William F. Warde

Capitalist Frame-up: 1941 Model

(December 1941)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 10, December 1941, pp. 295–298.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack 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 Government has concluded its case against the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and of Local 544-CIO. The presiding judge discharged five of the defendants on the ground of insufficient evidence. He refused to free the entire 28 as the defense attorneys requested.

For, in their haste to smash the progressive union movement headed by Local 544-CIO and to jail the revolutionary opponents of their war policy, Roosevelt’s agents have not even bothered to contrive a credible case nor to conceal the crudely reactionary character of their frame-up.

The Judge Upholds the Prosecution

In denying the defense motion to dismiss the case, Judge Joyce upheld the contention of the prosecution that, as revolutionary socialists, the men and women on trial were “outside the law” and were not entitled to any of the rights and protection guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution. He stated that, under conspiracy statutes, “it is not necessary to prove that the defendants actually agreed in terms to adopt the unlawful purpose and to pursue it by common means ...” The mere maintenance of their political opinions is cause for conviction. Finally, in language more familiar to Moscow than Minneapolis, Judge Joyce compared the Socialist Workers Party to Hitler’s followers. These remarks, read from a prepared statement which completely disregarded the defense attorney’s arguments, indicated the spirit in which Judge Joyce intends to instruct the jury.

The Federal prosecutors represent two different types of officials in the Roosevelt bureaucracy. One, the local prosecutor, Victor A. Anderson, is an aggressive and unbridled reactionary. Some of the defendants have confronted Anderson before in this same Minneapolis courtroom during the trials of WPA workers who struck for higher relief in 1939. The other is Assistant Attorney-General Henry A. Schweinhaut, sent from the Department of Justice in Washington to direct the prosecution. Like his boss, Francis Biddle, Schweinhaut used to masquerade as a protector of civil liberties. He was formerly the chief of the Civil Liberties Division of the Department of Justice, which was nominally set up to guard against violations of the Bill of Rights. What better person could Roosevelt call upon to strike this blow at civil liberties than this ex-liberal? Schweinhaut showed his true colors when he repudiated the liberal doctrine of “clear and present danger” advocated as the test of free speech by Justices Holmes and Brandeis against reactionary Supreme Court opinion.

The defense attorneys were not permitted to question the talesmen for prejudice. Most of these middle-class citizens, including big and small business men, come from the rural districts outside of Minneapolis. There is not a trade unionist or industrial worker amongst them, although Minneapolis is a strongly organized city.

Months before, Biddle promised “startling revelations” regarding the defendants’ armed plot to overthrow the government, “which goes far beyond public knowledge.” These were not forthcoming at the trial. Instead, as newspaper commentators pointed out, the government’s evidence was distinguished above all by its dullness. The bombshell of sensational revelations which the government promised to set off fizzled out at the trial. The government presented no more about the ideas and activities of the defendants than was already matter of common knowledge. It was no secret that the Socialist Workers Party was a revolutionary socialist political organization, based upon the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. The only “startling” revelation was that this could be considered proof of “seditious conspiracy.”

Biddle and his associates had previously boasted that they possessed ample proofs of overt acts on the part of the defendants and that no restriction of civil liberties was involved or intended. The blunt-spoken Anderson swept aside this pretence in his opening statement to the jury by declaring that the prosecution was not obliged to prove the commission of any overt acts in order to establish that the defendants had engaged in “seditious conspiracy.” In plain language, they could be convicted for the mere expression of their opinions. The very existence of the Socialist Workers Party, its propaganda and work for socialism, constituted a plot against the US Government. According to the government’s own statement, the constitutional rights of free speech, free press, and freedom to assemble were to be explicitly denied to the people on trial, and their exercise of them constituted a criminal offense.

Expression of Opinion Is – “Seditious Conspiracy”

This was made plain as Prosecutor Anderson cited the allegedly criminal activities of the defendants. They organized an avowedly revolutionary socialist party; “it was a part of the plan and purpose of this party to appeal to mass groups and psychology, largely among the workers, the more unfortunate workers ... and farmers who were small operators, to join this party.” They carried on all the normal functions of a political organization; collected dues, had headquarters, held public meetings, ran candidates for office, etc. The members of the SWP were instructed to be active in the trade unions. They believed that organized labor had the right and duty to defend itself from fascist attacks whether they came from at home or from abroad. They therefore advocated the formation of union defense guards and military training under the control of the trade unions. All this, according to the prosecutor, formed the basis of their plot to overthrow the government by force.

