The following is an article from an archival issue of Women and Revolution, Winter-Spring, 1996, that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of Women and Revolution during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
Class- Struggle Defense Work In The U.S. - Building on the Heritage of the International Labor Defense
We print below an edited speech by Deborah Mackson, executive director of the Partisan Defense Committee, prepared for April 1995 regional educationals in New York, Chicago and Oakland as part of a series of meetings and rallies sponsored by the PDC to mobilize support for Mum/a Abu-Jamal and the fight against the racist death penalty.
Mumia Abu-Jamal describes his current conditions of incarceration on death row at the State Correctional Institution at Greene County, Pennsylvania as "high-tech hell." When Governor Tom Ridge assaults all of the working people and minorities of this country by initiating the first execution of a political prisoner in America since the Rosenbergs, he must hear a resounding "No!" from coast to coast. Because Jamal is an articulate voice for the oppressed, this racist and rotting capitalist state wants to silence him forever. He is indeed dangerous. He is indeed a symbol. He is, indeed, innocent. Hear his powerful words, and you will begin to understand the hatred and fear which inspires the vendetta against this courageous fighter:
"Over many long years, over mountains of fears, through rivers of repression, from the depths of the valley of the shadow of death, I survive to greet you, in the continuing spirit of rebellion.... As America's ruling classes rush backwards into a new Dark Age, the weight of repression comes easier with each passing hour. But as repression increases, so too must resistance.... Like our forefathers, our fore-mothers, our kith and kin, we must fight for every inch of ground gained. The repressive wave sweeping this country will not stop by good wishes, but only by a counterwave of committed people firm in their focus."
We of the Partisan Defense Committee, the Spartacist League and the Labor Black Leagues are committed to a campaign to free this former Black Panther, award-winning journalist and supporter of the controversial MOVE organization who was framed for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia policeman. Our aim is to effect an international campaign of protest and publicity like that which ultimately saved the nine Scottsboro Boys, framed for rape in Alabama in 1931, from the electric chair. We must mobilize the working class and all the oppressed in the fight to free this class-war prisoner framed by the government's murderous vendetta.
As Marxists, we are opposed to the death penalty on principle. We say that this state does not have the right to decide who lives and who dies. Capital punishment is part of the vast arsenal of terror at the hands of this state, which exists to defend the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. America's courts are an instrument of the bourgeoisie's war on the working people and the poor; they are neither neutral nor by any stretch of the imagination "color blind."
To us, the defense of America's class-war prisoners— whatever their individual political views may be—is a responsibility of the revolutionary vanguard party which must champion all causes in the interest of the proletariat. The Partisan Defense Committee was initiated by the Spartacist League in 1974 in the tradition of the working-class defense policies of the International Labor Defense, under its founder and first secretary from 1925 to 1928, James P. Cannon. Today, I want to talk to you about how that tradition was built in this country by the best militants of the past 100 years—the leaders of class-struggle organizations like the pre-World War I Industrial Workers of the World, the early Socialist and Communist parties and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
The Roots of Black Oppression
To forge a future, one has to understand the past. The modern American death penalty is the barbaric inheritance of a barbaric system of production: chattel slavery. Like the capitalists who hold state power today, the slavocracy used the instruments of their power, special bodies of armed men and the "justice" system— the laws, courts and prisons—to control people for profit. Directly descendant from the slavocracy's tradition of property in black people is the death penalty. A trail through history illustrates this truth. The "slave codes" codified a series of offenses for which slaves could be killed but for which whites would receive a lesser sentence. In Virginia, the death penalty was mandatory for both slaves and free blacks for any crime for which a white could be imprisoned for three years or more. In Georgia, a black man convicted of raping a white woman faced the death penalty; a white man got two years for the same crime, and punishment was "discretionary" if the victim was black. Slaves could not own property, bear arms, assemble or testify against whites in courts of law. Marriage between slaves was not recognized; families were sold apart; it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write. Slaves were not second- or third-class citizens—they were not human, but legally "personal, movable property," chattel.
William Styron in The Confessions of Nat Turner has the fictional character T.R. Gray explain the slaveowners' rationale to Turner:
"The point is that you are animate chattel and animate chattel is capable of craft and connivery and wily stealth. You ain't a wagon, Reverend, but chattel that possesses moral choice and spiritual volition. Remember that well. Because that's how come the law provides that animate chattel like you can be tried for a felony, and that's how come you're goin' to be tried next Sattidy. "He paused, then said softly without emotion: 'And hung by the neck until dead'."
While the slave codes were a Southern institution, legal and extralegal terror were never exclusive to the South. As early as 1793, fugitive slave laws were on the federal books. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed in response to the growing abolitionist influence which had inspired several Northern states to pass "personal liberty laws," giving some protection to slaves who had successfully negotiated the Underground Railroad. The 1850 law, seeking to protect the private property of slaveholders, put the burden of proof on captured blacks, but gave them no legal power to prove their freedom—no right to habeas corpus, no right to a jury trial, no right even to testify on their own behalf.
