International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

Grace Carlson (1906-1992): Leading American Trotskyist of the ’30s and ’40s

Grace Carlson, founding member of the Socialist Workers Party, died July 7, 1992, at the age of eighty-five. Carlson, who had earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Minnesota, was one of many young professionals who turned to socialism in the thirties as the only answer to the devastating Depression, the rise of fascism and the threat of imperialist war.

Those who were the most intelligent, the most thoughtful and the most serious discovered Marxism through the theoretical clarity of Leon Trotsky, whose scientific explanation of the disastrous role of Stalinism both educated and inspired them.

Writers such as James T. Farrell, artists like Diego Rivera, intellectuals around the literary magazine The Partisan Review, all became either members or strong supporters of the Trotskyist movement. Thousands of younger, less well-known professionals and students took the same path.

To understand Grace Carlson, it is necessary to study the social conditions that produced a movement of this magnitude among middle class layers which are usually passive or self-absorbed.

The thirties has often been called a period of great working class defeats, and, indeed, it was. But the decade also contained vast and far-reaching revolutionary struggles. The French general strike, the powerful resistance of the Spanish workers to Franco’s fascism, the struggles of the Chinese masses against Japanese imperialism and of the Indian masses against Great Britain, the explosive battles in the US for the right to organize unions—all these created a culture medium for the recruitment and training of revolutionists.

It was this mass movement constantly before their eyes which led those earnestly seeking alternatives to reject the hundreds of utopian and fantastic schemes flooding the air waves. Many responded to the one party that insisted only the revolutionary working class could overthrow capitalism, establish a workers state and carry mankind forward to a new and more progressive stage of development.

The determination and courage of the angry masses hurled a resounding “yes” to the eternal questioning of the skeptics: “Will the working class fight? Is it indeed a revolutionary class?” There were bitter defeats, caused by the open betrayal of the old labor bureaucracies or by the inexperience of the new layer of militants.

Still, ever new battle fronts arose. And wherever they could reach the young intellectuals inspired by these struggles, the Trotskyists urged: “Take up a study of scientific Marxism. Build a revolutionary leadership in the working class. Train yourself as you train these young workers. Build the Fourth International.”

Grace Holmes Carlson was one of many who responded, one of the fortunates of that generation—fortunate because she grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, just across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, home of one of the earliest and most seminal battles of that working class uprising, the truck drivers general strike of 1934.

This strike broke the strong antiunion Citizens Alliance, destroyed its brutal open shop hold on Minneapolis and helped spur the mass rebellion which led to the formation of the CIO.

This was no ordinary strike. It was not controlled by the hidebound reactionary bureaucracy, nor was it led by militant but raw workers attempting to understand the workings of their enemy as the struggle proceeded.

The Minneapolis strike was led by well-known Trotskyists, men who had years of experience behind them. They had been active members of the IWW. After the successful Russian Revolution in 1917, they participated in the founding of the Communist Party USA. Most important of all, in 1928 they supported Trotsky’s struggle for Marxist internationalism against Stalin’s nationalist opportunism and became founders of the American section of the international Trotskyist movement.

These men, Vincent Raymond Dunne and Carl Skoglund chief among them, led the strike, established the union, and through their leadership established Trotskyism as a vital force in the working class.

Grace and her younger sister Dorothy were raised by their father, a railroad worker and ardent trade unionist, James A. Holmes, their mother having died while they were still young. Despite the Depression, he supplied his daughters through hard work with an advanced formal education as well as a fierce pride in their Irish working class background.

Thus in 1934, when the great strike battles in Minneapolis shook the working class and most of the middle class out of the Depression-induced doldrums, the two sisters were prepared to respond as intellectuals with a better than usual understanding of working class problems and affairs.

Because they lived in the Twin Cities, where the Trotskyists were widely recognized as the dominant leadership of the truck drivers general strike and identified as the revolutionary internationalists, they met the Trotskyists and joined them.

