BY STEVE CLARK
In August 1987 a federal district judge in New York City issued an injunction ordering that all documents obtained by the government in ways that violate the US Constitution and Bill of Rights cannot be “used, released, or disclosed” by the FBI or other federal police agencies.
The injunction came in connection with Judge Thomas Griesa’s decision a year earlier, in August 1986, on a suit filed by the Socialist Workers Party in 1973. The party’s aim was to bring into the open decades of covert spying and disruption against the SWP by the federal political police, and to mobilize opposition to these violations of the constitutional rights not only of members and supporters of the party and Young Socialist Alliance, but of other organizations and individuals targeted by covert government operations as well.
Although the Justice Department immediately filed notice after Griesa’s 1986 decision that it would appeal, less than two years later the government withdrew its motion.
The fifteen-year-long battle by the Socialist Workers Party, backed by thousands, resulting in that federal court ruling marked a victory for the working class. Moreover, that victory stands and has a direct effect to this day, more than four decades after the suit was filed.
The opening article in this book — “Fifty Years of Covert Operations in the US: Washington’s Political Police and the American Working Class” by Larry Seigle — provides an account of that political battle by the SWP and its allies. It was an unprecedented political initiative. A communist organization was filing a suit against the capitalist government, as opposed to being forced to defend itself and its members against a case trumped up by cops and prosecutors. Communist workers — along with fellow unionists, farmers, and supporters of civil rights — were plaintiffs, and government agencies and officials defendants. Not the other way around.
The broadly supported political campaign organized and led by the Socialist Workers Party provided an additional weapon that unionists, Black rights fighters, and others among the exploited and oppressed could use to better defend their own constitutional rights. Above all, it helped keep open political space for working people to speak, organize, and act outside the electoral and judicial arenas — to fight on our own terrain, in the factories, on the picket lines, and in the streets.
A few veteran communists — who had firsthand experience over decades with government frame-ups and attacks on militant workers — initially balked at such an undertaking. Wasn’t a lawsuit just asking for trouble? Why set something in motion that will result in government depositions of party leaders? Why end up in a bourgeois courtroom by your own doing?
Such wariness was even greater among some former Communist Party members and others in the CP milieu whose dead-end Stalinist factionalism toward the SWP had ebbed over time, but who still recoiled at carrying out political activity openly as communists, much less in front of federal attorneys and a judge. Among other things, why expose your party’s history and political record to public scrutiny?
But the SWP’s central leaders, from those in the oldest to newer generations, were convinced that attitudes were changing among workers and farmers in the United States as a result of the political conquests of the Black rights movement, anti-Vietnam War mobilizations, and other social struggles. The capitalist rulers and their government were on the defensive politically as a result of what was becoming known about cop spying, harassment, and disruption of working people and youth engaged in these fights. All this was compounded for the rulers in 1973 by the widely publicized “Watergate” revelations of rampant wiretapping and burglary by the Richard Nixon administration against its domestic rivals in capitalist politics.
All in all, the communist leaders concluded, conditions were unusually good for such a political campaign. The Socialist Workers Party never lies to working people, in the US or anywhere else in the world. Its history and political record are an open book. It has nothing to hide. As these conclusions were confirmed in life over the next fifteen years, initial doubts and hesitations were transformed into respect and support for the SWP’s political course in this fight.
After more than seven years of pretrial discovery, the lawsuit went to trial in April 1981. The proceedings stretched out over twelve weeks. The court’s sweeping 1986 decision in favor of the SWP’s suit found no evidence “that any FBI informant ever reported an instance of planned or actual espionage, violence, [or] terrorism” by the party or its members. For the first time ever, a federal court ruled:
• that the use of FBI or other police informers to infiltrate organizations and spy on individuals engaged in political activity, including communists and other working-class militants, is a violation of the guarantee of privacy and freedom of association in the Bill of Rights (during the trial, the government acknowledged that the FBI alone — not counting the CIA, military intelligence, and other agencies among the defendants — had collected or stolen 10 million pages of files on the socialists);
• that burglaries by the cops to steal or copy papers or plant microphones violate Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” (the FBI admitted at least two hundred four “black bag jobs” of party offices just between 1945 and 1966); and
• that surreptitious disruption of party activity and the lives of its members and supporters is against the law (numerous examples of such harassment are described in FBI on Trial: The Victory in the Socialist Workers Party Suit Against Government Spying edited by Margaret Jayko, and Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom by Nelson Blackstock, both published by Pathfinder).
