The following is an excerpt from “Socialism on Trial” the courtroom testimony of James P. Cannon, one of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (the U.S. section of the Fourth International), given on November 1941 in Minneapolis. It was the most famous political trial of the wartime period. Twenty-eight socialist and union activists were charged with plotting the violent overthrow of the US government.
Most of those indicted were members of the US Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party, including its national secretary, James P. Cannon. The party had a long history of militant and effective work in the Minneapolis labor movement. It used its positions there to conduct a forceful campaign against the war drive of US imperialism. Through the trial, the government aimed to silence the most radical and determined antiwar voice. Through his interrogation, Cannon provided an excellent explanation of the goals of the SWP and revolutionary socialism.
While World War II is often commemorated as a heroic struggle by the Allies against fascism, the American motives for entering the war had more to do with the inherent military drive of imperialism than they did with a genuine commitment to democracy. The SWP held different approaches toward the various conflicts that are now often collectively considered part of WWII. The party supported the defensive war efforts of China and the Soviet Union against the Imperial Japanese and Nazi invasions respectively, and supported the liberation struggles of colonized peoples against European rule, regardless of whether those battles were fought against the Western Allies or the Axis powers. The SWP opposed America’s entry into the war and the use of the war as a pretext to increase exploitation the working class. At the time of the trial, the US had not yet entered the war as a belligerent, but had been accelerating the production of weapons and other wartime supplies for several years already.
Of the 29 militants originally indicted, all were found not guilty of conspiracy to overthrow the government, but were 18 convicted with recommendations for leniency on a second count of advocating the overthrow of the government and inspiring sedition in the military. Following a two year period of appeals, the 18 convicted comrades were imprisoned from December 1943 to February 1945
Cannon’s comments are broken up into sections by topic
What is socialism?
Q: Give us the meaning of the term socialism.
A: Socialism can have two meanings, and usually does among us. That is, socialism is a name applied to a projected new form of society, and it is a name also applied to the movement working in that direction.
Q: What is the nature of that projected society?
A: We visualise a social order that would be based on the common ownership of the means of production, the elimination of private profit in the means of production, the abolition of the wage system, the abolition of the division of society into classes.
Q: With reference to any government for the purpose of instituting such a society, what would you say is the purpose of the Socialist Workers Party?
A: We have set as our aim the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government, in place of the existing government which we term a capitalist government. The task of this government would be to arrange and control the transition of society from the basis of capitalism to the basis of socialism.
Capitalism’s internal contradictions
Q: What is the Marxian theory as to the social forces making socialism inevitable?
A [Cannon]: Capitalism is a state of society that did not always exist. Like preceding social systems, it went through a period of gestation in the womb of the old feudal society. It grew and developed as against feudal society, eventually overthrew it by revolutionary means, raised the productivity of mankind to undreamed of heights. (…) Capitalism operates by certain internal laws which were analyzed and laid bare for the first time by Karl Marx in his great works, first in the Communist Manifesto and then in Capital. Now, the two internal laws of capitalism which are making inevitable its decline and its replacement by socialism are these: One, the private ownership of the means of production and the employment of wage labor at wages less than the value of the product produced by the wage laborer. This creates a surplus which the capitalist proprietor has to sell in the market. It is obvious that the wage worker, who receives for his labor less than the total value of his product, can be a customer only for that amount of the value that he receives in the form of wages. The balance is surplus value, as Marx explained it, for which the capitalist must find a market. The more capitalism expands within a given country, the more productive becomes the labor of the worker, the greater is this surplus, which cannot find a market because the great mass of the people who produce the wealth do not receive enough wages to buy it. And that leads capitalism into periodic crises of what they call overproduction, or as some popular agitators call it under consumption, but the scientific term is overproduction. Capitalism from its very inception, for more than a hundred years, pretty nearly two hundred years, has gone through such crises. Now, in the past, capitalism could solve these crises eventually by finding new markets, new fields of investment, new fields of exploitation, and as long as capitalism could find new areas for the investment of capital and the sale of goods, the capitalist system could extricate itself from this cyclical crisis which occurred about every ten years, and go on to new heights of production. But every time capitalism experienced a new boom, and began to develop some new territory, it narrowed down the world. Because every place that capitalism penetrated, its laws followed it like a shadow, and the new field of exploitation began to become also surfeited with a surplus. For example, the United States, which was a great reservoir for the assimilation of surplus products of Europe and gave European capitalism a breathing spell, has itself developed in the course of one hundred and fifty years to the point where it produces an enormous surplus and has to fight Europe for a market in which to sell it. So this tremendous contradiction between the private ownership of industry and wage labor presents capitalism more and more with an insoluble crisis. This is one law of capitalism. The second law is the conflict between the development of the productive forces and the national barriers in which they are confined under capitalism. Every country operating on a capitalist basis produces a surplus which it is unable to sell in its domestic market for the reasons I have given you before. What, then, is the next step? The capitalists must find a foreign market They must find a foreign market in which to sell their surplus and a foreign field in which to invest their surplus capital. The difficulty confronting capitalism is that the world doesn’t get any bigger. It retained the same size, while every modern capitalist nation was developing its productive forces far beyond its own domestic capacity to consume. Or to sell at a profit. This led to the tremendous explosion of the World War in 1914. The World War of 1914 was, in our theory and our doctrine, the signal that the capitalist world had come to a bankrupt crisis.
