- Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution since the Age of FDR by Donna T. Haverty-Stacke
Donna T. Haverty-Stacke
New York: New York University Press, 2016
ix + 304 pp., $55 (cloth)
Donna T. Haverty-Stacke has written what will surely stand as the definitive account of the prosecution and conviction of Socialist Workers Party activists under the Smith Act in 1941. In the first case brought under the act, enacted in 1940, the verdict and its subsequent upholding by the Supreme Court established the legal legitimacy of the Smith Act and helped pave the way for later prosecutions of communists and others accused of insurgency. Haverty-Stacke's thorough recounting of the case clears up long-standing misconceptions about its origins and points to its long-lasting implications.
Haverty-Stacke situates the case in the context of the "little red scare" of 1939-41. She shows how, in the early 1930s, Trotskyists such as James Cannon and the Dunne brothers (Grant, Miles, and Vincent) rose to leadership positions in Teamsters Local 544 through organizing militant strikes among Minneapolis drivers and coal-yard workers. The local's Federal Workers Section, which represented unemployed workers receiving Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief, ran afoul of the Justice Department when it joined in a national strike of WPA workers in 1939. The prosecution and subsequent conviction of Minneapolis WPA strikers for violating the Woodrum law (which criminalized interference with the provision of federal benefits) was a precursor to the later Smith Act case. This WPA striker prosecution, one of the more interesting finds of the book, is not well known and deserves more scholarly scrutiny. As Local 544 members began organizing their own militia, ostensibly to challenge the fascist Silver Shirt branch in Minneapolis, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to pay attention. Relying on extensive research in FBI records, Haverty-Stacke shows that the FBI's investigations and the Justice Department's plans to prosecute the leaders of Local 544 proceeded independently of Teamster president Daniel Tobin's lobbying of the White House to crack down on the local after it bolted to the CIO. Nevertheless, as Haverty-Stacke shows, anti-communism among both Teamster leadership and the Minneapolis rank and file led to substantial cooperation with FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Much of the evidence in the FBI files came from confidential informants who were intimately involved with Local 544 leadership. At trial, eighteen defendants, including local and national leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), were convicted of violating the Smith Act and sentenced to prison terms of twelve to eighteen months.
Throughout, Haverty-Stacke maintains a very close focus on the defendants and the events in Minneapolis, meticulously reconstructing their personal histories and relationships, the dynamics within the party and the union local, and the trial and its aftermath. She maintains a judicious stance, carefully weighing claims by activists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and FBI agents, noting when they glossed over the facts or [End Page 121] misrepresented their opponents. The measured tone of this book helps readers appreciate the complexity of the situation on all sides. Characters such as Grace Carlson, a leader of Minneapolis's SWP, and Francis Biddle, US Attorney General, come to life in these pages. As Haverty-Stacke suggests, the Minneapolis Trotskyists came under fire because their antiwar militancy stood out in the early years of World War II when the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had fallen into line with US foreign policy (and the CPUSA repeatedly publicly endorsed the prosecution and convictions). Caught between labor conservatives such as Tobin on one side and Communist Party critics on the other, the Trotskyists had few friends in the labor movement or on the Left. Indeed, the defendants even came under attack from fellow Trotskyists in Mexico, who berated them for failing to call for "revolution by violent means" from the witness stand. One of the most compelling chapters in the book follows the defendants through the Cold War years, showing how FBI surveillance continued to dog their steps. Some renounced the party. Carlson turned to Catholicism...