Criminal Syndicalism Laws (1919)
Bill Long 8/15/06
Can it Happen Here? It Already Did...
The purpose of this and the next few essays is to examine a type of statute very popular after WWI in this country which was used to suppress and infiltrate so-called radical groups. Called "criminal syndicalism laws," these laws were passed by 34 state legislatures between 1919 and 1921. The name, syndicalism, derives from the French chambre syndical, which refers to a union of trade people associated together for the protection of their perceived economic interests. The word syndicalism appeared for the first time in English only in 1907 and referred to "a movement among industrial workers having as its object the transfer of the means of production and distribution from their present owners to unions of workers for the benefits of the workers..." Thus, a syndicalist was one who advocated a change in the political structure of our country. A criminal syndicalist, as we will see, advocated violent change in the society.
In the wake of WWI, with the Bolsheviks in power in Russia, with socialism popular in the United States, with a large portion of the American people sick with a terrible flu which landed on these shores in 1919, and with massive numbers of illiterate and suspected radical immigrants coming to these shores, American legislatures reacted by playing the "Americanism" card. Though there were many types of laws that emphasized "true American values" (such as legislation prohibiting sending children to parochial schools in Oregon), the most popular type of these laws were aimed at unions and political parties which seemed to advocate a different system of government than representative democracy. Criminal syndicalism laws were the means by which the police power of the state could be mobilized to control the spread of this noxious radicalism.
Since all 34 statutes were based on a common model, choosing any one of them to study will suffice. I choose the Oregon statute, passed in 1919, revised slightly in 1921, revised considerably in 1933 and finally, after a 1937 decision by the US Supreme Court (DeJonge v. Oregon), abandoned by the State of Oregon in 1937. Many other criminal syndicalism laws stayed on the books until the late 1960s, however, when the US Supreme Court's decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio drove a stake through the quivering heart of many of these statutes. You can still find a stray criminal syndicalism statute on the books of some states (such as Montana), but its wording is so anemic that it bears little relation to the fiery and emotional-laden laws from the early 1920s.
The Oregon Criminal Syndicalism Statute
Though it enacted the law in 1919, the Legislature passed a nearly identical version of it in 1921, excising some repetitive verbs but keeping the spirit of the statute intact. I will provide most of the text of the 1921 statute in the next essay. I will conclude here with emergency clause of the 1919 statute to see the emotion-laden character of the law. Here is what sec. 5 of the 1919 statute (1919 Or Laws, ch. 12) provided:
"It appearing that there is a very active element within this state which is determined if possible to overthrow our existing political structure, destroy our industrial and economic institutions, disrupt our labor organizations, and bring ruin and chaos to our people, by organizing all lawless and dissatisfied elements which they may be able to gather here, and teach, instruct and incite crime and destroy property, this act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety..."
Whoa! Someone was worried. This kind of language is reminiscent to me of the words etched in stone beneath the statue, at the state capital plaza in Boise, of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, who was assassinated in 1905 by radical union members who felt that Steunenberg had done them ill. Unions per se were not considered to be anarchistic organizations, but they provided the wings under which anarchists and political radicals of all stripes could safely gather.
Thus, unless we understand the extreme hostility and suspicion with which unions and radical political parties were viewed in the wake of WWI, we cannot understand the vehemence of the statutory language or the perceived need to give no quarter to radicals who used the structure of the union to pursue their "nefarious" ways.
The next essay looks at the heart of such a statute.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long