David North
The Heritage We Defend

Revolutionary Defeatism in World War II

In the spring and early summer of 1941, on the eve of the entry of the United States into World War II, the Roosevelt administration, working closely with the right-wing bureaucracy of the Teamsters union, prepared and launched a massive state attack on the Socialist Workers Party and its most important base inside the trade union movement, Teamsters Local 544 in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

On June 27, 1941, FBI agents raided the St. Paul-Minneapolis offices of the SWP and seized large quantities of literature and party documents. A little more than two weeks later, on July 15, 1941, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-eight members of the SWP, including National Secretary James P. Cannon and virtually all the party leaders in Minneapolis, on two counts of sedition.

The first count of the indictment accused the SWP of organizing a “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence.” The second count, based on the Smith Act enacted into law the previous year, charged the SWP with fomenting insubordination in the armed forces and advocating the violent overthrow of the US government.

The government prosecution, enthusiastically supported by the Stalinists, threatened the legal decapitation of the Socialist Workers Party. Cannon and his codefendants faced the possibility of years of imprisonment.

The trial began on October 27, 1941 and ended nearly six weeks later, on December 8, 1941, one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the day Roosevelt declared war on Japan. The climax of the trial occurred between November 18 and November 21, when Cannon took the stand. Under questioning from defense attorney Albert Goldman—who was also an SWP leader and a codefendant in the Minneapolis trial—and government prosecutor Schweinhaut, Cannon defended the party’s program of revolutionary opposition to the imperialist war. His testimony represented a concise summary of the theoretical and political foundations of Marxism and its revolutionary perspective.

Denying the government’s charges, which threatened the illegalization of the Socialist Workers Party, Cannon upheld the party’s opposition to the imperialist war and defended its program for socialist revolution. His testimony, published in the pamphlet Socialism on Trial, became a basic text of the Fourth International, read by its cadre all over the world.

Eighteen of the defendants were found guilty on the second count of the indictment and were sentenced to prison terms of up to a year and a half. The appeals of the defendants were eventually denied. Cannon entered prison on January 1, 1944 and was released a little more than a year later.

The Socialist Workers Party was the only working-class party that rejected the prowar and pro-Roosevelt “antifascist” popular front led by the Stalinists, and for this reason was the sole tendency in the workers’ movement in the United States whose leaders were imprisoned during World War II.

Forty-five years after the Minneapolis trial, the stand taken by the SWP is condemned by M. Banda as “the greatest betrayal of Trotskyism,” in which

The strategy and tactics of revolutionary defeatism were shamelessly abandoned by Cannon … in favour of a semi-defencist policy, and this act of criminal betrayal was endorsed by the International Executive Committee (IEC) and International Secretariat (IS) and challenged only by G. Munis.

Cannon’s political cowardice and capitulation to the backward sections of the US working class became the pattern for the WIL-Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain and his book ‘Socialism on Trial’ became the gospel for world Trotskyists and the basis for further revisions of Trotskyism after the war.

With this savage condemnation of the SWP’s position in the Minneapolis trials, Banda seeks to legitimize his call for the burial of the International Committee. According to Banda, this “greatest betrayal of Trotskyism”—for which there were no “extenuating factors”—set into motion an unstoppable train of further catastrophic errors by the Fourth International. As Banda writes:

The enormous influence of the SWP in the FI proved fatal in more ways than one. It encouraged during the war the adoption of centrist policies by many sections paralleling that of the SWP and with it—an adaptation to centrist parties and groups in Europe. Healy, a close adherent and admirer of Cannon actually left the WIL and proposed unity with Fenner (now Lord) Brockway. In Europe the sections abstained from participating in the Resistance and played little or no part in the struggle to project a revolutionary defeatist line.

After reading Banda’s denunciation of the SWP’s “criminal betrayal” in Minneapolis, the uninformed reader could not be blamed for assuming that Cannon arrived in the courtroom waving the Stars and Stripes, disavowed socialism, called upon the American labor movement to observe the no-strike pledge for the duration of the war, and offered to sell victory bonds to help the war effort. The reader would be at a loss to explain why “the greatest betrayal of Trotskyism” resulted in the jailing of Cannon and seventeen other leaders and members of the Socialist Workers Party by American imperialism.

