‘Articles’ Posts

Imagine: If Mayor De Blasio Really Was a Socialist

Friday, February 21st, 2014

For a lot of people lately “socialism” is not a dirty word.  Trying to smear New York City mayor Bill de Blasio by falsely calling him a socialist did not hurt his campaign one bit.  In fact his support continued to grow and he won by a landslide.

Proving that socialism can win in America, a young woman socialist candidate, Kshama Sawant, just got elected to the City Council in Seattle, defeating a longtime Democrat,  garnering  lots of union and community support.  A 2012 national Pew poll showed 49% of people under the age of  29 had a favorable reaction to the word “socialism” and the two most looked up words in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary last year were the words socialism and capitalism.   And no wonder, real wages haven’t gone up in 40 years. Since the crash of 2008, the current great recession holds out few promises.  As Pope Francis recently wrote, unfettered capitalism is a “new tyranny” that has created a “throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people.”
Imagine if Bill de Blasio was really a socialist and came into office with socialist goals. What might he do as Mayor of New York City?   He has one potent weapon to wield: the bully pulpit of which Theodore Roosevelt spoke.  He could mount that pulpit to rally public support to fight for socially progressive measures.

Socialist Mayor de Blasio could continue to emphasize that he is telling a tale of two cities, one of the 99%, the other of the ruling 1%.  (It is actually much less, more like 1/10th of l%).  Here we are talking about the finance, real estate, and insurance interests that really run our town where 50,000 persons make more than a half a million dollars a year and 60,000 persons, mostly children, are homeless on any given night.  He could be a tribune of and for the people.  What agenda might he advance?  Here are some possibilites:

* Launch a mass action campaign for single payer health care, free for everyone, recognizing health as a human right.

*Put the City’s resources on the side of the poorest workers, like those in the food chain and garment shops and demand a $15 an hour minimum wage, sick days, pensions and vacations with pay.

*Find or build housing for every homeless person.

*Support tenants defending rent controls and small businesses that need this as well.

*End the illegal stop and frisk practice of the Police Department by withdrawing Bloomberg’s appeal and abiding by Judge Scheinlin’s decision that 600,000 persons a year, mostly young people of color, had their 4th and l4th amendment rights violated.

*Dismantle the police state surveillance of New Yorkers.  Take the street cameras down.  Get out of the mosques and Muslim communities.  Stop police collaboration with and office sharing with Wall Street bankers.  Get the police out of our grassroots political organizations. Allow for street protests without pens and nets and videotaping of activists.  Apologize for collaboration with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in raiding and breaking up the Occupy Wall Street encampment.   Restore the Handschu consent decree limiting
how police can spy on New Yorkers.

* Prosecute the banksters who crashed the economy in 2008 and then got bailed out with our money.

*Work to implement a municipal tax code that eliminates all regressive taxes like the sales tax.  Replace them with taxes on Wall Street financial transactions and support higher corporate taxes.

*March on picket lines with teachers and students to roll back cuts to education financing and tuition.

*Declare New York City a “Demilitarized Zone” within the USA where the peace movement is encouraged in its opposition to our country’s illegal, immoral, and obscenely expensive and seemingly endless wars abroad.

*Make education and actions about human- caused climate change the number one priority which if not controlled will doom us.

Michael Moore, echoing FDR, proposed a second Bill of Rights in our visionary new book “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.”  Moore wrote of the goals that might guide a socialist mayor: “That every American has a human right to employment, to health care, and a free and full education; to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat safe food; and to be cared for with dignity and respect in their old age.” Socialism has a tradition in America.  Our most famous thinker, Albert Einstein, was a socialist.   Martin Luther King said that “If we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

Mayor DeBlasio, as you take office, we remind you of the song of another socialist,  John Lennon, who wrote in “Imagine”  that “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will live as one.”  Mr. Mayor, this expresses the desires of humanity since the days of the prophets.  The majority of the people who elected you would be for it.  Do you dare?

By Cliff Conner and Michael Steven Smith.   Conner is on the faculty of the School of Professional Studies of the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he teaches history.  Smith is the co-host of the radio show Law and Disorder and on the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  Both contributed to and Smith co-edited with Frances Goldin and Debby Smith the forthcoming book “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” to be published by Harper Collins on January 22, 2014.

