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The ACLU, Communists, and Private Organizations:

One of the great things about blogging is that you don't need a news hook; you can write about whatever catches your eye. This post is about one such item, which I think is emblematic of three not uncommon errors in some liberal circles: A tendency to overextend constitutional norms from government action to private action; a tendency to overlabel action as McCarthyism or close to it; and a tendency to miss the real threat that Communism posed in its heyday.

It turns out (I didn't know this until last year) that in 1940, the ACLU formally barred Communists from leadership or staff positions, and either then or later took the position that it didn't even want them as members. And it also turns out that many people, including at least one First Amendment scholar whose work I much admire, have since then faulted the ACLU for this, calling it a sign of "falter[ing]" in an "organization[] dedicated to the protection of civil liberties." (In the late 1960s, there was even a strong internal ACLU movement to remove this bar, on the grounds that it was wrong from the outset.) Here are a few thoughts about this.

1. To begin with, an organization genuinely devoted to civil liberties shouldn't want its policy to be guided, even in part, by people who are committed to philosophies that are antithetical to those liberties, such as Communism and fascism. You can be dedicated to protecting Communists' right to speak, even though Communist doctrine dismisses free speech as bourgeois folly. But that doesn't mean that you should want them to help run your group.

2. What's more, this theoretical objection was amply borne out in the ACLU's then fresh history. In the 1930s, there were indeed some Communists, and more Communist sympathizers, in important positions at the ACLU. As one might expect, the Communists tried to bend the ACLU to the party line, for instance by making the ACLU soften its criticism of Communist attempts to violently suppress speech in the U.S.

And why not? Communists really weren't interested in protecting free speech; they were interested in defending Communism and the Soviets. (Joining groups and then influencing them to serve the Party's ends was standard procedure for the Communists, and they were apparently quite good at it.) And on top of that, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the U.S. Communist Party's lockstep move away towards support for Nazi Germany — a position that was rightly anathema even to those who had been blind to Communism's many other sins — the dangers of influence by Communists were even clearer.

3A. On top of that, the ACLU was an organization that sought to change public opinion in favor of civil liberties. It's hard to do that when the public sees you as being under the influence of notorious enemies of liberty. The ACLU had been heavily criticized in the 1930s for this in the press, and a Congressional committee was preparing to criticize them for it further.

Of course, one can condemn organizations that surrender ethical principles for the sake of public relations — that bow to the unjust criticism of outsiders instead of explaining why the criticism was unjust. But here the criticism was in large measure well-founded, both ethically and factually. Ethically, the ACLU had no constitutional, legal, or moral obligation to keep people who adhered to anti-liberty creeds in its councils.

3B. And factually, there had indeed been Communists on the ACLU's board. There were also solid Communist sympathizers: The chairman of its board of directors was thought, even by many in the ACLU, to be in the Communist camp (whether or not he was a party member).

The ACLU's founding director and likely most influential official, Roger Baldwin, had long been an admitted supporter of communism as an economic system, and on balance an apologist for the Soviet Union. Though he criticized the Soviets at times, he had also praised the USSR as on balance a haven for liberty. His true break with the Soviets (which ultimately brought him around to pretty vociferous anti-Communism) came not with Stalin's ascent, not with the Ukrainian famine, not with the Terror and the show trials — he defended the Soviets even after that — but only in 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

On top of that, Baldwin was on the record as having said that his commitment to civil liberties for supposed reactionaries was sheerly instrumental, just a tool for advancing the cause of communism. His struggle for free speech, he said, was just incidental to the class struggle, a useful tactic for furthering communist goals. When the working class took over, the resulting regime should be supported by any means necessary, including dictatorship. Dictatorship and suppression of civil liberties would be necessary to get to a socialist society, so such suppression is justified. That was the position of the founding director of the ACLU.

If you were an impartial observer of the ACLU in the 1930s, would you have trusted its commitment to genuine civil liberties, in the face of such evidence? Even if you accepted that Baldwin had changed his mind in 1939, wouldn't you expect at least some assurance that the ACLU would try to keep Communists from influencing its policy to meet their ends (which in 1940 were pro-Nazi ends as well as pro-Soviet ends)? If you were considering donating money, time, or effort to the ACLU, wouldn't you want to make sure that your donation wasn't diverted (and perverted) into serving the ends of totalitarianism, rather than liberty? It seems to me quite proper for the ACLU, a private ideological organization that had every constitutional, legal, and ethical right to pick and choose its leaders and administrators, to try to offer the public some such assurance.

* * *

Here's what I take away from this case study: First, we should remember that free speech principles affect private groups, especially private ideological groups, differently from the government. The government must hire people without regard to religion, but the Catholic Church may insist that its cardinals not be Protestants. The NAACP need not admit Klansmen. Such groups are entitled to exclude officials and members based on their ideology, in order to protect themselves both from internal subversion — in the sense of undercover diversion of a group to ends that diverge from its underlying purposes — and from justifiable public opprobrium.

Second, we must avoid the Reverse Mussolini Fallacy. That Mussolini made the trains run on time (if he did) isn't reason to like Mussolini; but that you dislike Mussolini isn't reason to dislike trains running on time. That McCarthy condemned Communism (which he often did through wrongful means) doesn't mean that there's McCarthyism — or even a violation of civil libertarian principles — whenever a group condemns Communists, or seeks to exclude them from its councils.

Third, the Communists really were a menace back then, and not just through espionage or plans for violent revolution. They also undermined legitimate groups, trying to turn them into fronts that would serve the Communists' (and to a large extent Stalin's) ends. That would be bad for the country, but it was also bad for the groups, including liberal or socialist groups. The ACLU majority of 1940 deserves praise, not condemnation, for recognizing this threat.

Gordon (mail):
About the only good thing to come out of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of 1939 was that it separated the true Stalinist Communists from the idealists. Anyone who remained a member of the pro-USSR Communist Party after August, 1939 was truly beyond the pale. By then the true nature of the Stalinist regime was evident even to fools, so only knaves would have remained in the Party. And subsequent history has shown that the depravity and evil of Stalinist Communism was much greater than was even well known in 1940.

The ACLU has nothing to apologize for.
9.6.2005 8:02pm
Goober (mail):
Excellent post; I really enjoyed that.

One thing: Be careful that you don't draw from the observation, that free speech principles don't impact private associations the same or to as great a degree as the government, the unwarranted conclusion that free speech principles have no bearing on private associations. Jaycees, etc.

The Catholic Church needn't make a priest out of a Protestant, but the liberties of conscience aren't exhausted by the rights protected under the First Amendment. If my boss fires me from my (non-political) job because I think the war in Iraq is a good or bad idea, or if my book club excludes me because I think free trade amounts to exploitation, or if my softball team doesn't want me coming any more since they found out I'm pro-life, then my boss/club/team has been profoundly disrespectful towards me. And if such shunning is intended to chill my contrarian thinking, or results in the same, then it's hard to see that as divorced from free speech principles, even if the First Amendment has nothing to say about the matter.
9.6.2005 8:12pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail):
That essay puts the argument as well as I have seen it put. Thank you.

If only someone had put it so clearly in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival, we might not have the widespread idiocy we have today.
9.6.2005 8:22pm
Brett Bellmore (mail):
I don't trust the ACLU's commitment to genuine civil liberties today. They may have kicked out the Communists way back when, but today they've surrendered to the gun controllers, whose organizing princple is opposition to a particular civil liberty. It's costing them enormously in terms of popular support, (Compare the ACLU and NRA's membership numbers.) and intellectual integrity; They've even thrown their weight behind the states rights interpretation of the 2nd amendment, long after it was discredited!

