Socialism on Trial

The courtroom testimony of James P. Cannon

Stenigraphically recorded: 1940, Minneapolis, MN, District Court of the United States, June 18th 1941 through November 21, 1941
Source: Socialism On Trial (c) Resistance Books 1999 ISBN 0909196 93 1 : Permission provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2003.
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters
Introduction: Special thinks to David Holmes for writing the introduction and facilitating the acquisition of the text of the book.


Introduction by Dave Holmes

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII


By Dave Holmes

Almost 60 years ago in the United States, in 1941, there took place in Minneapolis, in the mid-western state of Minnesota, the most famous political trial of the wartime period. Twenty-eight socialist and union activists were charged with plotting the violent overthrow of the US government.

Most of those indicted were members of the US Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, including its national secretary, James P. Cannon. The party had a long history of militant and effective work in the Minneapolis labor movement. It used its positions there to conduct a forceful campaign against the war drive of US imperialism. Through the trial, the government aimed to silence the most radical and determined antiwar voice.

The Minneapolis “sedition” trial and the SWP’s heroic struggle against it contain some enduring lessons for socialists, which speak to us across the decades. This book brings together a number of materials relating to this episode and the general question of defending civil liberties against government and rightist attacks.

“Socialism on Trial”, Cannon’s verbatim courtroom testimony, is a clear and inspiring exposition of the Marxist view of capitalism, war and revolution—all the more remarkable for the circumstances in which it was given. “Defence Policy in the Minneapolis Trial” contains Cannon’s subsequent defence of the party’s line during the trial against the ultraleft criticisms of exiled Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis. It is a masterful explanation of how socialists struggle to win mass support for radical social change. The third contemporary document here is Cannon’s powerful 1943 farewell “Speech on the Way to Prison”.

George Novack’s 1968 article explains the key principles followed by the SWP in defending its rights against capitalist attacks. Novack, a longtime SWP leader with an extensive involvement in defence work, recounts how the party built a broad and effective campaign against the Minneapolis frame-up trial. He also discusses the cold war McCarthyite witch-hunt of the later forties and fifties and the SWP’s fight against it. A 1950 party resolution appended here amplifies these points.

Today, the capitalist class is relentlessly pushing forward with an ever-harsher austerity drive. All along the line, the gains won by working people in over a century of struggle are under attack. Whatever the conjunctural situation, this is not a period of broad expansion of civil liberties and workers’ rights; on the contrary, we can expect them to come under increasing pressure. In such a context, this volume contains invaluable lessons for socialists and all those fighting for a better world.

Against imperialist war

The war question was at the heart of the government’s attack on the SWP.

While the Allied involvement in World War II has always been presented in propaganda and popular culture as a struggle for democracy against fascism, the truth is radically different.

In the modern era, militarism and war is an outgrowth of imperialist capitalism. The imperialist powers and the giant corporations whose interests they defend struggle for control of markets and sources of raw materials and spheres of domination and influence.

Thus World War I was essentially a contest between dynamic but late-developing German imperialism, which had largely been left behind in the scramble for colonies, and the old imperialist powers, Britain and France, with their vast empires of colonial slaves. The US entered the conflict late in the day, as the main antagonists were severely weakened, and established its preeminent position in world economics and politics.

But the “war to end all wars” could do no such thing. The underlying causes of the conflict remained. US imperialism was driving, then as now, for world domination (what would later be called by its ideologists the “American century”). This drive ran up against the similar ambitions of German imperialism (Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich”). In the Far East, US and Japanese interests collided. A second global conflict was inevitable.

The SWP opposed the war drive being conducted by US imperialism under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democratic president since 1933. The party explained that the coming war had nothing to do with democracy but everything to do with increasing the wealth and power of the “Sixty Families”—the Duponts, Morgans, Rockefellers and so on—who controlled the country. It would be marked by attacks on wages and working conditions and trade union and democratic rights. The labor movement should not fall in behind the patriotic bandwagon but should defend itself as energetically as possible.

Of course, along with the clash of rival imperialist blocs, what has become known as World War II contained other wars and the SWP’s attitude to these was different.

In 1937, semicolonial China was attacked by Japanese imperialism. China’s struggle against foreign enslavement was a just and progressive one and the SWP fully supported it. The party also gave unqualified support to the liberation struggles of other colonial peoples, whether against Japanese occupying forces or against their European colonial masters.

