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Fourth International, October 1941


The Editors

The Press on the Prosecution of the 29


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.8, October 1941, pp.231-234.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


The government prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544-CIO has called forth considerable editorial comment in publications ranging from the left-wing labor press to the ultra-conservative big capitalist organs. The volume of this comment testifies to the importance of the event; the reaction of the various writers to the prosecution indicates the social forces they represent in the present stage of the class struggle in this country.

Conservative capitalist public opinion of course heartily endorsed the action of Roosevelt’s Department of Justice. Now at last their government was getting busy to clean up the Reds and purge the trade unions of trouble-making militants. Now the liberal Roosevelt had clearly placed himself in the reactionaries’ camp and was through coddling the do.

The only injustice the big bourgeois press complained of was that Roosevelt’s attack did not go far enough. Why stop at the Trotskyists? Why stop at the leaders of Local 544-CEO? Why not go after other radical groups and those responsible for strikes? Above all, why not also go after the Communist Party? the reactionaries asked.

Typical of this attitude was the editorial in the July 20 Memphis Commercial Appeal: “We are all for putting the Socialist Workers Party – Fourth International Group – in those well-guarded places where it can do no further harm, but not until the Government institutes similar proceedings against the rest of the flock, are we going to get very enthusiastic about it. The Third International and the Fourth International look alike to us in that neither one means this country any good.”

The Chicago Tribune, leading Mid-West isolationist opponent of Roosevelt, also chided the administration for sparing the Stalinists. Just as the Stalinists swing over to support of Roosevelt, said the Tribune on July 18th, “it’s odd that the weight of the Attorney-General’s hand should descend upon the deviations of the Trotskyites, whom Stalin has pursued all over the earth, and upon the teamsters who have just broken away from Mr. Roosevelt’s AFL friend, Dan Tobin.” The Tribune broadly hinted that Roosevelt is shielding the Stalinists.

The war-mongering New Leader, Social-Democratic shadow of the administration, made a similar complaint on July 19. “Why the Trotskyists? Mr. President?” it asked plaintively. Why not the Stalinists in their stead or after them? The New Leader flounders about but cannot find satisfactory anwers to either of these two questions. The political talent of the Social-Democrats consists, not in giving clear and correct answers to grave political issues affecting the working class but in dodging and darkening them.

The St. Paul Dispatch answered the New Leader’s question why the Stalinists were spared in an editorial on June 28, 1941: “It is easy to see why the Department of justice has chosen to proceed first against the Trotskyites, rather than the Stalinists. The Communist Party of America is Stalinist. Up to last Sunday, when Germany attacked Russia, the Stalinists were at war against the defense program and the policy of aid to Britain, because Stalin was still supposed to be allied with Hitler. While the present situation continues, as a result of Hitler’s double cross, the Communists are on America’s side. The Trotskyites, who have a feud with Stalin, can be expected to carry on the campaign of disloyalty.”

The Stalinists Advise the FBI

In view of the barrage directed at the Stalinists in connection with the Minnesota indictments, a naive person might expect that a simple sense of self-preservation would lead the Stalinist leaders to defend the Socialist Workers Party and CIO unionists in this case. But the Stalinist bureaucrats’ first duty is to their lord and paymaster in the Kremlin. Even if the ultimate consequences of such policies be their own annihilation, as in Germany, France or Spain, they willynilly follow the course laid down by the dictates of the reactionary Kremlin clique. In an article which appeared on August 16th, fully a month after the indictments, the Daily Worker finally took notice of “The Prosecution of the Minneapolis Trotskyites.” The Stalinist organ heartily approved the government action against the Trotskyists:

“The American people, whose independence as a nation, together with that of the people of Great Britain and the Soviet Union is endangered and at stake in the fight for the defeat of Nazi Germany, can find no objection to the destruction of the Fifth Column in this country. On the contrary, they must insist upon it. The leaders of the Trotskyist organization which operates under the false name of ‘Socialist Workers Party,’ deserve no more support from labor and friends of national security than do the Nazis who camouflage their party under the false name of ‘National Socialist Working Party.’”

The Stalinists also stated that they do not like the laws under which the Socialist Workers Party was indicted; they do not like the FBI’s interference in the internal affairs of the labor movement; above all, they do not like the fact that the federal government had indicted the Trotskyists as a revolutionary workers’ organization. According to the Daily Worker, Roosevelt and Biddle should be framing up the Trotskyists just as Stalin and Vyshinsky framed up the Trotskyists in the Moscow Trials. We “insist that the Trotskyites be characterized for what they are – the agents of Fascism in this country,” says the Daily Worker.