The Roots of Academic Freedom

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013


The Roots of Academic Freedom By Michael Steven Smith

Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti- Communist Purge
by Marjorie Heins

New York University Press, 2013, 384 pages, $35 hardback.

PRIESTS OF OUR Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti- Communist Purge is a smart, well-crafted insightful book by an especially qualified author. Marjorie Heins is an unrepentant six- ties radical out of SDS who went on to get a Harvard Law School degree and became a litigator, a law professor, an historian and a constitutional scholar.

Academic freedom was not gained along with the Bill of Rights just after the American Revolution, as most people think. It was not initially protected by the First Amendment, took a beating in the radical 1930s and during the Cold War, made some big gains in the sixties under the Warren Supreme Court, but still remains a fragile freedom in the wake of 9/11.

The kernel of Heins’ book tells the story of the investigations and purges of Communist Party members and sympathiz- ers who taught in the public high schools and colleges in New York City in the thir- ties and again in the ’50s and ’60s, and the Supreme Court decisions that resulted. It weaves together beautifully told personal stories with legal and political history. But it starts in the 1890s at the University of Wisconsin where I went to college and law school, and finishes with a chapter on post 9/11 developments.

I grew up in the fifties in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a little Republican village equi- distant from Joe McCarthy’s home town Appleton, and Madison where the University of Wisconsin was founded. Madison was an island of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s com- pared to Fox Point, or for that matter New York City.

In 1957 when McCarthyism had spread fear across the nation, my high school history teacher invited me and my friend Sue over to the room he rented in a local home. He made us promise not to tell anybody what he was about to show us. Then he reached under his bed and pulled out …. a Pete Seeger album.

Meanwhile at that time the headquarters of the “Joe Must Go” campaign was located at the University of Wisconsin, even as some 380 New York City teachers had been fired from their positions.

Origins of a Principle

University of Wisconsin Professor Richard Ely, a Christian socialist and social reformer, won in 1894 the first great victory for academic freedom over corporate influ- enced politicians who tried to silence him, falsely accusing him of pressuring a local printer to use union labor exclusively.

University President Benjamin Andrews came to Ely’s defense, telling the Board of Regents that firing Ely would be “a great blow at freedom of university teaching in general and at the development of political economy in particular.” The Regents issued a report which ended in words so inspiring that a plaque quoting them is displayed on the main liberal arts building at the top of the highest hill on campus, proclaiming:

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing (more…)

The Eviction from Zuccoti Park

Monday, November 28th, 2011

I went over to Liberty Square at 3:30 this morning and saw the endgame.  Broadway and Church Streets were blocked.  The subway entances were closed. The place was ringed by hundreds of cops manning metal fences that were set up in a block from the park, encircling it, so I couldn’t get near.  But I could see.  The place was ablaze under Kleig lights.  Huge white garbage trucks  with signs on their sides stating “clean up after your dog”  were pulling up and loading up.  They carted off the 5000 book library, along  the tents and the personal belongs of the people they had driven out.  Some stayed and fought and some 70 got arrested.  I read that ultimately water canons were used a la Bull Connor.

I spoke with several occupiers who had been driven out.  One was a young man from South Carolina, who was  broke and alone with no place to go.  He said his name was Colin Lauf, pointing out the irony of his name to me. 

The decision to crush OWS must have been made in coordination with the White House.  Five other occupations have recently been dispersed.   The cops in New York jointly man a command center on lower Broadway along with executives from Wall street. There they monitor thousands of cameras.  Some are  trained on Liberty Park.  They have face recognition computers and they had undercover cops pretending to be occupiers inside.  They must have mapped out who was there and where.  They had hundreds of names and dossiers from the one thousand arrests they had already made. 

The phenomenon of OWS was dangerous to the powers that be, too popular, growing rapidly in an increasingly radical direction, aimed ultimately at private property and its owners, hugely democratic, building alternative institutions, sketching a vision of a new society, having the frightening potential to “bring about a new world from the ashes of the old.”  Bloomberg is asserting this morning on New York One that “the decision was ultimately mine” and not doubt it was, but he did it in consultation with other elites, for them and for him.  They could not let live an encampment on the doorstep of their emcampment, a symbolic occupation of Wall St. which was more than symbolic, which was threatening to them in an existential way. 