Their crimes did not stop there. The SWP, the prosecutor charged, was inspired by the teachings of Leon Trotsky and of “the first executive head of the Soviet Union, V.I. Lenin, and wanted to establish a workers’ state not only in the former Kingdom of Russia and its possessions but throughout the world.” The party also espoused not only the doctrines of Marx, but those of “a more recent writer by the name of Engels.” As Fourth Internationalists, they sought to “further the international revolution against organized society.”

Not least of their misdeeds was the fact that some of the defendants had visited Trotsky in Mexico City and furnished protection to him. That is, they were guilty of helping to prolong Trotsky’s life against the attempts of Stalin’s assassins.

The anti-labor character of the prosecution was laid bare as Anderson climaxed his charges by accusing the defendants of the “crime” of urging workers to distrust arbitration and to demand higher wages.

“Every time there was an arbitration, labor surrendered something and labor should never surrender,” Anderson said of the Trotskyists, “that was a part of the program for carrying on successfully the program of this Socialist Workers Party – labor leaders should always demand, demand, demand. For instance, if it was a question of labor pay per hour, ask for an increase; if that was received, then don’t stop there ... Always agitate and demand to cause a condition of unrest in order that there might be a breach between the employing class and the employed.”

Union Activity Now a Crime

The scope of the alleged conspiracy is wide enough to embrace all the ordinary activities of organized labor as well as the ideas of the revolutionary and socialist movement. All the democratic rights guaranteed under the constitution, all the hard-won rights of union labor embodied in the Wagner Act and other recent labor legislation are trampled underfoot by the government prosecutors.

If a trade union should ask for improved working conditions or strike for higher wages, this can hereafter be construed as a conspiracy to overthrow the government. If a labor organization should try to defend itself against unlawful vigilante attacks, then its members can be accused of armed insurrection. If anyone should venture to criticize Roosevelt’s war policies or to call his regime imperialistic or capitalistic, he can be liable to 10 years in jail and $10,000 fine. Even a proposal for a popular referendum vote on war similar to the Ludlow Bill was admitted as evidence of “sedition” by Judge Joyce on the ground that such a demand was not meant seriously since it could only be obtained by armed force. There is hardly a labor activity or progressive and radical idea which could not be outlawed by convictions in this case. This prosecution is a gigantic conspiracy on the part of the Roosevelt administration against the Bill of Rights and the rights of American labor.

The 23 on trial are only the first Roosevelt’s witch-hunters will place on trial for their activities on behalf of the working class. The Southern Poll-Tax Congressmen who accused the striking shipyard workers of San Diego of trying “to overthrow the Government by force and violence,” and the errand boys of the steel magnates who are branding John L. Lewis a “traitor” for insisting upon a closed shop agreement in the captive coal mines are preparing the political atmosphere for further prosecutions of this type. In the eyes of the imperialist war mongers and the profiteers, whoever defends the interests of the workers today is an enemy of the state, and must be punished accordingly.

Chief Defense Attorney and defendant Albert Goldman spoke out boldly for the defense. He stated that a political movement was on trial and that great principles and great social theories were involved. It was true that the members of the Socialist Workers Party were disciples of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, but it was false that the Marxist movement was in any way a conspiracy. This was impossible, for the SWP aimed to win through education and propaganda a majority of the people of the US to its program. Socialism was the sole solution for the ills of mankind.

Goldman reaffirmed all the principal points in the program of the SWP: its opposition to the imperialist war, its struggle for democracy in the trade unions, its policy of military training under trade union control, its internationalism, its advocacy of union defense guards, its approval of the workers’ revolution of 1917, etc. He denied that the Socialist Workers Party practices sabotage or advocates insubordination in the army, and declared that the prosecution’s attempt to depict the union defense guard as an armed band for overthrowing the government was “nothing but a frame-up.” He denied that the defendants advocated the violent overthrow of the government. The SWP members preferred a peaceful transition to socialism, but on the basis of their scientific knowledge of the class struggle in modern society, they predicted that the reactionary minority would employ force to prevent the majority from establishing socialism.

“We had a constitutional and legal right to say what we said and to do what we did,” Goldman concluded. “And we did everything openly. The evidence will show that we still continue our meetings, that we still publish and distribute our papers. It is a peculiar kind of criminals that you have, who insist upon their rights to do what they are doing and to say what they are saying.”