Q: What would you say about the law of competition working within the capitalist system?
A: The law of competition between capitalists results inevitably in the bigger capitalists, the ones with the more modern, more efficient, and productive enterprises, crushing out the small ones, either by destroying them or absorbing them until the number of independent proprietors grows continually less and the number of pauperized people increases by leaps and bounds, until the wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a very few people, and the great mass of the people, especially of the workers, are confronted with ever-increasing difficulties of an economic and social nature. I mentioned the World War of 1914 as the signal that capitalism on the world scale wasn’t able to solve any of its problems peacefully before. They had to kill eleven million men, and then make a peace and prepare to do it all over again the second time. That, in the view of the Marxian socialists, is the sign that capitalism has outlived its possibility to solve its own problems.
Q: What would you say, then, with reference to the relative importance of the economic factor moving toward socialism, and the agitation for socialism of the various parties, including the Socialist Workers Party?
A: Well, now, if I could just explain here, Marxian socialism is distinct from what is known in our terminology as utopian socialism—that is, the socialism of people who visualize a better form of society, and think that it is only necessary to see that a better society could exist, and to persuade the people to adopt it and solve the problem. Marxian socialism proceeds from the theory that the very internal laws by which capitalism operates drive society to a socialist solution. I mentioned the war—I mentioned the conflict between the various capitalist nations which are always now in either a state of war, or of an armed truce preparing for war. I should mention also the experience of the 1929 depression, as it is called, with its fifteen million able-bodied American workers who were willing to work unable to find employment. That was another sign of a terrible unhealthiness in the social organism called capitalism; and the unemployment scourge operated on a world scale. Now, these are the forces that are driving society to a rational solution, in our opinion, by the nationalization of industry, the elimination of competition, and the abolition of private ownership. Our agitation could never effect the transformation of one social order to another unless these powerful internal economic laws were pushing it. The real revolutionary factors, the real powers that are driving for socialism, are the contradictions within the capitalist system itself. All that our agitation can do is to try to foresee theoretically what is possible and what is probable in the line of social revolution, to prepare people’s minds for it, to convince them of the desirability of it, to try to organize them to accelerate it and to bring it about in the most economical and effective way. That is all agitation can do.
Q: What role does the factor of fascism play?
A: Fascism is another sign that unfailingly appears in every capitalist society when it reaches that period of decay and crisis and isn’t any longer able to keep an equilibrium of society on the basis of democratic parliamentarism, which has been the governmental form of rule of capitalism in its heyday. Fascism grows, becomes a terrible menace to mankind, and a terrible warning to the workers that if they don’t bestir themselves and take things in their own hands, they will suffer the fate for years that has befallen the people of Germany and Italy and other countries now in Europe.
Conditions for a socialist revolution
Q: Enumerate the conditions under which, according to Marxist theory, the social revolution against capitalism will occur.
A: I can give you quite a number. The first one is that the existing society must have exhausted its possibilities of further development. Marx laid down as a law that no social system can be replaced by another until it has exhausted all its possibilities for development and advancement. That is, you may say, the fundamental prerequisite for a social revolution. Then I can give a number of collateral prerequisites which have been accepted by our movement. The ruling class must be unable any longer to solve its problems, must have to a large degree lost confidence in itself. The misery and desperation of the masses must have increased to the point where they desire at all costs a radical change. Unemployment, fascism and war become problems of increasing magnitude which are patently insoluble by the existing ruling class. There must be a tremendous sentiment among the masses of the producers for socialist ideas and for a socialist revolution. And, in addition to these prerequisites I have mentioned, it is necessary to have a workers’ party that is capable of leading and organising the movement of the workers in a resolute fashion for a revolutionary solution of the crisis.
