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International Socialist Review, Summer 1957


Milton Alvin

Lamont Surveys Civil Liberties


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.3, Summer 1957, pp.101-102.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


by Corliss Lamont
Horizon Press, New York, 1956. 322 pp. $3.95.

Corliss Lamont, himself a victim of the witch-hunt, has surveyed some of the many fields invaded in recent years by various government agencies seeking to impose thought-control in the United States.

Included are his personal clashes with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the McCarthyite Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the State Department as well as incidents of wider concern involving Congress, the President, the courts, the states, the schools and cultural fields in which he was not directly involved.

The extent of the pall thrown by the witch-hunt over free thought in the United States is shown impressively by Dr. Lamont. Millions of Americans in government service, in the schools, in industry and in other walks of life have been terrorized into acceptance of official creeds on pain of losing their livelihoods and being stigmatized as “subversives.” Thousands have already fallen victim in the struggle.

It has certainly become dangerous, as Dr. Lamont points out, to think freely and even more so to speak out in the public forum, in the class room and on the job. However, the witch-hunt, despite its vast extent, has not turned up a single person engaged in any act which might truthfully be construed as unlawful. The campaign has been directed against thinking and expressing ideas, against individuals and groups who do not agree with the ruling capitalist class and its spokesmen and representatives.

Dr. Lamont’s long association with organizations devoted to the defense of constitutional guarantees of freedom and civil liberties as well as his own struggles for his rights qualify him as an outstanding authority in the field.

However, his proposals for finding ways and means to regain our civil liberties are open to question. He writes,

“My suggested rule would cover not only crimes such as incitement to riot or murder, but also broader social dangers such as incitement to present acts of violent revolution against the state.”

He also writes,

“I suggest, in addition, that government has the right to curb freedom of expression when the language used constitutes a clear, direct and wilful incitement to the present commission of dangerous violence or some other serious and overt criminal act.”

Precisely such formulas are used by the witch-hunters as protective covering. They have interpreted any opposition to the capitalist system, expressed or implied, as a “conspiracy” to advocate unconstitutional methods of changing the government. Individuals and organizations that do not stand for any social change at all can be victimized under formulas like these. There is sufficient evidence of this in Dr. Lamont’s study itself. To the witch-hunters, serious disagreement with their policies and views looks like revolution or at least like “broader social dangers” and, therefore, come under Dr. Lamont’s formula.

Freedom to think, to band together in political parties or other organizations, to speak out freely and openly, these are rights guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. If it is granted that exceptions may be made, the door is opened to abuses such as we have seen.

Who is to decide when and where the exceptional situation exists? The President or his Attorney General? The courts? Congressional committees? These have all been shown to be the principle violators of the Bill of Rights. No exceptions can be made; otherwise a possibly vital source of information and opinion is closed to the people, the final authority in all questions of public welfare.

Marxists look upon the curtailment of civil liberties in recent years as a reflection of the class struggle. The Democrats and Republicans alike have spread the witch-hunt in all directions as part of the preparation for World War III. The drive against civil liberties aims at preventing the development of domestic opposition to the projected war, at intimidating and terrorizing those who might be inclined to object to new adventures like the intervention in Korea. The imposition of thought control in America is sure proof that the ruling class feels itself unable to convince the people of the correctness of its projected war policies through open and free debate.

The relative quiescence of the class struggle due to the long prosperity has fostered an apathetic attitude toward civil liberties among wide sections of the population. In addition, the cumulative effects of the witch-hunt have created fear among many people that to defend the rights of others would make them suspect themselves. In many cases, for example, it has been extremely difficult tor victims to obtain legal aid to say nothing of broad public support.

A big part of the guilt for the woeful success of the witch-hunt can be ascribed to the labor bureaucrats who at best are largely indifferent to the fate of the victims and at worst indulge in red-hunts in their own unions. This aspect of the state of civil liberties today, the right of unionists to hold their own views and to belong to other organizations of their own choice, is not treated in Dr. Lamont’s book. This is to be regretted, for it must surely be agreed that the potentially decisive force in the struggle for civil liberties is the labor movement.

In the long run, it will be the workers’ organizations that will save freedom in America. They have the numerical strength; the power; and, most important, the greatest need for an atmosphere of free thought and discussion. Under the present witch-hunt atmosphere they have not been able to grow and very likely will be unable to do so until the air is cleared of the present contamination.

In the meantime, certain gains in the struggle to preserve civil liberties should be noted. Dr. Lamont sees an easing in the situation due to a lessening of tension in the cold war. In addition, there has been the welcome change of attitude on the part of the Communist party towards its working-class opponents. This organization has admitted that it was in error in supporting the government in the 1941 Smith Act trial of the Trotskyist and Minneapolis Teamsters’ Union leaders and it has shifted from sabotage to support of the case of the Legless Veteran James Kutcher. These are steps in the right direction. They lay the basis for future cooperation on a broader basis in civil-liberties cases, and a revival of the fine old slogan that “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.”

In this connection, Dr. Lamont is to be commended for his principled stand, while a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, in defense of all victims of the witch-hunt, including members of the Communist party. He takes note of the fact that while the current leadership of the ACLU has given up the principle of defending the rights of all, the branches throughout the country have taken a far better position in many instances.

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