Can any person say with confidence that if our other civil liberties stood in the way of attacking gun ownership, that the ACLU even be able to defend them, given the degree to which it's dominated by enemies of that particular civil right? I dare say their dominance of the Union has reached the point where if it came down to a choice between defending the civil liberties the ACLU likes, and attacking this one, it would be the civil libertarians who'd be given the old heave ho.
9.6.2005 8:22pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
My recollection may be mistaken, but I recall that not only was there a movement to reverse the policy of excluding Communists, but that the policy was indeed reversed, and, even worse, the ACLU formally apologized for its past policy. I don't have Samuel Walker's book on the ACLU handy, but this is discussed there (though he agree that it was wrong to exclude the Communists, if I'm remembering correctly).
9.6.2005 8:24pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
I have to agree with Brett that the ACLU is hardly consistent in its purported support for civil liberties and it goes beyond their squishiness on RTKBA. They've been decidedly against freedom of association (which is ironic considering the essay which is the topic of the post) for private groups while at the same time supporting government-mandated racial and gender discrimination. They signed off on supporting campaign finance "reform" which is far more at odds with the First Amendment than banning child pornography in public libraries. I haven't seen them supporting reigning in the commerce clause and also, since their founding, they've been pro-Nanny State and wealth redistribution which no true civil libertarian could support.
9.6.2005 8:38pm
RaiderXL (mail):
Beautiful post Mr. Volokh. The reflexive shriek of "McCarthyism!" whenever a Far Left person/organization is criticized has soiled debate for too long, putting people with reasonable concern on the defensive no matter how legitimate the alarm. Heaven forbid someone mention that groups like International ANSWER and others are arm-in-arm with the current strain of economic and moral illiterates that are keeping socialism on life support mostly by the exploitation of those that don't know any better by those that should, but don't give a flip.

As for the ACLU specifically -- Baldwin wrote as late as 1935 that "Communism is the goal." The expulsion of the more openly extreme (on a scale that only included the extreme) Communists from the ACLU's ranks was a function of political pragmatism -- not a rejection of Stalinism. While the once-fashionable terms the ACLU was previously comfortable about using were exiled to worst-kept secret status, their goals remained the same. Just consider the words of their current Exec. Dir. Anthony Romero who has said that the Constitution is "no longer sufficient" in "protecting our rights." Let's all put on our reality lenses now and recognize that what he means is that the US Constitution has outlived its usefulness as a tool for the ACLU to promote its dark agenda for this nation and that they must now expand their search of places from which to conjure up previously unfathomable "rights."

The most comprehensive account to date of the words, deeds and motives of the most aggressive threat our freedom faces today (that's the ACLU folks) is a book just released last week -- The ACLU vs. America by Alan Sears and Craig Osten of the Alliance Defense Fund. This book, stocked full of direct quotes from the ACLU leadership past and present, its policy guides and legal briefs will challenge even the most faithful "card-carrying member" if read objectively. www.acluvsamerica.com
9.6.2005 8:49pm
Brett Bellmore (mail):
I'm glad the ACLU is "squishy" on the 2nd amendment; If you can't get the sign right, the best you can hope for is a small magnitude. ;)
9.6.2005 8:52pm
Sha_kri:
Excelent article...

however, and this may not be relevant to the true argument of your post, the ACLU has been taken over by people who might as well be communists anyways -they probably are. They interpret rights of the Constitution broadly, except for the 2nd which they interpret as narrowly as they can get away with. The ACLU seems to be making war on Religion...come on, a private citizen cannot put a religious symbol up on public land (non-funded by the state)? A private organization like the Boy Scouts have to hire Homosexual troop leaders?

What the ACLU tried to prevent from happenning in the 30's seems to have happenned.
9.6.2005 9:35pm
David Berke:
Describing the ACLU as the most aggressive threat our freedom faces today is the sort of ludicrous and overblown rhetoric which ultimately costs one all credibility.
9.6.2005 9:56pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Just curious... who would you give top honors to, David? Osama may take our lives, but he will never take our freedom and all that jazz. There are probably people here who will reflexively say Karl Rove or something...

but seriously. Who?
9.6.2005 10:04pm
chris (mail):
A minor quibble:

Eugene writes "That Mussolini made the trains run on time (if he did) isn't reason to like Mussolini."

This seems just wrong. That is, on the ledger of good and bad points of a man, getting the trains to run on time goes in the plus column. That doesn't mean there aren't a million things in the minus column to outweigh this, but getting the trains to run on time is a good thing. Put differently, and assuming Mussolini did get the trains to run on time, who would you rather have as dictator, Mussolini or a man the same in all respects except that he doesn't make the trains run on time?
9.6.2005 11:16pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
The details have changed, but the ACLU still runs the same nonsense they always have. I don't care what you or anyone else says: if you hate America, you have a friend in the ACLU. I have been around the ACLU as an undergrad and at law school, and the members are all the same: Anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-property rights, and pro-pedophile.

While Bush 41 wasn't a great President, he did on efabulous service for the country: He made it a disgrace to be a card-carrying ACLU member. Maybe not at Manhatttan or San Francisco socialist, er, socialite parties, but pretty much everyone else in America.

I am sure the commenters here will rip me apart. Go ahead. But ask yourself this question: How many of your friends despise the ACLU? If the number is less than 60% or so, then you need to get out of your usual circles and meet new people.
9.6.2005 11:19pm
Mona (mail):
Excellent post Mr. Volokh. The leftists who rant in defense of Communist Party members were/are idiots. To have a CPUSA member in a civil liberties org, a union, or a member of any governmental body is the definition of preposterous. Let us look at what William Z. Foster said the CPUSA was working toward, when he ran for President on their ticket in 1932:

Under the dictatorship [of the proletariat] all the capitalist parties -- Republican, Democrat, Progressive, Socialist, etc. -- will be liquidated, the Communist party functioning alone as the Party of the toiling masses. Likewise, will be dissolved all other organizations that are political props of bourgeois rule, including chambers of commerce, employee's associations, rotary clubs, American Legion, YMCA, and such fraternal orders as the Masons, the Odd Fellows, Elks, Knights of Columbus, etc....The press, the motion picture, the radio, the theater, will be taken over by the government.

Blood and Gulags scream from the CPUSA's goals, and that was always true.
9.6.2005 11:34pm
David Berke:
Daniel,

I'm honest enough to know that I don't know who the greatest threat to our freedoms would be. Nor do I know who the most aggressive threats are(and these are entirely different things).

But, I can say with a fairly high level of certainty that there are those who are more "aggressive threats" to our overall freedom than the ACLU. Perhaps, if you have a certain perspective, you may believe that they are the most likely to succeed in undermining certain freedoms. But to describe them as the most aggressive is pure foolishness when we live in a world where countless people would be all too happy to take away all of our freedoms, and do anything to achieve that goal.

And yes, I also firmly believe that anyone who begins a comment with "I don't care what you or anyone else says" is similarly completely lacking in believability.

This is not about advancing any particular worldview. It is about honesty and reasonableness in public discourse.
9.6.2005 11:38pm
trotsky (mail):
The host writes:


Communists tried to bend the ACLU to the party line, for instance by making the ACLU soften its criticism of Communist attempts to violently suppress speech in the U.S.