When Grace Carlson joined the Trotskyist movement in 1936, she was representative of many new recruits in that period, but she became one of the key comrades in Minnesota and, for a time, nationally. Because events were moving rapidly, those who joined in that period developed quickly if they had both natural ability and strong local party leadership.

In that respect also Carlson was fortunate. She certainly had the ability and the Minnesota branches had the leadership. Consequently by late 1937, when I first met her, Grace Carlson was already a leading member of the St. Paul executive committee. Shortly afterwards she was an elected delegate to the founding convention of the SWP, held over the 1937-1938 New Year’s weekend.

Soon after, when discussions began on the draft theses for the founding of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, she played a leading role in the Minnesota branches’ internal discussion. In 1939-1940 she defended the majority position against the attacks of the Burnham-Shachtman petty-bourgeois minority.

As in all periods of great mass movements, there was an enormous amount of political work. Comrades worked with confidence and the assurance that they were playing a part, however small, in making history. Some of this knowledge derived from the continuous flow of articles from the pen of Comrade Trotsky, by then in Mexico.

Both the rapidity of social developments and the urgency conveyed by Trotsky’s writings found their expression in the work of the branches. The party threw itself into the trade union movement; it held meetings on the Spanish Civil War; it launched an antifascist drive; it campaigned for the US to open its doors to Hitler’s refugees; it carried on a continuous fight to expose Roosevelt’s war plans and constantly uncovered and denounced the crimes and slanders of the Stalinists.

In all this the party made use of Carlson’s academic training. She spoke often, giving political reports at branch meetings, chairing or giving the main report at public meetings. Her speeches were always carefully prepared, though lacking the excitement and fire of some of the older cadre.

She was at that time an attractive, brown-haired, petite woman, careful of her weight, her clothes and her grooming. As her speeches indicated, she was conservative rather than flamboyant in both her language and her dress, anxious not to offend by appearing too unconventional.

This was only partially attributable to the years she spent in parochial schools. For, as she once explained to me, “We are trying to get workers and students to listen to ideas which challenge everything they have been taught. We must be careful to keep our arguments focused on politics, and not provide any excuse to those who would end the political struggle by sidetracking it into trivialities.”

Few of the women who joined the Trotskyist movement in the mid-thirties became part of the central leadership. Carlson was one of those who considered herself capable of becoming a national leader. That the party shared her opinion was evident, for she was early elected to the national committee and also was chosen to visit Trotsky in Mexico.

Those of us who worked with her learned from her example (and that of her younger sister Dorothy) how to earn the right to be treated as equals. At that time the majority of the older comrades still held very traditional ideas on the role of women, which they might deny in words but expressed in actions.

This showed particularly in their refusal to even attempt to recruit their wives and daughters. Plenty of arguments arose on the need to understand the problems of working class women—why it was more difficult to recruit them, and the tremendous economic and emotional pressures they were under. These pressures explain the hostility that so often surfaced at their first contact with the revolutionary party.

Engels’s writings in Origins of the Family, Lenin’s “On the Woman Question” and Trotsky’s sensitive writing in Revolution Betrayed formed the basis of many discussions on the double exploitation of female workers, and the party’s need to break through that early resistance. With understanding and patient discussion, many fine women comrades were recruited.

At the same time, there was no whining or demand for “women’s rights.” Implicitly, and very occasionally explicitly, the younger comrades were taught, “If you want to be accepted as a political leader, then learn to lead.”

When Gilbert Carlson, Grace’s lawyer husband, broke with Trotskyism rather than leave the Catholic Church, we learned by Grace’s actions that the party came before personal relations. And later, when her close political collaboration with V.R. Dunne led to a close personal relationship, we learned also from her discreet behavior.

Carlson worked for the Minnesota Rehabilitation Department under the Farmer Labor administration. Both her coworkers and her supervisors liked her personally and respected her for the quality of her work. Professional friends from that period became strong supporters of the SWP during the antiwar trial of 1941. But she often came under attack from the Stalinists inside the Farmer Labor Party and from the capitalist press, which sought to use her growing revolutionary reputation against both the Trotskyists and the state administration.

