Felix Morrow

Cannon Answers ‘Sedition’ Charges

Defends Socialist Ideas on Minneapolis Witness Stand

SWP Leader Gives Program for Labor’s Emancipation

Effectively Answers All Distortions of Prosecution

(21 November 1941)

Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 48, 29 November 1941, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan.
Copyleft: Felix Morrow Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2019. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

MINNEAPOLIS, Nov. 21. – During the last three days James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party and one of the 23 defendants in the “sedition” trial, has been on the stand as the first defense witness. When his cross-examination was concluded today and he stepped off the stand, Jim Cannon had written into the history of the American working class one of its most glorious pages.

He had gone on the stand, presumably, as a defendant on a criminal charge – plotting to overthrow the government by force and violence. But not for a moment was Jim Cannon on the defensive. From the first he took the offensive, his testimony constituting a detailed indictment of the decaying capitalist system which resorts to war and fascism and to such frame-ups as this prosecution.

Throughout, Jim Cannon spoke as the tribune of the people, chronicling their terrible grievances against America’s Sixty Families, and proudly depicting the Marxist program for transforming this war-torn world into a socialist world of peace and plenty.

Jim Cannon’s testimony, both on direct and on cross-examination, will undoubtedly go down in history as a new landmark in the coming of age of the American labor movement. Many courageous and class-conscious working class leaders have stood up in a capitalist court, bravely defending themselves and refusing to betray their fellow-workers and their principles – the Haymarket martyrs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Tom Mooney, Warren K. Billings, etc., etc. But Jim Cannon’s testimony did much more than that.

His testimony constitutes perhaps the most persuasive American presentation of the case for socialism that has ever been uttered, deriving terrific power of convincing hearers and readers from the fact that the man who is urging it is doing so while facing possible conviction and a sentence up to sixteen years.

Spokesman for the Trotskyist Program

Jim Cannon could do this not only because of his own personal qualities, but because he is the spokesman for the richest, most comprehensive program of socialism that has yet been formulated – the program of Trotskyism. As Lenin rose, thanks to the fact that he stood on Marx’s shoulders; as Trotsky built on Marx and Lenin; so Cannon built on the foundations of all the great teachers who have preceded him.

In this Cannon was more fortunate than his American predecessors. Parsons, Haywood, Vincent St. John, Gene Debs were mighty men – but how meager their socialist doctrine! The workers’ movement of their time had hardly sensed the broad historical significance of the socialist thought of Europe – of Marx, Engels and their disciples. Although they were splendid agitators, men like Debs and Haywood knew pitifully little about scientific socialism. Hence they were unable to develop significant generalizations from the rich experience of the American labor movement.

Moreover, the lawyers retained in the labor trials of the past were perhaps able criminal lawyers, but ignorant of or essentially not sympathetic with the proletarian views against which the trials were really, aimed. At most the defense counsel might have been a civil libertarian like Clarence Darrow, sincerely desiring to win for his client the right to espouse his views, but not himself sharing those views or even really understanding those views in any detail. Guided in direct examination by such defense counsel, even a Bill Haywood or a Gene Debs could explain his views in court in only a half-formed and chopped-up version. Reading the stenographic record of those trials, it is hard to see how even a fair observer could make out precisely what these men stood for.

In this, too, Cannon was far more fortunate than his American predecessors. He was able to expound his testimony under the guidance of an attorney who was not only skilled and learned in the law, but one who has also been a comrade in the revolutionary movement for more than two decades – Albert Goldman. With perfect harmony of purpose joining them, the questioner and answerer wove their thoughts together in a magnificent fabric.

Long after this trial is settled one way or another, long after this particular battle of the class-struggle has receded into the past, the stenographic record of this courtroom dialogue between Albert Goldman and Jim Cannon will be read as a primer by new generations in the socialist movement.

Perhaps even more dramatic interest came when the dialogue ended; when Goldman, having concluded his direct-examination, turned the witness over for cross-examination to Assistant U.S. Attorney-General Schweinhaut, who came from Washington, sent by Attorney-General Biddle to supervise this case. The local prosecutor, U.S. District Attorney Victor Anderson, had handled most of the presentation of the government’s case. When, however, it came to making the supreme attempt to prejudice the jury against the chief witness for the defense, Schweinhaut himself took over the cross-examination.

From then on it was no longer dialogue. Now it became debate. The spokesman for capitalism and the tribune of the people crossed swords.

Schweinhaut’s Tricks

The technical rules of the court were all in favor of the prosecutor. He could ask questions well-nigh at random, shifting from subject to subject, filling his questions with broad innuendos in an attempt to prejudice the jury against the defendants. He could interrupt Cannon at almost any point, and he did, seeking to break down the effect upon the jury of what Cannon was saying. He suddenly produced, torn out of context, sentences and half-sentences from Marx, from Lenin, from Trotsky, from the 1929–1941 files of the Trotskyist press, from forgotten pamphlets – and demanded that Cannon answer, yes or no, whether he agreed with the quotations.