I'm curious: Certainly the Communists did plenty of suppressing in their own countries, but when did the Communists try to violently suppress speech in the U.S.?
9.6.2005 11:39pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Most Aggressive Threat to America's Freedom:

The American Association of Retired Persons.

They represent one of the largest voting blocks (and also the most heavily subsidized) and have another 60 million potential new members in the form of the aging baby boom generation. They have fought off any attempt to reign in the three most expensive federal entitlement programs Medicaid (which is bankrupting the States), Medicare and Social Security (which already eats up 40 percent of the budget with a $70 Trillion unfunded liability between them). They managed to get a new addition to Medicare while demanding more, have fought off market-style health care reform, have so-far stopped Social Security reform, and have pushed for greater government control of health care.
9.6.2005 11:40pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
The details have changed, but the ACLU still runs the same nonsense they always have. I don't care what you or anyone else says: if you hate America, you have a friend in the ACLU. I have been around the ACLU as an undergrad and at law school, and the members are all the same: Anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-property rights, and pro-pedophile.

As someone who defends the right of the members of the BSA or any other private group ("public accomidations" nonsense be damned) to set their own membership requirements, the "pro-pedophile" comment is out of line.
9.6.2005 11:43pm
Bleepless (mail):
Not only was ACLU's policy on Communists changed but, even before that, the ACLU lobbyist in a certain Western state was a CP activist. This even made the newspaper.
9.6.2005 11:51pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Brian G writes:

if you hate America, you have a friend in the ACLU. I have been around the ACLU as an undergrad and at law school, and the members are all the same: Anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-property rights, and pro-pedophile.

I'm an ACLU member, and I am no friend to anyone who hates this country. I also do not fit into any of the pigeonholes into which Brian G says I must. I know a reasonable number of other members and, though I have not polled them on these particular issues, I have seen no evidence that any of them fits into any of these categories.

Brian G strikes me as someone who will not change his mind under any circumstances, but I'm curious to know whether other readers share his extreme perspective on the ACLU.
9.6.2005 11:54pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
I can understand your argument in regards to leadership positions, but I think it carries a bit less weight when applied to staff or membership positions. It seems like the most powerful argument here is about the ACLU's principles being subverted (given that they are, in some ways at least, classical liberal principles) by putting people in charge whose ideology is directly opposed to those principles. But might we not still say that it is ethically consistent for the ACLU to invite as members, and staff anyone willing to follow the organization's lead in pushing for those principles? IE, isn't that more consistent with a toleration of opposing viewpoints so long as the people who espouse them don't violate the core rules of the organization (in this case a willingness to support liberty)?

In this case it seems that the ACLU might be accused of some measure of hypocrisy if they are taken to hold a position for toleration. Their argument for tolerating Marxists would be that even if Marxists officially espouse principles opposed to the constitution they should be tolerated, unless they actually break laws or acquire power and try to subvert the constitution. Similarly, if we take the mandate of the organization to be to make all effort twoards protecting the constitution, it's consistent in that framework to accept members so long as they continue to even handedly support the constitution. Members in leadership roles who are communist might be presumed to be crossing that line, but certainly a card carying ACLU member who does little more than cary the card is not endangering that objective merely by being a communist.
9.7.2005 12:02am
D. Fox (mail):
Mr. Benson &mdash

1. Communists aren't exactly known for their "willingness to support liberty." A Communist who sincerely did support liberty and the Constitution would have been extremely inconsistent. The ACLU was surely justified in presuming that a person who espoused a totalitarian ideology is not willing to support liberty.

2. A person who was a Communist but claimed to support liberty might not be inconsistent-but-sincere; he might be disingenuous. (Communists aren't known for their honesty either.) The ACLU would have especially strong reasons for not wanting such a person in its ranks.

3. In either case, how would you suggest that the ACLU determine whether individual rank-and-file members supported the Constituion or not? A private organization, lacking police or subpoena powers, wouldn't be in the best position to conduct such investigations.

4. Even if this could be done reliably, why go to the trouble? Would the inconsistent-but-sincere, card-carrying yet Constituion-supporting Commie &mdash always assuming that such people even exist &mdash be a valuable ACLU member? Valuable enough, and common enough, to justify a number of individual investigations?

So why shouldn't the ACLU have used CPUSA membership as a proxy for opposition to liberty?
9.7.2005 12:34am
ex-aclu-admirer:
I echo what others have said re the ACLU's lack of support for the 2d Amdt and for the 1st in select areas. On the latter, I'd point to their lack-of-support, and often opposition to, those who speak from a pro-life standpoint. Even if the pro-lifer accepts the pro-choice LEGAL framework, and wishes only to encourage people to use their legal choice to "choose life" instead, that pro-lifer might run afoul of some "bubble" law that says that even perfectly nonviolent, silent sign-holding is forbidden near a clinic -- a totally content-based suppression of one type of speech. I think the ACLU would be much louder if a state passed a law forbidding only enviro-protesters outside certain companies, or forbidding only death-penalty opponents (but not supporters) outside the prison, etc. But for pro-life speech, suppression is hunky-dory, lest it lead anyone to question Abortion, the Secular Sacrament.

I would gladly support a free-speech organization that truly supported ALL speakers, even Nazis, and even -- gasp -- pro-lifers.
9.7.2005 12:48am
Thrax (mail):
The ACLU opposed McCain-Feingold.

The ACLU has sued to defend the rights of anti-abortion protesters.

The ACLU has defended a church that a city was trying to eliminate with zoning laws and forced a park manager to allow a Baptist group to perform baptisms in public parks.

They teamed up with Jerry Falwell to challenge a provision of the Virginia Constitution that prevented religious groups from incorporating.

Sure. The ACLU is just a tool of the secular left. Have fun believing that.
9.7.2005 1:18am
Mike Rentner (mail) (www):
I think it's rather naive to believe that the communists were all driven out of the ACLU by a silly rule like the one mentioned here.

Especially after McCarthy and also the HUAC, the communists in this country used the tactic of not promoting their beliefs outright. They used subterfuge to continue pushing their agenda.

I think it's very reasonable to suggest that the ACLU publicly removed CPUSA members from its leadership at the same time that it continued to promote communism.

Not everything the ACLU has done is bad. But the preponderance of what they have done reeks of communist ideology.
9.7.2005 4:28am
Jeroen Wenting:
"(Joining groups and then influencing them to serve the Party's ends was standard procedure for the Communists, and they were apparently quite good at it.)"

They still are good at it.
Don't fall into the trap of believing the myth that communism disappeared after the supposed collapse of the USSR, a collapse the planning of which started under Stalin as a deliberate scheme to lul the capitalist west into believing the USSR was no longer a threat and getting them to disarm.
It could be they got more than they bargained for and now find themselves incapable of recreating their empire for the inevitable battle and victory against the bourgeois capitalist imperialists but I'd rather be prepared anyway.

"I don't trust the ACLU's commitment to genuine civil liberties today. They may have kicked out the Communists way back when, but today they've surrendered to the gun controllers, whose organizing princple is opposition to a particular civil liberty."

Did they really kick them out or did they implement a scheme to allow communists to control the movement underground?
After all, communist infiltrators don't typically carry membership cards to the communist party or openly subscribe to communist magazines and often are very careful to hide their true nature.
I'd not be surprised if the banning of communists was just a ruse to throw sand in the eyes of people who were seeing the obvious and it worked.