Following up on those decisions, Griesa one year later issued his injunction “with respect to documents that the Government obtained through clearly illegal activities.” The federal judge barred such files from being “used, released, or disclosed by defendants … for any reason except in compliance with an order issued by this court, applied for on notice, or in lawful response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Fifty Years of Covert Operations in the US was first published in 1987 in the Marxist magazine New International, and then the following year in Spanish as a small book. As the article indicates, it was written before all the matters in the suit had been finally decided by Judge Griesa in 1987 and before the government threw in the towel on appealing in 1988.
In the wake of this outcome of the SWP’s fifteen-year battle came two other milestones in the party’s long record of defending the political rights of working people, including its own members.
On March 4, 1988, Mark Curtis, an SWP member and worker at the Swift packinghouse in Des Moines, Iowa, was arrested and brutally beaten by cops only hours after taking part in a meeting to defend seventeen co-workers rounded up by immigration cops in a factory raid and threatened with deportation. He was framed up on rape and burglary charges and went to trial in September 1988. A broad international defense campaign called on Iowa authorities to drop the charges and then — following his conviction and sentencing to twenty-five years — to free Curtis from prison. He was released on parole in June 1996.
A week before the Curtis trial opened, the Socialist Workers Party registered a victory in another defense campaign, one it had been fighting for eleven years with widespread support. On August 31 the US State Department dropped once and for all the government’s effort to deport Héctor Marroquín, a Mexican-born member of the Young Socialist Alliance and SWP and plaintiff in the party’s lawsuit, and granted him permanent residency.
The 1986 federal court decision that the president of the United States “cannot have discretion to behave unconstitutionally” stands today in face of the unrelenting expansion of executive and police powers during four Republican and Democratic presidencies since the ruling came down: those of George H.W. Bush, William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
The Obama White House — and the meritocratic professional, academic, and other bourgeois-minded individuals from whom the administration enlists its staff and organizes its support — is taking this tendency to new heights. “Wherever we have an opportunity and I have the executive authority to go ahead and get some things done, we’re just gonna go ahead and do ’em,” the president said in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview in December 2011.
The record bears him out — from the acceleration (and political rationalization) of expanded Internet and phone wiretapping in the US and abroad; to the more than 400 “unacknowledged” murderous drone attacks since early 2009 in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; to a sharp increase of deportations of immigrants and “silent sweeps” of workers without papers in factories and other workplaces; to IRS targeting of tax records of “Tea Party” and other conservative groups; to stepped-up surveillance of email and phone records of journalists and criminal prosecution of their sources under the Espionage Act of 1917. This tendency can also be seen from the current administration’s harsher penalties against US and foreign companies accused of violating Washington’s embargo of Cuba, and unilaterally stiffened sanctions against Iran; to its circumvention of congressional review of presidential appointments and federal budget matters; to steeply escalated expansion and use of federal regulations, bypassing the need to submit new legislation for discussion and vote; and more.
The victory in this long political battle by the Socialist Workers Party has bolstered its ongoing efforts since the mid-1970s to ensure the maximum possible protection for financial contributors to SWP campaigns, including campaigns for public office.
In April 2013 the Federal Election Commission extended for four more years the party’s exemption from requirements that candidates must file names of both their contributors and vendors from whom they buy printing or do other business. The FEC ruling cited the 1986 federal court decision as well as some seventy declarations from workers and others who have supported communist candidates and public activities of the SWP. These declarations documented firings, police spying and harassment, and right-wing threats and assaults on the party and its members and supporters since 2009, when the previous FEC exemption had been granted.
The “government hostility and public and private harassment against the SWP was pervasive,” the FEC ruled, and “thus continues to provide support for the SWP’s current request” to extend the disclosure exemption it has fought for and won six times since 1974. This was a victory not only for the SWP but for all working people and for constitutional rights. It was the first successful push-back in some time by a working-class organization in face of years of escalating political, social, and economic “regulation” by employers and their government.
Among liberals, the crusade for political “transparency” and financial “disclosure” is a sacred cause. But it papers over fundamental class realities and conflicts — above all that not only all economic and financial power, but all political and military power too, rests in the hands of the capitalist class. That’s the source of the hypocrisy about “transparency” and of the damage government-imposed “disclosure” inflicts on the exploited majority.
