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“At the opening session of the Second Comintern Congress on 19 July 1920,
Zinoviev struck a solemn note: 

‘The Second Congress of the International
entered history at the same moment as it opened. Remember this day. Know
that it is the recompense for all our privations, for our hard, determined
struggle. Tell your children, and explain what it meant. Hold the imprint of
this hour in your hearts!’

Later he was to recall:

In the congress hall hung a great map on which was marked every day the
movement of our armies. And the delegates every morning stood with
breathless interest before this map. It was a sort of symbol: the best
representatives of the international proletariat with breathless interest, with
palpitating heart, followed every advance of our armies, and all perfectly
realised that, if the military aim set by our army was achieved, it would
mean an immense acceleration of the international proletarian revolution.

On this point, the foreign and the Russian delegates were in agreement.
During the discussion of an appeal drafted by Paul Levi and addressed to
the world proletariat on the subject of the Polish War, Ernst Däumig, one of
the four delegates of the USPD, declared: ‘Every kilometre which the Red
Army wins … is a step towards the Revolution in Germany.’ The Russians
modified the draft texts at the last minute to take into account what they
regarded as a new conjuncture of events. For this reason, the resolution which
Lenin drafted on tasks on 4 July which included the phrase: ‘However, it
does follow that the Communist Parties’ current task consists not in accelerating
the revolution, but in intensifying the preparation of the proletariat’ was
charged in the draft finally submitted to the Congress to: ‘The present task of the Communist Parties is now to accelerate the revolution, without provoking
it by artificial means before adequate preparation can have been made.’

All this seemed to prove to the Communists that the postwar revolutionary
wave, hitherto confined to the defeated countries, was in the process of
extending to the victorious ones, France, Britain and Italy. From this viewpoint,
the construction of real Communist Parties was becoming ever more urgent.
For an approaching revolution, an organisation, an instrument, a leadership
were needed very quickly. Lenin wrote:

The Second International has definitely been smashed. Aware that the Second
International is beyond hope, the intermediate parties and groups of the
‘centre’ are trying to lean on the Communist International, which is steadily
gaining in strength. At the same time, however, they hope to retain a degree
of ‘autonomy’ that will enable them to pursue their previous opportunist
or ‘centrist’ policies. The Communist International is, to a certain extent,
becoming the vogue. The desire of certain leading ‘centre’ groups to join
the Third International provides oblique confirmation that it has won the
sympathy of the vast majority of class-conscious workers throughout the
world, and is becoming a more powerful force with each day.

The requests of the centrist parties to join the International had to be examined
with the greatest caution. If they were accepted unconditionally, it would be
with the opportunist leaders at their head. The Bolsheviks thought that they
had nothing to expect from such leaders but ‘active sabotage of the revolution’,
as the experiences in Hungary and Germany had shown. There was not
enough time to eliminate them by a political struggle from within. It was
therefore necessary to take precautions in advance to prevent them bringing
problems into the International, ‘to put a lock … a solid guard on the door’,
as Zinoviev said.

This concern, plus the need to concentrate the Bolshevik experience within
a few points as an instrument of political clarification for parties joining the International, led the Russian Communists to propose to the Congress nineteen
conditions with which applicants were to comply. This applied both to existing
members and to parties applying for admission, whether they were centrist,
such as the USPD, which still included strong social-democratic currents, or
ultra-leftist, such as the KAPD. These nineteen conditions were modified by
the congress to become the celebrated ‘Twenty-One Conditions’, which
expressed the Bolsheviks’ conception of what a Communist Party should be. 

The first duty of Communists was to give a ‘genuinely Communist’ character
to their day-to-day agitation and propaganda. The objective of the dictatorship
of the proletariat must be presented to the working masses in such a way
that its indispensability would be clear from their day-to-day experience. Reformist and centrist elements were to be systematically dismissed – the word
is emphasised in the draft – from positions of responsibility in workers’
organisations, and replaced by tested Communists, workers promoted from
the rank and file if necessary. The activity of Communists could not be confined
within the limits approved by bourgeois legality:

In almost all the countries of Europe and America, the class struggle is
entering the phase of civil war. In these conditions, Communists can place
no trust in bourgeois legality. They must everywhere build up a parallel illegal
organisation, which, at the decisive moment, will be in a position to help
the party fulfil its duty to the revolution.

In connection with this, Communists must carry out systematic agitational
and propaganda work within the army, and create Communist cells in it.
Refusal to carry on such activity, which would be partly illegal, was considered
as incompatible with membership of the International. The Communist Parties
must develop systematic agitational work directed at the working people of
the countryside, relying upon workers who had preserved their rural
connections.

One of the most important tasks facing Communists consisted of a
determined break from both the social-patriotism of the reformists and the
social-pacifism of the centrists. Communists must systematically demonstrate
to the workers that, ‘without the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, no international arbitration courts, no talk about a reduction of armaments, no
“democratic” reorganisation of the League of Nations will save mankind from
new imperialist wars’. The break from the reformists and the centrists must
be carried through ‘imperatively and uncompromisingly’ in every party,
particularly in respect of notorious reformist personalities like the Italian
Turati. At the same time, the Communist Parties must resist the imperialist
undertakings of their own bourgeoisie, and ‘must support – in deed, not
merely in word – every colonial liberation movement’. 

