The ACLU's Communist origins

The origins of the American Civil Liberties Union are deeply entangled with Communism. Not the idealistic “liberals in a hurry” stuff of fellow-travelling fairy tale, but the bloody-minded sedition and revolutionary terror of hard historical reality.


[ACLU founder Roger] Baldwin’s radicalism caught the eye of the FBI, which quoted him in a 1924 report as having said: “The right to advocate a violent revolution, assassination, and proletarian Red guard, are all clearly within scope of free speech …”

The ACLU founder traveled to Stalin’s Russia in 1927 and wrote a book titled “Liberty Under The Soviets” the following year, which defended the Lenin’s and Stalin’s repression of dissent because they “are weapons in the transition to socialism.”

To Baldwin’s credit, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, “the modern age in arms,” shook him out of his ideological stupor and he repudiated Communism: more than that he successfully pushed the ACLU to expel open Communists, a brave move that alienated many of his colleagues, provoking several of them to resign from the organization.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, liberal academics, faced with the spectacle of Red Scares and McCarthyism, would fan out across the land, examining American opinion on political dissent with a touch of trepidation. Usually their findings would scandalize them. They would learn, for instance, that firm supermajorities of Americans, if asked, would happily forbid Communists from teaching in public schools and their books from appearing in public libraries. Or they might uncover in horror the fact that few Americans suffer pangs of conscience at government loyalty oaths. The great Cold War theorist and wit Willmoore Kendall, in the course of examining this amusing phenomenon, referred to “a very favorite book of mine that I like to call Sam Stouffer Discovers America, though it was published under the title Civil Liberties, Communism, and Conformity.”


In truth the common Americans, as usual, had a lot more sense than the liberal academics. They possessed a native intuition about the character of Communism, and its capacity to disarm the vaunted skepticism of the Left, which left them mistrustful of the whole business. They wisely observed the peculiar innocence of the Left on these subjects. So alert for the concentration of power in traditional institutions, liberals and Leftists would begin rocking like quiet babes the moment a concentration of political or even revolutionary power adopted a proletarian guise. Attach a “people’s republic” title to even the dreariest tyranny, and hosts of Leftists would flock to the tyranny’s defense.

It is always instructive in these cases to reflect on the reaction that would ensue upon the discovery that a prominent right-wing organization had been founded by Nazi sympathizers. No great feat of imagination is required to envision the consequent chorus of denunciation.

I do not expect any chorus of denunciation for these old ACLU commies.


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