1942-01 Defence Policy in the Minneapolis Trial: A Criticism [Munis]
The initiation on the part of the United States government of a prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party and of the leaders of the Drivers Union of Minneapolis made us fear a decapitation, even though temporary, of our American movement. It filled us with a joyful hope at the same time, sure that the persecution by the bourgeois tribunals would popularise our revolutionary ideas when it gave our militants the opportunity to expound them completely and valiantly. It has been the norm and pride of the world revolutionary movement since the ringing reply of Louise Michel to her judges and of Karl Marx to the Bismarckian tribunal, to convert the accused into accusers and to employ the witness stand as a fortress from which to attack the reactionary powers. This attitude has been one of the principal forces of attraction of the revolutionary movement.
I experienced the first uneasiness that these results would be wasted totally or partially on reading the first published statement (The Militant Vol. V, No. 29) that seems to have set the tone for all the following statements. I recovered hope during the first sessions of the trial, during which our comrades energetically brought out the reactionary role of the government aided by Tobin against the Drivers of 544-CIO. But I again considered as lost a goodly part of the political benefits of the trial on reading the fundamental speeches and questionings of Comrade Cannon by Comrade Goldman, and by the prosecutor (Schweinhaut). It was there, replying to the political accusations—struggle against the war, advocacy of violence, overthrow of the government by force—where it was necessary to have raised the tone and turn the tables, accuse the government and the bourgeoisie of a reactionary conspiracy; of permanent violence against the majority of the population, physical, economic, moral, educative violence; of launching the population into a slaughter also by means of violence in order to defend the Sixty Families. On the contrary, it is on arriving at this part that the trial visibly weakens, our comrades shrink themselves, minimise the revolutionary significance of their ideas, try to make an honourable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that they should talk for the masses. For moments they border on a renunciation of principles. A few good words by Goldman in his closing speech cannot negate the lamentable, negative impression of his first speech and of the interrogation of Cannon.
I shall begin to criticise them by citing their words, taken textually from numbers 45, 47, 48, 50, 52, Volume V, of The Militant.
Goldman in his opening statement to the jury:
I repeat: The objective and the aim of the party was to win through education and through propaganda a majority of the people of the United States? (emphasis in the original)
It is exactly the same as the statement in July before the beginning of the trial. Answering a criticism made then from Mexico, a comrade of certain responsibility in the SWP replied that there was no need to worry because no one was in agreement with that statement. If no one was in agreement, then it was necessary to formulate another, that is evident, unless we have one policy for the masses and another for appearances before a bourgeois judge. It is hardly necessary to indicate the error of such a statement. It is understood by all, beginning by the one who made the statement that our objective can in no way be only propaganda, nor will we win the majority by means of it. We are a party of propaganda in the sense that our numerical proportion prevents us or limits us to a minimum of action. But we are a party of revolutionary action—economic, political and educative—in essence and potentially, because our propaganda itself can tend only to action and only through action will we conquer the majority of the exploited and educate them for the taking of power.
I insist on these commonplaces because the euphemistic, sweetened character of this preliminary statement of Goldman, designed to reconcile the jury, is a compromise that has forced later statements much more grave. We will see further on.
Let us take the main problems and see how they have been dealt with in the trial.
Goldman begins with the following statement:
We shall show that the Socialist Workers Party opposes sabotage. We shall show that Mr. Anderson’s claim is absolutely wrong and based on no foundation whatever to the effect that we prefer the enemy, the imperialistic enemy of the United States, to defeat our government. It is absolutely false. What we want as the evidence will show, is to have the workers and farmers establish their own government and then to continue a real war against fascism.
Cannon even goes a bit further, replying to a question by Goldman:
A decision has been made, and is accepted by a majority of the people, to go to war. Our comrades have to comply with that.
And then Goldman asks: “You would not support the war?”
Cannon: “That is what I mean, we would not support the war, in a political sense.”