Nazi ideology had always argued that Germany should seek an empire to the east, principally by attacking the Soviet Union. The onslaught came on June 22, 1941. The involvement of the USSR and the heroic resistance of the Soviet people introduced a new element into the global picture. Despite its irreconcilable opposition to Stalinism, the SWP had always made it clear that it would unconditionally support the USSR in a conflict with imperialism and it never wavered from this stand. In fact, in 1939-40, a struggle in the SWP to defend this position resulted in a deep split with some 40 per cent of the membership following Max Schachtman and James Burnham out of the party.

A major question facing the SWP in relation to the coming war was what attitude it should take toward conscription. In a situation where most workers accepted the government’s propaganda about a war for democracy against Hitler, conscription was widely accepted and the party rejected pacifist and ultraleft calls for young men to refuse to be drafted. Such individual moral stands were futile and would simply cut the party off from any chance of influencing the millions of workers in uniform. The party sought to wage the fight, not around the issue of the draft, but around democratic rights inside the army—the right of the soldiers to have an opinion about the war and be able to discuss it, the right to elect their officers and so on.

Struggle in Minneapolis

The SWP was a small force in the labor and radical movement but it was very well led and had some impressive accomplishments to its credit. Certainly, the ruling class and its government in Washington were far from ignoring it.

With scores of thousands of members and supporters, the Stalinist Communist Party was much bigger. During the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact—from September 1939 to the June 1941 attack on the USSR—the CP was antiwar but with the Nazi invasion it swung 100 per cent behind Roosevelt’s war drive.

That left the SWP as the most intransigent antiwar force. An important part of the government’s war preparations was to intimidate and cripple any serious opposition at home.

In the course of the 1930s, the party had built up strong positions in the labor movement in Minneapolis. Its influence was centred in the Teamsters union which organised workers in the trucking industry.

Two great strikes in 1934 first established the SWP as a force in the local union movement and gave it national prominence and recognition. The story of these great class battles and the subsequent struggle to defend and extend the gains made is chronicled and analysed in Farrell Dobbs’ excellent four books—Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics and Teamster Bureaucracy (Monad Press: New York, 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1977). James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1972) also has a fine account of the great strikes and the party’s role in them.

As the capitalist war drive intensified in the later 1930s, the party stepped up its antiwar efforts, especially through its editorship of the weekly newspaper of the Minneapolis Teamsters, the Northwest Organizr.e

The Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544 belonged to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters headed by Daniel J. Tobin, a notorious case-hardened bureaucrat who was also head of the Democratic Party Labor Committee. In turn, the IBT belonged to the conservative American Federation of Labor. This began as an organisation of craft unions but under the pressure of the 1930s crisis it also incorporated some industrial formations like Local 544. The AFL was also under some pressure from the rising Committee of Industrial Organizations, a much more dynamic, progressive, industrially-based body.

Ever since it came under the leadership of SWP cadres, Local 544 had had a conflict-ridden relationship with IBT boss Tobin. In 1941, for his own reasons and as a service to Roosevelt, Tobin sought to eliminate the militant, antiwar leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters. On June 9, just as Tobin was moving to place the local under receivership, it voted to leave the IBT and the AFL and affiliate to the CIO. In turn, this precipitated a full-scale government witch-hunt against the union and the SWP as Roosevelt rushed to help Tobin and at the same time crush a militant antiwar voice.

Government frame-up

On June 27—five days after Hitler invaded the USSR—FBI agents raided the offices of the SWP in Minneapolis and the twin-city of St. Paul, carting off large quantities of (perfectly legal) socialist literature.

On July 15, a Federal grand jury indicted 29 union and SWP members. There were two counts to the indictment. The first, based on the 1861 Sedition Act, a Civil War measure aimed against the Southern slaveholders and their agents—and never before used!—charged that the defendants conspired “to overthrow, put down and to destroy by force the Government of the United States of America, and to oppose by force the authority thereof ... The defendants would seek to bring about, whenever the time seemed propitious, an armed revolution ...”

The second count, based on the 1940 Smith Act, a reactionary and controversial law which criminalised the mere espousal of ideas, charged the defendants with advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence and urging insubordination in the armed forces.

The trial began in the Federal District Court in Minneapolis on October 27, 1941. The state side was unable to produce any proof of conspiracy, its “evidence” consisting mainly of public statements by the party and its leaders.

