JIMMIE HIGGINS TAKES THE ROAD
Jimmie Higgins was wandering down the street, when he ran into "Wild Bill", who was, of course, greatly surprised to see his friend in a drunken condition. When he heard the reason, he revealed an unexpected side of his nature. If you judged "Wild Bill" by his oratory, you thought him a creature poisoned through and through, a soul turned rancid with envy, hatred and malice and all uncharitableness. But now the tears came into his eyes, and he put his arm over Jimmie's shoulder. "Say, old pal, that's bum luck! By God, I'm sorry!" And Jimmie, who wanted nothing so much as somebody to be sorry with, clasped Bill in his arms, and burst into tears, and told over and over again how he had gone to what had been his home, and found only a huge crater blown out by the explosion, and how he had gone about calling his wife and babies, until at last they had brought him one leg of his wife.
"Wild Bill" listened, until he knew the story through and then he said, "See here, old pal, let's you and me quit this town."
"Quit?" said Jimmie, stupidly.
"Every time I open the front of my face now, the police jump in it. Leesville's a hell of a town, I say. Let's get out."
"Where'll we go?"
"Anywhere--what's the diff? It's coming summer. Let's slam the gates."
Jimmie was willing--why not? They went back to the lodging-house where Bill lived, and he tied up his worldly goods in a gunny-sack--the greater part of the load consisting of a diary in which he had recorded his adventures as leader of an unemployed army which had started to march from California to Washington, D.C., some four years previously. They took the trolley, and getting off in the country, walked along the banks of the river, Jimmie still sobbing, and Bill in the grip of one of his fearful coughing spells. They sat down beside the stream not so far from where Jimmie had gone in swimming with the Candidate; he gave a touching account of this adventure, but fell asleep in the middle of it, and Bill wandered off and begged some food at a farm-house, using his cough as a convenient lever for moving the heart of the housewife. When night came, they sought the railroad and got on board a southward-moving freight; so Jimmie Higgins went back to the tramps life, at which he had spent a considerable part of his youth.
But there was a difference now; he was no longer a blind and helpless victim of a false economic system, but a revolutionist, fully class-conscious, trained in a grim school. The country was going to war, and Jimmie was going to war on the country. The two agitators got off the train at a mining-village, and got a job as "surface men", and proceeded to preach their gospel of revolt to the workers in a lousy company boarding-house. When they were found out, they "jumped" another freight, and repeated the performance in another part of the district.
The companies were too vigilant for there to be any chance of a strike; but "Wild Bill" whispered to the young workers that he knew a trick worth two of that--he would teach them the art of "striking on the job"! This idea, of course, had great charm for embittered men; enabling them to pay back the boss, while at the same time continuing on his pay-roll. Bill had read whole books in which the theory and practice of "sabotage" were worked out, and he could tell any sort of workman tricks to make his employer sweat under the collar. If you worked in a machine-shop, you dropped emery-powder into the bearings; if you worked on a farm, you drove copper nails into the fruit-trees, which caused them to die; if you packed apples, you stuck your thumb-nail into one, which made sure that the whole box would be rotten when it arrived; if you worked in a saw-mill, you drove a spike into a log; if you worked in a restaurant, you served double portions to ruin the boss, and spit in each portion to make sure the customer did not derive any benefit. All these things you did in a fervour of exaltation, a mood of frenzied martyrdom, because of the blaze of hate which had been fanned in your soul by a social system based upon oppression and knavery.
To Jimmie, living the obscure and comparatively peaceful life of a Socialist propagandist, the question of "sabotage, violence and crime" had been a more or less academic one, about which the comrades debated acrimoniously, and against which they voted by a large majority. But now Jimmie was out among the "wobblies", the "blanket-stiffs"--the unskilled workers who had literally nothing but their muscle-power to sell; here he was in the front-line trenches of the class war. These men wandered about from one job to another, at the mercy of the seasons and the fluctuations of industry. They were deprived of votes, and therefore of their status as citizens; they were deprived of a chance to organize, and therefore of their status as human beings. They were lodged in filthy bunk-houses, fed upon rotten food, and beaten or jailed at the least word of revolt. So they fought their oppressors with any and every weapon they could lay hands on.