Many blacks were caught in the clutches of this infamous law, which had no bounds. For example, a man in southern Indiana was arrested and returned to an owner’ who claimed he had run away 79 years before. The law knew no pretense. A magistrate's fee doubled if he judged an unfortunate black before the bench a runaway slave instead of a tree man. And fugitives were pursued with vigor. In Battle Cry of Freedom, historian James McPherson recounts the story of Anthony Burns, a slave who stowed away from Virginia to Boston in 1854. The feds spent the equivalent of $2.3 million in current dollars to return him to his "owner." That is approximately equal to what an average death penalty case costs today.
Any hope that "blind justice" could be sought from the U.S. Supreme Court was dashed with the 1856 Dred Scott decision. Chief Justice Taney wrote that at the time the Constitution was adopted, Negroes "had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order...so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."
While slavery itself was overthrown in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the needs of the American capitalists for compulsory agricultural labor in the South remained. A new, semi-capitalistic mode of agriculture developed, in which the semi-slave condition of the freed blacks was made permanent by the re-establishment of the social relations of slavery: color discrimination buttressed by segregation and race prejudice.
After the Civil War the slave codes became the "black codes," a separate set of rules defining crime and punishment for blacks and limiting their civil rights. They were enforced by the extralegal terror of the Ku Klux Klan; in the last two decades of the 19th century, lynching vastly outnumbered legal executions. As W.E.B. Du Bois said of lynching:
"It is not simply the Klu Klux Klan; it is not simply weak officials; it is not simply inadequate, unenforced law. It is deeper, far deeper than all this: it is the in-grained spirit of mob and murder, the despising of women and the capitalization of children born of 400 years of Negro slavery and 4,000 years of government for private profit."
The promise of Radical Reconstruction, equality, could only be fulfilled by attacking the problem at its very root: private property in the means of production. Neither Northern capitalists nor Southern planters could abide that revolution, so they made a deal, the Compromise of 1877, in their common interest. That's why we call on American workers, black and white, to finish the Civil War—to complete, through socialist revolution, the unfinished tasks of the Second American Revolution!
In the wake of the Compromise of 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court began to dismantle the Civil Rights Acts of the Reconstruction period. One landmark decision was Plessey v. Ferguson in 1896, which permitted "separate but equal" treatment of black and white in public facilities. But separate is never equal. This was simply the legal cover for the transformation of the "black codes" into "Jim Crow"—the "grandfather clause," poll tax, literacy test, all designed to deny blacks the vote, and the institution of separate facilities from schools to cemeteries. This legal and practical segregation, instituted in the South and transported North, was a tool to divide and rule.
America's Racist Death Penalty
The death penalty was applied at will until 1972. From 1930 to 1967 the U.S. averaged 100 or more executions per year. In 1972, following a decade of civil rights protests, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment" because of its arbitrary and capricious application. But the hiatus lasted only four years.
In 1976-the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty and has been expanding it ever since. In 1986 the court ruled it unconstitutional to execute the insane, but gave no criteria for defining insanity; in 1988 it approved the execution of 16-year-olds; in 1989 it ruled for the execution of retarded persons. Since 1976, 276 people have been executed in this country. Between January and April of 1995, 17 were killed. And innocence is no barrier, as the Supreme Court recently decreed in the case of Jesse Dewayne Jacobs, executed in Texas in January 1995 after the prosecution submitted that he had not committed the crime for which he had been sentenced. The Supreme Court said it didn't matter, he'd had a "fair trial." What an abomination!
Perhaps the most telling case in recent history was the 1987 McCleskey decision. The evidence submitted to the courts illustrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that racism ruled the application of the death penalty. Overall, a black person convicted of killing a white person is 22 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim is black. When the McCleskey case went to court, liberals across the country hoped for a Brown v. Board of Education decision in regard to the death penalty. The evidence of racial bias was clear and overwhelming. But while the Supreme Court accepted the accuracy of the evidence, it said it doesn't matter. The court showed the real intention of the death penalty when it stated that McCleskey's claim "throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system" and "the validity of capital punishment in our multi-racial society." Or as a Southern planter wrote in defense of the slave codes, "We have to rely more and more on the power of fear.... We are determined to continue masters" (quoted in Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution).
Let's take a look for a moment at "our multi-racial society." The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world: 344 per 100,000. It is one of the two "advanced" industrial countries left in the world which employs capital punishment. As of January 1995, 2,976 men, women and children occupied America's death rows; 48 are women, 37 are juveniles. According to the latest census, blacks make up 12 percent of the population, yet 51 percent of the people awaiting execution are minorities and 40 percent are black.
Eighty-four percent of all capital cases involve white victims even though 50 percent of murder victims in America are black. Of a total of 75 people executed for interracial murders, three involved a black victim and a white defendant, 72 involved a white victim and a black defendant. The death penalty is truly an impulse to genocide against the black population for whom the ruling class no longer sees any need in its profit-grabbing calculations.
