Book Review: Trotskyists on Trial

Published On October 19, 2017 | By George Martin Fell Brown | Culture, History

Book Review
Trotskyists on Trial
Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR

by Donna T. Haverty-Stacke

On June 27, 1941, the FBI carried out a raid on the offices of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Twenty-nine SWP members were then put on trial under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. Although no such conspiracy existed, the Smith Act was used to assert that the SWP’s Trotskyist beliefs constituted a threat to national security. Known as the “Minneapolis sedition trial,” eighteen defendants were sent to prison, a decision that set the legal precedent for the McCarthyite witch hunts of the Cold War. It effectively ruled that being a Marxist was an act of sedition.

Last year, the historian Donna T. Haverty-Stacke published Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR. The book is a well-researched blow-by-blow account of the sedition trial, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath. For that reason alone, it’s a valuable resource for socialists and Trotskyists eager to learn about their history.

The Minneapolis sedition trial was a key flashpoint in the history of American Trotskyism. But Haverty-Stacke, who comes from outside of the socialist movement, approaches the trial from a different angle, as a key flashpoint in the struggle for civil liberties. She portrays the Trotskyists as waging a heroic struggle against political persecution that would shape civil liberties struggles for decades to come. Its lessons remain relevant even today, as socialists and left-wing activists face renewed threats of state repression.

Roosevelt and the “Little Red Scare”

Haverty-Stacke places the Minneapolis sedition trial in the context of an event known as the “little red scare.” After Stalin, engaging in one of his many bureaucratic zigzags, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, a wave of anti-Communist and xenophobic paranoia spread across the country. The panic ended once Stalin reversed course and looked to form an alliance with U.S. and British imperialism in World War II to which the Stalinists subordinated everything else including the class struggle. The “little red scare” isn’t as well known as the bigger red scares of the McCarthy era or in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. But during this period, the Roosevelt administration made use of the anti-Communist and xenophobic hysteria as an excuse to crack down on the socialist and working class movements that had developed since the early 1930s.

Many activists today look fondly on the Roosevelt administration, and see the New Deal era of the Democratic Party as a model to follow. But Haverty-Stacke reveals that the Democratic Party under Roosevelt was the main driving force behind the crackdowns on civil liberties that would later flourish under McCarthyism. The Smith Act was named after Democratic Congressman Howard Smith. Meanwhile, another Democratic Congressman, Martin Dies Jr., would lead the House Un-American Activities Committee, later made notorious by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Ostensibly the Smith Act was intended to help protect the United States against the threat of fascism. Fascist forces were a real threat at the time, with pro-Hitler “Silver Shirt” gangs violently attacking labor struggles, and a significant layer of the U.S. ruling class was sympathetic to Hitler. But during the “little red scare” the Smith Act quickly morphed into an attack on “extremism” in general, and left-wing activism in particular. Under the bill, mere advocacy of revolutionary change was criminalized. Legislation of this sort had already existed during times of war, but this was the first time since John Adams that speech of this sort was criminalized during peacetime. The bill was also xenophobic to the core, playing on fears of radical immigrants meddling in America’s affairs on behalf of the Kremlin. Originally called the “Alien Registration Act,” it allowed for the deportation of immigrants who held revolutionary views. An earlier version of the bill even included provisions for detention camps of suspicious immigrants. At that point, any pretense that this was about fighting fascism could be safely thrown out the window.

The bill’s first target would not be fascists or members of the Communist Party, but the Trotskyists who had fought against Stalin’s political counter-revolution, which overturned the institutions of workers democracy in the Soviet Union and brought a privileged bureaucracy to power. In 1934, the Trotskyists, then called the Communist League of America, politically led the Minneapolis Teamsters strike. This was one of three key strikes that year which paved the way for the rise of mass industrial unionism and the launching of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) the following year. Teamsters Local 544 was a key center of both the militant labor movement and the Trotskyist movement. This made them an ideal target.

Unfortunately, Haverty-Stacke sometimes gets confused about various aspects of the Trotskyists’ politics. She mixes up the concept of the popular front with that of the united front and falsely claims the Trotskyists were opposed to working with other leftists. And she is quite confused in her account of the women’s auxiliary during the Minneapolis Teamster strike. This was a body set up for the purpose of consciously including women in a strike in the male-dominated trucking industry, but she seems to think it was set up to exclude them. Despite her confusion about the Trotskyists’ politics, she rightly recognizes their role as a significant force in the workers’ struggles of the 1930s.

During World War II, the SWP held a correct, but controversial, position that it was an imperialist war and that the working class shouldn’t rely on the U.S. military to fight fascism. Instead they advocated an independent, working-class struggle against fascism. Party members who were conscripted into service advocated this position within the army. They also supported anti-colonial struggles and stood for the defense of the Soviet Union against Hitler’s invasion. A number of young American Trotskyists heroically volunteered for the Murmansk run helping bring vital supplies to besieged Russia and some lost their lives. Critically, they were one of the few groups willing to continue labor battles even during wartime. This brought them continued support from the working class, especially in Teamsters Local 544, but brought the wrath of the Teamsters international bureaucracy around President Daniel Tobin, as well as the U.S. political establishment.

