JIMMIE HIGGINS DEBATES THE ISSUE
The grey flood of frightfulness rolled over Belgium; and every morning, and again in the afternoon, the front page of the Leesville newspaper was like the explosion of a bomb. Twenty-five thousand Germans killed in one assault on Liege; a quarter of a million Russians massacred or drowned in the swamps of the Masurian Lakes; so it went, until the minds of men reeled. They saw empires and civilizations crumbling before their eyes, all those certainties upon which their lives had been built vanishing as a mist at sunrise.
Hitherto, Jimmie Higgins had always refused to take a daily paper. No capitalist lies for him; he would save his pennies for the Socialist weeklies! But now he had to have the news, and tired as he was after the day's work, he would sit on his front porch with his ragged feet against a post, spelling out the despatches. Then he would stroll down to the cigar-stand of Comrade Stankewitz, a wizened-up little Roumanian Jew who had lived in Europe, and had a map, and would show Jimmie which was Russia, and why Germany marched across Belgium, and why England had to interfere. It was good to have a friend who was a man of travel and a linguist--especially when the fighting became centred about places such as Przemysl and Przasnyaz!
Then every Friday night would be the meeting of the local. Jimmie would be the first to arrive, eager to hear every word the better informed comrades had to say, and thus to complete the education which Society had so cruelly neglected.
Before the war was many weeks old, Jimmie's head was in a state of utter bewilderment; never would he have thought it possible for men to hold so many conflicting opinions, and to hold them with such passionate intensity! It seemed as if the world-conflict were being fought out in miniature in Leesville.
At the third meeting after the war began, the prosperous Dr. Service arose, and in his impressive oratorical voice moved that the local should send a telegram to the National Executive Committee of the party, requesting it to protest against the invasion of Belgium; also a telegram to the President of the United States, requesting him to take the same action. And then what pandemonium broke loose! Comrade Schneider, the brewery-worker, demanded to know whether Local Leesville had ever requested the National Executive Committee to protest against the invasion of Ireland. Had the Socialist party ever requested the President of the United States to protect Egypt and India from oppression?
Comrade Dr. Service, who had remained on his feet, began a passionate denunciation of the outrages perpetrated by the German army in Belgium; at which Comrade Schneider's florid face turned purple. He demanded whether all men did not know that France had first invaded Belgium, and that the Belgians had welcomed the French? Weren't all the Belgian forts turned toward Germany? Of course! answered the doctor. But what of that? Was it a crime for a man to know who was going to attack him?
The purple-faced brewer, without heeding this question, demanded: Did not all the world know that the French had begun the war with an aeroplane bombardment of the German cities? The Comrade Doctor, his face also purpling, replied that all the world knew this for a tale sent out by the German propaganda machine. HOW did all the world know it? roared Schneider. By a cable-censorship controlled by British gold?
Jimmie was much exicted by this dispute. The only trouble was that he found himself in agreement with both sides, and with an impulse to applaud both sides. And also he applauded the next speaker, young Emil Forster, a pale, slender, and fair-haired youth, a designer in the carpet-factory. Emil was one who seldom raised his voice in the meetings, but when he did, he was heard with attention, for he was a student and a thinker; he played the flute, and his father, also a member of the local, played the clarinet, so the pair were invaluable on "social evenings". In his gentle, dispassionate voice he explained how it was not easy for people in America to understand the dilemma of the German Socialists in the present crisis. We must remember that the Germans were fighting, not merely England and France, but Russia; and Russia was a huge, half-civilized land, under perhaps the most cruel government in the world. How would Americans feel if up in Canada there were three hundred millions of people, ignorant, enslaved, and being drilled in huge armies?
All right, retorted Dr. Service. But then why did not the Germans fight Russia, and let France and Belgium alone?
Because, answered Emil, the French would not permit that. We in America thought of France as a republic, but we must remember that it was a capitalist republic, a nation ruled by bankers; and these bankers had formed an alliance with Russia, the sole possible aim of which was the destruction of Germany. France had loaned something like four billions of dollars to Russia.
