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Commentary :: Labor
Honor Sacco And Vanzetti-The Case That Will Not Die, Nor Should It
11 Aug 2009
This years marks the 82nd Anniversary of the execution of the anarchist militanst Sacco and Vanzetti by the State of Massachusetts.
<strong>Click on title to link to Sacco and Vanzetti commemoration site.</strong>

<strong>Below is a repost of the Sacco and Vanzetti post for 2008. The main points of the book review still tell the tale well about the fate of these class war prisoners.</strong>

<strong>Sacco and Vanzetti- Class War Prisoners in the Dock, Circa 1920 </strong>

<strong>BOOK REVIEW

Honor the Memory of Sacco and Vanzetti on this the 82st Anniversary of their execution by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruce Watson, Viking, New York, 2007</strong>

I like to put each item about the Sacco and Vanzetti case that I review in historical context with this well-worn standard first paragraph of mine. It, I believe, holds up today as in the past- Those familiar with the radical movement know that at least once in every generation a political criminal case comes up that defines that era. One thinks of the Haymarket Martyrs in the 19th century, the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930's, the Rosenburgs in the post-World War II Cold War period and today Mumia Abu-Jamal. In America after World War I when the Attorney General Palmer-driven ‘red scare’ brought the federal government’s vendetta against foreigners, immigrants and militant labor fighters to a white heat that generation's case was probably the most famous of them all, Sacco and Vanzetti. The exposure of the tensions within American society that came to the surface as a result of that case is the subject of the book by Professor Bruce Watson under review here.

In the year 2008 one, like myself, who openly proclaims partisanship for the heroic memory of Sacco and Vanzetti when looking for a book to help instruct a new generation about the case is not after all this time afraid of a little partisanship by its author. One is also looking to see if, given advances in modern criminology and technology, those sources have presented any new information that would change the judgments of history. That is apparently not the case with Professor Watson’s book. It is rather another garden variety narrative of the events that have been covered elsewhere by partisans on either side of the divide on the question of the guilt or innocence of the pair. Nevertheless it is good to have an updated narrative so that the youth will know that the pressing issues around the case have not gone away.

Professor Watson has presented a good description of the events that led up to the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in a Dedham, Massachusetts court presided over by an old WASP figure, Judge Webster Thayer. He details the hard work lives of the two Italian immigrants, the problems with foreigners especially South Europeans like them trying to gain a toehold in America, the future troubles to be brought on by their anarchist beliefs and more damagingly their departure for Mexico in 1917 to avoid being drafted into the American army after its entry into World War I.

Professor Watson further links the personal trials and tribulation of Sacco and Vanzetti with the general political atmosphere after World War I with its wave of anarchist bombings, the victory of the Russian Revolution and the response of capitalist America with the Attorney-General Palmer-led “ Red Scare, Part I”. He further details the South Braintree payroll robbery that set in motion the events of the next seven years that would bring world-wide attention to the cause of the two beleaguered anarchists. He gives the factual events of the day of the robbery and double murders, the subsequent search for the robbers, the narrowing of the chase to these two who were found to be armed at a later date in a very different context and their arrest and indictments for murder.

Needless to say any narrative of the Sacco and Vanzetti case needs to pay close attention to the trial itself, the personalities of the players and the evidence. In the background one has to look at the state of the law, especially its procedural aspects, at that time concerning capital punishment and further the social climate against foreigners, specifically Italians here. Watson, more than most accounts, gives special emphasis to chief trial defense lawyer Fred Moore and his various maneuvers, intrigues and, frankly, mistakes.

Of course, the heart of the book is an account of the appeals both legal and political throughout the seven year period. That included various strategies from calls for gubernatorial clemency to mass strikes by labor so the whole litany of class struggle defense policies gets a workout in the case. Although Professor Watson does a creditable job of describing these efforts as far as he goes I object, on political grounds, to his short shrift of the work of the Communist International and its class defense organization the International Labor Defense in publicizing the case. Who do you think brought the masses of workers out world-wide? It was not those Brahmin ladies on Beacon Hill, well-intentioned or not. This is certainly a subject for further comment by any reader of these lines.

The other point that I object to is Watson’s agnostic approach to the question of the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. At this far remove it is not necessary to be skittish about the question of their guilt or innocence in a legal sense. There is, obviously, not quite the sense of urgency of the call today for Mumia Abu Jamal’s freedom rather than retrial. However, although 80 years separate the two cases there is a steady tendency to limit justice in these cases to calls for retrial. However, in both cases the parties were innocent so the appropriate call would have been and is for freedom. This political ostrich act by Professor Watson, allegedly in the interest of being ‘objective’ and 'letting the new generation decide for itself', does a tremendous disservice to the memories of these class war fighters.

Nevertheless, this is a worthy book to use as a primer toward understanding the background to that long ago case. The end notes are helpful as is the bibliography for further research. Additionally, unlike Professor Watson’s excellent book Bread and Roses that I have previously reviewed in this space here he stays more closely with the subject and avoids bringing in every possible historical fact that might tangentially relate to the case. As always, until ultimate justice in done in the Sacco and Vanzetti case honor their memories today.

This work is in the public domain
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