Journalist, Former Communist Party Official and Smith Act Victim–His mother was a leader of the Bund, a Jewish revolutionary group in Czarist Russia. He was born in 1913 and joined the Young Communist League at age 15. At 19 he worked as an organizer for the Marine Workers Industrial Union. His career as a journalist began at 21 working for the Daily Worker, published by the Communist Party. At 24 he moved to California and became a founding editor of the People’s World. Known for his warmth and wit, he recognized the communicative abilities of an unknown hillbilly folk singer and gave him a column in the paper. “Woody Sez,” was one of the beginning steps towards prominence for Woody Guthrie.
On July 26, 1951, while Richmond was seated at his desk typing an editorial on the Korean War, 10 FBI agents burst into his office. He was arrested and convicted, along with 11 others, of violating the Smith Act. Dubbed as thought control by its critics, the Smith Act allowed prosecution based not on actions committed by the defendants, or even inspired by the defendants, but merely on the claim that the defendants were members of an organization that was philosophically opposed to the government. Evidence included the Communist Manifesto written in 1848, and other books of a philosophical nature, by Marx, Engels and Lenin. It took the Supreme Court six years to void their Smith Act convictions, ruling that a person’s beliefs alone were not grounds for conviction. The decision in the case involving Richmond effectively ended Smith Act prosecutions.
Richmond resigned as editor of the People’s World over his criticism of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czecholsovakia in 1968. His Book, A Long View From The Left, is a beautiful and insightful analysis and critique of the Communist party. Edited from Mieklejohn Symposium “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” and an interview on radio station KPFA, 1979.
The Supreme Court decision in the Dennis case upholding the conviction under the Smith Act came down in 1951. (The Dennis case defendants were the first Smith Act prosecutions.) A little more than a month later we were arrested. We were found guilty and given the maximum terms–the judge regretted it couldn’t be more–five years and a $10,000 fine. We appealed to the Supreme Court, and in 1957 the Court rendered its decision dismissing the convictions. Now anyone who considers this chronology might say, “Well, you guys certainly dragged it out until times got better.” And there’s much truth in that, but it isn’t the whole truth because more was involved than simple luck in dragging it out until political circumstances improved.
So let me first begin with the times when we were arrested. Those were the years of the Korean War, beginning in June 1950 and ending in July 1953. Parallel to the war, domestic repression reached its zenith with the ultimate atrocity, the Rosenberg case. Julius was arrested less than a month after the start of the Korean War. He and Ethel were executed at Sing-Sing little more than a month before the termination of the armed conflict. It was in those three years that McCarthyism came into the language. Now I could tell much more about those three years, but believe me they were rotten.
Well we got arrested, and the first problem we faced was to make an estimate of the political situation. After all this was a political case. We were charged with a political crime, and if you enter upon a political battle, the prerequisite is an estimate of the political situation. It wasn’t easy to make an estimate. The situation wasn’t static, it was changing, and there is a subjective element that enters in. Because if you are taking a beating, if you are under constant surveillance, and if it’s clear that they’re out to arrest you and destroy the party with which you are identified–well it is hard to be totally objective. Now, you’re sitting in jail. You’d have to be stupid not to see that repression is going on, and that there is a danger of fascism. That was clear. The more difficult question was–had we actually crossed that line into, what you might call, the first stages of fascism? And on that there were differences of opinion. There was a feeling among some people in our organization, the Communist Party, that we had crossed that line. We kicked this thing around, debated it, and we reached the conclusion that as bad as things were and as real as the danger of fascism was, that line had not been crossed.
Now what flows from that is you have to relate the struggle you mount to a sense of the depth and resilience of the democratic revolutionary traditions among the American people, and democratic forms such as due process and attachment to the first amendment. Now clearly there are a lot of difficult theoretical questions involved, such as the limitations of democracy and its possibilities, et cetera, et cetera. But we did not get into it on that theoretical level. Essentially the political estimate that we made provided the basis for mounting a full-scale struggle, utilizing all the opportunities available, and all the resources we could muster, to wage a serious fight at the trial level and at the appellate level. And I think all of this contributed to the fact that ultimately we prevailed, and it was our case that finally brought the Smith Act prosecutions to an end.
I think this has significance for today because I find among some people there’s almost a zeal to proclaim that fascism is here. And I think an indecent haste to declare the arrival of fascism means the surrender of a whole political terrain for which generations of Americans have fought. So that while we emphasize the repression and the dangers that do exist, let us, for God’s sake, at the same time, keep in mind the opportunities that have historical roots in our democratic tradition and what remains in our distorted democratic forms. Let us recognize that these rights are worth fighting for. If anything can be learned from the 1950s, it is the possibility of reversing repressive trends, and that is where the focus should be, not in trying to anticipate how bad things are going to be and getting paralyzed.