Q: Now, what would you say as to the actual existence at the present time of the factor of the decline of capitalism and the fact that it has exhausted the possibilities of further growth at the present moment, as far as the United States is concerned?
A: Taken on a world scale, capitalism had exhausted its possibilities of further development by 1914. On a world scale, capitalism has never since that time attained the level of productivity of 1914. On the other hand, America, which is the strongest section of world capitalism, experienced an enormous boom in the same period when capitalism as a world system was declining. But American capitalism, as was shown by the 1929 crisis, and now by the war preparations, has also definitely entered into the stage of decay.
Q: And what are the symptoms of that decay?
A: The symptoms were the army of fifteen million unemployed, the decline of production from 1929; the fact that the higher productive index of the present day is based almost entirely on armament production, which is no possible basis of permanent stability.
Q: What would you say as to the existence at the present time of the second factor that you enumerated as a prerequisite to a revolutionary situation, namely, the inability of the ruling class to solve their problems?
A: I do not think it has by any means yet reached the acute stage in this country that it must necessarily reach on the eve of a revolution. They can’t solve their problems here, but they don’t know it yet
Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?
A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?
Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.
A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated. Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.
Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?
A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.
Q: I call your attention to the condition which you mentioned as a prerequisite for a social revolution in the United States—that is, the one dealing with a party, and ask you whether that exists at the present time in the United States?
A: No, a party sufficiently influential, no, by no means.
Q: What function does the party play prior to the transformation of the social order?
A: Well, the only thing it can do, when it is a minority party, is to try to popularise its ideas, its programs, by publishing papers, magazines, books, pamphlets, holding meetings, working in trade unions—by propaganda and agitation.
Class struggle under capitalism
Q: Will you tell the court and jury what is meant by “class struggle” as used by Marx?
A: I can’t do it in two sentences, of course. Do you refer to the class struggle in present society?
Q: Yes, confine yourself to the class struggle in present society.
A: Marx contended that present day society is divided into two main classes. One is the capitalists, or the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is a French designation which is used by Marx interchangeably with the expression “the modern capitalist”. The other main class is the working class, the proletariat. These are the two main classes in society. The workers are exploited by the capitalists. There is a constant conflict of interests between them, an unceasing struggle between these classes, which can only culminate in the eventual victory of the proletariat and the establishment of socialism.
Q: Whom would you include under the term “working class”?
A: We use the term working class, or proletariat, to designate the modern wage workers. Frequently it is broadened in its application to include working farmers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, real dirt farmers, and so on, but that is not a precise, scientific use of the word as Marx defines it.
Q: What other classes, if any, are there outside the working class and the capitalist class, according to Marxian theory?
A: Between these two main powerful classes in society is the class which Marx describes as the petty bourgeoisie—that is, the small proprietors, the small operators, people who have their own little shops, small stores, the farmer who owns a small farm—they constitute a class which Marx called the petty bourgeoisie.
Q: What would you say with reference to the professional classes?
A: Yes, roughly they are included also in this petty-bourgeois category in Marxian terminology.
Q: And what is the attitude of the party towards this middle class?
A: It is the opinion of the party that the wage working class alone cannot successfully achieve the social revolution. The workers must have the support of the decisive majority of the petty bourgeoisie and, in particular, of the small farmers. That, reiterated time and time again by Trotsky on the basis of the Russian and German experiences, is an absolute prerequisite for success in a revolution—that the workers must have the support of the petty bourgeoisie. Otherwise, the fascists will get them, as was the case in Germany, and instead of a progressive social revolution, you get a reactionary counterrevolution of fascism.
Q: Define the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”
A: “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is Marx’s definition of the state that will be in operation in the transition period between the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of the socialist society. That is, the workers’ and farmers’ government will, in the opinion of the Marxists, be a class dictatorship in that it will frankly represent the workers and farmers, and will not even pretend to represent the economic interests of the capitalists.
Q: What form will that dictatorship take with reference to the capitalist class?
A: Well, you mean, what would be the attitude toward the dispossessed capitalists?
Q: Yes, how will it exercise its dictatorship over the capitalist class?
A: That depends on a number of conditions. There is no fixed rule. It depends on a number of conditions, the most important of which is the wealth and resources of the given country where the revolution takes place; and the second is the attitude of the capitalist class, whether the capitalists reconcile themselves to the new regime or take up an armed struggle against it.
Q: What is the difference between the scientific definition of dictatorship of the proletariat and the ordinary use of the word dictatorship?
A: Well, the popular impression of dictatorship is a one-man rule, an absolutism. I think that is the popular understanding of the word dictatorship. This is not contemplated at all in the Marxian term dictatorship of the proletariat. This means the dictatorship of a class.
