‘Jim Larkin Goes to Jail’ by Louise Bryant from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 6. June, 1920.

‘Jim Larkin Goes to Jail’ by Louise Bryant from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 6. June, 1920.

INTO the putrid air of the Criminal Court, made foul by the presence of detectives, stool-pigeons, rat-men from the bomb squad, rat-men from the Department of Justice, rat-men from the Security League, imported rat-men from His Majesty’s Secret Service, the great booming voice of Jim Larkin blew like a Spring wind. Full of human indignation against all the foulness gathered together in that one room, it sent vibrations of fear into the mean little souls who sat in judgment.

Once as I sat huddled over the long reporters’ table as the trial dragged on, a line from Victor Hugo’s history of “Ninety-Three” came to me, and I wrote it down idly on my sheaf of notes without realizing what I had done: There is one Himalaya and there is one Convention. I looked up at the towering figure of Big Jim and I wrote underneath that line : There is but one Irish freedom and it is precisely that deep and all embracing freedom conceived in the heart and brain of Jim Larkin.

At that particular moment the Assistant District Attorney was baiting Larkin as a. matador baits a bull. “You are opposed to the Sinn Fein,” he said in his insinuating way. Larkin replied, “I am not opposed to it but I don’t sympathize with it. The very meaning of the word ‘Ourselves’ is too small and too limited for my imagination and my enthusiasm. I am an Internationalist. I believe in freedom for the whole world.”

After every remark of this kind the whole court gazed at the prisoner with the most naked hostility. Every face in the audience was scrutinized. A smile or a tear on the part of any sympathetic friend of Larkin’s, who had managed to wedge his way past the guards at the door and weather the insults of the Judge, was the signal for an ejection.

Names and addresses of all persons entering were taken at both morning and afternoon sessions. If any soul was brave enough to resent this conduct in “an open court of justice” he was seized, brought before the judge and publicly questioned. Reporters’ cards were scrutinized again and again, various magazine writers had to leave the press table although there was always room there for a detective and a man from the Security League who wore a Hoover button and said he did not believe in unions. One reporter who wrote a “fair” story was denounced to his paper as an Anarchist.

Louise Bryant.

In such an atmosphere of coercion Jim Larkin, acting as his own lawyer, struggled to find Justice—Justice which has, at least temporarily, departed from these United States.  One is not sure where justice can now be found, but one guesses she is taking a vacation roaming the broad valleys and high mountains of Soviet Russia. Perhaps she is picking wild flowers there and will not return to us again until we show that we are worthy of her affection.

Many people criticized Larkin for being his own lawyer. Personally, I believe he was entirely loyal to his ideals in so doing. He knew what happened in the trial of Ben Gitlow and what happened in the trial of Harry Winitsky. Neither of these men had a chance. Darrow is an able lawyer and he defended Gitlow. He told me himself that from the very first he realized that the case was hopeless. The Judge over-ruled every objection he made. The authorities are “out to get” these men innocent or guilty. In what other way can the thousands and thousands of dollars being spent by Mr. Palmer on his army of rats be justified? After all, Mr. Palmer has troubles enough without allowing men like Jim Larkin loose on the country to shout the truth from the housetops. Every reader knows that Palmer is a hard-working and unfortunate man. Every “toy” revolution that he has staged has fallen through. The radicals in America have no idea of what is expected of them. Over and over again they demonstrate that they are a peaceful, law abiding lot and they prove that the only people who believe in violence in this country are enlisted in Palmer’s army and the 500 per cent American association.

Could anything be more embarrassing? Still, if Mr. Palmer can manage to put Larkin and men like him in jail, he thinks he will get the country to believe that he has avoided a bloody revolution. I haven’t any idea how Mr. Palmer came to this conclusion but I am perfectly certain that he did not major in history when he took his college degree. I did; and I would like to give Mr. Palmer the benefit of one thing I learned from those dusty volumes: No nation and no administration has ever been able to stand against the strength of prisons full of political prisoners! And if anybody in the United States ought to be indicted for bringing on a revolution it is Mr. Palmer.

Larkin was consistent in defending himself. To secure an able criminal lawyer a fee of at least $5,000 must be raised. This fee comes from contributions made by the poorest workers in the country. Jim Larkin knows what it is to be poor and he has given all the forty-two years of his life to lifting the burden of the poor. So he refused to take their pennies in his defense.

