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Sunday, August 13, 2006

The National Lawyers Guild 1937-1984 (and beyond)
Gail Heriot

I picked up an old book about the history of the National Lawyers Guild recently.  I'm not sure why, but I'm fascinated with the Ossified Left.  They remind me that there really are people who used to (and some at least apparently still do) believe very scary things.

Lots of young lawyers today have never heard of the NLG.  It's been a long time since its heyday.  But when I first started law school in the late 1970s, I used to hear a lot about them.  I thought of myself as a liberal then, so when I first saw their advertisements for new members, I thought maybe I should join them.  I soon learned these guys were not your average, everyday Democrats.  Their idea of a good leader wasn't Hubert Humphrey (let alone one of my Democratic heroes like Scoop Jackson, George Meany or Daniel Patrick Moynihan).  They preferred Fidel.  I figured I wouldn't fit in.

The book--written by two NLG leaders--freely admits that the NLG leadership was for many decades largely Marxist.  That doesn't seem to be a problem for them.  They discuss an incident early in the NLG's history that to my mind at least defined the organization for many years to come: 

In 1939, some liberal members became concerned that the NLG was attracting a lot of Stalinists.  As the news from the Soviet Union became more and more frightening, they decided that the NLG really should disassociate itself from what was going on there and the effects it was having here in America.  They proposed a resolution that read,"The National Lawyers Guild is deeply concerned at this time with the organized attacks which are being made in this country upon the fundamentals of our democratic processes.  We therefore reaffirm our faith in the Bill of Rights, in freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religious worship.  We are opposed to dictatorship of any kind, whether Left or Right, whether Fascist, Nazi or Communistic."

It didn't pass.   Some members complained that it was "a form of red-baiting."  Others complained that the resolution wasn't sufficiently inclusive--to use the modern jargon.  As a result, many liberals abandoned the NLG, leaving it largely to hard left, which dominated the group for the rest of its history.

As a result, the late 1980s and the 1990s were largely wilderness years for the NLG.  They'd spent decades insisting that Amerian Cold War policy was the leading cause of unhappiness in the world.  Then they woke up one morning and the Berlin Wall had fallen.  During the 1990s, I never heard a word about them.  The Left on law school campuses was represented by identity politics groups, which were often more booster groups than anything else. 

Judging from its web site, the NLG is enjoying something of a resurgence.  I think they've even got a chapter here at USD now (while as far as know the liberal American Constitutional Society doesn't). Maybe the NLG has changed.  But I doubt it.  From where I'm sitting it looks like just another part of Kos-ification of the left half of the political spectrum.

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Gail Heriot

» The National Lawyers Guild - Then and Now: from The Volokh Conspiracy
On The Right Coast, Gail Heriot reflects on the past and present of the National Lawyers Guild. The NLG's hist... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2006 6:45:13 AM


Why do you guys feel compelled to pick on the left, wounded as it is, when we have a set of right wing nuts running the White House, supported by a Republican Party that has moved to the comical right in the past two decades? Don't you think, given the disaster this has produced, and the inequality we are suffering, that a little bit of class struggle would be a good thing?

Posted by: ANON. | Aug 14, 2006 5:16:27 PM

The current administration only looks right-wing when viewed from the increasingly approaching the end of the spectrum Left. Bush certainly leans right, but he is not in actuality very far to the right.

Posted by: krm | Aug 15, 2006 6:12:56 PM

At least at UCLA when I was there a few years ago, the NLG hadn't changed.

Apart from dominating the school's so-called "public" interest program, the NLG's most notable thing during my time was a particularly angry reaction to the conviction of Lynn Stewart, complete with posters and a table with the ubiquitous petition.

If I recall, they were also involved in the "Free the Cuba Five!" movement.

So yeah, passing information from terrorist leaders to their agents? That's zealous advocacy! The arrest and prosecution of spies of a hostile foreign power operating in the United States? That's racism and persecution of an enlightened People's(TM) Paradise!

UCLA had a chapter of ACS, so perhaps that gave room to NLG to be more radical than elsewhere, however.

Posted by: UCLA Alum | Aug 16, 2006 6:56:40 AM

in re: "Kos-ification"
You've a bit confused about what constitutes the 'left', or you're only interested in relative terms; in which case, yes, James Webb is a Stalinist.

Posted by: s.e. | Aug 16, 2006 7:22:15 AM

American Bar Association looks more and more like a NLG wannabee. Its stacked commissions on Presidential signing statements, judicial nominees and law school diversity accreditation, and the mindless rubber-stamping of those commissions by the delegates, would do NLG proud.

Posted by: PRIM | Aug 17, 2006 8:07:55 AM

American Bar Association looks more and more like a NLG wannabee. Its stacked commissions on Presidential signing statements, judicial nominees and law school diversity accreditation, and the mindless rubber-stamping of those commissions by the delegates, would do NLG proud.

Posted by: PRIM | Aug 17, 2006 8:08:36 AM

All this post reflects is (1) a right-leaning ideological perspective that stands in such fear of ideas that challenge it, that (2) through blinders and/or being so out of touch with reality as to neglect 96% of the truth about what the NLG stands for, why the people in it support it, and why there it is so popular today.

Recall, the National Lawyers Guild started as a protest against the ABA refusing to admit lawyers of color to be members and to further the rights of persons over property. Incredibly radical huh?

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