Marxist Classics Now Evidence of “Conspiracy”

A considerable part of the government’s evidence consisted in the introduction of the classic writings of the Marxist movement, beginning with the Communist Manifesto and rounded out with the current pamphlets and publications of the Socialist Workers Party. These writings were all openly distributed and publicly sold. They can be found in most libraries and book stores. They are discussed in thousands of class rooms, forums, and constantly referred to in the press. Suddenly, in 1941 these writings become converted into flaming bombs for blowing up the Capitol at Washington! Thus the Roosevelt regime joins the procession of reactionary capitalist governments which have proscribed the theories, history and principles of the revolutionary socialist movement. The Smith Act is the American equivalent of the Japanese law forbidding “dangerous thoughts.” While Roosevelt is about to war upon Hitler, who burns the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and upon Mussolini, who bans them, he duplicates their destruction of the democratic rights of free expression.

When a benighted Tennessee legislature tried to outlaw Darwin’s doctrines of organic evolution in the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the liberal world shivered with horror and indignation. The Minneapolis “Sedition Trial” is a far more serious threat to progressive thought. This time, not an isolated group of hill-billy Baptists, but the United States Government is seeking to suppress all radical social criticism and to set back the scientific knowledge of society a century or more. The Roosevelt administration will have a capitalist Index to place beside the Catholic Church Index. The writings of the masters of Marxism upon social and political subjects, hitherto regarded as indispensable to modern education, are to become contraband, and their possession and circulation a criminal offense, punishable by 10 years in jail and $10,000 fine. This is evidence, not of the defendants’ guilt of the charges against them, but of the thoroughly reactionary and repressive character of their prosecution.

The only other evidence introduced by the government to back up its contentions was presented by witnesses who gave accounts of alleged private conversations with the defendants. It is important to note the character of the 35 witnesses called by the government. Only seven came from outside the opposition group to the 544 leadership in its inter-union struggle with AFL Teamsters President, Daniel J. Tobin. Two of the seven are FBI agents. Sixteen government witnesses were members of Tobin’s Committee of 99, six or seven more are relatives and friends of Committee members. About a dozen of these are on Tobin’s pay roll. One of the witnesses was employed by the bosses’ association, Associated Industries, which since 1934 has tried to smash Local 544 and frame up its leaders. It is these hostile witnesses with material interests at stake or with personal grudges against the defendants who provided the main testimony against them.

Frame-up Artists at Work

Most of these carefully coached hirelings of Tobin stated at some point that they had held private conversations with one or another of the defendants when no one except themselves was present, and that they were then initiated into the secret aim of the party to overthrow the government by violence. According to the government’s star witness, James Bartlett, V.R. Dunne kept pulling him aside into a corner of a dark room and repeating the parrot-like phrase: “We must overthrow the Government by force and violence.” Walter Stultz, another government witness who had clashed with Al Russell as an ex-official of the Omaha Teamsters Union, declared that Russell once confided to him: “We have to grab a rifle and go after it.” Obviously, since these confidences were imparted in private, they had to remain uncorroborated. In fact they are sheer lies.

Here we see the classic formula of the frame-up in operation. The pattern is always the same. The technique of Roosevelt’s frame-up is no different from Stalin’s. The prosecutors claim that the defendants did and said one thing for public consumption while they meant and did the opposite in private. In the Moscow trials, for example, Trotsky, who worked openly for the international socialist revolution and advocated the defense of the Soviet Union, was accused of secretly plotting the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in alliance with Hitler and the Mikado. So the Trotskyists on trial in Minneapolis were supposed to have camouflaged their real activities and hidden their true views. The SWP, according to the prosecution, participated in political campaigns not to win people to its program but as a blind for armed revolt. The party inspired the organization of union defense guards, ostensibly to protect the union against vigilante attacks, but actually to march on Washington and take over the government. The party advised its members to submit to conscription but only the better to foment discontent in the armed forces. All this is to be believed upon the unsupported testimony of hostile witnesses, most of whom are materially dependent upon Daniel J. Tobin, the original instigator of the prosecution and its immediate beneficiary!

A Man Named Rube

One witness gave the slightest substance to the government charge that the SWP was preparing an armed uprising. A pathetic individual of subnormal mentality who worked on Tobin’s goon-squads, John Novack, testified that a fellow named “Rube” told him: “We have guns and ammunition planted in the walls of churches; we have bullets that will go through an inch and a half of armor plate, which is better than the US Army can do.” He couldn’t, however, recall what Rube’s name was, where he met him or when. Nor did the government produce a specimen of these marvelous bullets. The best they could produce, after this, was an even more degraded witness whose testimony was so completely irrelevant that the Judge ordered it struck from the record.

