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Workers Vanguard No. 898

14 September 2007

80th Anniversary of Legal Lynching

Lessons of the Fight to Free Sacco and Vanzetti

Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Free All Class-War Prisoners!

Part Two

Part One of this article, which we conclude below, appeared in WV No. 897 (31 August).

Caught up in the anti-immigrant hysteria and Red Scare that swept the U.S. in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, anarchist workers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested in May 1920 and framed up on murder and robbery charges of which they were manifestly innocent. In an article written after their execution in the Massachusetts electric chair on 23 August 1927, James P. Cannon, at the time a leader of the Workers (Communist) Party (CP) and secretary of the International Labor Defense (ILD) and later the founder of American Trotskyism, declared:

“The electric flames that consumed the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti illuminated for tens of thousands of workers, in all its stark brutality, the essential nature of capitalist justice in America. The imprisonment, torture and murder of workers is seen more clearly now as part of an organized system of class persecution.”

—“A Living Monument to Sacco and Vanzetti,” Labor Defender (October 1927)

Pointing to the ILD’s role as the leading and organizing center of a protest movement that had rallied millions of workers around the world behind Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause, Cannon called for building “a stronger, more united and determined movement for labor defense on a class basis.” He noted that “the industrial masters of America” who had carried out the execution to deal a blow to the entire labor movement “were not without allies, both conscious and unconscious, in the camp of the workers themselves.” “Sacco and Vanzetti will have died in vain,” he wrote, “if the real meaning and the causes of their martyrdom are not understood in all their implications.” These lessons are indeed of crucial importance in the struggle against capitalist repression today and are posed with particular urgency in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal who, despite massive evidence of his innocence, was railroaded to death row for his political beliefs and lifetime of struggle against black oppression.

The Defense Movement

With little known about their arrests outside the Boston area, the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti was initially limited to a local group of Italian anarchists who founded the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. The defense committee won the support of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a well-known radical, and her companion Carlo Tresca, an anarcho-syndicalist who edited the newspaper Il Martello in New York. The two members of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped line up Fred Moore, who had a long record of defending union militants and radicals, to be lead attorney in the case.

Moore appealed to IWW members, union leaders and socialists to mobilize in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. The American Civil Liberties Union, of which Flynn was a founding member, and its New England affiliate voiced their support as did a number of prominent liberals, notably the journalists Elizabeth Glendower Evans and Gardner Jackson. Various unions and even the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) tops came out in defense of the two workers. As Sacco and Vanzetti faced trial in May 1921, some 64 union locals from across the country contributed to the defense, and a flood of labor support swept in following their conviction in July. As we noted in Part One of this article, in the fall of 1921 the CP and Communist International (CI) called for a worldwide campaign of protest centered on the working class. The AFL passed a resolution in 1922 calling for a new trial and two years later declared Sacco and Vanzetti “victims of race and national prejudice and class hatred.”

In a 1927 ILD pamphlet, Max Shachtman described the wide range of support for Sacco and Vanzetti in the workers movement and observed:

“With many of these it was because they realized the class nature of the issues involved in the case; that it was not merely an incident of an accidental ‘miscarriage of justice’ but that the judge, jury and prosecutor were striking as severe a blow at the labor movement as was struck thirty-five years before in the trial of the Haymarket martyrs. With the others, it was the result of the feelings and pressure from the mass, who felt, however vaguely, a working class kinship with the two agitators.”

Sacco and Vanzetti:
Labor’s Martyrs

According to Massachusetts court procedure at the time, sentencing was postponed until all post-trial motions and appeals were decided. Although it was clear to everyone that the murder conviction could only mean a death sentence, that sentence was not pronounced until 1927. Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyers, meanwhile, attempted to overturn the conviction with a series of motions before the same biased Judge Webster Thayer who presided over the kangaroo trial and appeals before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that rubber-stamped Thayer’s every move.