In the turpentine-country, in a forest, Jimmie and his pal came to a "jungle", a place where the "wobblies" congregated, living off the country. Here around the camp-fires Jimmie met the guerillas of the class-struggle, and learned the songs of revolt which they sang--some of them parodies on Christian hymns which would have caused the orthodox and respectable to faint with horror. Here they rested up, and exchanged data on the progress of their fight, and argued over tactics, and cussed the Socialists and the other "politicians" and "labour-fakirs", and sang the praises of the "one big union", and the "mass strike", and "direct action" against the masters of industry. They told stories of their sufferings and their exploits, and Jimmie sat and listened. Sometimes his eyes were wide with consternation, for he had never met men so desperate as these.
For example, "Strawberry" Curran--named for his red hair and innumerable freckles--an Irish boy with the face of a choir-singer, and eyes that must have been taken straight out of the blue vault of Heaven. This lad told about a "free speech fight" in a far Western city, and how the chief of police had led the clubbing, and how they had got back at him. "We bumped him off all right," said "Strawberry"; it was a favourite phrase of his--whenever anybody got in his way, he "bumped him off". And then "Flathead Joe", who came from the Indian country, was moved to emulation, and told how he had put dynamite under the supports of a mine-breaker, and the whole works had slid down a slope into a canyon a mile below. And then a lame fellow, "Chuck" Peterson, told about the imprisonment of two strike-leaders in the hop-country of California, and of the epidemic of fires and destruction that had plagued that region for several years since.
All such things these men talked about quite casually, as soldiers would talk about the events of the last campaign. This class-war had been going on for ages, and had its own ethics and its own traditions; those who took part in it had their heroisms and sublimities, precisely like any other soldiers. They would have been glad to come into the open and fight, but the other side had all the guns. Every time the "wobblies" succeeded in organizing the workers and calling a big strike, all the agencies of capitalist repression were called in--they were beaten by capitalist policemen, shot by capitalist sheriffs, starved and frozen in capitalist jails, and so their strike was crushed and their forces scattered. After many such experiences, it was inevitable that the hot-headed ones should take to secret vengeance, should become conspirators against capitalist society. And society, forgetting all the provocations it had given, called the "wobblies" criminals, and let it go at that. But they were a strange kind of criminal, serving a far-off dream. They had their humours and their humanities, their literature and music and art. Among them were men of education, graduates of universities both in America and abroad; you might hear one of the group about these camp-fires telling about slave-revolts in ancient Egypt and Greece; or quoting Strindberg and Stirner, or reciting a scene from Synge, or narrating how he had astounded the family of some lonely farm-house by playing Rachmaninoff's "Prelude" on a badly out-of-tune piano.
Also you met among them men who had kept their gentleness, their sweetness of soul, men of marvellous patience, whose dream of human brotherhood no persecution, no outrage had been able to turn sour. They clung to their vision of a world redeemed, made over by the outcast and lowly; a vision that was brought to the world by a certain Jewish Carpenter, and has haunted mankind for nineteen hundred years. The difference was that these men knew precisely how they meant to do it; they had a definite philosophy, a definite programme, which they carried as a gospel to the wage-slaves of the world. And they knew that this glad message would never die--not all the jails and clubs and machine-guns in the country could kill it, not obloquy and ridicule, not hunger and cold and disease. No! for the workers were hearing and understanding, they were learning the all-precious lesson of Solidarity. They were forming the "one big union", preparing the time when they would take over industry and administer it through their own workers' councils, instead of through the medium of parliaments and legislatures. That was the great idea upon which the Industrial Workers of the World was based; it was this they meant by "direct action", not the sinister thing which the capitalist newspapers made out of the phrase.
