Dissonance: How an ACLU founder became an apologist for Soviet tyranny


Roger Nash Baldwin (1884-1981) was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) PHOTO/Wikipedia

On Christmas Eve 1926, Roger Baldwin set sail for the Soviet Union, a man adrift.

Nearly seven years before, he had helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He had been a hands-on executive director for the upstart organization, which had had an immediate impact with its unapologetic First Amendment defenses of labor radicals. The early ACLU wasn’t in any way a neutral defender of the Bill of Rights. As ACLU counsel Walter Nelles put it, “We are frankly partisans of labor in the present struggle, and our place is in the fight.”

But in 1926, Baldwin took a leave of absence from the organization as personal crises mounted. He was battling depression. His marriage was on the rocks. A close friend had died of a drug overdose. Later in life, Baldwin would tell an interviewer that it was “a time of confusion in my values.”

Baldwin had always been a mess of contradictions. He was a Boston Brahmin pursuing a classless society, a pacifist who called for class war, a civil libertarian who enthusiastically supported the Soviet experiment despite reports of the Bolsheviks’ police-state tactics. Now he would finally get to see the workers’ paradise for himself.

Before setting sail, Baldwin agreed to write a book for Vanguard Press’ series on Soviet Russia. Nearly a decade had passed since the Communists had swept away the czarist regime. Baldwin’s task was simple: As America’s foremost “fighter for liberty,” according to his editor, he would evaluate the Soviets’ civil liberties record and separate fact from fiction.

He failed miserably, his socialist politics winning out over his civil libertarian principles. The book is sometimes frank about Russian repression, but even when it allows uncomfortable truths to see the light, it quickly shunts them aside, arguing that a greater sort of freedom justifies these incursions on people’s liberties.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell later wrote. Baldwin’s nose must have been impressively large; it would be more than a decade before he recognized the Soviet Union as an authoritarian nightmare.

‘Liberty’ Under the Soviets

Vanguard Press published Liberty Under the Soviets in November 1928. The book opens, without irony, with a quotation from Lenin: “While the State exists there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State.” Everything Baldwin would write in the tome would prove those words correct.

Running nearly 300 pages long, Liberty Under the Soviets is divided into two parts. In the first half, Baldwin attempted to make the case that Soviet workers and peasants were experiencing newfound freedoms. He was not persuasive.

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