Books of the Month

‘Workers should organize a guard whenever it is necessary’

August 19, 2019

Socialism on Trial: Testimony at Minneapolis Sedition Trial by James P. Cannon is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for August. Cannon, a founding leader of the communist movement in the U.S., was one of 18 Socialist Workers Party and Teamsters union leaders on trial in 1941 for organizing labor opposition to the U.S. rulers’ drive to enter World War II. In his testimony below, he gives a clear and forthright presentation of the communist program of the fighting vanguard of the working class. Copyright © 1942, 2014 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Teamsters Local 544 Union Defense Guard assembles in Minneapolis, 1938. Union volunteers organized to resist assaults by employer-funded fascist groups. SWP leader James P. Cannon explains that workers should protect themselves where necessary from hoodlum violence by anti-working-class forces.
Teamsters Local 544 Union Defense Guard assembles in Minneapolis, 1938. Union volunteers organized to resist assaults by employer-funded fascist groups. SWP leader James P. Cannon explains that workers should protect themselves where necessary from hoodlum violence by anti-working-class forces.

Q: Will you tell the court and jury the position of the Socialist Workers Party on workers defense guards?

A: Well the party is in favor of the workers organizing defense guards wherever their organizations or their meetings are threatened by hoodlum violence. The workers should not permit their meetings to be broken up or their halls to be wrecked, or their work to be interfered with, by Ku Klux Klanners or Silver Shirts or fascists of any type, or hoodlums, or reactionary thugs, but should organize a guard and protect themselves where it is necessary.

Q: How long ago was the idea of a workers defense guard first put forth by the group of which you are a member?

A: I may say that I have known about this idea, which we didn’t invent at all, all my thirty years in the labor movement. I have known about the idea of workers defense guards and seen them organized and helped to organize them more than once long before I ever heard of the Russian Revolution.

Q: And did the Trotskyist group ever start organizing these guards before it became the Socialist Workers Party?

A: Yes, in the first year of our existence, in 1929. The Communist Party, the Stalinists, tried to break up our meetings by hoodlum violence. They did break up a number of meetings and we reacted to that by organizing a workers defense guard to protect our meetings, and invited to participate in this guard not only Trotskyists, but other workers organizations which were also being attacked by the Stalinist hoodlums.

Let me explain this. The Stalinists had a system in those days of trying to break up meetings of the Socialist Party, of the IWW, of a group called the Proletarians, of anybody who didn’t agree with the Stalinists. They tried the Stalin game of breaking them up, so in self-defense, without any theory from anybody, we reacted by organizing workers defense guards to protect our meetings. And I may add, parenthetically, we protected them so well that we put a stop to that monkey business at the cost of a few cracked heads, which I personally greatly appreciated in those days. …

Q: Did you ever hold a meeting where you spoke where workers defense guards protected the meeting?

A: Yes. Here is the Militant (indicating) under date of January 15, 1929, which reports a meeting addressed by me in Cleveland, Ohio, on the same subject about which I was speaking then, “The Truth About Trotsky and the Russian Opposition,” and the account in the paper tells about a gang of Stalinists who came there and tried to disrupt the meeting, and heckled the speaker, and they began to try violence —

Q: You were the speaker, were you?

A: I was the speaker, and I recall very well that I was protected by a guard which we had organized, and the report says that the workers guard finally formed a flying wedge and put the disrupters out of the meeting, and the speaker was allowed to continue to the end. …

Q: But in the meanwhile you want to build, do you not, a workers militia?

A: A workers defense guard, yes.

Q: I mean, not alone for the purpose of defending the union halls, but for other purposes, isn’t that right? Don’t you want to build, while you are advancing toward power, a workers militia? To help you when you get into power?

A: We use the expression “workers defense guards” because that is most American and most easily and precisely defines what we want. The workers defense guards will grow in size and strength insofar as the guards have a task to perform, not because we want them to grow.

If the fascists grow and fight the unions, the unions must inevitably counter that movement by developing their defense guards, and if the defense guards are overpowered by fascist gangsters and hoodlums and thugs, the only answer of the unions can be to strengthen the guards, and in the course of that struggle between the fascist gangs and the workers defense guards, we hope the workers defense guards will grow strong and eventually become a very effective power. …

[W]e say the overwhelming weight of possibility, based upon historical experience, is that the ruling class of this country will attempt to resolve the conflict with the workers by fascist violence before we gain a majority in Congress. Or if it should come to the point where we gain a majority in a democratic election, the ruling class would stage a slaveholders’ rebellion against it. And we will undertake to put down that rebellion as decisively as possible.

Q: And to that end you want to start in advance to build up a workers army, don’t you?

A: You can’t by mere program build up a workers army to confront such a thing. The force of the workers will grow up out of their unions, out of their workers defense guards, out of the rank and file of the soldiers and the farmers who are in the armed forces, who will not support the slaveholders’ rebellion. We will not be without resources if we have a majority of the people. …

[Y]ou cannot organize workers defense guards merely because you want them — only when there is a pressing need for them that is obvious to the workers, regardless of their agreement with our ideas.

Q: It would be a pleasing thing, would it not, to the Socialist Workers Party to be able to establish workers guards in all trade unions for the ultimate purpose of the party?

A: I would go further than that and say that the establishment of workers defense guards is an almost automatic process as the unions encounter the violence of fascist hoodlums. Our task will be to accelerate it, to say it is a good idea, build it up and make it stronger.