The demand for an end to secret state diplomacy, business secrets, and covert domestic cop-operations has been and remains part of the program of the communist movement. Each step toward putting an end to the ability of the propertied rulers to legally operate in secrecy is an advance for working people in the US.
Imposed on working-class parties such as the SWP, the unions, Black rights groups, or farm protest organizations, however, “disclosure” and “transparency” are instruments to unleash the capitalist government, cops, and right-wing outfits and individuals to probe, disrupt, and try to destroy the workers movement. They are a political obstacle to organizing effective defense of those threatened by government assaults and to mass independent working-class action to advance the interests of working people.
Fifty Years of Covert Operations in the US points to the century-and-a-half-long proletarian course that made possible what the Socialist Workers Party accomplished through its political campaign to expose government spying and harassment and mobilize opposition to it. From the moment the SWP filed its lawsuit in 1973 through the 1981 trial and postrial proceedings, the article says, the government
kept trying to prove that the party said one thing in public and something different in its closed meetings. They tried to establish that the party maintained dual structures, one for public purposes and the other hidden from view. In every case, the facts showed the opposite. While a workers’ party has the right, in fact the responsibility, to protect the privacy of its members and supporters from the bosses and the police, it has no right to keep its ideas, methods, and organizational concepts hidden from working people….
As the trial demonstrated, the FBI’s accusation of conspiracy and hidden goals were pure projection. It turned out to be the White House and FBI, not the SWP, that conceal their aims and methods. It turned out to be the White House and FBI, not the SWP, that maintain a covert structure to carry out what they cannot openly proclaim. It turned out to be the White House and FBI, not the SWP, that rely on conspiratorial modes of operation to achieve their goals behind the backs of the people of the United States.
The article traces the expansion of Washington’s political police since US imperialism’s repressive response, in the aftermath of World War I, to the Bolshevik-led October 1917 revolution in Russia and forging of the Communist International two years later — and their impact on workers and farmers in the United States who sought to emulate those revolutionary examples. The government’s aim above all was to crush the newborn communist organizations in the US founded in 1919. (Already in those years, J. Edgar Hoover headed the Justice Department cop agency that targeted communist and anarchist workers, their organizations, and Black leaders such as Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. That agency became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, and Hoover remained its director until his death in 1972.)
This book puts a special focus on the Democratic administration of President Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s, as the US rulers prepared to enter the imperialist slaughter of World War II. It describes the growth and consolidation of the “national security” state in the wake of Washington’s military, political, and economic victory in that war over its imperialist rivals, both “foes” (Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan) and “allies” (the United Kingdom, France, and others).
The 1941 conviction and imprisonment of eighteen leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and class-struggle Teamsters leadership in Local 544-CIO in Minneapolis was a turning point in the buildup of US capital’s political police. The frame-up was the Roosevelt administration’s first use of the Smith “Gag” Act outlawing advocacy of revolutionary ideas, which the Democratic president had signed into law the previous year. The real “crime” of these working-class leaders was that they were effectively organizing political opposition within the unions to Roosevelt’s drive to whip up popular support for the US rulers’ war aims that workers and farmers would be sent to fight and die for.
During the 1981 trial of the SWP’s lawsuit, a chief government witness, Robert Keuch, an associate deputy attorney general, was questioned by an attorney for the SWP about Roosevelt’s 1939 executive order directing the FBI to step up its “investigation” of “subversive activities.” Keuch replied that “there are simply ways that individuals and groups can act that may not necessarily constitute violations of the criminal statutes” (translation: that are legal even under US bourgeois law). The White House was concerned first and foremost about those “who were trying to influence public opinion to keep the United States out of war, to keep us neutral,” the Justice Department official testified.
The “crime” of “trying to influence public opinion” about the coming war was sufficient for Roosevelt to shred the Bill of Rights.
This new edition includes the article “Imperialist War and the Working Class” by Farrell Dobbs, which deals with these origins of Washington’s “covert war” at home. Dobbs was a convicted Smith Act defendant, a leader of the Teamster organizing drives in Minneapolis and the upper Midwest, and then a central leader of the SWP for decades. He wrote this piece in 1949 as an introduction to the third edition of Socialism on Trial, the trial testimony by SWP national secretary James P. Cannon.