The country was going into its own war, which it considered of importance, and it called upon Jimmie Higgins and the rest of his associates to register for military service. In the month of June ten million men came forward in obedience to this call--but Jimmie, needless to say, was not among them. Jimmie and his crowd thought it was the greatest joke of the age. If the country wanted them, let it come and get them. And sure enough, the country came--a sheriff, and some thirty farmers and turpentine-workers sworn in as deputies and armed with shot-guns and rifles. Should their sons go overseas to be killed in battle, while these desperadoes continued to camp out on the country, living on hogs and chickens which honest men had worked to raise? They had wanted to break up this "jungle" for some time; now they could do it in the name of patriotism. They surrounded the camp, and shot one man who tried to slip out in the darkness, and searched the rest for weapons, and then loaded them into half a dozen automobiles and took them to the nearest lock-up.
So here was Jimmie, confronting a village draft-board. How old was he? The truth was that Jimmie did not know definitely, but his guess was about twenty-six. The draft-limit being thirty, he swore that he was thirty-two. And what were they going to do about it? They didn't know where he had been born, and they couldn't make him tell--because he didn't know it himself! His face was lined with many cares, and he had a few grey hairs from that night of horror when his loved ones had been wiped out of existence.
These farmers knew how to tell the age of a horse, but not how to tell the age of a man!
"We'll draft ye anyhow!" vowed the chairman of the board, who was the local justice of the peace, an old fellow with a beard like a billy-goat.
"All right," said Jimmie, "but you'll get nothin' out o' me."
"What d'ye mean?"
"I mean I wouldn't fight; I'm a conscientious objector to war."
"They'll shoot ye!"
"They'll send you to jail for life."
"What the hell do I care?"
It was difficult to know what to do with a person like that. If they did put him in jail, they would only be feeding him at the expense of the community, and that would not help to beat the Germans. They could see from the flash in his eyes that he would not be an easy man to break. Local interest asserted itself, and the old fellow with the wagging beard demanded: "If we let ye go, will ye get out o' this county?"
"What the hell do I care about your old county?" replied Jimmie.
So they turned him loose, and "Wild Bill" also, because it was evident at a glance that he was not long for this world and its wars. The two of them broke into an empty freight-car, and went thundering over the rails all night; and lying in the darkness, Jimmie was awakened by a terrified cry from his companion, and put out his hand and laid it in a mess that was hot and wet.
"Oh, my God!" gasped Bill. "I'm done for!"
"What is it?"
The terrified Jimmie did not even know what that was. There was nothing he could do but sit there, holding his friend's trembling hand and listening to his moans. When the train stopped, Jimmie sprang out and rushed to one of the brakemen, who came with his lantern, and saw "Wild Bill" lying in a pool of blood, already so far gone that he could not lift his head. "Jesus!" exclaimed the brakeman. "He's a goner, all right."
The "goner" was trying to say something, and Jimmie leaned his ear down to him. "Good-bye, old pal," whispered Bill. That was all, but it caused Jimmie to burst out sobbing.
The engine whistled. "What the hell you stiffs doin' on this train?" demanded the brakeman--but not so harshly as the words would indicate. He lifted the dying man--no very serious burden--and laid him on the platform of the station. "Sorry," he said, "but we're behind schedule." He waved his lantern, and the creaking cars began to move, and the train drew away, leaving Jimmie sitting by the corpse of his pal. The world seemed a lonely place that long night.
In the morning the station-agent came, and notified the nearest authorities, and in the course of the day came a wagon to fetch the body. What was the use of Jimmie's waiting? One "Potter's field" was the same as another, and there would be nothing inspiring about the funeral. The man who drove the wagon looked at Jimmie suspiciously and asked his age; they were scarce of labour in that country, he said-the rule was "Work or fight". Jimmie foresaw another session with a draft-board, so he leaped on to another freight train, taking with him as a legacy "Wild Bill's" diary of the unemployed army.