Thayer denied the first post-conviction motion for a new trial on Christmas Eve 1921. Beginning the month before and throughout the next two years, a series of six supplemental motions were filed by the defense. In July 1924, with those motions pending, Moore resigned as attorney in the case. With his replacement by William Thompson, the tactics of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee changed as well. As recounted in Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind (2007), Thompson flatly declared that he did not believe “the government was actuated by any ulterior purpose in bringing the charge against them.” Despising the mass protest movement, Thompson appealed instead to the legal and business establishment to use its influence on the courts and state house.

In turn, the Boston defense committee called for a stop to the workers’ protest actions. As Shachtman described in his pamphlet, for the next two years this strategy “helped to discredit the honest and powerful class support of the toilers…. They demanded the substitution of the movement of the masses by the movement of the lawyers.” Shachtman pointed out, “The defense turned more and more towards reliance upon those false friends concerned more with the vindication of ‘confidence in our institutions and their capacity to rectify errors,’ and ‘those high standards which are the pride of Massachusetts justice’ than with the vindication of two unknown immigrants.”

Based on the Marxist understanding that the courts, cops, prisons and armed forces are core components of the capitalist state—a machinery of organized violence to protect the rule and profits of the exploiting class—the CP and ILD tirelessly fought against illusions in the capitalists’ rigged legal system. They fought instead for workers to rely only on their class power, derived from the fact that it is their labor that creates the wealth of society. In his important new biography, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007), Bryan Palmer includes a thorough account of Cannon’s leadership of the ILD, not least in regard to its efforts in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The CP and ILD were determined that Sacco and Vanzetti would not be added to the long list of labor’s martyrs. They understood that mobilizing labor’s power in protest and strike action could compel the bourgeois rulers to relent in fear of the social costs that executing or imprisoning the two men for life would bring. They fought as well to imbue militants with the consciousness that to tear down the walls imprisoning fighters against exploitation and oppression once and for all requires a socialist revolution that destroys the capitalist state and replaces it with a workers state, where those who labor rule. In this, they were following the path laid out by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, who wrote in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done? that the communist’s ideal

“should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Battle of Class Forces

In October 1924, Judge Thayer denied all motions presented by Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyers. In December, the Communist International issued an appeal “To the workers of all countries! To all trade union organizations!” calling to “Organize mass demonstrations! Demand the liberation of Sacco and Vanzetti!” The Daily Worker, newspaper of the Workers (Communist) Party, continued to publicize this struggle, and the party organized a Chicago labor rally for Sacco and Vanzetti on 1 March 1925 and mobilized heavily for rallies in Boston and other cities that day. Shortly after its inception that year, the ILD issued a call for workers internationally to demonstrate solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti. In a 23 May 1926 letter to the ILD, Vanzetti wrote, “The echo of your campaign in our behalf has reached my heart.”

Thayer’s 1924 decision was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which sat on the case before affirming the convictions on 12 May 1926. Two weeks later, lawyers filed another motion for a new trial based on the affidavit of Celestino Medeiros confessing his involvement in the robbery that led to the murder charges against Sacco and Vanzetti, exonerating the two men. In October, Thayer rejected the Medeiros confession along with affidavits of two federal agents documenting the government’s involvement in the frame-up and confirming that the two were targeted for their political activities. This was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The court proceedings touched off renewed protest activity. Labor Defender published a special “Save Sacco and Vanzetti” issue in July 1926 featuring “An Appeal to American Labor” by Eugene V. Debs, historic spokesman of the Socialist Party. Resolutions on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti were adopted by the Washington Federation of Labor and the New York Socialist Party.

The ILD initiated Sacco-Vanzetti committees and conferences throughout the U.S. that drew IWW militants, anarchists and delegates from the AFL and other union bodies around the call “Life and Freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti!” These meetings were an application of the tactic of the united front, through which a wide range of workers organizations unite in action around a common call while engaging in political debate based on their own programs. Through this means, the ILD sought to lay the basis for mass labor protest and strikes. The ILD also participated in rallies called by the Boston defense committee and other organizations. Cannon wrote to a wide array of public figures seeking statements in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. But the ILD’s primary focus was unleashing labor strikes and protests.

