Lessons from Working-Class History: State Repression & the Left
The aggressive neo-colonial wars being waged by the Bush administration are accompanied by a massive reorganization and expansion of the domestic security bureaucracy and heightened activity by America’s political police. The “war on terror” has made major incursions on democratic rights and constitutional protections of all U.S. residents, particularly for immigrants, Arab-Americans and critics of government policy. It is no accident that the U.S. Border Patrol has recently set up rotating checkpoints in the Detroit area, home to 350,000 Arab-Americans, the largest concentration in the country.
In a 15 November 2002 Salon.com article, Dave Lindorff reported that the assistant legal director of the left-liberal Center for Constitutional Rights, Barbara Olshansky, discovered her name is on a list maintained by the new post-9/11 “Transportation Security Administration” (TSA) of people subject to intensive investigation any time they attempt to board an airplane. It is unclear how many others are on the list with Olshansky, but authorities admit maintaining another list of 1,000 people who are deemed “threats to aviation” and not allowed to fly at all.
David Steigman, of the TSA, who told Salon that U.S. federal intelligence agencies (the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency) supply names for the list, admitted that there are no legal avenues through which to launch an appeal. According to Lindorff, so far the feds are “netting mostly priests, elderly nuns, Green Party campaign operatives, left-wing journalists, right-wing activists and people affiliated with Arab or Arab-American groups.”
The ostensibly revolutionary left, weak as it is, will automatically be a prime target of all new police-state measures, as the manufactured terror scare is used as justification for going after any and all opponents of the American ruling class. The fact that most of America’s supposed Marxists are pursuing a strategy that combines pacifist bleating with appeals to the imperialists to behave more humanely will not spare them the attention of the architects of a rightist security state.
The Marxist movement has confronted the issue of political repression under bourgeois-democratic regimes many times in the past. The right of socialist organizations to advocate revolutionary views, won through the struggles of earlier generations of militants, must be energetically defended today. The successful defense of the legal status and democratic rights of the left requires both political courage and tactical intelligence. In some cases, Marxist organizations have been forced to make important adjustments in the presentation of their ideas as a result of bourgeois repression.
Russian Revolutionaries vs. Czarist Repression
The Russian revolutionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developed under a regime of constant police repression, and was forced to produce much of its literature underground. This increased organizational overheads, limited circulation and resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of militants involved in the printing, transportation and distribution of illegal publications. Where possible, the revolutionaries therefore attempted to publish their materials legally. This required certain terminological accommodations to the sensibilities of the censors. Georgi Plekhanov’s classic, The Development of the Monist View of History, written in 1895 as a polemic against the Russian Narodniks (populists), was published under a pseudonym (N. Beltov) and given an “intentionally clumsy” title by the author to get by the czarist censors who prohibited “materialist” (i.e., Marxist) works. The defensive formulations employed by Plekhanov throughout the book permitted its legal publication and ensured broader distribution, but did not change the content of his arguments.
In the preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin noted:
“This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language—in that accursed Aesopian language—to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a ‘legal’ work.
“…In order to show the reader, in a guise acceptable to the censors, how shamelessly untruthful the capitalists and the social-chauvinists who have deserted to their side (and whom Kautsky opposes so inconsistently) are on the question of annexations; in order to show how shamelessly they screen the annexations of their capitalists, I was forced to quote as an example—Japan!”
The opportunist wing of the Russian socialist movement, the Mensheviks, who had also been forced underground by police repression, were inclined to adapt politically to the requirements of the censors, and gradually abandoned all illegal activity. This tendency was characterized as “liquidationism” by the Bolsheviks, who maintained an underground apparatus while attempting to maximize the opportunities for legal activity. In a speech in New York in November 1942, when the American Trotskyist movement was facing considerable government persecution, James P. Cannon described how prior to World War I the Bolsheviks managed to elect six deputies to the Duma (the czar’s pseudo-parliament) and published several daily newspapers:
“The daily paper of the Bolsheviks was published in what you call the Aesopian language….They called themselves ‘consistent democrats.’ And the paper did not espouse the cause of the Bolshevik party and did not propound its whole program. It did this only by implication. It wrote in parables. It modified its language to get through the tsarist censorship. But they managed to do it skillfully enough so that around that paper the Bolshevik party was organized. So that when the time came, more favorable conditions, and the chance to break out in the open, the Bolsheviks had previously created a wide sentiment for their basic ideas among the advanced workers of Moscow.
