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Vol. 78/No. 8      March 3, 2014

US gov’t wanted to silence labor
opponents of imperialist war
(feature article)
Since publication of the first edition of Socialism on Trial [in 1942], the eighteen defendants in the famous Minneapolis “sedition” trial have been imprisoned. Fourteen are now at Sandstone penitentiary in Minnesota, three at Danbury, Connecticut, and one at the federal prison for women, Alderson, West Virginia. Prison gates closed on these socialists and trade unionists in “democratic” America despite the fact they were guilty of no crime other than exercising their right to free speech.

They were incarcerated because they opposed imperialist war, and because they advocated building a socialist society as the only means of ending such wars and all the other evils of capitalism in its death agony. The views for which they now sit behind bars are presented in this book, which is a reprint of the official court record of the testimony of James P. Cannon, America’s No. 1 Socialist and principal defendant at the trial.

Although the Minneapolis case was the first peacetime federal prosecution for sedition in the history of the United States, it was clearly engineered by the Roosevelt administration as part of its war program. The facts prove this beyond honest dispute.

In the spring of 1941, Daniel J. Tobin, head of the Teamsters International and one of the political hatchet men of the Roosevelt regime, came into conflict with the leaders of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544. In May 1941 Tobin published a bitter attack in his personal organ, the Teamsters Journal, denouncing the Trotskyists in the Minnesota Teamsters’ movement. Shortly thereafter, he ordered the democratically elected leadership of Local 544 to stand trial before his International Executive Board in Washington the first week of June. When the leaders of Local 544 refused to concede to his appointment of a receiver over the union with absolute powers, including the power to expel anyone, Tobin proceeded to move in on the union — all this because the Trotskyists in the union refused to abandon their vigorous struggle to improve working conditions or to give political support to Roosevelt in the then rapidly approaching entry of the United States into the second World War.

As a result of Tobin’s actions, 4,000 members of Local 544 at a regular membership meeting on June 9 voted virtually unanimously to disaffiliate from Tobin’s organization in the AFL [American Federation of Labor] and to accept a charter from the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations].

Tobin lost no time. Four days after the vote of Local 544, on June 13, Roosevelt’s secretary, Stephen Early, told the White House press conference, as reported in the New York Times of June 14, 1941, that Tobin had complained to Roosevelt by telegram from Indianapolis, and that: “When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning he asked me to immediately have the government departments and agencies interested in this matter notified …”

In addition to granting Tobin a personal favor, Roosevelt had a much weightier political reason for initiating prosecution. The administration, expecting momentarily to plunge the United States into the catastrophe of World War II, wished to isolate and silence the advocates of socialism so that their ideas might be prevented from gaining a hearing among the masses driven into the slaughter.

Swift action followed the White House assurance to Tobin. Just thirteen days later, on June 27, 1941, FBI agents raided the branch headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party in St. Paul and Minneapolis, carting off large quantities of Marxist literature, much of which could have been obtained in any public library.

On July 15, 1941, less than a month later, an indictment drawn up by the Department of Justice was handed down by a federal grand jury against twenty-nine men and women.

Count one of the indictment, based on an 1861 statute passed during the Civil War against the Southern slaveholders, charged a “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence.”

Count two of the indictment charged: (1) Advocating overthrow of the government by force; (2) Publishing and circulating literature advocating this; (3) Forming organizations “to teach, advocate and encourage” such overthrow; (4) Becoming members of such organizations; (5) Distributing publications which “advised, counseled and urged” insubordination in the armed forces. This count was based wholly on the Smith “Omnibus Gag” Act, invoked for the first time in the Minneapolis case.

Like the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 the Smith Act makes the mere advocacy of ideas a federal crime. Its constitutionality has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, The Nation, The New Republic, and numerous others. The sponsor of this ultrareactionary law is poll-tax Representative Howard W. Smith, leader of the antilabor bloc in Congress and coauthor of the vicious Smith-Connally antistrike law.

