The Palmer Raids and the First Red Scare: The Roots of Liberal Anticommunism in the United States



For one reason or another, there is much more literature about the second “Red Scare,” now known as McCarthyism, than there is about the First Red Scare. Perhaps it is only because the second one, which occurred in the late 1940s into the early 1960s is more recent and many of those who lived through it are still alive today. Maybe it is because the second one coincided with the intensification of the Cold War that has had such a profound impact on the U.S.’s collective understanding of history and culture. There’s even the theatre of HUAC hearing and the Hollywood Ten. It is also plausible that the First Red Scare, which occurred from around 1917 into the mid-1920s, was much more violent, repressive and does more to harm the reputation of the U.S. as a bastion of democracy and freedom.

The Palmer Raids matter precisely because they fit within a continued history of class struggle in the U.S. and throughout the world. Unfortunately, many of the histories of these raids downplay this fact. Well intentioned liberals, and some moderates look at events like the Palmer Raids and proclaim that these were glitches, mere mistakes that the collective we (whoever this “we” means is never spelled out) made and have now learned from. Yet, this completely misses the point.

Arguably the most important part of the First Red Scare is what became known as the Palmer Raids from December 1919 to January 1920. These were a series of government raids on the offices and headquarters of leftist radicals all across the country. They’re named after the Attorney General of the time A. Mitchell Palmer. They were carried out specifically against radical organizations such as the IWW, the Socialist Party, and especially the newly formed Communists parties following the formation of the Third International.

The late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw massive growth and support for socialist, communist and other radical political groups and aims, including the elections and appointments of 73 socialist mayors and 1,200 small-time officials throughout 340 towns and cities in 1911.[1] In this context it should not be a surprise that at this moment of increasingly left radicalism the bourgeois government would lead a massive attack on leftist organizations and people. Understood this way, the violence and violations of the Palmer Raids were not a poorly thought out decision, hastily made by politicians swept up by the Red Scare. Rather, they fit into the larger context of class antagonism, and within the framework and very functions of a state.

One of the major deficiencies of current histories is that they either ignore class conflict or downplay its importance, and take away the agency of individual radicals and radical organizations. They tend to paint the victims of the raids as passive subjects or at most “philosophical radicals” who simply held some controversial ideas. Current histories rarely include the voices of the victims, and instead we hear retellings by some liberals and progressives. While these liberals and progressives often offer a strong indictment of the government’s overreach and in defense of the raid’s targets, they do so by ignoring the larger antagonism at play. In so doing, it perhaps improves the argument that the raids were excessive and wrongful violations, but at the cost of understanding the full history. These narratives ignore the fact that there were revolutionary groups and people who were in fact organizing and working toward revolution, and understood that they were doing exactly that.

The aim of this essay is to add important context to existing literature on the raids. Most scholarship does point to the antagonisms between labor, primarily radical workers, and the interests of industry, which is closely linked to the government, especially during wartime. However, the basis for this antagonism, namely class struggle, is almost never mentioned. Often, historical narratives point to the motives of individuals, like Palmer’s political ambitions, or missteps by government organizations in the wake of “public hysteria.” That these things influenced the outcome of the raids is undeniable. However, these histories feed into the “great men of history” myth, and paints individual dissenters like Louis F. Post as brave freedom fighters who defended the poor helpless victims of a misguided government that was mistakenly violating the rights of the victims. Yet, there is an underlying basis that remains excluded if scholars stop there. A Marxist analysis has greater explanatory power precisely because it is able to contextualize these events to show that they share a continuity with the rest of U.S. and world history. Therefore, this essay will use a Marxist analysis to show that the Palmer Raids were a part of ongoing class struggle, that the “victims” were not passive subjects without agency, and that a more accurate history must include these key elements.


Though there has always been an element of antiradicalism toward the left in the U.S., one of the first times it came into major conflict with the government and its aims was during WWI. It was during this time that the two major leftist groups, the Socialist Party and the International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), a radical labor union, came out in opposition to the war. Both groups saw this, much like Lenin, as a war between imperialist powers where the poor would die for the profits of international capitalists. The press, politicians and superpatriots loudly denounced these groups, and the government began its suppression by suspending many of their constitutional rights, mostly in regards to the First Amendment.[2]

In addition to the antiwar stance of the radical left, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that was spreading across Europe at the time contributed even more to this antiradicalism. While the Bolsheviks were gaining popularity and influence, especially throughout Eastern Europe, organized labor in the U.S. continued its struggle with successes, often using militant tactics and strikes. The forming of the Third International in 1919, which aimed to guide revolutionaries around the world to help spread world socialism, further fed the flames of antiradicalism. There were also opportunists in the media, public office, and some in the business community who seized this moment to push antiradicalism against the left even further. There are even those who believe that on some level there were people within the U.S. who wished to fill the void of the now-ended WWI with a new enemy, replacing the German “Hun” with radical left agitators, especially foreign born ones.[3] This connection was not a mere fabrication. While the Communist Labor Party at the time was mostly native-born, the Communist Party was 90 percent foreign, out of 60,000 members.[4]

Another one of these “enemies” were labor unions. The most militant of the labor unions was the IWW. What made the IWW different from other labor unions is that they wished to not only bargain for the interests of workers, but also aimed to eventually overthrow the existing structure of capitalism. The IWW’s preamble read:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.[5]