Q: And how will the dictatorship of the proletariat operate insofar as democratic rights are concerned?
A: We think it will be the most democratic government from the point of view of the great masses of the people that has ever existed, far more democratic, in the real essence of the matter, than the present bourgeois democracy in the United States.
Q: What about freedom of speech and all the freedoms that we generally associate with democratic government?
A: I think in the United States you can say with absolute certainty that the freedoms of speech, press, assemblage, religion, will be written in the program of the victorious revolution.
Capitalists are responsible for violence
Q: Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?
A: It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.
A: That 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.
Q: Who, in the opinion of Marxists, initiated that violence?
A: 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 on to 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.
Q: What is the opinion of Marxists, as far as winning a majority of the people to socialist ideas?
A: Yes, that certainly is the aim of the party. That is the aim of the Marxist movement, has been from its inception. Marx said the social revolution of the proletariat—I think I can quote his exact words from memory—“is a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority” He said this in distinguishing it from previous revolutions which had been made in the interest of minorities, as was the case in France in 1789.
Q: What would you say is the opinion of Marxists as far as the desirability of a peaceful transition is concerned?
A: 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.
Q: And in the opinion of the Marxists, is that absolutely excluded?
A: Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely excluded. We say that the lessons of history don’t show any important examples in favor of the idea so that you can count upon it.
Q: Can you give us examples in American history of a minority refusing to submit to a majority?
A: I can give you a very important one. The conception of the Marxists is that even if the transfer of political power from the capitalists to the proletariat is accomplished peacefully—then the minority, the exploiting capitalist class, will revolt against the new regime, no matter how legally it is established. I can give you an example in American history. The American Civil War resulted from the fact that the Southern slaveholders couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legal parliamentary victory of Northern capitalism, the election of President Lincoln.
Q: Can you give us an example outside of America where a reactionary minority revolted against a majority in office?
A: Yes, in Spain—the coalition of workers’ and liberal parties in Spain got an absolute majority in the elections and established the People’s Front government. This government was no sooner installed than it was confronted with an armed rebellion, led by the reactionary capitalists of Spain.
Q: Then the theory of Marxists and the theory of the Socialist Workers Party, as far as violence is concerned, is a prediction based upon a study of history, is that right?
A: Well, that is part of it. It is a prediction that the outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority. That is what we predict.
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.
Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?
A: That is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force. They raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution. I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that, and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not. It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is in the program of our party.
Q: What is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party as far as advocating violent revolution is concerned?
A: No, so far as I know, there is no authority among the most representative teachers of Marxism for advocating violent revolution. If we can have the possibility of peaceful revolution by the registration of the will of the majority of the people, it seems to me it would be utterly absurd to reject that, because if we don’t have the support of the majority of the people, we can’t make a successful revolution anyhow.
Q: Explain the sentence that I read from page 6 of the Declaration of Principles, Government’s Exhibit 1: “The belief that in such a country as the United States we live in a free democratic society in which fundamental economic change can be effected by persuasion, by education, by legal and purely parliamentary method, is an illusion.”
A: That goes back to what I said before, that we consider it an illusion for the workers to think that the ruling-class violence will not be invoked against them in the course of their efforts to organise the majority of the people.
Attitude to the state
Q: What is meant by the expression “overthrow of the capitalist state”?
A: That means to replace it by a workers’ and farmers’ government; that is what we mean.
Q: What is meant by the expression “destroy the machinery of the capitalist state”?
A: By that we mean that when 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. From the very beginning the workers’ state has a different foundation, and it is different in all respects. It has to create an entirely new apparatus, a new state apparatus from top to bottom. That is what we mean.
Q: Do you mean that there will be no Congress or House of Representatives and Senate?
A: It will be a different kind of a Congress. It will be a Congress of representatives of workers and soldiers and farmers, based on their occupational units, rather than the present form based on territorial representation.
Q: And what is the meaning of “soviet”?
A: Soviet is a Russian word which means “council”. It is the Russian equivalent for council in our language. It means a body of representatives of various groups. That is what the term meant in the Russian Revolution. That is, the representatives—they called them deputies—I guess we would call them delegates. The delegates from various shops in a given city come together in a central body. The Russians called it the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.
Q: Now, what is meant by “expropriation”?
A: Expropriation we apply to big industry, which is in the hands of private capitalists, the Sixty Families —take it out of their hands and put it in the hands of the people through their representatives, that’s expropriation.
Q: Is it a question of principle that there should be no compensation for property expropriated from the Sixty Families?