Understanding this and understanding the broader importance of the black question in America, we take up Jamal's case as a concrete task in our struggle for black freedom and for proletarian revolution in the interests of the liberation of all of humanity.
Early History of Class-Struggle Defense
From the beginning of the communist movement, a commitment to those persecuted by the ruling classes, whether "on the inside" or out, has been recognized as an integral part of the class struggle. Marx and Engels spent years defending and supporting the refugees of-the Paris Commune.
As Trotskyists, we feel this responsibility keenly because we inherited some of the finest principles for class-struggle defense from James R Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. The traditions which inspired the International Labor Defense (ILD) were forged in hard class struggle, dating back to the rise of the labor movement after the Civil War. One of the first acts of the Republican government following the Compromise of 1877 was to pull its troops from the South and send them to quell the railway strikes that had broken out throughout the Northern states. The federal strikebreakers tipped the scales in the hard-fought battles of the time, many of which escalated into general strikes, and the workers were driven back in defeat. But united struggle against the bosses had been launched, and less than a decade later the workers movement had taken up the fight for an eight-hour day.
In the course of this struggle, workers in Chicago amassed at Haymarket Square in early May of 1886. The protest was just winding down when a bomb went off, likely planted by a provocateur. The cops opened fire on the workers, killing one and wounding many. The government’s response was to frame up eight workers, who were sympathetic to anarchist views, on charges of murder. They were tried and convicted, not for the bombing but for their agitation against the employers. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, three were finally pardoned in 1891.
The period from the turn of the century to America's entry into World War I was one of intense social struggle; militant strikes were more numerous than at any time since. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW—the Wobblies) led union organizing drives, anti-lynching campaigns and a free speech movement. The level of struggle meant more frequent arrests, which gave rise to the need for defense of the class and individuals. The left and most labor currents and organizations rallied to the defense of victims of the class war. Non-sectarian defense was the rule of the day. The Wobbly slogan, "an injury to one is an injury to all," was taken to heart by the vast majority of the workers.
This was Cannon's training ground. One of his heroes was Big Bill Haywood, who conceived the ILD with Cannon in Moscow in 1925. As Cannon said, the history of the ILD is "the story of the projection of Bill Haywood's influence—through me and my associates—into the movement from which he was exiled, an influence for simple honesty and good will and genuine non-partisan solidarity toward all the prisoners of the class war in America."
Big Bill Haywood came from the Western Federation of Miners, one of the most combative unions this country has ever produced. The preamble to their constitution was a series of six points, beginning, "We hold that there is a class struggle in society and that this struggle is caused by economic conditions." It goes on to note, "We hold that the class struggle will continue until the producer is recognized as the sole master of his product," and it asserts that the working class and it alone can and must achieve its own emancipation. It ends, "we, the wage slaves...have associated in the Western Federation of Miners."
Not all labor organizations of the time had this class-struggle perspective. Contrast the tract of Samuel Rompers' American Federation of Labor (AFL), "Labor's Bill of Grievances," which he sent to the president and Congress in 1908:
"We present these grievances to your attention because we have long, patiently and in vain waited for redress.
There is not any matter of which we have complained but for which we nave in an honorable and lawful manner submitted remedies. The remedies for these grievances proposed by labor are in line with fundamental law, and with progress and development made necessary by changed industrial conditions."
The IWW, whose constitution began, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," was founded in 1905. Haywood was an initiator and one of its most aggressive and influential organizers. As a result of that and his open socialist beliefs, in 1906 he, along with George Pettibone and Charles Moyer, were arrested for the bombing murder of ex-governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho (the nemesis of the combative Coeur d'Alene miners). The three were kidnapped from Colorado, put on a military train and taken to Idaho.
The Western Federation of Miners and the IWW launched a tremendous defense movement for the three during the 18 months they were waiting to be tried for their lives. Everyone from the anarchists to the AFL participated. Demonstrations of 50,000 and more were organized all across the country. It was this case that brought James Cannon to political consciousness.
The case was important internationally, too. While they were in jail, Maxim Gorky came to New York and sent a telegram to the three with greetings from the Russian workers. Haywood wired back that their imprisonment was an expression of the class struggle which was the same in America as in Russia and in all other capitalist countries.
On a less friendly note, Teddy Roosevelt, then president of America, publicly declared the three "undesirable citizens." Haywood responded that the laws of the country held they were innocent until proven guilty and that a man in Roosevelt's position should be the last to judge them until the case was decided in court.
The Socialist Party (founded in 1901) also rallied to the defense. While in jail, Haywood was nominated as the party's candidate for governor of Colorado and got 16,000 votes. The leader of the SP, Eugene Debs, wrote his famous "Arouse, Ye Slaves" for the SP's Appeal to Reason:
"If they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood and their brothers, a million revolutionists, at least, will meet them with guns.... Let them dare to execute their devilish plot and every state in this Union will resound with the tramp of revolution....