"who would you rather have as dictator, Mussolini or a man the same in all respects except that he doesn't make the trains run on time?"

Anyone who can make the trains run on time must be a miracle worker. I don't trust miracle workers on general principle :)
9.7.2005 4:47am
janon (mail):
Bernstein's post is off-base on two counts. First, it's unfair to characterize the overextension of first amendment rights as an error "in some liberal circles." One of the most prominent overextenders is David Horowitz, a self-described conservative who insists he has a free speech right to have his opposition to reparations for slavery printed for free in college newspapers. He's actually arguing against the free-speech right of the newspaper editors to exercise editorial judgment; his presentation is so poorly argued and illogical that even an editor who agreed with him would be likely to reject it. (Admittedly, the issues are more complicated when it's a state university official newspaper, but if anyone's constitutional rights are being violated there, it's those of students whose mandatory fees support the paper, not Horowitz's.) Another prominent overextender is Bradley Smith, the Holocaust denier -- hardly a liberal -- who convinces those same college newspapers that they have a first-amendment duty to run his ads.

Second, the ACLU's decision to eliminate the ban on communists was a reaction to the flagrant abuses of the McCarthy era. The real guilty parties were McCarthy and his ilk (including Nixon), who, by falsely accusing innocent people, discredited any investigation of the relatively few real Communists who posed a genuine danger.
9.7.2005 8:06am
Daniel Chapman (mail):
All of your links turned up a "this page cannot be found," thrax.
9.7.2005 9:56am
Better Red than Read (mail):
Mr. Volokh,

For what it's worth, you just inspired a lot of respect from me. I had mentioned the Communist background of the ACLU in a half-joking mood, thinking that you might get some pause from it, but ignore the comment and move on with your defense of the ACLU. Instead, you researched the issue, gave serious thought to what it meant for the organization and our freedoms, and formulated a serious response to the connections between the CPUSA and ACLU. I may not agree with what seems to be one of your main points (that the ACLU effectively cleaned its house of reds in the 40's), but I do agree with the very effective argument you made for private ordering of private organizations.

I've got to say, until the ACLU stops serving as Al Qaeda's outside counsel, I probably won't be giving any time or money to the group, but it certainly could do a lot worse than have a man like yourself on its side.
9.7.2005 10:32am
Al Maviva (mail):
As usual, Life Imitates the Onion.

Several Years ago, a classic Onion satire proclaimed "ACLU Defends Rights of Nazis to Burn ACLU Headquarters." I guess there is a grain of truth in all humor... perhaps more than a grain in some cases.
9.7.2005 10:33am
Al Maviva (mail):
Here's the link to that Onion story. Warning - it's not P.C.
9.7.2005 10:36am
AppSocRes (mail):
Just a note: When we mis-state or mis-use a word or phrase, it gives amunition to our opponents, by giving them leverage to portray us as ignorant. The proper phrase is "rein in", as in "reining in a horse", not "reign in": The metaphor refers to restraining not ruling. I'm not trying to be snotty or snide, I just want well-reasoned arguments with which I agree promulgated as effectively as possible. As a conservative, I was delighted when the NYT recently headlined an op-ed piece with a reference to "towing the line", not "toeing the line", an error actually referenced in George Orwell's wonderful essay "Politics and the English Language".
9.7.2005 10:40am
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Fox:

3. In either case, how would you suggest that the ACLU determine whether individual rank-and-file members supported the Constituion or not? A private organization, lacking police or subpoena powers, wouldn't be in the best position to conduct such investigations.

I wouldn't. It seems to me that it's difficult to see what the need is to police the rank and file, so long as one is convinced the leadership has a genuine interest in the goals of the organization. So long as, by virtue of being members, they are signing off on the leadership's position, why bother worrying about their motives? That seems to be consistent with the ACLU's general ethical stance, support those who would subvert the constitution so long as they break no law and don't have the power to actually subvert it.
9.7.2005 11:00am
Seamus (mail):
"As someone who defends the right of the members of the BSA or any other private group ('public accomidations' nonsense be damned) to set their own membership requirements, the 'pro-pedophile; comment is out of line."

As I parse this sentence, the only referent for "someone who defends the right of the members of the BSA" appears to be "the 'pro-pedophile; [sic] comment."
9.7.2005 11:18am
JoeSlater (mail):
To get away from the merits of the current ACLU and back to what I take to be EV's broader point, there is a similar and arguably much more important history of communists in the American labor movement. In the 1950s, the AFL and CIO kicked out unions led by communists. A school of labor history has claimed this was a huge mistake. But personally, as someone very sympathetic to the labor movement, I always found that position problematic and labor's stance in kicking out the communist leaders to be defensible.
9.7.2005 11:36am
Public_Defender:
While Bush 41 wasn't a great President, he did on efabulous service for the country: He made it a disgrace to be a card-carrying ACLU member.


Wrong. I worked for a local branch of the ACLU around that time. Bush 41's remark produced a nationwide surge of new members, all of whom wanted cards they could carry.
9.7.2005 12:44pm
Challenge:
"I wouldn't. It seems to me that it's difficult to see what the need is to police the rank and file, so long as one is convinced the leadership has a genuine interest in the goals of the organization. So long as, by virtue of being members, they are signing off on the leadership's position, why bother worrying about their motives? That seems to be consistent with the ACLU's general ethical stance, support those who would subvert the constitution so long as they break no law and don't have the power to actually subvert it."

If you don't understand the need of the ACLU do publicly renounce Communism and to state that Communists are not welcome in its organization, then you're not familiar with either the history of Communism in America or the history of the ACLU.

Also, advocating the violent overthrow of the government, as the CPUSA did, was made a crime in 1940 in the Smith Act. So your requirement of "breaking the law" is easily met. Though since the late 1950s the Smith Act has been more or less meaningless. That was not the case, however, for the time period in question.
9.7.2005 12:53pm
RaiderXL (mail):
Dearest Thrax--

Marching orders from Roger Baldwin to his vanguard:

"Do steer away from making it look like a Socialist enterprise. Too many people have gotten the idea that it is nine-tenths a Socialist movement. We want to look like patriots in everything we do. We want to get a good lot of flags, talk a good deal about the Constitution and what our forefathers wanted to make of this country."

Now why would Baldwin have to give this sort of direction? It was part of the great deception the ACLU still practices today. Yes, there are a few token cases that they bray about incessantly (Nazis in Skokie -- I don't think I'll be able to hold my lunch down if I hear that again...same thing with the Ranger Manger case, which of course had nothing to do with protecting religious liberty).

Need more on those token cases? Heeeeeeeeeeere's Roger:

"If I aid the reactionaries to get free speech now and then, IF I GO OUTSIDE THE CLASS STRUGGLE to fight censorship, it is only because those liberties help create a more hospitable atmosphere for working class liberties." (Emphasis obviously mine)

One need not have served a Navajo windtalker to know that he meant that carefully chosen token cases would help his organization take down our system of government and advance Communism (heeeeeeeeello -- "working class liberties?"). The record is clear sir...the ACLU has attacked our most cherished institutions for eight and a half decades -- not out of a love for our country, but to promote an extremist agenda. To answer another contributor -- this is what makes them THE MOST aggressive threat to our liberties. While other radical organizations have come and gone, the ACLU has managed to avoid real scrutiny and has actually hoodwinked America all the way to the SCOTUS while at the same time undermining America's culture, values, laws and our very sovereignty (see Romero's comments I mention above). Their march continues today, the terms are just different.
9.7.2005 12:56pm
Challenge:
"While Bush 41 wasn't a great President, he did on efabulous service for the country: He made it a disgrace to be a card-carrying ACLU member."

