Monthly Archives: January 2018

Another socialist we need today

Eugene V. Debs Biography
Biographical Information
Born: Nov. 5,1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Died: Oct. 20,1926, Lindlahr Sanitarium, Elmhurst, Illinois. Buried in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Education: Attended Terre Haute Public schools, dropping out of high school at age of 14 to take job as painter in railroad yards. In 1870 became fireman on railroad. In his spare time, he went to night classes at a local business college.
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Timeline
September 1874 — At his mother’s insistence he gave up job as railroad fireman and went to work in wholesale grocery firm of Hulman & Cox as a billing clerk. February 27, 1875 — Became charter member and secretary of Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He continued work at Hulman & Cox and used his salary to help the fledgling local union and conducted its work at night. Later the same year he became president of Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute. Brought famous personages to Terre Haute including Col. Robert Ingersoll, James Whitcomb Riley, Susan B. Anthony and many others.
1878 — Made assistant editor of national Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman’s Magazine.
1879 — Elected to first of two terms as City Clerk of Terre Haute on Democrat ticket.
1880 — Named Grand Secretary of Brotherhood of Railway Firemen and editor of the Magazine.
1884 — Elected state representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat representing Terre Haute and Vigo County. Served in 1885.
June 9, 1885 — Married to Kate Metzel whom he loved and cherished until his death. They had no children.
1890 — Built and moved into his beautiful Terre Haute home at 451 North Eighth Street, which is now a National Historic Landmark of the National Parks Department of the Department of Interior of the United States; an official historic site of the State of Indiana and is now the Debs Museum.
1891 — Announced his retirement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen as its Grand Secretary.
1892 — Convention of Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen prevailed on him to retain editorship of Magazine.
June 1893 — Organized in Chicago first industrial union in United States, the American Railway Union.
April 1894 — The American Railway Union struck Great Northern Railway. Not a wheel moved on Great Northern and at end of 18 days, the railway granted demands of union.
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The Charter for the American Railway Union, Established June 20, 1893
May 11, 1894 — Pullman Boycott and strike at Chicago began.
July 23, 1894 — Debs and leaders of ARU jailed
May, 1895 — Debs and leaders of ARU sent to jail for contempt of court in connection with Pullman strike. Finished sentences
Nov. 22, 1895. Given triumphal welcome by thousands on his arrival in Chicago, from Woodstock, Ill. jail where sentence was served.
1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920 — Ran as candidate of Socialist Party for President of the United States in some of the most dynamic campaigning ever seen in the United States. Made his greatest showing in campaign of 1908 which featured the RED SPECIAL train which went to every section of the country.
1907-1912 — Named Associate Editor of the Appeal to Reason published in Girard, Kan. He was paid the then fabulous salary of $100 per week. The weekly magazine achieved a circulation of several hundred thousand due to the powerful writing of Debs. The bound files of the Appeal to Reason for the years of 1907 to 1914 are part of the library in the Debs home.
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Eugene V. Debs circa 1920
1916 — Ran for Congress in his home district in Terre Haute on the Socialist ticket and was defeated.
June 16, 1918 — Debs made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio under the war-time espionage law. He was his own attorney and his appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing, are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison.
April 12, 1919 — Debs began serving his sentence in Moundsville, W. Va. State prison and was transferred to Atlanta, Ga. Federal prison two months later. His humility and friendliness and his assistance to all won him the respect and admiration of the most hardened convicts.
1920 — For the fifth and last time, while a prisoner at Atlanta, he was nominated to run for president on the Socialist party ticket. Conducting his campaign from inside the prison, he was given nearly a million votes but was defeated by the Republican, Warren G. Harding. On Christmas Day, 1921 President Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served.
Dec. 28, 1921 — Debs arrived home in Terre Haute from prison and was given a tremendous welcome by thousand of Terre Hauteans. Debs spent his remaining days trying to recover his health which was severely undermined by prison confinement. He made several speeches, wrote many articles and finally in 1926 went to Lindlahr sanitarium just outside of Chicago.
Oct. 20, 1926 — Eugene V. Debs died in Lindlahr sanitarium. His body was brought back to Terre Haute where it lay in state in the Terre Haute Central Labor Temple. Great men and women from the world came over to Terre Haute for his funeral which was conducted by Norman Thomas from the front porch of the Debs home. ThIrty-eight years later, Thomas returned to Terre Haute to dedicate the Debs home as a memorial to the great humanitarian. Debs was cremated and his ashes were interred in Highland Lawn cemetery, Terre Haute, with only a simple marker. Ten years later his beloved wife, Kate, was buried beside him. Over the years, hundreds have journeyed to his grave to pay tribute to this great man whose many reforms have now become a part of the American way of life. There is hardly any American alive today, rich or poor, whose life has not been touched in some beneficent way by the influence of Eugene Victor Debs.
“Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.”— from an address on Industrial Unionism delivered at Grand Central Palace. New York City, Dec. 18,1905.