And then Schneider leaped up. Yes, and it was that money which had provided the cannon and shells that were now being used in laying waste East Prussia, the land of Schneider's birth!
The temper of both sides was rising higher and higher, and the neutrals made efforts to calm the dispute. Comrade Stankewitz, Jimmie's cigar-store friend, cried out in his shrill eager voice: Vy did we vant to git mixed up vit them European fights? Didn't we know vat bankers and capitalists vere? Vat difference did it make to any vorking man vether he vas robbed from Paris or Berlin? "Sure, I know," said Stankewitz, "I vorked in both them cities, and I vas every bit so hungry under Rothschild as I vas under the Kaiser."
Then Comrade Gerrity, organizer of the local, took his turn. Whatever they did, said Gerrity, they must keep their neutrality in this war; the one hope of the world just now was in the Socialist movement--that it would preserve the international spirit, and point a war-torn world back to peace. Especially just now in Local Leesville they must keep their heads, for they were beginning the most important move in their history, the establishment of a weekly paper. Nothing must get in the way of that!
Yes, said Comrade Service, but they would have to determine the policy of the paper, would they not? Were they going to protest against injustice at home, and pay no attention to the most flagrant act of international injustice in the history of the world? Was a working man's paper to say nothing against the enslavement of the working men of Europe by the Kaiser and his militarist crew? He, Dr. Service, would wash his hands of such a paper.
And then the members of the local gazed at one another in dismay. Every man and woman of them knew that the prosperous doctor had headed the list of subscribers for the soon-to-be-born Leesville Worker with the sum of five hundred dollars. The thought of losing this munificent contribution brought consternation even to the Germans!
But there was one member of the local whom no menace ever daunted. He rose up now--lean, sallow almost to greenness, with black hair falling into his eyes, and a cough that racked him at every other sentence. Bill Murray was his name; "Wild Bill", the papers called him. The red card he carried had been initialled by the secretaires of some thirty locals all over the country. He had lost a couple of toes under a tractor-plough in Kansas, and half a hand in a tin-plate mill in Alleghany County; he had been clubbed insensible in a strike in Chicago, and tarred and feathered in a free speech fight in San Diego. And now he told the members of Local Leesville what he thought of those tea-party revolutionists who pandered to the respectability of a church-ridden community. "Wild Bill" had watched the discussions over "Section Six", the provision in the constitution of the party against sabotage and violence; the very same persons who had been enthusiastic for that bit of middle-class fakery were now trying to line up the local for the defence of the British sea-power! What the hell difference did it make to any working man whether or not the Kaiser got a railroad to Bagdad? Of course, if a man had been to school in Britain, and had a British wife, and felt himself a British gentleman--you could feel the shudder that went through the gathering, for everyone knew that this was Dr. Service--all right, let that man take the first ship across the ocean and enlist; but let him not try to turn an American Socialist local into a recruiting-agency for British landlords and aristocrats.
This brought to his feet Comrade Norwood, the young lawyer who had helped to put through "Section Six" in the National Convention of the party. If there were people so keen against this Section, why couldn't they get out of the party and form an organization of their own?
"Because," answered Murray, "we prefer sabotage to striking!"
"In other words," continued Norwood, "you stay in the local, and by a campaign of sneering and personalities you drive your opponents out!"
"This is the first meeting for some months that we have had the pleasure of seeing Comrade Norwood," said "Wild Bill", with venomous placidity. "Perhaps he knew that we were to be asked to raise a regiment for Kitchener!"
And then again Comrade Stankewitz was on his feet, with distress in his thin, eager face. "Comrades, all this vill not get us anyvere! There is but vun question ve have to answer, are ve internationalists, or are ve not?"
"It seems to me," continued Norwood, "the question is, are we anti-nationalists?"
"All right!" shrilled the little Jew. "I vill leave it so--I am an anti-nationalist! Such must all Socialists be!"
