. (…) It is evident that all these ‘rights’ are based on the interpretation of society as a deliberately made organization by which everybody is employed. They could not be made universal within a system of rules of just conduct based on the conception of individual responsibility, and so require that the whole of society be converted into a single organization, that is, made totalitarian in the fullest sense of the word. 
Aryeh Neier, founder and director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), also noted the incongruity of these rights within a liberal, capitalist democracy:
The concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic… Authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights. 
Neier specifically highlighted as problematic articles 22-30 of the UDHR, which include the right to work (Article 23) and to rest (Article 24), the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25), and the right to education (Article 26). In his memoir, he goes on to describe how he “strenuously opposed efforts to get the ACLU and Human Rights Watch to deal with economic issues as rights.” Since his tenure in these organizations, the ACLU and HRW — as well as Amnesty International, which he never worked for — have continued to minimize the importance of social and economic rights.  Instead, these organizations fight for civil and political rights like freedom of speech, the justification for the Citizens United v. FEC decision. If economic and social rights are “profoundly undemocratic,” what is it when capital must be permitted to pour limitless money into elections?
Hayek and Neier are correct in identifying a contradiction in this conception of human rights and the socioeconomic system currently dominant in the world. Do we want a world where we have a right to food and shelter? Or do we want our humanity weighed against advancing capitalist interests? Despite efforts to sweep them under the rug, these social and economic rights remain enshrined in the UDHR. Our perception of our own rights would in all likelihood have looked very different without the influence of the U.S.S.R.
These examples are not intended to diminish the efforts of organizers and advocates that fought hard for pro-worker social policies. Without them, we never would have made these advances. It would also be wrong to conclude from these examples that there’s a small cabal of geniuses at the top, strategically pulling puppet strings. Instead, these vignettes illustrate the tension between capital and workers, and how the extra pressure from progress being made in the U.S.S.R. spurred class-conscious members of the bourgeoisie to cede some benefits to the workers, if only to divide the working class. Although capitalists needed these concessions for the security of their profits, the only way they could coordinate them was through state-enforced initiatives.
These examples also highlight the limitations of reformist approaches. Since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., social welfare policies have been repeatedly rolled back towards their pre-intervention state, and little progress has been made to address racial and global socioeconomic inequalities. Incremental victories, even ones that represent social progress, are inevitably reverted when the social pressures subside. Capitalism has mechanisms to overcome the hard-won restraints we place on it.  The solution to the problems of capitalism is therefore not to go back to some “better time” when capitalism was restrained by the threat of a communist state, but to replace the capitalist system with a communist one.
Richard Rothstein, 2017. The Color Of Law. ↩
Barry Leonard, 1981. Evolution of a Problematic Partnership: The Feds and Higher Education. p18. ↩
The predecessor to the State Department, created by Eisenhower as part of the U.S. efforts to combat the Soviet Union. ↩
Memo, LBJ Library, Office Files of Joseph A. Califano, Box 29 (1737), Folder: “Health.” Quoted in Niall Ferguson et al., 2011. The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. ↩
Friedrich Hayek, 1979. Law, Legislation and Liberty. ↩
Aryeh Neier, 2003. Taking Liberties: Four Decades In The Struggle For Rights. ↩