by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Bernie Sanders has surged in support among left-wing Democrats during this most fascinating of presidential primary election seasons, his long-standing avowals of democratic socialism have been scrutinized in many different ways. Some in mainstream media publications look to identify what the term means, while the Communist Party USA published an interesting take. Meanwhile, Sanders’ political ideas and identity have been recast by right-wing Republicans as “socialism” and “communism,” as if these terms were not only directly applicable, but interchangeable.
The beauty of all this in broad brush is that, in a pluralistic democratic society with a robust free press, including online opinions, we are able to utilize an “open forum” to discuss varying views of all kinds from people of all political stripes. This depends on the strength of the defense of civil liberties and tonight’s post is the third to highlight a 1929 issue of The Open Forum, the four-page publication of the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU,) an organization that has both drawn praise and scorn for its work.
After World War I and the rise of the Soviet Union, creeping fears going back decades as labor movements, progressive political ideas, and other elements gained steam among many in America manifested into what has been called “The Red Scare.” In late 1919 and early 1920, under Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, a series of raids took place in which thousands of alleged “radicals” were arrested.
This led directly to the formation, in January 1920 of the ACLU to defend the rights and civil liberties of all Americans and, as noted, the organization’s work has been lionized and attacked in the century since. The push and pull of political propaganda, all along the spectrum, may vary widely, but the mission of the ACLU remains fundamentally the same: to defend the rights of all Americans for free expression and free assembly.
In this 2 March 1929 edition of The Open Forum, there is a mission statement for the publication:
This paper . . . is carried on by the American Civil Liberties Union to give a concrete illustration of the value of free discussion. It offers a means of expression to unpopular minorities. The organization assumes no responsibility for opinions appearing in signed articles.
The paper includes items from around the country that concerned possible or real threats to civil liberties, much of it involving disputes between organized labor and government, as well as congressional deliberations on legislation curbing injunctions filed by companies against striking workers.
One front page local item concerned the reported arrests of persons involved in labor agitation. A man identified only as “I. Klein” was said to have been picked up by the “Red Squad” of the Los Angeles Police Department, on a charge of battery, but he alleged that he was taken in “merely for membership” in a union local. Three others, including two women, were arrested on an allegation of lacking a permit to distribute leaflets for a union meeting. Los Angeles was decidedly an “open shop,” or non-union, city.
A lengthy letter by T.H. Bell addressed misconceptions about anarchism, a widely used term from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including how violence employed by some anarchists, but claimed that so had many other groups in countries where free expression was blocked. Bell also averred the Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley, was not an anarchist, but was portrayed as such so that anarchists could be unfairly blamed.
Instead, he went on to advocate his form of anarchism as libertarianism, though Bell’s analysis wanders quite a bit into the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century and the American revolution, as well as LAPD beatings of prisoners and prohibitions of public meetings concerning the deaths “of two men who spoke the truth too plainly,” though the writer did not identify them or the situation.
In a separate section titled “From Various Viewpoints,” there is an exposition of “The Libertarians” and the “Socialist Labor Party.” With the former, there was a claim that “the capitalist powers have lately been sending secret agents to the big cities in Russia with instructions to eat all the bread they could,” to foment anger among hungry citizens. It was also asserted that some people “no doubt paid by the Anarchists” were spreading rumors “that if Russia were a free country” it could raise enough food for all.” The report added that “if any such scoundrels are caught they will be packed off at once to exile in Siberia.” Of course, the horrors of Stalinist persecution in Soviet Russia were later bared for public exposure and understanding.
The latter piece promoted the writings of Daniel De Leon, a native of the island of Curacao and an early leader of the Socialist Labor Party. A dozen of his pamphlets were listed, said to have been “the best modern literature on Socialism, its tactics and goal.” Moreover, there was a testimonial from none other that Lenin, who was said to have proclaimed that De Leon “is the only one since the time of Karl Marx who has added anything to Socialist thought.”
