Joseph Hansen

How the Trotskyists Went to Jail

(February 1944)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.5 No.2, February 1944, pp.43-48.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The Socialist Workers Party is the only party in this country which has maintained the socialist anti-war position and held to its opposition to the war under fire. The Trotskyists were penalized for their courageous stand. The capitalist courts took revenge upon 18 individuals for daring to hold aloft the banner of socialism in wartime. But not one took back a single word. What kind of people are these whom the Roosevelt regime wishes behind bars? What stuff are Trotskyists made of that so many of them can meet severest tests without buckling? I had opportunity to observe them the last days before they entered prison. Perhaps a few sketches of them during those days will help to answer these questions.

America’s No.1 Socialist

James P. Cannon has long been recognized as the leading representative of American Trotskyism. When I came to his home in New York on Tuesday afternoon, December 28, 1943, to accompany him on the trip to prison, he was relaxed in his workshop, quietly smoking a cigar. He greeted me affably, invited me to make myself at home while he waited for his granddaughter Lorna – he calls her “Mickie” – to finish her nap so that she might accompany “Gramp” to the station.

I glanced about Jim’s lean, efficient workshop where he prepares his speeches and articles. Beside the desk and a few chairs, the only furnishings are shelves of Marxist classics. The walls border on austerity – only two pictures in the entire room, one of Trotsky, the other of Carlo Tresca.

Jim took out his gold watch to check the time. So steeped is Jim in the movement that everything about him brings to mind some phase of party life. That gold watch was a present from comrades of Local New York of the Socialist Workers Party, the Webster’s New International Dictionary near his elbow a present from a class he taught on the history of Trotskyism; even his cigar was a present from sea-going Trotskyists.

“When America’s No.1 Socialist exchanges his clothes for prison garb, he will get a receipt for that gray suit the Los Angeles comrades gave him,” I thought. “When he gets out, it will be the first thing he puts back on – that suit is party harness so to speak.”

Rose, his wife, typed busily, bringing up to date the score-board of the branches of the Socialist Workers Party in their drive to collect $15,000 in celebration of the 15th anniversary of American Trotskyism. Gray hair framing dark eyes, Rose looked beautiful behind Jim’s desk. The wrist watch comrades gave her when they presented Jim with his watch, flashed in the sunlight. Only two nights before, Rose had stood up at the farewell banquet in New York to speak for the wives of the defendants and the Trotskyist women of the party. It was hard to see the men go, she had said with simplicity, but there would be no moping. The women would carry on.

Leavetakings can be embarrassing to an outsider, for he does not know the intimate things and cannot share in them. He is not directly linked to the emotional threads drawn taut. Jim’s two-year-old granddaughter, whom Walta now brought in, kept the sentiment in this farewell from distressing anyone. As Walta, Rose’s daughter, stuffed Mickie’s arms into her snow suit, Jim kept up a running conversation with the youngster, smiling at her like a wise old grandfather.

“Bam going calaboose,” responded Mickie; “I go too.” Hearing her use that word “calaboose,” it wouldn’t surprise me if she could already sing some of the old IWW songs Jim knows so well. As Jim took a few more moments to laugh with Mickie over their secret understanding, it was difficult to hold steadily in one’s mind the fact that soon he would be on the train, soon in Minneapolis, soon in prison.

At Grand Central station Rose said goodbye. In my mind, as I watched her, came the image of Natalia Trotsky, the great woman hero of the Marxist movement ...

As for little Mickie, faithfully carrying out her part of the deal, she gave everybody a laugh holding out her arms to go with Gramp to the calaboose.

We had taken a compartment on the Commodore Vanderbilt to Chicago, for Jim still had some editorial work to complete on the manuscript of his book that is to be published this spring, The History of American Trotskyism, and did not want to be disturbed. But Jim was still unsettled from his leave-taking. He watched the unsavory tenements of Harlem move bleakly past the train window – that monstrous ghetto where capitalism forces the Negro people of New York to live in segregation. The lines in Jim’s face grew deep and grave. I thought him sad at leaving his family, sad at all the things Harlem brought to mind. Socialism will leave not one stone upon another where slum tenements now mar America. The road to achieving that great social gain, however, is not an easy one. Jim was on his way to prison now precisely because of his fight for such an alternative to the imperialist war.