And he even returns again to the point:
We consider Hitler and Hitlerism the greatest enemy of mankind. We want to wipe it off the face of the earth. The reason we do not support a declaration of war by American arms is because we do not believe the American capitalists can defeat Hitler and fascism. We think Hitlerism can be destroyed only by way of conducting a war under the leadership of the workers.
In the first place, the decision to go to war has not “been made and accepted by a majority of the people.” This statement can be criticised very strongly, a statement that we would censure very energetically if it were made by a centrist. In place of accusing the government of leading the American people to the slaughter against the will of the majority, instead of accusing it emphatically before the masses and of demonstrating to them how the parliamentarian majority acts against the majority of the people, Cannon endorses Roosevelt’s decision as if it really corresponded to the majority of the people.
Yes, we submit to the war and our militants go to war, but not because it is a decision of the majority, but rather because it is imposed upon us by the violence of the bourgeois society just as wage exploitation is imposed. As in the factory, we should take advantage of all the opportunities to right against the war and against the system that produces it, just as we fight against the boss in a factory, as a function of the general struggle against the capitalist system.
“We would not support the war in a political sense”, says Cannon. Do we support it perhaps, in some other sense? Social, economic? I do not see other senses. Does he perhaps mean by “to support” to accept the accomplished fact and to go to war? That is, to submit oneself, as we submit to the conditions imposed by a boss after the failure of a strike, but preparing ourselves for another. Why, then, equivocate so dangerously? I see no other reason but that our comrades have committed the very grave error of talking for a petty-bourgeois jury for the more immediate present, not foreseeing the future struggles. Would it not have been better to state: “We submit to your war, American bourgeois, because the violence of your society imposes it on us, the material violence of your arms. But the masses will turn against you. From today on, our party is with the masses in an irreconcilable struggle against your regime of oppression, misery and butchery. Therefore we will fight against your war with all means.”
The equivocation and inexactness are permanent. It seems that we are platonic opponents of the war and that we limit ourselves to statements and propaganda, written or verbal, without action of any kind. To say that “we do not support a declaration of war because we do not believe the American capitalists can defeat Hitler and fascism” is to give the understanding that we would support it if we believed in that defeat; this induces those who believe in the victory of the United States to support it. Our rejection of the war is based on the character of the social regime that produces it, not on this or that belief about the defeat of fascism.
Immediately comes another equivocation: “We think Hitlerism can be destroyed, etc.” Uniting that to the reiterated statements to the effect that we will not agitate among the soldiers, that we are a “political opposition” to the war, and to the, until now, limping exposition of military training under union control, can induce one to believe that we will be for the war when the control has been given to the unions. I believe it is necessary to clarify this, without leaving room for equivocation and I pronounce myself, for my part, against the war, even if control of the military service is achieved by the unions.
Immediately, Cannon undertakes to give a program for defeating Hitler by means of a workers’ and farmers’ government I don’t have to add a single comma, except that the entire questioning of Cannon closes with a double door, the road to establishing the workers’ and farmers’ government:
Goldman: Now, until such time as the workers and farmers in the United States establish their own government and use their own methods to defeat Hitler, the Socialist Workers Party must submit to the majority of the people-is that right?
Cannon: That is all we can do. That is all we propose to do.
All of which is the equivalent of folding one’s arms after some lectures about the marvels of the workers’ and farmers’ government, in the hope that this will be formed by itself, or by God knows what sleight of hand.
This does not deal merely with an omission, but with a statement of passivity in the face of the imperialist war; something which at best is a bad education for the workers who have become interested in the trial and does not grant us any credit for tomorrow when the masses begin to act against the war.
Forced by statements of this sort—decidedly opportunist, I do not hesitate to say—Cannon sees himself obliged to ask for the expulsion from the party of the militants who organise protests in the army. He is carried to the incredible, to reject Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon himself.
