“Trotskyists on Trial, Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR”, by Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, NYU Press, 2015, 291 pages.
A book review by Barry Weisleder
Before Trump there was Roosevelt. Is it fair to compare the patrician liberal icon of the 1930s and 40s with the billionaire bigot who now occupies the White House?
You bet. Both viciously attacked civil liberties to bolster minority rule. With the aid of fake news, Donald J. Trump targets Muslims and Mexicans for exclusion, blaming them for a failed economy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt repressed union activists and socialists. He accused them of sedition for refusing to subordinate workers’ rights to the aims of the imperialist war machine. During World War 2, FDR designated thousands of Japanese Americans as potentially “disloyal”, confiscated their property, and put them in detention camps. The same happened to Japanese-Canadians under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who invoked the War Measures Act also to outlaw radical leftist parties north of the border.
This book is mainly about the Smith Act of June 1940, named for the segregationist Democratic Party Representative Howard Smith of Virginia. His legislation led to the indictment of twenty-nine Socialist Workers’ Party members, fifteen of whom belonged to the militant Teamsters Local 544 in Minneapolis.
The Act required the registration of aliens and rendered organized opposition to capitalism and its state illegal. Such provisions presaged the Cold War security apparatus that today routinely violates personal privacy, tramples the presumption of innocence, and most recently, bars travellers from select Muslim-majority countries.
Political repression is nothing new. It victimized the Knights of Labor, the American Railway Union, the IWW, and organizing efforts among steelworkers, culminating in the infamous Palmer raids of the 1920s.
But the Smith Act was the first time since 1798 that the United States put defendants on trial for sedition while the country was not at war.
The charge of “conspiracy to overthrow the government” was an indictment of political opinions and ideas, not concrete actions. There was no evidence of an organized, violent overthrow of the government in the offing, nor any “clear and present danger” that posed a threat to the capitalist state. The law was simply a tool for framing-up opponents of the system.
Why did Washington target the SWP? Its members played a key role in organizing coal yard workers and truck drivers in Minneapolis. The 1934 general strike, in which revolutionary socialists led the creation of democratic, inclusive, grassroots bodies to run the strike and communicate its aims to the entire population, made the Twin Cities a union stronghold.
Known as the “Gag Act”, the 1940 law sought to intimidate and silence SWP leaders, including James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Harry DeBoer, Vincent Dunne, Carl Skoglund, Grace Carlson, Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. Revolutionaries like Cannon, Dunne and Skoglund were expelled from the Communist Party USA when it broke with Marxism, when it decided to adhere to every twist and turn of the Stalinist bureaucracy that came to dominate the Soviet Union and the Communist International. The SWP stood for permanent revolution, against the CP’s class collaborationist dogma of alliance with the “progressive bourgeoisie”.
After the collapse of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the CP flip-flopped into the camp of the Allies. It became an ardent supporter of Washington and the no-strike pledge. The SWP remained in principled opposition to the imperialist war. It refused to cater to the interests of the “democratic” boss class. That made the SWP a target of the enmity of Roosevelt and his labour lackeys, including the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Bill Tobin. The IBT was affiliated to the conservative, craft-union centred American Federation of Labour (AFL).
While the FBI intensified its investigation (i.e. spying and infiltration) into the SWP, Tobin collaborated with a right wing opposition that formed in the Trotskyist-led Teamsters Local 544. In 1941 Tobin lifted the charter of the Local on spurious grounds, restored it, and then put the unit in trusteeship. On June 9 Vincent Dunne and Farrell Dobbs spoke to a mass meeting of the Local, attended by 6,000 members. They urged immediate disaffiliation from the AFL and acceptance of a charter from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The meeting voted by a large majority to do just that.
On June 12 Tobin sent a telegram to Roosevelt, in which he “argued that the Trotskyists, who had succeeded in organizing drivers across the central states, were in a position to disrupt the nation’s commercial transportation networks and… could overthrow the government and set up a socialist state. He pointed to their opposition to the war in Europe and their Union Defence Guard to sustain his accusations.” (page 60)
The defence guard was formed as a response to the threat posed by a local fascist group known as the Silver Shirts. The union body was far from being the prototype of a proletarian army as claimed by the prosecution at trial.
