I found the above song on YouTube, a song written by Joe Hill for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. I remember reading that Hillary Clinton when she was feeling frustrated and stunted by her role as first lady in the 1990’s would have conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m not sure if they were actual séances or just mental chats. But in honor of Labor Day, and at this rather bleak moment for American workers, I decided to try channeling a sort of forgotten folk hero of the American labor movement, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
DF: Elizabeth, is it okay if I call you that? You led an adventurous and inspiring life. You were the daughter of two middle class socialists, and you gave your first socialist speeches at the age of 15. You helped to organize the Lawrence and Paterson mill workers strikes, and you went on to organize iron ore minors on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota and lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. You helped to create the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, and later you became a founding member of the A.C.L.U. Herbert Hoover kept briefings on your comings and goings because you were considered that dangerous to know! In the 1930’s, after the I.W.W. had been weakened by the imprisonment and deportation of its leadership, you became a member of the American Communist Party. You would later become the first woman chair of the Party. During the 1940’s you were expelled from the A.C.L.U. for being a member of the communist party, which really surprised me, and in the 1955, during the McCarthy era, you went to prison for two years for being a member of the communist party. You wrote a memoir about the early part of your life, and another memoir about your life in prison. You visited the Soviet Union and met Khrushchev. You attended conferences in Moscow, and observed the Sino-Soviet split as it happened. You dated a bad boy anarchist named Carlo Tresca who, while living with you, had a baby with your sister. You were an advocate of free love, of birth control, of day care centers for working mothers, and prison reform before any of these things became fashionable. You had a son, and an American folk songwriter, Joe Hill, wrote a famous song about you, called the Rebel Girl. Is that all or at least most of it?
EGF: Well, I come from generations of Irish fighters and revolutionaries. It’s in the blood. We learned from fighting the English.
DF: Here are a couple of quotes by you that I like: “Do I believe in free love? What is the other alternative? Slave love? Then I believe in free love at all costs. The home built on the rock of love is the only one I can conceive of during Socialism or any other time.”
EGF: Why shouldn’t women live as full human beings with the opportunities to work, to marry, to divorce, to motherhood as a community instead of being trapped in the isolation of the home? It wasn’t 1960’s style free love we were advancing, but the opportunity for women to live as full-blooded human beings!
DF: And this one, “I spoke at the funerals of men and women shot down on the picket line and the iron entered my soul. I became and I remain a mortal enemy of capitalism. I will never rest contented until I see it repealed by a government of the people, led by the working class, where private ownership of the means of life and the profit system is abolished.”
EGF: I saw so many deaths and so much violence. Frank Little, an I.W.W. worker was lynched in Butte, Montana in 1917. John Rami was bayoneted in Lawrence in 1912. Modestino Valentino was shot in the back at Paterson in 1913. Fifteen women and children were suffocated by a fire set by the militia working for corporate interests at Ludlow, Colorado. In 1917, 164 men died in a mine disaster when their escape hatches were cemented shut so the company could save costs in maintenance. When you see all that, you become an enemy of the system that takes so many lives.
DF: Do you keep up with current events?
EGF: Am I aware that the so-called real unemployment is now at 16.8%? That one third of workers under the age of 35 now live with their parents because they can’t afford to get housing on their own? That more than one million school children are now homeless because their parents have lost their jobs? That the Wall Street capitalist money system, instead of lending to small businesses and creating a healthier economy, is now gambling on bundled life insurance policies? I keep up, but I don’t sleep any easier if you know what I mean.
EGF: And I read Krugman’s piece in the New York Times.
DF: I find it pretty fun that you read the New York Times. So what did you think?
EGF: Well, first let me say I was surprised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the changing of the USSR into a market based economy.
DF: I bet. It’s been a while since you’ve had a chance to talk about any of that, but it must have been a shock. Your niece once said that you only became a communist because America didn’t have a labor party like there was in Britain.
EGF: There’s truth in that.
DF: Your life work could almost be divided into two parts. In the first part you organized workers and led strikes and worked for better working conditions for people who led very difficult lives, mine workers and garment workers, and so forth. But in the second half of your career you had to spend a lot of time bailing people in your movement out of jail, and raising funds for their expensive legal defense. You tried to help people from Joe Hill to Sacco and Venzetti from being wrongly executed. And they were executed despite your efforts. It culminated in you serving time in prison yourself.
EGF: Yes. I would have much, much rather spent my life organizing workers and trying to protect the rights of workers. Walmart, for example, I would have loved to live long enough to spend time with Walmart and Sam’s club workers. McDonalds workers. Now those would have been some great fights.
DF: But you got caught up in the legal defense work instead. Obviously Joe McCarthy played a huge role in that, at least in the later part. And its unjustified that any Americans of any political beliefs were and are imprisoned for practicing free speech. But is there anything, looking back, you or your organizations could have done differently in order to be more successful at, um,—staying out of prison?