Dobbs also recounts and condemns the Smith Act prosecution in New York in early 1949 of eleven leaders of the Communist Party, which is described in the opening article in this book. All were convicted, and ten were given the maximum sentence of five years. Dobbs, who covered this nine-month frame-up trial week in and week out for the Militant newspaper, points to the political blow the Communist Party leadership dealt to the working-class movement by its refusal to defend the first Smith Act defendants during the 1941 trial in Minnesota.
In fact, the CP leadership publicly welcomed the Minneapolis indictments and campaigned in the unions to quash support to the defendants. Earl Browder, the party’s general secretary, and other CP leaders went so far as to prepare a dossier for the Justice Department in hopes of bolstering the government’s case against the SWP leaders and union militants. Philip Jaffe, a former Communist Party leader, in the 1975 book The Rise and Fall of American Communism, details the contents of the dossier he received a copy of from Browder.
The CP leadership’s trampling on elementary working-class solidarity is also recounted in the 1993 book Advocate and Activist: Memoirs of an American Communist Lawyer by John Abt, the party’s longtime chief counsel and one of its leading cadres going back to the 1930s. The CP “made a terrible mistake in not defending the SWP” during the Minneapolis trial, Abt said.
Abt had accepted the CP leadership’s course at the time, he acknowledged. “Little did we know,” he said, “that in the postwar period the Smith Act would become the primary legal weapon to attack our Party and imprison its leaders.”
Little did we know! The truth is that the SWP and Teamster defendants and their supporters explained this time and again to anyone who would listen in the labor movement (and many did, as shown by the endorsement of their defense effort, the Civil Rights Defense Committee, by some 150 international and local unions, representing over five million workers, as well as by hundreds of other individuals and organizations).
Some four decades later, Abt said, he participated in a meeting of the Communist Party’s national leadership, urging it to support the SWP’s lawsuit against federal police spying and harassment. He pointed to lessons from what the CP leadership had done in 1941. But Abt was voted down, “and the Party again refused to defend the SWP against government persecution.”
Another political conquest of the SWP’s political campaign against the White House and federal police agencies is that Griesa’s rulings made no distinction between party members and supporters who are US citizens and those who aren’t. Both are covered by the decision and injunction (although the court took no position on concrete residency or deportation matters).
Among the federal agencies who were defendants in the party’s suit was the US rulers’ immigration police. At the time it was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Today it’s known as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Changing names notwithstanding, it is known and despised as la migra by working people who are its targets and by millions of others who know how the capitalists use it to divide and weaken the solidarity and fighting power of the working class, unions, and protests against discrimination of all kinds.
Deportations, in fact, were among the first and most brutal clubs wielded by bosses and their government in the repressive drive against the workers movement in the aftermath of World War I. In what became notorious as the Palmer Raids, named after the US attorney general at the time, more than 3,000 anarchists, communists, and other working-class militants were arrested and 750 deported in 1919 and 1920.
Since then repeated attempts by the rulers to use this weapon against cadres and leaders of the Socialist Workers Party have been fought back by the party, often mobilizing broad international support in the unions and among other supporters of political rights. In addition to the Héctor Marroquín case noted earlier, these have included unsuccessful attempts to deport:
• Carl Skoglund in the 1940s and 1950s, a Swedish-born founding leader of the communist movement and SWP and one of the eighteen imprisoned socialists and Teamster leaders during World War II;
• Joe Johnson, a party member, whose fight in the mid-1960s was waged using the pamphlet, They Have Declared Me a Man Without a Country; and most recently
• Róger Calero, a Nicaraguan-born SWP leader and staff writer for the socialist newsweekly the Militant who in 2003 pushed back migra’s efforts to deport him upon his return from a reporting trip to Cuba and Mexico and who won restoration of the permanent residence status he had had since 1989.
For communist workers, defending ourselves is not primarily a question of legal arguments and courtroom tactics, although revolutionary-minded workers approach these matters with the utmost proletarian discipline and attention to detail.
Like everything else in the class struggle, how working people defend ourselves in face of frame-ups and other government assaults is above all a political question. It is part of the working class advancing along the revolutionary course toward replacing the state power of a tiny minority of propertied families — the dictatorship of capital — with that of the great majority, workers and farmers.
This has been true from the beginning of the modern working-class movement. Two outstanding examples can be singled out: the defense campaign led by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels well over one-hundred sixty years ago to free eleven of their comrades framed up in Germany for “conspiracy” to overthrow the Prussian government after the defeat of the 1848–49 revolutions across Europe (what was known as the Cologne Communist Trial); and the amnesty campaign that in 1955 won the release of Fidel Castro and other combatants tried and convicted by the US-backed dictatorship in Cuba for their insurrectionary attack on the Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo army garrisons on July 26, 1953. The Moncada assault and the political course led by Castro, its principal organizer, opened the revolutionary struggle that would lead in 1959 to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution against the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista.
