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Irving Howe

A Minnesota Witch Hunt

(November 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 10, November 1941, pp. 268–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SO POWERFUL is the democratic myth in this country and so comparatively attractive are the conditions of functioning in it, especially in relation to the fascist nations, that it is easy to understand why sections of the revolutionary movement may be subject to the influence of perpetual legalism and democratism. What is often understood only abstractly – that American capitalism is also subject to the laws of capitalist decline, one of whose results is the growth of totalitarianism or fascism – is often ignored in actual practice, in preparation for real-life perspectives.

The result of such a situation is, naturally enough, that once a sharp crisis comes, the revolutionary party receives a shock and requires a re-awakening, a political re-armament which prepares it for this new and unusual state of affairs – what the bourgeois press calls the “emergency.” It is precisely in such a state of affairs that the revolutionary movement of this country finds itself today. The nation moves toward a war economy, a war status (both in reality and formally) and a totalitarian or at least a semi-totalitarian regime. Quite inevitably the revolution parties must react quickly and sharply to the dangers of state persecution and suppression.

No more significant example of this can be given than the now famous “sedition” trial being held in Minneapolis in which 23 (originally 28; five have been freed) leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (Cannonites) and Local 544-CIO Teamsters Union are being accused of having conspired to overthrow the U.S. Government and having advocated its overthrow. This first, frontal attack of the government against a section of the Trotskyists – and a union in which they play an influential rôle – helped awaken the revolutionary movement to the intensity of the critical situation in which it finds itself. This, we believe, is true of all revolutionary groups in the country, not to mention their sympathizers, who are, of course, even more subject to bourgeois ideological pressures.

The realization that the prosecution of these Trotskyists in Minneapolis is a signal indication of the drive towards totalitarianization of our social life, and the extraordinarily sharp nature of this realization because the movement effected is also a Trotskyist tendency, is only enhanced when one is actually present at the trial. There is no teacher like experience. You may talk about the iniquities of capitalist injustice ad infinitum and ad nauseam, but when you actually come up against them in a political case of historic importance, as this one is, then your words take on a significance and a burning relevance they have never before had!

It is not our purpose to re-examine the details of the testimony and legal aspects of the trial here; that we have done at some length in dispatches to Labor Action, the weekly newspaper of the Workers Party. We should here like to note, however, a few of the highlights and conclusions of the trial.

One Hundred and Forty Years Apart

The U.S. Government is clearly treading on completely new and (for the labor movement) dangerous ground in this prosecution. This is the first peacetime sedition prosecution since the regime of John “Adams; the two laws which the defendants are alleged to have violated have never been applied to a case of this kind before. From a legal standpoint – and the working class has every need to pay the closest attention to the capitalist laws! – the case is without precedent. As a matter of fact, I.F. Stone in a report to The Nation, informs us that the Department of Justice itself is doubtful of the constitutionality of one of the laws on which the prosecution is based – the totalitarian Smith Act, which violates the First Amendment to the Constitution by outlawing expressions of opinion as to the advisability or “propriety” of overthrowing the U.S. Government. As far as the second count is concerned, even the prosecution has been forced to admit the absence of any overt act on the part of the defendants to conspire to overthrow the government, which the courts have ruled is necessary in order to constitute a violation of Article 6 of the Criminal Code.

Clearly then, there must be some pressing goal which the government feels necessary to reach in order to essay a prosecution on such flimsy grounds. It is not for the mere sport of it that the Roosevelt Administration has so desperately “gone after” the SWP and Local 544.

The answer is of course immediately found in the trade union situation existing among the Northwest truckdrivers. The conflict between the anti-war and militant leadership of Local 544-CIO and the AFL Teamsters (led by a Roosevelt favorite, Dan Tobin) is no mere local jurisdictional dispute. It eventually involves the future character of the entire truckmen’s union – a victory for the CIO forces in Minnesota would spell the beginning of a similar process nationally. The Roosevelt regime, however, which is extraordinarily sensitive to such matters, does not relish the idea of the crucial truck drivers’ union-or even its Northwest section – being led by anti-war militants. It has therefore interceded to crush this movement while it is still young, just as it ached to crush the “obnoxious” miners but could not do so because of their strength.

Part of War Preparations

It is not merely a political debt that FDR is paying off to a faithful servant such as Tobin is; it is one of the most significant moves to crush oppositionist sections of the trade union movement that Roosevelt has yet taken. And the tragedy of the situation is that so many unions have failed to recognize that!