Wrong. I worked for a local branch of the ACLU around that time. Bush 41's remark produced a nationwide surge of new members, all of whom wanted cards they could carry.

Again with the non-sequitors....
9.7.2005 12:58pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
If you don't understand the need of the ACLU do publicly renounce Communism and to state that Communists are not welcome in its organization, then you're not familiar with either the history of Communism in America or the history of the ACLU.

I can see the legitimacy of renouncing communism. I don't see the need to say that communists aren't welcome in its membership.
9.7.2005 1:11pm
Joshua (mail):
I've got to say, until the ACLU stops serving as Al Qaeda's outside counsel, I probably won't be giving any time or money to the group, but it certainly could do a lot worse than have a man like yourself on its side.

Interesting that this reference to al Qaeda is the only mention made of the ACLU's present relationship with the Communists of our day, namely Islamists. (Not Muslims, mind you, but Islamists - those who specifically advocate and promote the institution of Islamic law and its expansion worldwide.) Many of Mr. Volokh's observations vis-a-vis the ACLU and Communists circa 1940 raise questions along the same lines vis-a-vis the ACLU and Islamists circa 2005.

For instance, when the ACLU or one of its chapters considers a Muslim for membership, or even for a leadership role, how thoroughly (if at all) do they vet him to ensure that he doesn't have an ideological agenda that's incompatible with promoting civil liberties (in other words, that he's not also an Islamist)? As far as I'm aware, the answer is "not very" (although I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong on this).

Historically the ACLU has made itself out to be a sort of secular "Mother Teresa" figure for defending unpopular people and those with fringe lifestyles and political outlooks. This is all well and good, but only as long as it doesn't trump the mission of promoting civil liberties. By even associating with, much less embracing as members or leaders, totalitarian ideologues, be they Communists, Islamists or what have you, the ACLU is by definition working counter to that purpose, and their public credibility can't help but suffer as a result. [Indeed, in the case of Islamists, the PR risk to the ACLU is a double-whammy: Having Islamists in its ranks would make the ACLU come off as hypocrites, not only for embracing totalitarian ideologues (as was the case with Communists) but also for embracing those utterly opposed to secular government, much less separation of religion and state as the ACLU has long advocated.]
9.7.2005 1:15pm
Thrax (mail):
Three of the links work fine. The other two:

McCain-Feingold.

Defending pro-lifers.

As for RaiderXL: I was responding to the usual tired guff about the ACLU exclusively serving liberal interests. Answer: sure, in cases where liberal interests overlap with the defense of civil liberties. Sometimes they don't, and the ACLU opts for civil liberties in those situations with a pretty high level of consistency. (I'm leaving aside the more obvious objection that defending Nazis' free speech rights, for instance, has really nothing to do with liberals' interests.) As I don't really care what Roger Baldwin said in the '30s, I wasn't addressing those bits of trivia.
9.7.2005 1:44pm
Challenge:
"I don't see the need to say that communists aren't welcome in its membership."

Who founded the ACLU? If the NRA came out tomorrow and said Communists aren't welcome as members that would be stupid and unnecessary. Significant leaders of the ACLU in its early history had strong Communist ties, and a significant amount of the membership came from Communists. Indeed, the ACLU was at least in part formed in response to the anti-Communist "Palmer Raids." Obviously, by 1940 that influence had declined markedly, but clearly the ACLU felt it had to publicly and officially distance themselves from Communists, given their history. In renouncing Communism in 1940 the ACLU was renouncing its past.
9.7.2005 1:48pm
jen (mail):


I think there are many communist influenced ideas on the left. Deconstructionism and rants about mperialism are those borrowed from the hybrid.

But I do not think there is much in the way of the discipline that enabled small cadrs to effectively take over many "front" organizations.

Nor do I think that the hosdge podge of ideas accepted on the left are consistent with basic Marxist influenced ideology of materialism workers etc.

We have a very different being. I will not say that it is not effective, but it is a muddle, it certainly is not in a position to use a small cadre to seize power when a country goes into chaos. Yet this is why the communist party prevailed in so many situations.

I think that the more effective fringes are on the right. They do organize, they do keep many of their odder ideas out of the limelight, but since the fifties they have had very efective tools of propagation. Even in the sixties and seventies they were engaged in more terrorism than the left (according to FBI figures) and certain elements do have considerable influence on the Republican party.

The first line of defence that Repblicans have raised to shift blame for recent disaster response everywhere and anywhere except Republican leadership, the claim that people should be "responsible" (which is true) rapidly becomes tinged with or openly racist in many circles. I have read a number of blog comment sections where this does come out.

I do not claim that racism is intrinisic to rightism or conservatism, only that it is one of the core beliefs of a significant number (millions) of fringe members and that it and many other detestable goals are pursued and developed indirectly with the tactical and strategic skil that once marked the communist party and drove many left leanig organizations to ban them. I also believe that many of these groups do exhibit a high degree of discipline and a number are associated with armed "militias."
9.7.2005 2:29pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Who founded the ACLU? If the NRA came out tomorrow and said Communists aren't welcome as members that would be stupid and unnecessary. Significant leaders of the ACLU in its early history had strong Communist ties, and a significant amount of the membership came from Communists. Indeed, the ACLU was at least in part formed in response to the anti-Communist "Palmer Raids." Obviously, by 1940 that influence had declined markedly, but clearly the ACLU felt it had to publicly and officially distance themselves from Communists, given their history. In renouncing Communism in 1940 the ACLU was renouncing its past.

And this demonstrates the need to state that communists are unwelcome in its membership how exactly? Wouldn't this all be handled nicely by renouncing communism and not allowing communists to take leadership roles?
9.7.2005 2:50pm
Goober (mail):
Thrax and Daniel Chapman----

I think Thrax's browser included some junk text at the beginning of the links. If you delete all the characters up until the second "http:" it should get there.
9.7.2005 2:57pm
David Berke:
RaiderXL,

What is the relevance of stated tactics and goals from 70 years ago when the entity in question just a few years thereafter made a very loud and public disclaimer of such?

Do you really honestly believe that the ACLU is a communist front designed to turn the United States into a communist country?
9.7.2005 3:05pm
Challenge:
Who founded the ACLU? If the NRA came out tomorrow and said Communists aren't welcome as members that would be stupid and unnecessary. Significant leaders of the ACLU in its early history had strong Communist ties, and a significant amount of the membership came from Communists. Indeed, the ACLU was at least in part formed in response to the anti-Communist "Palmer Raids." Obviously, by 1940 that influence had declined markedly, but clearly the ACLU felt it had to publicly and officially distance themselves from Communists, given their history. In renouncing Communism in 1940 the ACLU was renouncing its past.

And this demonstrates the need to state that communists are unwelcome in its membership how exactly? Wouldn't this all be handled nicely by renouncing communism and not allowing communists to take leadership roles?

It's a question of judgment, I guess. Someone might similarly ask why denounce Communism at all? You wrote earlier that aslong as its members are not violating the law, they should be unconcerned. Yet being a faithful Communist necessarily meant you WERE violating the law in 1940.

