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Socialism and the Supreme Court -- Kagan, Roberts and the search for college papers

May 17, 2010 | 10:04 am

Eleana Kagan in a Princeton photo with the front page of her senior thesis

As the Senate Judiciary committee readies confirmation hearings on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, the White House has decided to release her 1981 Princeton University senior thesis. Why? Because the conservative blog tried to make an issue of it, arguing that the thesis proves her socialist sympathies.

The 130-page thesis, entitled “To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933,” argues:

In our own times, a coherent socialist movement is nowhere to be found in the United States. Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than of a golden future, of capitalism's glories than of socialism's greatness. Conformity overrides dissent; the desire to conserve has overwhelmed the urge to alter.

Such a state of affairs cries out for explanation. Why, in a society by no means perfect, has a radical party never attained the status of a major political force? Why, in particular, did the socialist movement never become an alternative to the nation's established parties?

Noting the internal back-stabbing that felled the socialist political movement in New York, Kagan....

...wrote: "The story is a sad, but also a chastening one for those, who more than a half century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America. Radicals have succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism.... American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope."

To Sean Wilentz, Kagan's thesis adviser, a history professor now writing a book about Bob Dylan, the assertion that Kagan shows support for socialism is bunk. "Elena Kagan is about the furthest thing from a socialist. Period," he told the Daily Princetonian. "And always had been. Period.” To, Princeton's claim that it could not release the thesis for copyright reasons smelled suspicious, one reason the White House decided to release the document itself.

Of course when Chief Justice John Roberts was first nominated to the court in 2005, the conservative Weekly Standard dug up his senior honors thesis at Harvard.

Entitled, “Marxism and Bolshevism: Theory and Practice” and “Old and New Liberalism: The British Liberal Party's Approach to the Social Problem,” the 166-page paper opens, "Established institutions are periodically assailed by new social forces which test their ability to survive."

Of course in Roberts' case, the Weekly Standard found the thesis evidence not of socialist tendencies but of a brilliant and scholarly mind whose owner would make a stellar Supreme Court justice.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Kagan at Princeton, along with title page of her senior thesis. Credit: Princeton University/Newsweek

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