On the Train

Jim likes to speak about the great future facing mankind once the economic system has been organized upon rational lines that will eliminate poverty and war. In 1938 when they came to visit Trotsky, I listened to him and Vincent R. Dunne in the patio of a hotel at Cuernavaca after dinner, talking about the future. Under socialism, they said, the enemy will not be our fellow human beings, but the enemy of all human beings: disease. All the energy that now goes into such destructive waste as imperialist war will go into a socialist war against disease. The campaign will be organized on a world scale with unlimited funds at the disposal of the earth’s scientists and laboratories. The head lines in the press will not boast that so many thousand tons of bombs have been dumped on men, women and children, but will announce such things as really free the world of fear: Rheumatic Fever Surrenders to Neat Cure, Infantile Paralysis Stamped Out, CANCER CONQUERED.

What of death itself? If the Socialist Administration of the United States of the World were to appropriate an amount equal say to what the former capitalist Congress poured into imperialist war, could life expectancy be extended scores of years?

People will follow professions not out of economic compulsion but out of their own desire, for the economic system unshackled from capitalist fetters will produce goods in such undreamed of abundance as virtually to free everyone from the daily grind that holds us down today. How joyous it will be to live under socialism! You want to delve into the mysteries of the atom? Good. Society needs new sources of power to further free us from drudgery. You want to become an astronomer? Good. The heavens are virtually unexplored. We need intelligent men ambitious to extend our knowledge in that field. Who knows what they will find about the origin of the universe, its limits and its end? Under socialism art will really flower in full beauty and creativeness for the first time. And then the highest art of all will come into its own, the art of loving one’s fellow man.

That evening in Mexico was memorable. Barefoot campesinos trudging over the cobblestones with towering burdens of pottery on their backs like draft animals ... Vincent and Jim discussing the great ideals which have kept them organizing for socialism nearly 40 years ...

As the crack train gathered speed along the banks of the river, the man soon to be locked in a cell because of his beliefs leaned back in his seat watching the barren trees and the ice-fringed water skim by. The pillars of a famous geologic formation moved in stately procession into the past – scenes of the Hudson warmed by the winter sun for this socialist fighter to remember in the hard days ahead. The sun fell on his hair as the train leaned around a curve and the iron gray waves lighted up luminously. Jim’s lips moved; “The Palisades are beautiful.”

Rosedale and World War I

A few questions led Jim to speak about his youth. He was born near the geographical center of the United States; in Rosedale, Kansas. The somber rural middle west of the nineties was the background of his childhood. For all practical purposes, his formal education ceased at the age of twelve. Only “bitter will” drove him to educate himself. He carried a grocer’s notebook in which he jotted down the words he stumbled across in books. He memorized and tried to use in conversation these fascinating new words despite the raillery of his companions, who like many country boys considered education so far beyond the reach of their station in life that whoever exhibited ambition in that direction was in their eyes a little touched. Undoubtedly Jim misused many words; for years he experienced embarrassment unlearning the Kansas pronunciation he had assigned to them; but no matter, defying all obstacles, by sheer main force he muscled through.

Having finished formal schools at the age of 12, he went to work 60 hours a week for the Swift Packing Company. His next job was in the railroad yards at the age of 14; 70 hours a week. Once a month he was entitled to a whole day off for relaxation. When he spoke at the farewell banquet about the “pathetic pleasures” of those who have not yet gained the emancipating vision of socialism, Jim said, he had that boy of Rosedale, Kansas, in mind trying to have fun on his day off.

