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Albert Gates

Notes of the Month

The ISL Fights Its “Listing”

Meeting the Government’s Challenge to Democracy

(September 1953)

From The New International, Vol. XIX No. 5, September–October 1953, pp. 239–243.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Informed persons know that the Independent Socialist League (its predecessor, the Workers Party) and the Socialist Youth League appear on the Attorney General’s list of “subversive organizations.” They also know that for a number of years, the Independent Socialist League has endeavored to obtain two things from the Department of Justice under four successive Attorneys general (three appointees of the old Administration, and the new one under the Eisenhower government): the basis for the placement of the ISL, et al., on the list and a hearing at which the original action of the present Supreme Court Justice, Tom Clark, could be challenged and refuted.

The efforts of the ISL to achieve these two simple things is a four-year story that winds through the elaborate bureaucratic jungle of Washington. This time, however, the issue is one that goes to the very heart of democratic processes and involves at once the witchhunt atmosphere that has been slowly and with fearful certainty spreading to almost every aspect of American life.

The only tangible result of these efforts of the ISL to be removed from the list came a few months ago when the Attorney General, for the first time, presented a statement of grounds and interrogatories which the organization replied to in preparation for a hearing. A hearing, however, is still pressed for against a reluctant Department of Justice.

Back in 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9835 to his attorney general to set up a list of subversive organizations which would serve as an employment guide to governmental departments. Ostensibly, membership in any organization listed by the Attorney General would bar one from government employment. This simple purpose of the list was immediately obscured by its publication, and before long it became a nationwide index used in private industry, the entertainment world, private organizations, etc. A series of private organizations mushroomed up to police the nation and to make sure of the issue of “anti-communism” as a private racket – of course, in no more objectionable form than politicians who, in their general incompetence, have made it their sole stock-in-trade.

The original responsibility for this offense against democratic processes and civil liberties, belongs to former President Truman. For under his executive order, no provisions were created whereby organizations listed by the Attorney General could challenge the action. Secrecy characterized the whole conduct of the Attorney General. No organization ever knew that it was being considered for the list and no organization was ever informed of any decision that it would be placed on the list. None, of course, knew the basis for the action of the Attorney General.

Efforts to obtain that information were unavailing, since all the successive Attorneys General took the position that the Executive Order 9835 did not provide for disclosure of the basis for their decisions. The Executive Order not only did not provide for such a disclosure, it did not provide for a hearing of any kind at which a proscribed organization might challenge the listing. Neither was any provision made for notifying an organization directly that it had been placed on a list. The organizations listed learned about it simultaneously on a day in 1948 when the Attorney General merely sent out a nationwide press release announcing the existence and membership of the list.

In protesting its listing, the former Workers Party demanded an immediate hearing at which it could challenge the Attorney General’s action. It demanded, also, the basis upon which the Attorney General had acted. Both requests were denied to it: the Attorney General, under the Executive Order, would grant no hearing, and he would not disclose the basis for placing the Workers Party on the list.

Thereafter, the ISL continued to pursue the matter and finally agreed to attend a meeting to present its point of view before an assistant to the Attorney General. The reader, however, should bear in mind that when the ISL agreed to such a meeting it had not the slightest idea of what charges it had to meet. In preparing a written petition to Attorney General McGrath, prior to the meeting, for removal from the list, it proceeded on certain assumptions about the methods of the Department of Justice, and its subordinate Federal Bureau of Investigation, which it was also certain played a determining part in the case of the ISL.

At its meeting with Assistant Attorney General Raymond P. Whearty, in January of 1951, the ISL delegation, accompanied by Rowland Watts, Secretary of the Workers Defense League, was advised that Whearty had been on the committee which drew up the list. He declared that he was certain that a prima facie case could be made out for his action in any court! What the prima facie case was, Whearty could not disclose! It was based on information supplied by official and unofficial informants!

