Brow Beat

Sanders Democrats Have Forgotten the Lessons of the 1919 Propaganda Film Bolshevism on Trial

A magazine ad for Bolshevism on Trial, showing a Bolshevik trapping a worker in his web of deceit.
Better dead (from insulin rationing) than red.
Select Pictures Corporation

Bernie Sanders has won the Nevada Caucuses, and rank-and-file Democrats who responded to the senator’s far-fetched “maybe things could be a little bit less awful” platform have once again exposed themselves as pie-in-the-sky idealists who have failed to learn the lessons of history. Specifically, they have failed to learn the lessons of the 1919 propaganda film Bolshevism on Trial, a searing portrait of the threat our beloved center-right nation faces from the twin evils of socialism and no-fault divorce. If the party leadership once again fails to protect Democratic voters from their own policy preferences, we could be headed towards a repeat of the disastrous presidential election of 1920, when the starry-eyed revolutionaries on the James M. Cox / Franklin D. Roosevelt ticket got their newfangled electric clocks cleaned by Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. (Imagine what Roosevelt might have accomplished if he hadn’t foolishly derailed his career!) Senator Sanders’ supporters must reckon with the specter of the 1920 electoral map, or we could be headed for a nightmare scenario in which the Democrats’ foolhardy embrace of socialism allows Donald Trump, like Harding before him, to carry 37 out of all 48 states!

To people who aren’t experts in analyzing the American political scene, it might seem misguided to base one’s entire worldview on a single presidential election that happened decades ago, much less assume that propaganda created to convince voters whose primary electoral concern was “I would prefer not to die from the Spanish Influenza” might be any less effective today. But what this analysis fails to consider is that I first encountered Bolshevism on Trial at a very impressionable age! And although it’s true that director Harley Knoles’ other movies—Miss Petticoats, Oh, Baby!, Wanted: A Mother, et al—might not command the audiences they once did, Knoles also directed the lost, silent 1918 adaptation of Little Women, which means he basically has the same cultural credibility with young voters as Greta Gerwig. Pitting Bernie Sanders against a cultural juggernaut like the Mayflower Photoplay Company of Boston, Massachusetts is a surefire way to convince young voters to stay home and hand the election to Donald Trump.

Pundits who parrot tired talking points like “Bolshevism on Trial is a mediocre work of filmmaking from more than a century ago that should have no more relevance to contemporary politics than The Knickerbocker Buckaroo, a film from the same year in which Douglas Fairbanks plays a society swell who gets mistaken for a Mexican bandit” are being disingenuous. Granted, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo’s legacy did not endure, and neither did my editorial “The Legacy of The Knickerbocker Buckaroo Will Endure Forever,” or my book “The Knickerbocker Buckaroo” Will Never, Ever Be Any Less Relevant as a Work of Political Analysis Than It Is Today and I’ll Stake My Entire Reputation on It. But Bolshevism on Trial is the movie that the Jennings Daily Times-Record of Jennings, Louisiana famously proclaimed “the timeliest picture ever screened” on June 3, 1919! That kind of cachet doesn’t just die out, like the generations of voters who took its message to heart. The party needs a positive message for the twenty-first century, and what message could be more positive than, “We should be running scared?”

What critics of Bolshevism on Trial don’t realize is that the film’s timeless story still resonates deeply with the American public. Do Sanders supporters expect us to believe that rank-and-file Democrats don’t see themselves in the character of Norman Bradshaw, the son of a wealthy industrialist who returns from fighting the Kaiser only to discover that his girlfriend, the “orphan daughter of a famous family,” has joined the Reds and is giving an address at Comrades’ Hall? The American people are not easily fooled, and they are not deaf to the way wild promises like, “maybe we shouldn’t make other people ration insulin until they die” echo the revolutionaries in Bolshevism on Trial and their demonic plan to turn an abandoned resort in Florida into a free-love forced-labor camp. Attempts to muddy the issue by demonizing job creators like Bolshevism on Trial’s Colonel Bradshaw will fail in the face of the intertitle that introduces him, a campaign-consultant-friendly bulleted list of reasons not to be mad at rich people that will no doubt appear in a Michael Bloomberg ad before this is all over:

Colonel Henry Bradshaw, a brain worker, whose inventions have

—increased the comfort of his generation

—created work for thousands of employees

—brought wealth to himself

Bolshevism on Trial also offers plenty for voters who don’t see themselves becoming “brain workers” anytime soon. What white working-class voter in Michigan or Pennsylvania doesn’t relate to Tom Mooney, “Norman’s chauffeur and friend—very handy with his knuckles,” who relocates to Florida swampland at the drop of a hat to engage in vigorous fisticuffs with anyone who dares speak ill of his boss’s kid? What’s more, anyone making the dubious claim that minorities aren’t very sympathetic to defenders of the status quo will have to reckon with the character of Saka, a Native American friend of Norman’s who seems to be employed as his gardener and turns down socialist pipe dreams with folksy wisdom like, “Indian must feed self—must plant—hunt—or die. White man same.” In fact, it is Saka who ultimately saves Norman from the perils of communism, by sending his father a telegram reading “HEAP BIG TROUBLE ON ISLAND,” which prompts the United States Marines to invade. Is the Democratic Party no longer the natural home for people of color whose lived experience has given them an abiding love of calling for United States military intervention by telegram? There’s simply no way of anticipating how many voters just like Norman, Tom, and Saka will turn out in the general election, so the only rational strategy for the Democrats is to pick a candidate that will be acceptable to these hypothetical fictional voters featured in a silent film released in 1919.

But nothing I can tell you about the way Bolshevism on Trial proves that the Democratic Party must nominate a crypto-Republican in 2020 can possibly compare to the experience of watching the movie for yourself. Brace yourself for a sobering look at the kind of opposition research Donald Trump would be able to unleash against Bernie Sanders in a general election:

Utterly convincing, and utterly devastating to the naïve Democrats who believe that we should nominate a presidential candidate who wants to improve things, somewhat. But if you still don’t think that the political vision presented in a propaganda film from a century ago should be the deciding factor in this year’s primaries, consider this: Bolshevism on Trial was adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s book Comrades: A Story of Social Adventure in California. Normally, a novel from a long-dead white supremacist would be a strange place to define the ideological boundaries of a 21st century left-wing political party, but Dixon also wrote The Clansman, the book that became The Birth of a Nation and was responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and an ensuing wave of racially-motivated murder, terrorism, and misery. Whatever else you can say about the man personally—and you can say plenty, as long as you aren’t drawing any conclusions from those things—it’s hard to argue that Dixon didn’t instinctively understand the character of the American people. Why would we ever aim for anything better?