“All this time, however, they maintained the underground party. They did not confine themselves to this limited Aesopian legalistic propaganda; that was a supplement of the illegal program of the party. In the underground circles of the party they talked frankly about everything, clarified their program, and through it were able to maintain control over this vast network of legal activities.”
—”On Legal and Semilegal Work,” 19 November 1942
Sometimes the Bolsheviks were able to get around the censors by publishing important statements as signed discussion articles instead of official party decisions. In other cases, newspapers declared formal independence from the party. In their legal activity, the Bolsheviks could only convey parts of the Marxist program, and generally chose to avoid subjects that would not pass the censors. When possible, they attempted to find other ways to comment on such issues; when not, they remained silent rather than revise or repudiate the Marxist position.
Marx, Engels & the German Social Democracy
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the leading section of the Socialist (or Second) International, with a membership in excess of one million at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, was consistently to the right of the Russian Bolsheviks. One index of the SPD’s non-revolutionary character was its tendency to put the “defense of the party” (and its assets) ahead of Marxist principle. Rosa Luxemburg, the leader of the SPD’s Marxist left wing, was critical of the party’s refusal to raise the demand for a German republic, i.e., abolition of the monarchy. Karl Kautsky, who was a collaborator of Frederick Engels and widely regarded as the leading exponent of Marxism in the Second International, rejected Luxemburg’s proposal to introduce this plank into the party’s program on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Kautsky claimed to be upholding the position of Marx and Engels on the question:
“‘…the  Gotha Program said nothing of a republic, and Marx, as much as he condemned this program, acknowledged in his letter that it wouldn’t do to openly demand a republic (Neue Zeit, IX, 1, p. 573). Engels spoke on the same matter regarding the  Erfurt Program (Neue Zeit, XX, 1, p. 11).
“‘I don’t have time to set forth to you the grounds which Marx and Engels, Bebel and Liebknecht acknowledged to be sound. Enough, that what you want is an entirely new agitation which until now has always been rejected. This new agitation, however, is the sort we have no business discussing so openly….We cannot and will not proceed in this manner. A single personality, however high she may stand, cannot pull off a fait accompli on her own hook which can have unforeseeable consequences for the party.’”
—quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in Theory and Practice (1980)
Luxemburg responded that the “entirely new agitation” amounted to a call for universal adult suffrage and a democratic republic, and was aimed at the monarchy as the “visible head of the reigning reaction.” She pointed out that in his critique of the Erfurt Program, Engels made an “allusion to the ‘opportunism prevalent in a great part of the Social Democratic press,’” and asserted:
“‘But the fact that one cannot even draw up an openly republican party program in Germany proves how colossal the illusion is, that we can genially, peacefully install a republic there–and not only a republic, but communist society.
“‘…On all these subjects, not much can be said in the program. I call this to your attention chiefly to characterize both the situation in Germany, where it will not do to say such things, and the self-delusion that would transform this situation into a communist society by legal means.’”
Luxemburg also cited Marx’s comment in the “Critique of the Gotha Program” that if it were impossible to openly advocate a democratic republic in Germany, it would be absurd to put forward other, derivative, democratic demands:
“‘Since you do not feel yourselves in the position…to demand a democratic republic as the French workers’ programs did under Louis Philippe and Louis Napoleon, you should not have tried to hide behind the…dodge [the dots are substituted for a boisterous adjective of Marx’s–R.L.] of demanding things which only make sense in a democratic republic, from a state which is nothing but a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture, obviously influenced by the bourgeoisie, shored up with a bureaucracy and watched over by the police.’”