"Get ready, comrades, for action!... A special revolutionary convention of the proletariat...would be in order, and, if extreme measures are required, a general strike could be ordered and industry paralyzed as a preliminary to a general uprising."
Haywood's trial began in May of 1907. It was Clarence Darrow for the defense and the infamous Senator William E. Borah for the frame-up (prosecution). That this was a political trial was clear to everybody. The prosecution, for example, introduced into evidence issues of the anarchist journal Alarm from 1886, when Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons was its editor. Haywood thought that Dar-row's summary to the jury in his case was the best effort Darrow ever made in the courtroom. But Haywood also got a bit exasperated with his lawyer. In his autobiography, he tells the story of Darrow coming to jail depressed and worried. The defendants would always try to get him to lighten up. Finally Pettibone got tired of this and told Darrow they knew it would be really hard on him to lose this great case with all its national and international attention, but, hey! he said, "You know it's us fellows that have to be hanged!"
Every day of the trial the defense committee packed the courtroom with what Haywood called "a labor jury of Socialists and union men." This is a practice we proudly follow today. On the stand, Haywood told the story of the Western Federation of Miners and its battles against the bosses, putting them on trial. He refused to be intimidated by Senator Borah. When Borah asked whether Haywood had said that Governor Steunenberg should be exterminated, Haywood replied that to the best of his remembrance, he said he should be "eliminated."
On June 28 Haywood was acquitted. Soon thereafter, so were his comrades. At a Chicago rally organized to greet him upon his release, he told the crowd of 200,000, "We owe our lives to your solidarity." Haywood knew that innocence was not enough. It is that kind of solidarity we are seeking to mobilize today for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The Labor Movement and World War I
Haywood was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party in 1908, during its most left-wing period. In 1910, he was one of the party's delegates to the Socialist Congress of the Second International in Copenhagen. Shortly after, the SP moved to the right, and in 1912 (the year Debs polled nearly a million votes in his campaign for president) a number of leftists, including the young Jim Cannon, left the Socialist Party. A year later, when Haywood was purged from the executive board, there was another mass exodus.
The IWW, in which Haywood and Cannon remained active, expanded the scope of its activities. This was the period of the free speech movement and anti-lynching ' campaigns. One Wobbly pamphlet, "Justice for the Negro: How He Can Get It," discusses the question of integrated struggle and how to stop lynchings:
"The workers of every race and nationality must join in one common group against their one common enemy—the employers—so as to be "able to defend themselves and one another. Protection for the working class lies in complete solidarity of the workers, without regard to race, creed, sex or color. 'One Enemy—One Union!' must be their watchword."
They almost got it right: as syndicalists, they didn't understand the need for a vanguard party to fight for a revolutionary program.
With the beginning of World War I and preparations for U.S. involvement, the government declared political war on the IWW and the left. Thousands of Wobblies were imprisoned under "criminal syndicalism" laws—100 in San Quentin and Folsom alone. In response, the IWW adopted the slogan, "Fill the jails." It was a misguided tactic, but unlike many so-called socialists today, the Wobbliest had a principled position where it counted: they'd go to jail before they'd cross a picket line.
1917 was the year of the Russian Revolution. A month after that world-historic event, Haywood was back on trial in Chicago with some 18 other Wobblies. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in Leaven worth prison. In 1919 he was released on bail pending appeal and devoted his time to the IWW's General Defense Committee, launching a campaign to raise bail money for those in prison. When the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids began, Haywood learned that he was a primary target. So, as his appeal went to the Supreme Court, he sailed for the Soviet Union. A student of history, he had no illusions in "blind justice."
Cannon was also heavily influenced by the case of California labor leaders Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. In 1916, as America was preparing to go to war, Mooney and Billings were framed up for a bombing at a Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco. The Preparedness Movement was a bourgeois movement of "open shop" chamber of commerce, right-wing vigilante groups, who were very serious about getting the U.S. into World War I. They went into Mexico to fight Pancho Villa as practice. The Preparedness Movement was opposed by labor, and in fact two days before the bombing there had been a 5,000-strong labor demonstration in San Francisco.
Mooney and Billings were convicted. Mooney was sentenced to hang, Billings got a life sentence. At first, their case was taken up only by the anarchists. The official AFL labor movement took a hands-off position. But when it became clear that they had been framed with perjured testimony, a "Mooney movement" swept the country.
The Mooney case had a big impact on Russian immigrant workers, among others. Thus the Mooney case was carried back to Russia, and in April of 1917 the Russian anarchists led a Mooney defense demonstration in Petrograd at the American consulate. Worried about Russia pulling out of World War I at that point, Woodrow Wilson personally interceded on behalf of Mooney and Billings. It didn't get them out of jail, but the effect of international pressure was not lost on Cannon.