A: No, it is not a question of principle. That question has been debated interminably in the Marxist movement. No place has any authoritative Marxist declared it a question of principle not to compensate. It is a question of possibility, of adequate finances, of an agreement of the private owners to submit, and so forth.
Q: Would the party gladly pay these owners if they could avoid violence?
A: I can only give you my opinion.
Q: What is your opinion?
A: My personal opinion is that if the workers reached the point of the majority, and confronted the capitalist private owners of industry with the fact of their majority and their power, and then we were able to make a deal with the capitalists to compensate them for their holdings, and let them enjoy this for the rest of their lives, I think it would be a cheaper, a cheaper and more satisfactory way of effecting the necessary social transformation than a civil war. I personally would vote for it—if you could get the capitalists to agree on that, which you couldn’t.
Q: What attitude does the party take toward the ballot?
A: Our party runs candidates wherever it is able to get on the ballot. We conduct very energetic campaigns during the elections, and in general, to the best of our ability, and to the limit of our resources, we participate in election campaigns.
Q: What campaigns do you remember the party having participated in in the last few years?
A: Well, I remember the candidacy of Comrade Grace Carlson for the United States Senate last year. I have been a candidate of the party several times for various offices. In Newark, where we have a good organization, we have had candidates in every election for some time. I cite those three examples. In general, it is the policy of the party to have candidates everywhere possible.
Q: Does the party at times support other candidates?
A: Yes. In cases where we don’t have a candidate, it is our policy, as a rule, to support the candidates of another workers’ party, or of a labor or a farmer-labor party. We support them critically. That is, we do not endorse their program, but we vote for them and solicit votes for them, with the explanation that we don’t agree with their program. We support them as against the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties.
For example, we have always supported the Farmer-Labor candidates in Minnesota in all cases where we didn’t have a candidate of our own party. We supported the candidates of the American Labor Party in New York in similar circumstances.
Q: What is the purpose of the party in participating in these electoral campaigns?
A: The first purpose, I would say, is to make full use of the democratic possibility afforded to popularize our ideas, to try to get elected wherever possible; and, from a long range view, to test out the uttermost possibility of advancing the socialist cause by democratic means.
Q: What purpose did you and associates of yours have in creating the Socialist Workers Party?
A: The purpose was to organize our forces for the more effective propagation of our ideas, with the ultimate object that I have mentioned before, of building up a party that would be able to lead the working masses of the country to socialism by means of the social revolution.
Q: What is the attitude of the party, and the opinion of the party, with reference to the government, as it exists now, being capitalist?
A: Yes, we consider it a capitalist government. That is stated in our Declaration of Principles; that is, a government which represents the economic interests of the class of capitalists in this country, and not the interests of the workers and the poor farmers; not the interests of all the people, as it pretends, but a class government.
Q: What opinion has the party as to differences within the ruling class from the point of view of more liberal or more reactionary?
A: We don’t picture the capitalist class as one solid, homogeneous unit. There are all kinds of different trends, different interests among them, which reflect themselves in different capitalist parties and different factions in the parties, and very heated struggles. An example is the present struggle between the interventionists and the isolationists. (…)
Q: Is it possible for a difference of opinion to exist in the party on the question as to whether the transformation will be peaceful or violent?
A: I think it is possible, yes.
Q: So that there is no compulsion on a member to have an opinion as to what the future will have in store for the party or for the workers?
A: No, I don’t think that is compulsory, because that is an opinion about the future that can’t be determined with scientific precision. (…)
Internationalist to the very core
Q : What is the position taken by the party on the question of internationalism?
A: The party is internationalist to the very core.
Q: And what do you mean by that?
A: We believe that the modern world is an economic unit. No country is self-sufficient. It is impossible to solve the accumulated problems of the present day, except on a world scale; no nation is self-sufficient, and no nation can stand alone. The economy of the world now is all tied together in one unit, and because we think that the solution of the problem of the day—the establishment of socialism—is a world problem, we believe that the advanced workers in every country must collaborate in working toward that goal. We have, from the very beginning of our movement, collaborated with like-minded people in all other countries in trying to promote the socialist movement on a world scale. We have advocated the international organisation of the workers, and their cooperation in all respects, and mutual assistance in all respects possible.
Q: Does the party have any attitude on the question of racial or national differences?
A: Yes, the party is opposed to all forms of national chauvinism, race prejudice, discrimination, denigration of races—I mean by that, this hateful theory of the fascists about inferior races. We believe in and we stand for the full equality of all races, nationalities, creeds. It is written in our program that we fight against anti-Semitism and that we demand full and unconditional equality for the Negro in all avenues of life. We are friends of the colonial people, the Chinese, of all those that are victimised and treated as inferiors.