The difference between the revolutionary intransigence of Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks and the cringing legalism of Kautsky and the “orthodox” Marxists of the SPD foreshadowed their subsequent divergence over “defense of the fatherland” in World War I, and their respective responses to the collapse of the Romanov and Hohenzollern dynasties. After the overthrow of the czar, the Bolsheviks, who had refused to support the imperial war effort, went on to win a majority in the workers’ councils (soviets) based on a program of ending the war, distributing the landed estates to the peasantry and expropriating the capitalists. On 9 November 1918, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate as a result of a revolt by German workers and soldiers who formed revolutionary councils in every major center across the country. Luxemburg and a small group of revolutionaries, who would soon found the German Communist Party, proposed to establish a new state power based on the rule of these councils. But the SPD’s rightist leadership, supported by Kautsky’s centrist bloc, formed a provisional government, thereby saving the capitalist state and derailing the German Revolution.
Trotskyists in World War II: ‘Socialism on Trial’
The question of revolutionary legality was posed quite sharply for the Trotskyist movement during World War II. In the U.S., the Socialist Workers Party (SWP—the leading section of the international Trotskyist movement at the time) anticipated that America’s entry into the war would be accompanied by severe repression. James P. Cannon, the party’s leader, predicted that: “During the war, especially the first stages, there is nobody going to be talking against the war without being in the jug the next hour. You can’t do it in the paper or in private conversation.” North of the border, in Canada, the Trotskyist organization had been outlawed as soon as war was declared in September 1939. Shortly afterwards, one young Trotskyist, Frank Watson, was arrested when he dared to speak against the inter-imperialist slaughter on a soapbox in downtown Toronto. Watson’s comrades did what they could to publicize his case, but he was quickly tried and convicted, and after losing a subsequent appeal, was sent to jail for six months.
On 15 July 1941, 28 prominent members of the SWP and the militant Minneapolis Teamsters union they led, were indicted by a grand jury for violating the reactionary Smith Act, passed a year earlier, which outlawed “seditious” ideas. They were also charged under an 1861 law with conspiracy to overthrow the government. At a special conference in October 1941, the SWP passed the following resolution as a directive to the comrades facing trial:
“The policy of the party in defending itself in court, obligatory for all party members under indictment, can only be one that is worthy of our movement and our tradition; no attempt to water down or evade our revolutionary doctrine, but, on the contrary, to defend it militantly. At the same time we maintain that we have legal right under the Bill of Rights to propagate our principles.”
—Defense Policy in the Minneapolis Trial
During their trial, the SWP defendants argued that they were being persecuted for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. The defense presented testimony on a wide variety of issues, including the question of expropriation of the capitalist minority, and the likelihood that during the revolutionary transition from capitalism to a socialist regime, the old ruling class would attempt to initiate violence. The national media paid close attention to the trial proceedings, which in Cannon’s view presented:
“the opportunity, for the first time, to speak to the masses—to the people of the United States. We seized upon the opportunity and made the most of it, and applied in practice without a serious fault the basic principles which had been assimilated in a long preparatory period.”
Cannon characterized the trial as “by far our greatest propaganda success” and noted with pride that “even those workers who disagree with our program, have approved and applauded our conduct in court as worthy of people who take their principles seriously.” The party published Cannon’s testimony at the trial and the closing statement of SWP attorney Albert Goldman (who was also one of the defendants) as pamphlets for use in educating new recruits.
The SWP cadres refused to renounce their principles and offered a political defense of their party, while at the same time employing “defensive formulations.” At points during their testimony, the defendants missed opportunities to take the offensive against their persecutors, but on the whole the SWP’s defense strategy in this trial provides a model for revolutionaries.
Grandizo Munis’ Critique
Grandizo Munis, a Spanish Trotskyist exiled in Mexico, criticized the way the SWP defendants conducted themselves during the trial; he felt they missed an opportunity in:
“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.”
Cannon responded that a distinction had to be made “between ‘maneuvers’ which serve principle and those which contradict it” and explained:
“we planned to conduct our defense in court not as a ‘criminal’ defense but as a propaganda offensive. Without foolishly disregarding or provoking the jury or needlessly helping the prosecutor, it was our aim to use the courtroom as a forum to popularize the principles of our movement. We saw in this second proposition our main duty and opportunity and never for a moment intended to let purely legalistic considerations take precedence over it.”