In New York City, the ILD-initiated Sacco-Vanzetti Emergency Committee encompassed individuals and organizations representing nearly half a million workers. Rallies organized by the committee drew over 15,000 in New York’s Madison Square Garden on 17 November 1926 and another 25,000 in Union Square the following April. Equally large gatherings were organized by ILD-led committees in Milwaukee, San Jose, Boston, Denver, Seattle and Chicago. Across the country, a network of two to three million workers was enlisted in the committees. The International Red Aid mobilized its organizations around the world, forming united-front committees in hundreds of cities and organizing mass protests. Millions throughout the entirety of the Soviet Union demonstrated in solidarity with the two class-war prisoners.

Thayer’s rulings opened up a period of sharpening political struggle over the way forward in this fight that would last up through the executions. The Socialist Party, AFL tops and anarchists organized some working-class protest, at times mobilizing significant forces. But such efforts were in the service of appeals for Sacco and Vanzetti to get their “fair day in court,” to be accomplished by tapping into liberal public opinion that hoped to spare the men’s lives for the sake of America’s “democratic” image. As for the national AFL leadership, rather than issuing a call for labor mobilizations, it pushed a resolution through the October 1926 AFL convention appealing to Congress to investigate the case. The SP and AFL tops undermined the growing mobilization of the workers by looking to the political agencies of the class enemy, a policy accompanied by a vicious anti-Communist campaign of slander and exclusion.

Throughout the 1920s, the SP leadership under Morris Hillquit, which in 1919 had purged the left-wing Socialists who supported the Bolshevik Revolution, waged a campaign against Communist influence in the labor movement that was particularly fierce in the needle trades in New York City. For his part, Matthew Woll, a member of the AFL Executive Council, ranted that the AFL was “the first object of attack by the Communist movement.” The same Woll was acting president of the National Civic Federation, an anti-union business group that viciously opposed the campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti’s freedom.

In November 1926, the Ohio State Socialist Party refused to join in a rally called by the ILD-initiated Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, and the SP’s New Leader (18 December 1926) retailed lying charges by the Boston defense committee that the CP and ILD had solicited funds for legal defense that were not forwarded and for which no accounting was made. In response to these slanders, Labor Defender (January 1927) published the ILD’s accounts and copies of checks forwarded to the Boston committee. The article pointed out that an earlier Labor Defender (September 1926) had printed, as part of its regular practice, an accounting of its receipts and ILD campaign expenses and had called for contributions for legal defense to be sent directly to the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in Boston rather than to the ILD.

The smears against the ILD were gleefully seized upon by the bourgeois press at the time and are repeated to this day. In answering the blatantly false charge that the ILD had pocketed $500,000 raised for Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense, Labor Defender (October 1927) remarked that this slander only aided “the Department of Justice and other agencies which consummated the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti” and now hope to prevent the protest movement from “being drawn into the fight in behalf of the other victims of the frame-up system now in prison or facing trial.”

Class-Struggle Defense

With the case again before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Cannon alluded to the sectarian exclusions and counterposed a class-struggle defense perspective in “Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?” (Labor Defender, January 1927):

“The Sacco-Vanzetti case is no private monopoly, but an issue of the class struggle in which the decisive word will be spoken by the masses who have made this fight their own. It is therefore, necessary to discuss openly the conflicting policies which are bound up with different objectives.

“One policy is the policy of the class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations—organized protest on a national and international scale. It calls for unity and solidarity of all workers on this burning issue, regardless of conflicting views on other questions. This is what has prevented the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti so far. Its goal is nothing less than their triumphant vindication and liberation.

“The other policy is the policy of ‘respectability,’ of the ‘soft pedal’ and of ridiculous illusions about ‘justice’ from the courts of the enemy. It relies mainly on legal proceedings. It seeks to blur the issue of the class struggle. It shrinks from the ‘vulgar and noisy’ demonstrations of the militant workers and throws the mud of slander on them. It tries to represent the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti as an ‘unfortunate’ error which can be rectified by the ‘right’ people proceeding in the ‘right’ way. The objective of this policy is a whitewash of the courts of Massachusetts and ‘clemency’ for Sacco and Vanzetti in the form of a commutation to life imprisonment for a crime of which the world knows they are innocent.”