Q: What is the position of the party on socialism as a world system?
A: We not only stand for an international socialist movement but we believe that the socialist order will be a world order, not a national autarchy which is carried to its absurd extreme by the fascists, who have tried to set up a theory that Germany could be a completely self-sufficient nation in an economic sense, that Italy can be, and so forth. We believe that the wealth of the world, the raw materials of the world, and the natural resources of the world are so distributed over the earth that every country contributes something and lacks something for a rounded and harmonious development of the productive forces of mankind. We visualise the future society of mankind as a socialist world order which will have a division of labor between the various countries according to their resources, a comradely collaboration between them, and production eventually of the necessities and luxuries of mankind according to a single universal world plan.
Q: Did the party ever belong to an international organisation?
A: The party belonged to the Fourth International. It was designated that way to distinguish it from the three other international organisations which had been known in the history of socialism. The first one, the International Working Men’s Association was founded under the leadership of Marx in the 1860s and lasted until about 1871. The Second International was organised on the initiative of the German, French, and other socialist parties of Europe about 1890, and continues today. It includes those reformist socialist parties and trade unions of Europe, or at least did until they were destroyed by the Hitler scourge. The Third International was founded under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky after the Russian Revolution. It was founded in 1919, as a rival of the Second International, the main motive being that the Second International had supported the imperialist war of 1914 and, in the view of the Bolsheviks, had thereby betrayed the interests of the workers. The Fourth International was organised on the initiative of Trotsky as a rival of the Stalinist Third International. We took part in the initiation of that movement, and we participated in its work up until last December.
Q: And what caused you to cease belonging to it?
A: The passage by Congress of the Voorhis Act, which placed penalties upon organisations that have international affiliation, made that necessary. We called a special convention of the party, and formally severed our relation with the Fourth International in compliance with the Voorhis Act
Q: What role do Fourth International resolutions play in the party?
A: Well, they have a tremendous moral authority in our party. All the sections of the Fourth International have been autonomous in their national decisions, but the programmatic documents of the Fourth International, wherever they are applicable to American conditions, have a decisive influence with us.
Q: So you accept them, insofar as they are applicable to American conditions?
A: Yes—it is not the letter of the law for us in the sense that our Declaration of Principles is, but it is a general ideological guiding line for us.
The party and the trade unions
Q: Now, does the party interest itself in the trade-union movement?
A: Oh, yes, immensely.
Q: And why?
A: Well, we view the trade-union movement as the basic organisation of the workers that should include the great mass of the workers, and must include them, in the struggle to defend their interests from day to day. We are in favor of trade unions, and participate in organising them wherever we can.
Q: And what is the fundamental purpose of the party in trying to strengthen the trade unions and organising them wherever they are not organised?
A: Well, we have a double purpose. One is that we are seriously interested in anything that benefits the workers. The trade unions help the workers to resist oppression, possibly to gain improvement of conditions; that is for us a decisive reason to support them, because we are in favor of anything that benefits the workers. A second reason is that the trade unions, which are big mass organisations, offer the most productive fields for us to work in to popularise the ideas of the party, and the influence of the party.
Q: What instructions, if any, are given to party members with reference to their activity in trade unions?
A: Yes, our party members are instructed to be the best trade unionists, to do the most work for the unions—be most attentive, most active in the union work—to be the best mechanics at their trade, to become influential by virtue of their superiority in their abilities and their actions in behalf of the workers in the union.
Q: Does the party take a position with reference to the CIO and the AFL?
A: In general we are in favor of industrial unionism. That is, that form of unionism which organises all the workers in a given shop or given industry into one union. We consider that a more progressive and effective form of organisation than craft unionism, so we support the industrial-union principle. The CIO has found its greatest field of work in the big mass production industries, such as automobile and steel, which hitherto were unorganised, where the workers were without the protection of any organisation, and where experience proved it was impossible for the craft unions, a dozen or more in a single shop, to organise them. We consider that a tremendously progressive development, the organisation of several million mass-production workers, so that, in general, we sympathise with the trend represented by the CIO. But we don’t condemn the AFL. We are opposed to craft unionism, but many of our members belong to AFL unions and we have, in general, the same attitude towards them as to CIO unions, to build them up, to strengthen them, improve the conditions of the workers. And we are sponsors of the idea of unity of the AFL and the CIO; it was written in our Declaration of Principles; so that while we are somewhat partial to the CIO as a national movement, we are in favor of unity on the provision that it should not sacrifice the industrial union form of organisation.
