Marxism in Minnesota

Labor advocate Vincent R. Dunne
Labor advocate Vincent R. Dunne was arrested during the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike of 1934. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In June 1941, the FBI raided the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) headquarters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and by July, 29 people had been charged with conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.

How did Minnesota became a center of supposed treason?

Well, the story is complicated: A year earlier, Congress passed the Smith Act, or Alien Registration Act. The Smith Act required registration of all non-citizen residents. It also criminalized advocating for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government through speech, written publications or organized groups.

Pushing for change

Under the Smith Act, the Minnesota case marked the first time any U.S. individuals had been charged with sedition during peacetime since 1798.

The Socialist Workers Party, formed in 1938 with about 1,000 members, was shaped by Marxist ideas. The party had a strong presence in the Twin Cities, and many SWP members were leaders in the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike of 1934, when thousands of workers walked off the job.

During this era, the FBI monitored several leftist organizations, including the SWP.

In 1941, with the country on the verge of entering World War II, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover feared the anti-war SWP could use its infl uence with the Teamsters to disrupt national transportation, and thus, the war effort.

The case went to trial in October, and the defendants argued that they weren’t plotting to overthrow the government; rather, the SWP’s Marxist tenets only predicted capitalism would fall through violence.

They pointed out that their party was trying to create political change through methods like running for political office, not armed uprising.

St. Paul was the home of the Socialist Workers Party Campaign headquarters in 1946.

Freedom of speech

Many felt that the defendants’ right to freedom of speech was on the line.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee wrote in a pamphlet supporting the defendants: “In his opening statement to the jury, [the prosecutor] explicitly declared that even if it could not be proven that the defendants had taken up arms against the government, they could nevertheless be found guilty. In other words, the defendants could be convicted not for anything they did, but solely for expressing their opinions.”

In December after 56 hours of deliberation, a jury found 18 defendants guilty, and they were each sentenced to 12 to 16 months in prison. Among them were Grace Holmes Carlson of St. Paul, the only woman convicted, who served as the Minnesota state organizer for the SWP, and Vincent R. Dunne, a prominent Minneapolis labor figure and leader in the 1934 Teamster strike.

The 18 defendants immediately appealed, and organizations like the ACLU and NAACP, as well as many labor unions and trade councils, rallied to support the cause.

Dunne went on a national speaking tour, saying, “We are fighting not only for ourselves, but for the freedoms and democratic rights of the entire labor movement and the American people.”

The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in late 1943, the court refused to hear the case. Attorneys petitioned the court twice for a rehearing, but the Supreme Court wouldn’t budge.

Members of the Social Workers Party were charged with violating the Smith Act in 1941.

Off to prison

Their appeals exhausted, the 18 defendants had to complete their prison sentences.

The SWP held farewell banquets in New York and Minneapolis, and a group of defendants agreed to surrender to authorities together in Minneapolis.

After meeting at the SWP’s headquarters, they marched to the federal courthouse to turn themselves in. Most of the men were imprisoned in Sandstone, Minnesota, while Grace Carlson was sent to a women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia.

Following their prison terms, the SWP held mass meetings in Minneapolis, New York and Chicago to welcome its members back and advocate for the repeal of the Smith Act.

Many defendants also continued to serve as public faces of the SWP. Carlson ran for U.S. Senate in Minnesota in 1946 on the SWP ticket, and Dunne ran a campaign for Minneapolis mayor.

In 1948, Farrell Dobbs and Carlson ran for president and vice president as SWP candidates.

The Smith Act went on to be used against Communist Party leaders in the 1950s until 1957 when the Supreme Court ruled in Yates v. United States that radical speech was protected under the First Amendment unless there was a “clear and present danger.”

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.