This article first appeared in the Bulletin on November 22, 1991.
This week marks 50 years since the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, took the witness stand in the infamous Smith Act frame-up trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cannon’s testimony was the high point in the political counteroffensive waged by the pioneer American Trotskyists against the state persecution mounted by the Roosevelt administration.
Twenty-eight members of the Socialist Workers Party, the American sympathizing section of the Fourth International, were brought to trial in federal court on October 27, 1941 on charges of violating the newly passed Smith Act. They were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the US government by violence, fomenting insubordination in the armed forces and advocating the armed overthrow of the government.
Those indicted included Cannon, the national secretary of the SWP, as well as virtually all the party leaders in Minneapolis, including the officials of Teamsters Local 544. The persecution of the SWP began in June with a raid on the SWP Minneapolis offices, in which a great quantity of Marxist literature was seized. Indictments were handed down on July 15, 1941.
Organized on the eve of American imperialism’s entry into World War II, the prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party was aimed at silencing the Marxist opposition to the war. The SWP was the only tendency within the workers movement which fought to mobilize the working class against the imperialist war, while defending the Soviet Union against German fascism.
The trial was carried out in Minneapolis because in that city the Trotskyist movement had developed the deepest roots in the working class, through its leadership of the 1934 truck drivers strikes, which smashed the open shop and laid the basis for the growth of the Teamsters as the industrial union for freight, transport and warehouse workers. The immediate occasion for the FBI raids on the SWP was the appeal to Roosevelt by Teamsters President Daniel Tobin for government help in suppressing the Trotskyist-led Local 544.
The conduct of the SWP defendants during the trial was a model for revolutionaries. Cannon took the witness stand between November 18 and November 21. Under questioning by SWP attorney Albert Goldman, a codefendant in the Minneapolis trial, he gave a comprehensive elaboration of the Trotskyist program on fundamental issues like the struggle against imperialist war, the fight against fascism, workers defense guards, work in the unions, the nature of Stalinism, and the role of the conscious vanguard in the preparation of the socialist revolution.
In defending the SWP against charges of creating insubordination in the military, Cannon based his testimony on the Proletarian Military Policy developed in consultation with Leon Trotsky in the months prior to Trotsky’s assassination in August 1940, and officially adopted by the SWP at the party’s national convention.
Trotsky insisted that revolutionary Marxists had to intervene actively among the mass of workers under conditions of the coming world war, and could not adopt a policy of abstentionism or pacifist evasion. Members of the SWP and other sections of the Fourth International had to go with their class into military service and teach the workers how to draw the class line within the imperialist military machine.
Trotsky elaborated such demands as the military training of workers under trade union control, the education of worker-officers, the election of officers by the ranks and support for military aid to the Soviet Union, the first workers state. He firmly rejected opposition to conscription or individual rejection of military service by conscientious objectors. The Marxist approach was irreconcilably opposed to middle class pacifism, he said, and in the initial stages of the world war, it was critical for the revolutionary party to clarify this question in the minds of the most politically advanced workers.
In accordance with this policy, SWP members were instructed to accept induction into the armed forces and to participate alongside members of their class in the war, while seeking every opportunity to expose the imperialist war aims of Wall Street and its imperialist allies.
In his trial testimony, Cannon took into account the objective conditions existing in the United States, in which the majority of workers were unfamiliar with even the elementary principles of socialism. He patiently explained the basic programmatic positions of the Trotskyist movement to the American working class.
Cannon later wrote: “The prosecutor wanted to limit the whole of the course of the discussion to the single question of ‘force and violence.’ We on the other hand—for the first time in an American courtroom—tried to make an exposition, if only a brief and sketchy one, of the whole range of Marxist theory, as in an elementary study class for uninitiated workers, to the extent that this was possible in the narrow framework prescribed by the court’s rules and the repeated objections of the prosecutor, assigning the question of force in the socialist revolution to its proper proportionate place and putting the responsibility for it where it properly belongs—on the shoulders of the outlived class.”
Under the examination of Goldman, Cannon explained the internal contradictions of capitalism which were driving toward the socialist revolution. He denied that the SWP was seeking to foment a violent revolution.
Goldman: Explain the sentence I just read from Page 6 of the declaration of principles: Government Exhibit 1: “The belief that in a country such as the United States we live in a democratic society in which fundamental economic change can be effected by persuasion, by education, by legal and purely parliamentary method, is an illusion.”
Cannon: That goes back to what I said before, that we consider it an illusion for the workers to think that ruling class violence will not be invoked against them in the course of their efforts to organize the majority of people.
Goldman: What is meant by the expression “overthrow of the capitalist state”?
Cannon: That means to replace it with a workers’ and farmers’ government, that is what we mean.
Goldman: What is meant by the expression “destroy the machinery of the capitalist state”?
Cannon: By that we mean when we set up the workers’ and farmers’ government in this country, the functioning of the government, its tasks, its whole nature, will be so profoundly and radically different from the functions, tasks, and nature of the bourgeois state, that we will have to replace it all along the line. From the very beginning the workers’ state has a different foundation, and it is different in all respects. It has to create an entirely new apparatus, a new state apparatus from top to bottom. That is what we mean.
Goldman: Do you mean there will be no Congress or House of Representatives and Senate?
Cannon: It will be a different kind of Congress. It will be a Congress of representatives of workers and soldiers and farmers, based on their occupational units, rather than the present form based on territorial representation.