The Stalinists are actuated by a double fear. Firstly, the trial of the Trotskyists as revolutionists, officially stamped as followers of Lenin and Trotsky, not only exposes the slanders of the Stalinists but raises the prestige of the Trotskyists among class-conscious workers. “The Government, instead of isolating the Trotskyites, exposing them for what they are,” blurts out the Daily Worker, “actually may, by its actions help to create sympathy for them by allowing them to pose falsely as the champion of the rights of the trade unions.”

Secondly, the Stalinists are second-class guests in the pent-house of the bourgeoisie. They fear, despite Stalin’s wooing of Roosevelt, that convictions of the Trotskyists will be used as a “medium for attacking genuine labor organizations including the Communist Party.” “It is a known fact,” states the Daily Worker, “that such groups as the Dies Committee, the Rapp-Coudert Committee and similar groups in other states have tried to distort the programs and principles of the Communist Party and charged them with intentions almost similar to those drawn in the indictment of the Trotskyite branch of Hitlerism.”

True, these witch-hunting agencies have distorted the program of the Communist Party as the Communist Party distorts the principles of the Socialist Workers Party. These distortions, however, proceed in opposite directions. The Dies Committee falsifies the Stalinist program by depicting it as a revolutionary organization, while the Stalinists falsify our program by portraying us as Fascists.

The Stalinists, in short, prefer that we be imprisoned by a frameup made in Moscow; the American bourgeoisie, naturally, prefers a good American frameup made in Washington. That is the sole difference between the two types of frameup artists.

Attitude of the Labor Movement

Most of the official top AFL spokesmen applauded the government’s action against us as heartily as did Republican Governor Stassen of Minnesota or the boss press. A double blow delivered at the CIO and the “Reds” – what could be sweeter to these ultra-reactionary bureaucrats? What did it matter if democratic rights or trade union independence were violated, so long as their rival, the CIO, was crippled?

On the other hand, the CIO and especially its more progressive sections, have condemned the government prosecution and rallied to the defense of the Minneapolis teamster leaders. We cite two actions of the CEO. In a statement issued on July 28th, the political arm of the CIO, Labor’s Non-Partisan League, of which John L. Lewis is chairman, declared: “Witch hunting tactics of the justice Department under A. Mitchell Palmer, in World War I are being revived here as history repeats itself in World War II ... Today, Justice Department activities again are a menace to fundamental lib erties and to labor’s basic rights ... If Minneapolis teamsters can be jailed for their opinions, so can anybody.”

The delegates to the United Auto Workers Convention in Buffalo, representing over 500,000 workers, passed a resolution in support of Local 544-CIO and against the FBI’s antilabor activities. This betokens the GlO’s firmer class solidarity, its profoundly proletarian composition and its more vigilant resistance to the government’s reactionary moves. In the aroused and united army of organized labor is the sole force that can prevent the government from going through with this and any further assaults upon labor’s rights.

Reaction of the Liberal Press

The liberal press was embarrassed by Roosevelt’s rape of civil liberties and labor’s rights in this case. The Nation, New Republic, New Leader, New York Post, etc., demand an open declaration of war and paint the President as the greatest crusader of democracy since Woodrow Wilson. Now, before Roosevelt grants them their war, he is violating the very democratic rights he is supposed to be defending. This inconsistency, this minor offense, this slip of the penitentiary disturbs what little remains of their liberal consciences.

All the liberal papers chant the same refrain. Why the Trotskyists? Why this “hysterical fear of a little handful of theoretical communists,” asks the New Republic on July 28th.

The liberals are caught in the prongs of a dilemma. If the Trotskyists are so slight a political magnitude, the government’s offense is all the greater. If, however, the Trotskyists represent a weighty force, that means that our revolutionary ideas are making headway among the advanced workers. The petty-bourgeois piddlers in politics twist and turn to avoid embracing either equally hateful alternative.

The liberals call upon the government to dismiss the prosecution on the ground that the Trotskyists represent no serious danger at the moment to the capitalist regime. There is a positive implication to this negative judgment. The assumption is that, if Trotskyism became powerful enough to challenge the status quo, the Department of justice would be justified in framing up and imprisoning its adherents. (This is, in fact, the conclusion to which all liberal and “socialist” defenders of the capitalist regime have come in practice whenever that regime has been placed in jeopardy by the proletarian revolution. That is why Kerensky outlawed the Bolshevik party; Noske and Scheidemann shot down and jailed the German Spartacists; and the Loyalist-Stalinist-Socialist-Anarchist government in Spain murdered and imprisoned proletarian revolutionists.)