The government witnesses said far more to support the position of the defense than the charges of the prosecution. There was almost unanimous agreement that the Union Defense Guard was organized against the “real and present danger” of Silver Shirt attacks. This is the defense explanation of the formation of the Guard. The witnesses testified that they had never heard any incitement to armed rebellion at SWP meetings nor read any such advocacy in the party literature. All understood by the so-called “armed revolt” simply the Marxist prediction concerning prospective social revolution when the masses would be driven to adopt the socialist program as a result of the horrors of war and economic catastrophe.

Several of the government’s own witnesses paid tribute to the irreproachable character of the defendants. Thomas Smith, ex-secretary-treasurer of the Omaha Teamsters Union, testified that he joined the SWP because:

“I saw the good work of Local 544, the leaders were labor-minded; they helped out the smaller locals and were for the poor, so I figured that if the Socialist Workers Party produced those kind of people it was good enough for me!”

Under cross-examination, some of the principal government witnesses became entangled in direct contradictions and obvious lies. Typical of many such instances was Novack’s assurance that he had discussed the armed conspiracy with defendant Ed Palmquist in August 1940, although Palmquist was in Sandstone Prison at that time.

The government failed utterly to show that the SWP engaged in any action tending to subvert the loyalty of the US armed forces. This was one of the two main charges in the indictment. Not a single member of the armed forces was placed upon the stand to testify that the party had urged him to overthrow the government. However, it should be remembered that under the Smith Act, incredible though it may be, the government need not prove that any one in the armed forces had ever read any of the party’s literature, become convinced by it or acted upon it for the defendants to be found guilty. The mere expression of criticism of the armed forces or the publication of revolutionary ideas are in themselves evidence of incitement to insubordination. Under this law, CIO President Philip Murray could be indicted for his statement in the CIO News of Nov. 17th: “There is widespread and wholly justified discontent in the army” and urging higher wages for American soldiers. Negro leaders could likewise be jailed for protesting against discrimination in the armed forces.

The Tobin-FBI Conspiracy

Under skillful cross-examination, Defense Attorney Goldman exposed one of the most sinister aspects of the government prosecution – the conspiracy between Tobin, Biddle and the FBI against the leaders of Local 544. Time and again Biddle has declared that the Department of Justice and the FBI acted independently of Tobin who played no part in promoting the prosecution. But the secrecy which up to now had screened the actual mechanism of collaboration between Tobin, Biddle and the FBI was shattered by the government’s own witnesses.

The Committee of 100 (later the Committee of 99) was the agency Tobin organized and used in his fight to oust the leadership and gain control of Local 544. Herbert Harris, one of Tobin’s lieutenants and a government witness, revealed that this Committee was organized in consultation with the FBI. The Committee of 100, said Harris, “went to the FBI when the fight started in the union,” last December or January. Tommy Williams, leader of the Committee of 100, instructed Harris to admit agent Thomas Perrin of the St. Paul office of the FBI to the first meeting of the Committee at the Hotel Nicolette. Perrin sent Harris to Carl Skoglund, Ex-President and Trustee of Local 544, with an offer to obtain citizenship for Skoglund if he “would break with the Dunnes and side with the Committee of 100.” Skoglund rejected the government’s bribe. For refusing to sell out the Minneapolis drivers for the sake of personal security and become an informer for the FBI, for refusing to kneel down before Dictator Tobin, Skoglund was not only indicted along with the others but later arrested and held for deportation. Here is disclosed the filthy role of the FBI acting under cover as provocateurs and as frame-up artists against honest trade union leaders. After such disclosures, can there be any doubt about the identity of the real conspirators in this case? They are not the 23 working men and women on trial but Roosevelt’s lackey Biddle, the FBI and Tobin who schemed in secret to frame them up and railroad them to jail!

The fantastic nature of this frame-up and the discharge of five defendants by no means signifies that there will be no convictions. The cases of Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys and others demonstrate that the mere exposure of a frame-up is insufficient to prevent it from being put over.

The Minneapolis trial is not an ordinary criminal proceeding; it is from start to finish a political prosecution. These working men and women are being tried in a capitalist court under reactionary anti-labor laws for daring to oppose Roosevelt’s war-policies and for defending the rights and interests of the working class. Their struggle against the official forces of reaction is an integral part of the fight of the American people and of organized labor to maintain their democratic rights. Only the mass protest of labor backed up by the pressure of liberal opinion can force the government to free these victims of capitalist persecution and prevent further assaults upon labor organizations and the Bill of Rights.


Last updated on: 24 March 2019