The battle between these counterposed strategies took center stage following a 5 April 1927 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court again upholding Judge Thayer. Four days later, the front page of the Daily Worker carried an appeal by Cannon, “From Supreme Court of Capital to Supreme Court of the Masses,” in which he wrote, “The New England bourbons want the blood of innocent men. This was decided from the first, only fools expected otherwise. Only fools put faith in the courts of the enemy.” Cannon added, “It is time now to appeal finally to the masses. It is time for the workers to say their word.”

On April 9, Sacco and Vanzetti were called into Thayer’s courtroom for sentence to be pronounced. The two men spoke defiantly. Sacco told the judge, “I know the sentence will be between two class[es], the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will always be collision between one and the other.” When Vanzetti got his turn, he stated: “I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian;...but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already” (quoted in Herbert P. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti [1969]). They were sentenced to die in three months.

Following the sentencing, the ILD issued a call for a national conference “of all elements willing to unite to demand and force freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti.” On April 16, 20,000 workers filled New York’s Union Square in a protest called by the ILD-led Sacco-Vanzetti Emergency Committee. As part of an intensive effort over the next several weeks, more than 500 May Day meetings were organized by the ILD across the U.S and Canada.

The SP’s response to the sentencing was to further promote false hopes in bourgeois politicians. The New Leader (16 April 1927) wrote, “The next move is up to Governor Fuller, and there seems to be no doubt that he will have to accede to the world-wide demand that he act to save the lives of the two men.” The SP declared the scheduled execution date of July 10 as “a day of national mourning for the death of American justice,” while Hillquit called upon “the government and the governor of the State of Massachusetts to order a full and impartial investigation of the whole case” (New Leader, 23 April 1927).

After SP organizers of Sacco-Vanzetti meetings in Philadelphia and Cleveland refused to seat delegates from the ILD and other organizations, Cannon issued a statement printed in the Daily Worker (4 May 1927) condemning the disruption of the “labor reactionaries,” noting that “their aim is to isolate the militants and then sabotage the movement.” With the social democrats, anarchists and labor tops working to undermine the ILD’s efforts, the plan to hold a national Sacco-Vanzetti conference fell through. The Boston defense committee sought to head off growing sentiment in the unions for such a conference by appealing instead for Governor Fuller to appoint a commission to review the case. On June 1, they got their wish, as Fuller announced the appointment of a three-man panel to advise him on Vanzetti’s petition for clemency filed the previous month.

The panel was led by Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, a patrician reactionary who had campaigned for the draconian 1921 Immigration Quota Act, banned black students from living in Harvard dorms, restricted Jewish enrollment at Harvard and opposed legislation reducing child labor in the textile industry. This record did not stop the Boston committee from lauding the commission as “men reputed to be scholarly, of high intelligence and intellectual probity, with minds unswayed by prejudice.” The committee advised the governor to implement the power of commutation because that would be “far less likely to undermine public faith in the courts of the Commonwealth.” The SP affirmed its faith that “while the members of this commission are conservatives, it is generally believed that their high professional standing gives fair assurance that they will make a report justified by all the facts in the case” (New Leader, 9 July 1927).

Rumors swirled that Fuller would respond to the growing international protests by commuting the death sentences. Recalling how an earlier movement on behalf of class-war prisoners Tom Mooney, who faced execution, and Warren Billings had been sapped by the commutation of Mooney’s death sentence to life imprisonment, Cannon cautioned in “Death, Commutation or Freedom?” (Labor Defender, July 1927): “The great movement for Sacco and Vanzetti, which now embraces millions of workers, must not allow itself to be dissolved by a similar subterfuge.” Calling a life sentence “a living death,” he warned, “The hearts of the Massachusetts executioners have not softened with kindness, and their desire to murder our comrades has not changed.... The working class must reply: Not the chair of death, but life for Sacco and Vanzetti! Not the imprisonment of death, but freedom to Sacco and Vanzetti!”