Although the government gained the result it sought, it was a somewhat dubious victory. After 56 hours of deliberation, the jury found the 23 defendants then remaining not guilty on the first count and five were found not guilty on the second count also. It found 18 defendants guilty on the second but added a recommendation for leniency. They were sentenced on December 8, 1941—the day the US declared war on Japan. Twelve of the defendants received 16-month sentences and the rest 12-month terms.

The 18 convicted Trotskyists included Cannon, the SWP’s national secretary; Farrell Dobbs; Albert Goldman, the party’s lawyer who conducted the courtroom defence in Minneapolis; and one woman, Grace Carlson.

The 18 remained free on bail for another year while various appeals were made. They began their sentences on December 31, 1943. While 14 of the men served their time as a group in the federal penitentiary at Sandstone in Minnesota, Grace Carlson was isolated in the federal women’s prison in Alderson in West Virginia; another group of three was confined in Danbury in Connecticut. The last prisoners were released in February 1945.

Political defence

As is clear from the record of Cannon’s courtroom cross-examination by both Goldman and the government prosecutors, the party’s defence against the charges was guided above all by its political objectives, to which purely legal considerations took second place. The party sought to use the trial as a platform to get a sympathetic hearing for its ideas from broader circles of workers and the radical public. Cannon’s testimony and Goldman’s concluding address, for instance, were issued as pamphlets and widely circulated and the SWP’s weekly newspaper, The Militant, extensively reported the government attack and the party’s real record as a vanguard fighter for the rights of working people.

The SWP’s trial strategy and conduct were criticised by Grandizo Munis. Cannon’s exhaustive rebuttal, “Political Principles and Propaganda Methods” (also published as What Policy for Revolutionists—Marxism or Ultraleftism) is a classic of Marxism, in the same spirit as Lenin’s &#8216Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder. Cannon explains the concrete political setting of the trial—above all, the state of working class consciousness in the US on the eve of the war—and the party’s objectives flowing from that, the Marxist view of violence and sabotage in the class struggle, how the party strives to win majority support for the program of socialism and the crucial role of defensive formulations in winning that support.

As George Novack outlines in the 1968 talk included in this volume, the SWP went all out to defend itself, especially through the broad Civil Rights Defence Committee. From the time of the original grand jury indictments in mid-1941 until the last prisoner was released in early 1945, party activity revolved around defence work. The CRDC won wide support in the labor and radical movement, with many labor unions and officials expressing their opposition to the conviction of the 18 Trotskyists.

Despite this growing support, a widespread recognition of the significance of the case and extensive disquiet about the constitutionality of the Smith Act, the Supreme Court three times refused to review the conviction of the 18. In his farewell speech, included in this volume, Cannon powerfully denounces capitalist justice and lashes the hypocrisy of the Supreme Court judges and their subservience to the ruling class.

The Stalinist Communist Party applauded the government assault on the Trotskyists. With their fanatically pro-war, pro-Roosevelt position, the Stalinists were blind to any considerations of working-class solidarity, let alone any thought that one day they might be the object of capitalist persecution.

Of course, the alliance of the capitalist West and the USSR hardly survived the end of the war. The Cold War against the Soviet Union was launched in earnest in 1947 and in the US a deep and pervasive witch-hunt was instituted. It fell especially heavily on the Stalinists—but it was far from being restricted to them. As scores of its leaders were indicted and jailed, the CP was virtually friendless, due in no small measure to its shameful conduct during the war.

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A full account of the witch-hunt against Local 544 and the SWP and the Minneapolis “sedition trial” and its aftermath can be found in Teamster Bureaucracy, the fourth volume of Farrell Dobbs’ quartet. The selection of Cannon’s wartime writings, The Socialist Workers Party in World War II (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), includes material dealing with the Minneapolis struggle as well as the party’s efforts to defend itself against government harassment on other fronts. And, finally, there is Cannon’s extremely instructive and inspiring Letters From Prison (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1994), proof that he did not waste his period of incarceration.

Those wanting an overview of Cannon’s life and work, as well as an analysis of the more recent evolution of the SWP, can consult Dave Holmes et al, Building the Revolutionary Party: An Introduction to James P. Cannon (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1997).

*  *  *

Minor stylistic and spelling changes have been made to the texts for ease of reading. Similarly, the subheads in Cannon’s courtroom testimony have been inserted by the editors. All quotations have been checked and the sources indicated in the endnotes.