While deploring the prosecution, the liberals go to any length to absolve the Roosevelt administration of wrong-doing. They vehemently deny, for example, the obvious junction of this case in aiding AFL Teamsters chief Tobin against the CEO. “It is impossible to believe,” says the New Leader, “ that the President of the United States would repay a personal debt by having anyone’s enemies indicted. That would be too much like the kind of frameup we have been taught to expect from Stalin and his gang. That explanation will not do.” But it will stand until the New Leader provides a better one.

The devices resorted to by the liberals to absolve the Roosevelt administration of full responsibility for this prosecution would be amusing, were it not for the fact that they thereby make it more difficult to arouse the labor movement to the danger of a conviction. Here are a few examples:

The New York Post, in an editorial entitled Better Left Alone, on July 22, complains that “the Federal grand jury ... appears to have gotten unduly excited ... The grand jury may have been taken in by the Trotskyite literature ... These (revolutionary principles) are, of course, basic elements in the form prospectus of every radical lunatic fringe group.” In a word, the prosecution is the mistake of a hick jury, according to the Post. That Attorney General Biddle himself ordered the FBI raids on the Socialist Workers Party and the subsequent grand jury investigation; that the Department of Justice itself drew up the indictment which it persuaded the grand jury to approve – all this the Post, a Roosevelt supporter, conceals.

The New Leader week after week – until the trial was set for October 20 – printed “inside” stories that the Roosevelt Administration was planning to quash the indictment; and that Biddle, because of unfavorable publicity accorded the prosecution, would not be appointed Attorney-General.

The New Republic, after describing the outrageousness of the prosecution and declaring that its continuance “would be unforgivable, it would be worth ten divisions to Hitler,” is so overcome by the import of its criticism of the government’s action that it abruptly concludes its July 28 editorial: “For that reason (the importance of the case) we ask our readers to suspend judgment until the facts are a little clearer. We promise to report fully and promptly on those facts.” Any reader who followed the New Republic in suspending judgment would still be doing so; for the New Republic has not had an additional word to say since that “suspend judgment” on July 28.

The liberal adherents of the Roosevelt administration are obliged by the logic of their political line to hide from themselves as well as from others the true significance of the prosecution. At best they treat the prosecution as an aberration on the part of the administration, an accidental occurrence, an error which a little fixing will rectify. These cliques of petty-bourgeois intellectuals gone war-mad suffer in one degree or another from the blindness arising out of their class position and their allegiance to the imperialist regime.

The objective social and political function of these pettybourgeois patriots is to strengthen the imperialist state by persuading liberal and labor circles to support the war. Their success in this task is directly proportionate to their ability to depict that war and its promoters as “democratic, progressive, liberating.” Having hypnotized themselves into the belief that such is the case, they now have to convince others.

Roosevelt’s attack upon militant unionism and civil liberties exposes these progressive pretentions and lays bare the reactionary nature of his course – and that of the liberals. Hence their alarm, confusion, dismay. Hence their refusal to recognize and to admit the bitter truth: that Roosevelt’s move, far from being an episodic deviation, is a direct and inevitable consequence of his War Deal.

Dos Passos Tries to Explain

John Dos Passos tries to face this problem in A Letter to a Liberal in Wartime, published in the September 6th issue of The Nation. Dos Passos explicitly identifies himself with the left wing of Roosevelt’s supporters and with their Holy War. However, Dos Passos, who has an honorable record of standing up for labor’s democratic rights, is disturbed by the reactionary trend of Roosevelt’s Department of Justice. He takes the side of the Minnesota truck drivers and followers of Trotsky against their government prosecutors. He answers the New Leader by characterizing the case as a frameup, in which “even the language of the indictment has the peculiar twist of Stalin’s frame-ups in Moscow.”

Dos Passos is seriously afraid that by this case “a precedent will have been set that bodes ill for this country’s liberties.” “You must remember the Palmer raids, the deportations delirium, the crushing of the IWW, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, all the terrible perversions of justice after the last war that made American democracy a mockery to a whole generation of young men,” he reminds his liberal friend. “Is it all going to happen again?” he asks. “Is the same lack of whole-hearted principle that wrecked Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to set the world straight, going to destroy the present administration too?”

Standing upon the same formal political ground as they do, Dos Passos appeals to the better nature, to the principled conscience of his fellow-liberals within the administration, to change their course and drop the prosecution. He warns the administration that it is injuring its own best interests, “is risking more than can possibly be gained by the prosecution.” How can the government unify the country for war, he asks, when it “undermines at home those four freedoms for which it is asking the nation to make every sacrifice abroad?”

