When socialism was put on trial

July 8, 2016

The new book Trotskyists on Trial about the case of Socialist Workers Party members charged with sedition in 1941 has lessons for organizing today, writes Jeff Blackburn.

IN 1941, the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) didn't seem very formidable. The group had about 600 members, mostly industrial and unemployed workers, scattered across the U.S. Despite leading the historic Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934, the SWP, followers of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, was mostly unknown in American politics.

Compared to the Stalinized Communist Party USA (CP), which had about 85,000 members and an army of influential sympathizers, the SWP was small potatoes. On top of all that, the party had taken an uncompromising and increasingly unpopular stand against U.S. entry into the war against the Nazis. If anyone noticed, they would have probably concluded that the SWP was an odd sect headed for the political graveyard.

In late June 1941, all that changed. The FBI raided SWP bookstores and offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul, seizing hundreds of books and pamphlets, two red flags and a picture of Trotsky.

Two weeks later, 29 members of the SWP, many of them Teamsters, were indicted and arrested for sedition and conspiracy under a law known as the Smith Act. The trial that followed a few months later was a turning point in American legal and radical history, yet one that has never been fully understood--at least until now.

Minneapolis unionists and leaders of the Socialist Workers Party headed to prison
Minneapolis unionists and leaders of the Socialist Workers Party headed to prison

Donna Haverty-Stacke is a professor at Hunter College. She is a tireless researcher and first-class historian, and in this book, she tells the whole story of this case for the first time.

Using now-declassified FBI documents and other archival sources, she has managed--in seven chapters and just under 300 pages--to definitively explain why the government prosecuted the SWP, what happened at the trial and after, and what the case still means for civil liberties in the U.S.

She has also created a vivid picture of the working-class activists of the SWP and what their organization was like. In doing that, she has shown how a small group of revolutionists with steady nerves, good leadership and strategic vision can turn disaster into opportunity.

IN HER first chapter "Militancy and Fear," Haverty-Stacke describes the bigger picture of American life and politics in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Industrial unions were growing, and so was the CP. With tens of thousands of members concentrated in dozens of key unions, it was becoming more formidable by the day. At the same time, war with Germany was on the horizon. It was clear to the government that something would have to be done about the CP, which, in line with Moscow's orders, was effectively allied with the Nazis as a result of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Haverty-Stacke shows that it was against this backdrop that what would later be called the "Little Red Scare" developed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the great liberal, secretly authorized a massive internal spying campaign against right- and left-wing dissidents. Senators and congressmen began to propose legislation that would criminalize opposition to the war.

The legal product of this hysteria was the Alien Registration Act of 1940, which came to be known as the "Smith Act" after its sponsor, Virginia Democratic Rep. Howard W. Smith. It made it a crime to "teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction" of the government or be a member of any group that did.

The punishment for this crime was up to 10 years in prison. This law was similar to earlier statutes like the Sedition Acts of 1798, 1861 and 1918. Like its predecessors, it outlawed free speech.

The intended target of the new law was the CP. That changed when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The CP went from being anti-war to pro-war overnight, becoming hyper-patriotic cheerleaders for U.S. intervention.

What else to read

Socialism on Trial reprints Cannon's testimony at the trial and includes his essay supporting the SWP's defense policy in the case. It's available at Marxists.org and in book form from Pathfinder Press.

Sadly, Albert Goldman became a forgotten figure within a few years after the trial. His life and career are remembered in an SW article by Joe Allen, "Defender of the movement."

Accordingly, the U.S. government lost all interest in prosecuting the Stalinists. For a complete discussion of this about-face from a Marxist perspective, see Joe Allen's excellent article at SocialistWorker.org, "Free speech in the shadow of war."

Despite its tiny size and lack of influence, the SWP had managed to scare the hell out of some very powerful people by the summer of 1941. The Roosevelt government feared that SWP members could cripple war production through leading strikes.

The Teamster bureaucracy, headed by a conservative labor faker and strong Roosevelt supporter named Daniel Tobin, was afraid that the SWP's immense popularity and exemplary leadership in Minneapolis would lead to a widespread rank-and-file revolt in the union.

In the meantime, unlike the CP, the SWP stayed true to its internationalist principles and opposed the war. All of this made the party a perfect target.

TROTSKYISTS ON Trial explains in fascinating detail how Tobin and the government worked separately, then together, to build a phony legal case against the SWP. Her research of newly discovered FBI files shows that huge efforts were made to fabricate charges that the SWP was storing guns, training workers to commit espionage and building some sort of proletarian army to seize Washington.

This mish-mash of perjury, coupled with quotations from the literature seized from SWP bookstores, convinced a federal grand jury to indict the 29 defendants. Many of them were leaders of the SWP, but others were ordinary members, and some were just sympathetic activists. One of the defendants was Albert Goldman, a brilliant lawyer and SWP leader who would act as lead counsel at the trial.

The accusations were serious business: the government charged the 29 with violating a Civil War-era sedition law, the Smith Act and conspiracy laws. These statutes carried sentences of up to 20 years apiece, making it possible for the judge to sentence people to long prison terms.

The intention of the government, well documented in the book, was not only to convict each defendant and lock them up, but criminalize and destroy the SWP.

Who were the defendants? What was their organization really like? Haverty-Stacke spends a lot of time answering those questions.