"But I don't understand it so," declared the young lawyer. "It is easy for some who belong to a race which has not had a country for two thousand years--"
"And who's dealing in personalities now?" sneered "Wild Bill".
So matters went in Local Leesville. The upshot of the debate was that Comrade Dr. Service declared that he washed his hands of the Socialist Party from that time on. And the Comrade Doctor buttoned his handsome black coat over his stately chest and stalked out of the room. The greater part of the remainder of that meeting was devoted to a discussion of him and his personality and his influence in the local. He was no Socialist at all, declared Schneider, he was an English aristocrat, or the next thing to it--his wife had two brothers in the British Expeditionary Force, and a nephew already enlisted in the Territorials, and a visiting cousin on the point of setting out for Canada, as the quickest way of getting into the mix-up. But in spite of all these damaging circumstances, the local was not disposed to give up its most generous supporter, and Comrade Gerrity, the organizer, and Comrade Goldstein of the Ypsels, were constituted a committee to go and plead with him and try to bring him back into the fold.
As for Jimmie Higgins, his problem was not so complicated. He had no relatives anywhere that he knew of; and if he had any "country", the country had failed to make him aware of the fact. The first thing the "country" had done for him was to put him into the hands of a negro woman who fed him gruel and water and gave him no blanket in winter. To Jimmie this country was an aggregation of owners and bosses, who made you sweat hard for your wages, and sent the police to club you if you made any kick. A soldier Jimmie thought of as a fellow who came to help the police when they got hard pushed. This soldier walked with his chest out and his nose in the air, and Jimmie referred to him as a "tin willie", and summed him up as a traitor to the working-class.
And so it was easy for our little machinist to agree with the Roumanian Jewish cigar-seller in calling himself an "anti- nationalist". It was easy for him to laugh and applaud when "Wild Bill" demanded what the hell difference it made to any working man whether or not the Kaiser got a railroad to Bagdad. He did not thrill in the least over the story of the British Army falling back step by step across France, and holding ten times their number of invaders. The papers called this "heroism"; but to Jimmie it was a lot of poor fools who had had a flag waved in their eyes, and had sold themselves for a shilling to the landlords of their country. In one of the Socialist papers that Jimmie read, there appeared every week a series of comic pictures in which the working man was figured as a guileless fool by the name of "Henry Dubb". Poor Henry always believed what he was told, and at the end of each adventure he got a thump on the top of his nut which caused stars to sprout over the page. And of the many adventures of Henry Dubb, the most absurd were when he got himself into a uniform. Jimmie would cut these pictures out and pass them round in the shop, and among his neighbours in the row of tenement-shacks where he lived.
Nor did it make much difference in Jimmie's feelings when he read of German atrocities. To begin with, he did not believe in them; they were just a part of the poison-gas of war. When men were willing to stab one another with bayonets, and to blow one another to pieces with bombs, they would be willing to lie about one another, you might be sure; the governments would lie deliberately, as one of the ways of making the soldiers fight harder. What? argued Jimmie: tell him that Germans were a lot of savages? When he lived in a city with hundreds of them, and met them all the time at the local?
Here, for instance, was the Forster family; where would you find a kinder lot of people? They were much above Jimmie in social standing--they owned their own house and had whole shelves full of books, and a pile of music as high as yourself; but recently Jimmie had stopped on a Socialist errand, and they had invited him in to supper, and there was a thin, worn, sweet-faced little woman, and four growing daughters--nice, gentle, quiet girls--and two sons younger than Emil; they had a pot-roast of beef, and a big dish of steaming potatoes, and another of sauerkraut, and some queer pudding that Jimmie had never heard of; and then they had music--they were fairly dippy on music, that family, they would play all night if you would listen, old Hermann Forster with his stout, black-bearded face turned up as if he were seeing Heaven. And you wanted Jimmie to believe that a man like that would carry a baby on a bayonet, or rape a girl and then cut off her hands!
