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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Putting their politics on trial

The right to dissent is under siege across the globe. The incarceration of Chelsea Manning, the murder of Greek anti-fascist rapper Killah P (Pavlos Fyssas) and the arrest of Egyptian socialist attorney Haitham Mohamedain are a few of the most recent examples.
Seventy-two years ago, the revolutionary socialists of the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.) were indicted and put on trial by the federal government for violating the Smith Act. The Smith "Gag" Act--as its opponents called it--was the biggest attack on free speech since the First World War. Its authors conceived of it as a legal weapon to destroy the 100,000-strong U.S. Communist Party (CP), but instead it was first used against the much smaller revolutionary rival to the CP, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
On June 27, 1941, the FBI raided the SWP's offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., and seized a large quantity of books, newspapers and pamphlets. Four months later, 23 SWP members who were put on trial for sedition. Federal prosecutor Victor Anderson argued that the SWP was engaged in "criminal conspiracy" to overthrow the U.S. government. His only evidence was books, pamphlets and speeches. Eighteen of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison.
Albert Goldman led the defense. Goldman was an experienced radical attorney who had represented hundreds of clients during his time as a member of the CP, International Labor Defense and the SWP. His robust courtroom performance was a model for how to conduct a political defense. Here, we reproduce an abridged version of Goldman's opening arguments to the jury on the first day of the trial, addressing the issues of free speech, criminalizing political activity and the right to dissent.
Albert Goldman in 1942 
Albert Goldman in 1942
I DO not know whether you [the jury] will ever sit on such an important case again, not because merely 28 persons are involved in their liberties, but because great principles are involved, the principles of freedom of speech and of the press and of assembly--not only that, but great social theories are involved.
Marxism, the theories of Lenin and Trotsky, have been brought into the case by Mr. Anderson. I do not believe, ladies and gentlemen, that in the courtroom there has ever been an analysis on questions of more vital importance to mankind.
In the first place the defendants will prove that, if this is a conspiracy at all, it is a very, very peculiar "conspiracy." It is a "conspiracy" of the most peculiar nature ever entered into between human beings. It is a conspiracy where all of us defendants proclaim to the world what we want, never attempting at any time to conceal our purposes, but, on the contrary, begging people to read what our ideas are.
It is a political movement that is on trial here.
It is a movement that is based on certain ideas, maybe strange to you, and maybe strange to Mr. Anderson and everybody else connected with the prosecution--maybe ideas that you do not agree with and that you will not agree with subsequent to our explanation of them; but it is not a conspiracy hatched in the darkness of night in some cellar.
Call that a conspiracy if you, but know--know the difference between this political movement and a conspiracy hatched in the darkness of night for the purpose of committing a crime.
We shall prove to you on the basis of the documents which I believe the government, the prosecution, itself will introduce into evidence, that our concept of revolution is totally and completely different from the concept that Mr. Anderson and the prosecution try to say it is.
We shall prove that our activities are open, above-board, and that we sincerely believe they are beneficial to the people of this country. We shall prove that we issued literature, as Mr. Anderson has contended. The Socialist Appeal, a weekly paper--the name is now changed to The Militant. Once in a while perhaps it was issued twice a week.
We published, it will be shown by the evidence, dozens of pamphlets in which we explained current events, in which we explained our theories. We will not conceal one thing; that is the kind of conspirators we are.
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WE SHALL introduce evidence to show you that we held mass meetings on vital questions of the day, and we shall, if possible, although the mass meetings we have held in the last three or four years are almost innumerable, we shall try to recollect, for the benefit of the jury, what the speakers said at those mass meetings and let you judge whether or not they advocated the mass violence asserted by Mr. Anderson.
We shall introduce evidence that we are conducting and we have conducted political campaigns; that here in Minneapolis one of the defendants, Grace Carlson, ran for the senatorship of the United States and received approximately nine or ten thousand votes. We shall show you that right now Mr. James P. Cannon, one of the defendants, is running for Mayor of the City of New York.
We shall--and this is one of the most important things and I want you to bear with me if I illuminate it a little extensively--we shall show to you, by the very evidence introduced by the prosecution, that the Socialist Workers Party and all the defendants who are members of that party understand that the aim, the objective of that party, was to win a majority of the people for its idea.
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, and Mr. Anderson will have to convince you that that is criminal.
We shall continue through propaganda, through education, to get everybody in the United States--at least a majority of the people --to accept our ideas, and thereafter to institute a social system which we call by the name Socialism, a system which we believe will solve all of the ills of mankind, which we believe will abolish war, death, and the destruction that is now raging throughout the universe, because under socialism there will be no countries controlled by a minority of financiers and big industrialists for their profit throwing all the people into useless wars.
The evidence will show that we were very, very interested in the question of trade unionism. We will not deny it! That the Socialist Workers Party adopted resolutions dealing with the question of trade unionism; that it instructed its members to be active in all organizations, particularly trade unions--but in all organizations, social, unemployed, farmers--where people congregate, there we should be.
That is what the evidence will show; yes, that we propagate our ideas, to show the majority of the people that they, in order to solve their problems, must accept those ideas. There is no other solution possible.
The evidence will show that some of our members were exceedingly active right here in Minneapolis; that they were responsible, beginning with 1934, for organizing Local 544, General Drivers' Union, and that subsequently they played a very important role in making a union city out of Minneapolis.
The evidence will prove conclusively to you jurors that if there ever was in the history of this country, in the history of the trade union movement in this country, a union democratic to the core, with a leadership that was absolutely honest, incorruptible, fighting for their ideals, fighting for the interests of the workers, and that was free from gangsterism and racketeering, it was Local 544.
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ON BEHALF of the defendants, the defense will prove Mr. Anderson's contention that we are opposed to this war, and the evidence will further prove Mr. Anderson's contention that the defendants consider this war on the part of England and Germany and Italy and the United States as an imperialistic was, and capitalists who control the destinies of this country, of England, of Germany, of Italy, and of Japan.
The evidence will show that we are opposed to the involvement of this country in the war. There will be no question about that; that we consider this war an imperialistic war upon the part of those countries upon the part of those countries that I mentioned.
Those are ideas of ours with which the jurors may agree or not, but the evidence will show that every statement made by Mr. Anderson to the effect that we believe in sabotage is absolutely false. The evidence will show that, although we will not give support to any war on the part of the United States government because we consider it to be an imperialist was, a war for profit, a war for markets, a war for colonies.
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, is to have the workers and farmers establish their own government, and then to continue a real war against fascism. The evidence will show that we do not believe that England and the United States, as constituted as the present, are fighting against fascism for democracy, but are actually fighting to protect the interests of this small group of financiers and bankers.
The evidence will show that we have never advocated the idea of creating insubordination in the army. The evidence will show that, just as we believe--and Mr. Anderson stated it correctly and quoted, I believe, from my pamphlet on What Is Socialism--just as we believe you can no more stop a revolution that you can stop an earthquake, so after years of suffering and war and privation, the men who are doing the fighting and dying will themselves oppose the war and will look for a solution where they can get peace.
Peace, peace, they will cry and neither I nor anyone else will have to agitate them, and neither Mr. Anderson not anybody else by putting us in jail will stop them.


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