‘Reviews’ Posts

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…)

Review: The Dissidents: Cuban State Security Agents Reveal the True Story

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

The Dissidents: Cuban State Security Agents Reveal the True Story
by Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Baez
published by Editora Politica/ LaHabana, 2003

This is an important and persuasive book. It should be brought to the attention of all those who are inclined to support Cuba but who are not fully informed about the “dissidents”, tried and imprisoned by the Cuban government last year. “Progressive Cuba bashers,” to use Richard Levins’ apt term, mistakenly believe, like David Frankel, writing in the September/October 2004 issue of Against the Current, that those imprisoned were victimized “for non-violent expression of views the regime can’t tolerate.” This is not the case as this book proves.

In his speech given at the launching of this book, which is printed as the introduction to the English edition, Felipe Peres Roque, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, observed that “the so-called ‘dissidents’ in Cuba are a creation of the aggressive policy of the U.S. government…and form part of the strategy to obtain, through pressure and blackmail, the condemnation of Cuba in the (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights, which can then be used as justification for the blockade.” While tolerated for years, it was only after Bush made “pre-emptive war” against Iraq and, without a sense of irony, labeled Cuba “terrorist,” and put it high on its list for “regime change” that the “dissidents” were arrested for provocation and subversion – not for “non-violent expression of views the regime can’t tolerate” – and brought to justice. Their efforts to build a network to overthrow Cuban socialism, to “aid in the transition,” as American legislation authorizing money (some 20 million so far under the l966 Helms-Burton Act) delicately puts it, was thwarted by these agents of Cuban State Security.

The eight Cuban State Security Agents interviewed in “The Dissidents” had all surfaced as prosecution witnesses at the 2003 trials in Havana, thus blowing their covers and infiltration of the “dissident” groups in Cuba and making this book possible. These eight are the cream of the Cuban revolution and the counterparts to The Cuban Five, their comrades, also members of Cuban State Security, long imprisoned in America, for joining and reporting on the activities of counter-revolutionary groups in Miami.

The interviews were done in a week’s time by two Cuban journalists. Luis Baez Hernandez, age 78, of Havana, was a war correspondent during the Bay of Pigs invasion.  He is a recipient of the Jose Marti National Journalism Prize and the Jose Marti International Journalism Prize awarded by Prensa Latina international press agency among other awards.  Rosa Miriam Elizalde of Sancti Spiritus, age 38, is also an award winning journalist. She was a columnist and then assistant director of Juventud Rebelde, the Cuban youth newspaper. She has written two books on prostitution, Jineteros en La Habana and Flores Desechables. Currently she directs two major Cuban online publications (www.cubasi.cu and www.antiterroristas.cu).

Agent Miguel, one of the people interviewed, joined the Cuban Democratic Socialist Current (CSCD) in l992 and then on instructions from Cuban State Security, the Cuban Association of Independent Journalists (APIC). There he found a “crazy world of gossip and intrigue.” He was given a computer and paid $l00 a month from sources in Miami and given instructions by the Cuban American National Foundation, the counter-revolutionary U.S. supported group in Miami, and from Charles Shapiro, the head of the Cuba desk at the U.S. State Department. He was also lead by Judith Bryan of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.

The U.S. broke ties with Cuba in l960 following Cuba’s nationalization of U.S. property, an act the U.S. provoked by refusing to refine oil in its Cuban refineries. Cuba offered to pay for the nationalized property, which is proper under international law, but the U.S. refused, initiating (more…)

WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 by Bryan D. Palmer: Book Cover

A Book Review of:
University of Illinois Press, www.press.uillinois.edu, 2007

A root of the National Lawyers Guild, formed in l937, goes further back to the post WWI American revolutionary left, to the newly established Communist (Workers) Party (1919) and beyond that to the legendary Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary often romanticized fighters for industrial democracy and the precursor of the CIO, the magnificent Wobblies.

For the IWW, “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All.”  It was the Wobby poet Ralph Chapin who wrote the famous working class anthem “Solidarity Forever”.  They expressed their class solidarity in the concept of “mass defense”, a practise the NLG undertakes to this very day with its support to and work in the defense, say,  of Mumia Abu Jamal, The Cuban Five, or The Jena Six.  The one person most responsible for this aspect of our heritage  was James P. Cannon, as Professor Brian Palmer shows in his beautifully written and exhaustively researched new book JAMES P. CANNON and the ORIGINS of the AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY LEFT 1990 – 1928.