In the U.S., the cops broke up Mooney defense meetings and arrested those present. The class-struggle nature of the defense movement, involving such actions as one-day strikes, was a felt threat to the ruling class, especially in the face of a war. In a conscious effort to dissipate this movement, the state commuted Mooney's death sentence to life in prison. In combination with the domestic repression following the war, this took the life out of the Mooney movement. Mooney and Billings stayed in prison for 22 years. They were released in 1939, and Mooney spent two and a half of the next three years in the hospital and then-died.
In his eulogy "Good-by Tom Mooney!" Cannon wrote:
"They imprisoned Mooney—as they imprisoned Debs and Haywood and hundreds of others—in order to clear the road of militant labor opposition to the First World War, and they kept him in prison for revenge and for a warning to others."
As World War II began, Cannon would find himself in the same position.
The Tradition of International Labor Defense
The parties of the Second International backed their own ruling classes in World War I, and the Bolsheviks fought for a new international party committed to the Marxist movement's call, "Workers of the World Unite!" In 1919, the leaders of the Russian Revolution founded the Third International, the Comintern, to build revolutionary parties which could take up the struggle against capitalist rule. 1919 was also a year of massive strike activity in the U.S. This wave of class struggle swelled the ranks of the Socialist Party, which then split in September. The most left-wing workers regrouped, giving birth to the American Communist movement, and Cannon was among them.
America in the 1920s was not a nice place to be. Warren Harding was elected in a landslide victory on the slogan of "Return to Normalcy." And "normal" was racist and repressive. His attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, launched a war on the left inspired by fear of the Russian Revolution, which resulted in massive deportations of leftists and jailing of American radicals. The young Communist Party went underground. 1920 saw more lynchings and anti-black pogroms than any time in recent memory. The Klan grew like wildfire, and the government passed anti-immigration legislation that would give Newt Gingrich and Pete Wilson wet dreams.
When it was clear that the IWW was for all practical purposes broken, many of its jailed members, including Eugene Debs, were pardoned. The Communists, however, remained in jail. The union movement took it on the chops as well, and by the end of the 1920s only 13 percent of the workforce of this country was unionized.
The 1921 Third Congress of the Comintern was held under the watchword "To the Masses." In the U.S., the newly formed party had been underground and could hardly make a turn to the masses. At the Comintern's urging, the Workers (Communist) Party emerged in December of 1921 with Cannon as its first chairman and main public spokesman.
By the time of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, the tactic of the united front had been defined; the Fourth Congress detailed its application. The need for the united front grew out of the post-World War I ebbing of the revolutionary tide following the Russian Revolution. The offensive by the capitalists against the proletariat and its parties was forcing even the reformist-led organizations into partial and defensive struggles to save their very lives.
The slogan "march separately, strike together" encapsulated the two aims of the united-front tactic: class unity and the political fight for a communist program. The Comintern sought both to achieve the maximum unity of the working masses in their defensive struggles and to expose in action the hesitancy of the leadership of the reformist organizations of the Second International to act in the interests of the proletariat and the inability of its program to win against the ruling class.
The united front is a tactic we use today. Our call for labor/black mobilizations to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal and abolish the racist death penalty has brought together many different organizations and individuals to save Jamal's life. At these rallies and demonstrations, we
have insisted on the right to argue for our program to put an end to racist injustice and capitalist exploitation through socialist revolution.
In line with the policies hashed out at the Third and Fourth Congresses, the Communist International founded an international defense organization, the International Red Aid. These events had a substantial effect on the young American party, and one of the direct results was the foundation in 1925 of the International Labor Defense (ILD).
Cannon's goal was to make the ILD the defense arm of the labor movement. Cannon wrote to Debs on the occasion of his endorsement of the ILD:
"The main problem as I see it is to construct the ILD on the broadest possible basis. To conduct the work in a non-partisan and non-sectarian manner and finally establish the impression by our deeds that the ILD is the defender of every worker persecuted for his activities in the class struggle, without any exceptions and without regard to his affiliations."
From 1925 to 1928, the ILD was pretty successful in achieving that goal. It established principles to which we adhere today:
• United-front defense: The ILD campaigns were organized to allow for the broadest possible participation.
• Class-struggle defense: The ILD sought to mobilize the working class in protest on a national and international scale, relying on the class movement of the workers and placing no faith in the justice of the capitalist courts, while using every legal avenue open to them.
• Non-sectarian defense: When it was founded, the ILD immediately adopted 106 prisoners, instituting the practice of financially assisting these prisoners and their families. Many had been jailed as a result of the "criminal syndicalism" laws; some were Wobblies, some were anarchists, some were strike leaders. Not one was a member of the Communist Party. The ILD launched the first Holiday Appeal. Of course, the ILD also vigorously defended its own, understanding the vital importance of the legal rights of the Communist Party to exist and organize.
