Max Shachtman

The Bill of Rights and the Minneapolis Convictions

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 51, 22 December 1941, pp. 2 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(The following is the text of a speech delivered at a mass meeting in the Hotel Diplomat, New York City on December 15)


Within less than one month the calendar has recorded three events of great importance to us, and each of them is intimately and. symbolically connected with the others.

The first was the conviction of the 18 militants of; the CIO and the SWP in the Minneapolis case. A very few days later, the United States found itself up to its chin in the Second World War. And today, we have the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is the showpiece of American democracy.

It is aimed at guaranteeing a whole series of fundamental and irrevocable democratic rights of the American people. It was adopted, we were taught in the public schools, as. an unconquerable bulwark against the encroachments of tyrannous and arbitrary rule over the people.

That was 150 years ago, and since then a lot of water has gone over the dam. In the eyes of the authorities, the Bill of Rights has become a venerable and precious antique, a document of priceless value.

A Priceless Antique

And as is the case with all priceless antiques, it is kept under lock and key all year around, and taken out for public inspection once a year, or even less often. On such ceremonial occasions, you can examine it under heavy plate glass, and with a strong guard around it. And, again, as is the case with precious things, there is a big sign saying: Do not handle. This is not for public use. Take one quick look, and pass on.

The war in which the United States now finds itself is connected with the Bill of Rights. It too is aimed, or so we are reliably informed, at guaranteeing and preserving a whole series of fundamental democratic rights of the people, not only in this country, but throughout the entire world.

It is true that these rights, expressed in Mr. Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and in the Atlantic Charter of Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, are not meant to apply literally to every single man, woman and child throughout the world. There must be a few minor exceptions to every good rule, and so there are here, too.

There are more than four hundred million Indian subjects of the British Empire who have been officially notified that the “freedoms” do not apply to them. There are several dozen million East Indian subjects of Dutch oil and robber barons – excuse me, I meant rubber barons – who have not even been given such an official notification because it is taken for granted that the “freedoms” do not apply to them. There is more than 10 per cent of the population of the U.S.A. – the Negroes – who are generously exempted from the benefits of any one of the freedoms or all of them put together. And there are millions more like them throughout the globe. But, after all, they are not more than 75 per cent of the population of the world. So I suppose it can still be said that the war we are now engaged in is being fought to guarantee the Bill of Rights or its equivalent to the entire world – with the insignificant exceptions already noted.

In Danger of Destruction

But there is another problem faced, by the ancient and venerable Bill of Rights. Like all precious things – paintings, works of art and the like – it is in danger of destruction in the course of the war. Modern warfare is total warfare, and there is no longer a distinction, for artillery and bombing planes, between military targets and civilian targets, including public buildings which house works of art and priceless documents like the Bill of Rights.

This afternoon, an editorial in the New York Post called attention to the need of preserving the liberties guaranteed by the Bill, of Rights, It is proud of the American government’s record in this field; and also insists on this record being maintained. It wants the Bill of Rights protected during the war.

Well, there is every reason to believe that the government is going to give the Bill of Rights all the protection within its powers. From all we can see it is going to protect the Bill in a thoroughgoing way. Like a work of art endangered by bombing the Bill is being taken out of the showcase and buried deep in some underground vault, at least for the duration of the war. No one will be able to get at it, above all, no one among the people whose rights it is supposed to preserve.

The first people to find:out that the Bill of Rights is being protected in this thoroughgoing way are the members of the most militant, the cleanest and most honorable union in the United States, Local 544 of the CIO, and the members of the Socialist Workers Party.

First Victims of Burial

The 18 leaders of these two organizations who were convicted in the Minneapolis trial are the first victims of the burial – for its own protection, you understand – of the Bill of Rights in the United States, They are the first living evidence of the fact that the primary sacrifice we are called upon to make in the war for democracy throughout the world is our democratic rights here at home, in the United States itself.