What if there was an organization which had a racist past. Many of its previous leaders were avowed racists, and much of its membership was comprised of racists. Now, fast forward 20 years and the organization has changed. It is not overtly racist, but society still views with suspicion its many policy goals, which are unrelated to its past. Would it be unreasonable that the organization exclude avowed racists from its membership? Or would the only reasonable step be the obligatory "racism is bad" disclaimer? Which step would demonstrate to you the organization's good faith?
9.7.2005 3:46pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
You wrote earlier that aslong as its members are not violating the law, they should be unconcerned.

No, I didn't. My purpose was to draw an anology. It seems to me that unless the members are engaging in behavior that actively harms the ACLU by subverting its principles (which mere members are unlikely be able to do), that it's ethically consistent for the ACLU to ignore them. What its inconsistent with is their position on political speach. Overall I take the ethical idea to be something like the following:

In general we ought to be as tolerant as we can. We should persecute not for beliefs as such, but only in so far as people actively use those beliefs in ways that are unacceptable.

Furthermore I take the idea to be that this principle is not merely about convenience for pragmatic present day politics (after all that's the problem with a communist cynically deploying the ACLU while at the same time disagreeing with its fundamental principled). Rather, it's considered to be a positive ethical principle, one that is a good idea generally.

Clearly the ACLU and the U.S. at large are very different places to apply this ethical principle. In the U.S. at large the idea I take the ACLU to believe follows from this is freedom of expression. People should not be held legally acountable for being a Marxist, but instead for employing Marxism in illegal ways (like violence).

It seems to me that the most obvious application of this principle in the ACLU itself is to suggest that members and staff need to be willing to work twoards the goals the ACLU follows generally, and that those goals are and must be the preservation of civil liberties. I can see stating that for a leader of the ACLU to regard the ACLU as little more than a front organization for an anti-civil liberties agenda clearly violates this ethical principle, because they are likely to direct the organization in an unbalanced way. BUT it seems to me that staff and member ideas are largely irrelevant, so long as they are willing to continue to support the basic goals the ACLU is persuing. In other words, their ideas themselves don't indicate a threat to the organization as such, and so ought to be tolerated.
9.7.2005 4:21pm
Challenge:
Mr. Benson, I have no idea what you're getting at, but it has escaped me.

The ACLU in its action in 1940 was engaged in a bit of self-preservation. Why they should feel ashamed for excluding Communists, which distanced themselves from the ACLU's questionable origins, is beyond me. It's apparently beyond your comprehension as well, evidenced by your meandering post above about "tolerating" different view points.

I would like for you to take my hypothetical head-on. A formerly racist organization wishes to depart from its past, and in doing so excludes (even purges) members with racist idealogies. Why should anybody condemn this organization for taking this admirable step?
9.7.2005 5:59pm
Allen Asch (mail) (www):
Prof. Volokh wrote:


"Baldwin was on the record as having said that his commitment to civil liberties for supposed reactionaries was sheerly instrumental, just a tool for advancing the cause of communism. His struggle for free speech, he said, was just incidental to the class struggle, a useful tactic for furthering communist goals. When the working class took over, the resulting regime should be supported by any means necessary, including dictatorship. Dictatorship and suppression of civil liberties would be necessary to get to a socialist society, so such suppression is justified. That was the position of the founding director of the ACLU."


I'm wondering if this description of the "position of the founding director of the ACLU" is entirely accurate. I don't see any citations from Prof. Volokh who is usually pretty good about sourcing his assertions. Baldwin was undoubtedly a socialist, but I haven't seen good evidence he was a communist.

I've seen one quote floating around the web which Baldwin purportedly wrote in some kind of Harvard class reunion book in 1935 including the line "communism is the goal," though even the site with the longest version of that quote that I've found contains multiple ellipses, other factual inaccuracies, and is literally written by a guy who also wrote "Why I'm a Right-Wing Extremist."

I also think Baldwin's comments and his socialist beliefs need to be placed in the context of the times. In 1920 when Baldwin founded the ACLU he was a socialist at a time when Eugene Debs was running for President, the Russian Czar had been overthrown just a few years before and the rise of Stalinism was years away. Further, a lot of what was "socialism" in the 1920s became the worker protections and social safety net of FDR's New Deal that even most Republican politicians claim to support today.

And, if Baldwin was a socialist, he was an FDR socialist. In fact, in my opinion, one of the main sources of the national ACLU's mistakes regarding both Korematsu and the "communist purge" came from Baldwin being too close to FDR back before the ACLU has its nonpartisanship policy. I do agree with Prof Volokh's assessment of the ACLU's "communist purge" only to the extent that removing from leadership those with views and ambitions antithetical to the civil liberties purpose of the ACLU was a good goal.

Using mere membership in a "totalitarian organization" as the criterion to achieve that goal, however, was the mistake. People join groups for a variety of reasons and, though I've never believed in communism, I think I can understand why some good people went that way, particularly before the evils of Stalinism became clear. We talk of living in polarized times, but the polarization between communism and fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was at another level entirely. The ACLU could have purged from its leadership those with views and ambitions antithetical to the civil liberties purpose of the ACLU without using mere membership in a "totalitarian organization" as the criterion to achieve that goal.

By the way, I've researched this issue several times over the years for posts on the ACLU message boards. See, for example, my January 29, 2004 post at this link: ACLU message board thread page.

The best info I've found on this subject is the primary source material at the Princeton library at this link: American Civil Liberties Union - The Roger Baldwin Years: 1917-1950. The summary of that primary source material includes these two paragraphs:


"The most difficult aspect of the New Deal years for the ACLU was its relationship to the Communist Party. The ACLU's bail fund had been seriously affected when five Communist Party members jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union in 1930. Yet the two organizations had worked together on Scottsboro, the DeJonge and Herndon free speech cases, and in the International Juridical Association. Thus when the Popular Front was organized by the Communist Party in the 1930s, ACLU and Baldwin joined the effort since he was ever a coalition builder. Opponents continued to allege that the ACLU was a Communist front, especially since Harry Ward chaired both the ACLU and the American League for Peace and Democracy, the largest of the Popular Front organizations.

Communist Party attacks on a Socialist Party rally in Madison Square Garden in 1934 led Norman Thomas and John Haynes Holmes to call for banning Communists from ACLU leadership. In this same decade, the Dies Committee (the House Committee on Un-American Activities, popularly known as HUAC) concluded after its first hearings that one could not say with certainty whether or not the ACLU was a Communist organization. The ACLU responded by leading efforts to abolish the Dies Committee, assigning Abraham Isserman to write the first systematic analysis of the rights of witnesses before investigative committees (a report which Baldwin suppressed, perhaps in an agreement with HUAC) and working to clear the ACLU name. HUAC raids beginning in 1939, passage of the Smith Act in 1940 and state laws banning the Communist Party from the ballot served to increase concern about totalitarian organizations. In response to these growing concerns, the ACLU in 1940 adopted a policy barring Communist Party members from official positions in the organization, leading to the ouster of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the board and to the resignations of several others, including Harry Ward." [emphasis added]


I also think that those who try to smear the ACLU with the communist beliefs of some of its founding members (other than Baldwin) miss the point. Some of the founding members of the ACLU were also Protestant ministers. Does that mean the ACLU has been a "Protestant organization" from its inception?

Allen Asch
9.7.2005 6:31pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
I would like for you to take my hypothetical head-on. A formerly racist organization wishes to depart from its past, and in doing so excludes (even purges) members with racist idealogies. Why should anybody condemn this organization for taking this admirable step?

