BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
The revolutionary workers’ movement fought back when 18 leaders of the Teamsters’ battles in the Midwest and the Socialist Workers Party were framed up and railroaded to prison in 1941. They were the first targets of the thought-control Smith Act, which made it illegal to “teach, advocate and encourage” revolutionary ideas. Unfolding with the approach of Washington’s entry into World War II, the trial was a moment when the working-class vanguard effectively defended itself in the rulers’ courts and used the platform to speak to the working-class public.
Trial testimony by James P. Cannon, a defendant and national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, exposed the hypocrisy of capitalist “justice” and explained the aims of the communist movement. At the same time, it uncovered the veiled aims of the propertied rulers to keep labor, Blacks and other oppressed people “in their place” and drag workers and farmers into the second world imperialist slaughter.
Cannon’s statements over three days of examination and cross-examination, first published as Socialism on Trial in 1942, provide concise answers on fundamental questions about socialism that retain every bit as much their ability to educate and inspire working-class militants today.
Pathfinder Press recently released a new edition of Socialism on Trial in English and Spanish. The new, expanded edition restores the 1944 introduction by Joseph Hansen, a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party who served as editor of the Militant and other publications until his death in 1979. The introduction gives context to the frame-up and broad political defense organized by the SWP, the labor movement and other supporters of civil liberties.
The updated book also includes a new preface by Steve Clark, today a member of the Socialist Workers Party National Committee and managing editor of New International, a Marxist magazine of politics and theory. Also added are numerous photos and illustrations along with a glossary of names and events. For the first time, the Spanish edition includes a translation of the final section, which includes a sweeping criticism of Cannon’s defense testimony by revolutionary socialist Grandizo Munis and Cannon’s response.
“Although the Minneapolis case was the first peacetime federal prosecution for sedition in the history of the United States,” wrote Joseph Hansen in the book’s introduction, “it was clearly engineered by the Roosevelt administration as part of its war program.”
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,” Hansen wrote.
An indictment drawn up by the Department of Justice and handed down by a federal grand jury charged 29 men and women of “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence,” based on an 1861 statute passed during the Civil War against the Southern slaveholders. Through the course of the trial all were subsequently acquitted of this charge.
But 18 were convicted of charges brought under the Smith Act, which included advocating overthrow of the government by force; publishing and circulating literature advocating this; and forming organizations “to teach, advocate and encourage” such overthrow.
The Civil Rights Defense Committee was formed to reach out to unionists, Black rights organizations and others to fight against the frame-up. It won support from more than 135 unions. After the Supreme Court denied the request to hear their appeal, the defendants began serving sentences of one year to 16 months behind bars.
“What is the purpose of the Socialist Workers Party,” defense attorney Albert Goldman, who himself was one of the defendants, asked Cannon. “We have set as our aim the establishment of a workers and farmers government, in place of the existing government which we term a capitalist government,” Cannon replied. “The task of this government would be to arrange and control the transition of society from the basis of capitalism to the basis of socialism.”
Among the wide-ranging questions asked of Cannon was “how socialist society would be controlled and directed.”
“After the social revolution has been effected in the political arena and the capitalist government has been replaced by a workers and farmers government,” replied Cannon, “the importance and weight of the government as a repressive force would gradually diminish.”
“The government of a socialist society in reality will be an administrative body, because we don’t anticipate the need for armies and navies, jails, repressions, and consequently that aspect of government dies out for want of function,” said Cannon.
“Violence is initiated always by the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the state when the time has come,” Cannon said in response to a question on the role of violence in the revolutionary struggle. “They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.”
“Even if the transfer of power is accomplished peacefully, the minority capitalist class will revolt,” said Cannon. “The U.S. Civil War resulted from slaveholders’ refusal to accept the election of President Lincoln. … In Spain, when workers parties and liberal parties won a majority and formed the People’s Front government, they faced an armed rebellion by reactionary capitalists.”
‘Contradictions in capitalist system’The factors driving for socialism “are the contradictions within the capitalist system itself,” Cannon explained. Since the SWP is a minority in the working class, its job is to patiently explain its program and perspectives through use of its newspaper and revolutionary literature in preparation for inevitable mass actions down the road.
“We, as Marxists, believe that historical development will come powerfully to the aid of our ideas,” said Cannon. “Continued bankruptcy of the present system, its inability to solve its problems, its worsening of the conditions of the people, will push them on the road in search of a solution of what seems to them an absolutely hopeless situation.
“Under those conditions our program can appear to the people more and more plausible, more and more reasonable, and we can begin to become a stronger party. It has happened before with parties of similar ideas.”
In response to a question on how the party tries to win influence in the unions, Cannon said party members “must be the best trade unionists in the union, and they must be the best workers on the job” to “gain the respect of their fellow workers and their confidence.” At the same time “they have got to be busy and active in all union affairs” and “work to gain sympathy and support for the party and its program.”
Cannon did not shirk from explaining the SWP’s active opposition to U.S. entry into World War II, for which the 18 were railroaded to prison. “In our paper we write against U.S. entry into the war. We speak against it. We carry out public political agitation against all measures taken by the Executive or by Congress that lead towards participation in the war. … We do not want to gain any colonies. We do not want bloodshed to make profits for American capital.”
“It’s absolutely true that Hitler wants to dominate the world, but it’s equally true that the ruling group of American capitalists has the same idea,” Cannon said. “We’re not in favor of either American or German imperialism dominating the world.”
Answer to ultraleft criticsThe section titled “Communist Policy in the Minneapolis Trial: James P. Cannon Answers His Ultraleft Critics” includes a criticism by Grandizo Munis, an exile in Mexico who had fought against dictator Francisco Franco in the civil war in his native Spain. Munis said that Cannon’s testimony “bordered on a renunciation of principles,” offered “comfortable propaganda” instead of revolutionary action, downplayed revolutionary violence in the transition to socialism, and was aimed at securing lighter sentences for the defendants.
“I do not find in the long pages of the interrogation of Cannon anything other than propaganda, propaganda, and more propaganda,” said Munis. “Why not call upon the workers to organize their own violence against the reactionary violence?”
“Our main task,” replied Cannon, “was to use the courtroom to speak to American workers who might hear us for the first time. This required, in our judgment, not a call to action but patient explanations.”
“Marxism, without a doubt, is the doctrine of revolutionary action,” Cannon wrote. “But it has nothing in common with ‘violence of individuals,’ ‘partial risings of small groups,’ or any other form of ‘action’ wherein individuals or minorities attempt to substitute themselves for the masses. The revolutionary action which Marxism contemplates is the action of the masses, of the proletarian majority, led by the vanguard party. But this action, and the party’s leading role in it must be, and can only be, prepared by propaganda. … A party which lacks a mass base, which has yet to become widely known to the workers, must approach them along the lines of propaganda, of patient explanations.
“The bourgeoisie have always tried to picture communism as a ‘criminal conspiracy’ in order to alienate the workers who are profoundly democratic in their sentiments,” Cannon said. “That was the aim once again in the Minneapolis trial. It was our task at the trial to go out of our way to refute this misrepresentation and emphasize the democratic basis of our program; not in order to placate our enemies and persecutors, as is assumed, but in order to reveal the truth to our friends, the American workers.”
With supporting examples from the strategy of the Bolshevik Party that brought workers and farmers to power in the Russian Revolution of 1917, Cannon stands by the defensive formulations used to defend the worker militants on trial as “the best methods for the mobilization of the workers for mass action throughout all states of the development of the proletarian revolution in the United States.”
‘We dedicate our lives to the workers cause’
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