The fact that she had helped to organize and secure a contract for one of the first state employee unions did not boost her standing with the capitalist press, although it did increase her support from her union mates.

Throughout 1939 and 1940 Franklin Roosevelt sped up the war drive. Simultaneously the daily press and radio increased their prowar propaganda. In the summer of 1940, in consultation with the SWP, Carlson resigned from her well-paid state job and began to work full-time as a party organizer.

I was in a group of comrades as she explained her resignation. “I was little more than a glorified social worker,” she said, “providing shoes to those who needed them. It got very tiresome, when clearly what was needed was a situation where each could earn his own shoes.”

That fall the SWP ran Carlson for Senate, the party’s first senatorial campaign. The press, which had reported at length on her resignation from her state job, followed the campaign throughout, stressing the party’s antiwar platform. They were impressed by the Trotskyists’ articulate, attractive candidate, and most of their coverage was objective.

But any impartial coverage for Carlson or any Trotskyist disappeared during the 1941 conspiracy trial, when the Roosevelt administration used its newest anti-working-class weapon, the notorious Smith Act, against the Trotskyist leadership.

This act made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence. Twenty-eight leading party members and trade unionists were tried. Eighteen, Carlson among them, were found guilty. By pure coincidence, comrades were sentenced the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Sentences ranged from twelve to eighteen months, to be served in federal prison.

Carlson was one of those who testified for the defense, answering some of the trumped-up testimony, stating that she had, in a public speech at the University of Minnesota, called for the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. Between court sessions she carried a large part of the responsibility for the preparation of meals which were served twice daily to the defendants and their families.

For two years the Trotskyists fought in the courts to have the decision reversed. The law was unconstitutional, a clear violation of the First Amendment, which guaranteed the right to free speech. The Case of the 18, as it became known, was supported by unions representing millions of workers, the American Civil Liberties Union and countless well-known intellectuals.

Despite this support and the important constitutional issues, the court refused to act on the case. (Later, in the fifties, the court declared the Smith Act unconstitutional.)

At the end of December 1943, after all appeals were exhausted, the eighteen comrades started serving their sentences. As the only woman among them, Grace Carlson alone was sent to the federal prison for women in Alderson, West Virginia.

The conditions in the federal prison, the lives of her fellow inmates, most of them young workers and sharecroppers, and the impact of her own struggle to explain the capitalist society that had imprisoned them, all had a profound effect on Carlson. This was apparent soon after her release in 1945, as she threw herself into party work with renewed enthusiasm.

She had always spoken with thoughtful precision. Now she had gained a fiery zeal, a new sense of urgency and a rare ability to stir and convince both workers and students. For example, at an Active Workers Conference, held after the Minneapolis workers under Trotskyist leadership had routed the forces of the fascist Gerald L.K. Smith, her report brought the audience to its feet.

In 1948 the SWP chose her as its vice presidential candidate in its first presidential campaign. During her campaign she won an enthusiastic response from the workers she addressed and, in general, grudgingly respectful treatment from the press. Her zeal during the campaign inspired all who heard her throughout the country.

Carlson’s candidacy in the 1948 campaign was to be the high point of her political career. After the election, she began to deteriorate, so imperceptibly at first that even looking backward it is hard to date the beginning. Her fiery enthusiasm disappeared, leaving her speeches stilted, repetitious, uninspiring.

Perhaps even more significant in one who so prided herself on her appearance was her transformation from a poised, self-confident professional into a rather dowdy, obese woman who was beginning to drink too much.

Despite these symptoms, she was again chosen to run for vice president in the 1952 campaign. A few weeks before she was to begin a campaign tour, some student members arranged a meeting at the University of Minnesota. Carlson was to debate the representative of some philosophy students who had fallen for the line of William Reich, a former psychiatrist. Reich had built what he called an “Orgon Box.” He boasted that by simply enclosing oneself in this box (which he sold) one would be bombarded with cosmic energy which would cure major illnesses (such as cancer) and increase intellectual and physical strength.

