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Fourth International, October 1943


The Editors

Class Justice At Work

The Court of Appeals Decision in the Minneapolis Trial


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.10, October 1943, pp.291-293.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


By upholding the convictions of the 18 defendants in the Minneapolis labor trial of 1941 the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals blasted another gaping hole in the pretensions that Washington is waging a “war for democracy.” The central issue in the case concerned the right of free speech which is one of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.”

Although this elementary right is unconditionally guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Circuit Court decided that under the Smith “Gag” Act the government was empowered to deprive leaders of a working class party and members of a trade union of their right of free expression and to jail them for exercising it.

The defendants were deprived of their democratic rights and sentenced to prison in the Federal Court at Minneapolis. What does the Circuit Court of Appeals say about this kangaroo proceeding? It declares that it was done in a correct legal manner. This decision, in defiance of the law, the Constitution, and of all principles and traditions of democracy, is the product of class prejudice and class justice. The judges gave unconditional endorsement to the prosecution, regardless of all evidence to the contrary. We are witnessing a repetition of the illegal procedures and frame-ups that President Wilson and his Attorney-General Palmer used against Debs, the IWW and the revolutionists in the last war.

The Class Roots of the Trial

The roots of the Minneapolis trial reach down into the war policy of the Roosevelt government. That government is bent on beating down all labor opposition to its course. Naturally, they singled out the most conscious representatives of the advance guard for the first attack. It was for this reason that the Trotskyists were indicted and brought to trial.

The Socialist Workers Party is pledged to an irreconcilable struggle for socialism. The indictment charged the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party with holding and propagating the view “that the Government of the United States is imperialistic, capitalistic and organized and constituted for the purpose of subjecting workers and laborers to various and sundry deprivations and for the purpose of denying to them an alleged right to own, control, and manage all property and industry in the United States,” and that it was desirable and necessary that the workers and farmers bring about a revolutionary change in this system. This is the one point in the indictment that the defendants acknowledged as true.

As an integral part of its struggle for socialism, the Socialist Workers Party conducted, as it still conducts, an irreconcilable fight against Wall Street’s war. Its members and sympathizers in the unions opposed, as they still oppose, the treacherous policies of the trade union leadership which worked to shackle the unions to Roosevelt’s war program. They foresaw that the submission of the labor movement to the Roosevelt regime would cripple the fighting powers of the workers, facilitate the employers’ attacks upon their organizations and economic gains, and endanger union democracy and independence of action.

Continuation of Persecution

By its decision the Circuit Court of Appeals continues the assault launched by the political agents of Big Business and their servile agents in the trade union bureaucracy against the Trotskyist leaders and against the outstanding militants who led the powerful truck drivers’ movement in the North-west under the inspiration and guidance of the Trotskyist program and party.

Both the Roosevelt administration, then preparing for war, and its labor flunkeys were determined to smash and outlaw this political and union opposition. They seized the opportunity opened to them in the spring of 1941 when the leaders of Minneapolis Local 544 refused to obey Tobin’s command to abandon their vigorous struggles to improve wages and working conditions and resisted his moves to set up a dictatorship over the local. After the local by majority vote transferred its affiliation from the AFL to the CIO, Tobin telegraphed to the White House for help.

“When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning,” Roosevelt’s secretary, Stephen Early, told the press, “he asked me to immediately have the Government departments and agencies interested in the matter notified.” (N.Y. Times, June 14, 1941)

Raids upon Socialist Workers Party headquarters in the Twin Cities, arrests and indictments of the 29 members of the Socialist Workers Party and of Local 544-CIO, and their trial, followed.

The political motivation behind the prosecution was pointed out by the American Civil Liberties Union in its letter of protest to Attorney-General Biddle on Aug. 21, 1941 “It is reasonable to conclude that the government interjected itself into an inter union controversy in order to promote the interests of the one side which supported the administration’s foreign and domestic policy.” Biddle himself confirmed that the Department of Justice had proceeded against the Socialist Workers Party because of its anti-war stand by stating that: “The principal basis for the prosecution is found in the Declaration of Principles adopted by the Socialist Workers Party in December 1938” and singling out the following sentence: “If in spite of the revolutionists and the militant workers, the US Government enters a new war, the Socialist Workers Party will not under any circumstances support that war but will, on the contrary, fight against it.” (Minneapolis Tribune, June 28, 1941.)

Although the defendants were charged with conspiracy, the real conspirators were all on the other side of the case. Tobin conspired against the 544-CIO leaders not only with the Minneapolis bosses, the Republican Governor Stassen and the Democratic President Roosevelt, but also with the FBI. Government testimony during the trial revealed that FBI men had been working for months with Tobin’s agents in the local to incriminate and oust its elected leaders. Karl Skoglund, former 544 President and one of the 18 convicted, was approached and offered immunity from deportation if he would turn informer against the other 544 officials.

The Doctrine of Conspiracy

The doctrine of conspiracy has been used by the American ruling class as a legal weapon against the workers for over a century. It was first invoked against workers who tried to organize in order to better their conditions. During the second strike in the United States which took place at Philadelphia in 1806 boot and shoe makers were indicted for conspiracy for attempting to raise their wages. This was the first of many trials of this kind extending thereafter for over a period of 40 years until the workers through the most strenuous struggles had wrested the right to organize into trade unions. The criminal Syndicalism laws which have led to the imprisonment of thousands of workers in the various states are based upon this same doctrine of conspiracy.

