“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, a firebrand of the American labor movement in the first half of the 20th century.
Born to poor Irish immigrants in 1890 in New Hampshire, she could claim proudly, that “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.”
Her father’s purpose was clear – he would “not allow his children to be educated against the interests of the working class.”
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-earners then and unfortunately still now.”
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. 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.
During the Lawrence “Bread and Roses” strike, Flynn and Haywood worked hard to educate the mostly immigrant textile workers. 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.
Above all, , the IWW didn’t participate in politics–leaving this important arena of struggle to the Socialist Party, which was dominated by a conservative wing. 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. 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.
Flynn took it upon herself to work for the freedom of these “political prisoners” and became a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, 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.
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. She had come to believe that the syndicalist/anarchist dream could not be cured of its “infantile leftism.”
Unfortunately, the CPUSA quickly fell under Stalin’s thumb and Flynn found herself taking orders from Moscow, a major cause in the break with her Italian anarchist and anti-communist lover, Carlo Tresca.
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, after a nine month trial (under the Smith Act). Her speech to the jury(she defended herself) is ranked as one of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century.
You can read it here:
After her release she was elected Chairwoman of the CPUSA.
“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.”
As Chair of the communist party Flynn made several trips to the Soviet Union and passed away while on one of these trips on September 5, 1964
The USSR gave her a state funeral in Red Square attended by 25,000 people. Her remains were returned to the United States and she was buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of Bill Hayward, Emma Goldman and the Haymarket Square martyrs.
Much of the above is from the Socialistworker.org website.