To allege that the SWP was guilty of a “criminal betrayal” can have no other political meaning, if words are taken seriously, than that it capitulated to social-chauvinism and supported the imperialist war. In the case of the SWP during World War II, this charge is manifestly untrue.

Most of Banda’s falsifications are derived from old allegations made by long-departed political enemies of the Fourth International. Like pieces of rotting shrapnel that lie beneath the skin and slowly ooze to the surface, the fragments of old revisionist and sectarian polemics that have festered for years in Banda’s brain are now being spewed out in fantastic and grotesque forms.

The source of Banda’s denunciation of the Minneapolis trial is a document written in 1942 by Grandizo Munis—a Spanish Trotskyist who emigrated to Mexico after the defeat of the revolution—to which Cannon replied in detail, exposing the content of the criticism to be ultraleft and sectarian. Both Munis’ criticism and Cannon’s response were circulated throughout the Fourth International.

The SWP leadership’s position was overwhelmingly supported by the cadre of the Fourth International. Cannon’s reply was so effective that not even the Cochranites attempted to make use of Munis’ arguments, though this is perhaps to be explained by the fact that by 1953 Munis had already adopted a state capitalist position and left the Fourth International. As an eclectic, Banda simply skims along the surface of all the historical episodes to which he refers and upon which he bases his conclusions. He assumes that no one will bother to examine the historical record and study the political origins and context of each particular dispute.

Banda’s shoddy work will not pass muster with workers who are seeking the road to revolutionary struggle. But he is not writing for the purpose of convincing workers and educating them. The audience he craves is demoralized and declassed petty-bourgeois radicals and lumpen-intellectuals who are shopping for arguments to justify their desertion from the Fourth International and who do not really care whether Banda is telling the truth or not. As far as these elements are concerned, all arguments directed against the International Committee of the Fourth International are “legitimate” items for “discussion.” Of course, their idea of “discussion” is rather odd, since they are not at all interested in and cannot be convinced by arguments based on the historical record and indisputable facts.

Banda’s indictment of the SWP for a “criminal betrayal” is not only an attack on Cannon, but also on Trotsky. The defense tactics employed by the SWP in the Minneapolis trial were based on the military policy which Trotsky developed during discussions with the SWP in the summer of 1940.

Munis’ criticism, which he claimed to have written “with extreme rush,” was published in early January 1942. He charged that Cannon and his codefendants

shrink themselves, minimize the revolutionary significance of their ideas, try to make an honorable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that they should talk for the masses. For moments they border on a renunciation of principles. A few good words by Goldman in his closing speech cannot negate the lamentable, negative impression of his first speech and of the interrogation of Cannon.[1]

The gist of Munis’ objections to the SWP’s trial strategy was that Cannon and Goldman denied the government’s charges and attempted to defend the party’s legality. Munis criticized the SWP’s disavowal of sabotage and its failure to call for the violent overthrow of the government. His arguments were irresponsible and expressed a political instability rooted in Munis’ class position. Striking the exaggerated pose of a petty-bourgeois intellectual who seeks to mask his personal dejection with demagogy, Munis rejected all the defensive formulations which Marxists have employed in bourgeois courtrooms for nearly a century.

Throughout the trial, the SWP insisted that its activities consisted of preparing the working class for revolutionary struggle through propaganda and agitation. It denied that the SWP artificially fomented discontent or created disorder. Cannon testified:

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.[2]

Such statements enraged Munis, who firmly believed that the first duty of a revolutionist on trial is to make the walls of the courtroom reverberate with blood-curdling rhetoric. He cited the following exchange between Goldman and Cannon:

Goldman: Now, until such time as the workers and farmers in the United States establish their own government and use their own methods to defeat Hitler, the Socialist Workers Party must submit to the majority of the people—is that right?