Social Defense and Union Struggle
The ILD's most well-known case was the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. The frame-up for murder and robbery of these two immigrant anarchist workers, who were sent to their deaths by the state of Massachusetts in 1927, grew directly out of the "red scare" of the early '20s. The ILD applied with alacrity the main lines of its program: unity of all working-class forces and reliance on the class movement of the workers. Thousands of workers rallied to their cause, and unions around the country contributed to a defense fund set up by Italian workers in the Boston area. But the level of class struggle is key to the outcome of defense cases, and the ILD's exemplary campaign proved insufficient to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti.
As the case drew to a close, one of the feints used by the state was to start rumors that Sacco and Vanzetti's death penalty sentence would be commuted to life without parole. This was designed to dissipate the Sacco and Vanzetti movement and prepare their execution. Cannon rang the alarm bells from the pages of the Labor Defender, rallying ILD supporters to mass demonstrations and warning them of the devious and two-faced nature of the bourgeoisie. Cannon had not forgotten the demobilization of the Mooney movement after his sentence had been commuted nor the living death that Mooney and Billings were enduring in their 22 years of internment.
This has significance for us today as we fight against the threatened execution of Jamal. Life in prison is hell. Think about the "life" of Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), another former Panther, jailed for a quarter of a century for a crime the state knows he did not commit. While some call upon Pennsylvania governor Ridge to convert Jamal's sentence to life without parole, we demand the freedom of both these innocent men.
The ILD also worked in defense of the class as a whole. In 1926, about 16,000 textile workers hit the bricks in Passaic, New Jersey. Their strike was eventually defeated, but it drew sharp lessons on the role of the state and demonstrated for Cannon the absolute necessity for a permanent, organized and always ready non-partisan labor defense organization. Cannon wrote in the Labor Defender:
"Our I.L.D. is on the job at Passaic. Not a single striker went into court without our lawyer to defend him. There was not a single conviction that was not appealed. Nobody had to remain in jail more than a few days for lack of bail.... A great wave of protest spread thru the labor movement and even the most conservative labor leaders were compelled to give expression to it."
In 1928, the Trotskyist Left Opposition (including Cannon) was expelled from the Communist Party. The ILD remained under the control of the Communist Party and thus became subject to the zigzags of Stalinist policies throughout the 1930s, including the perversion of the united front from a tactic for class unity into an instrument for class collaboration and counterrevolution.
In 1929, Stalin declared the "Third Period," an ultraleft shift, the main tactic of which was to smash the Social Democratic and other leftist parties by creating what the Stalinists called "united fronts from below." The Comintern charged the reformists with "social fascism"; the real fascists were to be dealt with secondarily. In Germany, this policy contributed to Adolph Hitler's seizure of power— there was no united fight against fascism by the workers in the mass Communist and Social Democratic parties. This policy had an effect on the U.S. party and its defense work.
Legal Lynching in the American South
One result of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression was that 200,000 people made the rails their home as they moved from place to place looking for work. On 25 March 1931, nine black youths, ranging in age from 13 to 20, were riding the Memphis to Chattanooga freight train. Two young white women, fearful of being jailed for hoboing when the train was stopped after reports that there had been a fight with some white boys, accused the blacks of rape. Among the nine were Olen Montgomery—blind in one eye and with 10 percent vision in the other—headed for Memphis hoping to earn enough money to buy a pair of glasses; Willie Roberson, debilitated by years-long untreated syphilis and gonorrhea—which is important if you're going to be talking about a rape case; and Eugene Williams and Roy Wright, both 13 years old.
The group were nearly lynched on the spot. The trial began in Scottsboro, Alabama on April 6. Four days later, despite medical evidence that no rape had occurred—not to mention gross violations of due process—eight were sentenced to death and one of the 13-year-olds to life in prison. The Communist Party issued a statement condemning the trial as a "legal" lynching. That night, the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys began.
Freedom was a long time coming. A series of trials and appeals all went badly for the defendants. In 1933, one of the alleged victims, Ruby Bates, recanted her testimony, but it wasn't until 1937 that four of the defendants were freed. Three more were paroled in the 1940s, and in 1948 Haywood Patterson escaped from Angola prison to Michigan, where the governor refused to extradite him. The last, Andy Wright, who had had his 1944 parole revoked, was finally released in 1950. The nine had spent 104 years in jail for a "crime" that never happened.
The ILD made the word "Scottsboro" synonymous, nationally and internationally, with Southern racism, repression and injustice. Their campaign was responsible for saving the Scottsboro Boys from the electric chair. As Haywood Patterson's father wrote in a letter to his son, "You will burn sure if you don't let them preachers alone and trust in the International Labor Defense to handle the case."
The CP's publicity was massive and moving. They organized demonstrations in Harlem and across the country, appealing to the masses to put no confidence in the capitalist courts and to see the struggle for the freedom of these youths as part of the larger class struggle. Young Communists in Dresden, Germany marched on the American consulate, and, when officials refused to accept their petition, hurled bottles through windows. Inside each was the note: "Down with American murder and Imperialism. For the brotherhood of black and white young proletarians. An end to the bloody lynching of our Negro co-workers."