Yet, despite all these advantages on the side of the prosecutor, Schweinhaut was worsted in the great debate. Perhaps not in the eyes of jaundiced observers. Perhaps not in the opinion of those hostile or prejudiced against the labor movement. Perhaps not to a jury chosen under a reactionary method which weeded out of the jury venire all trade unionists, all industrial workers, and made inevitable this jury composed predominantly of small-town businessmen. But any observer present who was at all ready to listen to both sides had to concede that Jim Cannon had pulverized Schweinhaut’s trumped-up case.

It was not mere debating skill that enabled Jim Cannon to triumph over the Assistant U.S. Attorney General. Mr. Schweinhaut was undoubtedly the best that Attorney-General Biddle and official Washington could produce for this unsavory assignment. But the prosecution foundered on the rock which splits all frame- ups eventually: the rock of the truth.

What, indeed, could Schweinhaut do to bolster the indictment on which this trial is being held?

Cannon’s Answer to the Charges

The central charge in the indictment, from which all the other charges flow as corollaries, is that “the said defendants and their co-conspirators would, and they did, accept as the ideal formula for the carrying out of their said objectives the Russian Revolution of 1917, whereby the then existing Government of Russia was overthrown by force and violence ...”

Cannon’s answer to this fundamental charge was completely conclusive. Yes, he declared, those defendants who are members of the Socialist Workers Party proclaim that the Russian Revolution is the greatest event in history; it is the great example for the working class in every capitalist country of the way out of capitalism toward socialism. But the government is lying, when it says that the Russian Revolution was accomplished by force and violence on the part of the working class.

The full implications of the prosecution’s indictment of the Russian Revolution were brought out in the government’s presentation of its case. Its contention was that the Russian Revolution had been made by an illegal conspiracy of an armed minority. That contention could scarcely be proved by the socialist literature introduced by the government and admitted as evidence by the judge. These government exhibits included the Marx-Engels Communist Manifesto of 1848! (The presumed effect of the name of it on ignorant jurors was probably why it was introduced.) It could not be proved by the literature of the Socialist Workers Party.

So ... the government resorted to proving that the Russian Revolution was an illegal conspiracy of an armed minority ... proving it by testimony of government witnesses that various of the defendants had said words to that effect in private conversations! That was the heart of the prosecution’s case: one government witness after another taking the stand to testify that V.R. Dunne, or Carl Skoglund, or Max Geldman, etc., in a barroom or in a parked automobile or in a union clubroom, in a personal conversation, had stated that the Socialist Workers Party was plotting an armed revolution soon – i.e., by a minority – just like the Russian Revolution.

Testimony Defends the Russian Revolution

In the direct testimony Cannon punctured all this clap-trap by an elementary recital of the unquestionable historical facts. He gave a chronology of the main events in Russia in 1917 from the fall of the Czar in March to the establishment of the Soviet government on November 7, 1917. Those indisputable facts established that, with the collapse of Czarism, all the labor and peasant parties and organizations united to set up the Soviets; that the Soviets were from the first the most authoritative body in Russia; that the Lvov-Miliukov and the Kerensky cabinets derived their sole authority to govern from the consent of the Soviets, which during most of the February-November period gave a majority to the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties; and that only when the Soviets gave a majority to the Bolsheviks and the authority to do so, did the Bolsheviks set up the Soviet government on November 7, 1917.

In short, the Soviet government was legally established by the authority of the overwhelming majority of the people, and the violence came, not from the workers and peasants but from the reactionary, outlived minority which refused to abide by the decision of the majority.

Against these unassailable facts Schweinhaut could throw himself only in vain. In cross-examination he could only try, by dishonest questions, to foist upon the jury an impression that Cannon’s recital of the history of the Russian Revolution was not really the whole story. Typical of the corrupt methods used by Schweinhaut was his rapidly reading, with a “triumphant” expression on his face, some ten pages from Leon Trotsky’s Lessons of October, and concluding with: “Now doesn’t that disprove your story, Mr. Cannon?” Schweinhaut knew better, but obviously hoped, by his reading to rural jurors a text full of strange expressions, that he would confuse them and they would accept his deliberately false conclusion.

But to any halfway disinterested observer, it was clear that Cannon had built on the granite foundation of facts while Schweinhaut was banking on evoking backward prejudices in the jury. Newspapermen who had written none-too-friendly articles up to that point; lawyers attending the trial purely out of professional interest; conservative but fair- minded unionists – all indicated afterward that Cannon had convinced them that the prosecution’s picture of a cellar-plot to use force and violence was a fraud.

The Party’s Proletarian Policy

Likewise with the government's attempt to picture the Proletarian Military Policy of the party as constituting instigation of disobedience by soldiers in the armed forces. Here, too, the government could find nothing in the anti-war literature of the Socialist Workers Party to substantiate its charge. And here, too, the government filled in the gap with testimony of government witnesses about what this or that defendant had said in private conversations in bars and house-parties.

