How the Left Thinks

“Know your enemy” is one of the most important principles in warfare, both physical and political.

Here’s an insight into how people with decent motivations can become apologists for systems which in practice produce the exact opposite of what the apologist is supposed to stand for.

The author is Roger Baldwin, a key member in founding the American Civil Liberties Union and its first executive director, which is now sliding away from its principled defense of civil liberties for all.

It was written in the early 1930’s, just after the ACLU was founded. Baldwin is clear that his defense of civil liberties is instrumental, not principled: he really wants civil liberties for Communists, but has to occasionally defend the civil liberties of ‘reactionaries’.

Note that Baldwin, over the decade of the 1930s, wised up, and eventually became a serious opponent of the Communists. Then, for many years, the ACLU quite rightly refused membership to people, like Communists and fascists, who were for civil liberties for themselves, but not for others. But this only lasted a couple of decades … and then they went back to embracing Communists as members.

Anyway, here is Mr Baldwin’s views of the world when he began his career as a fighter for civil liberties in America:

I believe in non-violent methods of struggle as most
effective in the long run for building up successful
working class power. Where they cannot be followed or
where they are not even permitted by the ruling class,
obviously only violent tactics remain. I champion civil
liberty as the best of the non-violent means of building
the power on which workers rule must be based.

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.
The class struggle is the central conflict of the world;
all others are incidental.

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.

Dictatorship is the obvious means in a world of enemies at home and abroad. I dislike it in principle as dangerous to its own objects. But the Soviet Union has already created liberties far greater than exist elsewhere in the world. They are liberties that most closely affect the lives of the people — power in the trade unions,
in peasant organizations, in the cultural life of nationalities,
freedom of women in public and private life, and a tremendous
development of education for adults and children.

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.

If American champions of civil liberty could all think
in terms of economic freedom as the goal of their labors, they too would accept “workers’ democracy” as far superior to what the capitalist world offers to any but a small minority. Yes, and they would accept — regretfully, of course — the necessity of dictatorship while the job of reorganizing society on a socialist basis is being done.

“Freedom In the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.” (Soviet Russia Today, September 1934)

Baldwin, Roger (2006) [1971].
“The Roger Baldwin Story: A Prejudiced Account By Himself”.
in Woody Klein. Liberties Lost: The Endangered Legacy of the ACLU. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. p. 11. ISBN 0275985067.

Not the left. Not anymore.