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The Kind of Woman We Need Today

The story of the Rebel Girl
Benjamin Silverman chronicles the radical legacy of IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

August 7, 2012
“FOR PEACE and socialism is in the hearts, in the minds, on the lips of millions around the world…The ‘sun of tomorrow’ shines upon us. The future is ours.”

So said one of the giants of American radicalism, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, in a May Day speech in 1941. Flynn dedicated her life to the struggles of the working class through its highest and lowest points. She breathed class struggle and spoke of revolution for nearly 60 years, and her legacy is worthy of the highest admiration.

Born to poor Irish immigrants in 1890 in New Hampshire, she could claim proudly, “There had been an uprising in each generation in Ireland [against British rule], and forefathers of mine were reputed to be in every one of them.”

Her father, Thomas Flynn, educated her and her siblings in the meaning of her Irish heritage and the politics of liberation. “When one understood British imperialism, it was an open window to all imperialism,” wrote Flynn. “As children, we came to hate unjust wars, which took the land and rights away from other peoples.”

Now living in the South Bronx, her father drifted to socialist politics and brought young Elizabeth with him. Recounting what her father taught her, Elizabeth said, “Scientific socialism made clear that it was not a poor man’s fault if he is out of work…and you were not a ‘failure’ because you did not climb to riches on the backs of your fellow man.”

Thomas Flynn–who ran for the New York State Assembly on the Socialist ticket in 1918–later became overbearing and eventually jealous of his daughter’s popularity in the labor movement. But looking back, Elizabeth still felt that “[o]ur father’s methods were not entirely correct, but his purpose was clear, not to allow his children to be ‘educated’ against the interests of the working class.”

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FLYNN WOULD begin to develop politically on her own, devouring socialist novels like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News From Nowhere, along with the works of Peter Kropotkin and August Bebel. It was the latter’s book Woman Under Socialism that she used as a basis for her first public speech and lecture on “What Socialism Will Do For Women,” which she gave at age 15.

A lifelong advocate for birth control access and a fighter for women’s rights, she said looking back on those times, writing in her autobiography Rebel Girl:

Fathers and husbands collected women’s wages, sometimes right at the company door. Women did not have a legal right to their own earnings…Equal opportunity, equal pay and the right to be organized were the crying needs of women wage-earner then and unfortunately still now.

This teenage agitator become a hit among working men and women, and a target for sexist ire from the snobbish New York Times, which commented after her first of many arrests in 1906, “Miss Flynn, who will graduate school in two years and whose shoe tops…show below her skirts [i.e., she dressed immodestly], tells us what to think, which is just what she thinks.”

A Broadway producer wanted to offer her a career as an actress due to her clear oratory talents, which she refused, saying, “I don’t want to be an actress! I want to speak my own words.”

Flynn began to speak across the country on behalf of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often referred to as the “Wobblies”). She joined the IWW’s Mixed Local No. 179 in 1906, a year after the IWW’s founding.

During her long train trips to labor struggles and speaking engagements, she said she “fell in love with [this] country, its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains…I felt then, as I do now, it’s a rich and fertile land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people. It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class.”

Now, as a “professional revolutionist” with the IWW, she became a close collaborator with socialist Eugene Debs and IWW leaders Vincent St. John, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, the rebel songwriter. Flynn became a close friend of legendary Irish socialist James Connolly, who would be executed by the British in 1916 for his part in leading the Dublin Easter Rising against imperial rule, and helped him organize the Irish Socialist Federation.

One of her most important political relationships was with IWW leader and organizer William “Big Bill” Haywood. Flynn recalled some years later how Bill said in a speech, “‘I’m a two-gun man from the West, you know.’ And while the audience waited breathlessly, he pulled his union card from one pocket and his Socialist card from the other.”

Though the two would have a major political falling out some years later over the direction of the IWW, Flynn and Haywood worked closely together in a number of the IWW’s most historic struggles.

They worked together organizing agricultural workers in the West and lumber workers in the Pacific Northwest, and at countless freedom of speech fights all over the country. They were part of the 1913 silk strike in Paterson, N.J.; massive textile strikes in Lowell and New Bedford, Mass., and the great “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Mass.

Flynn was arrested for one trumped-up charge or another at just about all of these occasions. Her son Fred boasted many years later that he had been arrested twice, once in Missoula and a second time in Spokane–before he was even born.

