Friday, March 16, 2007

Scary Reds
Maimon Schwarzschild

Fascinating review by David Bernstein of Martin Redish's book - "The Logic of Persecution" - on the prosecution and blacklisting of Communists in the US in the 1940s and 1950s.  Bernstein's review is published in the Northwestern Law Review, and posted here.

Bernstein summarises:

This is a review essay of Martin Redish, "The Logic of Persecution." The book wades into the debate over the legacy of the anti-Communism of the late 1940s and 1950s. Its unique contribution is to approach this controversy from the perspective of First Amendment theory, taking into account recent evidence that the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) was the American arm of the Stalinist Soviet enemy, and was heavily implicated in espionage against the United States.

Part I of this review discusses the Smith Act prosecutions, in which CPUSA leaders were prosecuted for promoting violent revolution against the government. This reviewer agrees with Redish's conclusion that the prosecutions were unconstitutional. However, in judging the Smith Act prosecutions, historians may consider not only constitutional issues, but the moral status of the defendants; whether freedom of expression suffered any lasting harm; and whether the goal of destroying the CPUSA's usefulness to the USSR for espionage was, in context, a particularly important one.

Part II of this review evaluates the infamous blacklist by Hollywood movie studios of members of the CPUSA. Redish concludes, and this reviewer agrees, it was entirely appropriate - under the First Amendment, and also morally - for businesses and individuals to boycott members of the Stalinist CPUSA.

Finally, Part III of this review discusses whether state and local governments acted within their constitutional authority in refusing to hire CPUSA members as teachers. Redish concludes that school authorities did not violate the First Amendment when they excluded devoted Communists from teaching classes in subject areas that required teachers to pass along a liberal democratic perspective to their students. Part III reviews some objections to Redish's conclusion, and suggests that monitoring compliance with the assigned curriculum would have been an alternative means of accomplishing the government's agenda.

Bernstein's review is exceptionally thoughtful and nuanced.  Bernstein also offers fascinating facts.  For instance: some of the first prosecutions under the Smith Act were against Trotskyists, brought during the FDR administration.  These prosecutions were enthusiastically applauded and actually assisted by the American Communist Party.

More importantly, Bernstein concludes that the Smith Act prosecutions, and even the private anti-Communist boycotts during the 1950s, significantly weakened Soviet espionage in the US: espionage which had produced crucial gains for Stalin - including atomic secrets - and which had relied heavily on American Communists as agents.

Will the evidence that Bernstein cites affect the sneers at the "Red scare" that now prevail in the American academy and elsewhere?

Many of the 'revisionists' who have consistently sympathized with the Communists remain "in denial."  The Comintern and Venona documents have not modified their sympathies, nor tempered their denunciation of anti-Communism. If revelations that the CPUSA was controlled from Moscow; that it facilitated espionage against the United States; that its members unhesitatingly apologized for Stalin and his crimes, and that they followed Party orders in their professional and personal lives, have not been sufficient to fundamentally change these historians’ interpretation of the period, what hope does a book on the First Amendment have?

Read the whole thing.  (Scroll down beyond Bernstein's "Abstract" and you can download the full text.)

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Maimon Schwarzschild


I'm an old fart and many of my friends (mentors) were Communists in the Screen Actors Guild in 1956. I'm talking post Hollywood Ten, John Howard Lawson (wirters guild) was a known asshole Soviet agent (and CP enforcer) by the time I arrived in town.

There is no way the do-gooder idealist bunch of not too bright Commies that I knew had even the slightest idea that they were acting in accordance with orders from Moscow. They were outraged at the accusation and honestly, these boobs has no clue. I think you have to differentiate between the Communists of the 1930s (Group Theater-WPA-Abraham Lincoln Brigade), hard core guys who actually "studied" communism, and the Post War guys. None of the Post War people I knew read Das Kapital, or the other stuff. They believed in dialectic materialism, the inevitability of the eventual socialist state, but they were the what we now call typical credit card liberals, no more capable of actually taking action than were the John Birch Society people. In fact, if there was a fight I doubt any had the guts to swing a punch. The 30s guys on the other hand were always ready to brawl, were active in labor union organizing all over the state, and were BTW, major war heroes with medals up the ying yang. I'd differentiate clearly between the two groups.

Posted by: Duke | Mar 16, 2007 9:00:57 AM

"major war heroes": but then you presumably didn't see the behaviour seen in Britain, where the communists actively opposed the war, fomented strikes and so on, until Hitler turned on the USSR. Suddenly they were pro-war.

Posted by: dearieme | Mar 16, 2007 4:54:22 PM