Q: What is the party policy with reference to the existence of democracy in trade unions?
A: The Declaration of Principles, and all of our editorials and speeches, are continually demanding a democratic regime inside the unions, demanding the rights of the members to speak up, to have free elections, and frequent elections, and in general to have the unions under the control of the rank and rile through the system of democracy.
Q: And what is the policy of the party with reference to racketeering and gangsterism in the unions?
A: Similarly, the Declaration of Principles denounces racketeers, gangsters, all criminal elements—summons our members and sympathisers to fight relentlessly to clean them out of the unions, and forbids under penalty of expulsion any member of the party to give any direct or indirect support to any gangster or racketeering element in the unions.
Q: Is there such a policy of the party as controlling the unions?
A: No, a union is an independent, autonomous organisation and
Q: In what way does the party try to win influence in the unions?
A: We try to get our members in the unions to strive for the leading influence in the unions.
A: First of all by our instructions to our members in the unions that they must be the best trade unionists in the union, and they must be the best workers on the job. That is first, in order that they may gain the respect of their fellow workers and their confidence. Second, they have got to be active in the propagation of our ideas to their fellow workers. They have got to be busy and active in all union affairs—try to get subscriptions to our paper, try to influence union members to come to our lectures and classes and, in general, work to gain sympathy and support for the party and its program. We do say that, surely.
Q: What policy does the party have with reference to placing party members in official positions in the unions?
A: Yes, whenever they can be fairly elected, we certainly encourage them to try.
Q: But through elections?
A: Through elections, yes. Also if they can be appointed by some higher body and the work is not inconsistent with our principles, we advise them to accept the appointment as in the case, for example, of Comrade Dobbs.
Q: Appointment for what?
A: Dobbs was appointed international organiser of the Teamsters Union at one time.
Q: What is the position that the party gives to Karl Marx and his doctrines?
A: Karl Marx was the originator of the theories and doctrines and social analyses, which we know as scientific socialism, or Marxism, upon which the entire movement of scientific socialism has been based since his day. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848 his ideas were sketched and then in other big volumes, notably in Capital, he made a most exhaustive scientific analysis of the laws governing the operation of capitalist society, showed how the contradictions within it would lead to its downfall as a social system, showed how the conflict of interests between the employers and the workers would represent an uninterrupted class struggle until the workers gained the upper hand and instituted the society of socialism. So Karl Marx can be viewed not only as the founder of our movement, but as the most authoritative representative of its ideology.
Q: Does the party accept all of the statements found in all of the books written by Karl Marx?
A: No, the party has never obligated itself to do that. We do not consider even Marx as infallible. The party accepts his basic ideas and theories as its own basic ideas and theories. That does not prohibit the party or members of the party from disagreeing with things said or written by Marx which do not strike at the fundamental basis of the movement, of the doctrine.
Q: And you interpret Marx, or you apply the Marxian theories, under conditions that prevail at the present time, is that right?
A: Yes. You see, we don’t understand Marxian theory as a revelation, as a dogma. Engels expressed it by saying our theory is not a dogma but a guide to action, which means that it is a method which the students of Marxism must understand and learn how to apply. One can read every letter and every line written by Marx and still not be a useful Marxist, if one does not know how to apply it to the conditions of his own time. There have been such people, whom we call pedants.
Q: What is the position that the party gives to Lenin?
A: Lenin, in our judgment, was the greatest practical leader of the labor movement and the Russian Revolution, but not on the plane of Marx in the theoretical field. Lenin was a disciple of Marx, not an innovator in theory. To be sure he contributed very important ideas, but to the end of his life he based himself on Marx, as a disciple in the Marxist movement of the world. He holds a position of esteem on a level with Marx, with this distinction between the merits of the two.
Q: Now, what relationship, if any, did Leon Trotsky have to the Socialist Workers Party?
A: Our movement in 1928—when our faction was expelled from the Communist Party—we had adopted the program of Trotsky. We supported his program from the very beginning—and this was long before we had any personal contact with him. He had been expelled from the Russian party and was exiled in the Asiatic wilderness at a place called Alma Ata. We had no communication with him. We did not know where he was, whether he was dead or alive, but we had one of his important programmatic documents which was called, “The Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern” This book elaborated his theories as against those of Stalin at great length and in fundamental respects. This was adopted by us as our own program and from the very beginning we proclaimed our faction as Trotsky’s faction. We worked for about six months here without any communication with him until he was deported to Turkey—Constantinople—and then we established communication with him by mail. Later, various leading members of the party visited him. We had very extensive correspondence with him, and in this correspondence and in visits by individual members, we had an extremely close relation to him and regarded him all the time as the theoretical inspirer and teacher of our movement.