Political Battle Comes to a Boil

As the scheduled execution date of July 10 neared, the social democrats brought their anti-Communist campaign to a fever pitch, regurgitating the slander about the ILD’s fundraising and stepping up their divisive attempts to exclude CP and ILD militants. This came to a head at a mass rally of 25,000 workers in Union Square on July 7. Called by the labor-based Sacco-Vanzetti Liberation Committee (SVLC), some 30 unions joined in the call for a one-hour protest strike that day, bringing out half a million workers. The ILD and its Emergency Committee built heavily for the protest, distributing 200,000 leaflets. The rally went ahead despite the granting of a one-month reprieve by Governor Fuller.

In negotiations before the rally, the SVLC had agreed that there would be four platforms, with two allotted to the Emergency Committee. But the SP had other plans, and only two platforms were set up, both controlled by the SP. After a number of Socialist speakers addressed the crowd, a contingent of workers hoisted Ben Gold, a CP member who had led a successful Furriers strike, onto their shoulders. As they approached the podium demanding that Gold speak, SP honcho Abraham Weinberg kicked Gold in the chest, sending him reeling into the crowd. When the workers carried Gold to the other platform, SP bigwig August Claessens attacked him as well.

Claessens and Weinberg then called in the police, who charged the crowd on horseback and broke up the rally. After the attack, SP spokesmen made absolutely clear that driving out the reds took priority over carrying out a united action in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. The SP’s Samuel Friedman baldly stated, “We would rather have the meeting broken up than allow a faker like Gold speak” (Daily Worker, 8 July 1927). The New Leader (16 July 1927) declared that due to “known antagonism” and “charges of misconduct…it had been decided that the Communists were not to be permitted to co-operate in the meetings.”

The SP’s exclusionism only served to weaken the movement in the face of a furious onslaught by the bourgeois state. As the new execution date of August 10 approached, the ILD helped build a July 31 protest at Boston Common called by the Boston defense committee. As described in the New Leader (13 August 1927), after the cops broke up the SP-led rally at one end of the Common, most of the demonstrators moved to another part of the park, where the Communists held a permit. That rally, too, was dispersed by the cops. Around the country, cops broke up protest meetings with clubs, guns and tear gas.

Governor Fuller denied clemency on August 3. The next day, the ILD’s Emergency Committee issued a call for a half-day strike of New York labor on August 9. The labor tops tried their best to sabotage the strike, with the AFL leadership spurning calls from numerous unions and other workers organizations to take action while many local union officials announced in the capitalist press that they opposed the strike. Nonetheless, 50,000 turned out in Union Square, and another 50,000 struck in Philadelphia. A Chicago protest of 20,000 the same day was fired on by the cops. Fuller’s denial had finally spurred AFL head William Green to “action,” writing Fuller to ask for “executive clemency.” As the Daily Worker (10 August) commented, an appeal by Green to AFL unions “would aid tremendously in staying the hand of the executioner! But an appeal to Fuller couched in such honeyed words as Green uses only enhances that vile enemy of labor in the eyes of his class and indirectly sanctions the murders.”

As the hour of execution neared, a wave of protests took place around the world. In the U.S., police forces brutally moved against the protesters: offices were raided in New York, Detroit and San Francisco, and meetings were broken up. On the night of August 10, cars of heavily armed cops roamed through Chicago, breaking up every gathering of more than a dozen workers. Earlier that same day, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a liberal icon, had turned down a habeas corpus petition for Sacco and Vanzetti, and shortly before midnight they were brought to the death house. A half hour before the time set for execution, Fuller announced a reprieve until midnight, August 22, to allow their attorney to argue a new motion before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

On August 16, the day of the hearing, the ILD announced plans for protests in 200 cities. The 18 August Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by Cannon, titled “No Illusions,” that warned the “working masses not to be fooled with false hopes and false security.” He stressed:

“The great task, therefore, in the few fateful days remaining, up to the last minute of the last hour, is to put all energy, courage and militancy into the organization of mass demonstrations and protest strikes. All brakes upon this movement must be regarded as the greatest danger. All illusions which paralyze the movement must be overcome. All agents of the bosses who try to sabotage and discredit the protest and strike movement must be given their proper name.”