Not being trained in law, he was continually breaking some stupid little rule of procedure, sweeping it aside as he would a fence made of straw. It annoyed the judge, it annoyed the Assistant District Attorney. The judge interrupted him, picked at him, screamed in irritation, “Can’t you comprehend the rules of this court?”

Once Larkin answered in desperation as if he felt smothered. “You must excuse me, sir. I am not a man used to four walls. My way has been the way of the farm and the factory and the broad high-road …. “

All through the trial he was full of poetry, poetry that went over the heads of the Court, over the wooden jury, and floated out the windows into the Spring sunshine.

“When I went to school I was taught that the brotherhood of man was a living thing…And then I went out of school and I found that men were wolves and had to be wolves in order to exist. Then I discovered the sorrow of men and the sorrow of their women.”

Every now and then the Assistant District Attorney would accuse him of holding America in contempt. This implication Larkin always resented sharply:

“It is not true that I do not love America! How did I get a love of Comrades only by reading Whitman!” Then he spoke of Emerson and “that great man, Mark Twain.” Again, “I dream of America as Lincoln dreamed of it, as some of your revolutionary fathers dreamed of it, as a man who lies now in Washington, somewhat chastened in his body, once dreamed of it…when he wrote The New Freedom. Gentlemen, if I am charged with printing the Communist Manifesto, why is Mr. Wilson not charged with printing The New Freedom? In that book he claims that this very court is governed by an invisible force. He knew what he was writing. He is an American and his father was knit in the fabric of this country.”

Once he said to the jury: ”Go back and read Professor Beard and see how this Constitution came to be…and then go back to Lincoln.”

His only complaint was: “I am indicted by persons who do not even understand my philosophy. I am a Socialist, I believe in a higher form of social order. If you believe me guilty, stand by your country as I do by mine. No man in this country knows the law; the whole structure, from the higher court to the lower, is calculated and built up to hold the victim in its clutches. On your head is charged the safety of this realm. There are forces in this country you know not of.…the forces that. brought down Rome are working here. They go into your schools and put back the King of Ignorance. You freed yourself from George. But remember King George was only a man…”

With painstaking care he explained what “Revolutionary Socialism” means. “It is a Socialism, that is fundamental in its aspects. Revolutionary Socialism is sovietism- it is Socialism in action.”

Only by education, Larkin maintained, can this country be reclaimed for freedom. “But what is the final act?” cried Mr. Rorke, beating the table. “I cannot tell you what the final act is,” said Larkin in all seriousness, as if he had before him a questioning child, “there is no final act in life. And my church teaches me that Death itself is not a final act.” He began then to discuss Soviet Russia and how Socialists had worked out certain theories there. The Judge objected violently to any discussion of Russia.

“You don’t know anything about Russia,” said the Judge, “you haven’t been there …. “

“I have never been in Rome, Sir, but I am certain that Rome exists.”

In strikingly ugly contrast to the directness and sincerity of Larkin was the weakness and insincerity of the district attorney. Here are a few of his inanely hysterical utterances:

“The people of New York are closing in on these Archangels of Anarchy.”

“The defendant professes to have met Lloyd George. Where was Lloyd George during this trial?”

“Why he went back to Gallileo, he tried to disrupt the jury. To make one man hate another. He ran the entire gamut of class action. He brought in the Confederacy. Alien! Citizen of the world-not an American!”

“As they say among the working class-sabotage the leaders. Divide and conquer! The psychology of the Red Socialist game comes in here.”…

“My God! It’s bad enough for Americans to talk that way. What does it mean for this-this-this enemy alien to come here and criticise our institutions?”

“We will starve you into submission, that’s what he says. To hell with the country, to hell with the flag…we’ll starve all the babies and shut up the cities…we’ll give you mass action!”

Over and over again, he insisted, “If you turn Larkin out you commit a crime against his comrades, Gitlow and Winitski. These men, pawns in the hands of this devil, are entitled to justice if he is. This man is the leader-the most sinister force in America today.”

After hours and hours of this fearful oratory, Mr. Rorke, Assistant District Attorney for the State of New York, sat down perspiring and proud of his own special brand of nationalism. It is worth noting that the only insulting phrases used, the only hint of violence, the only evidence of treachery, came from Mr. Rorke and not from Jim Larkin. As Larkin told Rorke during the trial:

“You try to put in my mind what is in your mind; you try to make these twelve men think I think your thoughts. All the men I am associated with believe in the force of intellect over the force of bullets and the violence of the police.”