Jim brought out his pipe and lit it. Through the smoke that drifted along the window, Jim’s eyes remained on the scenery rushing by. Space and time were perishing under the train wheels, as the Commodore rushed this stiff-necked man to the penitentiary. “Tell me about your father,” I asked.

Although now well in his eighties, responded Jim, old Cannon still stands by his son and follows everything that happens to him. When Jim began organizing for the IWW, his father hungered for every word about his successes, his speeches and debates. “Some of the boys knew this,” Jim went on, “and on their way through town they’d stop off to see my father and let him know about me.” He smiled, “I guess they used to lay it on a bit more than I really deserved; but my father was always proud of me.” The interest of Jim’s father is understandable. He was a socialist himself as early as 1901. In England where the Irish Land League had ramifications he was a member of the Boulton Local. The Irish revolutionist Robert Emmett was his hero; Emmett, martyred by the British, who said, “Don’t write my epitaph until Ireland is freed.” As a boy Jim memorized an entire speech of Robert Emmett’s; could recite it word for word. Now this son was entering prison as America’s No.1 Socialist.

As he smoked his pipe he answered another question of mine about the persecution of socialists in the first World War, telling me his experience in Rosedale. Despite his becoming an advocate of the rights of labor and even a member of the IWW and Socialist Party, the town elders still considered him destined for Congress.

“Probably they were right. I might have ended up these past decades in Congress if I hadn’t become convinced that the only fight worthwhile is the fight for socialism.

“The crucial turning point was my attitude on the war. In those days the socialist movement hadn’t arrived at the correct approach to this question. We thought that the way out, in our uncertainty, was to become conscientious objectors. Now we know of course that it is wrong to separate yourself from your generation; you should go with them into the armed forces. When I came up before the board to register for the draft, one of the venerable town elders tried to counsel me, to advise me, not to get into trouble, to go along, but when he asked me what to put down, I said, ‘Conscientious objector.’

“ ‘Why?’ he asked me.

“ ‘I don’t believe in the war.’

“The others didn’t think they had heard right. ‘What did he say?” one of them asked.

“’He doesn’t believe in the war.’

“ I’ll never forget the way he said that, without lifting or turning his head. He felt very bad that I would do such a thing.

“From then on I was a pariah in my own home town. No work. Complete isolation. They came and took away my wife’s kitchen cabinet. You don’t know what that means – but in Rosedale it was a terrible blow. My little boy held on to the man’s legs, biting him like a little dog because they were taking away his mother’s kitchen cabinet. They took away our phonograph records. I’ll never forget how my little boy went around cranking his arm and hand, pretending he was playing a phonograph record. The whole world seemed against us.

“Finally we had nothing to go with our mush, except a quart of milk a day. The milkman took pity on us week after week, leaving a bottle each morning without asking for money. Maybe he sympathized a little. Finally one bitter day I went out to get the milk and it wasn’t there, just the empty bottle I had put out. Tom Hampton hadn’t left the milk that morning. He wasn’t going to leave any more without money. I had two babies and a wife waiting inside the house. I just sat down on the step and held that empty bottle in my hands.

“I know what the most desperate poverty means. I’ve had to stuff my books in the stove to keep my family from freezing to death.”

>Now for the second time, he was being hounded and persecuted for his opposition to imperialist war. He didn’t believe Wilson that the first World War would make the world safe for democracy; he didn’t believe Roosevelt that the second World War will bring “four freedoms” to our planet.

I was reminded of an incident: Several years ago at a New York banquet for Angelica Balabanova, old John Dewey, relating how he came to serve on the Commission of Inquiry that exposed the falsity of the Moscow Trials, said to Max Eastman in the presence of Cannon, “This is the man who got me to serve on the Commission. He appealed to my better nature.”

Eastman, who long ago gave up the fight for socialism, responded ironically, looking at Cannon: “He’s appealed to the better nature of a lot of people.”

I recalled the incident to Jim. “How did you get an eminent person like John Dewey to serve on that Commission?”