Or there was Comrade Meissner, a neighbour of Jimmie's, a friendly little chatter-box of a man who was foreman-in-charge of a dozen women from as many different races of the earth, packing bottles in the glass-works. The tears would come into Meissner's pale blue eyes when he told how he was made to drive these women, sick, or in the family way, or whatever it might be. And remember, it was an American superintendent and an American owner who gave Meissner his orders--not a German! The little man could not quit his job, because he had a brood of children and a wife with something the matter with her--nobody could tell what it was, but she took all kinds of patent medicines, which kept the family poor. Sometimes Lizzie Higgins would go over to see her, and the two would sit and exchange ideas about ailments and the prices of food; and meantime Meissner would come over to where Jimmie was minding the Jimmie babies, and the two would puff their cobs and discuss the disputes between the "politicians" and the "direct actionists" in the local. And you wanted Jimmie to believe that men like Meissner were standing old Belgian women against the walls of churches and shooting them full of bullets!
But as the weeks passed, the evidence of atrocities began to pile in, and so Jimmie Higgins was driven to a second line of defence. Well, maybe so, but then all the armies were alike. Somebody told Jimmie the saying of a famous general, that war was hell; and Jimmie took to this--it was exactly what he wanted to believe! War was a return to savagery, and the worse it became, the better Jimmie's argument went. He was not interested in men's efforts to improve war, by agreeing that they would kill in this way but not in that way, they would kill this kind of people but not that kind.
These ideas Jimmie got from his fellow members in the local, and from the Socialist papers which came each week and from the many speakers he heard. These speakers were men and women of burning sincerity and with a definite and entirely logical point of view. Whether they talked about war, crime, prostitution, political corruption, or any other social evil, what they wanted was to tear down the old ramshackle structure, and to put in its place something new and intelligent. You might possibly bring them to admit slight differences between capitalist governments but when it came to a practical issue, to an action you found that to these people all governments were alike--and never so much alike as in war-time!
Nor was there ever such need for Socialist protest! Very quickly it became apparent that it was not going to be an easy matter for America to keep out of this world-vortex. Because American working men did not get a living wage, and could not buy what they produced, there was a surplus product which had to be sold abroad; so the business of American manufacturers depended upon foreign markets --and here suddenly were all the principal trading nations of the world plunging in to buy all the American products they could, and to keep their enemies from buying any at all.
A woman speaker came to Leesville a shrewd little body with a sharp tongue, who had these disputes figured out, and gave them in dialogue, as in a play. Kaiser Bill says, "I want cotton" John Bull says, "You shan't have it." Uncle Sam says, "But he has a right to have it. Get out of the way, John Bull." But John Bull says, "I will hold up your ships and take them into my ports." Uncle Sam says, "No, no! Don't do that!" But John Bull does it. And then the Kaiser says, "What sort of a fellow are you to let John Bull steal your ships? Are you a coward, or are you secretly a friend of this old villain? Uncle Sam says, "John Bull, give me my German mail and my German newspapers, at least. But John Bull answers, "You've got a lot of German spies in your country--that's why I can't let you have your mail. You can't have German papers because the Kaiser fills them full of lies about me." And the Kaiser says, "If John Bull won't let me have my cotton and my meat and all the rest of it, why don't you stop sending anything to him?" He waits a while, and then he says, "If you won't stop sending things to that old villain, I'll sink the ships, that's all." And Uncle Sam cries, "But that's against the law!" "Whose law?" says the Kaiser. "What sort of a law is it that works only one way?" "But there are Americans on those ships!" cries Uncle Sam. "Well, keep them off the ships!" answers the Kaiser. "Keep them off till John Bull obeys the law."