Mr. Schweinhaut reads Cannon a paragraph of Lenin’s from The Revolution of 1905:
‘It is our duty in time of an uprising to exterminate ruthlessly all the chiefs of the civil and military authorities.’ You disagree with that?
Cannon: Yes, I don’t know that that is in any way a statement of our party policy … We do not agree with the extermination of anybody unless it is in case of an actual armed struggle, when the rules of war apply.
But what is “an uprising” except an armed struggle? Lenin also does not say “anybody” but rather the civil and military chiefs. Then why reject the paragraph?
Citing Cannon himself, Schweinhaut reads:
‘The second point (struggle in the army) is to be careful, cautious. Make no putsches, make no premature moves that expose us and separate us from the masses. Go with the masses … And how can we get these military means except by penetrating the army as it exists?’…
Schweinhaut: But you do not think that would obstruct the military effort of the army?
Cannon: If you will read that again you will see that we do not want any putsches. We say to the members: “Do not make any putsches, and do not obstruct the army.” It is our direct instruction to our people not to create obstruction of the military operations, but to confine their efforts to propaganda.
I am wholeheartedly behind Cannon in his speech; but I categorically condemn Cannon before the jury, deforming himself, minimising, reducing to words the revolutionary action of the party. And I will be equally behind and I propose that the party be behind the militants and soldiers who carry out acts of protests in the army, remembering that they do not deal with “putsches, premature movements”. Revolutionary action in time of war is absolutely impossible without obstructing in a greater or lesser degree the military activities. Therefore, the principle of revolutionary defeatism, which the American party and the International have and cannot renounce. Contrary to what Goldman gave to understand in the first quotation, we are for the intensification of the class struggle, in the rearguard and in the army, including, if this can, provoking the defeat of our bourgeoisie: “From the point of view of a revolution in their own country, the defeat of their own imperialist government is undoubtedly the better evil” (Trotsky, June 1940). It is worse in advice to the workers to disauthorise agitation and protests in the army, only to speak against it. I believe that our comrades have lost a good opportunity to make the workers understand why they should act always by means of the word and by means of collective actions. The questioning of Cannon presented a completely false perspective to the workers, of comfortable propaganda, where it deals with a terrible struggle by all means from small protests to insurrections by groups, from partial fraternisations to wiping out the fronts. But from an error of perspective, one passes to an error of fact; therefore the defendants saw themselves forced to condemn sabotage in general, as though it dealt with something criminal. I believe that sabotage is a method for tactical use whose application at certain moments can be productive of contrary effects to what is intended but which is absolutely indispensable in the critical moments of struggle.
An example will demonstrate it. Suppose that in a certain part of the front conditions of fraternisation are produced. Fraternisation will never be produced simultaneously on both sides of a large front nor in the same proportion. Immediately the military chiefs will give orders to mobilise, attack or reinforce the fronts with soldiers less disposed to embrace the “enemy”. Is it not our duty then to sabotage in the greatest degree the renewal of combat to give time to the fraternisation, to impede the command from dominating the situation? Sabotage will be the only means at hand for the soldiers to extend and precipitate the fraternisation, until the fall of the two fronts. Nevertheless, there exists the danger that the enemy command may dominate its front and taking advantage of the disorganisation, undertake a victorious offensive. There is no way out for an effective fraternisation if one wishes to avoid that “danger”.
Sabotage and defeatism will unite at a certain moment as the two main elements in the reactions of the masses against the imperialist war. The party should not and cannot renounce defeatism without condemning itself to a perpetual sterile chat against the war.
What seems even more lamentable to me is that one can intuit from the trial that it is not only a question of something said especially for the jury. For moments there is evidence that the defendants really consider sabotage a crime. If I am not mistaken—and I hope I am—this is a dangerous moral predisposition. Sabotage will be the reaction of the masses against the imperialist war. Why be ashamed of it? Why be ashamed that the masses react as they can, against the monstrous crime of the present war? It would have been easy to defend it as a principle and throw the responsibility on the leaders of the present war. Can we condemn the future sabotage of the masses when the war is a gigantic sabotage of the bourgeoisie against the masses, against civilisation and humanity? Instead of receiving this idea, the workers who heard our comrades will have left, burdened with a prejudice against sabotage.