If that orginization were the ACLU I would make precisely the same critique. If the organization were the NAACP I would not. My whole point about "toleration" which you want to ignore, is that the ACLU is comitted to the ideals of the constitution as a positive ethical principle. The NAACP does not take that as its mandate.
9.7.2005 6:47pm
Seamus (mail):

I worked for a local branch of the ACLU around that time. Bush 41's remark produced a nationwide surge of new members, all of whom wanted cards they could carry.



Interestingly, when Bush 41 ostentatiously announced his resignation from the National Rifle Association, that's when I decided to join and take out a life membership. (And I don't even own a gun.)
9.7.2005 7:01pm
Seamus (mail):

For instance, when the ACLU or one of its chapters considers a Muslim for membership, or even for a leadership role, how thoroughly (if at all) do they vet him to ensure that he doesn't have an ideological agenda that's incompatible with promoting civil liberties (in other words, that he's not also an Islamist)?



My guess is that they do exactly as thorough a vetting as I got I joined in 1971 (a youthful indiscretion which I now deeply regret): they look very, very closely to make sure that the dues check clears.
9.7.2005 7:05pm
Kevin St. John (mail):
What is more interesting to me is why would a communist wish to join the ACLU? The answer seems two-fold.

First, instrumentally, communists perceive benefit from participation. At first blush, this might be (1) because communists are themselves protected by the ACLU's activities; (2) because Communists (naively) believe their position gains disciples in the free marketplace of ideas; or (3) because civil liberty manifests itself, in part, through civil disruption, whether merely voicing unpopular ideas or more overtly, and any action that tends to destabilize the status quo increases the chances for would-be revolutionaries to occupy vacuums of authority. Of course, communist membership in the ACLU might be motivated by all three. I'm note sure which camp Baldwin falls in, but Prof. Volokh's post suggests that it might be category #2.

Second, communist membership in the ACLU might be motivated by an attempt to subvert the organization and its membership to communist principles. And the ACLU might be ripe for subversion for four principle reasons that I can identify:

First, Communists may find that ACLU-idealists are identified more by the fact of their idealism rather than the nature of the ideal. The True Believer personality makes for a ready convert.

Second, the "idealism" that is found in many ACLU members is not "civil liberties" as much as it is anti-establishment. Though certainly all anti-establishmentarians are not communists, all communists are decidedly anti-establishment for the time being.

Third, I think there is a tendency for members of movements devoted to the protection of rights to empathize with the protected group. Consider criminal attorneys that readily adopt structuralist explanations for their guilty clients' behavior (not merely as a courtroom strategy) or abortion-rights advocates who have dropped "rare" from safe, legal, and rare, and see the act of abortion itself as an act of courage. It should be no surprise that some ACLU members might begin to empathize with the groups they protect.

Fourth, I think that many ACLU advocates (and lawyers generally) have the tendency conflate legal standards with harm. For example, if political speech that will not incite imminent lawless action that is likely to occur is not unlawful, then where is the danger in those that spout protected speech? It's just "expressing ideas" to many advocates, and so long as many believe this, they might be willing to sympathize or join with a movement that the law respects as a book club because they think it is a book club and thereby become subverted to the more dubious purposes of the organization. I don't know if I've described this phenomenon well, but it is very similar to the idea that because McCarthy used improper means to expose Communists, the nature of the threat he attacked was a phantom threat. This conclusion certainly doesn't follow logically, but it is assumed by many McCarthy!!!-ites.
9.7.2005 7:16pm
Challenge:
"My whole point about "toleration" which you want to ignore, is that the ACLU is comitted to the ideals of the constitution as a positive ethical principle."

But they're not committed to the US Constitution. In moments of candor they admit as much. Nadine Strossen said: "I don't want to dwell on constitutional analysis, because our view has never been that civil liberties are necessarily coextensive with constitutional rights. Conversely, I guess the fact that something is mentioned in the Constitution doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamental civil liberty."

And not only are you wrong on this crucial point (that the ACLU wishes to protect the Constitution), but your larger argument is without merit as well. I have to run for now. I will probably respond more later.
9.7.2005 7:36pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
"My whole point about "toleration" which you want to ignore, is that the ACLU is comitted to the ideals of the constitution as a positive ethical principle."

But they're not committed to the US Constitution. In moments of candor they admit as much. Nadine Strossen said: "I don't want to dwell on constitutional analysis, because our view has never been that civil liberties are necessarily coextensive with constitutional rights. Conversely, I guess the fact that something is mentioned in the Constitution doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamental civil liberty."


Re-read what I said.
9.7.2005 7:40pm
Thrax (mail):
Challenge--

I'm not sure why you think this is so important. The ACLU is entitled to believe that, say, inhumane treatment of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo detainees is a big deal without thinking that the treatment implicates the Constitution. Or that gays and lesbians have a right to marry, without believing that the Constitution guarantees them such a right. In situations like that, they call upon the legislative and executive branches to protect what they see as important civil liberties that are not safeguarded by the Constitution. Why is this supposed to be sinister?

The converse is that the ACLU doesn't go to the mat about everything in the Constitution. Well, no: the Commerce Clause is a lot of things, but a fundamental civil liberty issue it's not. Ditto, say, bicameralism requirements, the Supremacy Clause, and the Third Amendment. More to the point, the ACLU for some reason doesn't have infinite resources, so it doesn't get involved in every single case across the nation that implicates the Constitution. I don't understand why this is supposed to be scary and awful either.
9.7.2005 8:19pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I guess I would ask why a committed communist would want to join the ACLU. Their purposes don't coincide. Scratch that. The ACLU's publicly-stated purposes are at odds with communism.
I have had conversations with individual ACLU members which made me wonder if I was hearing the real deal from somebody who thought I was on his side and didn't need the PR piece. Scary.
But, since this discussion is about the ostensible purpose of the ACLU, there is no coincidence between communists and the ostensible purpose of the ACLU.
It is possible that a communist will also be in favor of civil rights, but he will be required by the party to ditch that if the tactical situation requires it. And he will. You will recall how long it took--not very--for Nick Berg's father to start pimping his son's horrible death. That's discipline, by golly.
As I say, the coincidence, if there is any, is one of two kinds: One is that the communist's idea of, say, civil rights coincides with that of the ACLU as long as there isn't any party reason to differ. The other is that the ACLU thinks the communist's idea of, for example, shutting down conservative speech (speech codes) is just dan and finedy.
9.7.2005 11:56pm
Challenge:
Thrax, it doesn't matter except the ACLU portrays itself as an organization whose principal goal is the defense of the Constitution. Truth be told, they only defend the Constitution when they happen to agree with it. The NRA isn't in the business of defending the Constitution, they're in the business of defending the Second Amendment. I'd have more respect for the organization if it admitted its prerogatives more readily. I guess they think that's bad PR.

Mr. Benson, what "ideals" contained in the Constitution or elsewhere prohibit a private organization from limiting its association with undersirables?