It was harvest-time, and Jimmie went West to the wheat country. It was hard work, but the pay made your eyes bulge. Jimmie realized that war was not such a bad thing--for the ones that stayed at home! If you didn't like one farmer's way of speaking to you, or the kind of biscuits his wife offered you, you could move on to the next, and he would take you in at four bits more per day. It was the nearest approach to a working-man's paradise that Jimmie had ever encountered. There was really only one drawback--the pestiferous draft-boards that never stopped snooping round. They were for ever hauling you up and threatening and questioning you--putting you through the same scene over and over. Why couldn't the fools give you a card, showing that you had been through the mill, and let that settle it? But no, they wouldn't give you a card--they preferred to go on jacking you up because you had no card. It was all a trick, thought Jimmie, to wear him out and force him into their army by hook or by crook. But here was one time when they would not get away with it!
However, Jimmie Higgins was not nearly so dangerous a character, now that "Wild Bill" was gone out of his life. It was really not his nature to cherish hate, or to set out deliberately to revenge himself. Jimmie was a Socialist in the true sense of the word--he felt himself a part of society, and that peace and plenty and kindness which he desired for himself he desired for all mankind. He was not dreaming of a time when he could turn the capitalists out of power and treat them as they were now treating him; he meant the world to be just as good a place for the capitalists as for the workers--all would share alike, and Jimmie was ready to wipe out the old scores and start fair any day. His propaganda regained its former idealistic hue, and it was only when somebody tried to drag him into the slaughter-pen that he developed teeth and claws.
So he became fairly happy again--happier than he had thought he could ever be. It was in vain he told himself that he had nothing to live for; he had the greatest thing in the world to live for, the vision of a just and sane and happy world. So long as anybody could be found to listen while he talked about it and explained how it might be achieved, life was worth while, life was real. It was only now and then that his bitter heartache returned to plague him--when he awakened in the night with his arms clasped about the memory of the soft, warm, kindly body of Eleesa Betooser; or when he came to a farmhouse where there were children, whose prattle reminded him of the little fellow who had been his prime reason for wanting a just and sane and happy world. Jimmie found that he could not bear to work in one farmhouse where there were children; and when he told the farmer's wife the reason, he and the woman declared a temporary truce to the class-war, and celebrated it with half a large apple- pie.
The Socialists held a National Convention at St. Louis, and drew up their declaration concerning the war. They called it the most unjustifiable war in history, "a crime against the people of the United States"; they called on the workers of the country to oppose it, and pledged themselves "to the support of all mass movements in opposition to conscription". This was, of course, a serious step to take at such a time; the comrades realized it, and there were solemn gatherings to discuss the referendum, and not a little disagreement as to the wisdom of the declaration. In the town of Hopeland, near which Jimmie was working, there was a local, and he had got himself transferred from Leesville, and paid up his back dues, and had his precious red card stamped up-to-date. And now he would go in and listen to debates, just as exciting and just as bewildering as those he had heard at the outbreak of the war.
There were some who pointed out the precise meaning of those words, "all mass-movements in opposition to conscription." The leading dry-goods merchant of the town, he was a Socialist, declared that the words meant insurrection and mob violence, and the resolution would be adjudged a call to treason. At which there leaped to his feet a Russian Jewish tailor, Rabin by name; his first name was Scholem, which means Peace, and he cried in great excitement: "Vot business have ve Socialists vit such vords? Ve might leaf dem to de enemy, vot?"
You might have thought you were in Leesville, listening to Comrade Stankewitz. The only difference was that there were not many Germans in this town, and those few confined their discussions to Ireland and India.