In the South, the defense effort faced not only the racist system but the homegrown fascists of the Ku Klux Klan as well, which launched a campaign under the slogan "The Klan Rides Again to Stamp Out Communism."
The ILD's success in rallying the masses to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys happened despite their sectarian "Third Period" tactics. The ILD denounced the NAACP, the ACLU and most of the trade-union movement as "social fascists" and threw the "Trotskyite" likes of Jim Cannon out of Scottsboro defense meetings. But fascism was on the rise in Europe, and, seeking now to make as many allies as he could, in 1935 Stalin' declared the "Third Period" at an end. A Comintern resolution urged the Communist parties to form "popular fronts" with any and all for progressive ends. In the U.S. this meant supporting Roosevelt and abandoning the struggle to link the defense of black people with the fight against the capitalist system. You can imagine the surprise of the NAACP, who were now greeted warmly by the ILD as "comrades"! This comradeship did not extend to the Trotskyists. The Scottsboro Defense Committee was formed, and a lot of the life went out of the movement as the case dragged on.
Cannon and his party, the Communist League of America, supported the efforts of the ILD to free the Scottsboro Boys. The Trotskyists insisted on the importance of an integrated movement to fight in their defense. Cannon pointed out that it was wrong to view the Scottsboro case solely as a "Negro issue" and agitated in the pages of the Militant for the organization of white workers around the case.
When Clarence Darrow refused to work on the case unless the ILD withdrew because he didn't like its agitation methods, Cannon wrote:
"The ILD was absolutely right in rejecting the presumptuous demands of Darrow and Hays, and the Scottsboro prisoners showed wisdom in supporting the stand of their defense organization. Any other course would have signified an end to the fight to organize the protest of the masses against the legal lynching; and with that would have ended any real hope to save the boys and restore their freedom."
Darrow's big argument was: "You can't mix politics with a law case." Cannon replied:
"That is a reactionary lie. It is father to the poisonous doctrine that a labor case is a purely legal relation between the lawyer and client and the court.... It was the influence of this idea over the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee which paralyzed the protest mass movement at every step and thereby contributed to the final tragic outcome. Not to the courts alone, and not primarily there, but to the masses must the appeal of the persecuted of class and race be taken. There is the power and there is the justice."
Communists on Trial
During the time that the Scottsboro Boys were languishing in their Southern jails, World War II began in Europe. The American workers had gone through the experience of one of the biggest union organizing drives in the history of the country, resulting in the formation of the CIO, and many of the new industrial unions had won significant victories. Communists, including the Trotskyists, Jim Cannon and the Socialist Workers Party, had participated in and led many of these struggles. War is great for capitalist economies—the destruction creates constant demand, and if you win, you get new markets to exploit. But to go to war, you have to regiment the population at home, and that begins with the suspension of civil liberties.
On the eve of America's entry into World War II, Congress passed the Smith Act, requiring the fingerprinting and registering of all aliens residing in the United States and making it a crime to advocate or teach the "violent overthrow of the United States government" or to belong to a group advocating or teaching it.
For public consumption, this act was billed as an antifascist measure, but the Socialist Workers Party (successor to the Communist League of America) and Minneapolis Teamsters were the first victims of the Smith Act prosecutions. Why did the head of the Teamsters Union, Daniel J. Tobin, the U.S. attorney general, Francis Biddle, and the president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, conspire to take away the First Amendment rights of a small Trotskyist party, a party with maybe a couple thousand members and influence in one local of one union?
Part of the answer is that the SWP was effective. The party had led some hard class struggle; it was their comrades who had provided the leadership for the Minneapolis strike of 1934 which led to the formation of Teamsters Local 544. Another part of the answer is politics: the SWP was forthright in its opposition to the coming war. This was a calculated government attack designed to cripple the SWP where it had the most influence in the proletariat as America girded for imperialist war.
In the courtroom, the SWP's goal was to put the capitalist system on trial, a tradition we carry forward in our own cases. On the stand, Cannon pedagogically explained the positions of the SWP on the questions of the day and Marxism in general. But the Minneapolis defendants went to jail for 16 months—sentenced on the same day that Congress voted to enter the war. The ruling class hoped that the party would be leaderless and pass from the stage. But at that time the SWP was still a revolutionary party with a revolutionary program and a collective leadership—so that hope was, in the main, dashed.
A number of CIO unions issued statements in defense of the Minneapolis defendants, as did numerous black organizations. The American Communist Party, however, issued the following statement: "The Communist Party has always exposed, fought against and today joins the fight to exterminate the Trotskyite fifth column from the life of our nation." In line with their support for Roosevelt and the war, the CP aided the government in the Smith Act prosecution of the SWP and aided the FBI in their persecution of the Trotskyists in the trade unions. The CP's disgusting collaboration did not prevent them from being prosecuted under the very same Smith Act, beginning in 1948. The Trotskyists, of course, defended the CP unequivocally against the government prosecution while criticizing the CP's Stalinist politics.