Cannon: That is all we can do. That is all we propose to do.[3]

To which Munis replied, “All of which is the equivalent of folding one’s arms after some lectures about the marvels of the workers’ and farmers’ government, in the hope that this will be formed by itself, or by God knows what sleight of hand.”[4]

Munis’ semihysterical attitude toward the trial was ludicrously depicted in his claim that Cannon “rejected” Lenin when he declined to unconditionally endorse a sentence from the Collected Works that was read aloud in the courtroom by prosecutor Schweinhaut:

“ ‘It is our duty in time of an uprising to exterminate ruthlessly all the chiefs of the civil and military authorities’. … You disagree with that?

“Cannon: Yes, I don’t know that that is in any way a statement of our party policy. … We do not agree with the extermination of anybody unless it is in case of an actual armed struggle, when the rules of war apply.”[5]

Cannon’s agile deflection—“unless it is in case of an actual armed struggle, when the rules of war apply”—was not sufficiently r-r-r-revolutionary for Munis, whose petty-bourgeois penchant for the dramatic would have been more satisfied had Cannon warned prosecutor Schweinhaut that the SWP Political Committee had already drawn up the list of government officials destined for the firing squad and that those responsible for the trial would be among the first to be lined up against a wall!

Munis considered it impermissible for Cannon and Goldman to have merely predicted that the socialist revolution would, in all likelihood, assume a violent form. “Why not ask forgiveness,” Munis wrote sarcastically, “for seeing ourselves painfully obliged to employ violence against the bourgeoisie.”[6]

In response to Munis, Cannon quoted Lenin’s writings in 1917, proving that the line pursued by the SWP at trial was based on the Bolshevik policy of “patiently explaining” the party’s program to the working class. He also pointed out, in case Munis had failed to notice, that the position of the SWP within the American labor movement in 1941 was very different from that occupied by the Bolsheviks on the eve of the seizure of power.

A party which lacks a mass base, which has yet to become widely known to the workers, must approach them along the lines of propaganda, of patient explanations, and pay no attention to impatient demands for “action” which it is unable to organize and for exaggerated emphasis on “violence” which, in the given conditions, can only react to its disadvantage. When one considers how persistently careful and even cautious, was Lenin’s party to avoid provocation and cling to its formula of peaceful propaganda while it remained a minority, the merest suggestion that our party, at the present time, with its present strength, take a “bolder” course appears utterly fantastic, like a nightmare separated from living reality. Lenin wrote:

“The government would like to see us make the first reckless step towards decisive action, as this would be to its advantage. It is exasperated because our party has advanced the slogan of peaceful demonstration. We must not cede one iota of our principles to the watchfully waiting petty bourgeoisie. The proletarian party would be guilty of the most grievous error if it shaped its policy on the basis of subjective desires where organization is required. We cannot assert that the majority is with us; in this case our motto should be: caution, caution, caution” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. XX, book I, p. 279).

From the foregoing it should be clear that our disavowal of “responsibility” for violence in the testimony before the court at Minneapolis was not a special device invented by us “to reconcile the jury,” as has been alleged; our formulation of the question, taken from Lenin, was designed to serve the political aims of our movement in the given situation. We did not, and had no need to, disregard legality and “advocate” violence as charged in the indictment. …

We are not pacifists. The world knows, and the prosecutor in our trial had no difficulty in proving once again, that the great Minneapolis strikes, led by the Trotskyists, were not free from violence and that the workers were not the only victims. We did not disavow the record or apologize for it.

When the prosecutor, referring to one of the strike battles in which the workers came out victorious, demanded: “Is that Trotskyism demonstrating itself?” he received a forthright answer. The court record states:

“A: Well, I can give you my own opinion, that I am mighty proud of the fact that Trotskyism had some part in influencing the workers to protect themselves against that sort of violence.

“Q: Well, what kind of violence do you mean?