Jimmie would hear the arguments, back and forth and back again, and his mind would be in greater confusion than ever. He hated war as much as ever; but, on the other hand, he was learning to hate the Germans, too. The American government, going to war, had been forced to assert itself, and the stores and billboards were covered with proclamations and picture-posters, and the newspapers were full of recitals of the crimes which Germany had committed against humanity. Jimmie might refuse to read this "Wall Street dope", as he called it, but the working-men with whom he was associating read it, and would fire it at him whenever they got into a controversy. Also the daily events in the news dispatches--the sinking of hospital-ships filled with wounded, the shelling of life-boats, the dragging away into slavery in coal-mines of Belgian children thirteen and fourteen years old! How could any man fail to hate and to fear a government which committed such atrocities? How could he remain untroubled at the thought that he might be assisting such a government to victory?
Jimmie was honest, he was trying to face the facts as he saw them; and when he stopped to think, when he remembered the things he had done in company with "Wild Bill" and "Strawberry" Curran and "Flathead Joe" and "Chuck" Peterson, he could not deny that he had been, however unintentionally, helping the Kaiser to win the war. In his arguments with others, Jimmie dared not tell all he knew about such matters; so, when he argued with himself, his conscience was troubled, and doubt gnawed at his soul. Suppose it were true, as Comrade Dr. Service had tried to prove to him, that a victory for the Kaiser would mean that America would have to spend the next twenty or thirty years getting ready for the next war? Might it not then be better to forego revolutionary agitation for a while, until the Kaiser had been put out of business?
There were not a few Socialists who argued this way--men who had been active in the movement and had possessed Jimmie's regard before the war. Now they denounced the St. Louis resolution--the "majority report" as it was called. When this report was carried in referendum by a vote of something like eight to one, these comrades withdrew from the party, and some of them bitterly attacked their former friends. Such utterances were taken up by the capitalist press; and this made Jimmie Higgins indignant. A fine lot of Socialists, to quit the ship in the hour of peril! Renegades, Jimmie called them, and compared them with Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold and such-like celebrities of past ages. They, being exactly the same sort of folk as Jimmie, answered by calling Jimmie a pro-German and a traitor; which did not make it easier to persuade Jimmie to listen to their arguments. So both sides became blinded with anger, forgetting about the facts in the case, and thinking only of punishing a hated antagonist.
All over the country now men were sending their sons to the training-camps, and putting their money into "liberty-bonds". So they were in no mood to listen to argument--they would fly into a rage at the least hint that the cause in which they were making sacrifices was not a perfectly just and righteous cause. There was an organization called the "People's Council for Peace and Democracy", which attempted to hold a national convention; the gathering was broken up by mobs, and the delegates went wandering over the country, trying in vain to get together. The mayor of Chicago gave them permission to meet in that city, but the governor of the state sent troops to prevent it! You see, the people of the country had learned all about the organization for which Jerry Coleman had been working--"Labour's National Peace Council"; and here was another organization, bearing practically the same name, and carrying on an agitation which seemed the same to the average man. The distinction between hired treason and super-idealism was far too subtle for the people to draw in a time of such peril.
It was becoming more and more the fashion to arrest Socialists and to suppress their papers; the government authorities in many places declared the "majority report" unmailable, and indicted state and national secretaries for having sent it out in the ordinary routine of their business. Jimmie received a letter from Comrade Meissner in Leesville, telling him that Comrade "Jack" Smith had been given two years in the penitentiary for his speech in the Opera-house, and the other would-be speakers had been fined five hundred dollars each. Several issues of the Worker had been barred from the mails, and now the police had raided the offices and forced the suspension of the publication. All over the country that sort of thing was happening, so now if you argued with Jimmie in favour of the war, his answer was that America was more Prussian than Prussia, and what was the use of fighting for Democracy abroad, if you had to sacrifice every particle of Democracy at home in order to win the fight?
Jimmie really believed this--he believed it with most desperate and passionate intensity. He looked forward to a war won for the benefit of oppression at home; he foresaw the system of militarism and suppession riveted for ever on the people of America. Jimmie would admit that the President himself might be sincere in the fine words he used about democracy; but the great Wall Street interests which had run the country for so many decades--they had their secret purposes, for which the war-frenzy served as a convenient cloak. They were going to make universal military service the rule in America; they were going to see to it that every school-child learned the military lessons of obedience and subordination. Also they were going to put the radical papers out of business and put a stop to all radical propaganda. Those Socialists who had been trapped into supporting the President's war-programme would wake up some morning with a fearful dark-brown taste in their mouths!