Clearly this is a defeat for us.  But the movement is underway and has not been defeated.   It will morph and regather. Already this morning people are gather nine blocks north in Foley Square. There will be new forms of organization, there already are.   The national conversation has begun.  We will make the most of it.

Michael Smith

Remembrance of Malcolm X on his 84th Birthday

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Dear Friends,

I heard Malcolm speak when he came to The University of Wisconsin in 1963.  He had yet to break with The Nation of Islam and was protected by several of their bodyguards.  All were dressed nattily in suits and small knotted narrow neckties.  Malcolm had light skin and reddish hair.  “Detroit Red” they had called him when he lived there.   He spoke in a cadence which was musical.  I can’t remember the details of what he said.   The short of it was that he counseled fighting back.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  A lovely and courageous man, I thought then.   He once posed for a photo in front of a Levy’s rye bread advertisement which proclaimed “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”  Despite my atheism, I identified with him, supported him, followed his evolution into a revolutionary and supporter of socialism.  I smiled when he said, reflecting on reforming capitalism, that a chicken can never lay a duck egg.  And if it ever did, well,  it would be a pretty revolutionary chicken.   A friend of mine had a photo of him on her apartment wall and said she loved Malcolm.  I knew what she meant.

I remember clearly the night Malcolm X was murdered in the winter of l965, a cold February night.   I had come home late to my law school dorm at NYU and picked up the New York Times, which you could get after midnight.  The story of his death was on the front page.  Crushing.  The true story emerged later, the story of Co-intellpro and how the government assassinated Black leaders in order to “prevent the rise of a new messiah,” in J.Edgar Hoover’s words.

It was a blow we are still reeling from.  Imagine the level of consciousness and organization we in America would be at if Malcolm was still here, instead of say Reverend Al Sharpton, whom the media foists on us as a leader.  Or, truth be told, Barack Obama, who just appointed General MacChrystal, an assassin, to head the U.S. imperial forces in Afganistan.  Obama, promoted by modern advertising, as Chomsky has written, foisted  upon us as “Brand Obama”, in Chris Hedges description, a Black man with the keys to the car, now driving the empire, misleading, widely, for the time being, supported by both those who profit from empire and those who don’t.

Two years later in l967, I moved to Detroit.  A real Black nationalist place.  I appreciated that Malcolm had lived there.  When Pathfinder Press published Malcolm Speaks, edited by George Breitman and then a second seminal volume by Breitman, Malcolm X:  The Evolution of a Revolutionary,  I got them carried by the central book distributor in the area and they appeared in many bookstores Detroit.  Later when I worked for Pathfinder in New York City I helped get them distributed nationwide.   They are still in print. Malcolm has been relegated to an icon, the fate as Lenin wrote, of many revolutionaries.  His picture adorns a U.S. postage stamp.  This is now.  Who can tell the future?   I think it is likely that what Malcolm stood for, Black consciousness, uinity in action, identity with those struggling against imperialism worldwide, independence from the two capitalist parties, self-defense by any means necessary, a deep sense of love, as Che said,  those ideas will have a time to come to the fore.

A birthday salute to our brother Malcolm X,

Michael Smith

Harvey Goldberg: Teacher – Historian – Political Activist

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Harvey Goldberg brought to life the history of social movements in Europe and much of the world to thousands of students during his teaching career at Oberlin College, Ohio State University and at the University of Wisconsin. His passionate and electrifying lectures regularly filled halls to maximum capacity. Many of his lectures were recorded. Below please find one of my favorites:

Ideology of Private Property 2/25/1977

Where did the idea of Private Property come from and how did the world work before then? What has become of mankind since the concept took hold. What beliefs do you hold regarding the sanctity and persistence of private property and what would happen if you gave up those beliefs? These are some of the questions that are addressed in this spellbinding lecture

You can find more his recorded lectures at the Harvey Goldberg section of the The Brecht Forum website. – put together by Richard Bonomo.