The delegation assumed that the Attorney General adopted a criteria that an organization which advocated the overthrow of the government by force and violence, supported a foreign government, or was agent of such a government should be on the list. It was led to this belief by the nature of the partial information contained in the press. Therefore, the delegation made a forceful statement of its views to Mr. Whearty, and on the above-stated assumption, refuted the position of the Attorney General.

There was undoubtedly a certain folly to the trip to Washington in the first place because of the position taken by the Attorney General in refusing to divulge any information or grant a formal hearing which would require an official decision by him in response to the protest and challenge made by the ISL. Yet, so strong was the position taken by the ISL and its counsel, that Whearty made a commitment to the delegation that the case of the ISL (and the SYL) would be reconsidered.

What happened thereafter was that the Attorney General refused to honor the commitment. The ISL was given a complete runaround on its case. Letters to the Attorney General requesting information and a decision on the reconsideration, were either not answered, or, only answered upon repeated requests for a reply. The replies merely shifted the ground of the Attorney General’s refusal to honor the commitment made. More accurately, the Attorney General stated that the re-examination had been made but the decision would not be disclosed until the termination of a case or two which had been languishing in the District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. By now two years had passed and a new Administration took over in Washington.

Immediately after the presidential election of 1952, rumors began to circulate that a “new deal” would follow in the scandal-ridden Department of Justice. Mr. Herbert Brownell, with a reputation as a firm believer in democratic processes, civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, was appointed as Attorney General. The country was told that the new Administration would revoke the Executive Order of Mr. Truman and issue a new one to guarantee that there would be no violations of the democratic rights of any person or organization. Organizations threatened with placement on any index, would be notified of charges and given the opportunity of a hearing before any decisions were drawn.

It was tempting to think that the old list might go out of existence, superseded by a new one based on charges against an organization, and followed by hearings at which charges could be refuted, witnesses confronted and cross examined. But it didn’t work out just that way. No, the old list, which had created so much mischief in the land, was retained. It was learned that Mr. Brownell would apply the aforementioned procedure only to new organizations who were not yet on the list (these were becoming fewer and fewer). But even here, the formal terms of the procedure of the new administration became a meaningless thing, because the new Attorney General, as in the case of the National Lawyers Guild, convicted the organization in a public statement before any charges were submitted to it or any hearing held. Thus, the National Lawyers Guild must now fight its case after it had been one-sidedly aired in public by the man elected to defend the democratic rights of any and all citizens!

Upon the announcement of the new executive order of President Eisenhower, the ISL immediately telegraphed the Attorney General protesting its retention on the list of “subversive organizations” and demanding an immediate hearing where it could contest the list and its placement on it. Under the new procedures adopted by the Attorney General, any organization demanding a hearing within a specified time from publication of its listing, could have one. The Attorney General would, upon such a request, present the protesting organization with a list of charges and interrogatories to which a reply must be forthcoming. The reply was to be accompanied with a formal request, once more, for a hearing. Thereupon, the Attorney General would grant a hearing presumably based upon his charges and interrogatories and the reply of the organization in question.

In July of this year, five years after its original listing by Tom Clark, the ISL received from the present Attorney General, a Statement of Grounds containing charges against the ISL and Interrogatories, reiterating the charges and requiring answers by the ISL. The reply was made on September 3 and returned to the Attorney General by Max Shachtman and Albert Gates, as officers of the ISL and in behalf of the organization. (See Labor Action of September 28, for full text of Attorney General’s charge and the reply.) There remains now the setting of a date by the Attorney General for a hearing. This, however, is slow to come forth as we shall show at the conclusion of this story.

The Statement of Grounds and Interrogatories of the Attorney General is an unusual document which has already brought protests from many quarters. It is sometimes difficult to fathom the bureaucratic mind with police powers, whose interests are based upon an active hostility to any non-conformist views or doctrine which challenge the validity of this society and its state power. It is disorderly; it is primitive.

The Attorney General’s document contains not merely the stock charges which are leveled against Stalinist organizations, but because someone apparently advised the Department of Justice that the ISL is undoubtedly somewhat different from a Stalinist organization, contains new ones which mark a departure from the ordinary or usual position taken by an administrative body of the government in former times.

