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Fourth International, January 1944


The Editors

How the Eighteen Were Railroaded to Penitentiary


From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.1, January 1944, pp.8-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“The next thing that will probably appear on the horizon is attempts of these Sixty Families and their supporters to stop the popularizing of ideas inimical to the capitalists, and to check by legislation the organization of the workers…They will begin arresting people for expressing their honest opinions, and putting them in jail, framing them up.”
– James P. Cannon, testifying in the Minneapolis trial, November 19, 1941.

Not in fascist Italy, not in Nazi Germany, not in semi-feudal Japan but in Roosevelt’s “democratic” America prison gates closed last month on 18 socialists and trade unionists guilty of no crime other than exercising their right of free speech. Thus did the forces of capitalist reaction add another black chapter to their long record of infamy.

If ever there was needed a classic example of class justice at work, it has been provided in the Minneapolis case. In many of its aspects this case is without precedent in the development of the class struggle in the United States. Never before has the federal government used its legal machinery so nakedly to persecute the workers’ political movement. Trotskyists were put on trial and then railroaded to prison for their ideas, for their fight for socialism, for their opposition to imperialist war.

The facts in this famous case establish beyond dispute that a conspiracy involving the highest offices of government now threatens the labor movement – a conspiracy to jail revolutionists and trade union militants, to stifle free speech, and abrogate the Bill of Rights.

Let us briefly review the facts:

In the spring of 1941, Daniel J. Tobin, head of the Teamsters International, came into conflict with the leaders of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544. In May 1941 Tobin published a bitter attack in his personal organ, the Teamsters Journal, denouncing the Trotskyists in the Minnesota teamsters’ movement. Shortly thereafter, he ordered the democratically elected leadership of Local 544 to stand trial before his International Executive Board at Washington the first week of June. When the leaders of Local 544 refused to concede to his appointment of a receiver over the union with absolute powers, including the power to expel anyone, Tobin preceded to move in on the union – all this because the Trotskyists in the union refused to abandon their vigorous struggle to improve working conditions and to give political support to Roosevelt in the then rapidly approaching entry of the United States into the second World War.

As a result of Tobin’s actions, 4,000 members of Local 544 at a regular membership meeting on June 9 voted virtually unanimously to disaffiliate from Tobin’s organization in the AFL and to accept a charter from the CIO. This move of course created a sensation in the entire Teamsters International. Tobin lost no time. Four days after the vote of Local 544 on June 13, Roosevelt’s secretary, Stephen Early made the following statement to the White House press conference, as reported in the New York Times of June 14, 1941:

“Mr. Tobin telegraphed from Indianapolis that it is apparent to him and to the other executives of his organization that because they have been and will continue to stand squarely behind the government, that all subversive organizations and all enemies of our government, including Bundists, Trotskyists and Stalinists, are opposed to them and seeking to destroy local trade unions which are supporting democracy.

“Mr. Tobin goes into considerable detail and states he is going to issue a statement from the Indianapolis office of the teamsters’ union. When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning he asked me to immediately have the government departments and agencies interested in this matter notified ...” (Our emphasis).

Tobin’s statement, referred to by Early, and published the same day, declared in part:

“The withdrawal from the International union by the Truck Drivers Union, Local 544, and one other small union, in Minneapolis, and their affiliation with the CIO is indeed a regrettable and dangerous condition. The officers of this local union were requested to dissociate themselves from the radical Trotsky organization…those disturbers must be in some way prevented from pursuing this danger out course ...” (Our emphasis).

Political Roots of the Case

These two statements amply prove that Tobin, a notorious supporter of Roosevelt and one of his principal political agents in the labor movement, went to Roosevelt upon learning of the vote of Local 544, asked him to intervene, and was promised action.

In addition to doing Tobin a personal favor, Roosevelt had another far weightier political reason. The administration expecting momentarily to plunge the United States into the second World War wished to isolate and silence the advocates of socialism so that their ideas might be prevented from gaining a hearing among the masses dragooned into the slaughter.

And this, it may be remarked parenthetically, occurred only shortly after Roosevelt promised the nation:

“And while I am talking to you, fathers and mothers, I give you once more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again, and again, your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” (October 30, 1940.)

Roosevelt’s “government departments and agencies” moved swiftly. On June 27, 1941, just 13 days after the publication of the White House assurance to Tobin, FBI agents raided the branch offices of the Socialist Workers Party in St. Paul and Minneapolis, carting off large quantities of Marxist literature, much of which could have been obtained in any public library in the country.