You can’t help admiring the efficiency of Roosevelt’s government in the war crisis, how well it has prepared the struggle for democracy, how far-sighted it has been, how alive it has been to every possibility and every danger.

Of course there are some defects and shortcomings in. its work, but nobody can be perfect.

It’s true that Mr. Frank Knox was really a little previous when he declared that the Navy is ready, just about a week before the attack in the Pacific – but then again, he didn’t say what it was ready for. It is true that New York, is ready too, even though it may not have any anti-aircraft guns to speak of, and no air raid shelters and not even an air warning siren that you can hear a block away.

But there is one thing the government IS on the alert about, for which it is fully prepared, on which it acted even before the formal declaration of war.

And that’s the labor front at home. It wants to make absolutely sure – and with the aid of the reactionary labor bureaucracy, it believes it will have an easy job – that labor gives up its rights, its standards of living, its just aspirations and ideals, during the course of the war.

And the first step in this direction, organized and taken before the war broke out, was the indictment and conviction of the militants of the CIO and the SWP in Minneapolis.

A Cynical, Bare-Faced Frame-Up

They had to be put out of the way – in one of the most cynical and bare-faced frame-ups in modern times – in order to break off the spearhead of the American working class, to deprive it of its defensive weapons, to blunt its fighting power.

These men are revolutionary socialists, and they proudly avowed their views duirng the trial.

But the attack on them is not merely an attack on revolutionary socialism, it is an attack on the whole working class. By imprisoning these militants and setting the precedent with their imprisonment of depriving all others of the rights they should and must have, the government hopes to achieve the aim of reducing the working class in this country to a docile, unquestioning, obedient mass, ready to follow wherever it is led.

All our experience, especially in modern times, shows that the ruling class almost always starts its attack on the working class as a whole by attacking first the vanguard elements in the working class movement. Once they are disposed: of, the working of bridling and curbing the labor movement as a whole is a hundred times easier. That is how Hitler started in 1933;. that is how reaction always starts its triumphal procession.

That is why this is no mere case of a comparatively small organization, of the SWP itself. It is a case for the whole labor movement, for every workingman and, every workingman’s organization. Today it is James P. Cannon, Albert Goldman and Vincent R. Dunne and their 15 comrades; tomorrow it will be other representatives of the working class and then the working class itself.

That is why elementary self-interest, as well as the dictates of working-class solidarity, demand of every worker, of every supporter of the labor movement to organize and help the movement to smash the Minneapolis convictions, to reverse the Minneapolis decision, to fight tooth and nail for preserving and extending every right we now enjoy and a dozen others that we should enjoy; and to fight for the Minneapolis militants not only in spite of the war hysteria that the government is trying to build up but precisely because of it.

I have no doubt about the eventual outcome, because I have unbounded confidence in the powers of the working class.

The Roosevelt government is not showing itself to be one whit more intelligent or more courageous and self-confident than any reactionary regime ever was.

Lesson of History

If there is one thing that human history shows, and human history is the history of the struggle for human liberation, for the ideas of freedom – it is that these ideas cannot long be suppressed. If history gives no other lesson, it gives this one.

Man is very ingenious, and science very fertile and impressive in its discoveries and inventions. They may perfect bombs that will go through the thickest steel; they may invent steel that will resist the heaviest bomb. They may build the most forbidding prisons and, as in Germany, concentration camps and firing squads.

But only stupid rulers, rulers whose doom is already visible on the historical horizon, can believe that the ideas of socialist freedom can be put in prison, that they can be interned, that they can be shot out of existence.

These ideas representing the most sacred yearnings of the oppressed and exploited everywhere have triumphed before. They will triumph again, and this time conclusively.

It is in order to speed the day of this sure triumph that we must join all our forces – the forces and determination of all of us – and not yield an inch of ground until the conviction of the Minneapolis comrades has been reversed by the irrevocable decision, the irrevocable verdict of a united American working class.

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Last updated on 23.2.2013