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New International, September 1949


The Smith Act and the Stalinist Trial

A Threat to Democracy and the Labor Movement


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 7, September 1949, pp. 195–196.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When Roger Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that “the conviction of the Communist leaders indicted to advocate political doctrines made criminal by the Smith Act was almost inevitable,” he touched the heart of the problem involved in the long-drawn-out Foley Square trial in New York City.

The Smith Act, passed during the hysteria produced by the recent war, is a vicious piece of legislation purposely designed to curb the advocacy of, writing and speaking for doctrines and ideas antagonistic to the existing capitalist social order and its ideology. It supersedes the Holmes-Brandeis doctrine of the necessity for a “clear and present danger” to exist before the fundamental right of free speech, free press and free assembly can be abridged.

This does not of course mean that American bourgeois society and its governmental agencies have always conducted themselves within the strict interpretation of this Supreme Court precedent. Quite the contrary. But to understand fully the legal implications of the Smith Act one has to bear in mind that it does cancel out the legal tradition of the Supreme Court, not only for wartime but peacetime as well. Under the Smith Act, no movement, no organization, no group and no individual, is free from prosecution if the government should so decide.

It was under the Smith Act that the leaders and members of the Socialist Workers Party were indicted and convicted during the declared war emergency. In that case, the Supreme Court, with studied cowardice, refused even to hear the case on appeal. With this new precedent established, it was a foregone conclusion that the Stalinist leaders would be found guilty, especially since the doctrine of a “clear and present danger” was specifically rejected by the Federal Court of Appeals in the Minneapolis case, on the ground that the Congress, having passed the Smith Act, was within its legal right to abridge the rights of free speech, free press and free assembly. The irony of the conviction of the Stalinists lies in their demand at the time for the conviction of the SWP leaders and their support of that conviction to this day.

But it would be a mistake to be indifferent to the verdict just because the defendants involved are Stalinists. Should the conviction of these agents of the Kremlin be upheld by the highest court in the land, the danger to all genuine movements for socialism, yes, and even for social reform, would be jeopardized.

The trial itself was unimaginably dull and drawn out. The Stalinist leaders, just because they were not revolutionary socialists of any description but cynical servants of Stalin’s bloody regime, did not comport themselves in the manner of so many great leaders of socialism beginning with Marx. They acted like clever shysters, adapting themselves to the trickeries of the law. Their lawyers had planned to drag out and wear down the court, to create such bedlam as to make the proceedings completely confusing and without sense to the ordinary layman. Because they are Stalinists they could not use the court as a tribunal to espouse the cause of socialism.

To the degree that they did pose as the spokesmen of socialism, the responsibility for that lies with the authorities and the whole of the bourgeois world. Unable or unwilling to distinguish between socialism and Stalinism, they strengthened the folly of our times: “Stalinism is socialism.” More important than that, the trial did make martyrs out of the Stalinist leaders and it gave them a weapon of immeasurable power, above all in Europe. More than one organ of bourgeois public opinion has called the trial and the verdict foolish and unrewarding. The liberal press has observed, with more sense than it usually shows, that the convictions reflect a hardening of the anti-democratic tendencies in American political and social life, and that this danger is far more acute than any possible dangers that can come from the Stalinist movement in the United States today.

It goes without saying that we are the most vigorous opponents of Stalinism and everything it stands for. We have never weakened or wavered in that opposition, even when the war produced an unholy and unprincipled alliance between the Kremlin and the White House. But we do know by an abundance of world experiences that Stalinism will never be defeated by such a trial as has just been concluded in Foley Square.

We are against the indictment, trial and conviction of the Stalinists under the Smith Act because the Act itself is a piece of vicious anti-democratic legislation, thought up by a Southern bigot and passed by a jingoistic Congress during wartime.

It was used against the SWP in 1941, a couple of lunatic fascist groups later, and the Stalinists now. It can be employed against any non-conformist group of any description. It is not merely a question of the Act being unconstitutional. Even if it were constitutional, it would indicate the necessity for changing the Constitution, for it abridges elementary democratic rights.

The struggle for democratic rights in this period, when it becomes increasingly difficult to defend and maintain them, is infinitely more important than the rights or lack of them by the treacherous Stalinists. This is the real issue involved in the trial.

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