How I First Found the National Lawyers Guild

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

1965:  How I First Found the Guild

by Michael Steven Smith

The Guild in the early sixties was not so easy to find, especially if you were from Wisconsin.  The culture of the Witchhunt still prevailed.  I had come east to New York and was in NYU Law School in l964 and was one to two radicals in the freshman class.  The other had been a founder of SDS at Ann Arbor.

The Guild in the early sixties was bowed, but unbroken.  It fought successfully to not be placed on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations.  It had a chapter in New York City, but zero presence at NYU as far as we knew of.  It took my transfering out of NYU to the law school at The University of Wisconsin to make the connection.  It was fortuitious, as I suspect most additions to the NLG’s ranks were in those days before the broad student radicalization which was to come around l968, four years later.

NYU law cost $5,300 a year and I ran out of money, or more precisely, my parents and I ran out of money.  They had two other children in college at the time.  I had grown up in Fox Point, a small Republican village north of Milwaukee and had set my hopes on escaping.  I went to the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad and now found myself dissappointedly back there, this time in their law school, which charged $100 a semester in tuition.  I was able to work for my room and board.

But Wisconsin had a deservely progressive reputation and it was there at the law school that I met Karen Mills, who would be my connection to the Guild.  She was a red diaper baby from Great Neck, via Brooklyn Heights.  Her dad Saul Mills was an historical figure, I later learned.  He had been a reporter for The Brooklyn Eagle and an organizer of The Newspaper Guild before becoming secretary to John L. Lewis, the head of the militant United Mine Wokers and the newly formed C.I.O.

Saul Mills needed legal help and he got it from two young lawyers with whom he would become friends and who had recently started up a new firm.  They were Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz.  The firm, Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Standard, would become the great fighting leftist firm for the next generation.

Meanwhile, my new friend Karen was friends with Joannie Rabinowitz, Victor’s daughter.  They had gone to Antioch College, another progressive place,  and Joannie came out to Madison to (more…)

The Magical Animal

Monday, January 8th, 2007


We bought Charlie almost fifteen years ago. We hadn’t intended to buy a bird. It was supposed to be a zoo visit. Debby found out about this cool place in Tribeca, The Urban Bird. All the baby birds for sale were just out there, standing on perches, sleeping in little cozy nests. No cages. Just young parrots – all kinds, sizes, and colors. Green ones from South and Central America; white ones from Australia; blue and scarlet ones from Indonesia; and Charlie, a grey one with a red tail from Central Africa. Charlie was featherless at the time and living above the store in the nursery. But I am getting ahead of my story.

All the birds in the store were babies, with one exception. One old bird was living in a cage, hanging high from the ceiling, in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. I opened the door and Eli, our son, age ten, and I walked in. Debby lingered by the cash register reading a New Yorker article about this “only in New York” place.

The old bird spotted us. He was old and bitter. The two guys that had owned him had abandoned him when they split up. He saw us and yelled out “I’ve got a yeast infection.”  ”What?”, said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer the bird added a “fuck you.” Instantly Eli responded, “Dad, can we get a bird like that one?” And so we did.

Parrots bond with one mate for life. Since we were part of the flock it would be one of us and with Eli at camp, it would be me or Debby. The issue was settled when Charlie, sitting on my index finger, bent down and bit me. “You son- of- a- bitch,” I exclaimed and reflexively dropped the poor bird. He never forgot it. And he bonded with Debby. He even tries to feed her, so that she will lay a good egg.  Even though she rebuffs his attempts, he still loves her.  And when he is mad he still says ” you son-of-a-bitch” in my voice.

Along with Charlie we had an outsized grey cat named Moe. Charlie was smarter than Moe and used to mess with him. “Come here Moe,’ he would command, in my tone of voice. Moe would wander over. And Charlie would wait until he got over to his cage and say “You grey son-of-a-bitch.”

When Eli would practice guitar in the living room where Charlie lives in his cage he frequently would meet with Charlie’s free associations. Once a day Charlie unburdens himself with every phrase he knows, going on and on until it could make you crazy or you leave the room. That’s how he learned how to say “I’m gonna kick your ass.” Eli would yell that at him, hoping he would shut up, but to no avail.