The charge that the Trotskyist movement is in any way a conspiracy is a brazen lie. Our movement founded upon Marxism employs democratic and popular means to reach and teach the masses. It advocates its views in the open and seeks the widest circulation for the party’s revolutionary principles and program.

During the trial,both Albert Goldman, defense attorney and defendant, and James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, explained at length and in detail the true nature of Marxist political opposition to imperialist wars and the genuinely popular and democratic essence of the revolutionary working class struggle for socialism. The expositions of Trotskyist views in Cannon’s testimony and Goldman’s speeches have been republished in pamphlets which have circulated in tens of thousands of copies in this country and abroad.

These expositions served the double purpose of defending revolutionary Marxist ideas against capitalist caricature, perversion and frameups, and of using the trial as a medium for the propagation of our ideas and the promotion of our program among broader circles of the working class. By means of this prosecution the Roosevelt administration sought not only to deal a demonstrative blow against union militancy but to impose a ban upon all socialist literature. Well known works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were presented as evidence against the defendants, including the 95-year-old classic, the Communist Manifesto. The administration hoped also to illegalize or at least behead the Trotskyist movement.

Recognizing these aims, the defendants determined to fight them to the limit. The guiding lines of our party’s policy in the struggle have been to defend our revolutionary principles together with our legal rights. These aspects of the case are discussed in the pamphlet: Defense Policy in the Minneapolis Trial.

The firm stand of our comrades at the trial met with acclaim from the advanced workers everywhere. The publications emanating from the trial – the speech of Goldman and the trial testimony of Cannon – have been the most popular pamphlets ever issued by our movement. Since the trial new members have been recruited into our party faster than ever before in the fifteen years’ history of American Trotskyism. All this shows that the defendants turned the trial into a political offensive against the class enemy. In this they were true to the best traditions of international Marxism.

Congress declared war on December 8, 1941. On the same day the court sentenced the defendants to prison. How could the political significance of the trial be better symbolized?

The Minneapolis case was the first instance in which the Smith “Omnibus Gag” Law, passed in 1940,was invoked. For the first time since the infamous Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 this statute made the mere advocacy of ideas a federal crime. “It is enough to make Thomas Jefferson turn over in his grave,” said Representative Martin of Colorado during the debates in Congress. “It is without precedent in the history of labor legislation. It is an invention of intolerance contrary to every principle of democracy.”

The Meaning of the Minneapolis Trial

The sponsor of this ultra-reactionary law was the same poll tax Representative Howard W. Smith, who is the leader of the anti-labor bloc in Congress and co-author of the vicious Smith-Connally anti-strike law. Smith and the Big Business gang he represents regarded this law as an indispensable weapon in the campaign they were preparing to unleash against the labor movement. A CIO News editorial said at that time: “Labor knows that criminal Syndicalism laws and the like have been repeatedly used against union organizers rather than for the purpose for which they were supposedly passed.” For this reason both the CIO and AFL opposed the bill.

After the Democratic-Republican coalition passed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations pleaded with President Roosevelt to veto it on the ground that it “would become an instrument of oppression against unpopular minorities and organized labor.” Roosevelt nevertheless signed it over these protests.

Now it can be seen that the Smith “Gag” law was the forerunner of the flood of anti-labor legislation which has since poured from Capitol Hill and the state legislatures. The struggle around its passage was a rehearsal for the struggle around the Smith-Connally Bill three years later. Roosevelt personally signed the first Smith Act. He publicly endorsed the essential features of the second Smith Act (Smith-Connally anti-strike law), withholding his signature only because of minor technicalities. He has not hesitated to use both of these acts against his political opponents and against incorruptible fighters for labor’s rights.

It is no less clear that the prosecution of the Trotskyists was but the first in a series of similar judicial attacks upon the labor movement by the Roosevelt regime. The militant miners who were recently found guilty of violating the Smith-Connally Act by a Federal Court in Pennsylvania are victims of the same administration and employer-inspired campaign as the Minneapolis defendants.

Nor have the Minneapolis indictments been the last of the administration’s attacks upon the Trotskyists. Roosevelt’s Postmaster General has taken away the second-class mailing rights of The Militant. Just as the Trotskyist movement was the first to be hit by the Smith Act, so its organ has been the first working class paper to suffer a reactionary attack upon the freedom of the press.

Events have demonstrated that the Trotskyists are first in the line of fire because they are the spearhead of militant resistance to the developing reaction. The strategy of the agents of Big Business, entrenched in Washington, is to pick off those who stand at the extreme left-wing of the labor movement. If these initial attempts prove successful, they can then proceed to move forward in frontal assault against the rest of the labor movement. Step by step they intend to rob the workers of all their democratic rights.

If the leaders of Local 544-CIO can be jailed under the Smith “Gag” Act, this law can and will be used against other union leaders. If the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party can be imprisoned because of their revolutionary ideas and criticism of administration policies, then the leaders of other political groups, including prospective Labor Party leaders, can be similarly persecuted for the expression of critical opinions.

For these reasons the Minneapolis case is of the utmost concern to the entire labor movement. The legal battle against the Smith “Gag” Act and the convictions of the 18 will now be carried by the Civil Rights Defense Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union to the US Supreme Court. The more vigorously organized labor speaks out against the railroading of the 18 and rallies to their defense, the greater grows the possibility that the Supreme Court will be compelled to declare the Smith Act unconstitutional and reverse the convictions. A victory in this important case could become a starting point for the reversal of the anti-labor offensive which now menaces the hard-won rights and gains of the American working class.

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Last updated on 12.9.2008