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Fourth International 1990: The end of the Soviet Union

50 Years since the Smith Act Indictments

This article first appeared in the Bulletin on July 19, 1991.

On July 15, 1941, 50 years ago this week, the US government launched a frontal assault on the Trotskyist movement in America, indicting the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and the Trotskyist-led Local 544-CIO on charges of “seditious conspiracy to advocate overthrow of the government of the United States by force and violence.”

The charges, brought under the infamous Smith Act, were aimed at crushing all opposition within the American working class to the entry of US imperialism into the Second World War. The Roosevelt administration, relying on the collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy and the enthusiastic support of the Stalinists of the Communist Party USA, sought to destroy the Trotskyist movement, the only political force which was fighting to mobilize the working class against the imperialist bloodbath.

The immediate occasion for the indictments was the conflict which erupted in Minneapolis, Minnesota between the bureaucracy of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, headed by Daniel Tobin, and the Trotskyist-led Local 544, which had spearheaded the organization of truck drivers, first in Minneapolis and then throughout the upper Midwest.

On June 9, 1941, after a series of attacks on Local 544 by Tobin, particularly centered on the local’s opposition to the Roosevelt administration’s war buildup, a mass membership meeting of thousands of rank-and-file Teamsters voted to reject Tobin’s demand that the local accept trusteeship imposed by the IBT executive board. Instead, Local 544 voted to disaffiliate from the IBT and the AFL and accept a charter as Motor Transport and Allied Workers, Local 544-CIO.

Events moved rapidly. On June 13, Tobin sent a telegram to Roosevelt appealing for federal intervention to smash Local 544. At the same time, 300 Teamster goons, spearheaded by Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, swarmed into the Twin Cities, engaging in thug attacks on officers and rank-and-file members of Local 544-CIO.

On June 27, FBI agents raided the SWP’s public offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They carried off party literature, including books, pamphlets and copies of Socialist Appeal, as well as photographs of Marx and Trotsky.

On July 1, a federal grand jury was impaneled in neighboring St. Paul to hear testimony against the SWP and 544 leaders. All 12 members of the grand jury were residents of rural areas outside the Twin Cities—not one lived in St. Paul or Minneapolis. For days they heard testimony from FBI agents and stool pigeons and Teamster thugs and finks supplied by Tobin. The judge ordered the proceedings held behind closed doors and the witnesses names kept secret, even after the indictments were returned. On July 15, the grand jury returned indictments on two counts, conspiracy to overthrow the government and advocating the overthrow of the government.

The entire leadership of Local 544 was indicted, together with the most prominent leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, including James P. Cannon, the party’s national secretary, Farrell Dobbs, the national labor secretary, and Felix Morrow, editor of the party’s weekly newspaper, The Militant. [1]

The defendants were required to post a $5,000 bail, later reduced to $3,500. Within 24 hours, the national CIO office had wired bail money to Minneapolis for all the 544 and WPA defendants, including those, such as V.R. Dunne, who were prominent members of the SWP. Those like Cannon who were members of the SWP but not the CIO had bail posted for them by the party.

Labor’s Non-Partisan League, the CIO political action arm, chaired by John L. Lewis, issued a statement July 28 condemning the witch-hunting of the 544 and SWP defendants, calling it a “menace to fundamental civil liberties and to labor’s basic rights.” This stance reflected the outrage in the labor movement over the federal intervention against Local 544 and the working class and the widespread opposition to the Roosevelt administration’s war policies.

While Tobin’s gangster attack on Local 544 provided the occasion for the federal indictment of the SWP leadership, it would be wrong to regard the attack on the Trotskyist movement merely as a “favor” done for the AFL bureaucracy by the Roosevelt administration, using federal power to suppress a rebellious and militant local union. This is how the matter was treated by many of those who opposed the attack at the time, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the CIO bureaucracy under Lewis.

The attack on the SWP leadership had far wider historical implications, revealing the real relationship between imperialism, Stalinism and Trotskyism in the opening stages of World War II. There was another event which took place immediately before the indictment of Cannon and his colleagues which was far more decisive than the bureaucratic maneuvers of the Tobin gang—the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s armies, which began June 22, 1941, five days before FBI agents raided the SWP offices in the Twin Cities.

For nearly two years, since the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Stalinist parties throughout the world, including the Communist Party USA, had engaged in a pseudo-left campaign against the widening imperialist world war. After touting Roosevelt as a great “progressive” and appealing for an antifascist alliance between the Soviet Union and the democratic imperialist powers, the CPUSA suddenly discovered that the United States was an imperialist power no less rapacious than Hitler’s Germany.