“A: This is what the deputies were organized for, to drive the workers off the street. They got a dose of their own medicine. I think the workers have a right to defend themselves. If that is treason, you can make the most of it.”[7]

Munis repeatedly attacked Cannon for insisting that the party would not attempt, beyond the limits of propaganda and agitation, to obstruct the war effort. He found the following statement by Cannon particularly objectionable:

Well, as long as we are a minority, we have no choice but to submit to the decision that has been made. A decision has been made, and is accepted by the majority of the people, to go to war. Our comrades have to comply with that. Insofar as they are eligible for the draft, they must accept that, along with the rest of their generation, and go and perform the duty imposed on them, until such time as they convince the majority for a different policy.[8]

After first misquoting Cannon to suggest that the SWP leader claimed that the decision to go to war had “been made” by the people (“Cannon endorses Roosevelt’s decision as if it really corresponds to the majority of the people”), Munis argued:

Yes, we submit to the war and our militants go to war, but not because it is a decision of the majority, but rather because it is imposed upon us by the violence of the bourgeois society just as wage exploitation is imposed. As in the factory, we should take advantage of all the opportunities to fight against the war and against the system that produces it, just as we fight against the boss in a factory, as a function of the general struggle against the capitalist system.[9]

This is all petty-bourgeois anarchist rubbish. The argument that revolutionists “submit” to war because of violence is, in fact, a cowardly position. Revolutionists do not submit to war out of fear of ruling class violence, but because their opposition to imperialist war is expressed through the struggle to mobilize the working class along revolutionary lines against capitalism. Marxists oppose individual outbursts against war in favor of genuine mass revolutionary struggle. For this reason, Marxists must go to war with their generation—until the interaction of objective conditions and party agitation converts the imperialist war into a civil war. This is the political basis of its opposition to sabotage, which is a special form of the general opposition of Marxists to individual terrorism.

In response to Munis’ declaration that the SWP leaders should have proclaimed in Minneapolis, “We submit to your war, American bourgeois, because the violence of your society imposes it on us, the material violence of arms,” Cannon answered:

That is not correct. If that were so we would have no right to condemn acts of individual resistance. When militant workers are put in fascist prisons and concentration camps because of their socialist opinions and activities they submit, but only through compulsion, to “the material violence of arms.” Consequently, individuals or small groups are encouraged and aided to “desert,” to make their escape whenever a favorable opportunity presents itself, without waiting for and without even consulting the majority of the other prisoners in regard to the action. The revolutionary movement gains by such individual “desertions” because they can restore the prisoner to revolutionary effectiveness which is largely shut off in prison. Trotsky, for example, twice “deserted” from Siberia without incurring any criticism from the revolutionists.

Compulsory military service in war is an entirely different matter. In this case we submit primarily to the majority of the workers who accept and support the war either actively or passively. Since we cannot achieve our socialist aims without the majority we must go with them, share their hardships and hazards, and win them over to our side by propaganda on the basis of common experiences, To accept military service under such circumstances is a revolutionary necessity.[10]

Munis also objected vehemently to the SWP’s rejection of sabotage: “Sabotage and defeatism will unite at a certain moment as the two main elements in the reactions of the masses against the imperialist war. The party should not and cannot renounce defeatism without condemning itself to a perpetual sterile chat against the war.”[11]

Note carefully how suddenly, in the second sentence, Munis identified sabotage, a specific tactic, with defeatism, the general policy, thus suggesting that defeatism minus sabotage equals “a perpetual sterile chat against the war.” He continued:

What seems even more lamentable to me is that one can intuit from the trial that it is not only a question of something said especially for the jury. For moments there is evidence that the defendants really consider sabotage a crime. If I am not mistaken—and I hope I am—this is a dangerous moral predisposition. Sabotage will be the reaction of the masses against the imperialist war. Why be ashamed of it? Why be ashamed that the masses react, as they can, against the monstrous crime of the present war? It would have been easy to defend it as a principle and throw the responsibility on the leaders of the present war. Can we condemn the future sabotage of the masses when the war is a gigantic sabotage of the bourgeoisie against the masses, against civilization and humanity? Instead of receiving this idea, the workers who heard our comrades will have left, burdened with a prejudice against sabotage.[12]

Here was the authentic voice of the frustrated petty-bourgeois radical who did not understand what mass revolutionary action really consists of. The issue raised at the trial was individual sabotage, and to glorify this tactic as “the reaction of the masses against imperialist war” simply exposed the fact that Munis had never completed his theoretical and political break with anarchism. In response to his assertion that the SWP defendants should have proclaimed from the dock that “we will fight against your war with all means,” Cannon explained:

While we are in the minority we fight with the Marxist weapons of political opposition, criticism and propaganda for a workers’ program and a workers’ government. We reject the pacifist “means” of abstention, the anarchist “means” of individual sabotage and the Blanquist “means” of minority insurrection, the putsch.