Cannon broke this down with a clear exposition of the party’s legislative program to secure government appropriations for special military training camps where, under the control of the trade unions, workers would be trained in the military arts and outstanding workers would be trained as officers. This form of conscription, Cannon explained, would make impossible such catastrophes as the treachery and capitulation to Hitler of the French general staff; it would be a bulwark against both domestic and foreign fascism.

Perhaps the worst defeat was suffered by the government on the question of the Union Defense Guard. The government contended that the Local 544 leadership, seeking to overthrow the government, set up the Union Defense Guard in Minneapolis in the fall of 1938 under the direct instigation of Leon Trotsky, who sent his “plans” for it through Emil Hanson, a union member who had served as a bodyguard for Trotsky.

Comic-Opera Story Blown Up

Cannon blew this comic-opera concoction out of the courtroom when he cited, with a copy of the 1929 bound-volume of The Militant in his lap, a dozen news accounts of that year reporting setting up of Workers Defense Guards to protect working class meetings from Stalinist hoodlums. These accounts included the setting up by the IWW and the Communist League (Trotskyist) of a Workers Defense Guard in Minneapolis in January 1929 to protect a meeting at which Cannon spoke. Trotsky was then in exile in Asia, cut off from any contact with his associates.

When the Trotskyists and other radical groups successfully established their right to hold meetings without interference from the Stalinist gangs, the Workers Defense Guard was dissolved. Likewise, in 1939, when the Silver Shirt menace died down, the Union Guard of Minneapolis ceased functioning. In short, Cannon established, such guards serve the specific purpose of protecting labor organizations against hoodlum or fascist violence, and no other purpose.

To continue summarizing the specific points on which Cannon refuted the trumped-up charges of the prosecution would be a poor substitute for the verbatim text of Cannon’s testimony. Such a summary would give only a thin indication of the authoritative quality of the original. Every serious worker must read Cannon’s own testimony. It must be published, not only in The Militant, but in pamphlet form and made available throughout the capitalist world. For it gives the message of socialism not in the drab form of a textbook but in the dramatic form of struggle which, though decorously conducted in a courtroom, is nevertheless one of the great battles of the class struggle.

Contrast Between Defendants and Government Witnesses

Perhaps one of the most dramatic aspects of this courtroom battle must inevitably be lost to those who are not here personally watching it – the contrast between the defendants on the one side and the government witnesses on the other. What a contrast! I can at least indicate its extent.

In the three weeks which the prosecution took to present its case, the prosecution had attempted to describe the 23 defendants as skulking plotters, furtively scheming to shoot their way into power. The 23 are a particularly vicious variety of gangster-conspirators, according to this tale.

Who tells this tale? The bulk of the prosecution witnesses, all the important ones, are on the payroll of Daniel J. Tobin, AFL Teamsters President. Add to these the widow, sweetheart and brothers of the deceased leader of Tobin’s forces here, and others of their supporters who have testified, and you have 21 government witnesses!

Who are the most important of these Tobin hirelings, by their own testimony? Because Trotskyists played a leading role in the trade union movement here, these key witnesses testified they had joined the Socialist Workers Party. They joined for a short time: they joined without any belief in or hope for socialism. They said they joined because of promises by party members (in reality, this was the hope of these would-be careerists) that they would thereby be in line for jobs as union officials. They didn’t get the jobs, so they quit the party. And when Tobin launched an assault on Local 544-CIO and hired any scoundrel who would help him, these job-hunters went on Tobin's payroll and now appear as prosecution witnesses against the leaders of Local 544-CIO and the Socialist Workers Party. On such scum has the government built its frame- up! It is impossible to convey what these individuals, mostly in their twenties and thirties, many of them obviously sub-normal, look like on the witness stand.

Jim Cannon’s Appearance

What a contrast between these people and Jim Cannon! He is 51 years old now and has behind him thirty years of hard battles as a proletarian leader. His hair is iron-gray and he is slightly stooped. But otherwise the years of hardships and penury have left few harsh traces. His face is young with the youth of the revolutionary spirit. “Revolution is the springtime of humanity,” he once said, and it is certainly true of him. The years have not tired him, but have clothed him with the unassuming authority of a leader who has led men so often into battle that it has become second nature.

This fall he celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his joining the revolutionary labor movement. This is the third time that he has been indicted, each time in connection with the mass workers’ movement. The first time in 1913 in Peoria, Illinois, for organizing the workers in the farm equipment plant there. The second time in 1919 in Kansas, for participating in the strike of the coal miners. Those two times he was in jail before bail was placed, but never was tried on the indictments.

This, the third time, he is being tried for advocating socialism as the solution for the most terrible crisis in the history of mankind. He sits in the witness stand, courteously answering questions. The scene is quiet enough. But to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the air is full of the sound Of clashing arms and powerful warriors colliding in this arena. Decaying capitalism is here like a dying dragon which in its last agonies can still wreak terrible damage on the vanguard of the coming socialist world. The monster may strike down Jim Cannon. But look at him! Radiant as a youthful warrior, he fights on to the end. He knows, beyond doubting, that we may lose the battle, but that we shall win the war.


Last updated on: 26 March 2019