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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 742

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This is the grave of Eugene Dennis.

Francis Waldron was born in 1904 in Seattle (some say 1905), he seems to have grown up poor. He became a worker as a very young man, became involved with the IWW and started a life as an organizer. Like many Wobblies, Waldron became a communist after the Soviets succeeded and the IWW was suppressed by the U.S. government. He joined in 1926 and by 1929, had to flee to the Soviet Union in order to escape prosecution under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, a law passed in 1919 to oppress and imprison radicals.

In 1935, Waldron returned to the U.S. By now, he was a more committed communist than ever. He also changed his name to Eugene Dennis to avoid scrutiny for his previous problems with the law. Dennis was a hardcore Stalinist all the way. He was perhaps the most important Stalinist in CPUSA. How hardcore was Waldron? When he and his wife Peggy, an equally committed communist who eventually left the Party and thus is not buried with her husband, returned to the U.S., they left their five year old son behind to be raised in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Plus the kid only spoke Russian and was an obvious security risk to his parents. Yeah, that’s pretty hardcore. When Earl Browder was expelled from the Party, Dennis took over as general secretary.

Dennis was very likely a Soviet spy during World War II, He seems to have been a contact for communists in the OSS and his name comes up several times in records of the Verona Project. Of course, people testified against him for HUAC and other redbaiting committees.

In 1948, Dennis was among those arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law made calling for the violent overthrow of the American government illegal. And Dennis was definitely calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, even if the law was morally bankrupt. But he was doing so through citing Marx and Lenin and Stalin about the historical inevitability of such an act. Did citing theorists mean the same thing as personally calling for it in a way to inspire people to take up arms? He and the other communists convicted were sentenced to five years in federal prison. They continued appealing all way to the Supreme Court, where in Dennis v. U.S., the Court held up the convictions by a 6-2 decision. Hugo Black and William O. Douglas were the great justices who dissented. Black wrote:

These petitioners were not charged with an attempt to overthrow the Government. They were not charged with overt acts of any kind designed to overthrow the Government. They were not even charged with saying anything or writing anything designed to overthrow the Government. The charge was that they agreed to assemble and to talk and publish certain ideas at a later date: The indictment is that they conspired to organize the Communist Party and to use speech or newspapers and other publications in the future to teach and advocate the forcible overthrow of the Government. No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids. I would hold 3 of the Smith Act authorizing this prior restraint unconstitutional on its face and as applied….

So long as this Court exercises the power of judicial review of legislation, I cannot agree that the First Amendment permits us to sustain laws suppressing freedom of speech and press on the basis of Congress’ or our own notions of mere “reasonableness.” Such a doctrine waters down the First Amendment so that it amounts to little more than an admonition to Congress. The Amendment as so construed is not likely to protect any but those “safe” or orthodox views which rarely need its protection….

There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in a free society.

In 1969’s Brandenburg v. Ohio, the position Dennis and the CP took in 1951 was partially upheld, noting that advocacy of violence was not the same as actual violence.

Dennis stayed in prison until 1955. He stayed as CP General Secretary until 1959 and then took over as party Chairman until 1961, replacing William Z. Foster. Dennis also wrote many pamphlets and books to push the CP line. They included I Challenge the Un-Americans, from 1947; The Fascist Danger and How to Combat It, from 1948; and Ideas They Cannot Jail, from 1950.

Dennis died of cancer in 1961, only 55 or 56 years old.

Eugene Dennis is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other American leftists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tom Hayden is in Santa Monica and Morris Hillquit is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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