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Paul Schapiro

New Book on Sacco-Vanzetti

Full Story of 1927 Murder of Two Working Class Fighters

(10 January 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 2, 10 January 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

by G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan
Harcourt, Brace and. Co., 1948, 598 x–xvii pp., $6.

When Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted in 1927, the news of their death had a profound effect on millions throughout the world. The case of these two hitherto obscure Italian immigrant anarchists accused of hold-up and murder had provoked intense passions and great struggles. Now, 21 years later, two distinguished professors, G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, have published a book which attempts to analyze this case and to study its impact upon American law, society and literature.

The labor which has gone into this book is very great. Morgan, one of the foremost authorities on the law of evidence in the bourgeois legal world, has carefully gone over all of the court records, Joughin has plowed through the enormous literature on the case in order to discuss its social and literary effects.

The result is a work of scholarship which is definitive in the sense that it has amassed and presented in organized form a far greater amount of material than was ever presented before, but which requires correction in much of its evaluation of the significance of the ease.

For the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, victims of capitalist justice, as they themselves were well aware, cannot be really understood without a knowledge of how the government and the various institutions of society act as agencies of its ruling class – and this is beyond the ken of these dwellers upon the academic heights.

Legalistic Approach

Moreover, the authors are unduly timid in what they have to say on the question of the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. We cannot know that Sacco and Vanzetti were not guilty, they conclude; we can only know that they were not proven guilty. “In the Sacco-Vanzetti affair American justice was tragically inept. And since justice failed we consider it inevitable that both literary tradition and historical judgment will continue to support the presumption that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent of the crime for which they were executed.”

Much more than this can, however, be said. If I were to charge that President Lowell of Harvard, the leading member of Governor Fuller’s committee which advised him that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty, was the hold-up man who shot and killed without warning the paymaster and the guard, his heirs would almost certainly be unable to prove by alibi or otherwise that he was not. Such a charge levelled against this blueblood aristocrat would, however, be regarded not merely as unproven but fantastic.

And fantastic it would be – but not more fantastic than the same charge of vicious, money-seeking murder without political motivation against the men with the philosophy of life and the beauty and strength of character revealed in the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, a philosophy and a character that was such that Sacco would not sign a petition for executive clemency which might conceivably have saved his life because it was against his political principles and that Vanzetti, on being told by one of his lawyers that he might save him at the possible expense of Sacco by stressing that the state’s case against him was weaker than its case against his comrade, replied: “Save Nick. He has the woman and child.”

For Morgan and Joughin the Sacco-Vanzetti affair was “a tragic miscarriage of justice,” brought about by a fever of prejudice, chauvinism and hysteria in society. The origin and nature of this fever they do not explain. They are content with recommending legislative enactments such as giving the accused the privilege of being tried by a judge or body of judges instead of by a jury to “decrease the chances of miscarriage of justice” in cases involving “community hostility” – and this after demonstrating in their own account the prejudice of Thayer, the trial judge, of Dean Wigmore, “the author of the most comprehensive treatise ever published on the law of evidence,” and of President Lowell, “the official representative of New England culture.”

As for the line-up of forces in the case, Morgan and Joughin find on the side of Sacco and Vanzetti those who “to some degree grasped the fundamental quality of democracy” and opposed to them those who did not. In the 1920’s there was not in “the opinions held by the people of this country ... a preponderance of sane democratic thought;.” Hence the execution of the two anarchists. The Marxist interpretation they reject because there were workers who wanted Sacco and Vanzetti killed and rich persons who supported them.

Naive Misunderstanding

The objection Morgan and Joughin raise stems from a naive misunderstanding of Marxism. If backward workers did not support Sacco and Vanzetti, it was because they had not freed themselves from the way of thinking impressed, on them by the institutions and ideologists of the capitalists. The trial had its origin in the Palmer raid anti-radical hysteria of the bourgeoisie, frightened by the Bolshevik Revolution. Once the issues were joined, the representatives of the bourgeoisie felt that they could not retreat.

That some individual capitalists did not go along with their class and their institutional; representatives on this issue does not alter the fact that the institutions of capitalist society revealed their class bias: The press exhibited its “functional degeneration,” suppressing facts of. which it was aware. The church was “open to rebuke” for its general silence, which the authors find “both puzzling and disappointing.” The “world of higher education,” as well as “all other groups which one ordinarily thinks of as concerned with social problems,” was not “markedly more responsive than the church.” The practicing members of the legal profession opposed Sacco and Vanzetti for causes which “are not pleasant to contemplate.” It is this shrinking from contemplating causes which gives the book its weaknesses.

Capitalist Liberalism

The Sacco-Vanzetti case in reality marked the bankruptcy of the bourgeois liberalism and the conservative noblesse oblige for which Joughin and Morgan stand. The only reason why the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti was delayed for seven years and they were not done away with quietly and obscurely was the fight put up by revolutionists and working-class militants all over the world. When the bourgeois liberals gained ascendancy in the Defense Committee they carried on the case as an effort to rectify a “miscarriage of justice.” La Guardia and John Haynes Holmes counseled faith in Governor Fuller, although La Guardia knew of Fuller’s red-baiting oratory when both were members of Congress. The verdict of Fuller’s Advisory Committee after its closed hearings exposed the weakness of bourgeois liberalism.

Sacco and Vanzetti themselves realized the true nature of their case. Vanzetti wrote to the International Labor Defense, at that time an organization not yet Stalinized, whose secretary was James P. Cannon, which defended all political victims of capitalism regardless, of political differences:

“I repeat, I will repeat to the last, only the people, our comrades, our friends, the world revolutionary proletariat can save us from the powers of the capitalist reactionary hyenas, or vindicate our names and our blood before history ... There are some who think that our case is a trial for a common crime; that our friends should contest our innocence but not turn the case into a political issue, because it would´only damage us. Well, I could answer to them all that our case is more than a political case, is a case of class war in which our enemies are personally interested to lose us – not only for class purposes but for personal passions, resentments, and fear ...”

The Real Legacy

The legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti is not the legacy of faith in bourgeois democracy which Joughin and Morgan present to us, that bourgeois democracy which their trial demonstrated to be fundamentally a sham and which is hardening into rigid authoritarianism as the monopolies tighten their grip on the economy and militarism grows.

Their legacy is the faith m the victory of the workers over the plutocrats and in their ability to do away with oppression and establish a classless society which Vanzetti voiced, in that English which, though broken, is the admiration of professors of English, when he said to Judge Thayer: “Sacco’s name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when Katzmann’s [the prosecuting attorney] and your bones will be dispersed by time, when your name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false god are but a deep remembering of a cursed past in which man was wolf to man.”

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