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Communist Dissonance

How an ACLU founder became an apologist for Soviet tyranny

On Christmas Eve 1926, Roger Baldwin set sail for the Soviet Union, a man adrift.

Nearly seven years before, he had helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He had been a hands-on executive director for the upstart organization, which had had an immediate impact with its unapologetic First Amendment defenses of labor radicals. The early ACLU wasn't in any way a neutral defender of the Bill of Rights. As ACLU counsel Walter Nelles put it, "We are frankly partisans of labor in the present struggle, and our place is in the fight."

But in 1926, Baldwin took a leave of absence from the organization as personal crises mounted. He was battling depression. His marriage was on the rocks. A close friend had died of a drug overdose. Later in life, Baldwin would tell an interviewer that it was "a time of confusion in my values."

Baldwin had always been a mess of contradictions. He was a Boston Brahmin pursuing a classless society, a pacifist who called for class war, a civil libertarian who enthusiastically supported the Soviet experiment despite reports of the Bolsheviks' police-state tactics. Now he would finally get to see the workers' paradise for himself.

Before setting sail, Baldwin agreed to write a book for Vanguard Press' series on Soviet Russia. Nearly a decade had passed since the Communists had swept away the czarist regime. Baldwin's task was simple: As America's foremost "fighter for liberty," according to his editor, he would evaluate the Soviets' civil liberties record and separate fact from fiction.

He failed miserably, his socialist politics winning out over his civil libertarian principles. The book is sometimes frank about Russian repression, but even when it allows uncomfortable truths to see the light, it quickly shunts them aside, arguing that a greater sort of freedom justifies these incursions on people's liberties.

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," George Orwell later wrote. Baldwin's nose must have been impressively large; it would be more than a decade before he recognized the Soviet Union as an authoritarian nightmare.

'Liberty' Under the Soviets

Vanguard Press published Liberty Under the Soviets in November 1928. The book opens, without irony, with a quotation from Lenin: "While the State exists there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State." Everything Baldwin would write in the tome would prove those words correct.

Running nearly 300 pages long, Liberty Under the Soviets is divided into two parts. In the first half, Baldwin attempted to make the case that Soviet workers and peasants were experiencing newfound freedoms. He was not persuasive.

He presented the Russian Revolution as a victory for religious freedom, observing that it "broke the bonds between the State and the old Orthodox Church." But he then went on to describe the persecution of liberal religious leaders who finally had the space to preach, targeted because the Bolsheviks believed they were "a possible rival to the Communist program." He wrote of the liberty of nationalities in the expanding Soviet empire, then reported the brutal destruction of the Georgian independence movement. He told of a Soviet "democracy," then admitted the "dictatorship of the proletariat is…a dictatorship by the Communist Party machine." (One of the few places where he scored some genuine points came when he argued that the revolution had brought some benefits to the country's women, who could now vote and enjoyed "equal status with men in property, control of children, and right to divorce.")

"The most significant of all liberties under the Soviets is economic," wrote Baldwin, because the workers were starting to take control of the means of production. But this control, he then revealed, was a chimera. Workers could not organize independent unions. On the job, they could not control their work because of "Communist shop 'cells,' which may tend to discourage the workers' active participation in shop elections and meetings." Damningly, only 7–8 percent of union workers were party members—even the working class seemed less than enthusiastic about the Bolsheviks.

Censorship in the Soviet Union was all-encompassing, constituting "a control more complete and more thorough than has been achieved under any other dictatorship." Even "an act in a burlesque show…must be submitted in advance, including even the words of songs."

Baldwin also admitted that the peasants didn't control the agricultural process. Instead, the Communists persecuted the "richer" peasants, known as kulaks, for renting land and hiring help. Baldwin allowed for repression of these class enemies, even though he admitted that the economic inequality between kulaks and poorer peasants was small. "The well-to-do may have two horses instead of one—or none—a better house, more livestock," he wrote. "But the differences, though small, are sufficient to create class interests and attitudes."

The Red Tyranny

Part two of Liberty Under the Soviets painted, in vivid detail, the monstrous face of the Bolshevik dictatorship. Describing the life of the artist, Baldwin said, "He writes with the censor at his elbow." He also quoted Russian scribes beseeching their counterparts beyond the Soviet Union to recognize the tyranny washing over the Soviet Union. "We appeal to you writers of the world," they wrote. "How is it that with all your insight into the human soul and the spirit of epochs in nations you take no heed of us Russians, whose free speech is utterly suppressed."