John Dewey and the Moscow Trials

Stalin was flooding the world with monstrous lies, Jim explained: murdering tens of thousands of Trotskyists and others under pretense they were spies and traitors. The sole “crime” of the Trotskyists was to be in political opposition to the regime which had usurped power. Trotsky for instance was guilty of nothing but wanting to defend the Soviet Union in accordance with the ideas of Lenin. Stalin had even succeeded through his machinations with the Norwegian government in preventing Trotsky from explaining to the world press what was happening in these purge trials. It was necessary to give Trotsky a hearing so that people who believed in truth could decide whether he was guilty of the charges or not. Several people had already gone to Dewey to ask him to serve on the Commission but he had refused. His family didn’t want him to go to Mexico, for he was more than 80 years old.

“I went to him and told him what the situation was.” Jim smiled warmly at the memory. “I told him he must do something for justice. I wouldn’t let him go until he agreed to do something for justice. That was how he came to serve on the Commission. That was how Trotsky was given the opportunity to prove his innocence before the whole world, to prove that he was the best defender of the Soviet Union.”

Jim continued:

“But even John Dewey was not wholly impartial. As a judge it would have served the cause of justice to simply announce the verdict of not guilty, without injecting his own personal views on politics. He took advantage of the occasion to attack the theory of socialism; in that he departed from strict morality. When the history of this epoch is written, when they excavate through this geologic stratum of lies as Natalia Trotsky expressed it, they’ll discover that the only really moral people were the Trotskyists.

“As for the judges on the Supreme Court who are supposed to be such liberals and such moralists, they are not even as moral as Pontius Pilate. They refused even to hear the case. Pontius Pilate at least asked, ‘What is truth?’“

As evening reddened the sky, Jim turned to the editorial work on his book The History of American Trotskyism. Many things stirred his memory as he went through the manuscript. He broke off occasionally to talk about the hard days in the early Trotskyist movement, how the Minneapolis comrades held him up when the going became bitter beyond endurance. He mentioned earlier things which he projects for his autobiography. The men he knew in the IWW. Frank Little who was murdered by a mob at Butte, Montana, during the persecution of labor militants in World War I. Jim was in two strikes with Frank Little, one at Peoria, Illinois, the other at the ore docks in Duluth, Minnesota. He was a close friend of James Larkin, the Irish revolutionist. Vincent St. John, great organizer of the IWW, came within an ace of joining his pupil Cannon in organizing for the Communist movement after the October Revolution.

We changed trains at Chicago, leaving the sprawling smoke which clothed that city for the sunlit flat lands of Illinois. We now rode a bit closer to the blinds; that is, in a coach jammed with the traffic of war, soldiers and sailors on furlough, workers, women and children. Jim enjoyed the democratic atmosphere. He began humming “What song is that?” I asked.

“Haven’t you ever heard it? It’s one of Joe Hill’s best.” Joe Hill was the IWW poet who came from Sweden to put the thoughts and emotions of the militant American working men to music. The victim of a frameup, he was shot at Utah state prison in 1915, but his songs are imperishable in the labor movement.

“Shall I sing you the words?” offered Jim. Then and there he presented me with Joe Hill’s famous ballad about Overalls and Snuff. The words seemed singularly appropriate in view of the labor crisis on the railroads, for the song tells about the railroad strikers of an earlier day who sang, “We’ll build no more damn railroads just for overalls and snuff.”

The Hiawatha sped out into Wisconsin. Patches of bare trees held stiff fingers up to the winter sun. Jim talked about Mickie’s goodby. “I’m going to miss her. Oh how I’m going to miss that little tyke. ‘Bam going calaboose; I go too!’“ He chuckled at Mickie – this man who had come out of the iron school of the IWW and the early Communist Party. “Some of us may never live to see the Socialist society. But she will. She’ll see in real life what we’ve been fighting for as an ideal.”