Reich was neither the worst nor the last of the mountebank mystics thrown up by degenerating capitalism. He would not be worth mentioning here if Carlson had dealt with him as the Marxist she once was.

Instead, she ignored the basic philosophical questions and substituted ridicule for science. She did so poorly we, her comrades, were appalled. After the meeting several of us, for the first time, openly reproached her, specifically criticizing her failure to make a scientific, materialist exposure of Reich.

With a brisk, “The question is far more complicated than you think,” she dismissed us, refusing to deal with our concerns. Just a few days later she turned her back on the party she had helped build, renounced her past and returned to the Catholic Church. There she remained until her death.

Carlson’s degeneration had not arisen in a vacuum. There had been many changes in the party locally and nationally, reflecting international changes in the post-World War II relationship of classes which was sharply expressed in the United States.

The betrayal of the international working class by Stalin to the Allies at Potsdam, Yalta, and Teheran, including the division of the European working class, had created the basis for the reconstruction of war-torn Europe and the restabilization of international capitalism.

This reconstruction was based on pegging the world’s currency to the US dollar, backed by the gold in Fort Knox. It did not resolve the underlying crisis of capitalism which had devastated world economy in the thirties. It did, however, drive the contradictions undercover and create the conditions for a long period of boom.

In the US the Cold War provided the excuse for the redbaiting which split and tamed the trade union movement. In Europe the Stalinists were forced to nationalize the property relations in the Eastern Bloc countries. Tito’s Communist Party in Yugoslavia was similarly forced to break with Stalin’s popular front policy and take power, and Mao led his peasant Red Army to victory in China.

Inside the Trotskyist movement there was confusion and dissension over the significance of the profound changes taking place. The history of these discussions is examined in The Heritage We Defend by David North, and the reader is referred there for a full discussion of the development of the openly liquidationist trend of Pabloism. This was the objective background to Carlson’s seemingly rapid political regression and her sudden decision to leave the SWP.

By 1952 almost all of the 1,000 workers who had been recruited between 1945 and 1948 had left the party. Many older members, including most of those recruited from the middle class intelligentsia, had also left, returning to careers they had earlier abandoned.

During the period from 1946 on, the Minnesota branch underwent the greatest change of any area in the party. When the Smith Act victims returned from prison, they were for the most part blacklisted and prevented from obtaining employment. Other comrades caught in the redbaiting net cast by Senator Joe McCarthy and his cohorts were likewise fired and blacklisted.

In contrast, except for brief recessions in 1947 and 1952, the majority of workers had steady jobs and were gradually improving their living conditions. The economic hardship which party members faced, combined with the sharp contrast between their situation and that of the class as a whole, placed tremendous pressure on the party.

The party responded by sending these comrades, most of them older and very experienced, throughout the country to aid in building new branches. The loss of the comrades who moved and those who resigned reduced the Minneapolis and St. Paul branches to shadows of their former selves.

Naturally the desertions were disturbing to the cadre. But the confusion was increased because the vast changes in the objective political situation and their impact on the working class and the party were never seriously assessed and discussed. Nor was any knowledge drawn from the experiences through which the party was passing.

Occasionally the leadership attempted to disguise resignations as “extended leaves of absence.” This subterfuge had no practical effect, as those who took leaves never returned.

Almost every worker who resigned reported receiving a visit from an FBI agent. And during the same period, evidence accumulated of the presence of an informer and/or agent provocateur within the branch. Several members received poison pen letters, clearly designed to stir up hard feeling among the membership.

The tendency was for comrades to turn inward, rallying around the local headquarters as tangible evidence that the party was carrying on. The type of objective relations among comrades and intense political discussion that had characterized the internal life of the party were largely supplanted by an atmosphere of personal relationships among a circle of friends. This was the local situation when Carlson left the SWP.