Put in this way the situation was easy for any Jimmie Higgins to understand; and month by month, as the debate continued, Jimmie's own point of view became clearer. He was not interested in sending cotton to England, and still less in sending meat. He thought he was lucky if he had a bit of meat twice a week himself, and it was plain enough to him that if the fellows who owned the meat were not allowed to ship it abroad, they might sell it in America at a price that a working man could pay. Nor was that just greediness on Jimmie's part; he was perfectly willing to go without meat where an ideal was involved--look at the time and money and energy he gave to Socialism! The point was that by sending goods to Europe, you helped to keep up the fighting; whereas, if you quit, the fools must come to their senses. So the Jimmie Higginses worked out their campaign-slogan: "Starve the War and Feed America!"
In the third month of the war, disturbing rumours began to run about Leesville. Old Abel Granitch had taken on a contract with the Belgian government, and the Empire Machine Shops were going to make shells. Nothing appeared about this in the local papers, but everybody claimed to have first-hand knowledge, and although no two people told the same story, there must be some basis of truth in them all. And then, one day, to Jimmie's consternation, he heard from Lizzie that the agent of the landlord had called and served notice that they had three days to vacate the premises. Old man Granitch had bought the land, and the Shops were to build out that way. Jimmie could hardly credit his ears, for he was six city blocks from the nearest part of the Shops; but it was true, so everyone declared; all that land had been bought up, and half a thousand families, children and old people, and sick people, men on their death-beds and women in child-birth--all had three days in which to move themselves to new quarters.
Let anyone imagine the confusion, the babel of tongues, the women on their porches calling to one another, asking and giving advice! The denunciations and the scoldings and the threats to resort to law! The raids upon landlords, and how the prices went up! Jimmie hurried off to Comrade Meissner, who had bought a house and was paying instalments on it; Meissner, being a Socialist, did not try to fleece him, but was glad to have help in making his payments. There were no partitions in the garret which Jimmie rented, but they would hang curtains and make do somehow, and Lizzie would use Mrs. Meissner's stove until they could get something fixed upstairs. And then to the corner grocery, to borrow a hand-cart and get started at moving the furniture; for to-morrow everybody would be moving, and you would not be able to get anything on wheels for love or money. Until after midnight Jimmie and Meissner worked at transporting babies and bedding and saucepans and chairs and chicken-coops piled on the hand-cart.
And next morning at the shop, more excitement! It was four years now that Jimmie had been in the employ of old man Granitch, and in all that time he had done but one thing; standing in a vast room amid a confusion of whirling belts and wheels, a roar and screech and grumble and whirl that completely annulled one of the five senses. There came in front of him, mechanically propelled, a tray full of small oblong blocks of steel, which he fed, one with each hand, into two places in a machine; the machine took these blocks, and rounded off one end, and ground the rest a little smaller, and put a thread on it, and it dropped into a tray on the other side, a bolt. Because Jimmie had to watch the machine, and keep the oil-cups full, his was classed as semi-skilled labour, and was paid nineteen and a half cents an hour. Some time ago an expert had studied the process, and figured that with labour at that price it was one-eighth of a cent per hour cheaper to have the work done by hand than to instal a machine to do it; and so for four years Jimmie had his job, standing on one spot from seven to twelve, and again from twelve-thirty to six, and carrying home every Saturday night the sum of twelve dollars and twenty-nine cents. You might have thought that the huge machine-works would have made it twelve-thirty for good measure; but if so, you do not understand large scale production.
And now, all of an instant and without warning, Jimmie's precisely ordered and habitual world came to an end. He was at his post when the whistle blew, but the machinery did not move. And presently came the Irish foreman with the curt announcement that the machinery would never move again, at least not on that spot; it was to be cleared out of the way, and new machinery set up, and they were to fall to forthwith with wrenches and hammers and crow-bars to make a new world!
So for a week they did; and meantime, every night as he went home, Jimmie saw people's homes being wrecked--roofs falling in clouds of dust, and gangs of men loading the debris into huge motor-trucks. Before long they had got acetylene torches, and were working all night-gangs of labourers who lived in tents on vacant lots outside the city and kept their canvas cots warm with double shifts of sleepers. Jimmie Higgins realized the dreadful truth, that in spite of all the agitation of Socialists, the war had actually come to Leesville!