Representatives of the American Working Class

When the Hiawatha pulled into Minneapolis after dark, Carl Skoglund and Oscar Coover took us to a hotel. During the hours that followed I saw a side of Jim that was completely new to me. In New York he is cosmopolitan, a politician of the working class dealing in world problems. The capitols of the warring powers lie before him like a chess board as he follows the diplomatic moves, the maneuvers, calculates the next probable stage of development in the international class struggle. Now as his old friends and comrades-in-arms came to welcome him – even though it be welcome to prison – he seemed the small town boy reporting back to the family how things are in the metropolis. Here his past cropped up in a new form. These men all know Rosedale although they may never have been there. Jim speaks their language as they want it spoken. Jim is the home town boy who went out to champion their historic interests. What he accomplishes they also accomplish. They held him up when the going was tough, sent him support and encouragement; he is their ambassador in the court of world politics.

And so, because wit is a handy material with which to build a fence around such intimate friendships, wit encircled Jim. I think that is why Jim is so appreciative of Minneapolis humor – not because it is peculiar to Minneapolis, but because it is the humor of the America Jim loves, concentrated on him for the good of his soul. That is why, for instance, he likes to tell the story about Bill Brown and Miles Dunne when the National Guard entered Minneapolis to break the July 1934 strike. As the uniformed “apple-knockers” nervously marched Cannon and Shachtman away in a circle of bayonets, Bill and Miles leaned out of the court house window overhead, holding their sides in laughter at this rare comedy. “Anything for a laugh in Minneapolis,” Jim says reminiscently.

The Minneapolis comrades undoubtedly would have felt keenly disappointed if their leader were forced to serve his term in a separate prison; they covered up their appreciation of his presence by ribbing him for ever having come to Minneapolis in the first place. “You see where it got you to come to Minneapolis and open your mouth?”

During the evening, walking along the dark streets of Minneapolis toward a restaurant, I became better acquainted with Carl Skoglund. Long an outstanding figure of the Northwest labor movement, Skoglund represents the revolutionary tendency in the Scandinavian flavoring of Minnesota politics. Born in Sweden on an ancient feudal estate, his serf ancestors had been bound to the soil as far back as records extend. Capitalism penetrated into this area with saw mills and other enterprises when Carl was still a boy. Overnight, youths changed from serfs into proletarians.

An Old Timer

The conflict with the older Lutheran generation became peculiarly sharp. As against devout belief in witchcraft, charms and the catechism, these youths were confronted by the ultramodern scientific doctrines of Karl Marx. The feudal home broke up. At the age of 15 Carl scandalized the locality by refusing to go through with confirmation in the Lutheran church.

The 1905 revolution in Russia and the consequent upsurge in Norway had a powerful influence upon him. His older brother, already a Socialist, talked to him of the coming classless society. In 1911 he came to the “land of freedom.” Working on the railroad, he met Oscar Coover. “We hardly worked,” said Carl, “we had such good arguments about socialism.”

But the freedom Carl sought in America was apparently somewhat exaggerated in the steamship company advertisements. Because he played a prominent part in building the labor movement of the Northwest, Roosevelt’s regime decided to imprison him. Still worse they insulted him ... were he to stand on the side of Tobin’s stool pigeons in the trial ... things might go easier for him ...

He faces 16 months in prison. When he gets out, he does not know his fate – perhaps deportation to Sweden, a country which has become completely alien to him in the 30 odd years since he left there. Thus two ages as well as two continents are blended in this union man. He was born into the last remnants of feudal economy; in his maturity he is pursued by capitalism in its death agony.

As Carl told these things to me, he interrupted himself continually to point out where the 1934 strikers had their headquarters, how they had a picket line here, how the employers had trembled there across the street in their exclusive club. He talked about Cannon’s role in gaining the victory, adding: “You know, right in the thick of it, when the police and the National Guard and everybody was after us what he tried to do? He tried to make us international-minded. He warned us not to be provincial.” He laughed. “Yes, not to be provincial.”

“As for me,” he continued; “I am of the working class and that class I’m going to stick with. I’m going to fight the class that’s trying to cut us down.”