During the Lawrence “Bread and Roses” strike, Flynn and Haywood worked hard to educate the mostly immigrant textile workers of, as Flynn put it:

their power, as workers, as the producers of all wealth, as the creators of profit. We talked of “solidarity,” a beautiful word in all languages. We said firmly, “You work together for the boss. You can stand together to fight for yourselves!” We ridiculed the police and militia. “Can they weave cloth with soldiers’ bayonets or policemen’s club?”

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THIS WAS the Wobblies’ great strength–the ability to relate and speak to people on their own terms, to point out to workers what they already knew in their guts, that the whole system is stacked against them and the only chance they’ve got is to band together, into “One Big Union.”

These were the high points of the early IWW, but they didn’t last. While the key to the IWW’s success was organizing among the unskilled workers who the American Federation of Labor refused to organize, some of their own policies diminished their ability to hold the group together.

For instance, the IWW refused to sign contracts over wages, benefits and working conditions because this, IWW leaders believed, represented a compromise with the bosses. Without contracts, the IWW failed to consolidate many of the gains it made during the brave workers’ struggles it led. In many cases, when IWW organizers left town, the local organizations fell apart.

The IWW also argued that the key to transforming society was organizing the majority of workers into “One Big Union,” which would be the framework for a new socialist society. The final blow to capitalism would come through a mass general strike that would paralyze the economy and force the bosses to give industry over to the working class. As a result, the IWW didn’t participate in politics–leaving this important arena of struggle to the Socialist Party, which was dominated by a conservative wing.

Reflecting many years later, Flynn said that “possibly a permanent industrial union movement could have been built a quarter century earlier than the CIO. But our incurable ‘infantile leftism’ blinded us.” By the beginning of the First World War, the IWW had been weakened by splits, factionalism and an unwillingness to tackle explicitly political issues.

And this was just before its greatest challenge. With the entry of the U.S. into the First World War, a wave of government-backed mob violence spread across the country. Pacifists, certain Christian sects, German immigrants, socialists and especially Wobblies were attacked, brutalized, tarred and feathered, and sometimes lynched.

During the Red Scare, socialists and communists, anarchists, Wobblies, unionists and other radicals were attacked, their halls ransacked and their members arrested. Many were rounded up in the Palmer Raids, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and deported under the auspices of the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn took it upon herself at this time to struggle for the freedom all of these “class war prisoners.” She said, “We planned to work for the release of all [labor] and political prisoners…the imprisoned comrades, of whatever persuasions, were a bond of unity.”

She became a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a principal activist within the International Labor Defense (ILD), which formed in 1925.

“One of our first undertakings was to publicize the facts of each case,” explained Flynn. “We organized outside correspondents to write to the prisoners. Through these channels, we soon became very familiar with the conditions inside the gray, forbidding walls of federal penitentiaries.”

Flynn helped win the release of those who participated in the Green Corn Rebellion, a revolt of poor Oklahoma farmers against the draft, fought for the freedom of many imprisoned Wobblies and antiwar activists, and was heavily involved in the campaign to save Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from execution.

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HER POLITICAL activities in the 1920s were cut short by illness, and she spent the better part of a decade ill and inactive. When she finally re-entered her lifelong work as a revolutionist, it was to join the Communist Party (CP)–an organization she had already moved close to through her work with the ILD.

Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936, was elected to the national committee two years later and became national chairperson in 1961. By this point, the U.S. Communist Party, like all those around the world, had become a creature of the new ruling bureaucracy in Russia, led by Joseph Stalin, and so it followed the dictates from Russia, even when this meant opposing struggle.

Flynn followed the CP line through its many appalling twists and turns, including the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and then support for the Second World War, revelations by Khrushchev of the extent of Stalin’s murderous crimes, and the Russian suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

But this period in her life shouldn’t overshadow Flynn’s record of militancy and courage in the cause of the labor movement, for which she faced police violence and was thrown in jail countless times for her beliefs and even served two years behind bars in the late 1950s as a victim of McCarthyism.

In a world of “great men” she was a proud, working-class, Irish woman who stood with her shoulders square and spoke with an impassioned voice that was eloquent, yet relatable; inspiring, but not condescending; and militant to the core.

When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn went to see the great IWW songwriter Joe Hill in Salt Lake City while he was awaiting execution for a crime he didn’t commit, Joe dedicated a song to Flynn called “The Rebel Girl”:

Yes, her hands may be harden’d from labor
And her dress may not be very fine;
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind.
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance she’ll hurl.
For the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.

And this is exactly how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn deserves to be remembered.