For May Day — We give you Big Bill Haywood

Bill Haywood (in Derby hat) leading strikers in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1912.

Happy May Day, Comrades. Remember back when Red States had nothing do to with Republicans and May Day had nothing to do with trees and birds and the environment?  Red meant RED, as in communist or socialist, and May Day was for Revolution.

Ninety-two years ago today, on May Day 1919, Socialists staged Red Flag marches in every major American city. It was American socialism was at its peak. Almost a million US workers went on strike against The Capitalist Enemy, led by radicals like William Z. Foster and Louis Fraina.  Bolsheviks had just taken power in Russia, and Eugene Debs would soon win almost a million votes for President in 1920 running from a prison cell on the Socialist ticket. The Red Scare was at its peak, and Emma Goldman still scared the socks off complacent American bourgoisie

Bill Haywood, circa 1910.

And of all the prominent lefties, the emblematic leader was Big Bill Haywood, president of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) — the biggest, baddest, toughest, roughest leftiest labor leader of them all.

Haywood wanted his IWW to be “One Big Union” for the entire American working class to battle the Corporate Plutocrats of J.P. Morgan’s Gilded Age.  IWW organizers faced lynching or murder by company detectives. Strikers faced beatings, blacklists, and trumped-up prosecutions.  Still, the IWW attracted some 300,000 members at its peak. 

Bill Haywood himself — a former cowpoke and miner — didn’t hesitate to push back,  He used sabotage or strong-arm tactics where needed. In 1905, he faced murder charges for the death Idaho governer Frank Steunenberg, blown up after a bitter mining strike.  This set the stage for one of America’s  great courtroom dramas.  Idaho prosecutors, backed by Pinkerton detectives, blamed Haywood for the killing, and famed Chicago lawyer Clarance Darrow traveled to Idaho to defend him.  He won Haywood an acquittal.

During the World War I, Federal agents under direction of President Woodrow Wilson launched a sweeping crackdown of the IWW.   His Justice Department arrested over 100 Wobblies and in 1918 tried them en masse for Espionage. Haywood, convicted and facing prison, fled to Bolshevik Russia for his final years.

So this May Day, forget the flowers and trees. Forget the Red States and Blue States. Let’s all wear Red, sing The Internationale, shake our fists at the Power Structure, and toast Big Bill Haywood, a socialist’s socialist, a radical’s radical, a Red’s Red — as American as apple pie.   

Here is Joan Baez singing her famous version of the ballad to Bill Haywood’s best-known IWW organizer, Joe Hill.  Enjoy– 

The best book on Bill Haywood is his own autobiography, published in 1929.


We’re all socialists now? If so, then where is our Eugene Debs?

OK, Guerrilla Historians, let’s be clear. Do we really live in a new age of Americn socialism?

If so, then here’s my question: Where is our Eugene Debs?

Yes, after months of government bailouts of banks, investment firms, insurance giants, car companies, and all the rest, it sure looks a lot like public control of the means of production. But that kind of talk is European socialism. Don’t forget, in America, we had our own home-grown brand, articulated by the likes of Big Bill Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), Emma Goldman (who perferred being called Anarchist and was highly disillisioned by Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and its clearest, most articulate voice of all, Eugene Debs.

Debs ran for president five times as a socialist, winning almost a million votes — six percent of the total popular count — both in 1912 and 1920 (even though in 1920 he ran from a Federal prison cell). Debs avoided esoteric theory. He defined his socialism in terms of justice, community, solidarity, and self-reliance, stemming from Jefferson and Lincoln as much as Marx or Engels. That’s why he was so popular, not in universities, but in the American heartland and in working and immigrant neighborhoods.

To Debs, the evil of capitalism was no abstraction. Debs formed his peculiar view of socialism after leading the epic Pullman Palace Car strike of 1894, started as strictly non-violent and ultimately crushed by vigilantees, detectives, and Federal troops. Debs himself was jailed in the affair for violating an injunction, and that was where we first read Karl Marx. Debs would go to prison again, in 1918, convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the draft and suppression of free speech during World War I.

This was the age of sweat shops and worse, long before basic health and safety rules, pensions, or worker rights. Resisters like Debs risked being blacklisted, jailed, or lynched. The rise of labor back then was the great civil rights / human rights struggle of the age.

Our society in 2009 has changed dramatically from Eugene Debs’s America a century ago. But if we all now have to become socialists to get through the current economic collapse, then I at least want a leader like Debs, a socialist not ashamed of the name, willing to fight as an underdog, prepared to sacrifice personal freedom for principle, and able, through his speeches, to inspire his followers to march cheerfully to the barricades.

If you think I’m a fan, I can’t deny the obvious. Here are two great recent books about Debs that might win you over too:

Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg and
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore.
— Hear his voice on YouTube.