‘Instead of capitalists, a workers and farmers government’
The French-language edition of Socialism on Trial is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for October. It contains James P. Cannon’s testimony in a Minneapolis federal court in November 1941. Cannon, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, was one of 18 communist and Teamster leaders framed up and convicted on federal “conspiracy” charges under the Smith Act — a law that made it illegal “to teach, advocate and encourage” revolutionary ideas. President Franklin Roosevelt, preparing for Washington’s entry into World War II, wanted to isolate and silence proponents of socialism and their opposition to the imperialist slaughter. The defendants used the courtroom as a forum to clearly present their working-class program. This excerpt is from the section “Private property in the workers state.” Copyright © 1942, 2014 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY JAMES P. CANNON
Q: When you say “capitalist government,” what do you mean?
A: We mean a government that arises from a society that is based on the private ownership of the wealth of the country and the means of production by the capitalists, and which in general represents the interests of that class.
Q: And in contradistinction to this government you propose to establish a workers and farmers government?
A: Yes, we propose in place of the capitalists a workers and farmers government, which will frankly represent the economic and social interests of the workers and the producing farmers.
Q: Well, what would happen to the capitalists?
A: Under the workers and farmers government, the main task of the government will be to carry out the transfer of the most important means of production from private ownership to the common ownership of the people.
Q: Well, what would happen to the individual capitalists who would lose their wealth?
A: What do you mean, “happen to them,” in what way?
Q: Would you kill them or put them to work or what?
A: Well, under our theory, citizenship participation in the benefits of society would be open to everybody on a basis of equality. This would apply to former capitalists as well as to workers and farmers.
Q: When you use the term “productive wealth,” do you mean any property that an individual owns?
A: No — when we speak of the means of production, the wealth of the country, we mean that wealth which is necessary for the production of the necessities of the people. The industries, the railroads, mines, and so on. We don’t propose — at least, Marxist socialists have never proposed anywhere that I know — the elimination of private property in personal effects. We speak of those things which are necessary for the production of the people’s needs. They shall be owned in common by all the people.
Q: What would happen to small businesses, the owners of which do not have labor to hire?
A: Well, the best Marxist authority since [Frederick] Engels is that small proprietors, who are not exploiters, should be in no way interfered with by the workers and farmers government. They should be allowed to have their farms, their small possessions, their small handicraft shops, and only insofar as they become convinced, by the example of socialized collective farming and voluntarily would agree to pool their land and their resources in a collective effort, only to that extent can collectivization of small farming enterprises take place.
In the meantime, it is a part of our program that the workers and farmers government should assist such enterprise by assuring them reasonable prices for their implements, for fertilizers, arrange credits for them, and in general conduct the government as a government which is concerned for them and wants to represent their interests.
I am speaking now of small producing farmers, not of big landowners and bankers, who exploit a lot of people, or who rent land out to sharecroppers. We certainly intend to socialize their land in the very first stages of the workers and farmers government, turn it over to the administration of the people who actually till the soil. That also, I may say, is the standard Marxist doctrine since the earliest days, and the doctrine of [V.I.] Lenin and [Leon] Trotsky in the Russian Revolution.
Q: How will this socialist society be controlled and directed?
A: Well, socialism naturally would have to grow out of the new situation. After the social revolution has been effected in the political arena, and the capitalist government has been replaced by a workers and farmers government, which proceeds to the socialization of the industries, the abolition of inequalities, the raising of the level of the income of the masses of the people, and the suppression of any attempts at counterrevolution by the dispossessed exploiters, the importance and weight of the government as a repressive force would gradually diminish.
Then as classes are abolished, as exploitation is eliminated, as the conflict of class against class is eliminated, the very reason for the existence of a government in the strict sense of the term begins to diminish. Governments are primarily instruments of repression of one class against another. According to the doctrine of Marx and Engels and all of the great Marxists who followed them, and based themselves on their doctrine, we visualize, as Engels expressed it, a gradual withering away of the government as a repressive force, as an armed force, and its replacement by purely administrative councils, whose duties will be to plan production, to supervise public works, and education, and things of this sort. As you merge into socialist society, the government, as Engels expressed it, tends to wither away and the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things.
The government of a socialist society in reality will be an administrative body, because we don’t anticipate the need for armies and navies, jails, repressions, and consequently that aspect of government dies out for want of function.