Another hypothetical: If the public perceived the ACLU as a front for pedophiles, and convicted pedophiles were represented in alarming numbers in their membership, would it be wrong for them to exclude pedophiles just because they believe NAMBLA has a right to spew their vile? I don't think so. The ACLU has a reputation to look after, and in 1940 it was more than that, it was a matter of survival. And even if it's not a PR consideration, I'd like to think the ACLU would think twice about droves of card-carrying pedophiles. Similarly, I would think an organization, especially one ostensibly committed to defending the Constitution, would be embarrassed that a significant portion of its membership and leadership were committed to the violent overthrow of US constitutional democracy.
9.8.2005 12:38am
Thrax (mail):
Challenge--

Here's the ACLU's "about us" page. It says the ACLU works to "defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." Further down, it says, "We work also to extend rights to segments of our population that have traditionally been denied their rights," including gays and lesbians. Hence support for gay marriage. I don't see your "principal goal" language. They also have another page where they explain that they view the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a collective, not an individual, right, and that they have no view on gun control other than that the Constitution permits reasonsble regulations of gun ownership. You can disagree with that, of course, but it's hardly some wacky far-out position.

If you want the ACLU to take a different view of the Second Amendment, by all means join, get on its board, and start influencing. But don't criticize a nonprofit with a lot of stuff on its plate for not doing even more.
9.8.2005 9:03am
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Mr. Benson, what "ideals" contained in the Constitution or elsewhere prohibit a private organization from limiting its association with undersirables?

I already answered this:

Overall I take the ethical idea to be something like the following:

In general we ought to be as tolerant as we can. We should persecute not for beliefs as such, but only in so far as people actively use those beliefs in ways that are unacceptable.

Furthermore I take the idea to be that this principle is not merely about convenience for pragmatic present day politics (after all that's the problem with a communist cynically deploying the ACLU while at the same time disagreeing with its fundamental principled). Rather, it's considered to be a positive ethical principle, one that is a good idea generally.

Clearly the ACLU and the U.S. at large are very different places to apply this ethical principle. In the U.S. at large the idea I take the ACLU to believe follows from this is freedom of expression. People should not be held legally acountable for being a Marxist, but instead for employing Marxism in illegal ways (like violence).

It seems to me that the most obvious application of this principle in the ACLU itself is to suggest that members and staff need to be willing to work twoards the goals the ACLU follows generally, and that those goals are and must be the preservation of civil liberties. I can see stating that for a leader of the ACLU to regard the ACLU as little more than a front organization for an anti-civil liberties agenda clearly violates this ethical principle, because they are likely to direct the organization in an unbalanced way. BUT it seems to me that staff and member ideas are largely irrelevant, so long as they are willing to continue to support the basic goals the ACLU is persuing. In other words, their ideas themselves don't indicate a threat to the organization as such, and so ought to be tolerated.
9.8.2005 12:04pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Mr. Benson:

Why would you think the communists would join the ACLU if not to promote their ideas?

Would they join an organization, spend their time, energy and other resources in an organization which, if it were true to its ostensible purpose, would actually oppose their ideas?

At some point, they'd be promoting communism. If they weren't, they'd be wasting their time and dues money. I would suggest that any communist who joins the ACLU be considered subversive of its stated purpose. There is no other reason for him to join.

You may be presuming there is some lower level of promoting ideas that doesn't rise to something the group would consider actionable. If this is so, could you define it?
9.8.2005 12:48pm
Challenge:
Mr. Benson, I am aware of your bizarre justification. You have again avoided applying your standard to my hyptothetical. Please do so. If NAMBLA members were joining the ACLU and held leaderships positions in the ACLU, would they be prohibited from excluding NAMBLA members just because they defended NAMBLA?

Thrax, when they put they only defend SOME of the Constitution, I'd consider it an honest statement.

The collective rights model may not be "far out" insofar as it has a surprising amount of adherents. While believing in Creationism may not be a "far out" position it is most certainly a ridiculous one. Same with the collective rights lie.
9.8.2005 1:32pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
To answer trotsky, and to give more details on some ACLU members' concerns about Communist influence, the particular case I had in mind involved "the communist-inspired disruption of a socialist rally at Madison Square Garden in February, 1934. When the ACLU sought to produce a report establishing responsibility for the disruption, the Board of Directors divided sharply. Chairman Ward and his supporters wanted the report to place heavy emphasis on the need to maintain a united front against fascism and put a large share of the blame for the disruption on the socialists who sought to exclude communist participation. Ward's opponents on the Board favored laying the entire blame on the communists. The resulting conflict required three Board meetings to resolve and ended with the adoption of an innocuous compromise report blaming both parties. Yet the conflict left a growing impression that a sizeable minority on the Board would oppose any action by the ACLU which might either embarrass the communists or disrupt their plans for a party-dominated, united front." Jerold Simmons, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Dies Committee, 17 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 183, 194 (1982).

Robert C. Cottrell, Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Unions (2000), also notes an example in 1930, where Baldwin himself complained to Earl Browder of the CPUSA about Communists' "breaking up meetings of persons to whom they are politically opposed." My sense is that there were quite a few other such instances, but these are the two particular ones I have cites for handy.
9.8.2005 2:29pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Mr. Aubrey and "challenge":

It seems to me that communists might have many different motives for wanting to join the ACLU. Some of them might not be terribly intelectually consistent, and believe in both communism and the ACLU platform despite contradiction. Some might consider the ACLU to be a positive organization in the absence of the immediate possibility of a revolution. Others might think that, given an equal playing field of expression, Marxism is bound to win in the long run. Some might take seriously the concept of duty, and consider themselves to be bound to work for the agenda of the ACLU when putting that hat on, and in the interests of the communist party when not.

I don't really see the need for the ACLU to speculate on such motives. It only seems to me to matter when someone is taking positive action to disrupt the agenda of the ACLU. For a staff member failing to do their job because it involves protecting the equal right to speech for the upper class. This way of viewing the problem seems to be the most consistent with what I take to be the broader intellectual position of the ACLU.

Again, I can see saying that appointing party members as leaders is a bad move for multiple reasons.

I would make the same argument about members of MAMBLA or the KKK. Such membership is only relevant in so far as the member seems to be actively working to turn the ACLU in the direction of one of those organizations, instead of a civil liberties union.
9.8.2005 4:59pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Mr. Benson, it seems you are describing folks less committed than the proverbial parlor pink.
A communist who does ACLU stuff when wearing the ACLU hat is not particularly dedicated. If he is in fact doing that, he is letting down the party, spending time and money he could be using for the party.
The only conceivable reason for doing this is to be in a position to move the ACLU in a particular direction it would not otherwise go, when the circumstances call for it.

If, on the other hand, you are positing a dilettante who picked up a party card during the requisite sophomore rebelliousness and thought little of it afterwards, you may be right, but nobody is talking about him.
9.8.2005 5:26pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein was very active in politics in the 1940s; in 1946 he wrote a book of advice to would-be activists which was finally published in 1992. One section is called "Coping with Communists". Heinlein noted:

"There is a popular belief that Communist infiltration is found only in the left wing of the Democratic Party. I have not found it so. A Communist cell can pop up whenever more than four people assemble. I have spotted them in organizations so reactionary that their presence, if known, would have caused deaths from apoplexy."

Why would Communists join the ACLU? To control it. To insure that the staff jobs all went to comrades. To decide which cases the ACLU would defend; i.e. no left-wingers who are critical of the USSR or the Party need apply. To use the ACLU's credibility for the defense of Party interests. Etc.
9.9.2005 4:45pm
Guest99:
The ACLU still has an ideological double-standard favoring left-wing speech over non-left-wing speech.

Former ACLU legal director Burt Neuborne argued in the late 1990's that "destabilizing" speakers opposed to the status quo (i.e., communists) were entitled to more free speech rights than "stabilizing" speakers who favor the status quo (i.e., a politically-incorrect employee).
9.9.2005 4:57pm