Years later the attorney general, Francis Biddle, apologized for prosecuting the Trotskyists. The bourgeoisie sometimes apologizes when its crisis is safely over. Fifty years after the end of World War II, the U.S. government "apologized" for the wartime roundup and internment of Japanese Americans, offering a token compensation to those whose homes were seized and livelihoods ruined. They say whatever outrageous trampling of civil liberties occurred was an "excess" or "wrong" and of course it will "never happen again." But the Reagan government drew up plans to intern Arab Americans in concentration camps in Louisiana after the bombing of Libya. Those camps are ready and waiting for the next time the bourgeoisie feels its rule is substantially threatened.
Class-Struggle Defense Work
The Partisan Defense Committee was initiated in 1974 by the Spartacist League with the goal of re-establishing in the workers movement united-front, non-sectarian defense principles in the tradition of Cannon's ILD.
This was not anticipated to be, nor has it been, an easy task. Unlike the ILD, which inherited the rich and principled defense traditions of the IWW and the personal authority of mass leaders like Cannon and Haywood, we were the immediate inheritors of a tradition of Stalinist perversion of defense work. In addition, the ILD was founded as a transitional organization, seeking to organize the masses for class-struggle defense work under the leadership of the party. By its second conference, the ILD had 20,000 individual members, a collective, affiliated membership of 75,000, and 156 branches across the country. The PDC attempts to conduct its work in a way that will make the transformation to such an organization possible.
The PDC program of raising money for monthly stipends for class-war prisoners is an example of an ILD practice to which we adhere. We currently send stipends to 17 prisoners, including Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga and other former supporters of the Black Panther Party, victims of the FBI's murderous COINTELPRO frame-ups; Jerry Dale Lowe, a miner condemned to eleven years in prison for defending his picket line; and members of the MOVE organization locked up because they survived the racist cop assaults on their homes and murder of their family. We also follow the ILD's policy of strict accounting of finances and have modeled our journal, Class-Struggle Defense Notes, on the ILD's Labor Defender.
We take to heart Cannon's point:
"The problem of organization is a very significant one for labor defense as a school for the class struggle. We must not get the idea that we are merely 'defense workers' collecting money for lawyers. That is only a part of what we are doing. We are organizing workers on issues which are directly related to the class struggle. The workers who take part in the work of the ILD are drawn, step by step into the main stream of the class struggle. The workers participating begin to learn the ABC of the labor struggle."
Class-struggle defense is a broad category. We are a small organization and must pick and choose our cases carefully, with an eye to their exemplary nature. The case of Mario Munoz a Chilean miners' leader condemned to death in 1976 by the Argentine military junta, is a good example. This was the PDC's first major defense effort. Co-sponsored with the Committee to Defend Workers and Sailor Prisoners in Chile, the international campaign of protest by unions and civil libertarians won asylum for Munoz and his family in France.
Some of our work has been in defense of the revolutionary party. The Spartacist League takes its legality— the right to exist and organize—very seriously, and has been quick to challenge every libel and legal attack. The party successfully challenged the FBI's slanderous description of the SL as "terrorists" who covertly advocate the violent’ Overthrow of the government. A 1984 settlement forced them to describe the SL as a "Marxist political organization."
The PDC takes up not only the cases but the causes of the whole of the working people. We have initiated labor/black mobilizations against the Klan from San Francisco to Atlanta to Philadelphia to Springfield, Illinois, and mobilized sections of the integrated labor movement to join these efforts to stop the fascists from spewing their race hate.
In 1989, we broadened our thinking about how the PDC could champion causes of the international proletariat and offered to organize an international brigade to Afghanistan to fight alongside the forces of the left-nationalist Kabul regime against the imperialist-backed, anti-woman Islamic fundamentalists on the occasion of the withdrawal of Soviet troops. When our offer of a brigade was declined, we launched a successful campaign to raise money for the victims of the mullah-led assault on Jalalabad. To reflect this, we expanded the definition of the PDC to one of a legal and social defense organization. To carry out this campaign, it was necessary to expand the PDC internationally. Sections of the International Communist League initiated fraternal organizations in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
Currently we focus our efforts on Mumia Abu-Jamal and the fight to abolish the racist death penalty. Our actions in the Jamal case embody many of the principles of our defense work and the integral relationship of that work to the Marxist program of the Spartacist League, in this case particularly in regard to the fight for black liberation, which is key to the American revolution. This is a political death penalty case which illustrates the racism endemic in this country in its crudest, most vicious form and lays bare the essence of the state.
Throughout the very difficult period ahead, we will put all our faith in the mobilization of the working class and none in the capitalist courts. We embark now on exhausting every legal avenue open to Jamal, but we know the result hinges on the class struggle.
We hope you will join us in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, to abolish the racist death penalty and finish the Civil War. Forward to the third American revolution!