Cannon was a radical Irishman from the Midwest.  His dad, John Cannon, was a rank and filer, what was called then a “Jimmy Higgins”, and a stalwart in the Debsian wing of the Socialist Party.  Jim Cannon, at age 18, joined the SP in 1908.  He took up with the Wobblies in the left wing of the SP and developed into an excellent organizer and speaker.  Jim worked with two outstanding Wobbly leaders, Vincent St. John and the founder in1905 of the IWW and head of The Western Federation of Miners, the great almost mythical figure William “Big Bill” Haywood.

The IWW defended immigrants, persons of color and strike victims.  They insisted on freedom of speech and assembly.  They were very radical and knew deep in their bones the truth about law as Bill Kunstler once described it.  “To me, (the law) is in its fundamental essence, nothing more than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself by any and all means necessary, for as long as possible.  Clarence Darrow put it even more expansively…..when he said ‘there is no justice – in or out of court.’”

When their Russian socialist comrades, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew capitalism, stopped World War One, and got rid of the Russian feudal monarchy and the Christian Orthodox church, the left wing of the American movement gave total support and solidarity.  Jim Cannon helped form and was one of the three leaders of the new Communist Party.  Actually two parties were formed.  They soon merged. Cannon was elected Chairman of the Workers Party.

Cannon helped get the movement – faced with fearsome repression, jailings, deportations and the Palmer Raids – up from underground and into the public political arena.  He worked to bring together the native American born radicals and their foreign born brothers and sisters then in the foreign language federations.

Revolutionary parties formed around the world in support of the great Russian revolution.  They banded together in what was called The Third International and met periodically in Moscow to conference and plan how to carry forward their work of defending and extending the revolution.  Because they didn’t have teleconferencing, e mails, or DHL, these meetings often lasted for months.  Cannon was the delegate from the American party to the conference in l926.   He and his companion, Rose Karsner, current NLG leader Matt Ross’ grandmother, met there with “Big Bill” Haywood, who had escaped a frame-up and was living in exile, protected by the Russian comrades as Assata Shakur is now protected by the Cubans.   Together they sketched (more…)

Book Review: Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

This review was written for Socialism and Democracy
(www.sdonline.org) and will appear in the journal’s November 2007 issue (no. 45; vol. 21, no.3).

Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London and Ann Arbor Pluto Press, 2007).

Joel Kovel has given us an impressive and important book. Its first printing sold out without a single review, major or otherwise. Nevertheless word of this extraordinary work is spreading. The taboo in the United States (not Israel) against seriously discussing and criticizing Zionist Israel has been broken with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s bold book labeling the situation in the Occupied Territories “apartheid” and with the exposure by prestigious professors Mearsheimer and Walt – in the London Review of Books after rejection by the Atlantic Monthly – of the power of the Israeli lobby. Kovel, by focusing squarely on how to “overcome” Zionism, takes the discussion exactly where it needs to go from there. He writes beautifully, even poetically, not just on Zionism’s sordid history, but on its ideology, its ethics, and even on the terrible ecological devastation in Israel itself, where every river is polluted, some to lethal levels. And he writes with courage and hope.

Kovel believes that the creation of Israel in l948, as a colony of settlers who established an exclusively Jewish and discriminatory state, has created a multi-faceted disaster – “a dreadful mistake” – that should be undone, with Israel de-Zionized and integrated into the Middle East. His solution is stated in the book’s subtitle and restated in the title of the last chapter: “Palesrael: A Secular and Universal Democracy for Israel/Palestine.” This is an elegant solution, and he lays out an action program to accomplish it.

How did Kovel, a Jew from Brooklyn, the oldest son of Ukrainian immigrants who did well – moving with Joel to “the purgatory of Baldwin, Long Island” – come to this radical critique and equally radical solution? Joel graduated from Yale and became a successful psychiatrist. He taught at medical school before switching careers and taking a social science professorship at Bard, where for a time he held the Alger Hiss chair. He is still there, the only Marxist on the faculty. This book is not going to further his career.

