Hammett’s Red Harvest

The plot of Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, plays out, in a microcosm, for larger events in the U.S. What starts the main sequence of events in the book is a fear of communism – or more specifically, fear of unionization – the fear that workers will start asking for their rights with one, unified voice.

(One could question whether this is a real fear of communism or a ploy of the wealthy and powerful in order to guard against threats to their power, but that is another discussion.)

In Red Harvest, to avoid such a catastrophe of worker rights, the big guys enlist strongmen to break the unions and the workers, and it quickly becomes a case where the cure is worse than the disease. The empowered thugs now want a piece (or more) of the power they cleared for the big guys.

It seems we are always finding new devils for deals. For example – and stay with me on this – the U.S. pardons General Shiro Ishii and other physicians at Unit 731, where the Japanese tested deadly biological agents on living human subjects before and during WWII,  because we were afraid the communists would get ahead of us in developing bioweaponry. Ishii should have never seen sunshine again, but we gave him immunity because we wanted that forbidden knowledge.

History is replete with such examples where our fear of communism has overcome reason, morality, and human decency and led us to support goons, thugs, and dictators. And the town in Red Harvest comes to embody the moral corruption of its leaders – and to the extent that it infects visitors – and make them all “blood-simple.”

It’s amazing what a little fear of communism and socialism will motivate people to do – and how it can convince some to abandon what few scruples they might have left in their character and do some truly evil shit. And it’s a great way to excuse any behavior. That’s why it has never left the playbook of the world’s fearmongers.


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