Expropriation of the capitalist class
Q: Now you stated on direct examination that the expropriation of private property, without compensation, was not a principle of the Socialist Workers Party, but I want to read to you from the Declaration of Principles this sentence, and ask you a question about it:
“The most important of the social economic measures to be taken by the workers’ state in its initial period is the expropriation and socialisation, without compensation, of all monopolies in industry and land, or mines, factories, and shipping, all public utilities, railroads, airplane systems, and other organised means of communications, all banks, credit agencies, and gold stores, and all other supplies and services that the revolutionary government finds it necessary to take over in order to lay the foundations of a socialist society.”
What have you to say about that, Mr. Cannon?
A: If I remember correctly, I said it is not a principle of Marxism that property taken by the government cannot be compensated for.
Q: Are you quite certain you were discussing Marxism as distinguished from the program of the party at the time?
A: I think I referred to Marxist authorities. I had in mind particularly the authority of Trotsky.
Q: Well, in any event it is a principle of the Socialist Workers Party that such property shall be taken without compensation?
A: That is in the Declaration. But it is not a principle.
Q: Would you mind explaining why the present owners of the property, who have acquired their ownership, at least by constitutional means, would be given nothing for it? Why is that principle embodied in the program of the party?
A: The Sixty Families who own the bulk of the industries and banks of America are not rightfully entitled to so much ownership and power over the lives of the people who produced this property by their labor.
Q: You would give them, then, no credit for their own industry and effort, education, intelligence —
A: Yes, I would give them the same credit that every citizen will have who participates in the production of the wealth of the country—that is, the opportunity to function in the new society on the basis of equality.
Q: Yes. But I am talking about the time when you take the power and with it the property, as of that time you would take it over without any compensation, and I ask you therefore, why you do not at that time take into account the effort, the industry, the intelligence, and I might add, the risk of loss, that has been constantly present, of those people?
A: What we are concerned with is the welfare of the great mass of the people. Their welfare categorically requires that the productive plants of this country be transferred from private hands into the hands of the public. That is what we are concerned with first of all. Industry must be nationalised—private property must be eliminated in the industrial process. The question of the rights and the interests of the comparatively small number of the population who are affected by that drastic measure is naturally secondary to what we consider this public necessity, public interest.
I don’t see any principled reason why such people, who are deprived of their ability or their power to exploit labor any more, cannot be given consideration on condition that they acquiesce in the will of the majority. They can be pensioned, they can be given consideration in view of their age, or their incapacity for labor, or their agreement not to resist by force the mandate of the majority.
As a matter of fact, I think we would be in favor of that.
Q: You would give them a pension?
A: Possibly, yes.
Q: Well, now, is it your theory that no person who has acquired large property holdings could have done it in other ways than by the exploitation of the workers?
A: That is the way property is created under capitalism.
Q: Now, will you please tell us what you mean by “exploitation”?
A: That means the employment of wage labor at a rate of pay less than the value of the product of the labor.
Q: Well, then, it is an arbitrary dogma, shall we say, of the Socialist Workers Party that no person who labors is adequately paid under this present system of government?
A: I wouldn’t say “no person”. Some people are very badly overpaid.
Q: I am talking about the workers—the same workers you are talking about.
A: Yes, I can conceive of even a worker being overpaid—that is, an unproductive, an unskilful or negligent worker.
But when we speak of wage labor we speak of the average, and the general rule. Marxism deals in the general and not in the analysis of each and every individual worker. The workers, taken collectively and an average struck, produce an enormous amount of wealth for which they do not receive the equivalent in wages. That is surplus value, according to Marxist terminology. That is profit that goes into the hands of the capitalists, not in return for labor but as profit on investment.
Q: And you think they should have no profit on their investment?
A: We want to eliminate the whole profit system. We want to have production for use, not for profit.
Q: Well, now, you would expropriate the property, not only of the Sixty Families, but of anyone who owns property in a large measure, is that correct?
A: Our program specifically excludes the expropriation or interference with small proprietors. We speak of people who have big holdings and exploit labor. Their property shall be transferred to the ownership and control of the public as represented by the workers’ and farmers’ government.
You can find the entirety of “Socialism on Trial”, including a longer introduction, additional sections of interrogation from the trial, a contemporary critique by Comrade Grandizo Muniz and a post-script on the party’s legal strategy by Comrade James Cannon hosted here by the Marxist Internet Archive.