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James P. Cannon

The Political Prisoners

Published 1 May 1921

Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon was published in The Red Album, a special pamphlet issued for May Day and published by The Toiler. A copy of this rare pamphlet is in the collection of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies in New York City.

Every war has its hazards: the class war more than any other, for the organized workers wage it for the largest stakes in all the world’s history—for the Earth and all its fruits, for the complete expropriation of the present-day ruling class. In this worldwide struggle there is no compromise and no quarter. The aim of the workers is nothing less than the complete abolition of the capitalist system. Both classes are organizing on an international scale.

The list of the prisoners of the class war—the Workers’ Roll of Honor—is a long one and it increases steadily in spite of all the predictions that “normal conditions” of civil liberty will be restored. There can be no more normal conditions. This is the era of the world revolution. The war is on and there will be no more peace until the workers triumph everywhere.

It is to be expected that many will fall in battle and many be taken prisoner by the enemy before the final goal is reached. The ruling class today is the capitalist class. They maintain themselves in power by force and violence. They make the laws according to their own class interests. The revolutionary movement is a menace to their system. Therefore it is an outlaw movement. Everyone who takes an active part in the struggle for the liberation of the working class takes a chance of going to prison. When the workers get on top they will reverse the order of things. The workers will make the laws then according to their class interests. They will outlaw their class enemies and put them in jail. That is what they are doing in Russia today. It is a very simple proposition. Absolutely natural, absolutely necessary.

The ruling class of America used to laugh at the talk about socialism. They didn’t take it seriously. But the Russian Revolution created a panic amongst them. It demonstrated that the thing can be put over quickly if the time is ripe and the workers get the right idea. When they saw the conditions for working class revolt developing here in the United States, they began to search for agitators to put in their jails. They wanted to lock up their ideas.

At first they grabbed everybody who talked “radical”; but after a while they decided that some kind of talk doesn’t hurt much. They learned to discriminate between the dangerous ideas and the harmless ones, and to recognize certain propaganda as legal. Some ideas are not legal according to capitalist laws and never will be.

The Communists have an idea that the masters fear, therefore it is illegal and the persecution of the Communists continues. The New York State prison holds five of them; twenty more at Chicago were convicted during the last year of “peace.”[1] Revolutionary unionism is a dangerous idea, so the IWW men stay in jail and others go to join them.

There is a definite purpose behind this persistent and systematic railroading of working class agitators. The money-sharks who rule America thought they would be able to break up the movement by taking away the leaders and intimidating the rank and file. But the revolutionary movement grows up out of the life needs of the workers and there is no power that can break it. Persecution is but the fire in which it is tempered and hardened. When leaders go to prison others come forward out of the ranks and take their places. When fainthearted followers desert, new recruits, better suited for the stern requirements of the class war, are enlisted.

The men who have gone to prison for the workers’ cause know this. That knowledge enables them to bear their confinement without complaint, oppressive as it is to men of independent spirit. They see the proletarian revolution still triumphant in Russia; they see it rising in all the countries of Europe where capitalism has played out its string and cannot reorganize production; they know that we, who are on the outside of the jails, have not forgotten them nor our sacred obligation to appeal to the all-powerful workers in their behalf.

The day is coming when the toiling masses of America will hear that appeal and act upon it. Then the prison doors will be opened and the prisoners set free, for the masses have an authority higher than that of any court. To redouble our efforts to hasten on the day of liberation is the pledge we make to our imprisoned comrades on this First of May.


1. The anti-Communist persecution known as the “Palmer Raids” began first in New York, where hundreds of Communists were arrested in November 1919. Over 75 were prosecuted but only five—C.E. Ruthenberg, I.E. Ferguson, James Larkin, Harry Winitsky and Benjamin Gitlow—were convicted of criminal anarchy. They received sentences of five to ten years, though most served only about two years. Larkin, a leading Irish Socialist and labor leader, had remained in America after a November 1914 U.S. lecture tour, helping to found the Communist movement. He served almost three years before being pardoned and deported back to Ireland.

The Palmer Raids began on 1 January 1920 in Chicago and were expanded nationally the next day. While hundreds of Communists were arrested in Chicago, only 20 were convicted, among them L.E. Katterfeld, Charles Krumbein and Max Bedacht. They all received sentences of one to five years.

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