The ninth condition returned to the themes which were developed in the
polemic against the ultra-leftists. It instructed the Communist Parties to work
within the trade unions, by establishing cells within them that were ‘completely
subordinate to the party as a whole’. It was these cells – later to be called
‘fractions’ – which ‘by their sustained and unflagging work, win the unions
over to the communist cause’ and ‘unmask the treachery of the social-patriots
and the vacillations of the centrists’. Within the unions, it was necessary to
fight against ‘the yellow Amsterdam International’, and the International
must do all that is possible to break the unions from Amsterdam, and strengthen
‘the emerging international federation of red trade unions which are associated
with the Communist International’. 

Communists must use bourgeois parliaments as platforms for revolutionary
agitation, but must ensure the reliability of the parliamentary groups by
purging them of unreliable elements, and subordinating them to the Party’s
Central Committee. The publishing and press departments of the Party must
be under the control of the Central Committee. 

In matters of organisation, Communist Parties must be organised in
conformity with the principle of democratic centralism. The thirteenth condition
laid down:

In this period of acute civil war, the communist parties can perform their
duty only if they are organised in a most centralised manner, are marked
by an iron discipline bordering on military discipline, and have strong and
authoritative party centres invested with wide powers and enjoying the
unanimous confidence of the membership. 

Moreover, the leaders of Communist Parties needed to ensure the integrity
of the rank and file by carrying out a periodic purge, which in the case of
parties which carried on legal activities, meant systematically removing
dubious members.

The fifteenth condition laid down that Communist Parties were obliged
‘selflessly to help any Soviet republic in its struggle against counter-
revolutionary forces’.

The last four conditions spelt out the immediate requirements for parties
that were either actual or prospective members of the International. They
were to revise their former programmes to meet both national conditions and
the decisions of the International, with the revisions being ratified by the
ECCI. The decisions of the International’s congresses and the ECCI were to
be strictly followed. Every party which wished to join must call itself ‘the
Communist Party of the country in question (Section of the Third International)’,
in order to bring out clearly the difference between the Communist Parties
and the old Socialist or Social-Democratic parties which had betrayed the
working class. Lastly, they were all to convene their own congresses at the
end of the World Congress in order to put on record that they accepted these
conditions.

These were draconian conditions, and they were further strengthened at
the congress. They implied for every party of social-democratic or centrist
origin, whether in the International or not, as well as for the ultra-left groups
which wanted to join or to remain in the International, an early split on their
part, as the Bolshevik leaders were well aware. Trotsky declared:

There is no doubt that the proletariat would be in power in all countries, if
there were not still between them [communist parties] and the masses,
between the revolutionary mass and the advanced groups of the revolutionary
mass, a large, powerful and complex machine, the parties of the Second
International and the trade unions, which in the epoch of the disintegration,
the dying of the bourgeoisie, placed their machine at the service of that
bourgeoisie… . From now on, from this congress, the split in the world
working class will proceed with tenfold greater rapidity. Programme against
programme; tactic against tactic; method against method.

To be sure, no Communist underestimated the negative consequences of any
split in the workers’ movement. However, convinced as the Communists
were that the world was in a period of ‘sharp civil war’, and that the time
of the seizure of power was near, at least in the most advanced countries,
they decided, without a real preliminary discussion, to apply these conditions.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Translated by John Archer and edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce. Brill: London & New York, 2005. pp. 422-427

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“Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire:  that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.  That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.

It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.

Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War.  Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917.  That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft.  They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it.  If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar.  One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”

Schenck and his comrades made 15,000 leaflets and mailed most of them to men in Philadelphia who had passed their draft board physicals.  It’s unclear how many actually received the leaflet—hundreds were intercepted by the government—and no one produced evidence of anyone falling under its influence.  Even so, Schenck and four others were arrested and charged with “causing and attempting to cause insubordination…in the military and naval forces of the United States, and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment services of the United States.”  Two of the defendants—Schenck and another party leader—were found guilty.  Schenck’s case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1919, and the Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the conviction, written by Holmes, was delivered in March.

Holmes’s opinion was a mere six paragraphs.  But in one sentence he managed to formulate a test for freedom of speech that would endure on the Court in some form until 1968—“[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”—and in another to draw an illustration of the test that remains burned in the public consciousness to this day: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

With his disdain for socialists and rabble-rousers, Holmes would not have been pleased to see his name posthumously linked to Schenck’s.  But with his equally powerful sense of realism, he undoubtedly would have conceded the truth of Harry Kalven’s observation, in 1988, that “Schenck—and perhaps even Holmes himself—are best remembered for the example of the man ‘falsely shouting fire’ in a crowded theater.”  It was that kind of metaphor: vivid, pungent, and profoundly misleading.

Drawing on nearly forty years of his own scholarship and jurisprudence, Holmes viewed Schenck’s leaflet not as an instance of political speech but as a criminal attempt to inflict harm. In the same way that a person’s shout of fire in a theater would cause a stampede and threaten the audience with death so would Schenck’s leaflet cause insubordination in the military, hamper the war effort, and threaten the United States and its people with destruction.

Holmes knew that words were not always words:  sometimes they ignited fires—and not just the metaphorical kind.  In 1901, as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes had upheld the conviction of a man who tried to persuade his servant to set fire to his own home in order to collect on the insurance. Just as that man’s words threatened the safety and well being of his neighbors so did Schenck’s threaten the safety and well being of his, or so Holmes believed.

Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal:  neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way.  Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live.  If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure:  free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad.  The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater:  whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show.  And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone.  Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.

But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest.  What is security, people have asked?  How do we provide it?  Pay for it?  Who gets how much of it?  The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class.  And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation.  During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it:  the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists.  Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.”

– Ellen Schrecker & Corey Robin, “Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith,Corey Robin blog. February 16, 2013.

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