No, said Jimmie Higgins, the way to fight war was to resist the subterfuges, however cunning and plausible, by which men sought to persuade you to support war. The way to fight war was the way of the Russians. The propaganda of proletarian revolt, the glorious example which the Russian workers had set, would do more to break down the power of the Kaiser than all the guns and shells in the world. But the militarists did not want it broken that way--Jimmie suspected that many of them would rather have the war won by the Kaiser than have it won by the Socialists. The governments refused to give passports to Socialists who wanted to meet in some neutral country and work out the basis of a settlement upon which all the peoples of the world might get together; and Jimmie took the banning of this Socialist conference as the supreme crime of the world-capitalism, it was evidence that world-capitalism knew its true enemy, and meant to use the war as an excuse to hold that enemy down.
Day by day Jimmie was coming to place more of his hopes in Russia. His little friend Rabin, the tailor, took a Russian paper published in New York, the Novy Mir, and would translate its news and editorials. Local Hopeland, thus inspired, voted a message of fraternal sympathy to the Russian workers. In Petrograd and Moscow there was going on, it appeared, a struggle between the pro-ally Socialists and the Internationalists, the true, out-and-out, middle-of-the-road, thick-and-thin proletarians. The former were called Mensheviki, the latter were called Bolsheviki, and, of course, Jimmie was all for the latter. Did he not know the "stool-pigeon Socialists" at home, who were letting themselves be used by capitalism?
The big issues were two--first, the land, which the peasants wanted to take from the landlords; and second, the foreign debt. The Russian Tsar had borrowed four billion dollars from France and a billion or two from England, to be used in enslaving the Russian workers and driving several millions of them to death on the battlefield. Now should the Russian workers consider themselves bound by this debt? When anybody asked Jimmie Higgins that question, he responded with a thunderous "No", and he regarded as hirelings or dupes of Wall Street all those Socialists who supported Kerensky in Russia.
When the American government, wishing to appeal to the Russian people for loyalty in the war, sent over a commission to them, and placed at its head one of the most notorious corporation lawyers in America, a man whose life, the Jimmies said, had been sold to service in the anti-liberal cause, Jimmie Higgins's shrill voice became a yell of ridicule and rage. Of course, Jimmie's organization saw to it that the Bolsheviki were informed in advance as to the character of this commission--something which was unnecessary, as it happened, because immediately after the overthrow of the Tsar there had begun a pilgrimage of Russian Socialists from New York and San Francisco, men who had seen the seamy side of American capitalism in the slums of the great cities, and who lost no time in providing the Russian radicals with full information concerning Wall Street!
It chanced that in San Francisco a well-known labour leader had been charged with planting a bomb to break up a "preparedness" parade. He had been convicted upon that which was proven to be perjured testimony, and the labour unions of the country had been conducting a campaign to save his life--which campaign the capitalist newspapers had been carefully overlooking, according to their invariable custom. But now the returned exiles in Petrograd took up the matter, and organized a parade to the American embassy, with a demand for the freeing of this "Muni". The report, of course, came back to America--to the immense bewilderment of the American people, who had never heard of this "Muni" before. To Jimmie Higgins it seemed just the funniest joke on earth that a big labour-struggle should be on in San Francisco, and Americans should get their first news about it from Petrograd! Look! he would cry--how much real democracy there is in America, how much care for the working classes!
So all that summer and autumn, while Jimmie Higgins slaved in the fields, getting in his country's wheat-crop, and then his country's corn crop, there was a song of joy and awakening excitement in his soul. Far over the seas men of his own kind were getting the reins of power into their hands, for the first time in the history of the world. It could not be long before here in America the workers would learn this wonderful lesson, would thrill to the idea that freedom and plenty might really be their portion.