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Irving Howe

Minneapolis – As “Sedition” Trial Draws to a Close

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 48, 1 December 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I have just returned from the now famous “sedition” trial being held in Minneapolis, in which 23 members of the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544-CIO have been accused of advocating the forcible overthrow of the U.S. Government and preparing to do so. In my dispatches to LABOR ACTION, which covered the main section of the trial – namely, the prosecution witnesses and the beginning of the defense case – I have attempted to show the completely reactionary character and the patently absurd and false nature of the prosecution. Now, it is necessary to sum up some of the legal and political issues of the trial, which are of utmost importance to the entire working class movement.


1) THE CONSPIRACY – When the government finished its case, it immediately became apparent that it was involved in one great contradiction: Where and what was the alleged “conspiracy?” The government had produced innumerable enemies of Local 544 who swore that V.R. Dunne et al. had informed them that the SWP planned to overthrow the government (though all these witnesses admitted knowing nothing else about the SWP); it had introduced as evidence innumerable Marxist works which have been public property for years, in order to show that they too advocated violent overthrow. BUT IT DID NOT PRODUCE ANY CONSPIRACY. It did not produce that “meeting of hands,” as the legal phrase goes, which would show that a group of people deliberately and consciously came together in order to achieve the aims alleged by the prosecution.

In reality, the prosecution functioned on two theories of conspiracy. Theory One was that the SWP itself, its mere existence, was the conspiracy. But this is utterly fantastic. For, where is the element of secrecy, of plotting, alleged in the indictment and implicit in the definition of conspiracy? The SWP conducted its activities publicly, available for all, who wished to see them. If it is held that a conspiracy is merely an organization publicly advocating a set of Marxist ideas, then it is clear that civil liberties are dead – if that theory be upheld by the courts.

Government theory No. Two was that the conspiracy was a secret group, mainly within the SWP, functioning through it and utilizing it, but not completely congruous with it.

If the government rests on this, theory, then it must (a) present evidence of the existence of a secret, organized group composed of a definite number of individuals, a group with a definite organization and composition, and b) it must admit it has no case against Goldman, Cannon and the other New York SWP leaders who have not been implicated by any witnesses, and who cannot therefore be, bound by this “secret conspiracy” in Minneapolis, of which government testimony has shown they had neither knowledge nor connections.

These seemingly abstract legal points are of the utmost importance both to this specific trial and to the civil rights of the working class generally. They must be carefully considered.

2) THE JUDGE – What capitalist justice means in practice could once again be Seen when Judge Joyce gave his decision denying the dismissal motion of the defense (except for the five defendants who were freed).

He compared the defendants to Hitler, who, he said, had also begun with a group as small as the present SWP. (That the SWP is a mortal enemy of fascism didn’t disturb him.) He defined “conspiracy” in such a vague and general way as to set another dangerous legal precedent which can be used against the labor movement.

According to him, there need not have been any common agreement among the defendants, any specific plan for overt action, or any possibility of realization of alleged aims, in order to prove the existence of this so-called conspiracy. What then, remains? Nothing but a common belief in socialism, which the defendants share, and for which they are being tried.

The Judge utilized the old threadbare argument that the defendants had no right to the protection of the Constitution since they intended to destroy it, and merely were using “constitutional rights” as a pretext. It requires a moment’s reflection to realize the entire reactionary implication of this statement. The defendants are held liable to the punishment the government wants to mete out to them because of alleged violation of this Constitution – they can go to jail for that; but they are not entitled to its protection. IN OTHER WORDS, PEOPLE WHO DON’T BELIEVE IN CAPITALISM ARE NOT ENTITLED TO CIVIL RIGHTS!

3) THE SMITH ACT – Another instance of the fantastically prejudiced character of the court rulings deals with the Smith Act. This act, which makes illegal the advocacy of violent overthrow of the government, was passed in June 1940. Yet the Judge admitted evidence in connection with the Smith Act of events and quotations that took place before its passage on the grounds that it would show their “state of mind.” Just consider how monstrous this is! The “state of mind” of people in relation to a law that was not yet passed, or even considered, can be used as evidence to prove they violated the law!

4) THE POLITICS INVOLVED – With obviously pre-determined purpose, the entire case of the government is pointed, especially at V.R. Dunne. The reason is clear. Dunne is the outstanding leader of 544-CIO; the purpose of the government is to “get” 544-CIO because it refused to submit to the jingo will of the Administration. In the maze of the daily testimony, it is very easy to lose sight of the main objectives of the trial. From a superficial examination of this daily testimony, it might appear that the political position of the SWP is the ONLY cause for the prosecution. The anti-war position of the SWP is a definite factor. But the GENERAL political line of the SWP is largely a pretext for the frame-up. The destruction of 544-CIO and the suppression of anti-war sentiment are still the major objectives of the prosecution.

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