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Issue 51, October 2000

The psychology of the witch-hunt

The Crucible in History and Other Essays
By Arthur Miller, Methuen, 2000, £10
Reviewed by Tony Mulhearn

READING ARTHUR Miller's historic assessment of McCarthyism's impact on the American left in the 1940s and 1950s, it is striking the parallels that can be drawn with the witch-hunt of supporters of Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) in the Liverpool Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s.

Miller wrote The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials of 1692, having been a victim of the political hysteria sweeping through postwar America. McCarthyism transformed the political landscape in the US to the extent that even the term 'co-op' would attract the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC grew out of the Dies Committee, which was originally established to fight Nazi subversion. Republican senator, Joe McCarthy, then used HUAC as a tool to re-establish the supremacy of the free-market capitalists over the backers of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal.

Fuelled by the Stalinist domination of Eastern Europe and the victory in China of Mao Zedong in 1949, an anti-communist hysteria was manufactured which penetrated whole areas of American life. Particularly targeted were academia, the trade unions and the motion picture industry.

US president, Harry S Truman, initially dismissed the campaign as irrelevant, but so ubiquitous was the spread of McCarthy's poison that Truman was forced to set up a Loyalty Board to root out any 'communist' activities in the public services.


In 1949 Miller, a Communist Party (CP) member for a short period who had been influenced by Marxist ideas, wrote the play, Death of a Salesman, which attracted positive reviews but was described by McCarthy as anti-American. By the time it was due to open on Broadway the American Legion threatened to picket the theatre and right-wing union leaders, anxious to ward off any investigation into their own activities, threatened to call a strike of theatre workers if the play was shown. Miller became a victim of McCarthyite paranoia, like many of his associates. Two of his film scripts were canned, his plays were removed from the US Army's theatrical repertoire, and he was charged with contempt of Congress.

In the early 1950s, Miller and Elia Kazan submitted a film script to Harry Cohn, head of Colombia Pictures. It described the corruption and gangsterism in the Longshoremen's Union on the New York waterfront. Cohn had the script checked out by the FBI who found nothing subversive in it. The opposition came from the leadership of the union concerned who denounced the script as pure communist propaganda. Cohn said he would make the film if Miller changed the gangsters to communists. He refused. Some years later, the leader of the waterfront union ended up in Sing Sing prison after being convicted of corruption.

As Miller relates, the key element in any witch-hunt is the informer. Talented people who refused to inform on their friends and associates were blacklisted and couldn't work in their own industries. Screenwriters Carl Foreman and Dalton Trumbo, and actors like Charlie Chaplin and Sam Wanamaker, were victims. Years later Sterling Hayden, who had briefly been a CP member, described how he buckled and named names to HUAC. He became a 'friendly witness'. The following day, actors, university lecturers and others were sacked from their jobs. In Hayden's own words, full of remorse, he 'lived in shit' for the rest of his life.


Perhaps the biggest blow to the liberal left was the betrayal of Elia Kazan, a director of considerable talent and an icon of the left in Hollywood. His plays and films were regarded as the authentic voice of radicalism. Ironically, Miller was on his way to Salem to research his play when Kazan revealed his intention to testify rather than be deprived of his livelihood. Miller describes his fear on hearing of the collapse of someone so revered by the left. This incident finally convinced Miller to write the play.

Not long after, Kazan directed On The Waterfront, a film about gangsterism in the New York dockers' union. The screenwriter, Bud Schullberg, and most of the principle actors, with the exception of Marlon Brando, testified to the HUAC and named names. Fine film though it was, On The Waterfront was made to justify Kazan's actions.

Miller argues that the methodology of the witch-hunt is similar, whether it be in America, Stalinist Russia, China, or under any Latin American dictatorship. Albeit on a different scale, it would not be too far-fetched to add Liverpool to that list, as an example of a city-wide witch-hunt.

The key players described by Miller bear remarkable similarities with those of the Labour Party in the 1980s. Peter Kilfoyle, the current MP for Liverpool Walton, would have been totally at home on the HUAC. Plucked from obscurity by Neil Kinnock (Labour Party leader from 1983-92), his task was to root out Militant supporters. As with any witch-hunt, the target was broadened out. This seeping malevolence extended to anybody 'bringing the party into disrepute', an all-embracing formulation. People with no connection with Militant were caught up in the maelstrom.


Kilfoyle exuded all the arrogance and truculence of a man supported, not only by the Labour Party bureaucracy, but also by the establishment and its media. Armed to the teeth with bureaucratic powers, he unleashed an unremitting attack on the left. People with old political scores to settle - nonentities who had been silent and inactive during the great campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s - re-emerged.

The same atmosphere of fear and impotence which affected the left in America became ever-present. Even Walton's MP at the time, Eric Heffer, an outstanding and courageous left, said during a discussion on how to combat the witch-hunt: 'We want people who are not tainted with Militant to protest', inadvertently fighting the right wing on their terms. Former political allies either disappeared or declared their non-Militancy. People who had no history of representing workers were rewarded with council positions for informing on the left. Labour Party branches and constituencies were closed down. The policy-making body, the District Labour Party, was abolished and replaced with an emasculated version. When even this body could no longer stomach Kilfoyle's arrogance and censured him, it too invited closure.