Thursday revolved about the Minneapolis branch headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party. From morning until evening friends milled in and out with last greetings and expressions of solidarity for the defendants. Memories were awakened. Harry DeBoer and Emil Hansen, cutting each other down in pinochle, interwove the main theme of their conversation with references to the many activities of the Teamsters Union, the strikes, picket lines, negotiations, the dangers they had encountered and the victories that had been won.

Oscar Coover, watching the fall of cards, chipped in with this or that correction as to fact, sucking on his pipe, reminding them of characters in the labor movement, incidents worthy of repetition.

I told the comrades about Mexico; what respect Trotsky and Natalia had for Emil when he was a guard there.

Max Geldman, father of a baby boy, born Christmas morning, spent little time acting the proud father. He was busy describing his previous incarceration at Sandstone for union activity, preparing his comrades for the first difficult days.

Karl Kuehn, Oscar Schoenfeld and Al Russell, the three sent to Danbury, were present in spirit. Again and again their names came up in reminiscences of their roles in the great drive to organize the Northwest into one of the most union-conscious areas of the nation.

Jake Cooper told about the assault on Leon Trotsky’s house in May 1940. How Stalin’s assassins riddled L.D.’s and Natalia’s bedroom with machine gun slugs. Justice has not yet caught up with Siqueiros, the Stalinist leader of that assault. He is free to work on fresh jobs for the GPU. But Jake Cooper who tried to defend the Old Man and his wife, is being sent to prison.

Grace Carlson described how as a child in a strict Catholic family she had been taught to regard a socialist uncle as beyond the pale. However, he had given her books about Eugene V. Debs when she was nine or ten years old, and she had read them. Now tenderly saying goodbye, proud of the fight she was making in the tradition of Debs, he had reminded her of that fact; “I never thought then your reading those books would come to this.”

Thursday at Headquarters

Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman arrived. Comrades eddied about them, saying “hello and goodbye.” Goldman had stopped in Chicago to address a mass meeting protesting the imprisonment of the 18. With a cup of coffee in his hand from the spotless commissary of the Minneapolis headquarters he described the indignation of the advanced Chicago workers over the frameup. Some of the Minneapolis humorists ribbed Morrow about incidents when he was there a few years ago. Felix laughed good-humoredly.

Farrell Dobbs, who had come a few days earlier to visit his father and mother and the youngest of his three daughters, talked with Ed Palmquist, Clarence Hamel and the others about the great days when they drove forward to make the Teamsters Union one of the most powerful in the nation. “They are men,” he told me as we sat in the headquarters: “Every inch of them.” Farrell Dobbs was a name to conjure with in the drive to organize the Teamsters. He could have reached a high place in the circle surrounding Tobin. Yet he spurned that career since it would have meant supporting Roosevelt’s regime and imperialist war. He chose instead to fight for socialism. That is why Tobin and Roosevelt decided to railroad him to prison.

Vincent Dunne moved quietly, efficiently about the headquarters, finding time even with this magnificent group of organizers on hand to take care of details himself. He wrote a letter to Kelly Postal, a copy of which I managed to obtain.

“Dear Kelly,” Vincent wrote,

“I am sending you this letter before going away, to greet you and to tell you that I appreciate the sacrifice you are making.

“It is my conviction that In the future yours and my position, which are one and the same, will be vindicated.

“I am going to be denied the right to participate In the movement, the same as you, for a little time; but ia the future you and I together will fight on and complete the task of liberating the working class.

“In-this spirit I am greeting you and hope that you will soon be free.

“The hands of the 18 close comrades guide mine as I send you fraternal greetings of solidarity.”

Vincent Dunne took Jim and a small group for the last supper before going to prison. We sat in a private room. Dark wooden beams overhead, copies of rich Renaissance paintings on pastel walls gave that supper an unforgettable tone. Vincent ordered wine – it seemed appropriate on this occasion, and poured a glass for Grace Carlson at his side.

They began talking about Trotskyism.