For 22 months, the Daily Worker howled at every action taken by the Roosevelt administration to prepare US intervention into the war. This campaign was never based on a genuine struggle to educate the politically advanced sections of working class on the nature of US imperialism, but on the immediate requirements of Soviet foreign policy. Nonetheless, it constituted a significant obstacle to the Roosevelt administration, as substantial sections of the CIO which were under Stalinist influence publicly opposed such measures as Lend-Lease, the banning of strikes in war production industries and the establishment of conscription.

On June 22, 1941, the Stalinists’ “opposition” to US war preparations abruptly ceased. The CPUSA became overnight the most frenzied advocate of US entry into the Second World War, reviving the “antifascist” rhetoric which it had dropped after the Stalin-Hitler pact and advocating a US-Soviet military alliance against the Nazis.

The Stalinists demanded the complete subordination of American workers to the Roosevelt administration’s war drive, supporting a total ban on strikes and enforcing speedup and super-exploitation of workers wherever they had a controlling position in the unions. In direct response to this change of line, the Roosevelt administration moved to release Earl Browder, the jailed leader of the CPUSA, from federal prison.

The Stalinists also revived their slander campaign against the Trotskyists as “agents of Hitler.” The period of the popular front had coincided with Stalin’s bloody extermination of the surviving Bolshevik leaders within the Soviet Union in the Moscow Trials and purges of 1936-38. During this period, the Stalinist press worldwide screamed that Trotsky and his supporters were working as fascist agents against the USSR. After Stalin himself signed a treaty with Hitler, the Stalinist lie machine shifted gears and proclaimed the Trotskyists to be agents of British and US imperialism.

With the new shift in Kremlin policy after the German invasion, the anti-Trotskyist slanders were changed to match, and once again the CPU SA shrieked that the American Trotskyists, in opposing US war plans, were doing Hitler’s bidding. The American Stalinists and the CIO unions they controlled applauded the Smith Act indictments against the SWP.

The Roosevelt administration and the bourgeois press consciously aped the Stalinists’ propaganda against the SWP. On the same day that the indictments in Minneapolis were returned, the Justice Department in Washington announced the indictment of 33 alleged Nazi spies. The editors of The New York Times combined the two stories into a single front-page article under a double headline: “33 Indicted Here as a Spy Network Operated by Reich; Brooklyn Grand Jury Names Germany as Conspirator in 39-page True Bill; 29 Trotskyites Charged; St. Paul Indictment Charged They Planned Armed Revolt ‘When Time Is Propitious.’”

The Fourth International was the only political tendency which undertook a principled struggle against the imperialist Second World War. It opposed attempts to line the working class up behind either of the two rival imperialist camps, the Axis of Hitler-Mussolini-Tojo and the Allies, Churchill and Roosevelt. Both camps represented the dying capitalist order. Only the Soviet Union, the first workers state, and oppressed countries under imperialist attack, such as China, deserved the support of the international proletariat.

The outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany did not alter the fundamental imperialist character of the world war as a whole or the attitude of the Trotskyists in any country to the military actions of their “own” governments. The Trotskyists called on the international working class to rally to the defense of the Soviet Union, as the repository of the surviving conquests of the October Revolution, but this in no way implied giving support to the imperialist war waged by temporary allies of the Kremlin bureaucracy, whether Hitler in 1939-41, or Roosevelt and Churchill from 1941 on.

As a result of this principled stand, the Trotskyist sections came under vicious state attack in all the warring countries. Fascist, Stalinist and so-called democratic imperialist rulers all approached the revolutionary Marxists with the same irreconcilable hatred. In Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, known supporters of the Fourth International were mercilessly exterminated. In Britain, the Churchill war cabinet—with Labour Party participation—authorized the arrest and trial of the British Trotskyists in 1944.

In the United States, while the capitalist media and the Stalinists portrayed the coming war as one of democracy against fascism, Roosevelt prepared for war by attacking the democratic rights of the working class. In 1940, as war raged in Europe and China, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed two bills aimed at suppressing revolutionary activity in the working class, and Roosevelt signed them into law.

The Voorhis Act required any political organization in the United States which was affiliated to an international party to meet prohibitive requirements such as registering all its members with the US Department of Justice as foreign agents. In response to this law, the Socialist Workers Party, then the American section of the Fourth International, held a special convention to end its official ties to the world Trotskyist movement and adopt the position of a sympathizing organization.

The Smith Act—authored by the racist Virginia Democratic Congressman Howard K. Smith, notorious as the defender of the poll-tax and other institutions of Jim Crow segregation—was the first US law in nearly two centuries to outlaw specific political beliefs. The Smith Act made advocating the revolutionary overthrow of the US government, whether by speech, writing or even in thought, illegal.

