James P. Cannon

The Marine Workers Tortured in Jail

Defendents Plead Not Guilty on Charges in the New York “Dynamite Plot”

(November 1931)

Written: November 1931.
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. IV No. 33 (Whole No. 92), 28 November 1931, p. 1.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. Additioanl bound volumes from Earl Gilman’s collection, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (February 1931).
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On Tuesday, November 17, the New York newspapers came out with sensational stories about an alleged plot for “the wholesale bombing of barges in New York Harbor,” which, it was claimed, had been frustrated by the arrest of five members of the Independent Tidewater Boatmen’s Union. From the very first we viewed the reports of the affair with the deepest suspicion, all the more so since it was being represented as a “Communist drive against capitalistically owned property and a campaign in a war of Communists against conservative labor”. (The Times) Since the opposition of the communist movement – in all of its factions and groupings – to methods of individual violence and terrorism is clearly established and well known, this attempt to pass the affair off as a communist action threw discredit on the whole story of the police. The fact that it is directed at the boatmen’s union was another suspicious feature. It had the bad smell of another “plant” such as has been encountered time and time again in the experience of the labor movement in America. In common with all class-conscious workers we watched for further developments with the most intense interest.

Since we have had no association or direct acquaintance with the accused men, we did not feel that the initiative in arranging a legal defense for them belonged to us, although we were of the opinion that they were entitled to that much in any case. The fact that the revolutionary labor movement does not advocate or practice the method of individual terrorism or sabotage is no reason to fly into a panic when the police find some dynamite or plant it. Neither should we take a police accusation against a group of workers as proof of guilt. And finally we should not turn our backs on workers in the hands of the police and leave them defenseless under any circumstances. These elementary principies of labor ethics and solidarity – to say nothing of the communist class point of view – which ought to be taken for granted, are mentioned here only because they seem to have been forgotten in this case.

* * * *

Therefore, when it became clear, after two days had elapsed since the arrest without anything having been done, the National Committee of the Communist League decided to come to the aid of the prisoners and make provision for their legal defense. This was promptly accomplished, thanks to the help and cooperation of Carlo Tresca, editor of Il Martello. Since Wednesday a competent attorney has been looking after the legal interests of the accused marine workers. The facts are now coming to light and the fog of police propaganda in the capitalist press is beginning to lift. Everything that has happened since our investigation began has tended to confirm the first suspicions about the case. Every working-class organization, and above all the entire left wing of the movement, is duty bound to support the defense of the arrested marine workers. As we see it, this is a principled question. The accused men have entered pleas of not guilty. The letter of Soderberg, printed in another column, shows that the police claim of “confessions” is the confession of their own stool pigeon and provocateur. Even bourgeois justice grants a presumption of innocence until guilt has been proven at a trial. Can revolutionary workers do less?

* * * *

From this point of view the strongest protest must be registered against the outrageous comments of the Daily Worker on November 18. There, instead of a protest against the attempt to convict the prisoners in the capitalist press before trial, we read a denunciation of them. Without lifting a finger to investigate the facts, without appealing to the workers to at least suspend judgment until the facts are known, they take the police announcements for granted and abandon the helpless prisoners to their fate, giving them a kick on the way. Of men who at that moment were being beaten and tortured by the police, they had only this to say:

“Soderberg, secretary of the Tidewater Boatmen’s Union, whom the capitalist press calls a ‘Red,’ was expelled from the Communist Party for being a suspicious element and also from the Marine Workers’ Industrial Union for disruptive and anti-working class activities. Treiger, Reily and Bunker were expelled from the Marine Workers’ Industrial Union as bad elements.”

They do not belong to our faction – do with them what you will! Shame on such people! They are without honor, without sentiments of solidarity, without even the labor ethics of an ordinary union member. More than that. In their panic, in their rabbit-hearted cowardice, in their fool’s delusion that they can save themselves by pointing the finger at others, they approach downright provocation against the IWW and the Lovestone faction.

Consider this:

“Treiger in his confession [who said he made a “confession”?] stated that he was a member of the I.W.W. and was not a Communist nor did he believe in Communist political action, but in direct individual anarchist action.”

And this:

“The men arrested are not members of the Communist Party, and their actions are unknown to it, with the exception of one of them, who was expelled from the Party as a suspicious character and who has been since very openly working against the Party with the renegade Lovestone group.”

It is not we who harbor dynamiters – it is the IWW and the Lovestone group. You are welcome to blame it on them, but leave us alone. With such a yellow and treacherous attitude we can have nothing whatever in common. Our differences with both the IWW and the Lovestone faction are many and serious enough. We have spoken of them before and we will speak of them again. But these organizations cannot be accused, even by the remotest implication, of the advocacy or practice of individual terrorism. It is not true. And even if it were true we would not say so in such a moment. We are revolutionists, not informers.

* * * *

We cannot believe that the Communist workers will let the position of the Daily Worker prevail as the policy of the party. It is indeed a terrific revelation of the political and moral degeneration of the upper circles of the Stalinist faction. These processes of decay expose themselves with devastating swiftness in times of crisis and danger, when leaders have to act quickly; when they have no time to dissemble; when they have to show at once the contents of their minds and hearts. On the other hand the time of crisis and danger calls out the deepest class impulses of the revolutionary proletariat and impels them to assert their will in irresistible terms. An upheaval in the Communist ranks against the cowardly and treasonable attitude of the Daily Worker in the case of the marine workers will be the best thing that can happen for the good of the movement and the honor of the party. That will facilitate the organization of a strong working-class front against the new “dynamite plot” and similar conspiracies of the ruling powers.

The militant workers must be aroused and organized to fight. The Communist League sees no factional issue in this case, which involves the lives and liberties of the marine workers and endangers the entire left-wing labor movement. The matter necessitates the cooperation of all elements in the labor movement, regardless of the differences which divide them, who are willing to stand together on this common class point of view. The labor movement shall not be terrorized and broken up by dynamite plots. The arrested marine workers shall not be abandoned and left defenseless. They shall not be railroaded without a fight. We hope to see the labor movement, and especially its entire left-wing and militant section, united in this fight.

Last updated on: 14.2.2013