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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary

Book Review By Staughton Lynd

30 May, 2015
Countercurrents.org

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary By Lara Vapnek (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2015)


A number of radical women who espoused anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism when they were young were drawn in later life to uncritical support of international Communism. Alexandra Kollontai, Lucy Parsons, and Dolores Ibarruri (“La Pasionaria”) come to mind.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn can be described in the same way. The “rebel girl” celebrated by Joe Hill’s song, who was the most conspicuous woman among the prominent personalities of the IWW, became a member of the United States Communist Party in 1937 and supported it publicly until her death.

Of course, there were men whose trajectory was similar. William Z. Foster, the syndicalist who became a dogmatic Communist leader, is an example. But there is something particularly poignant about Flynn, the fiery daughter of radical immigrants from Ireland, a young woman unafraid to stand up to IWW spokesman Bill Haywood or anarchist Carlos Tresca, consenting to be guided by the uninspired patriarchs who led American Communists into oblivion (with some vigorous help from J. Edgar Hoover, et al.) after World War II.

And there were women, above all Rosa Luxemburg, who successfully resisted re-definition as adjuncts to male leaders. Before World War I and while in prison for opposing it, Luxemburg was comradely but incisive in expressing concern about Lenin's political mindset, which she described as "pitiless centralism." Luxemburg rejected a “discipline” that was “the regulated docility of an oppressed class.” After her release from prison, she worked closely with Karl Liebknecht. When he consented in her absence to a premature insurrection, however, she rebuked him; but was unable to reverse the strategy that led soon after to her own brutal and untimely death.

A Remarkable Life

Lara Vapnek untangles the historical threads that made up the tapestry of Flynn’s remarkable life. She helps us to perceive the integrity and dedication that characterized Flynn’s journey until the very end.

Vapnek highlights the following aspects of Flynn’s advocacy.

Flynn was not a feminist. She had no interest in all-female organizations. She insisted that working men and women organize together, but that special attention be given to the needs of different groups within the class. Women, as one such group, needed access to birth control. They must be able to choose motherhood.

Flynn, who was born in 1890, gave her first public speech in 1906. In September 1909, at the age of nineteen, she became involved in a fight for the right to free speech in Missoula, Montana. The issue was the conduct of labor contractors who charged a fee to arrange jobs for itinerant wage workers but often failed to provide the promised work. Flynn and other Wobbly speakers drew crowds of miners and lumberjacks to improvised street meetings. Contractors and local shopkeepers complained to the public authorities. The city invoked an ordinance forbidding the disturbance of the “peace and quiet of any street.”

As one speaker was arrested, another took his place. A call for reinforcements went out to Spokane and other Western cities. Soon something like a hundred men were behind bars in Missoula. The arrestees, like subsequent civil rights practitioners of “jail, no bail,” used their time together to sing protest songs. Guests at the city’s main hotel across the street protested in their turn, and, again as in the 1960s, police sprayed the crowd from water hoses. According to Lara Vapnek, Flynn timed the speech-making so that those arrested had to be fed, at taxpayer’ expense. The arrestees demanded individual jury trials, prolonging the proceedings and adding to the city’s costs. After several weeks the “powers that be” released those arrested, including Flynn, and dropped all charges.

Lawrence and Ludlow

Flynn was again at the heart of nonviolent tactical creativity in the famous “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts three years later. She “became instrumental,” as this account puts it, in the “brilliant strategy of sending strikers’ children out of Lawrence to be cared for by sympathetic families in other cities.” She was assisted in this project by Margaret Sanger, “the socialist nurse-practitioner who became a leader of the birth-control movement.”

Two years late, Flynn was obliged to confront the terrible violence of the Ludlow, Colorado miners’ strike, where three strike leaders were killed in cold blood, and two women and eleven children burned to death in tents where they had sought refuge. Anarchists planned to retaliate by killing John D. Rockefeller, Jr., owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. In another uncanny parallel with the 1960s, three men preparing a bomb for this purpose blew themselves up.

Flynn was asked to speak at a memorial service for the three. As Vapnek sensitively describes the scene, Flynn had to “tread a fine line between honoring the dead and disavowing violence.” She did so by describing one of the three dead men, Arthur Caron. Caron was a weaver of French and Native American ancestry from Falls River, Massachusetts. He had come on hard times when he lost his job. His wife and baby died. He had moved to New York City only to find himself one of hundreds of thousands of unemployed there, tramping the streets, hungry and cold. He had fallen in with an “army” of homeless men. On the occasion of a second arrest, the New York police took him into an automobile and beat him brutally. Splattered with blood, with one side of his nose crushed, he managed to stagger to the home of Flynn’s friend, Mary Heaton Vorse.

Flynn asked the audience at the memorial meeting to try to imagine Caton’s state of mind. “He asked for bread. He received the blackjack.” She went on to say that he had made a fatal mistake when he attempted to solve his problems by violence. But she asked: “Who is responsible? Who taught it to him?”

Human Beings With Names and Faces

In this experience one can glimpse a reason for Flynn’s subsequent great success as an organizer for victims of the Red Scare after World War I and of McCarthyism after World War II Each of these crises stretched over many years during which Flynn asked her national audience to step for a moment into the shoes of the individual men, women, and children who were imprisoned, deported, executed (Sacco and Vanzetti), in a few dreadful instances (like that of Wobbly Frank Little) murdered by vigilante violence, all with minimal pretense at any kind of due process. Instead of lamenting the fate of a nameless and impersonal collectivity, such as “immigrants,” or a particular category of workers, like “the miners,” Flynn focused, just as she did on her endless speaking trips, on individual human beings, with names and faces. In a similar spirit, within the Communist Party, Flynn opposed the decision of the Party’s leadership in the 1950s to go underground.

This same approach to social reality by way of individual lives led to a profound difference with Bill Haywood over judicial strategy. Flynn had witnessed in Missoula and in other free speech struggles elsewhere how it had tied the system in knots to insist on a distinct judicial process, a separate trial, for each member of a group of defendants. Repression of radicals in the courts depended on the notion of a vast and nebulous “conspiracy” of faceless but evil-minded subversives. If the accused consented to a group process it inevitably tended to validate this concept. In addition, it was far easier to engage a jury’s sympathy in the suffering of particular persons than in the abstract image of an oppressive system. Accordingly Flynn resisted Haywood’s imperious decision to ask indicted Wobblies all over the United States to surrender themselves, and take part as passive spectators in the group witchhunt administered by federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in Chicago. She would have preferred an effort to make each Wobbly’s indictment the occasion for a separate guerrilla skirmish. And viewed from the standpoint of the survival of the IWW as a community, it did not help matters when Haywood himself later jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union.

A Steady Socialist Vision

For Flynn herself, of course, what history and the hope of ongoing human life required was a profound structural change, from capitalism to socialism. Vancek stresses that even if Flynn’s political energies were devoted to two very different organizations, the IWW (1906-1916) and the Communist Party (1937-1964), “Flynn’s socialist vision stayed steady.”

Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many articles and books including the just-released new edition of Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below (PM Press). He can be reached at salynd@aol.com


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