Another item of interest is the reprinting of a poem by William Ellery Leonard, who was well-known at the time, about Tom Mooney, a labor leader and Socialist activist who was convicted of a 1916 bombing in San Francisco and sentenced to a lengthy prison term at San Quentin. Here’s a sample of Leonard’s interesting construction in his versifying:
Tom Mooney thinks behind a grating, beside a corridor (He’s waiting.)
Tom Mooney free was but a laboring man; Tom Mooney jailed’s the Thinker of Rodin. The workers in ten nations how have caught
The roll and rhythm of Tom Mooney’s thought—
By that earth-girding S.O.S.
The subtle and immortal wireless of man’s strong justice in distress.
Bell’s nemesis in the anarchist vs. libertarian ramble was identified only as “G.H.S.” and those initials were used in a long article about Prohibition, recently enacted by amendment to the Constitution. The writer asserted that it was the obligation of all citizens to obey the law and claimed that the argument that Prohibition was anathema to “personal liberty—the alleged right to do as one pleases” and that this view was “both illogical and idiotic.”
“G.H.S.” stated that, while “personal liberty of opinion and expression are inviolable” and that similar rights concerning “fact and theory” were also sacrosanct, “personal liberty to do those things or engage in activities which hurt the individual or endanger the nation’s good is not an inalienable right, and should be prohibited.”
The problem was that the poison of alcohol consumption tended “to lower the physical, moral and intellectual character of the race” and narcotics should be legalized as well as alcohol if that was a valid argument. Stunningly, “G.H.S.” added that. in comparison to the dire effects of alcohol, “highway robbery is a virtue, while misdemeanor and rape [a strange pairing, to be sure] a pleasant sport.” The writer also claimed that, while “atheism and religion have slain their thousands, alcoholic drunkenness has slain its tens of thousands.”
As for Prohibition, it was demanded that authorities should “rigidly and mercilessly enforce the law” and it was added that militias and the national guard should be called out to do so, even if martial law needed to be declared. This extreme position, this extraordinary piece concluded, came from “a radical whose antipathy to capitalism is so pronounced that he would instantly and ruthlessly destroy it” if a “new social order of industrial democracy” could take its place. Fortunately, someone so doctrinaire as “G.H.S.” was not in a majority of view or in a position of significant power.
The radicalism of “G.H.S.” was addressed in a letter from “T. Hastie” who attacked the former’s claim in an earlier issue of The Open Forum that a war between the imperialist capitalist states of Great Britain and the United States would be welcomed by workers in both countries. Hastie, a native of England, hotly disputed the assertion and claimed that the British were approving of the American revolution and very friendly towards the United States so that any such talk of war was “abominable.”
Lastly, there is a remarkable letter by Dr. Elzora Gibson, a white woman from Illinois whose professional background and occupation is unclear, though she was a major figure in forming political organizations for black women and assisted with the presentation of the first exhibit of black artists in Los Angeles, which took place later in 1929.
In any case, her missive was titled “Who Will Stop Lynching?” and Gibson wrote of reading in the black newspaper the Chicago Defender of a particularly brutal and horrific lynching by whites of a black man in Mississippi. She added:
The white Americans hold the reins of government, they have the power, they claim to be a civilized Christian nation. Church spires by the thousands pierce the sky and prayers are made by the millions, and yet what are we doing to stop lynching? I say, nothing. How can any government or any minister invoke the blessing of God, and expect Him to heed, when in their own dooryard they have witnessed the burning alive of a human being? In my opinion, every American citizen who does not do all in his power to stop such brutality is as guilty as are the members of the mob.
Cannot the white people see that they are sowing the seeds of another rebellion? Just what you have measured to these black people will be measured back to you in full . . . There is only one way to appease the resentment of the oppressed and that is to give them their rights . . . and we, the recognized Christian leaders, the recognized world power, are building our house upon the sands of greed and selfishness.
This letter, coming decades before the civil rights movement matured and flowered and being written by a white woman in late Jazz Age Los Angeles, is a stunning indictment of white America and would likely only have been published in journals like The Open Forum with its avowed mission statement of promoting “free discussion” and a venue for “expression to unpopular minorities” including people like Dr. Gibson, T.H. Bell, and political radicals like “G.H.S..”