More on Roger Baldwin (the ACLU's Founding Director):

Allen Asch, in the comments to a recent post, continues to express doubt that Baldwin was a communist in the 1930s. Since I happen to have the data handy, and since Mr. Asch had earlier expressed skepticism about a Baldwin quote on the topic that had been floating around on the Internet -- skepticism that is eminently sound, though in this particular instance proves to be misplaced -- I thought I'd post it.

To begin with, Baldwin had always denied being a member of the Communist Party, and I've seen no evidence to the contrary. He apparently didn't get along well with the Party, which he rightly saw as authoritarian.

He did, however, support the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat, which, once implemented, to be "maintain[ed] by any means whatever," including abrogation of civil liberties -- a pretty solidly communist view. Mr. Asch suggests a different interpretation of Baldwin's position, but I'm afraid I find that interpretation quite unpersuasive.

He also expressed support for communism as an economic system, writing in a note to be included in the 30th reunion classbook of the 1905 Harvard class,

My "chief aversion" is the system of greed, private profit, privilege, and violence which makes up the control of the world today, and which has brought it the tragic crisis of unprecedented hunger and unemployment. I am opposed to the new deal because it strives to strengthen and prolong production for private profit. At bottom I am for conserving the full powers of every person on earth by expanding them to their individual limits. Therefore, I am for socialism, disarmament, and ultimately for abolishing the State itself as an instrument of property, the abolition of the properted class and sole control by those who produce wealth. Communism is the goal. It sums up into one single purpose -- the abolition of the system of dog-eat-dog under which we live, and the substitution by the most effective non-violence possible of a system of cooperative ownership and use of all wealth.

(Robert C. Cottrell, Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Union 228-29 (2000).) And despite the reference to "non-violence," the earlier quote reveals that Baldwin was willing to endorse dictatorship and not just peaceful democratic change.

Finally, Baldwin also often defended the Soviet Union; he definitely did criticize its repression of dissent and civil liberties, but he ultimately defended such repression:

I saw in the Soviet Union many opponents of the regime. I visited a dozen prisons -- the political sections among them. I saw considerable of the work of the OGPU. I heard a good many stories of severity, even of brutality, and many of them from the victims. While I sympathized with personal distress I just could not bring myself to get excited over the suppression of opposition when I stacked it up against what I saw of fresh, vigorous expressions of free living by workers and peasants all over the land. And further, no champion of a socialist society could fail to see that some suppression was necessary to achieve it. It could not all be done by persuasion.

Nor is it easy to dismiss this, as Mr. Asch suggests might be the case, as being based on lack of information about Soviet repression (i.e., to take the view that Baldwin was merely a dupe of the Soviets rather than a fully knowing supporter). Baldwin had traveled to the Soviet Union, had written about it, and had corresponded to many of his friends on the Left who tried to persuade him to criticize the Soviets (including Emma Goldman, see, e.g., Cottrell at 194, 197-98, 216). Yet he continued to defend the Soviets as late as December 1936, when the Moscow show trials were already underway. (One would think that a defender of civil liberties who had also written about the Soviet Union would know a show trial when he saw it.)

Only the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- a foreign policy move rather than an anti-civil-liberties move on the part of the Soviet Union -- ultimately made him change his views. "The Nazi-Soviet pact made you feel that suddenly the Communists were different people. They had abandoned us and got into bed with Hitler." I can certainly see why many on the Left who were primarily focused on fighting the European fascists, and who didn't care much about Stalin's mass murders of his own, would see the Pact as "the biggest shock of [their lives]." But why would someone who is focused on civil liberties be more struck by the Pact than by the show trials and all that came before and after? In fact, why should he be that surprised that two totalitarian regimes would make this sort of foreign policy move?

I should probably be doing some real work now instead of expounding on this. But setting the facts straight on the history of communism, both abroad in the United States, is pretty important to me. There were unfortunately far too many people who (1) endorsed communism as an economic system -- a colossal blunder that's worth studying, and one that reflects a lack of interest in at least the property rights protections of the Bill of Rights -- (2) endorsed communism's goal of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would justify massive suppression of even noneconomic liberties, and (3) either let themselves be fooled into turning a blind eye to the Soviets' atrocities, or, in Baldwin's case, likely willingly ignored what the Soviets were doing. Among other things, only understanding this record can help us understand why the ACLU and other groups felt it necessary to condemn Communism, and why Baldwin himself ultimately turned into a prominent critic of the Soviets.