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James T. Farrell

“Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living”

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 51, 22 December 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Editor’s Note: Labor Action takes great pleasure in reprinting the following brilliant message which the world-famous novelist, James T. Farrell, sent to the mass meeting held on December 15 in Hotel Diplomat, New York, protesting against the conviction of the defendants in the Minneapolis trial.)


On the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the defense and preservation of civil liberties have become a paramount issue. Now more than ever, the priceless political rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the American Constitution must remain operative. In peace or in war, when the right off free speech is destroyed, public life becomes rigid. Thinking turns into sheer routine. Artistic creation is driven into feeble channels of escapism. The rich spiritual, intellectual and artistic resources of the human spirit are dried up at their very source. These are truisms, but they are truisms that cannot now be repeated too often.

The names of Holmes and Brandeis are among the most honored in American legal history: but their words are not as respected as are their names. For it is clear that they had in mind a period such as the present one when they enunciated their theory of “a clear and present danger.” In the Minneapolis case, this theory was abandoned: for it, the prosecution substituted one of indirect causation. Such a theory is a parallel to the Japanese notion of “dangerous thoughts.” Once this is established as the law of the land, all thinking will become dangerous. In place of thinking we will only be allowed to quote; and even quotation will be dangerous.

The convictions obtained at Minneapolis are, to my mind, a clear and present danger to the Bill of Rights. On this issue, the liberal magazine, The Nation, has already sounded an alarm. In an editorial appearing after the outbreak of war between this country and Japan, it declared: “We believe that all progressives of whatever political orientation must join in the defense of the Minneapolis defendants or permit the establishment of a precedent that may some day be used against them.” The Minneapolis convictions were based on the Smith Act. It is a law in open contradiction to the Bill of Rights which proclaims that “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech ...” In consequence, the Minneapolis case has today become the crucial one in the struggle which we must make for the preservation of civil liberties.

An Elite or Confidence

To destroy freedom of speech is to admit implicitly that one has lost faith in the great mass off the people. Instead of confidence in the masses of the common people – whose ancestors were responsible for the Bill of Rights – one substitutes an elite. On them is placed all responsibility for continuing the succession of ideas which alone can give us the intellectual resources for the creation of a civilization, a culture, that is truly human. On December 15, 1941, I am not prepared to sacrifice this faith. That is why I assert that the question of civil liberties is of such paramount importance now. Many years ago, the courageous French novelist, Emile Zola, boldly and confidently proclaimed that the truth is on the march. Since then, oppression has spread over nation after nation. But in the face of every oppression, it is our duty to do what Zola tried to do – to keep the truth on the march. That we cannot do unless men are allowed publicly, honestly, seriously to think to express their ideas, to defend: their convictions.

When Socrates stood: on trial for his life, he told his judges that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” These words of Socrates are as profoundly significant today as they were when he uttered them. Allow me to repeat: “... the unexamined life is not worth living.”

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