The evidence will further show as Mr. Anderson himself indicated, that we prefer a peaceful transition to socialism; but that we analyse all the conditions in society, we analyse history, and on the basis of this analysis we predict, we predict that after the majority of the people in the United States will want socialism established, that the minority, organised by the financiers and by capitalists, will use violence to prevent the establishment of socialism. That is what we predict
Why not ask forgiveness, besides, for seeing ourselves painfully obliged to employ violence against the bourgeoisie? Even neutralising oneself to a mere diviner, the prediction is completely false. It is not necessary to poke into the future to discover the violence of the reactionary minority throughout society. The accusation lends itself ideally to launching a thorough attack against capitalist society and to show the American workers that the so-called American democracy is no more than a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Among the workers who have read or listened to Cannon and Goldman, there must be many who have experienced the daily violence of bourgeois society, during strikes, demonstrations, meetings; all of them without exception experience the normal violence of either working for a wage established in the labor market or of perishing; a violence much more lamentable is the imposition of the war; educative violence; informative violence imposed by the newspaper trusts. Far from receiving a notion of the environment in which they live and far from preparing their spirit for rebellion against this environment, the workers watching the trial have been pacified in respect to the present. Only in the future will the bourgeoisie employ violence.
Besides, it is completely inexact and contributes toward putting the workers to sleep, to tell them that the bourgeoisie will employ violence “after the majority of the people in the United States will want socialism established”. It uses violence already, always employs it, the bourgeoisie knows of no other method of government but violence. The workers and farmers should respond to the daily violence of the bourgeoisie with majority and organised violence of the poor masses. We do not predict but rather we assure, we ask, we advocate temporary violence of the majority against the permanent organic violence of the reactionary minority. It is necessary to break the democratic prejudices of the American proletariat; but statements like that rock them to sleep.
“After all”, an inexpert worker may say, “what certainty can one have that the bourgeoisie will employ violence. These men who know a lot only predict it; then for the moment, I need not organise to counter the violence of the reactionaries.” This tendency to inaction will be accentuated if the worker in question continues reading: “We expect to prove that the defendants never advocated, never incited, to violence, but simply predicted the violence of the reactionary minority.” It is clear when they do not do that, it is not yet necessary.
And once more, as we saw in the case of the war, all possibility of inciting to action is closed by the preliminary obstruction. Following their sense, the perspective presented by our comrades for the coming years is also false.
What means will be valuable to us for conquering the majority of the proletariat and poor farmers? (Not merely the people as is repeated constantly in the examination. The petty-bourgeoisie can be neutralised without being won over.)
I do not find in the long pages of the interrogation of Cannon anything other than propaganda, propaganda and more propaganda, as if it dealt with recommending a patent medicine for baldness. A brief paragraph, uttered in a good direction by Cannon, is not unfortunately, sufficiently explicit and energetic: “Of course, we don’t limit ourself simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.”
Then, why not raise the voice at this point and call upon the workers to organise their own violence against the reactionary violence? Immediately afterward, the perspective of struggle against the fascist bands is perfectly sketched by Cannon; but one notes that it deals with a nonexistent perspective in an immediate form as if today against the false democracy it were unnecessary to organise the shock forces of the proletariat. It is something that is not dearly stated, it lends itself to equivocation and is reinforced by the final insistence in denying the existence (today) of any workers’ guard. At any rate, the line that our comrades have followed in not taking advantage of the trial to indicate to the masses how and why they should exercise their own violence is incorrect. Instead we have the lamentable dialogue between Cannon and Goldman destined to pacify the easily frightened conscience of the jury about who initiates the violence.
