An inspired dissent

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Benjamin Gitlow, a member of the left wing of the Socialist Party of the United States, was convicted under the Criminal Anarchy Act for writing a pamphlet called The Left Wing Manifesto, which advocated non-parliamentary methods. In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his conviction. Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the judges in the case, wrote a dissent in which another judge, Louis Brandeis, joined:

“It is said that this manifesto is more than a theory, that it was an incitement. Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and, if believed, it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason. But whatever may be thought of the redundant discourse before us, it has no chance of starting a present conflagration. If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”


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