On October 27, 1941, the trial began in the Federal District Court at Minneapolis. The principal government “evidence” consisted of innumerable quotations from articles in the American Trotskyist press going back to 1929. Public writings, public addresses of the defendants, radio speeches, leaflets distributed by tens of thousands — these were the main government proofs of “conspiracy.”

The government further introduced as evidence photographs of the great teachers of Marxism (including a portrait of Daniel DeLeon). It introduced such leaflets as the one advertising Vincent Raymond Dunne as speaker at a public forum on the action of the Trotskyists in combatting “20,000 Fascists in Madison Square.” In the indictment and in the prosecution arguments, the government flatly characterized as criminal the doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.

This infamous attack was met unflinchingly by the proletarian defense. Never before in a labor trial in this country have defendants so unswervingly, so consciously and so systematically defended their revolutionary program, utilizing the courtroom as a forum from which to proclaim it. The conduct of the defendants at the trial and throughout all the subsequent stages of the case belongs to the best traditions of international Marxism.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the first count of the indictment, thereby revealing the utter flimsiness of the government case. On the second count, involving a new law, the constitutionality of which had not yet been tested, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against eighteen of the defendants. Of the remaining defendants, five were released by a directed verdict of the court; five others were acquitted by the jury. Grant Dunne, Local 544 organizer and one of the original twenty-nine defendants, committed suicide three weeks before the trial began. He had suffered ill health for a long time from shell shock incurred during the first World War.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee, handling the case in close collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and with the support of labor and defense organizations, assisted the eighteen in appealing their conviction to the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile Tobin had instigated proceedings against the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 544, Kelly Postal. When the Minnesota Teamsters voted to accept the CIO charter, they likewise voted unanimously to turn $5,000 in the local treasury over to the Union Defense Committee. Kelly Postal turned over the funds as instructed. Brought before one court on a charge of grand larceny, Postal was vindicated when the judge threw the case out of court. But the wheels of capitalist justice did not stop because one judge could not overlook the rawness of the frame-up. Hailed before Judge Selover, Postal was declared guilty and sentenced up to five years in Stillwater penitentiary. Judge Selover, who pronounced this cruel sentence, turned down a motion to appeal the case. Kelly Postal is now behind bars because he obeyed the will of the union membership which placed him in office.

On September 20, 1943, the Eighth Circuit Court handed down its decision. In defiance of the law, the Constitution, and all the principles and traditions of democracy, this court upheld the Smith “Gag” Act, giving unconditional endorsement to the prosecution. The defendants, deprived of their elementary democratic rights, were being railroaded to prison. The circuit court judges declared that all this was done in a correct legal way. Thus did the Court of Appeals uphold the right of free speech, one of the “four freedoms” which Roosevelt has solemnly promised to export to other countries.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee then carried the case to the United States Supreme Court. What did this august body, composed almost entirely of Roosevelt appointees do? Did they safeguard the inviolability of the Bill of Rights? Or did they act like the “government departments and agencies interested in this matter” whom Roosevelt’s secretary, Stephen Early, notified upon receipt of Tobin’s complaint?

On November 22, 1943, barely more than two months after the appeal was made, the Supreme Court handed down its decision. It denied the petition of the eighteen to hear their appeal.

This decision will undoubtedly go down as historic. Here is a peacetime law, manifestly unconstitutional, a law directly abrogating the right of free speech. The case is the first to be tried under this law. The President who appointed the judges is waging a war ostensibly to make the world free for democracy. The law has been universally denounced — even in the halls of Congress — as “enough to make Thomas Jefferson turn over in his grave” and as “without precedent in the history of labor legislation.” Yet the last court of appeal denies — without a word of explanation — the petition of eighteen defendants to hear their case!

It is impossible to brush this reactionary decision aside as “accidental.” Twice more, the Civil Liberties Union petitioned the Supreme Court to hear this important case. Twice more, the Supreme Court denied the petition without explanation.