Censorship was all-encompassing, constituting "a control more complete and more thorough than has been achieved under any other dictatorship." Popular entertainment, Baldwin showed, was under the suffocating control of the Communist Party's Repertory Control Commission. Even "an act in a burlesque show…must be submitted in advance, including even the words of songs," he wrote. Movies were "completely under government control," with strong limits on "pictures of bourgeois life, of vice, and of slapstick comedy." The same went for the radio.

In the new Russia, Baldwin wrote, "No printing press, not even a mimeograph machine, can operate without a permit." In papers not run by a Communist editor, "an agent of the censorship sits regularly to pass on all copy before it is set up." Opposition voices were muted. "No Socialist paper is permitted to have a representative in Russia, because all of them have been uniformly hostile."

Yet Baldwin—the founding face of the ACLU—defended the Bolsheviks' censorship. The party was building its own version of socialism, he argued, and therefore it could not allow competition in ideas, even in socialist ideas, to undermine the project.

Though the only line was the Communist Party's, "the output of newspapers has enormously increased under the drive to arouse popular interest—their circulation being four times as great as before the Revolution," he argued. "The press is on the whole lively, interesting, well-written—like the better European papers and quite unlike American papers padded with features and advertising." Baldwin somehow convinced himself that more publications meant progress, even if they were under the thumb of one party and purged of independent thought. That was fine, he seemed to believe, just so long as the propaganda wasn't financed via capitalist ad sales.

Freedom of association fared as well as freedom of expression. After the Russian Civil War ended in 1921, "none but an approved organization could continue to exist. No public meetings but those officially approved in advance could be held." As when he discussed the press, Baldwin argued that what these groups lost in independence they made up in volume: He heralded the number of organizations that flourished within the Soviet Union, especially when compared to the years under the czar. Yet he undermined the idea that most members joined freely or participated eagerly. "A large portion of the membership of the big organizations is inactive, as it is everywhere," he wrote. "Many join the general organizations…because their neighbors do, or from sentiment, or from fear of losing jobs or being suspected as opponents, or because their boss suggests it, or in some cases because they are inscribed anyhow and their dues deducted from their pay."

Bettmann/GettyBettmann/GettyBehind most of this oppression lurked the Bolsheviks' secret police force, the State Political Directorate, or GPU. "One of the most powerful arms of the central government," Baldwin called it, noting that it was "composed of an army of 100,000 uniformed men" and touched "more functions of the government than any single department." GPU representatives sat on every censorship committee. Its networks of informants permeated all of society, "in order to be aware of all possible opposition and ready to suppress it."

When it identified "counterrevolutionary" activity—that is, anything deviating from the Communist line—the GPU conducted "a regime of terror." Its weapons consisted of "inspiring the fear of summary arrest, exile, or imprisonment for the slightest anti-Soviet activity or suspicion of it." Due process did not exist, with the GPU acting as judge, jury, and executioner. People were disposed of in "secret, without public trial in the courts, and without the right to employ counselor or to call witnesses." Public trials, Baldwin observed, were "for the political effect of an open trial," the conviction all but certain.

Despite this, Baldwin wrote without any apparent sense of shame that the GPU "does not get out of hand, as do the secret services in some other countries—as, for instance, in the United States." For a supposed civil libertarian to countenance the idea of a political police force even existing is stunning in its inconsistency. Yet Baldwin seemed to see the GPU as a legitimate way for the Bolsheviks to defend the revolution, even as they brutally repressed non-Bolsheviks who helped to overthrow the czar.

This shouldn't be surprising. In a 1926 letter to the editor of the New Leader, Baldwin wrote in defense of the Soviet Union, "I prefer its dictatorship with all its suppression, to any capitalist dictatorship."

In short, Liberty Under the Soviets laid out a devastating case that the Bolsheviks were a totalitarian regime even before Stalin consolidated power. Yet Baldwin downplayed to irrelevance the damning evidence he marshaled. As a product of the Progressive Era, he believed despite everything he had seen and heard that the Bolsheviks were social scientists engineering humanity toward a truer freedom. To read Baldwin's book is to enter the mind of a man doing his best to ignore the fact that his faith is a dangerous lie.