It was under this law that the indictments of the SWP and 544 leaders were brought.

The charges against the American Trotskyists were prepared at the highest level of the capitalist state. The indictment was drafted by Special Assistant Attorney-General Henry A. Schweinhaut and United States District Attorney Victor E. Anderson, under the supervision of Roosevelt’s attorney general, Francis Biddle.

They were careful, in their public pronouncements, to pretend that they had brought indictments against the SWP leadership because of its advocacy of the revolutionary overthrow of the American government, not its opposition to the Second World War. But the indictment itself cited, as the major evidence against the SWP, the section of the Statement of Principles adopted by the SWP’s founding convention in 1938 which explains the party’s policy in the struggle against imperialist war. The section read:

“If, in spite of the efforts of the revolutionists and the militant workers, the US government enters a new war, the SWP will not, under any circumstances, support that war but will, on the contrary, fight against it.

“The SWP will advocate continuance of the class struggle during the war regardless of the consequence for the outcome of the American military struggle and will try to utilize the war crisis for the overthrow of US capitalism and the victory of socialism.”

The capitalist press was less shy about making the connection between the indictments of the SWP and 544 leaders and the federal government’s preparations to impose wartime discipline on the working class. The St. Paul Pioneer-Press wrote: “The determination to use criminal prosecution to imprison leaders regarded as dangerous throws into action one of the greatest weapons of the federal government. With this and the use of troops when necessary to break up strikes, the government has a sweeping double method against undermining of the defense system.”

The text of the indictment itself revealed the enormous fear of social revolution which gripped the American bourgeoisie as it was forced to make substantial concessions to the mass upsurge of the working class which built the CIO. Point four of the indictment noted with horror that the defendants sought to persuade workers “that the Government of the United States was imperialistic, capitalistic and organized and constituted for the purpose of subjecting workers and laborers to various and sundry deprivations....” In other words, the SWP defendants were indicted for telling the working class the truth!

These representatives of the tiny minority of capitalist billionaires sneered at socialists who asserted that “workers, laborers and farmers”—i.e., the vast majority of the American people—had “an alleged right to own, control and manage all property and industry in the United States....”

Point twelve of the indictment charged the defendants with basing themselves on the example of the Russian Revolution and “the principles, teachings, writings, counsel and advice of the leaders of that revolution, chiefly of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky....” Moreover, as part of this alleged revolutionary conspiracy, “certain of the defendants would, and they did, go from the City of Minneapolis, State and District of Minnesota, and from other cities in the United States to Mexico City, Mexico, there to advise with and receive the advice, counsel, guidance and directions of the said Leon Trotsky.”

Of special concern to the Roosevelt administration was the SWP’s Proletarian Military Policy, adopted by the SWP in 1940 under Trotsky’s guidance. The Trotskyists rejected the methods of pacifist protest and individual resistance to the coming war, such as conscientious objection. The working class, if it could not prevent the war, would be compelled to fight in it, and the revolutionary Marxists must go with their class, enter the military when the masses of workers did so, and work within the military machine to develop the class consciousness of the working class and defend its independent interests.

Points eight and nine of the indictment noted that “the members of the Socialist Workers Party would be urged to willingly accept service,” adding that the Trotskyists “did, advocate and attempt to bring about the control of the militia by the workers and laborers of the United States, especially the trade unions....” In legal jargon, the SWP was accused of proposing that the military force should be subordinated to the working people, not to the capitalist bosses.

James P. Cannon, the founder of the Trotskyist movement in the United States and then the national secretary of the SWP, commented on this fear of the bourgeoisie in a front-page article carried in the July 26, 1941 issue of The Militant. Cannon wrote:

“The ‘clever’ strategists of Roosevelt’s War Party are thinking, ‘We’re not going to make the same mistake that the Czar made. In November 1916, Lenin’s party was small and apparently uninfluential. Yet a year later, thanks to its irreconcilable opposition to the imperialist war, it won a majority of the workers and peasants. Let us not repeat the Czar’s mistake. Let us destroy Trotsky’s party before it wins a majority of the workers and farmers of the United States. ‘

“This ‘clever’ strategy of Roosevelt’s War Party is, in reality, the identical strategy that the Czar pursued. He hounded Lenin’s party mercilessly, exiled, imprisoned, executed and tortured its members. The Czar’s cruelty became a byword in the civilized world. Yet all this did not prevent the great masses from abolishing the Czarist autocracy.