In the words of the great socialist agitator, Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned in the last war, “It is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional rights of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

On December 31, 1943, headed by James P. Cannon and Vincent R. Dunne, fifteen of the defendants formed ranks at the Minneapolis branch headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party and marched in a body through the crowded streets of the city to the Federal Court House. There they were received by the United States Marshal. On the same day the other three defendants appeared at the Marshal’s office in New York. New Year’s Day, 1944, the defendants began their transfer from the local jails to the federal prisons.

The flagrant injustice of this imprisonment aroused indignation throughout wide circles. Many newspapers and partisans of civil rights and liberties protested the action of the Supreme Court. Declared the American Civil Liberties Union, “This is a case which should never have been brought to court under a law which should never have been passed. Never before has the Supreme Court refused to review a case of this importance.”

Recognizing the vital importance of the Minneapolis case to the entire labor movement and the cause of civil liberties, more than 135 unions have already given support or contributed to the work of the Civil Rights Defense Committee. Among them are the United Transport Service Employees — CIO, the New Jersey State CIO Council, the St. Louis Joint Council CIO, the San Francisco Industrial Union Council, forty UAW-CIO locals, eleven United Steel Workers locals, seven United Rubber Workers locals together with dozens of other CIO, AFL, and independent unions.

The present campaign of the Civil Rights Defense Committee to obtain unconditional presidential pardon for the eighteen has met with encouraging response. The alarm of thinking workers over this case is well justified. The imprisonment of the eighteen sets a dangerous precedent which threatens the freedom of every trade unionist and of every American who may disagree with the policies of the Roosevelt administration. The upholding of the Smith “Gag” Law now makes it a crime to exercise the right of free speech and creates a weapon which can be used to deprive other trade unionists and working class political parties of their democratic rights.

Socialism on Trial has already proved its popularity. The first edition, published in 1942, has been sold out completely. It not only occupies a place on the shelves of advanced workers throughout the United States but has been made available to British workers through two editions printed in Great Britain. In Latin America, where workers long aware of Wall Street’s role in world politics are keenly interested in obtaining allies among American workers in the common struggle, the booklet has been read avidly. In the Middle East a translation into Arabic is projected.

The form of the contents, of course, was bound to prove attractive. Here is the unrehearsed, unretouched battle between the prosecuting attorney and the chief defendant. Here are the penetrating questions of the defense attorney, Albert Goldman, himself a defendant, as he attempts to make plain what the Trotskyists actually believe, despite constant efforts of the prosecution to create obstacles, becloud the issues, trap the defendant. But the mere form alone is not sufficient to account for the absorbing interest of Socialism on Trial. More important is the fact that here is presented the revolutionary program that discloses the only road out of the accumulating horrors of capitalist society in its death agony.

From the courtroom in Minneapolis where the Roosevelt Administration hounded leading representatives of the society of the future has come a remarkable document that will undoubtedly prove a powerful instrument in the difficult struggle to build that coming society of peace and plenty. Just as in World War I the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs succeeded only in further spreading and popularizing socialism, so in World War II the imprisonment of the Minneapolis defendants will succeed only in hastening the day of the final victory.

Debs spoke prophetically when he said: “They may put those men in jail — and some of the rest of us in jail — but they cannot put the socialist movement in jail.”

February 15, 1944

The 18 convicted labor
and socialist leaders

Vincent R. Dunne James P. Cannon
Oscar Coover Sr. Carl Skoglund
Albert Goldman Farrell Dobbs
Felix Morrow Grace Carlson
Carlos Hudson Max Geldman
Harry DeBoer Emil Hansen
Clarence Hamel Ed Palmquist
Jake Cooper Karl Kuehn
Alfred Russell Oscar Schoenfeld

Related articles:
‘Socialism on Trial’ — A clear presentation of communist program
for workers’ struggles

Cannon’s 1941 testimony ‘lays out course of communist politics and propaganda necessary for mobilization of workers throughout all stages of development of proletarian revolution in US’
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