The trial testimony, courtroom statements, and other defense documents prepared by working-class leaders in the course of such battles are themselves often transformed into powerful instruments of revolutionary propaganda.
Such was the case with Karl Marx’s Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne written during and just after the 1852 trial in which seven of the eleven defendants were convicted. Marx proved the point in those pages that a “conspiracy” trial by the ruling class and its government “does not require any indictable action” and is “merely a pretext for burning political heretics in a legal way.”
Such was the case with James P. Cannon’s testimony at the 1941 Smith Act trial, published as Socialism on Trial and sold ever since as an introduction to the communist program.
Such was the case with Fidel Castro’s prison reconstruction of his 1953 courtroom speech, History Will Absolve Me, which became the unofficial program of the July 26 Movement, clandestinely circulated in the thousands throughout Cuba during the revolutionary struggle.
Such was the case with Nelson Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die,” his statement from the dock at the 1964 trial that condemned him to prison for life as punishment for his leadership of the revolutionary fight to bring down South Africa’s white supremacist regime.
As “Fifty Years of Covert Operations in the US” is being released in this new edition, working people in the United States and worldwide are learning about and being won in growing numbers to another international defense battle — the fight to free five Cuban revolutionists held behind bars in the US since 1998.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González — known to millions as the Cuban Five — were railroaded to prison by Washington on a grab bag of trumped-up “conspiracy” charges. They had been gathering information for the Cuban government on plans by murderous Cuban American paramilitary groups in Florida that have operated with impunity on US soil, in order to help put a stop to violent attacks in Cuba, the United States, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.
During their 2000–2001 trial and sentencing in Miami, the Five conducted themselves with pride and dignity as they defended their revolutionary principles and rebutted the charges fabricated against them by federal authorities. Above all, they refused to cop pleas. Each said at their sentencing hearings, and have repeated many times since, that he would act in the same way again in order to halt further deaths from assassinations and bombings. As Gerardo Hernández — given the most draconian of the sentences, a double life term — expressed it, “It is for this blood that I made the pledge to sacrifice even my own life.”
Over the years since their incarceration, the Five have won the respect of fellow prisoners for their integrity, their daily leadership example, their consideration for others behind bars whose conditions they share as brothers, and their patient explanation of the Cuban Revolution whose proletarian internationalist and socialist values they exemplify in their political convictions and their conduct.
Neither the “capitalist justice” meted out to the Cuban Five over three administrations — Clinton, Bush, and Obama — nor the exemplary way the five revolutionaries have acted in face of it, are something new for the communist workers movement in the US and around the world. Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, pointed to these realities of capitalist rule and the class struggle in a talk to a September 1988 rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on the eve of the opening of the trial of Mark Curtis.
“Mark Curtis will not get a fair trial,” Barnes told the more than 400 participants in that meeting. “The courtroom is not where innocence and guilt will be decided, and it is not where justice will be found.”
“The presumption of innocence has taken hundreds of years for working people to win,” Barnes said. It is “one of the most important milestones on the march to human solidarity.”
When workers are in the dock, however, from the point of view of the capitalist rulers, “It’s the presumption of guilt that dominates in the ‘democratic’ United States,” he said. The employers and their government “want workers in the meatpacking industry, paperworkers, miners, workers of all kinds who will fight, to get the message that there are limits on your fighting.”
That’s why the worldwide defense campaign was so important, Barnes said. The capitalist rulers misjudge revolutionary-minded fighters, just as they misjudge the power of solidarity in the working class and among other defenders of political rights. Whatever the verdict at the trial, he insisted, “There is no way on earth they will succeed in their goal. They will not put Mark Curtis in prison for twenty-five years. They will not get him down on his knees.
“They will not prevent him from continuing to be the same person he is today, fighting for the same things, believing the same deeply held convictions, saying them openly to the entire world. He will continue to do all this, no matter where he finds himself, for however long.”
That has been true for many thousands of working-class fighters who’ve been framed up and railroaded to prison along the long and winding revolutionary road toward power by workers and farmers in the US and the world over. It will remain true. And it’s the most important lesson running throughout the pages of this book.