At the outset of the book, Baldwin admitted that the "bourgeois western ideas of civil liberty" cannot exist under Communism. "In the Communist philosophy, from the days of Karl Marx to the present, there is no room for the ideas of freedom of speech, press and assemblage, or liberty of individual conscience, except as they represent liberties for the working class and the poor peasants," he wrote. The freedom he sought in the Soviet Union was primarily "economic." By redefining liberty that way, he felt he could look past the crimes against humanity that he documented in the second half of the book. And by doing so, he became one of the Soviet Union's most prominent American apologists.

"It would be an easy matter to take the material of this book and rewrite it as an indictment of the Soviet regime," Baldwin wrote defensively in the beginning of the book. "Readers so disposed can bring that indictment themselves if my interpretations fail to move them to sympathetic understanding."

Losing His Religion

There's a tellingly incomplete anecdote in Baldwin's chapter on freedom of association. The Vegetarian Society of Moscow, whose members were followers of the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, asked Baldwin to give a talk on U.S. militarism, a subject that wouldn't draw the Bolsheviks' ire. During the discussion, an audience member posed a provocative question. "One asked, with the evident approval of the audience, if I did not think a working-class dictatorship could be just as tyrannical as a capitalist dictatorship!"

Baldwin never lets on how he responded to the question that day. But we know how long it took him to give the general public the right answer to that question.

Before and after his trip, Baldwin encountered anti-Bolshevik leftists who saw the Brahmin radical as a useful idiot. None was more famous or cutting than his anarchist friend Emma Goldman. Baldwin looked upon the Soviet Union with hope as "the heart of the struggle toward a world run by the producers." Goldman tried to curb his enthusiasm to no avail.

Goldman and her former lover Alexander Berkman had been deported to Russia in 1919, during the anti-radical Palmer Raids. Goldman had been hopeful about the Soviet experiment, but two years in the country convinced her that the Bolsheviks were thugs bent on absolute power. "Those familiar with the real situation in Russia and who are not under the mesmeric influence of the Bolshevik superstition or in the employ of the Communists will bear me out that I have given a true picture," she recounted in her 1923 book My Disillusionment in Russia. "The rest of the world will learn in due time."

It was a lesson she couldn't teach Baldwin. In March 1924, Goldman wrote to the ACLU chief, calling Lenin "the modern inquisitor" and inquiring whether he agreed that "the silence of the American liberals in the face of such horror [is] the most damnable thing." Baldwin disappointed her, replying that he was "through indicting evil in the world merely for the sake of satisfying myself that I have spoken out." In a June letter she pressed on, asking him "how long it will take you to realize the whole enormity of the crimes against the spirit of man going on in Russia." She went on to argue that the Bolsheviks' sins were worse than the czar's.

By November, her patience with Baldwin was wearing thin. "Now, listen, dear boy: We sent you a list of a thousand names of Soviet victims in prisons, concentration camps and exile," she wrote. "This list is only a very small part of the many thousands who have been incarcerated, starved, tortured, or even shot."

"The class struggle is the central conflict of the world; all others are incidental," Baldwin wrote. "When that power of the working class is once achieved, as it has been only in the Soviet Union, I am for maintaining it by any means whatever."

Goldman's withering criticisms continued after Baldwin's book appeared four years later. She had good reason to be dismayed, according to Baldwin's biographer, Robert C. Cottrell. "Written shortly after Stalin ascended to power, Liberty Under the Soviets, along with John Dewey's Impressions of Soviet Russia, helped to shape the attitudes of American liberals toward the communist state," he wrote in Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union. "Both works painted the picture of a progressive Russia engaged in a great social and economic experiment, where cooperation rather than selfish individualism was prevailing, in contrast to the United States of the 1920s."

Baldwin continued to support the Soviet Union as it descended into Stalinist terror. In a 1934 article for the pro-Communist magazine Soviet Russia Today, Baldwin wrote what may be his most noxious statement. Defending the ACLU's support for fascists' free speech rights, he wrote: "If I aid the reactionaries to get free speech now and then, if I go outside the class struggle to fight against censorship, it is only because those liberties help to create a more hospitable atmosphere for working class liberties." Then he came in for the kill. "The class struggle is the central conflict of the world; all others are incidental," wrote the future Presidential Medal of Freedom holder. "When that power of the working class is once achieved, as it has been only in the Soviet Union, I am for maintaining it by any means whatever."

Civil libertarian purism this was not.