Cannon’s testimony at the trial was an excellent exposition of the Marxist attitude toward violence. In his reply to Munis, he summarized his remarks as follows:
“1) The Marxists prefer a peaceful transition. ‘The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.’
“2) ‘It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.’
“3) That opinion ‘is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.’
“4) The ruling class always initiates the violence, ‘always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang onto their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.’
“5) That is our prediction. But ‘of course, we don’t limit ourselves 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.’”
As Cannon observed: “That is all any Marxist really needs to say on the question of violence in a capitalist court….It tells the truth, conforms to principle, and protects the legal position of the party.” He rejected Munis’ suggestion that the defendants should have raised their voices to: “call upon the workers to organize their own violence against the reactionary violence” as neither necessary nor advisable. Cannon cited Lenin and Trotsky on the advantages of using defensive formulations, and explained that his testimony had been intended “for the benefit of the uninitiated worker” who:
“is by no means waiting impatiently for our call to violent action. Quite the contrary, he ardently believes in the so-called democracy, and the first question he will ask, if he becomes interested in socialism, is: ‘Why can’t we get it peacefully, by the ballot?’ It is necessary to patiently explain to him that, while we would prefer it that way, the bosses will not permit it, will resort to violence against the majority, and that the workers must defend themselves and their right to change things. Our defensive formula is not only legally unassailable….It is also the best formula for effective propaganda.”
During cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Cannon if the May 1934 “Battle of Bulls Run” in Minneapolis, when strikers routed thousands of police and special deputies, was “Trotskyism demonstrating itself.” Cannon replied: “I am mighty proud of the fact that Trotskyism had some part in influencing the workers to protect themselves against that sort of violence.” The cops and deputies had been organized to drive the workers off the street, and: “They got a dose of their own medicine. I think the workers have a right to defend themselves. If that is treason, you can make the most of it.”
While the Trotskyists’ role in leading the Minneapolis Teamsters to victory gave them a working-class base in that city and resulted in an important regroupment with A.J. Muste’s left-centrist American Workers Party, small revolutionary propaganda groups rarely have the opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of their ideas through leading mass struggles. Munis all but ignored this and derided the emphasis the SWP defendants placed on winning a majority for socialism through education and propaganda:
“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.”
“The bourgeoisie has always tried to picture communism as a ‘criminal conspiracy’ in order to alienate the workers who are profoundly democratic in their sentiments. That was the aim once again in the Minneapolis trial. It was our task at the trial to go out of our way to refute this misrepresentation and emphasize the democratic basis of our program; not in order to placate our enemies and persecutors, as is assumed, but in order to reveal the truth to our friends, the American workers.”
One weak formulation in Cannon’s testimony came when he suggested: “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.” Munis observed that this implied: “we would support it if we believed in that defeat.” Cannon might better have responded by pointing to the enthusiasm with which major sections of the U.S. capitalist class greeted both Mussolini and Hitler as bulwarks against the spread of Bolshevism.
Cannon made no claim to perfection, and commented, “we did only the best we could within the narrow limits prescribed by the court.” He forthrightly defended the SWP’s position of refusing to support either the Axis or Allied imperialists, and in response to a question from Goldman about whether the war was essentially a struggle between democracy and fascism, he responded: “It is absolutely true that Hitler wants to dominate the world, but we think it is equally true that the ruling group of American capitalists has the same idea, and we are not in favor of either of them.” Later, during cross-examination by the prosecutor, Cannon solidarized with the revolutionary position of the Fourth International:
“Q: Now, on June 29, 1940, the Socialist Appeal published this from the report of the Manifesto of the Fourth International: ‘Independently of the course of the war, we fulfill our basic task: We explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interest of blood-thirsty capitalism; we mobilize the toilers against imperialism; we propagate the unity of the workers in all warring and neutral countries; we call for the fraternization of workers and soldiers within each country, and of soldiers with soldiers on the opposite side of the battlefront; we mobilize the women and youth against the war; we carry on constant, persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution—in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front and in the fleet.’ You want the soldiers to do that, don’t you?
“A: Yes, I think that is a summation of the idea, for the soldiers and everybody to do that. That is the way to put an end to this slaughter.”