To have supported workers in struggle was to be excluded from council and parliamentary shortlists. Kilfoyle, in charge of the meeting to select a candidate to replace Heffer when he died in 1991, deprived a number of left-wing delegates of the right to vote, thus ensuring his own selection. Documented evidence of Kilfoyle's machinations to the Labour Party's ruling body wasn't even acknowledged, let alone acted upon.


Kinnock dispatched a hit squad to conduct an 'investigation' into the Liverpool Labour Party. After attending its first meeting, Heffer remarked that the atmosphere was so poisonous and intimidating that he had to check that the chairman wasn't wearing jackboots. It was a drumhead court, interviewing anybody suspected of Militant association.

There then followed wholesale suspensions and expulsions. As with McCarthyism, the attack was ideological, with socialism and socialists the main target, inflamed by a media which carried lurid, unattributed and false accusations against the left.

As in Salem, the preposterous became the norm: building houses was 'irresponsible'; creating jobs and defending services became, in Kinnock's verbiage, 'impossibilism'; large meetings, democratically organised, were forums for 'intimidation' by the left.

Based on a hodge-podge of unidentified 'witnesses', the committee submitted a report to the Labour Party National Executive (NEC) who hailed it as a devastating indictment of the Liverpool Labour Party. It was challenged in court. The judge was compelled to rule that the report was based on gossip and hearsay and was, therefore, totally unreliable. Heffer noted that socialists got more justice from the capitalist courts than from the Labour leadership.

The scramble for office by right-wingers and ex-left members symbolised the madness which gripped Liverpool. A sure-fire way of proving that you were fit for office was to declare that not only were you not a Militant, but that you hated Militant and all it stood for. Militant had supported these lefts in past selection meetings. But they belatedly endorsed the charge that Militant supporters were 'infiltrators'.


Anti-Militantism in Liverpool was the equivalent of the HUAC's charge of anti-patriotism - the last refuge of a scoundrel. Tribunite lefts, or 'soft lefts' as they were dubbed by a drooling media, believed that by demonising Militants they could save their own skins. But the witch-hunt took on a life of its own. Having adopted the ideology of the Thatcherites, who were the first to demand action against the Liverpool city councillors, all advocates of even mild reformist measures were driven out of any influential positions in the Labour Party or out of the party itself.

The witch-hunt in Liverpool also impacted on life outside the labour movement. The instruction came from Kinnock's office that leading surcharged councilors should not work in Liverpool again. Kilfoyle approached his task with relish. Shortly after being barred from office by the district auditor - appointed by Thatcher's government - myself and Frank Mills, another of the 47 surcharged councillors, both unemployed, were appointed City Council European Liaison Officers. The wages did not match the grand title but nevertheless it was a job.

This sparked off howls of outrage from the local press, the Liberal/Tory alliance and right-wing Labour councillors. David Alton, then MP for Mossley Hill (now Lord Alton), denounced the appointments in parliament. Despite this pressure, the remaining left councillors in the Labour Group secured a narrow majority to endorse the decision.

The issue went to a full city council meeting where, for the first time in its history, the appointments were overturned by a majority comprised of the Liberal Democrats, Tories and right-wing Labour councillors. Harry Rimmer, the right-wing Liverpool Labour Party leader, openly broke his own whip and vigorously supported the Liberal opposition. Orchestrating this spectacle behind the scenes was Kilfoyle, who bragged that he was there to stop the appointments. So, instead of Frank and myself signing-on for work at the council offices the following Monday, we signed-on at the dole. The blacklist was alive and well in Liverpool. The outrageous had become the norm. Councillors who had attracted massive support at the ballot box and in demonstrations became outcasts in their own city.


The charges brought against the Liverpool Labour Party were Salem-like in their ludicrousness: there were too many people at meetings; there were two vice-presidents; international subjects were discussed at Labour Party meetings; councillors were 'unreasonably' accountable to the party; the party's executive replied to debates; there were two lists for city council candidates. The NEC ignored the fact that all of these practices had existed for years, if not decades, and had been approved by the NEC.

To give substance to the unreal charges, the poisonous assertion was made that the left maintained its influence by 'intimidation', a catch-all word used to besmirch Militant and the left generally. No specific charge was made against any individual. Every witness making such allegations was anonymous. No victim of intimidation was identified, nor any evidence produced. It was akin to the 'spectral evident' used in the Salem witch-hunt which meant that the spirit of the accused could commit the devil's work, even though they may be at home in bed at the time.

The result of the witch-hunt is the virtual disappearance of the Labour Party as a social and political force in Liverpool today. The Liberal Democrats, who have handed power to unelected, highly-paid officers, are firmly in control of the council. Labour has been reduced to a rump. Viewing Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and reading these essays, can shed some light on the processes behind this debacle.

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