“We do not fear Roosevelt’s repressions, any more than Lenin and Trotsky feared the Czar’s repression. The war into which Roosevelt is plunging the country will be a fiery crucible in which millions of American workers and farmers will be steeled and tempered for the struggle against imperialism. For every fighter tom from our ranks by the class enemy, scores will come forward who, in this very struggle between us and Roosevelt’s War Party, will learn that every serious fighter against imperialist war belongs in the Socialist Workers Party.”

This revolutionary intransigence characterized the entire conduct of the Trotskyists in the United States throughout the Second World War, and won them enormous support within the working class. Cannon transformed the Smith Act trial into a platform for the presentation of revolutionary Marxism to a broad working class audience. His trial testimony was published in the volume Socialism on Trial and used throughout the Fourth International to educate the cadre in Trotskyist principles.

The largely middle class jury at the Minneapolis trial acquitted all the defendants on the conspiracy charge, while finding 18 guilty on the second charge of advocating overthrow of the government. Even this conviction came with a recommendation for leniency. Despite the threats of the Roosevelt administration—prosecutor Anderson vowed in his summation to “exterminate this party”—the judge was compelled to limit the sentences to a range of 12 to 16 months, rather than the maximum of 10 years.

The SWP emerged from this trial by fire with greatly increased stature in the working class, and it recruited rapidly as the working class went on the offensive, culminating in the 1945-46 strike wave, the broadest in US history. But this powerful record did not prevent the subsequent degeneration of the SWP, which ultimately betrayed the principles for which it had fought so heroically in the 1940s.

All of the opportunist groups which emerged as end products of the decay of the Socialist Workers Party have abandoned these traditions and principles. The organization which still carries the name SWP has long since repudiated Trotsky and Trotskyism. It has been transformed into a police-controlled apparatus employed to spy on the workers movement. The present-day SWP took perfunctory note of the fiftieth anniversary of the Smith Act indictments in a brief two-paragraph notice.

The remaining organizations which publicly claim to represent the continuity of the old SWP, Socialist Action and the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, did not even mention the anniversary. They are so thoroughly integrated into the milieu of pacifism and middle class radical protest that they cannot even conceive of revolutionary opposition to US imperialism based on the mobilization of the American proletariat.

The heritage of the struggle for Marxist principles is carried forward today only by the Workers League and the International Committee of the Fourth International. In our campaign to mobilize the working class against the Persian Gulf war, the Workers League consciously based itself on the struggle of the American Trotskyists in World War II, upholding the banner of revolutionary defeatism in the center of world imperialism.

[1] The day before the Smith Act indictments were handed down, Local 544 President Miles Dunne and Secretary-Treasurer Kelly Postal were also indicted by a Hennepin County grand jury on charges of “embezzlement” because they refused to turn over the 544 treasury to Tobin and his IBT thugs. Postal was ultimately convicted in this second frame-up and served nine months in prison on a five-year sentence.

The Smith Act was used to convict the 18 SWP leaders and members in 1941, and then to send the leaders of the Communist Party to prison in 1949. In the latter case, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the thought-control law, citing “the inflammable nature of world conditions.” A series of Supreme Court decisions between 1957 and 1961 narrowed the effective scope of the Smith Act, requiring the government to prove that a revolutionary organization had carried out overt acts to prepare for violent overthrow, and that its actions had sufficient support to pose a genuine threat to the established order. The law remains on the books, as does the Voorhis Act.

Those indicted on July 15, 1941

From the SWP:

James Cannon, national secretary

Farrell Dobbs, national labor secretary

Felix Morrow, editor of the party’s weekly newspaper, The Militant

Albert Goldman, a member of the SWP Political Committee and the party’s principal attorney Grace Carlson, Minnesota state organizer

Oscar Coover Sr., Minneapolis branch secretary

From Local 544-CIO:

Miles Dunne, president

George Frosig, vice president

Kelly Postal, secretary-treasurer

Organizers: Vincent Ray Dunne, Grant Dunne, Ray Rainbolt, Harry DeBoer, Emil Hansen, Walter Hagstrom, Clarence Hamel and Nick Wagner and former organizer Alfred Russell; Carlos Hudson, editor of 544 Weekly; Carl Skoglund, former president of 544; Carl Kuehn, secretary of the Federal Workers Section of 544, which organized workers at WPA public works projects; Edward Palmquist, chairman of the Federal Workers Section.

Other rank-and-file truck drivers and WPA workers, such as Roy Orgon, Jake Cooper, Max Geldman, Oscar Schoenfeld and Harold Swanson; Dorothy Schultz, Twin Cities secretary, Workers Defense League; Rose Seiler, business agent, Minneapolis Office Workers Union (AFL)