Another front-page appeal by Cannon the following day declared: “Put no faith in capitalist justice! Organize the protest movement on a wider scale and with a more determined spirit! Demonstrate and strike for Sacco and Vanzetti!” When the Massachusetts high court turned down another appeal on the 19th, the Emergency Committee called for a mass protest strike on August 22.

On August 20, Oliver Wendell Holmes refused to stay the execution, and a similar request was turned down by Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone on August 22. Millions took to the streets worldwide. But Sacco and Vanzetti were executed shortly after midnight.

A Mountain of Slander

Eighty years after this legal lynching, various bourgeois journalists and academics continue to regurgitate long-disproved lies about the case. Some portray that the two worker militants were common criminals guilty of coldblooded murder. Others rehash the lie that unlike Vanzetti, Sacco never declared his innocence of the murders. Not only did he do just that in numerous letters that have been published, but his declaration of innocence was carried out of prison by a spy the Feds planted in the cell next to his!

On 24 December 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported the “discovery” of a 1929 letter from Upton Sinclair written after he finished Boston, his novel about the case. Sinclair wrote that he met with Fred Moore, who told him that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty and that he had concocted alibis for them. News of the Sinclair letter was picked up by Jonah Goldberg, an editor of the right-wing National Review, and found a home on various blogs. This was, in fact, old news. Sinclair had written about the discussion in 1953, when he pointed out that Moore had made clear that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti confessed to him and that he had no proof of their guilt. According to Moore’s ex-wife, he became embittered after he left the case. In 1963, Sinclair wrote, “Those who believe or declare Sacco was guilty get no support from me” (quoted in Watson, Sacco and Vanzetti).

The primary source of the slanders against Sacco and Vanzetti and those who fought for them is a cabal of Cold Warriors around the National Review, which was founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. and whose longtime senior editor was renegade ex-Trotskyist James Burnham. At a time when it was generally acknowledged that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent frame-up victims, a 1961 National Review article by Max Eastman claimed that in 1942 he was told by anarchist Carlo Tresca, “Sacco was guilty, but Vanzetti was not.” Eastman had earlier been editor of the left-wing Masses but by the time of his purported conversation with Tresca had become a virulent anti-Communist. In the 1950s, Eastman was a strong supporter of the witchhunting Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

A year after Eastman’s article came the book Tragedy in Dedham by Francis Russell, a regular contributor to National Review. Russell claimed that “after his expulsion from the party, James Cannon…was to admit privately—much as Moore did—that he felt Sacco was guilty.” (Cannon was expelled from the CP in 1928 along with Max Shachtman and Martin Abern for supporting Leon Trotsky’s criticisms of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership of the degenerating Communist International.) Russell would later identify Burnham as his source for that tale.

Cannon responded in a letter to the New Republic (27 April 1963): “The truth is that I have never felt or thought that Sacco was guilty. I have always thought they were innocent, and have never expressed a different thought or feeling, privately or publicly, anywhere at any time.” Defending “the memory of Carlo Tresca,” a friend of Cannon’s who worked closely with him in the Sacco and Vanzetti campaign, he added, “Never, at any time, did I ever hear him express or even intimate any doubt about the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. And I never heard any report, or rumor, or gossip, from anyone else who ever heard such a thing about Tresca until Mr. Russell’s statement hit me in the eye.”

There can be no mistaking that the point to rewriting the history of this case is not just to trash the memory of the two anarchists but to smear labor militancy and revolutionary proletarian opposition to the bloodsoaked capitalist system—i.e., communism. Liberal “defenders” of Sacco and Vanzetti have joined in rehashing the attacks on the ILD and early CP. In her 1977 book The Never-Ending Wrong, Katherine Anne Porter claimed that shortly before the execution she was told by one Communist, “Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?” Along with the lies about money and other anti-Communist slanders, this is passed as good coin in Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti. Watson writes of the critical last weeks, “As party members grew increasingly shrill, their callousness appalled sincere supporters. Communists flocking to Boston, Gardner Jackson remembered, unquestionably ‘preferred Sacco and Vanzetti dead [rather] than alive’.” Watson proclaims, “Sacco and Vanzetti were far more useful to Communists than Communists would be to them.”