But while the above is undoubtedly the major, immediate reason for the prosecution, there is still another – potentially more important. We cannot take seriously the pretentions of the SWP that the government is cracking down on it because of the threat which it represents to American capitalism and the war plans of the Roosevelt government. At present, the SWP amounts to little more than the proverbial hill of beans; if such a tiny political sect could at present really represent a serious threat to American capitalism, then we might actually prepare immediately to celebrate its demise.

But when the SWP says that the trial is intended to set a precedent for future persecution of dissident groups, especially those opposed to the war from a left point of view, then it is obviously correct. The Roosevelt regime which more sharply reacts to the affairs of the labor, and even of the radical, movement than the ordinary dull, conservative and plodding capitalist administration (if only because so many of its bright lads have “graduated” from them), has the ability of preparing for the future. Thus it kills several birds with one stone: it smashes a dissident trade union that can potentially be very “troublesome”; it sets legal precedents for future and perhaps even more important prosecutions; and perhaps it throws a bit of a scare and gives a bit of a warning (it thinks to itself) to other dissidents.

These, we believe, are the essential reasons for this fantastic trial, in which perjurer after perjurer is paraded up to the witness stand by the government in order to tell how V.R. Dunne or some other defendant told him – always, to be sure, in private conversations at indefinite occasions (which cannot be checked!) – that the SWP advocated violent overthrow of the government. It is for these reasons that the government indulges in such a weak case that it must rest its proof on the testimony of witnesses who are, without exception, known as the bitterest inter-union enemies of Local 544-CIO, all of them being AFL leaders and on the Tobin payroll. It is for these reasons that the government continues vigorously to press a case in which the only overt act it can produce to substantiate its case is the organization of a Union Defense Guard several years ago by 544. And it is again for these reasons that the government, for the first time in American history, introduces the 93 year old Communist Manifesto as evidence and contends that its circularization proves intent to overthrow the government!

Protectors of Civil Liberties!

How typical it is of the entire political evolution of the Roosevelt Administration and of its present status, that the special prosecutor sent from the Department of Justice, Henry Schweinhaut, was formerly in charge of a newly created section of the Department of Justice organized to protect ... civil liberties! Besides the obvious irony, there are also political implications.

There is no one so adept at destroying civil liberties as their former protector. (Not, of course, that Schweinhaut was ever too zealous in their protection!) From the head of a government bureau especially designed to impress labor and the liberals with the government’s interest in their civil rights, to the chief inquisitor of the first Roosevelt political lynching bee! And Schweinhaut, who of course is merely the representative of Attorney General Biddle, in turn the representative of Number 1, has proved himself very adept at the job.

With the aid of an extremely cooperative judge, legal precedents have been set at this trial, which, if sustained, represent a grave threat to labor’s civil rights. Witnesses are allowed to sit in court and listen to the testimony of previous witnesses, so that they can check their testimony and impress consistency into their perjury. The prosecution plays with two theories of conspiracy – neither of which attempt to prove its actual existence, but both assume it. One of them assumes the conspiracy to be a secret group within the SWP, in which case the government has failed to prove its secret existence nor the connection to it of a group of the defendants who lived 1,300 miles away from the alleged scene of the conspiracy; the second theory assumes the SWP itself to be the conspiracy, in which case the very right of existence of a revolutionary party is threatened. Evidence is introduced by the government, and admitted by the judge, on the ground that it “indicates the state of mind of the defendants,” in relation to one of the counts (the Smith Act of June, 1940) on events which took place before the passage of the act! Evidence considered by the government sufficient to convict the defendants of advocating the violent overthrow of the government is also presented as sufficient to prove an actual conspiracy to do so.

Perjury, flagrant contradictions, ex post facto rulings, confusion and deliberate contradiction of the very definition of the alleged crime of conspiracy, the use of commonly-known Marxist classics as evidence – the prosecution stops at nothing; everything goes.

In the midst of all this, the conduct of the defendants leaves little to be desired. They stood up firmly and defended their principles; they did not compromise any of their basic beliefs. If they will be convicted, it is clear that their only crime was an intransigent belief in their ideas.

The political lessons to be drawn from this trial in terms of the development of American politics are fairly obvious. We wish only to stress one of them here, which so many of the intellectual friends of the revolutionary movement constantly minimize. And that is the need for a stable, strong and steeled revolutionary party. It is only with such a party that the revolutionary and militant workers will be able to meet similar crises of an even more severe nature in the future. And it is only with such a party – which provides the necessary backbone and rallying center and ideological support – that the intellectual friends of the revolutionary workers will be able to maintain their balance and allegiances. The strengthening and building of that party remains the need of the hour.

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