—Socialism On Trial
The prosecution introduced as evidence large quantities of SWP literature, as well as writings by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. In his summation to the court, Albert Goldman said that, as he sat listening to the prosecution the day before:
“my thoughts drifted far afield. What are we on trial for, I asked myself? Certain men wrote books many years ago, and we are on trial because these men had ideas and wrote about them. We are on trial because a man by the name of Marx spent most of his lifetime in the library of the British Museum, digging into statistics, statistics concerned with economics and with politics. We are on trial because this man, after reading the mass of statistics…formulated general laws—laws that he thought, and laws that we think, operate in the social system.”
—In Defense of Socialism
Goldman also addressed the question of “violence” upon which the prosecution had laid heavy emphasis:
“Everywhere in society there is violence of one sort or another, culminating in the dreadful violence which sacrifices millions of human beings upon the altar of war. It is this violence which we hate that drives us into a movement which has as its ideal the creation of a world free from violence, where human beings will cooperate in the production of goods to satisfy their needs, where peace and security will prevail.
“We are, of course, not pacifists. We do not believe with Gandhi that it is wrong for three hundred million people in India to use violence to drive out the British oppressors who claim to be fighting a war for democracy. As much as we hate the violence that exists in society, we see no alternative to the necessity of destroying the violence of the minority with the violence of the majority. But to accuse us of wanting and advocating violence is to accuse us of something that is revolting to our very nature.”
The charge of conspiring to overthrow the American government was thrown out, but on 8 December 1941, the day the U.S. declared war on Japan, 18 of the defendants were convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government, and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 12 to 16 months.
An Injury to One…
The SWP immediately organized a Civil Rights Defense Committee, which was chaired by James T. Farrell, a popular novelist and SWP supporter, with John Dos Passos (another famous author) and Carlo Tresca (a prominent anarchist) as co-chairs. Other well-known figures who signed on as official sponsors were John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McCarthy, A.J. Muste, Adam Clayton Powell, Max Shachtman and Edmund Wilson. The defense committee ran a vigorous and effective campaign that won support from the American Civil Liberties Union, much of the organized left, and over 100 local and national union bodies representing millions of workers. The rabidly anti-Trotskyist Communist Party (CP), at that time the largest and most influential organization on the left, stood virtually alone in applauding the prosecution of the SWP. Ironically, the government’s successful use of the Smith Act against the Trotskyists provided a precedent for its use in the subsequent persecution of scores of CP cadres beginning in 1949. The SWP, to its credit, was one of only a few groups in the workers’ movement to defend the Stalinists against the witchhunters.
The Smith Act was eventually declared unconstitutional and struck down, as were various other mechanisms used by the McCarthyites. One victory in this struggle was won through the efforts of Max Shachtman’s rightward-moving Workers Party which, in 1948, launched a legal campaign challenging its inclusion on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. It was ten years before the Shachtmanites were finally successful, and in the meantime, they had devolved from ostensible Leninists to State Department socialists. But regardless of their political trajectory, the Shachtmanite campaign played a central role in the eventual decision by the U.S. Justice Department to scrap its infamous list.
A more recent case involved the degenerating Spartacist League (SL) which, in 1981, filed suit against California’s right-wing Republican Attorney General George Deukmejian for including it on a 1979 list of “terrorist” groups. Labeling leftist groups as “terrorist” creates an atmosphere conducive to wholesale repression of anyone who dares mobilize the workers and oppressed in defense of their own interests. The Spartacist League’s vigorous response to Deukmejian’s smear was supported by many civil liberties advocates and even black Democratic politicians. They created enough of a stir that in December 1981, the state Attorney General’s office issued a formal retraction of its allegation. This was a small but significant victory for the Spartacist League and the entire workers’ movement.
The persecution of leftist political dissidents typically begins with the malicious and deliberate misrepresentation of their aims and objectives. The intent is to isolate those who are courageous enough to resist the manifest injustices of the imperialist world order by depicting them as violent crazies and/or terrorists. In response to attempts to frame-up any members of the left and workers’ movement, it is incumbent on all to offer their active solidarity. For, in the words of the pioneers of the American labor movement, “An injury to one is an injury to all!”