“Our movement is historic,” said Dunne. “Take our press for instance. The first volume of The Militant is a collector’s item, worth I don’t know how much. Compare it with other radical publications. Who cares about the first volumes of The Call for example. Or take the Workers Age, which at one time was so imposing. Who cares about that? Our movement was real because it followed the long-range historical perspective.”

Reaction could not assassinate the ideas of Trotsky by sinking a pickaxe into his brain. Reaction will be as little able to confine within a strait jacket the coming socialist revolution by locking its leading advocates behind bars. The enormous masses of people throughout the world, surging irresistibly forward to the program of socialism, cannot be halted by anything within the arsenal of these parasites from an outmoded past. Ideas cannot be imprisoned or slaughtered.

As I listened to these native American socialists, I could not help but conclude: When the history of our country is written by future historians, they will not look for material in the library at Hyde Park where Roosevelt employs a staff to file away minutiae about himself. They will dig painfully into scattered memoirs, accidental bits written in the heat of struggle, items preserved in the files of Trotskyist publications, to find out what the real figures of American history were like.

Then Jim told his comrades about Rose at the farewell banquet in New York.

“She gave a magnificent speech ... ‘No moping,’ she said. She spoke for all the women. How proud I was of Rose. That was a beautiful speech Rose made ... The most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a long time. She stood up like a Spartan woman. I was very proud of her.”

Last Hours of Freedom

On the last day, December 31, the defendants gathered at the headquarters. A constant stream of workers came in for a final handshake – men taking off a few minutes from their jobs where they could, under one excuse or another, just to give the defendants moral encouragement. For the Minneapolis comrades lead the labor movement there even though they no longer stand at its head.

Al Goldman worked on a press release; Felix Morrow greeted people, seized spare moments to write letters.

Jim took a few small items out of his valise and wrapped them in a handkerchief to take to the county jail – tooth brush, etc.

“Looks like you’re hitting the road, Jim,” someone remarked.

“Yes; made up my mind to get out of here ... I’ve been many a time on the road with a bundle no bigger than that.”

One of the photographers sent down by the press found his memory stirred about the great struggle in Butte, Montana, where Frank Little was murdered. He related some of the incidents of those days; how his own father was something of a socialist for a while. “Everyone was something of a socialist then.”

Goldman explained how the power of the socialist movement can suddenly expand:

“When the revolution comes, there will be hundreds of thousands and millions of people appear who had some connection with socialism.”

Tension mounted as the hour drew near. Tentative arrangements had been made to leave between two and three in the afternoon. Jim set the time at precisely 2:30. For a few minutes he sat, draining this hour of freedom to the last. Then he arose to lead the way.


A Historic March

When they came out of the headquarters in formation like soldiers of the proletariat, a crowd quickly formed. The 15 halted – a last minute check to see that all was in order, for they intended to go two by two in order of their length of service in the ranks of the working class vanguard. When Trotskyists do something, they do it right. Then forward down Marquette Avenue from Ninth Street to Third.

Well-wishers met them as they marched. “Goodbye,” one could hear again and again. “Good Luck.” The sentiment of the advanced workers of Minneapolis was expressed most aptly I believe by the truck driver who told Skoglund shortly before the march began: “You’ve still got lots of friends, Carl. We won’t forget you.”

Jim Cannon and Vincent Dunne led the way, the two men whose lives mirror the main stream of socialism in the United States for almost four decades. Bulbs flashed as press photographers crouched at vantage points – the capitalist press too is interested in the way the victims of the class struggle act at such painful and dramatic moments. But the faces of these two veteran leaders expressed nothing in that march which could comfort the class enemy. They were living embodiments of the motto which Trotsky used to quote: “Not to laugh; not to weep; but to understand.”

