Who is Malcolm Harris?

Yesterday we examined a recent New Republic piece in which a writer named Malcolm Harris, who’s connected with an online rag called New Inquiry, strove to pull off a one-man rehabilitation of Communism.

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A photo from the Times profile of New Inquiry (Harris is not in the picture)

Who, we wondered, is this audacious fool? And what, for that matter, is New Inquiry? Well, the New York Times provided an answer to the latter question back in November 2011, when (for reasons we cannot begin to fathom) it ran a full-length profile of the “scrappy” Upper East Side “literary salon” cum online journal whose members, all recent college grads, uniformly came off as obnoxious, privileged brats. One of them whined about not getting a job “at a boutique literary agency”; another (“an aspiring novelist who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2009”) resented having to work at a real job (sweeping movie theaters); yet another had actually secured a job at the New Yorker only to walk away from it in boredom. Harris, then 22, was described as a young man who’d been “sifting through grad-school rejection notices a year ago” but had since “written for N + 1 and Utne Reader.”

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Malcolm Harris

The Times didn’t mention it, but to many observers Harris is best known not an aspiring littérateur but as an early leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In a September 2012 postmortem on OWS, Mark Ames, a veteran of MSNBC and The Nation – in other words, a solid left-winger – waxed cynical about the movement, whose failures he attributed largely to Harris, whom he mocked as a self-seeking “twenty-something hipster” and poster boy for a certain “brand of marketing-concocted ‘anarchism.’” Wrote Ames: “one look at Malcolm Harris – his anarcho-hipster sneer, his marketing-guy hipster glasses – and you’ll be reaching for the nearest can of pepper spray.”

10/10/11 New York Broadway and Liberty AV . .A protest on Wall Street is in 4 weeks, with more people showing up every day. The group is still working on its message, and it doesn't really have any demands. But the protesters say they are tired of struggling to make a living while the big banks get help from the government. Original Filename: Wall st Protest 21.JPG
OWS, October 2011

Ames provided some bio: Harris’s father was a “Silicon Valley corporate lawyer turned State Department diplomat.” As for Harris himself, he “was one of the very first to capitalize on the marketing possibilities of Occupy, and how he might exploit the marketing and messaging to quickly build his own brand.” Only a month after OWS got off the ground, it turns out, Harris signed up with a speakers’ agency; when a California branch of the movement, Occupy Redlands, asked him to come address its members, Harris’s agent replied “that if they wanted to hear Malcolm Harris talk about anarchism and the 99%, they’d have to pay him a $5,000 speaking fee. Not including travel and hotel expenses.” The news that an OWS “anarchist” was trying to squeeze five-grand payments out of allied groups around the country spread like wildfire, apparently, and did not exactly make Harris a movement hero.

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Harris in court, December 2012

Then came the lawsuit. In December 2012, after denying for over a year that he and other OWS activists hadn’t been warned by police to stay off the Brooklyn Bridge during an October 1, 2011, march – and hinting through his lawyer that, on the contrary, police had deliberately lured protesters onto the bridge – Harris’s own tweets from that day, which he’d fought to keep secret but which Twitter had provided to the court, showed that he was lying. Facing trial on a charge of disorderly conduct, he pleaded guilty. Even his lawyer was reprimanded for having played fast and loose with the facts.

Harris has continued writing prolifically – and in a thoroughly predictable vein. In January he contributed an article to Al Jazeera’s website entitled “Wealthy Cabals Run America”; in February the same site ran a piece of his entitled “Hooray for Cultural Marxism.” He’s also contributed plenty of articles to Jacobin, “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” That there are nasty corners of the Internet prepared to give space to this mendacious young stooge is hardly surprising; but it’s depressing that The New Republic, once known for its staunch liberal anti-Communism, should welcome him into its pages.

Malcolm Harris’s Soviet nostalgia

Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris sits in the courtroom before a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court stemming from his arrest in a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Malcolm Harris

In late April, the New Republic – which until recently was the flagship of liberal anti-Communism in America – published a reprehensible piece, “Who’s Afraid of Communism?,” by Malcolm Harris, a young editor at a website called New Inquiry and a frequent contributor to Al-Jazeera. The essay, an apologia for Communism, began with Harris mocking Hillary Clinton for her praise of NATO, which she’d called “the most successful military alliance in probably human history.” Harris dismissed this as “a bizarre assertion,” maintaining that NATO has only conducted a few “major military operations.” How, then, he sneered, could it be called successful?

Um, how about its four decades of success at keeping the USSR from overrunning western Europe as it had eastern Europe?

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But don’t tell Harris anything negative about the Soviets. He’s quick to remind us that in World War II the USSR “lost the most people, 50 times as many as America did.” He doesn’t mention that while members of the Red Army were fighting to defend their own homeland after it was invaded by Hilter (prior to which their own dictator, Stalin, had been allied with Hitler), America, by contrast, was fighting to rescue fellow democracies from totalitarian conquest by Germany – and, after the war, joined with those democracies in NATO to prevent totalitarian conquest by the USSR.

It’s outrageous to even have to remind anyone of these facts.

Lenin_CLHarris does at least admit that it was America that won the Cold War. But for him, what won was not democracy but capitalism, that ugly thing. For Harris, the USSR was not truly an evil empire but a “bogeym[a]n.” For Harris, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War wasn’t a matter of the U.S. feeling compelled to align itself with certain less-than-admirable authoritarian regimes in the cause of long-term victory over a far worse totalitarian enemy; no, it was a matter of the US being the villain, and the USSR the hero, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. For Harris, not only were the Soviets heroic, but American Communists were, too, in the fight against Jim Crow; ditto Cuban Communists, in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. To view things in any other way, claimed Harris, was sheer “bullshit” – an attempt to continue to repress the glorious “story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy.”

maoNone of this would matter, of course, except that – as Harris himself points out – his own perverse view of things is widely shared among young Americans today. “A new poll of adults under 30,” he wrote, “found that 51 percent ‘do not support capitalism.’” A disproportionate number of those who showed up to cheer socialist Bernie Sanders at his rallies were quite young indeed. What young Americans need, Harris insisted at the conclusion of his piece, is “a more nuanced version of the Cold War narrative.” No. These are kids who’ve already been sold a whitewashed picture of Communism by the media, their schoolteachers, and their college professors; what they desperately need is a thorough, honest education in its barbaric history.