EGF: Yes. Now that I have observed the fall of the USSR and the Soviet bloc in Europe, I realize that workers in these countries faced their share of struggles too. We believed in the revolution, but the revolution did not develop the way we expected it to. Maybe the best work we did in pushing for a revolution was, aside from incremental improvements in working conditions, was to force capitalism to woo workers by softening a few of its harsher edges. I will never be a capitalist or believe in the capitalist money system. But when the Soviet Union fell, the world thought, “capitalism has won” and without the so-called free market competition of ideas that Marxism provided, capitalism no longer saw the same need to charm voters or anyone at all. So you can observe for yourself, working conditions for many of the lower class workers have been getting harder, with lower pay, and fewer benefits. Without a healthy competition of ideas, capitalism has had the freedom to return to a few of its despotic roots, the way we knew it, and Marx knew it. People are just getting a small taste of it right now so maybe they can begin to understand what we were up against in those days.
DF: Do you, when you were a member of the American Communist Party, regret modeling yourself too closely on the international communist movement? Or, when asked if you would like to go to the Soviet Union, saying it was “like asking a Christian if he wanted to go to heaven right away”?
EGF: Yes, though that was a great line! It got a lot of laughs. We should have more closely followed our own path, although we were never, despite what some thought, funded or given orders by Moscow. But we might have stayed out of prison if we had been more pragmatic in our defense, defending our right to free speech in this country. Instead, many in our movement saw trials as a place to showcase our political beliefs. It was a tactical error that hurt the real lives of many working people. For example, when I worked with the I.W.W., prosecutors offered deals that would have let many of our workers out of prison, but the I.W.W. leadership (and keep in mind that I was the only woman in the I.W.W. leadership) preferred to not take the deals. They thought the trials would build popular sympathy for the movement. But the real lives of many of the workers involved were ruined. Many were deported or executed. Any symbolic gains were pyrrhic, as the I.W.W. never recovered its strength.
DF: The Wobblies interest me more as a movement than the Communist Party does. Would the I.W.W. be interested in organizing maquiladora workers or in some of the so-called free trade zones overseas that are virtual free-for-alls when it comes to workers’ rights?
EGF: The Wobblies are still around, and they’re doing exactly that kind of work. They’re trying to organize seafarers and garment workers in Nike factories (that aren’t called Nike factories anymore but if you sneak in through the unlabeled door you can see the swoosh label being attached to tennis shoes—I watch them all the time now). But the movement is smaller in numbers and support, obviously, than it once was.
DF: You were going to tell me your thoughts on Paul Krugman?
EGF: Yes. The Nobel prize they gave him has gone to his head, but he has some interesting ideas. I found his discussion of fresh water and saltwater economists fascinating. But he doesn’t mention the fact that capitalism could lose some of its true believers if the “market recovers” translates into the CEO’s buying new Hummers, while the guy who used to work at Circuit City still is living with his mother and can’t find any real way to support himself.
DF: You really do keep up! And I’ve been dying to ask you what you think about President Obama.
EGF: Hope and change?? You have no idea how hard I laugh when they call him a socialist. I’m a socialist, I know socialists, and Obama is no socialist. Look at how weak-kneed he’s been on the so-called public option in health care. According to Krugman, Obama has Keynesian economists on his staff. I’m not an economist, but even I can see that there’s a world of distance between Keynes and Marx. Maybe the Neo-Cons should read up on Keynes, except that red-baiting is still such good sport for them after all of these years. Even after the fall of the USSR and the Berlin wall. In fact, I’m going to read up on Keynes too, after reading that article. Maybe Keynes has it better than Marx did on one or two points. I just don’t think the lower classes should be trampled by the upper classes in the name of economic growth. If that makes me a revolutionary, I’m proud to be one.
DF: We have to wrap this up soon although it’s been fun. Advice for American progressives today?
EGF: Don’t mourn, organize. That’s what Joe Hill suggested. If you aren’t in Washington, organize at the local level. Organize for worker' rights, for women’s rights, for day care credits for working parents, and if you can’t have a revolution, at the very least don’t leave the world like it is. Don’t isolate yourself, connect with your communities. Finally, don’t forget workers in the progressive agenda. In fact, what is the progressive agenda when you’re letting that faux plumber man be a shill for corporate interests? Will the real plumbers please stand up? Maybe it’s time for an American labor party. And whatever you do, stop calling yourselves, or letting others call you “consumers.” You’re “citizens.” That’s a nobler and truer word. Don’t ever forget it!
DF: A speech you gave in 1917 you wrote, “Is it not much better to even die fighting for something than to have lived an uneventful life, never gotten anything and leaving conditions the same or worse than they were, and to have future generations go through the same misery and poverty and degradation? The only people whose names are recorded in history are those who did something. The peaceful and indifferent are forgotten: they never knew the fighting joy of living.”
EGF: The fighting joy of living. I had that right. Bread and roses for American workers. It’s injustice to starve the body or the heart and the mind.
Disclaimer and credits: Flynn died peacefully in 1964. The Flynn portion of this interview is a work of speculative fiction based on Flynn’s memoirs, and Helen Camp’s biography, Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left. And The Rebel Girl is performed above by Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass singer who is the eighth child of an eleven child West Virginia mining family. The voice speaking as well as the images in the beginning are Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.