On July 15, 1941, less than a month later, an indictment drawn up by the Department of Justice was handed down by a federal grand jury against 29 men and women. Count one of the indictment, based on an 1861 statute passed during the Civil War against the Southern slave-holders, charged a “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence.” Count two of the indictment charged: (1) Advocating overthrow of the government by force; (2) Publishing and circulating literature advocating this; (3) Forming organizations “to teach, advocate and encourage” such overthrow; (4) Becoming members of such organizations; (5) Distributing publications which “advised, counseled and urged” insubordination in the armed forces. This count was wholly based on the Smith “Omnibus Gag” Act, invoked for the first time in the Minneapolis case. Like the infamous Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 the Smith Act makes the mere advocacy of ideas a federal crime. Its constitutionality has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, The Nation, The New Republic, and numerous others. The sponsor of this ultra-reactionary law is the poll-tax Representative Howard W. Smith, leader of the anti-labor bloc in Congress and co-author of the vicious Smith-Connally anti-strike law.

On October 27, 1941, the trial began in the Federal District Court at Minneapolis. The principal government “evidence” consisted of innumerable quotations from articles in the American Trotskyist press going back to 1929! Public writings, public addresses of the defendants, radio speeches, leaflets issued by the tens of thousands – these were the main government proofs of “conspiracy.”

The government further introduced as evidence photographs of the great teachers of Marxism (including a picture of Daniel DeLeon). It introduced such leaflets as the one advertizing Vincent Raymond Dunne as speaker at a public forum on the action of the Trotskyists in combatting 20,000 Fascists in Madison Square. In the indictment and in the arguments of the prosecution, the government flatly characterized as criminal the doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

This rabid attack was met unflinchingly by the proletarian defense. Never before in a labor trial in this country have defendants so unswervingly, so consciously and so systematically defended their revolutionary doctrine, utilizing the courtroom as a forum from which to proclaim their ideas. The conduct of the defendants at the trial and throughout all the subsequent stages of the case belongs to the best traditions of international Marxism.

The “Evidence”

No lie is more brazen than the charge that the Trotskyist movement is a conspiracy. From its very inception, Marxism, the doctrine of scientific socialism, taught that the emancipation of the workers could be achieved only by the workers themselves. The task of the revolutionists is to educate and organize the oppressed masses. And this requires the widest dissemination and the most democratic discussion of the party’s revolutionary program. Only through the conscious will of the overwhelming majority of the toiling people can the transition from decayed capitalism to living socialism be effected.

These were precisely the ideas that the Trotskyist leaders explained at length during the trial. The basic testimony of the trial – the expositions of Trotskyist views by Cannon and Goldman’s speeches have been published in pamphlets, circulated in tens of thousands of copies at home and abroad. A second edition of Cannon’s pamphlet, Socialism On Trial is now on the press.

The Minneapolis Verdict

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the first count of the indictment, thereby revealing the utter flimsiness of the government case. On the second count, involving a new law, the constitutionality of which had not yet been tested, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against 18 of the defendants. Of the remaining defendants, five were released by a directed verdict of the court; five others were acquitted by the jury. Grant Dunne, Local 544 organizer and one of the original 29 defendants, committed suicide three weeks before the trial began. He had been in ill health for a long time as a result of shell shock suffered during the first World War.

Congress declared war on December 8, 1941. On the same day Judge Joyce sentenced 12 to prison terms of 16 months each, the other six defendants to terms of a year-and-a-day each.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee, handling the case in close collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and with the support of labor and defense organizations, assisted the 18 in appealing their conviction to the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, Tobin had instigated proceedings against the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 544, Kelly Postal. When the Minnesota teamsters voted to join the CIO, they likewise voted unanimously to turn $5,000 in the local treasury over to the Union Defense Committee. Kelly Postal turned over the funds as instructed. Brought before one court on a charge of grand larceny, Postal was vindicated when the judge threw the case out of court. But the wheels of capitalist justice do not stop turning because one judge happens to prove an exception to the rule. Hailed before a second court, Postal was declared guilty and sentenced up to 5 years in Stillwater penitentiary. Judge Selover, who pronounced this cruel sentence, demonstrated his knowledge of the workings of capitalist justice by turning down a motion to appeal the case. Kelly Postal is now behind bars because he obeyed the will of the union membership which placed him in office.

In the same period Roosevelt’s Postmaster General moved to take away the second-class mailing rights of the Trotskyist weekly The Militant. Mailings of Fourth International have been consistently held-up by the postal authorities. Just as the Trotskyist movement was the first to be hit by the Smith Act, so its weekly organ has been the first working class paper to suffer a reactionary attack upon the freedom of the press.

The Circuit Court Decision

On September 20, 1943 the Eighth Circuit Court handed down its decision. In defiance of the law, the Constitution, and all the principles and traditions of democracy this court upheld the Smith “Gag” Act, giving unconditional endorsement to the prosecution. The defendants had been deprived of their elementary democratic rights and were being railroaded to prison. The circuit court judges declared that all this was done in a correct legal way. Thus did the Court of Appeals uphold the right of free speech, one of the “four freedoms” which Roosevelt has so solemnly promised to export to other countries.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee then carried the case to the United States Supreme Court. What did this august body, largely composed of Roosevelt appointees, do? Did they safeguard the inviolability of the Bill of Rights?