It would appear that Munis’ erroneous explanation of the primary reason why a minority revolutionary party “submits” to the war, his tendency to skip a stage in the workers’ development and his lack of precision in speaking of the struggle against the war by “all means”—these errors lead him to slide over to equally loose and ill-considered formulations as to those means of struggle which are open, and advantageous, to the minority party of revolutionary socialism.

The everlasting talk about “action,” as if a small minority party has at its disposal, besides its propaganda—its “explanations”—some other weapons vaguely described as “actions” but not explicitly defined, can only confuse and becloud the question and leave the door open for sentiments of an anarchistic and Blanquist nature. We, following all the Marxist teachers, thought it necessary to exclude such conceptions to safeguard the party from the danger of condemning itself to futility and destruction before it gets a good start on its real task at this time: to explain to the masses and win over the majority.

That is why we utilized the forum of the trial to speak so explicitly about our rejection of sabotage. That is why we denied all accusations in this respect so emphatically. Not—with Munis’ permission—for lack of “valor,” but because, as Marxists, we do not believe in sabotage, terrorism, or any other device which substitutes the actions of individuals or small groups for the action of the masses.

There can be no two positions on this question. Marxist authorities are universal on one side—against sabotage as an independent means of revolutionary struggle. This “weapon” belongs in the arsenal of anarchism.[13]

These lines are not only a refutation of Munis. Cannon’s argument is directed against all forms of opportunism, which habitually belittles the historic work of developing the revolutionary class consciousness of the working class.

Munis’ criticisms reflected the disorientation and demoralization of the isolated intellectual, weighed down by the defeats of the working class and utterly without confidence in the revolutionary capacities of the masses. His conception of revolutionary defeatism had more in common with romanticism than Marxism. The very notion that the SWP should take the question of its legality seriously and not willingly surrender its right to function openly struck Munis as a concession to US imperialism!

Before continuing with our analysis of Munis’ criticism of the SWP’s defense strategy, let us examine how Michael Banda and Gerry Healy defended the program of socialist revolution when the Workers Revolutionary Party was inside a bourgeois court.

In September 1975, the educational center of the WRP was raided by police after a defamatory article appeared in a capitalist newspaper, the Observer, suggesting that caches of arms were hidden on the grounds of the school. The WRP correctly sued for libel and the case finally went to trial in October-November 1978.

Neither Banda nor Healy testified on behalf of the WRP. Instead, they left the elaboration of the party’s principles to three other members of the Central Committee—Corin Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Roy Battersby—and the WRP’s attorney. Given the nature of the allegations made by the Observer, the key question at the trial was the attitude of the WRP toward violence. In violation of all revolutionary principles, the WRP allowed the tone of the trial to be set by their defense attorney, Mr. John Wilmers, QC, who carefully tailored his presentation to appease the court and the jurors. The News Line of October 25, 1978 reported his opening statement:

The plaintiffs “believe most fervently in Marxism,” Mr. Wilmers continued.

“They want to bring about a revolution in this country, but a revolution in the sense of a fundamental change, not in the sense of shooting it out on the streets.

“They speak of mobilizing the working classes for the overthrow of capitalism and for the building of a socialist society.

“But they are fundamentally opposed to violence and force. They think they can achieve their aims by educating people in their beliefs and by propaganda.”

This opening statement, which went unchallenged and uncorrected by the WRP witnesses in the weeks that followed, amounted to a repudiation of Marxism. This categorical declaration of opposition to violence and force has nothing in common with the defensive formulations used by Cannon and Goldman in 1941. Let us cite the following testimony from the Minneapolis trial:

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.[14]

The WRP took a very different line. On Thursday, October 26, 1978, the News Line reported on the previous day’s testimony of Corin Redgrave. It was a travesty of Trotskyist principles:

During the afternoon, Mr. Redgrave was cross-examined by Mr. Colin Ross-Munro, QC for the defendants, about the political policies of the Workers Revolutionary Party.

