Born in March 1902 in Englewood, New Jersey, Lamont attended Harvard University where, as student Vice Chairman of the Harvard Union, he proposed that Socialist Party President Eugene V. Debs, communist labor organizer William Z. Foster, and radical economist Scott Nearing be invited to speak to the student body. After graduating from Harvard, Lamont went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1932. He then found work as a professor at Harvard, Cornell, and Columbia.
In 1932, Lamont and his wife made a pilgrimage to Moscow and loved what they saw, recording their observations in a book they co-authored. They were particularly moved by the sight of Vladimir Lenin’s corpse, which had been encased in a glass-covered box during the eight years since his death. The Lamonts wrote:
“Lenin’s face is strong, calm, and refined in the fundamental sense. His hand rests on a red pillow and his hands, clasped on his chest in a tranquil way, appear delicate and intellectual. The short yet forceful beard is reddish. We have to keep moving, though we want to stop and look longer and more carefully…. [I]t is not enough.”
The couple paid “homage” to Lenin, “taking strength from [his] impersonally beautiful and resolute face,” which was “perfectly natural and wholly desirable.”
In general, the Lamonts returned home to America to report the “great deal of happiness,” the “new human nature” they had discovered in communist Russia. “[T]he new world of the twentieth century is the Soviet Union,” they glowed to their progressive comrades. “And no one who is seriously interested in the progress of the human spirit can afford to miss it.” Even as the Lamonts wrote those words, Stalin was ramping up his forced famine, his Great Purge, and launching his annihilation of tens of millions of people.
In 1936 Lamont co-founded and subsidized the magazine Marxist Quarterly. During the Soviet Great Purge of 1937-38, he defended the Moscow Trials, a series of show trials where Joseph Stalin’s political opponents were falsely convicted of such trumped-up charges as conspiring with Western powers to assassinate Stalin, dissolve the Soviet Union, and restore capitalism. Years later, Lamont would acknowledge his error in having endorsed these trials.
During his tenure as ACLU Director, Lamont became a key figure in the Communist organization Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU). In 1943 FSU was restructured under the name National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, with Lamont as its Board Chairman and chief incorporator. Because of his connections to such organizations, Lamont was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1946; he refused to produce requested documents and was eventually charged with contempt of Congress.
With the deaths of his father (a business partner of J. P. Morgan in what was then America’s leading banking firm) in 1948 and his mother four years later, Lamont became heir to a vast fortune. Disillusioned by the ACLU’s insistence that its officers take an oath that they were not Communists, Lamont left the ACLU Board and, in 1951, co-founded NECLC, becoming the fledgling group’s first Chairman. His fellow NECLC founders included I.F. Stone, Paul Lehmann, James Imbrie, Henry Pratt Fairchild, E. Franklin Frazier, and H.H. Wilson.
In his 1952 book The Myth of Soviet Aggression, Lamont wrote that “both the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations, in order to push their enormous armaments programs through Congress and to justify the continuation of the Cold War, have felt compelled to resort to the device of keeping the American people in a state of alarm over some alleged menace of Soviet or Communist origin.”
Lamont made numerous trips to the Soviet Union during the Cold War but, despite his passionate allegiance to Marxism, never formally joined the Communist Party USA. In 1953 he published Why I Am Not a Communist.
Lamont authored a total of 16 books, including: The Philosophy of Humanism; Humanism Is the Illusion of Immortality; A Lifetime of Dissent; Voice in the Wilderness: Collected Essays of Fifty Years; The Peoples of the Soviet Union; and You Might Like Socialism: A Way of Life for Modern Man. He also penned hundreds of pamphlets and thousands of letters to newspapers on significant social issues. In addition, he published intimate portraits of such luminaries as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and Katherine Hepburn.
Lamont made two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate — on the ticket of the American Labor Party in 1952 and the Independent Socialist Party in 1958.
In the early 1960s Lamont sued the U.S. Postmaster General (PG) for complying with a 1963 Congressional mandate directing the PG to issue postcards to the intended American recipients of communist literature originating in foreign countries — postcards inquiring as to why the literature had been sent to them. When Lamont received such a postcard concerning his receipt of a copy of the Peking Review, he filed a lawsuit which he lost in federal court but won on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A decade later, when Lamont learned that the FBI had compiled a large file on him, he sued the Justice Department.
In 1976 he sued the CIA for damages in connection with its opening of 155 of his personal letters. Two years later a federal district court in Brooklyn, New York ruled in Lamont’s favor and ordered the government to pay him $2,000 and send him a “suitable letter of regret.”
In 1982 Lamont, who described himself as “a teacher of philosophy and a worker for world peace,” donated $1 million to establish a Chair in Civil Liberties at Columbia Law School.
In February 1988 Lamont sued the U.S. government over its provision of federal tax aid to sectarian schools overseas.
In 1990 and 1991, he protested U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
In 1993 Lamont traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. He discussed with the Communist dictator the feasibility of suing the U.S. government for its alleged efforts, through the CIA, to assassinate Castro. Lamont’s devotion to Communist Cuba spanned decades. As early as 1961 he wrote a 39-page pamphlet titled “The Crime Against Cuba”.
Among Lamont’s more notable friends and ideological kindred spirits was the entertainer Pete Seeger.
Lamont died of heart failure in 1995 at his home in Ossining, New York.