On the morning of 9/ll I was supposed to meet my friend John Pellaton for breakfast at Windows on the World, atop of Tower Two at the World Trade Center. We were to meet at 8:00 o’clock. The first plane hit the building at 8:40. But John had a meeting and called just before to cancel. So we were still at home at the time the crash shook our apartment. When it shook it again for the second time we thought we were being bombed. With the big cat and Charlie we weren’t very portable, so we stayed put the first night. Everyone in our building left, except for us, Moe, Charlie, and a blind bass player on the 6th floor. The FBI rousted us the next morning. (more…)

Judge Bruce M. Wright is Dead

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

NLG friend Judge Bruce M. Wright died at age 86 this past March.  He was a significant figure in the heritage and history of our country not only as a jurist and attorney, but as a humanist intellectual, a poet, and a humorist, as the two volumes of his autobiography reveal ( Black Robes, White Justice, and Black Justice in a White World).

Wright became a New York City judge relatively late in his life, unexpectedly appointed by Mayor John Lindsay in l970.  When Lindsay told him of his appointment, Wright, unbelievingly, replied that he couldn’t accept the judgeship because he did not have the money to pay for it.  He was then 52 years old.  He had been a published poet, a lawyer, a decorated WWII combat veteran, an Army deserter, a manager and advisor to jazz musicians, and an expatriate intellectual in Paris.  He met Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, with whom he got drunk on scotch ending up in a French hospital with a bleeding ulcer.  He worked on a magazine with Leopold Senghor, the future president of Senegal, with whom he remained a life-long friend.  Like many black Americans, Bruce Wright found the City of Light less oppressive, deserting the Army on his way back to America from European combat, making the decision en route when a white officer looked at his medals and then looking straight at him said, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers to fight.”  During the war From the Shaken Tower, a book of his poetry, was published in England and it was at that time also that he began his collaboration with Langston Hughes.

Returning stateside and moving to Harlem, where he lived for six decades, Wright knew Harlem renaissance artists Romaine Bearden, Charles Alson, and Aaron Douglas, whose murals of the African American experience decorate the Harlem library.  Wright was closely associated with the post WWII jazz scene.  The emergence of black nationalism in the northern ghettos in the l950s coincided and interrelated with revolution in black music called Bebop.  The Beboppers were rebels, culturally and personally, if not overtly politically.  They took jazz and stood it on its head, taking traditional “American classical music,” the great gift of black America to the world, and elevated it to new levels of complexity and beauty.  Bruce Wright, a rebel himself, identified and associated with the new music at its birth and was a manager and business advisor to great artists including Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Mary Lou Williams, and Sonny Rollins.

Wright’s mother was Irish, one of l3 children, whose ancestors came from Ireland around l825, settling in Newark, New Jersey.  Bruce was raised in Princeton in a loving home with a brother and sister.  His father was black man from Monserrat, a Caribbean island from which he immigrated because “there was nothing to do except haul water to Antigua.”  Wright remembered his mother as “a tall, handsome woman, jolly and a moderate drinker.  she seemed to be at ease with the black neighbors among whom we always lived.  “My father,” he recalled, “was five feet four inches tall, a pefectly reasonable height for a pacifist.  A survivor of WWI, he preached to me from childhood the imagined virtues of imagined peace.”  They were buried in a segregated cemetery, separated on the basis of race.  “My mother and her old sister…are buried in the white section.  My father lies in the same obscurity he knew in life, in the areas reserved for the black dead.”

Wright ran afoul of the New York City police and prosecutors when he refused to rubber stamp routinely high bail requests, which not only denied the accused the right to be free to help prepare their own defense but worked in practise as preventive detention.  When he released an accused cop killer (latter acquitted) the Policemen’s Benevolent Association went ballistic.  The tabloid press dubbed him “Turn ‘em Loose Bruce.”

A demonstration, built with the help of the Guild and Bruce’s friend Guild President Hal Mayerson was called in his defense.  Hundreds gathered to support him in front of the downtown Municipal Building.  When his judgeship was not renewed, he ran for the Civil Court from Harlem and won a ten-year term.  Bruce was extremely popular among lawyers who appeared before him because of his intelligence and courtesy.

Bruce M. Wright was a well known figure in Harlem.  The encomium that he liked best was given him the day a car knocked him off his bicycle, seriously injuring him.  As Wright lay in the street, a passerby looked down at him and said, “Oh shit, its the judge.”

by Michael Steven Smith