As Haverty-Stacke explains, the FBI had been keeping tabs on the Trotskyists for years. But after the Smith Act passed, an internal dispute within Local 544 was turned into an excuse for the FBI and the Tobin bureaucracy to crack down on the local. An anti-communist faction had developed in the local, called the Committee of 99, which was opposed to the SWP’s “unpatriotic” views. Although this group had no real support in the local, it had the support of Tobin, who used the dispute to undemocratically put the local under trusteeship. The SWP, with the support of the rank and file, waged a fight to break the local from the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) and join the more militant CIO. In the heat of this anti-bureaucratic struggle, the FBI stepped in.

Socialism on Trial

Under the Smith Act, the SWP was accused of a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. For evidence, the court relied on wild fantasy stories from the Committee of 99. Haverty-Stacke reveals how, in front of the grand jury, one prosecution witness testified, entirely through hearsay, that the SWP had “ammunition planted between the walls of churches, and it is better than the Army’s. It will go through an inch thick of armed plate.” No evidence of such ammunition was ever found, but the grand jury blocked testimony from witnesses who provided counter-testimony, and the twenty-nine SWP members were indicted.

Ultimately, the SWP members were not on trial for any real conspiracy, but for being socialists. In fact, during the trial, possession of pictures of Trotsky and copies of the Communist Manifesto were held up as evidence of a conspiracy. It didn’t matter if the stockpiles of weapons in the walls of churches were made up. As long as you believed in Marxism, you were engaging in a conspiracy.

The SWP were completely open about their revolutionary Marxist politics. And that guided how they waged their defense campaign. Their lawyer, Albert Goldman, was a member of the SWP and one of the defendants. The main defense testimony came from SWP leader James Cannon, who used his testimony as a lesson in Marxism given to the jury and the wider public. Explanations were given of the nature of capitalism, socialism, and class conflict, as well as what Marxists meant by revolution, and why they felt it was necessary to change society in the interests of working people. Cannon went over the history of the Russian Revolution and the Trotskyists’ struggle against Stalinism.

These attempts at explaining the reality behind the more contentious aspects of Marxist thought were fundamental to the defense. So much so that Cannon’s testimony during the trial was later published as a book, Socialism on Trial, and Goldman’s closing arguments were published as a pamphlet, In Defense of Socialism. Even today, Socialism on Trial is used by socialists for educational purposes as an introduction to socialist and Marxist thought.

But it is precisely on these issues where Trotskyists on Trial is at its weakest. Haverty-Stacke is no Trotskyist. She is writing as a liberal civil libertarian who may hate what the Trotskyists have to say but will defend to the death their right to say it. But for the SWP, defending their civil liberties wasn’t an end in itself. They were a party built for the purpose of mobilizing the working class in its own interests up to and including the overturn of capitalism. The prosecution got that part right.

A central part of Cannon’s testimony and Goldman’s closing remarks consisted of “patient explanation” of the more controversial aspects of their Marxist politics, A key sticking point was the notion of “violent revolution,” which the prosecution used to conjure up images of a small, conspiratorial, group of revolutionaries instigating an armed putsch. In reality, a socialist revolution is carried out by the masses, and the violence comes from the undemocratic attempts of the deposed ruling class to violently overturn the revolution. This was borne out in the Russian Revolution, where the October insurrection was largely bloodless, but was followed by a bloody, counter-revolutionary civil war instigated by the White armies.

But as far as Haverty-Stacke is concerned, the SWP’s revolutionary politics were a blemish that only served the prosecution’s case, while all the attempts at explaining Marxist politics were just an awkward attempt at getting themselves out of a legal hole.

At one point, Haverty-Stacke, in summarizing Goldman’s closing remarks, makes the utterly false claim that “In arguing for the Trotskyists’ innocence, Goldman had to insist on their impotence.” She defends her claims by heavily distorting two passing statements Goldman made in his remarks. At one point, Goldman stressed, in contrast to the conspiracy charge, that they would submit to the majority, so long as their opposition to the war remained a minority view. At another point Goldman explained that class struggle is a fundamental feature of capitalism, and not something the SWP willed into existence. Neither of these comes close to a declaration of impotence, but were clearly directed at the wild conspiracy theories conjured up by the prosecution.

Haverty-Stacke’s assessment of Goldman’s closing remarks says more about her own views than it does about Goldman’s or the other Trotskyists. In fact, there was a conflict during the trial between the SWP and the ACLU precisely because the ACLU wanted to defend the Trotskyists on the basis of their alleged impotence. For liberal civil libertarians, the goal is a stable capitalist democracy that tolerates unpopular views, from socialists and fascists alike, safe in the knowledge that those ideas will never catch on. But with capitalism in crisis, such a view is utopian. And, as Haverty-Stacke’s own historical account makes clear, it was those trying to preserve a stable capitalist democracy who led the crackdown on the left.