This appeal speaks better for Dos Passos’ kindness of heart that for his political understanding. He is not facing the fact that the best interests of the Roosevelt regime are bound up with the interests of imperialism, which compel it to prosecute working class militants and opponents of the war. By itself the government will not and cannot swerve from this course; only an aroused and powerful labor movement can check its reactionary repressive trend.

Dos Passos received his answer from “A Liberal in Office” early in September when Attorney General Francis Biddle justified the FBI’s wire-tapping in the Harry Bridges case before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “It is a dirty business, of course,” Biddle stated, “but ... we have abandoned civil rights before in times of war.” (New York Times, Sept. 4.) The imperialist war economy invades the sphere of democratic rights as well as it invades all other departments of national life. Government officials have decided to ration civil liberties along with gasoline, refrigerators and silk stockings. Democracy will be placed on the dole only for the duration of the war, they promise; but the people cannot place any more confidence in this than in any other of Roosevelt’s promises.

The Class Nature of the Prosecution

The liberals do not grasp the class character of the prosecution; they do not understand that it is not an aberration but a socially determined action arising out of the prevailing conditions of the class struggle in the United States. Three main social forces are involved in that struggle: the big bourgeoisie, the working class and the middle classes. Roosevelt and Biddle, Stassen and Blair, the big capitalist press and politicians, represent the attitude of the big bosses. The Socialist Workers Party and its defendants within the labor movement stand for the interests of the working class. Tobin, the AFL fakers, the Hillmanites and the Stalinists are agents serving the imperialist bourgeoisie. The small group of liberals who condemn the prosecution represent progressive middleclass sentiment. This is the real alignment of class forces in this case.

The roots of the prosecution reach down into the war policy of the Roosevelt government. That government is bent on whipping labor into line and beating down all opposition to its course. Labor leaders like Tobin and Hillman act as government agents in bending the workers to their will and disciplining the rank and file. Tobin and Roosevelt work hand in hand to conscript the trade unions for service in this bosses’ war and to police its ranks. Tobin moved to purge his International of the militants of Local 544 in conformity to Roosevelt’s command. When they escaped from under his thumb, he called upon his political boss for help. The government thereupon seized the opportunity to snare two birds in the same net: the militant unionists of Local 544-CIO and the most consistent opponents of its war policy – the Socialist Workers Party.

That is the answer to the question of the liberals and social-democrats – Why the Trotskyists? Roosevelt purges the Trotskyists for the same general reason that Stalin purged the Trotskyists; as a preventive measure against the revolutionary opponents of his regime. The Trotskyists may be no tremendous mass influence today, but Roosevelt senses from the influence they already wield within the left wing of the labor movement, that they can become the rallying-point of opposition to his war policies tomorrow. Therefore he is trying to remove this revolutionary political force from the arena to stop the spread of its ideas. Having no new methods at his disposal, he can only imitate the illegal procedures and frameups that Wilson and A. Mitchell Palmer used against Debs, the IWW and the revolutionists in the last war.

The liberals sneer at the Trotskyists as insignificant and cannot explain why they are hounded. But their estimate is not shared by the reactionary rulers of today. These take the Trotskyists very seriously. Roosevelt even impairs the reputation of his administration among the liberal democrats by prosecuting us, thus joining the unsavory company of Hitler, Petain, Chiang Kai-shek, Stalin and others.

There must be profound social motives that would account for this uninterrupted series of persecutions in so many countries against the Trotskyists. There are. By themselves, the Trotskyists are today only a vanguard movement, but they possess a program and a future. Behind the Trotskyists stand the potentially revolutionary masses, who represent the greatest of all threats to the powers that be. That is why all these rulers constitute an international united front of reaction against the Trotskyists. Around the Trotskyists the international united front of revolutionary struggle against imperialism is mobilized.

What do the liberals and social-democrats who belittle the importance of the Trotskyists amount to in their own right? Certainly their lord and master, Roosevelt, doesn’t hearken to their advice or take their complaints seriously. They are nothing but impotent, sniveling, despicable chambermaids of the bourgeoisie. These people, who have no power and have nothing to lose, take pleasure in abusing the Trotskyists in words. But those mighty ones who have real power and a great deal – indeed, everything – to lose, act vigorously against us.

This is in accord with the nature and the present disposition of forces in the class struggle. The imperialist persecutors and their allies represent the interests of the masters of capital. The liberal democrats speak for the petty-bourgeoisie, the impotent hostages of capital. We stand for the cause of the revolutionary working class. That is the fundamental reason for our prosecution. Here is also the source of that political strength which will enable us to survive that prosecution and grow stronger.

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Last updated on 13.9.2008