Asked about the struggle for workers’ power, Mr. Redgrave said it was being pursued by peaceful, legal and constitutional methods.

“No armed uprising led by the WRP?” asked counsel.

“Not so far as our aims are concerned” replied Mr. Redgrave.

Mr. Redgrave told the court that the party may consider the possibility of resorting to arms—“to meet force with force”—in the event of a fascist state in Britain.

This would be a situation in which all forms of democracy had been abolished and the majority of people had lost their democratic rights.

This testimony amounted to a repudiation of all the fundamental teachings of Marxism on the class nature of bourgeois democracy. The possibility of resorting to arms was limited to a struggle against a fascist state. The testimony which followed was even worse: “Asked where the working class would obtain arms for an uprising, Mr. Redgrave said that it was possible it could come from sections of the army who themselves might wish to defend democratic rights.

“ ‘That has been the history of such democratic rights in the past, and that was what happened in Portugal.’ ”

When pressed to explain the WRP’s official programmatic call for workers’ defense guards, the News Line reported the following opportunist testimony: “Mr. Redgrave said that the party called for workers’ defense guards to protect immigrant areas where fascist attacks occurred and the police on the ground were unable to give protection. The police themselves admit they cannot cope with the situation, he said.”

In other words, Redgrave’s testimony presented the workers’ defense guards not as organs of defensive struggle against the violence of the capitalist state and its agents, but as an auxiliary force to supplement an inadequate police force!

On Saturday, October 28, 1978, the News Line reported more testimony from Corin Redgrave, who was functioning as the chief spokesman of the WRP: “I have not taught violence, I have never practiced violence, and I oppose violence, and that is the course my party has always taken.”

The next witness was Vanessa Redgrave. According to the News Line report of October 31, 1978:

Asked about party references to the armed uprising of the working class, she said that this referred to specific conditions.

It concerned possible dangers in a situation, when a socialist government, elected on a socialist programme, might be attacked by minority groups. She gave the example of the overthrow of Dr. Allende’s government in Chile by the fascists.

The next witness was Roy Battersby. According to the News Line report of November 1, 1978: “Asked about the party’s call for ‘armed insurrection’, Mr. Battersby said: ‘All the probabilities are in Britain that it is possible for the working class to make the transition to socialism.’ But, in the event of a fascist takeover, ‘it might be necessary to consider an armed uprising.’ ”

Banda was the general secretary of the WRP when this trial took place. Alongside of Healy, he determined the political line that the party spokesmen would take inside the court room. Unlike Cannon and his codefendants, the WRP was not even confronted with criminal proceedings. It had voluntarily initiated a law suit against a capitalist newspaper. But in the hope of making a favorable impression upon the jury, gaining petty advantages, and perhaps winning a fat monetary settlement, the WRP did not defend revolutionary socialist principles.

What is most striking about this trial is not simply the pathetic watering down of its attitude toward revolutionary violence, but that the testimony does not indicate that even the slightest consideration was given toward politically educating the working class. Unlike the trial in Minneapolis, the Observer lawsuit contributed absolutely nothing toward the theoretical and political enrichment of the workers’ movement. Rather, the testimony of the WRP leaders only served to reinforce illusions in bourgeois democracy among workers and to cultivate within the party itself an opportunist attitude toward the capitalist state.

Banda’s vitriolic condemnation of the Minneapolis testimony in 1941 and the position adopted by the WRP in a legal proceeding in 1978 vindicates the observation made by Cannon: “In real life the difference between careful defensive formulation and light-minded ‘calls for action’ is usually, in the end result, the difference between real action and mere talk about it.”[15]


James P. Cannon, Socialism on Trial (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), p. 118.


Ibid., p. 27.


Ibid., pp. 120–21.




Ibid., p. 121.


Ibid., p. 123.


Ibid., pp. 146–48.


Ibid., p. 50.


Ibid., p. 119.


Ibid., p. 166.


Ibid., p. 123.




Ibid., pp. 167–68.


Ibid., p. 36.


Ibid., p. 148.