Kennedy was responding to the Federal Election Commission’s refusal to extend the party’s exemption from having to report the names of contributors who give over $200 to its election campaigns. The Socialist Workers Party, she said, is “running mayoral candidates in New York City, Albany, Seattle, and elsewhere this year. We’re taking our program, the Militant newsweekly, and books and pamphlets to workers and youth open to a working-class alternative to capitalist rule.”
At a hearing, the SWP won the vote of a majority of FEC members to retain its exemption. Along straight party lines, the commissioners voted 3-2, with Republican appointees backing the SWP’s exemption and Democratic appointees opposed. Four votes were needed to grant the extension, however.
The FEC decision “is a blow to working people and constitutional rights,” Kennedy said in the FEC hearing room. “But the FEC decision won’t change what the Socialist Workers Party does.”
Kennedy attended the hearing, along with the party’s attorney Lindsey Frank, from the firm of Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky and Lieberman, SWP national campaign organizer John Studer and Steve Clark, a member of the party’s National Committee.
From the origins of the communist movement in the United States in 1919, the course of the SWP and its forerunners has been intertwined with the history of working-class struggle — in labor battles, opposition to Washington’s imperialist wars, the fight for Black rights, the struggle to win and defend women’s right to choose abortion, battles against deportations of immigrant workers, including its own members, and much more. It has explained the need for the working class and its allies to break from the bosses’ two-party system and chart a revolutionary course toward workers power.
All this has put the party in the gunsights of federal, state and local cops and spies from the outset.
From 1973 to 1987, the SWP conducted a successful 15-year-long political campaign and lawsuit against FBI and other federal government spying and disruption. This forced out many facts about the scope of government disruption efforts. Federal police agencies had amassed over 8 million documents on party members and activities, carried out at least 204 burglaries of SWP offices from 1960 to 1976 and paid some 1,300 informers to spy on the party.
This documented record was a powerful weapon in the SWP’s fight to win exemption from reporting names of contributors. Every time the FEC has reviewed the exemption, including this one, the party has submitted evidence of ongoing harassment of party members by the government, employers and rightist thugs.
Both the evidence and legal precedents — most of which result from battles waged by the SWP — support extending the party’s exemption, said attorney Lindsey Frank at the hearing. “To do otherwise would set a new, overly harsh burden on anyone applying for exemption in the future.”
“If not the SWP, then who?” agreed Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter.
Commissioner Lee Goodman, also a Republican, described prior attacks on people’s constitutional right to refuse to report the names of political associates. He recalled the victimization of Monthly Review editor Paul Sweezy in New Hampshire, as well as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Hollywood.
Goodman also pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision rejecting as unconstitutional efforts by the state of Alabama to force the NAACP there to make public the names of its members, at a time of lynchings and brutal assaults on fighters against Jim Crow segregation. The victory in NAACP v. Alabama has been a foundation of the SWP’s fight against disclosure since the 1970s.
“Do people still worry they can face harassment if they associate with the SWP today?” Goodman asked.
Those days are long gone, said FEC Chairman Steven Walther, a Democratic appointee who has voted against the SWP exemption twice before. It’s his “impression,” Walther said, that Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders’ ties to socialism “slid into the electorate easily.” The “tenets” of the SWP and Sanders are much the same, he said.
“The SWP has a completely different outlook and activity,” Frank replied. “They are for dissolution of the capitalist system, the establishment of a workers government. They point to the example of the Cuban Revolution. Their views are contrary to Senator Sanders.”
But aren’t they really sliding toward each other, Walther pressed. “How are your ‘tenets’ different?”
“It isn’t an issue of ‘tenets,’” Frank said. The SWP “has a unique political position ‘outside the mainstream,’ it meets all the legal requirements for an exemption.”
“Well, what leads party supporters to fear government reprisal?” Walther asked.
“The SWP has a record of facing more than 70 years of reprisals, something well known in this country,” Frank said. He pointed to documented reports that movements the SWP is active in today, such as fights against police brutality and to defend immigrants’ rights, have been targets of police spying and interference.
“But these reports don’t mention the SWP,” Walther said.
“Yes, not so far. But think for a second,” Frank responded. “It took a 15-year lawsuit and political fight for the SWP to force out evidence from decades of covert FBI spying and disruption. Must they do that again each time they apply to extend their exemption? That’s one reason Supreme Court rulings clearly say minor parties need only a low threshold of evidence to win exemption.”
“That’s right,” Hunter said. “We don’t need to delve into what level of harassment is enough. The case law says you only have to meet a low bar.” Matthew Petersen, the third Republican appointee, agreed, saying court precedents require only “a reasonable probability.”
“Well, I’ve voted to grant the SWP an exemption two times,” Democrat Ellen Weintraub said. “But I did so with misgivings. I’m a strong supporter of disclosure. Now the evidence of harassment seems weaker.”
Attacks on political space
Frank noted another factor, one that served as his closing argument in a third and final letter submitted to the FEC earlier that week.
“There is growing polarization in the U.S. today,” Frank said. “There are attacks on political meetings like those at Berkeley and Middlebury. These create an atmosphere where people are more likely to fear they will face harassment if they don’t have ‘mainstream’ political views and their political associations become known.”
Frank pointed to a document the party attached to its latest submission, along with press coverage of recent attacks on free speech and political rights. In an April 8 affidavit to the FEC, Stephen Gabosch wrote: “John Doe informed me that, because of recent changes in the general political situation for the worse, he had decided to stop contributing money to the SWP. He said he has been particularly disturbed by recent violent attacks on public speakers on several college campuses, such as Middlebury, and especially in Berkeley.”
The SWP’s attorney added that there are also “numerous instances where prison officials have denied copies of the Militant to inmate subscribers because of hostility to the SWP’s ideas.”
When the SWP’s first exemption was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1974, Weintraub said, Justice Thurgood Marshall pointed to evidence of “threatening phone calls and hate mail, the burning of SWP literature, the destruction of SWP members’ property, police harassment of a party candidate, and the firing of shots at an SWP office,” as well as the sacking of 22 SWP members from jobs due to their party membership. “There’s nothing like that this time,” she said.
“Those were the facts then, but that isn’t the criteria set by that Supreme Court case or by rulings since then,” Frank said. “You’re arguing that you have to have lots of evidence of harassment to merit an exemption, but that just isn’t what the decision says.” What’s more, he added, the FEC itself affirmed ongoing government and private disruption through 2013 in extending the party’s exemption that year, and the SWP presented substantial evidence of continuing harassment in its 2016 petition.
“I plan to vote no,” Weintraub responded.
The polarization pointed to by the SWP’s attorney and underlined in its most recent letter to the FEC is important, Goodman said. In answer to Weintraub’s remark that a meeting being shut down on campus isn’t evidence of harassment of the SWP, he replied that “the perception created by such activity carries reasonable risk” that people considering contributions to the party may fear what could happen if their names become public.
Hunter moved the commission extend the SWP’s exemption. The majority voted yes, 3-2. Weintraub moved the commission vote down the exemption. The majority voted no, 3-2.
SWP: ‘The FEC decision won’t change what the SWP does’
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