This is roughly the same goal as that of the Socialist Party, both of which aim to take control of the means of production in order transfer ownership away from a handful of industrialists and into communal and democratic ownership of the workers themselves. Similarly both aimed at this radical transformation of society through the use of nonviolent tactics. In the case of the IWW, “[t]he revolution was to be achieved by a series of strikes, leading to a general strike, which would force the capitalists to capitulate. Thus the IWW was to be both the embryo of the new society and the revolutionary instrument for achieving it.”[6] Additionally we can compare this with the tactics of the Socialist Party that aimed to raise class consciousness and use electoral politics to move toward socialism. This can also be seen through the electoral successes of socialists as mentioned above.[7]

In this context of increasing influence of left groups and parties, the end of the war ushered in a period of stagnating and falling wages, and increasing living costs. This spurred unionization efforts and labor kept on the offensive. On top of this, a series of bombs targeting many public officials were uncovered. Perhaps most importantly, one of the bombs was designated for Palmer himself in a spectacular dynamite explosion that destroyed the front of his house in Washington, D.C.[8]

Historians are divided over what actually sparked the full-scale Palmer Raids. Murray offers a fairly nuanced account, trying to contextualize the times that were filled with growing militancy among labor, the string of anarchist bombings, growing fear of the “Red menace,” and the xenophobia toward Eastern European, Jewish and Russian immigrants. Renshaw marks the start of the antiradical crusade with the trial of IWW leaders in Chicago in 1918.[9] However, historians almost unanimously point to all or most of these complex factors. Regardless of what specific event or events sparked the Red Scare, the seeds had been planted, and the attitudes and forces behind it have been a part of U.S. history long before the raids and First Red Scare. “Anti- Communism, anti-union activity and nothing short of an all-out war against the organised left had been a constant feature of life in American in the previous half century.”[10] Really, the only difference now was that the government had found legal backing and a public that was whipped up by the “hysteria” of the changing times.


Although the government and even individual vigilante citizens attacked left radicals leading up to and during WWI,[11] the most thorough and harsh attack came in 1919 with the Palmer Raids. As mentioned earlier, there were a complex host of events leading to the Palmer Raids. WWI brought a massive increase in industrial output that in turn increased demand for workers to fill the labor shortage. This left workers with increased bargaining power that allowed them and their representative unions to push for greater demands. But after the war, unemployment and high prices put strain on already tense relations between labor and capital. Also, President Wilson had a very mixed record on labor issues, a fact that certainly didn’t make matters any better. “He certainly had no love for the pre-World War I period with its progressive reforms and its New Freedoms, and he had eyed apprehensively the growing power of labor. Therefore, with the cessation of hostilities, he was more than happy to engage labor in battle.”[12]

In this almost perfect storm, “[t]he result was a sharpening of class antagonisms and an increase in the number of labor strikes across the continent, including the first general strikes, most notably in Seattle and Winnipeg, in addition to major steel and coal strikes later in the year.”[13] On top of all this, there was one last factor that would be used against the radicals: anti- immigrant fears.

Radical agitators have long been tied to foreign influence by those who wish to discredit them. One of the oldest attacks against those who speak out against specific wars or just war in general, is the idea that they are secretly on the side of the enemy. During WWI, this was also the case and those who opposed the war were loudly denounced as agents of the Kaiser.[14]

Believing that radicals were largely foreign born prompted the U.S. to pass legislation aimed at foreign- born radicals. In the U.S., one of the most important events that turned anger toward immigrants was the assassination of President McKinley. Despite the fact that his assassin was actually a native born American, his foreign sounding name was enough. Leon Czolgosz’s killing of McKinley in 1901 sparked much anger against foreigners and anarchists. While he was a native born citizen, Czolgosz was also a self-professed anarchist. As a result, in 1903, Congress passed an Immigration Act that, for the first time, prohibited entry of immigrants into the country solely based on their beliefs and political ideology. It was aimed at those radicals who believed in violent revolution or anarchy.[15]

Then in 1917 came a new Immigration Act that not only could exclude radicals from entry, but could also deport radicals for teaching and advocating for radical ideas.[16] The final solidifying of anti-immigration laws came on Oct. 16, 1918, usually referred to as the Deportation Act. This act was much stricter and punitive than all previous ones, removing the time limit on deportations and the burden of proving individual guilt. Now, “[t]here was no longer a time limit for anyone. Any unwanted alien could be deported at any time. Belief in certain ideas or membership in certain organizations was sufficient cause for deportation. Proof of individual guilt was no longer necessary. [And although it was applied much broader, it] was passed with the IWW in mind.”[17]

Louis F. Post was the Secretary of Labor under President Woodrow Wilson during the events of the First Red Scare and the Palmer Raids. Because of his position as Secretary of Labor, he was in charge of immigration. While so many other government officials either remained passive or fully supported the deportations and suppressions of the First Red Scare, Post actively dissented. He thought that the Wilson administration was going too far, and that the deportations were wrong, legally and morally. Additionally, Post published his personal account in 1923, almost immediately after the events of the First Red Scare, The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-twenty.

Among many of the things he writes about, one of his concerns was the excessive bail to keep immigrants detained for longer periods of time. [18] He also notes the lack of probable cause that the arrest warrants for the raids had:

The accompanying affidavits of probable cause appeared to the Solicitor to be so flimsy that he refused to sign the warrants in behalf of the Department of Labor as Acting Secretary, without first scrutinizing the proof in each case, and the proof had not been made available to him. The general grounds for the proposed arrests were membership in the Communist Party and Communist Labor Party. Evidently the detectives intended to make another sensational ‘round up’ of ‘dangerous’ aliens charged in fact with nothing more dangerous than formal membership in a proscribed organization.[19]