Behind Cannon and Dunne marched Carl Skoglund and Oscar Coover, those fine old warriors of socialism whose lives have earned them immortality in the hearts of the American working class. Then Albert Goldman, who has spent a lifetime speaking out against reaction and injustice in the courts, a Trotskyist lawyer willing to stake far more than career and comfort in defense of socialism. Beside him strode Farrell Dobbs, outstanding union organizer who rose out of the great 1934 Minneapolis strikes like a flame seeking its way toward the final destruction of this whole dying archaic capitalist system of hunger, misery and bloodshed.

Next Felix Morrow, editor of Fourth International, whose writings burn the bourgeoisie like a lash. And Grace Carlson, former candidate for Minnesota senator – all the Trotskyist movement can take pride in Grace as she marched resolutely toward prison; the only woman demanded as a victim by the Roosevelt regime, she faces 16 months alone.

Carlos Hudson and Max Geldman came in the next rank. Hudson distinguished himself too well as a champion of labor when he edited the Northwest Organizer – Tobin and Roosevelt decided that he must pay the penalty. Geldman, who has already served one imprisonment for strike activity, was taken as a matter of course.

Behind them marched Harry DeBoer and Emil Hansen, union organizers who fought labor’s fight with both hands from the day they became conscious of the necessity to organize against the bosses.

Then Clarence Hamel and Ed Palmquist, two more organizers of Teamsters Local 544 who could not conceive of knuckling under to a moneyed employer or a wealthy international union head with powerful political connections.

Last, Jake Cooper, the youth who went down to Mexico to do everything he could to help guard Trotsky and Natalia from Stalin’s assassins. Trotsky loved Jake for his devotion and his willingness. He would have embraced him again seeing how he marched.

They crossed the street to walk in the sun. As they strode past a bank they made a remarkable picture. That imposing structure, representing all the accumulated wealth and power of the capitalist society they have challenged, looked down coldly and forbiddingly. But they did not walk at all like trapped slaves. The sun high-lighted their hats, their shoulders, touched their swinging hands. In dark overcoats they appeared in uniform. Against the chill wall of stone, they looked like a contingent of a powerful conquering army. In truth that is precisely what they were, coming down the streets of Minneapolis, the advance contingent of the army that will eventually destroy all the evil power represented by the bank in the background.

At the Federal Court they were met by deputies of the US Marshal. Again a crowd of the curious gathered while the formalities were completed. Then began the short march to the County Jail. This grim building loomed ever higher and more repellent as the defendants neared. In the canyon-like street, split by sun and shade, the great blocks of granite, grimy from years of smoke and dirt, rose like an upthrust of primeval rock. All the ignorance, superstition and cruelty of tens upon tens of thousands of years seemed to have been embodied by the architect in his design. Here in stone was the terrible lag of the human mind, particularly when it is ossified in the ruling class; the lag which resists blindly and ferociously the next step in progress, demanding on its altar the blood and lives of millions of the oppressed.

The 15 marched into the gloomy maw of that monument of capitalism, disappearing two by two inside. Down the long corridors of the basement they marched. Already the atmosphere seemed to wash over them, that atmosphere of sterile, hopeless stultification and decay which is so characteristic of these institutions and which hard tile and glazed marble only intensify. Bulbs of the press photographers still flashed in the faces of these working class leaders as the camera men climbed on stools, crouched low to find “interesting” angles.

At the elevator they halted for the last time. An elevator in a dungeon seems an anachronism, as if all the technique of modern industry, that could build a marvelous society of freedom, were subverted solely to the task of making more solid and impregnable the most savage institutions of the Pharaohs.

As the elevator lifted the first load out of sight, the full essence of our era came home to those still present. When a program speaks of the evil of capitalism in the death agony, it can appear as an abstraction, difficult to grasp. But when you see men who have spent their lives organizing for a better society thrown into prison, then the concrete meaning of the abstraction enters your bones.

The last man stepped into the elevator and so ended the historic march. In my mind I could hear the voice of Trotsky, that rich resonant voice welling up from memory. I thought to myself: If Trotsky could be here now to see how the leadership of our party conducted itself under persecution, he would have said: “Good; very good.”


Last updated on: 20.2.2006