What the Supreme Court Did

In Washington, the case of the 18 was likewise considered by judges expert in serving out capitalist justice. On November 22, 1943, barely more than two months after the appeal was made, the Supreme Court reached a decision that will undoubtedly go down as historic. It denied the petition of the 18 to hear their case.

Consider the circumstances of the case – a peace-time law manifestly unconstitutional, a law directly abrogating the right of free speech. The highest court in the land is presented with the first case to be tried under this law. The government is waging a war ostensibly to make the world free for democracy. The law has been universally denounced – even in the halls of Congress – as “enough to make Thomas Jefferson turn over in his grave” and as “without precedent in the history of labor legislation.” Yet the last court of appeal in the land denies – without a word of explanation – the petition of 18 defendants to hear the case!

The Honor Roll

On December 31, 1943 the eighteen defendants were taken to the penitentiary. The class-war prisoners are:

The American ruling class is repeating in the second World War its record of the first World War when, under President Wilson and his Attorney General Palmer, raids were conducted from coast to coast and socialists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World and other worker militants were arrested by the hundreds for their opposition to imperialist war. The most prominent of these heroic figures who got a taste of capitalist justice and “democracy” was Eugene V. Debs.

During the succeeding years, liberals ascribed these abominations to war “hysteria.” It was a purely temporary psychological aberration, they vowed. And they furthermore explained that capitalist democracy had learned its lesson. As the second World War approached they salved their consciences with confident predictions that such raids, such “hysteria,” such abrogation of civil liberties would not again be repeated. Ironically enough, Attorney General Francis Bid-die christened himself in office with a promise that under his tenure there would be no persecutions such as had marred the reign of Palmer of World War I notoriety.

The Minneapolis case, coldly and calculatingly organized by “government departments and agencies” in peacetime not only dissipates these illusions and lies, but proves that the turn toward reaction was conscious on the part of the Roosevelt regime.

Despicable Role of Liberals

Most miserable and despicable of all the roles in this sordid display of capitalist justice is that played by the liberals. In 1940 they did not hesitate to denounce the Smith “Gag” Act. It was clearly anti-labor in their eyes then. Noisy protests came from the liberals when this law was enacted. In 1941 the law came into action for the first time. A different matter.

They tried to explain it away. The labor movement was assured “again, and again, and again” that none of its members would go to prison – not under the democratic Roosevelt regime! Roosevelt, to be sure, had signed the Smith “Gag” Law, but that was sheer oversight, a misunderstanding, implied the liberals.

When it actually turned out that the court returned an adverse decision, the liberals quickly announced that the higher courts would never sustain it. They assured the labor movement that the higher courts would declare it unconstitutional. Weren’t the members of the Supreme Court appointees of the liberal Roosevelt? Weren’t they moreover all staunch liberals themselves – those black-gowned dispensers of justice?

Weren’t many of them members and mainstays of the American Civil Liberties Union these two decades and more?

When the Supreme Court actually handed down its brazen decision – the first of its kind in the history of the United States – the silence of the grave enveloped the liberal press. They participated in the conspiracy of silence in which the entire capitalist press has engaged. Search The Nation, Search The New Republic, Hunt with a high-powered microscope for a forthright declaration on the Minneapolis case from this whole cowardly crew. You will find nothing but yawning emptiness.

And these were the gentlemen who pointed their fingers at the morals of the Bolsheviks; and who paraded as champions of democracy and defenders of the rights of the people. They are the ones who waxed indignant when Leon Trotsky labeled them sycophants.

When the test came, when it was necessary to speak out against the monstrous abomination committed by Roosevelt-Biddle and the Supreme Court, they simply followed the lead of that court, pulled their tails between their legs and crawled silently into their kennels. Thus they do their part in spreading the “four freedoms” over the six continents and seven seas.

In preparing an assault on the labor movement as a whole, capitalist reaction invariably begins by trying to pick off the vanguard, the most consistent, resolute and advanced section of the working class. This was done in Italy and in Germany. That is why fire was levelled first in this country at the Trotskyists. And that is also why the labor movement cannot permit the eighteen to remain in jail. For thereby a most dangerous precedent is set, and a most powerful weapon left in the hands of reaction which can proceed to slash the labor movement to pieces, and to imprison whomever they please.

The workers are perfectly able to defend their own historic interests. The prime requisite for this is that they depend on their own strength and organizations, and not on anyone or anything else. The labor movement can and must back the nationwide movement of protest launched by the Civil Rights Defense Committee.

Free the imprisoned men who have proved themselves incorruptible fighters for socialism and for workers’ rights!
Demand the unconditional pardon of the eighteen!

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