The SWP has long since broken from and openly renounced its Trotskyist heritage. Its paper, the Militant, carried an obituary of Carlson last September, but so complete is the SWP’s break from Trotskyism that the word itself only appears once, and that is in a quotation from Carlson’s speech on the eve of her departure for Alderson.

The Militant mystifies Carlson’s desertion by claiming she left the party without warning, when, in fact, the warnings were there.

In its obituary, the SWP quotes from the speech James P. Cannon gave to the Minneapolis branches a few days after Carlson resigned:

“For 16 years the powerful forces of reaction hammered and pounded at this woman until they finally beat her down, broke her spirit of resistance and compelled her to leave the party which she had served so long and so honorably.”

That was true, but today more needs to be said. For those who live during a period just before great changes, it is not always possible to recognize the advance signals. Social change does not announce itself as lightning announces the coming thunder.

But just as Carlson had become a Trotskyist as part of a generation of young middle class intellectuals responding to powerful class forces, so her desertion, whatever its individual aspects, reflected the transformed nature of class relations in the postwar period and foreshadowed more desertions ahead.

The Stalinist betrayal of the potential revolutions which were brewing in Europe after World War II, the restabilization of capitalism under the leadership of US imperialism as a result of those betrayals, the events in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, and China with their apparent proof of the strength of Stalinism all created confusion within the working class and its revolutionary vanguard.

This was the basis for the crisis building within the Fourth International, of which Carlson’s departure was one sign. Inside the party the unresolved theoretical questions and the general quiescence of the working class had created a general mood of skepticism upon which the political crisis fed.

By 1953 an openly revisionist tendency led by Michel Pablo, international secretary of the Fourth International, was proposing the liquidation of the Fourth International through its entry into the Stalinist parties.

Pablo and his co-thinkers, chief among them Ernest Mandel, present leader of the Unified Secretariat, developed an anti-Marxist, national-opportunist perspective based on the apparent advances of Stalinism.

They claimed that the Stalinist bureaucracy was capable not only of self-reform but also of leading socialist revolutions. These revolutions would lead not to the liberation of mankind, they asserted, but to “centuries of bureaucratic deformations.”

Having given up on the working class, they were led by this deeply pessimistic perspective to seek other forces to carry out the task history has assigned to the proletariat—that of leading the international socialist revolution and proceeding to construct a socialist society.

Pablo and his followers sought these forces in the Stalinist and social democratic labor bureaucracies, as well as the bourgeois nationalist leaderships in the former colonies. He liquidated whole sections of the Fourth International behind these essentially petty-bourgeois forces.

Cannon led the fight against the Pabloites within the Fourth International. In the fall of 1953, the SWP issued the Open Letter to the World Trotskyist Movement. This letter, which established the International Committee of the Fourth International based on the fundamental principles of Marxism, preserved the continuity of Trotskyism and therefore the heritage of Marxism in the international working class.

But large sections of the Fourth International rallied around Pabloism, and hence were liquidated. As the struggles of the working class in the thirties had attracted wide layers of youth of all classes to the revolutionary party, so in the fifties international events created powerful bourgeois pressures on these same forces. This led to a general disintegration of the SWP as more and more individuals succumbed to these pressures.

By the late fifties even Cannon had capitulated to the opportunists. It was during this period that the government agent, Joseph Hansen, was able to assume a leading role in the SWP and then to bring in his hand-picked successors, the middle class Carleton College coterie which to this day runs the anti-working class, anti-socialist SWP.

In 1964 the Ceylonese section of the Fourth International, which had refused to break with the Pabloites, became part of a popular front government. Eight young Trotskyists were expelled from the SWP because they demanded an international discussion on this betrayal. Working with the International Committee, they went on to form the Workers League, which bases itself on the same principles as the early SWP and carries forward its heritage today.

Trotskyism bears no responsibility for Carlson’s last years. She gave the best of herself to the working class, and for that we remember her. The Catholic Church had the shell of a broken woman. The heritage of her best years, her years as a Trotskyist, lives on today in the fight of the Workers League and the International Committee of the Fourth International.