In further testimony, Cannon elaborated in detail the position of the SWP on the preparations of US imperialism to enter World War II.
Goldman: What kind of war would you consider a war waged by the present government of the United States?
Cannon: I would consider it a capitalist war.
Cannon: Because America is today a capitalist nation. It is different from the others only because it is stronger than the others and bigger. We do not believe in capitalist policy. We do not want to gain any colonies. We do not want bloodshed to make profits for American capital.
Goldman: What is the party’s position on the claim that the war against Hitler is a war of democracy versus fascism?
Cannon: We say that is a subterfuge, that the conflict between American imperialism and German imperialism is for the domination of the world. It is absolutely true that Hitler wants to dominate the world, but we think it is equally true that the ruling group of American capitalists has the same idea, and we are not in favor of either of them. We do not think that the Sixty Families that own America want to wage this war for some sacred principle of democracy. We think they are the greatest enemies of democracy here at home. We think they would use the opportunity of a war to eliminate all civil liberties at home, to get the best imitation of fascism they can possibly get.
In his testimony Cannon attempted, in the face of intense opposition of prosecutor Henry A. Schweinhaut, to explain the profound opposition of the Trotskyist movement to Stalinism.
Goldman: What form did the dictatorship of Stalin assume?
Cannon: It assumed the form of crushing democracy inside of the Communist Party and establishing a dictatorial regime there. For example—
Schweinhaut: Well, while Mr. Cannon is pausing, may I object now to this line of testimony because it is immaterial and irrelevant to the issues here? It is immaterial what form of government Stalin set up in Russia. What do we care?
The Court: I do not see any reason why he should go into all the details. I think you should recognize that Mr. Goldman. I want to give you every opportunity, every reasonable opportunity, to present your theory of the case before the jury, but I do think there is much here that is immaterial and unnecessary.
Goldman: What is the position of the party on the Soviet Union at present?
Schweinhaut: I object to that, Your Honor.
The Court: He may answer that.
Cannon: The characterization we make of the Soviet Union, as it is today, is of a workers’ state, created by the revolution of November 1917, distorted by the bad present regime, and even degenerated, but nevertheless retaining its basic character as a workers’ state, because it is based on nationalized industry and not on private property.
Schweinhaut’s objections were not simply a matter of preventing Cannon from expounding the political positions of the SWP. The US government was preparing for war against Germany, which had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Roosevelt administration was quite conscious of the long political struggle waged by the Trotskyist movement against Stalinism, and it wanted as little as possible said in court to embarrass its future Kremlin ally.
The Stalinists reciprocated. The American Communist Party fervently supported the witch-hunt prosecution and called for the maximum sentences against the Trotskyists. A decade later, the leaders of the CPUSA would themselves be subjected to a Smith Act prosecution.
Under cross-examination by Schweinhaut, Cannon upheld the principled opposition of the SWP to imperialist war, while denying the government charges of inciting insubordination.
Cannon: No, I have never said we supported the war effort. We do not. We oppose it.
Schweinhaut: And could one of your party members observe that principle and be a good soldier?
Cannon: He could be, not only could be but will, in the same way that he can be a good worker in a shop while opposing wage labor in the shop. We cannot prevent it as long as we are in the minority.
In closing his cross-examination, the prosecutor read a lengthy quotation from Trotsky’s work Lessons of October. Schweinhaut asserted that the October Revolution was a conspiracy hatched by the Bolsheviks carried out without the approval of the Congress of Soviets.
Cannon: It seems to me that here is an excellent illustration of how a revolutionary party, after long propagandistic work, succeeded in a political crisis in winning over to its side a majority of the population represented in the most authoritative body, the Soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants Deputies. And the Bolsheviks, adapting themselves to the legality of this body
Schweinhaut: Now, just a minute, are you telling us how it occurred, or are you telling us now that you think it was a mighty fine thing?
Cannon: No, I am explaining the legality of the development as against your interpretation that it was illegal. And it seems to me—
Schweinhaut: I don’t want your opinion on that. If you want to go on and tell us what happened, all right. Don’t characterize it.
Cannon: I don’t think you will ever get a more legal revolution than that.
Schweinhaut: That is all.
The principled defense by the SWP of its democratic rights won broad support in the labor movement. Unions representing millions of workers protested the prosecution. Cannon’s testimony was reprinted in the book Socialism on Trial, which was used to educate members throughout the sections of the Fourth International in the principles of Trotskyism.
The trial concluded on December 8, one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the day the United States declared war on Japan. Despite the prevailing atmosphere of patriotic alarm, the jury was clearly sympathetic to the defendants. They acquitted all 26 on the charges of conspiracy.
The judge gave the jurors little option but to convict on the second charge of advocating the overthrow of the government, and 18 of the 26 were found guilty, but the jury recommended leniency. Such was the impact of Cannon’s testimony and the agitation conducted by the Trotskyists in the working class that the judge was compelled to impose sentences of from 12 to 16 months, rather than the maximum 10 years.
After exhausting their appeals, Cannon and his 17 comrades went to prison in 1944. But their struggle to uphold the principles of proletarian internationalism in World War II was one of the great milestones in the fight to build a revolutionary leadership in the working class. Today, the heroic example set by Cannon in the Minneapolis trial is carried forward by the world Trotskyist movement, the Workers League and the International Committee of the Fourth International.