In contrast to the ACLU, the SWP’s approach was, as defendant Felix Morrow put it, “to get those jurors to cease abhorring socialism and to recognize and respect the sincerity, sanity and seriousness of the defendants and their ideas.” This can be contrasted with the approach that the Communist Party would later take during the more well-known McCarthyite witch-hunt, in which party members would hide their identity and “plead the fifth.” The testimony in the sedition trial was the work of unapologetic revolutionaries who wanted to win the masses over to their revolutionary politics. That is why books like Socialism on Trial retain such value today.

Fighting for Civil Liberties

If Haverty-Stacke is weak in explaining the Trotskyists’ politics, she excels in showing what the trial meant for the fight for civil liberties. She shows what state repression meant in real terms for the SWP membership and for the wider workers’ movement. And she shows how the trial paved the way for more well-known attacks on civil liberties, from McCarthyism to COINTELPRO.

In the end, the defendants got a more lenient sentence than anticipated, but eighteen of the defendants were nonetheless found guilty and imprisoned.

The trial became an important educational opportunity for the socialist movement, as the defense testimony espousing Marxist ideas received widespread coverage in the mainstream press. But the jailings and continued state harassment had a real material impact on the SWP. The leading members of the SWP, including its most prominent union organizers, were now in prison. Beyond prison, they faced further repression. Albert Goldman was disbarred. Carl Skoglund, a Swedish immigrant and one of the leaders of the 1934 Teamsters strike, was faced with repeated deportation threats that lasted until his death. FBI harassment of the SWP, including infiltration and break-ins, would continue for decades.

The SWP was able to withstand these blows and, after the war, it was able to grow to its highest membership under the impact of the biggest strike wave in U.S. history. But within the Teamsters union, the impact of the trial was devastating. The sedition trial served as the final blow to the Teamster militancy of the 1930s. In the union dispute, the majority of the workers had followed the Trotskyists into the CIO. But supporters of the Committee of 99 formed a rump local that remained in the AFL. And in the wake of the sedition trial, a court ruled in 1942 that the AFL rump local would be the sole bargaining agent for the Minneapolis Teamsters. This expunging of union militancy paved the way for the bureaucratic Hoffa era in the Teamsters union.

The Minneapolis sedition trial also served as a legal precedent for a wider assault on the left. In 1941, Stalin was allied with Roosevelt, and the Communist Party was one of the most vociferous proponents of the anti-Trotskyist witch-hunt. But, after cutting their teeth on the Trotskyists, the U.S. government turned their fire on the Stalinists in the McCarthyite witch-hunts against the Communist Party beginning in the late 40s. A similar fate awaited Jimmy Hoffa who, like Tobin, allied himself with the FBI during the sedition trial. Once Hoffa had consolidated his grip on the union, the FBI would make him their main target in their cold war anti-union activities.

With the recent growth of the far right, a number of debates have broken out about how to fight fascist and semi-fascist forces while defending civil liberties. Marxists advocate mobilizing mass movements to block fascists and other far-right forces from using public platforms to mobilize, incite attacks, and recruit. But, we also oppose empowering the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state in order to fight fascism. This is because the capitalists will turn that power against the movements of the working class. This comes out starkly in the experience of the Minneapolis sedition trial. The trial, which legitimized decades of undemocratic attacks on the left, were inflicted by the Roosevelt administration under legislation allegedly written to protect “American democracy” from the threat of fascism. But it was used against socialists and the labor movement instead. And the legal precedents set by the trial were used much more consistently against the socialist movement than against the fascists.

It wouldn’t be until 1986, after a protracted legal battle, that the courts would eventually overturn the sedition ruling and vindicate the SWP. By then, the SWP had degenerated politically and made a number of unnecessary concessions in order to get a positive ruling. Even then, as Haverty-Stacke points out, the threats to civil liberties haven’t gone away.

In the conclusion to Trotskyists on Trial, Haverty-Stacke goes beyond the sedition trial and looks at the current state of civil liberties. She warns that “The SWPs 1986 victory against the FBI was a fleeting one.” That court ruling rejected the excesses of the Smith Act, McCarthyism, and COINTELPRO, and ruled that the specific attacks on the SWP were unconstitutional. But a new wave of crackdowns on civil liberties would be unleashed shortly afterwards. And, once again, this would not be a simple case of bad Republicans versus good Democrats. It was the Clinton administration that led the charge with the Antiterrorism Act, to be followed up by the Bush administration’s USA PATRIOT Act which overwhelming bipartisan support.

Since the book was published, Donald Trump was elected president, unleashing a new wave of threats to civil liberties, from Muslim bans, to attempts at classifying anti-racist and anti-fascist groups as terrorists. But, as with Roosevelt in the 1940s, the Democratic Party has directed popular concerns about the right into attacks on the left. This is seen in the hysteria around the so-called “alt left” and the attempts to lump together the far left and the far right as being Russian-controlled puppets, as when the Washington Post promoted a blacklist of a number of left-wing websites which it accused of being “pro-Putin propaganda.” By looking to the history of past struggles, Haverty-Stacke has shown us what we’re up against.

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