We learn about the backgrounds of leaders like SWP National Secretary James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Vincent Dunne, Carl Skoglund and others. We also learn about some of the rank-and-file defendants like Max Geldman, Ed Palmquist, Harry DeBoer and Jake Cooper.

Each of these people had unique personalities, distinct lives and stories worth telling. All of them shared a deep commitment to revolutionary Marxism and the SWP. Haverty-Stacke paints a colorful portrait of these people and the organization they belonged to.

Taken as a whole, it is an inspiring picture: what we see is a group of strong, self-educated and independent-minded people, often from poor and working-class backgrounds, united in a lively yet disciplined organization.

We also see the devastating effect of the prosecution on these revolutionists, many of whom had families. First World War veteran Grant Dunne committed suicide three weeks before the trial began. Others feared for their children in the event they were convicted and scrambled to find ways to support them.

The book also explores the personalities of the people who prosecuted and tried them: Francis Biddle, the prevaricating attorney general who pretended to be a civil libertarian; Victor Anderson, the old-fashioned U.S. attorney in Minneapolis who believed that all radicals were a threat to America; Henry Schweinhaut, a slick federal prosecutor on the rise specially dispatched from Washington to help out Anderson; and finally Judge Matthew Joyce, a former corporate lawyer and Herbert Hoover appointee who had sentenced striking workers to federal prison before.

IT'S EASY now to look at the Minneapolis trial as a sort of historical set piece, something that was really not that serious even at the time. The book makes it plain that this wasn't the case.

The Trotskyists of the SWP were fighting for their lives, the life of their movement and their ideas. There was a very real danger that, as a result of the trial, the SWP leadership would be imprisoned and the movement driven underground.

Haverty-Stacke shows, for the first time, what the trial really looked like. From the beginning, it was clear that the plan was to see all of the defendants convicted and sent to prison for a long time. Judge Joyce went out of his way to deny most defense motions and objections, even allowing government witnesses to listen to each other in the courtroom.

The government produced lurid testimony from coached witnesses who tried to make it appear that the SWP was a violent conspiracy directed originally by the "evil genius" Trotsky.

It also introduced excerpts from the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, including The Communist Manifesto, which were parsed and taken out of context. Joyce, violating a fundamental rule of courtroom evidence, would not even allow the defense to show all of the writings to the jury.

The prosecution went on like this for three weeks. The trial, punctuated by hysterical speeches by the prosecution and Judge Joyce's unfair rulings, would have shamed a kangaroo court.

Amid the long history of the labor movement's defense of itself against show trials and frame-ups in this country, the SWP's defense in Minneapolis should be held up as a perfect example of what to do, both in and out of the courtroom. Rather than panic, retreat or succumb to defeatism, the SWP leaders chose to think coolly and strategically about their situation before the trial. It was clear to them that many people outside the SWP viewed the prosecution as unfair and un-American.

It was also clear to them that they would have, in Cannon's words, an "unparalleled opportunity to make more workers acquainted with our program and activities." How they translated this thinking into action and juggled seemingly conflicting strategies is fully described in the book.

TO POLITICALLY isolate the prosecution and gain support, they positioned themselves as defenders of free speech and the U.S. Constitution. This enabled them to build a large and active coalition of intellectuals, labor leaders and others calling for the repeal of the Smith Act and an end to the prosecution.

They formed a broad group called the Civil Rights Defense Committee (CRDC), which campaigned incessantly on their behalf all over the country. The book gives an excellent picture of how this group operated through mass meetings and events, the contacts it made, and the financial support it received despite many obstacles, including the active efforts of the CP to block it.

Before the case went to trial, the Trotskyists had already built enormous political support for themselves. By the time that all of the appeals were exhausted in 1943, the CRDC had enlisted the support of over 100 union locals and raised more than $39,000--nearly $600,000 in today's dollars.

Inside the courtroom, the defendants took full advantage of their situation by using the trial as a platform from which to explain their ideas in everyday language. In the space of a few days, through Goldman's skilled questioning and the thorough answers of Cannon, Vincent Dunne and others, they managed to explain the basic ideas of revolutionary Marxism to a worldwide audience.

Their attitude throughout the trial was dignified, intelligent and respectful. Goldman, who left the histrionics to the prosecution, steadily chipped away at the government's case and made calm and persuasive arguments at every opportunity.

These strategies paid off. By the end of the trial, the government had begun to back off, largely due to the amount of support the SWP had received throughout the country. Ten of the defendants were acquitted. The jury, plainly impressed by the defense, convicted the remaining 18 on one count of the indictment, but recommended leniency.

Those convicted were given light sentences ranging from 12 to 16 months--a far cry from the decades of imprisonment the government demanded at the outset of the trial. By any standard, and given what the defendants were facing, this was a defeat for the prosecution.

The government was beaten outside the courtroom, too. Although it didn't know it yet, the trial didn't break the SWP--far from it. The party's strategic defense of itself and its politics caused it to grow rather than decline. After steady recruitment during and after the trial, the SWP--still functioning legally and openly--had 3,000 members by 1946.

Now, 75 years later, the Trotskyist SWP and the extraordinary men and women who fought for it are gone. The lessons they taught about defending the revolutionary movement, however, are very much alive--and now can be learned from reading this excellent book.

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