Clear and convincing account of socialism
Socialism on Trial
By James P. Cannon
Resistance Books, 1999
211 pp., $17.95 (pb)
REVIEW BY JULIAN COPPENS
Socialism on Trial, by legendary United States socialist leader James P. Cannon, is an extremely informative introduction to the principles of socialism, as well as to debates within the socialist movement on how to build mass support for a socialist party.
In 1941, Cannon and 27 other socialists and trade unionists, most of them members of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), were charged with plotting to overthrow the US government. The charges were an attempt to silence a militant anti-war voice on the eve of World War II.
The book begins with the transcript of Cannon's cross-examination by the SWP's defence lawyer, and co-accused, Albert Goldman and by the prosecution. The SWP used the opportunity of the trial to present the wider public with a clear understanding of what socialists stand for and why it is in their interest to fight for it.
In his testimony, Cannon spoke to the working class in a way that related to their problems and experiences, that attempted to win concrete support for socialism through a clear explanation of working-class interests.
The SWP, and Cannon, never compromised the political tactic of courtroom agitation for socialism in favour of their legal defence, or of trying to get off lightly. They presented their platform in a clear and convincing manner.
Cannon covers nearly every aspect of the socialist program in his testimony: from the SWP's break with the Stalinised Communist Party, the Marxist analysis of capitalism, imperialism and war, the state, the Russian Revolution and US society to the SWP's position and tactics in relation to World War II, including the role of violence in the struggle to overthrow the capitalist ruling class.
This latter issue led to a serious debate amongst different Trotskyist tendencies about the courtroom tactics employed by the SWP. Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis criticised Cannon for moderating the revolutionary position in his testimony.
His criticism is reprinted in this volume, as is Cannon's "Political Principles and Propaganda Methods", a classic critique of Munis' ultra-leftism. It is this exchange that makes the book an excellent read for those, like myself, new to socialist activism.
The Resistance Books edition also contains contributions on the nature of civil rights defence campaigns and appropriate tactics for defending a revolutionary Marxist organisation against "legal" attack by the state. These contributions, by Cannon and George Novack, as well as a 1950 SWP resolution, "Capitalist Witch Hunt and How to Fight It", were written during both the 1941 trial and the McCarthyite purge of the 1950s.
Even for those familiar with these debates they make fascinating reading, particularly given their continuing relevance today. The ultra-left ideas of Munis, such as the belief that socialists don't need to take into account practical methods for winning people to their ideas, are still alive and kicking and need to be debated.
Cannon's response, along with V.I. Lenin's Left Wing Communism — An Infantile Disorder, provide invaluable ammunition for arguing against isolated minority ultra-leftism and for transitional, democratic and immediate demands and mass mobilisation as the proven revolutionary position. For this reason, Socialism On Trial is compulsory reading for socialist activists.