“What kind of Jew am I?” he asks, and answers “a very bad one.” More accurately, he defines himself as what Isaac Deutscher called “a non-Jewish Jew.” Not that he is not spiritual; he writes of reaching for the infinite. But he is not religious. Being part of a sect is too narrowing and confining. He identifies with the Jewish heretics who transcended Jewry, but who are nonetheless part of the Jewish tradition – he lists Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Luxemburg – and for whom “the true glory” of being Jewish is to live “on the margin and across boundaries.”

Kovel writes that the ethical reference point for Jews is the tribal unit. Since ancient times they set themselves off as “a people apart,” chosen by Jehovah, with whom they have a covenant. In Kovel’s view, “Zionism’s dynamic was drawn from the most tribal and particularistic stratum of (more…)

Book Review: Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

RADICALS, RABBIS, AND PEACEMAKERS: Conversations With Jewish Critics of Israel, by Seth Farber, Common Courage Press,  252  Pages, $l9.95.  207-525-0900.

Reviewed by Michael Steven Smith

My grandparents came to America from Hungary in 1912. My family who stayed there and the Hungarian Jewish population were mostly killed by the facists in the bitter winter of l944, some 800,000. Twenty thousand alone died of the cold and disease, huddled in the great unheated synagogue, the largest in the world, on Dohany Street in Budapest. I was in Budapest with my wife and sister and friends this past October vacationing and visiting my cousins. As it happened it was during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday and new year. We are not religious, nor are my Hungarian relatives, but we asked them to take us  to that synagogue  for Yom Kippur services. It was quite stirring to be there amongst the remnant of that ancient Jewish community that had been in Budapest going back to the times of the Romans.

My Hungarian cousin Anti is still alive and vigorous at age 96. He was not picked up in l944 with the others but rather in l94l, because he was a communist. So was his wife Manci. They managed to place their two year old son Vili with a sympathetic Christian woman before being arrested and put in separate labor camps. Anti soon escaped and fought in the forests with the Partisans. He is figure mentioned by his country’s historians. Manci lived. In l945 with the Russian liberation they returned to Budapest to fetch their son. Vili answered the door. “I am your mother,” said Manci. “No you are not,” answered Vili. “My mother was beautiful.” She was ninety pounds and bald. So they started anew.

The history of the Zionists in Hungary is a sordid one, even before they established their exclusivist colonial settler state in Palestine. My cousins, who were not important people, were amongst the several thousand Hungarian Jews who survived the fire. A pact was signed by Dr. Rudolph Kastner of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee and Nazi exterminator Adolph Eichmann in l944 allowing 600 prominent Jews to leave in exchange for Zionist silence on the fate of the remainder. Malchiel Greenwald, a Hungarian survivor, exposed the deal and was sued by the Israeli government, whose leaders at the time had actually drawn up the terms of the pact. Greenwald won. The Israeli court concluded, “The sacrifice of the majority of Hungarian Jews, in order to rescue the prominent ones (and send them to colonize Palestine – MSS) was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis….In addition to its Extermination Department and Looting Department, the Nazi S.S. opened a Rescue Department headed by Kastner.” ( Judgment given on June 22, 1955, Protocol of Criminal Case 124/53 in District Court, Jerusalem.)

In point of fact, members of the Zionist movement actively collaborated with Nazism from the beginning. The World Zionist Organization sabotaged world Jewry’s attempt to boycott the Nazi economy in order to be allowed to send money from Germany to Palestine. They fought against liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, for they wanted European Jews to go to Palestine, not America. As Ralph Schoenman, like me, an American Jew of Hungarian descent, wrote  “This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any rescue of the Jews facing extermination, because the ability to deflect manpower to Palestine would be impeded.(The Hidden History of Zionism, Veritas Press, P. 50)   David Ben Gurion summarized to a meeting of “left” Zionists in 1938 in England: “If I knew that it would be possible to save al the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative.” (cited in Lenni Brenner, “Zionism in the age of the Dictators,” p.49)

The first time I toured and worked in Israel was over the summer of 1959. I was sixteen years old. Israel was eleven. Anti’s brother Carl and his son managed to survive and get to Israel. The lived in Jaffa, a once Arab village north of Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed in l948. I found (more…)