How socialists fought government repression in 1940s

by Jim Grilli
In light of the FBI’s recent attack on the civil liberties of antiwar activists in the Midwest, it would be useful to look back to a moment in history in which state-sponsored oppression served as a tool for silencing dissent.
During the 1930s and ’40s, working people in the United States made tremendous gains through their labor struggles, but they had to face vigilante goons, union bureaucrats, and a backlash by the Roosevelt administration that left people behind bars or worse. In the face of these attacks, and not unlike the activists recently charged with abetting terrorism, the Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544-CIO and their Trotskyist members and supporters admirably stood their ground.
In the wake of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike, in which truckers and other organized workers won the right to unionize, the bosses undertook a fierce and prolonged attempt to stifle future victories. In the face of expanding unionization and growing working-class political consciousness, the Roosevelt administration and its corporate partners tried to portray the men and women involved in the labor and antiwar movements of the day as criminals.
On June 27, 1941, the FBI raided the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) headquarters in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Twenty-eight trade unionists and SWP activists were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Minneapolis.
They were charged with violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating the violent overthrow of the government, and also with creating insubordination in the military ranks. The Roosevelt administration targeted the SWP especially for its work in the movement to oppose U.S. entry into World War II, and was able to enlist the support of the bureaucratic leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, headed by Daniel J. Tobin, for its red-baiting efforts.
Immediately upon realizing that a trial was imminent, the SWP reached out broadly to assure that those accused could count on support from a wide section of the movement for social justice. Support was requested based on the common need to defend civil liberties, while setting aside any political differences that defense supporters might have had with the defendants.
The Civil Rights Defense Committee (CRDC), headed by George Novack, a member of the party’s national committee, was formed to organize the public campaign to vindicate the activists. Prominent figures such as John Dewey and W.E.B. Dubois endorsed CRDC. The SWP published a declaration in the July 1941 issue of its journal, Fourth International, addressed to all who wanted to fight back against the attack on free speech. They also distributed over 200,000 pamphlets, formed local committees to raise awareness, and raised $50,000 to take some of the financial burden off the convicted activists and their families.
The trial was held in Federal District Court in Minneapolis, Oct. 27 through Nov. 21, 1941. The Socialist Workers Party saw its tasks in the trial as exposing the accusations as false, and stressing the legality of their political activity.
In addition, the SWP saw an opportunity in the trial to communicate its political program to a broad audience. SWP leader James P. Cannon’s testimony before the jury was designed to reach a labor movement that, despite strikes and protests, still strongly supported Roosevelt. It was the defense’s hope that a presentation of the SWP’s basic politics and Marxist fundamentals would help working people understand the recent economic struggles in a political context.  
In addition to the educational aspect of his testimony, Cannon also heeded the advice of Leon Trotsky (who had been murdered in Mexico the previous year), when Cannon emphasized the party’s opposition to conspiratorial violence and sabotage.
To the prosecution’s accusation of attempting to create insubordination among those enlisted in the military, Cannon explained the SWP’s belief that agitating for individual acts of abstention from military service or attempts to create disturbances among the rank-and-file soldiers would only serve to estrange the party from the masses. That is why SWP members who were drafted were advised to comply with military discipline along with the rest of the enlisted soldiers while taking part in peaceful propaganda work in hopes of convincing the majority of the unjust nature of the war.
In terms of the accusation of conspiring to overthrow the government by force, Cannon emphasized that socialists always favor a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism. Historically, it has always been the outmoded ruling class that has initiated violence. For this reason, Marxists warn the working class of the need to prepare to defend the gains made by a mass movement against ruling-class violence.
The Communist Party publically supported the government’s prosecution of the Trotskyists under the Smith Act. After the war, however, some 140 CP leaders and members were also victimized by the same legislation.
By the time the trial of the Socialist Workers Party was over, 18 of the original 28 grand-jury defendants were found guilty of violating the Smith Act and given prison sentences ranging from one year to 16 months. Despite the verdict, the SWP was still able to use the opportunity to convey its program effectively to an audience that might not have otherwise been exposed to revolutionary ideas. The socialists’ widely supported defense campaign still remains a model for activists dealing with government repression. 
On Jan. 25 nine antiwar and solidarity activists are scheduled to face a grand jury in Chicago on trumped-up charges of abetting terrorism. To show solidarity social justice activists around the country are organizing local protests. Just as in 1941, what is needed now is broad support from all those who value civil liberties. Hands off the antiwar activists!

> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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