To deal with the complaint by the anti-communist local opposition that the SWP was using Local 544 to advance party interests, Cannon convinced party members in the leadership of 544 to drop down to being supporters of the SWP. But that didn’t stop the attacks from Tobin. The National Labour Relations Board declined the request by 544-CIO for a vote to determine representation. Instead, the NLRB granted bargaining rights to 544-IBT AFL, despite its use of padded lists (of non-dues payers), and plenty of violence and intimidation.
The trial of the SWP leaders began in October 1941. Party lawyer and defendant Albert Goldman stated that the accused opposed the war but insisted that there was no evidence that they had or would sabotage the war effort. He explained that following the Voorhis Act (1940), which made “it illegal for a party to be part of an international organization”, the SWP had officially severed its ties to the Fourth International. And going to the heart of the question, he said that the party’s prediction that there would be violent class struggle at some time in the future did not constitute such advocacy. The SWP’s followers could not create something that would come about of its own volition (class struggle) and because they actually preferred a peaceful transition to socialism. (page 92-3)
In his testimony, Cannon elaborated on this point, and expanded on other socialist policies. On the subject of military conscription, he explained that SWP members who are called up to serve in the armed forces would do so. Not being pacifists, they would serve as part of the conscripted working class, and exercise their rights to free speech in the armed forces.
After the trial, in which 18 were convicted, the SWP published the record of Cannon’s testimony, titled “Socialism on Trial.” Long after appeals of the verdict, the bid for pardon, and the campaign to rescind the Smith Act were over, this classic book has been regularly reissued.
The value of the present volume, “Trotskyists on Trial”, is that it presents more trial testimony and provides information from newly declassified government documents and recently opened archival sources.
This enables the reader to delve into the trial strategy of the defendants, to learn the impact and results the whole process had on its major participants, and to see how a revolutionary party, albeit a small one, deals with the tribulations of such an ordeal – how it organized itself, found allies, even grew (up to 3,000 members in 1945) under forbidding conditions.
In support of the campaign to appeal the verdict against “the 18” and to protest the “Gag” Act, unions representing about one million workers, including over three dozen United Auto Workers locals and more than a dozen United Steelworkers locals, passed resolutions of solidarity.
“Trotskyists on Trial” offers a guide to union militants about how to deal with right wing opponents, locally and in the top union bureaucracy, distinguishing between tactics and strategy.
The book also serves to remind the radical public of the utterly short-sighted, sectarian role of the Communist Party. The CP enthusiastically supported the prosecution of the Trotskyists, calling them “a fascist fifth column.” Then the same legislative hammer came down on the heads of the CP in 1949. At first, eleven of its leaders were jailed. Over the next six years the government arrested and prosecuted under the Smith Act 145 members of the Communist Party. Despite everything, the SWP rose to the defence of the CP victims of state repression.
For over forty years the FBI continued to follow, spy on and disrupt the SWP. In 1986, the party won a lawsuit against the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO programme. Judge Thomas Griesa “found the FBI guilty of violations of the constitutional rights of the SWP… and of its members”. He “ordered the government to pay the SWP and YSA $264,000 in damages.” It was a small price to pay for ruining the lives of thousands of people.
In conjunction with the stupendous rise of the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements in the 1960s, COINTELPRO was dismantled. But the FBI continued to engage in domestic political spying under the secret “Foreign Intelligence/Terrorism” guidelines of Ronald Reagan, the Anti-terrorism Act of 1996, and George Bush’s USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.
“Trotskyists on Trial” is chock full of compelling information, fluidly presented. For this I am grateful to Donna T. Haverty-Stacke and recommend her book. However, it suffers a serious weakness — the political perspective of the author. She vexes again and again over the “compromise” she perceives between free speech and the demands of national security. But we need to ask the questions she does not: Whose nation? Security for whom? What compromise?