In one manner or another it is supposed that we are going to conquer the majority for socialism. Then:
Goldman: What is meant by the expression “overthrow of the capitalist state”?
Cannon: That means to replace it by a workers’ and farmers’ government; that is what we mean.
Goldman: What is meant by the expression “destroy the machinery of the capitalist state”?
Cannon: By that we mean that when [my emphasis—G.M.] we set up the workers’ and farmers’ government in this country, the functioning of this government its tasks, its whole nature, will be so profoundly and radically different from the functions, tasks and nature of the bourgeois state, that we will have to replace it all along the line.
All the revolutionary, violent process, the civil war that must precede the establishment of the workers’ and farmers’ government and the proletarian state, is palmed away; I cannot find another word more euphemistic Therefore, when a little bit later Cannon has to circumscribe himself, he gives a definition of the soviet such as an abbreviated encyclopedia would give, hushing everything that deals with its function as an organism of struggle, in competition and opposition to the organisms of the bourgeois power.
What other thing can the workers’ and farmers’ government be than the culmination of the struggle of the proletariat and farmers against the bourgeoisie? That struggle has to be pushed from now on, and beginning with the opening of the revolutionary crisis, it will develop “in crescendo”, to the point at which the masses will create soviets or councils that direct the general struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, foresee the necessities of that struggle, including arms, and permit within its fold a liberty of ideological struggle so that the masses can elect those who best represent them. Only then, when the revolutionary tendency has acquired a majority of the soviets—not in the parliamentarian elections—the violent seizure of power will destroy the bourgeois state, leaving the soviets as the base of the proletarian state.
Cannon stated that the machine of the bourgeois state will be destroyed “when we set up the workers’ and farmers’ government”. But the possibility of such a government does not open until after we have destroyed that machine. Cannon knows this perfectly, and undoubtedly, proposes to act accordingly. But in that case I insist, why lose the excellent and rare opportunity to give the workers a lesson, indicating to them without subterfuge the road to the struggle and power, accusing at the same time the bourgeoisie of a reactionary and profascist course? The predictions about how the social dialectic is going to reinforce our positions do not have any real value for the workers. The revolutionary process is seen here as the schoolbooks will describe it in five hundred years. The workers today need an indication of the dynamics of the class struggle, the forms of organisation, methods of struggle up to the civil war, slogans, and included there is a need for proud valour against the class enemy, something which has been rare in the trial. The general tone has been not to accuse but to apologise to a point that makes one feel embarrassed at times; not to indicate and propose actions and immediate means for the struggle against the bourgeoisie and against the war, but rather to dilute our ideas into humanitarianism and to veil their active value with predictions of knowledge as if it were not honourable to employ violence against the present corrupted bourgeois democracy.
Something completely demonstrative of the foregoing is that our comrades have cited as witnesses in their defence—Jefferson, Lincoln, the Bible, Lloyd George, MacDonald; but when Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and even Cannon appear, they are rejected as nonofficial mouthpieces of our organisation. This attitude, not very valiant cannot conquer much sympathy, or at least cannot conquer as much as the opposite attitude would conquer.
I know perfectly well that I am not teaching anything to anybody. What I have said is known better by the comrades to whom it refers. They will agree with me in relation to the principles referred to, except perhaps, in the problems of military training under trade-union control, and sabotage—questions that it is urgent to clarify in the party and in the International. I find no more reason for their attitude in the trial than considerations that it would be a “useful manoeuver”. But it is precisely that I consider it a very grave error to substitute maneuvers for principles in moments so important for the political future of the party. I believe and propose as a general principle that in similar trials our responsible militants accept all responsibility for the practical action of our ideas. This is worth more than a light sentence at the price of a pretty and deceptive polish. I propose that this criticism be published in the internal bulletins of the International and of the SWP.
Note: This criticism has been written with extreme rush, in order not to lose an immediate opportunity to transmit it. I have not taken more than the paragraphs that first struck my eyes. Therefore, I reserve the possibility of amplifying it.