At the height of the fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti, the CP argued against any in the movement who argued that their execution would ultimately redound in the favor of the working class: “The workers holding to such an opinion must be made to realize that martyrs are a confession of weakness on the part of the laboring masses. The fact that the bosses can railroad to prison or put to death our leaders with impunity becomes a weapon of intimidation in their hand and does help to cow and keep in submission the less militant mass…. The more powerful labor becomes, the more effective it is in making its demands heeded, the less will it have martyrs” (Daily Worker Magazine, 28 May 1927).

Mumia and Class-Struggle Defense

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti contains powerful lessons for the fight to free class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death after being falsely convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. As we noted in Part One, the overwhelming evidence of Mumia’s innocence includes the sworn confession of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, shot Faulkner. As with the Medeiros confession exonerating Sacco and Vanzetti, the courts have refused to hear the Beverly confession and its supporting evidence.

The Partisan Defense Committee has secured statements from hundreds of prominent individuals and labor leaders and organizations internationally demanding that Mumia be freed on the basis that he is an innocent man and the victim of a racist, political frame-up. As Mumia’s case enters its final stages, it is crucially important that such statements be turned into labor action. But to make that happen requires conducting the kind of hard political struggle that the CP and ILD waged against the reactionary labor tops as well as those “socialists” who obstruct class-struggle defense by sowing illusions in the capitalist injustice system. Among Mumia’s ostensible defenders are several left groups that replicate the reformist outlook and strategy of the SP of the 1920s but lack the kind of base it had in the working class. A typical example is Jeff Mackler’s Socialist Action (SA), which represents nothing so much as the New Leader of today.

Where Cannon warned against illusions in the black-robed justices, Mackler hailed the December 2005 announcement by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that it would hear only three of Mumia’s two dozen issues on appeal as a “decision that will likely stun the Pennsylvania legal establishment” and opined that there was little likelihood that the court would reinstate the death sentence (Socialist Action, December 2005). Echoing the New Leader’s praise for the “high professional standing” of the Lowell Commission, Mackler wrote in Socialist Action (June 2007) about the oral argument before the Third Circuit the previous month that several decisions on other matters relevant to Mumia’s case “marked this court as among the few remaining ‘liberal’ juridical institutions in the country.” Mackler is co-coordinator of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, which offers a sample letter to send to Democratic Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell that concludes, “We urge your intervention to guarantee that justice is done.” This is the same Ed Rendell who as Philly D.A. in 1981-82 prosecuted Mumia!

We honor Sacco and Vanzetti by fighting for the life and freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal in the class-struggle tradition of the ILD. When Mumia faced an August 1995 execution date, an international wave of protest that crucially included trade unionists played a major role in the court’s decision to grant a stay of execution. At the same time, liberals and reformists sought to steer that struggle into relying on the racist bourgeois legal system to secure “justice” for Mumia. And it was that liberal strategy of reliance on the capitalist courts that demobilized Mumia’s army of supporters around the world. Today the need to revitalize the movement for Mumia’s freedom is posed pointblank. As we wrote in “Class-Struggle Defense vs. Faith in Capitalist ‘Justice’” (WV No. 892, 11 May): “Indeed, labor’s power must be brought to bear on behalf of Mumia. But it is self-evident that this can only be done by mobilizing independently of the forces of the capitalist state that framed up this innocent man.”


Workers Vanguard No. 898

WV 898

14 September 2007


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Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!

U.S., Mexican Workers: For Joint Class Struggle!


British, Greek Unions:

Mumia Is Innocent! Free Him Now!


80th Anniversary of Legal Lynching

Lessons of the Fight to Free Sacco and Vanzetti

Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Free All Class-War Prisoners!

Part Two


From the Archives of Marxism

Friedrich Engels "On Authority"


Gérard Le Méteil



Join the Spartacus Youth Club!

(Young Spartacus pages)


Cliffites Deal in Religious Opiate

(Young Spartacus pages)


Right-Wing Senator Pilloried, for Nothing

Sex Police on the Prowl

(Editorial Note)


Port of Sacramento: Cops Assault Black Longshoremen

Defend Bay Area ILWU Members!


Workers Vanguard Subscription Drive