It took the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 to drive Baldwin away from the Soviet cause. "The Nazi-Soviet pact made you feel that suddenly the Communists were different people," he said. "They had abandoned us and got into bed with Hitler. It changed everything, of course."

Baldwin's conversion to anti-communism was a road to Damascus moment, and he had the zeal of a convert. By early 1940, Baldwin, ever the master bureaucrat, was maneuvering to purge the ACLU's board and staff of anyone who supported totalitarian dictatorships overseas and anti-democratic movements in the United States.

On February 5, 1940, the board and executive committee passed what became known as the 1940 Resolution. It stated that anyone serving in a leadership or staff position inside the organization was "properly subject to the test of consistency in the defense of civil liberties in all aspects and all places." The resolution also argued persuasively that the ACLU's work was "inevitably compromised by persons who champion civil liberties in the United States and yet who justify or tolerate the denial of civil liberties by dictatorships abroad."

For over 20 years, the resolution's description would have fit Baldwin to a T, but his civil libertarian inconsistencies and Soviet apologetics didn't ultimately jeopardize his place in the organization. Instead, the board, with Baldwin's approval, turned on one-time Wobbly and then–Communist Party member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Flynn was no lightweight. She was one of the founding members of the group. But in one of the most controversial actions in ACLU history, the board voted 10–9 to purge her from the organization during the early morning hours of May 8, 1940.

"The Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn," as it's known inside the organization, ended in exile. Baldwin, the onetime fellow traveler, would help send her into the wilderness, a scapegoat for his own flirtations with Communism—and for the ACLU's.

While the move made sense both in principle and politically, especially after Stalin and Hitler's short-lived truce, Baldwin's rank hypocrisy set a dangerous precedent that would come back to haunt the organization. As Burt Neuborne, a former ACLU national legal director, wrote in a 2006 law review article, "When the ACLU sought to intervene to mitigate McCarthy-era excesses, it was often met with the taunt that if Communists are too dangerous for you, why are they not too dangerous for the rest of us?"

More than a decade later, Baldwin was so solidly anti-Communist that he edited a book called A New Slavery, which described the party's use of forced labor to eliminate dissidents, terrorize the population into submission, and build up the country with cheap labor. He alluded to Liberty Under the Soviets here, calling it "naive," though he admitted he "was fully aware of the evils of the Soviet police state" in 1924.

He wasn't apologizing for the dictatorship anymore. The Communists, Baldwin now wrote, were "even more dangerous to human freedom" than the fascists because of their "lofty claims to salvation."

Roger Baldwin had finally lost his religion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not reflect those of the ACLU.

Photo Credit: Princeton University

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  • damikesc||

    Amazing how one person's "mass of contradictions" looks so much like "sheer hypocrisy on every thing they claim to hold hear", isn't it?

    Perhaps one should ask, with what he writes in his book, how can anybody label Baldwin a civil libertarian? He was anything but. Jeff Sessions is more of one than Baldwin ever dreamed of being.

  • Leader Desslok||

    Equality of outcome vs. equality of opportunity. Progressives always confuse the two.

  • Sevo||

    "...religious leaders [...], targeted because the Bolsheviks believed they were "a possible rival to the Communist program."..."

    They were right; the state is a jealous deity.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "He failed miserably, his socialist politics winning out over his civil libertarian principles. The book is sometimes frank about Russian repression, but even when it allows uncomfortable truths to see the light, it quickly shunts them aside, arguing that a greater sort of freedom justifies these incursions on people's liberties."

    It's nice to see the arguments haven't changed.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Great article. I've found that modern acolytes of emma Goldman often gloss over her anti Soviet sentiments that occurred after living there.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    One of my favorite stories of poetic justice concerns a British academic and self described radical, Malcolm Caldwell. Caldwell was on outspoken supporter of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, and when he could no longer manage to deny the brutality and mass murder of that regime, was quoted as saying that it was all "worth it' in order to achieve a non capitalist state. This was right before they murdered him. I'm pretty certain, given his rather elite status in life, that the "cost" would not include himself.

  • ||

    Useful idiots are eventually expendable.

  • JeremyR||

    So not much has changed at the ACLU, then.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's always been a bit disconcerting to know that a not-insignificant number of the ACLU leadership believes that social justice and equality is the primary goal, and agitating for civil liberties on the American front was largely a seen as a way to nip at the capitalist powers of the US government.