Nevertheless, they railroaded Jim Larkin to prison as they will railroad every leader they can reach until the tide turns. Men like Weeks and Rorke and Palmer and Stevenson would close the singing mouths of all the poets in America, if they could comprehend their songs. They would shut up Lola Ridge and Carl Sandburg and Arturo Giovannitti, as well as John Reed. As Larkin himself expressed it, all genius, all invention which upsets old theories will be suppressed if this new autocracy in America is allowed to go on. He was speaking of Anatole France and Rolland and the men who lead the thought of the world and he came in his discussion to Einstein’s Theory. Turning to Rorke, he remarked: “You would not allow such a man to function. You would put a steel cap over men’s minds-and yet-within this very groove a windstorm may be in motion.”

There are many side lights on the Larkin case. I have space only to discuss the two most important issues. Larkin is a world figure, the legendary hero of the hero loving Irish. In prison in a far-away country on a trumped-up charge, he will excite all their sympathy. As long as he is in Sing Sing he will be the pivot for an International labor fight. .How does intelligent conservatism regard his imprisonment? Let me tell you a story.

My father was an Irish-American and a Democrat. All his life he worked for Irish freedom. He used to go up and down this country lecturing for the Irish Land League against the old land-lord system. As an orator he played a conspicuous part in Grover Cleveland’s first presidential campaign. Many old diplomats remember him with affection, and I talked with one such after the Larkin trial.

“Well,” I said, “how do you feel now that Larkin is behind bars? Don’t you consider it rather an obvious compliment to the British government?”‘

“Yes,” he answered, weighing his words, “a little too obvious. My chief criticism of my country has always been that we are governed by mediocrities. And now that we have gone into world politics the results are terrifyingly disastrous. This Larkin trial is a glaring example of the fear and stupidity exhibited by small minded officials. How can that man Rorke, who has no fundamental knowledge oi anything, who mispronounces every word with two syllables, how can a man like that realize the significance of Larkin? Think of the absurdity of that jury of small shopkeepers, men who admitted that they read nothing but the headlines in the newspapers and believed all that they read, think of them trying the Commander in Chief of the Irish Citizens Army and the champion of a new system of economics! Such men would condemn Danton or Napoleon-or Lenin with the-same vapid complacency. They would never realize the world chords they were stirring. Larkin should have been tried by experts in economics.” He sighed. “That’s how your confounded Soviets will defeat capitalism, they believe in a government run by experts.”

“Why does Larkin interest you?”

“Because he is a force and because I am against that force and because he is extremely intelligent. He realizes, for example, that it is only through the awakening of British labor that Ireland nears its chance of freedom.

“But because his heart and soul are in Ireland, he did not have any considerable influence in America, until now. And consider: Any protest either here or abroad will be bound to embarrass the British Government. In prison Larkin becomes a stone in the sling of David, if the British Labor Party should aim that stone….well…one can hardly estimate the effect.”

Now and again during the weary hours in court I thought of that other Irish leader now in America, of Eamonn De Valera. I wondered a little how he regarded all that was happening to his fellow countryman, to a man whose fate must always be of deeper concern to the heart of Ireland than his can ever be. Why had he not sent a representative or appeared himself to protest against the unjust treatment of so distinguished a citizen of the Irish Republic?

De Valera came to America to accomplish a great task- to secure the recognition of the Irish Republic. He has, in all justice, performed wonders toward that end. He has been forced to compromise. Whatever De Valera may feel about Jim Larkin he will remain silent.

I believe De Valera is an honest rebel and behind him in Ireland are men who are in prison, men who are on hunger strike and men lying in the never-to-be-forgotten graves of martyrs. De Valera has the narrowness of a nationalist but the courage of a brave man. But as for many of the American politicians who surround and advise him, they have about as much conception of real freedom for Ireland, the nation of slums, as they do of freedom in any other spot on the earth. They find the slogan of freedom for Ireland a slick recipe for getting votes.

Jim Larkin went to prison because he is a champion of labor and it will be the strength and the will of labor and labor only that will open the prison doors and bring him back into the sunshine. Labor must fight for its own.

The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1920/06/v3n06-w27-jun-1920-liberator-hr.pdf

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