Nowhere does the document of the Attorney General charge directly that the ISL, and its predecessor, the Workers Party, ever advocated the overthrow of the government by “force and violence” or by “unconstitutional means,” even though they are on the list on those grounds. The most the Attorney General does is to place an interpretation on Marxism and Leninism and declare that the ISL is Marxist and Leninist. As there is no direct charge made against the aforementioned that they advocated “force and violence” no refutation can be made except in a negative way that the ISL does not advocate those methods for social change in the United States.

Is the ISL (and was the WP?) an agent of a foreign power, or some reprehensible and objectionable international organization? No, the government does not make any such charge! It merely asks the question: whether the ISL is such an agent, and whether it does belong to any international body. It knew the answer before it even asked it.

The Department of Justice, as was clear from its document, is in a difficult position because in the case of the ISL, et al., it is dealing with a truly independent, revolutionary socialist organization, which does not fit into any of the categories of its proscription. It knows the ISL as an anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist organization, which is opposed to all imperialism, United States as well as Russian, as a socialist anti-war organization, which stands for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. Its crime then is clear: It is opposed to capitalism! For the Eisenhower Administration, that is enough. Here then is the “crime” of the ISL.

“The ‘changes’ advocated by the WP, ISL and SYL, if carried out, would result in the destruction of the existing form of government in the United States, and in place thereof would be established an entirely new social philosophy and system of ‘proletarian internationalism’ ... (it teaches that) capitalists control the existing form of government in the United States and use it against the workers as a repressive force.”

Throughout, the document of the Attorney General is an unconcealed defense of capitalism and its class divisions against socialism and its liberating ideal. The fight of the ISL is therefore in essence a fight for the right to advocate the ideas of Marxian socialism against a government that openly proclaims itself the government of big business and “free enterprise.”

The Socialist Reading Labor Advocate, mindful of the many differences it has with the ISL in the field of socialist theory and practice, nevertheless came to its defense editorially, because it saw instantly the meaning of the position taken by the Attorney General.

The Weekly People, organ of the Socialist Labor Party, in violent disagreement with the ISL, likewise was able to tear the document of the Attorney General to shreds, to show how it was speaking in the narrow interests of the American capitalist class.

Norman Thomas, with whom we have our share of differences, was quite astounded at the nature of the Attorney General’s Statement of Grounds and Interrogatories and made known his severe criticism. He and others are fully aware that the position taken by the Attorney General is such that it could be employed against almost any movement or organization solely on the grounds of opposition to capitalism. John Finerty, the noted labor lawyer, likewise voiced his sharp critical attitude toward the position taken by the Attorney General.

What is really involved in the case of the ISL are fundamental and decisive questions which relate to the future of civil liberties in the United States. This is the first time that an organization listed on the Attorney General’s index of “subversive organizations” has received the grounds upon which the Department of Justice acts in these matters. It is a document not calculated to hearten anyone about the prospects of civil liberties and civil rights, and democratic processes in the country. Socialism and its advocacy has become the object of government proscription and forms a new legal basis for administrative action against political opponents.

Having conformed to the rules of procedure set down by the Attorney General, the ISL had thought that by this time it would have received a date for its first formal hearing upon the charges and Interrogatories. After waiting for a number of weeks, it telegraphed the Attorney General inquiring whether any date had been set for a hearing. The reply received from Assistant Attorney General Warren Olney III was couched in such provisional and hypothetical terms, that at the time of this writing, it cannot be said with any certainty that a hearing will actually be forthcoming.

In his letter to the ISL, Mr. Olney merely said that the ISL would be informed in ample time to prepare for “any hearing” which “may take place.” The ISL in turn replied pointing out that the hearing could not be made such a provisional matter, since the procedures of the Attorney General state that upon a reply to interrogatories and a request for a hearing, the Attorney General “will” set a date and notify the organization in question by registered mail.

At the time of this writing, the ISL is still awaiting a forthright reply from the Attorney General.

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