‘Frank Little, the Rebel: On the Ninth Anniversary of His Death’ by James P. Cannon from Labor Defender. Vol. 1 No. 8. August, 1926.

A truly wonderful appreciation of Frank Little by his old comrade in the I.W.W., James P. Cannon. Written on the ninth anniversary of his murder, the personal memories Cannon shares include being in jail together in 1913 and taking, along with other prisoners, great solace in comrade Little’s dignity and strength. Marvelous stuff.

‘Frank Little, the Rebel: On the Ninth Anniversary of His Death’ by James P. Cannon from Labor Defender. Vol. 1 No. 8. August, 1926.

IT is nine years, this month, since they hung Frank Little to the trestle’s beam in Butte. They put Prank out of the way and thought they were through with him, but they made a mistake. The things Frank Little stood for – and that was the real Frank Little – are still alive. The things Frank Little did in his life-time are not forgotten and the memory of them is not without influence even today.

Indeed, Frank Little is beginning, after the interval of nine years, to loom bigger and bigger against the background of the events of his living days. The revolutionary youth of America, especially, with a wisdom of appraisal that belongs exclusively to the young, are beginning to manifest a great interest in the story of this daring rebel who threw his life away so carelessly for the revolution, and, with an unerring instinct, they are picking him out from all of the American personalities of his day as one of their own.

Here was a real American – so much American that he was part Indian – who, no less than Liebknecht, in time of storm and stress was capable of scorning all personal hazards and remaining true to revolutionary duty. The rebel youth see him as a hero. His soul is marching on.

It is known by all that Frank Little died a heroic death. It must also be- come generally known that he lived the same kind of a life, and that the final sacrifice he made at the rope’s end in Butte, fighting to the last for the cause of the workers and against the capitalist war, was of one piece with his life-long record of activity and struggle as a revolutionary worker.

Frank belonged to the “old guard” of the I.W.W. He was one of its founders. Before that he was one of the militants of the Western Federation of Miners. With a singleness of purpose possessed by few, he moulded his whole life’s activities around one central idea, the idea of the revolutionary struggle of the workers for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the workers’ society. Year after year, through storm and conflict, through strikes and struggles, through jails and prisons, he held resolutely to his chosen course to the end.

In his prime he had been a man of sturdy physical make-up, fitted for his hard and hazardous trade as a metal miner. But the hardships and tortures he endured, especially the jails (ah! the jails are body-breakers) left his spirit unshaken, but told heavily on his body, and in his later years the torture of rheumatism and other physical ailments were with him constantly. But he bore these burdens uncomplainingly and never shirked any duties or obligations on that account. Even the accident which crippled him shortly before his death did not turn him aside from active work.

Frank was a warm human, hating and fighting the exploiting class and all its personal representatives savagely and bitterly. His tongue was a whiplash for them, but for the workers, especially for the rebel workers, he always had a soft and friendly mood. He was even inclined to look upon their short-comings and weaknesses with an indulgent eye. For his personal friends he had a strange and wonderful kindness and considerateness, and he was greatly beloved by them.

Frank Little had many personal characteristics of a truly admirable kind. His honesty, courage and selfless devotion to the cause of the workers stood out so strongly and impressed itself so deeply on all who crossed his path that no one could forget them. But the central feature of the whole personality of Frank Little, the one that it is most important for the coming generation of labor fighters to know about and to strive to emulate, was his dauntless rebel spirit. His hatred of exploitation and oppression and of all those who profited by it in one way or another was irreconcilable. He was always for the revolt, for the struggle, for the fight. Wherever he went he “stirred up trouble” and organized the workers to rebel. Bosses, policemen, stoolpigeons, jailers, priests and preachers – these were the constant targets of his bitter tongue. He was a blood brother to all insurgents, “to every rebel and revolutionist the world over.”

Frank Little had faith in the working class. He verily believed in the coming workers’ society and he lived and died for it. His scorn for cynics, pessimists, dilletantes and phrase-mongering “philosophers” knew no bounds. He believed and acted out the creed of action and inspired all around him with the same attitude.

He was not a “swivel chair” leader, but a man of the field and the firing line. He was always on the trail, in the thick of the open fight. He was well known in all the active centers from Chicago, west. He had a habit of always turning up in the place where the fight was on, or of “starting something” – a strike, a free speech fight or an agitation, wherever he might be.

Frank Little’s influence was very great amongst the type of workers with whom he mixed all his life – miners, migratory workers, railroad builders, and the like.

Amongst this type of workers, the first virtue is physical courage, and Frank Little possessed it to a superlative degree. One of the first remarks I ever heard about Frank Little was to the effect that he did not under- stand the meaning of the word “fear.” Later acquaintance and association with him confirmed my opinion to the same effect, and I never heard anyone who knew him dispute that judgement.

I remember a characteristic instance. During the ore-docks strike in Duluth and Superior in 1913, after he had been kidnapped and held under armed guard in a deserted farm house for several days, after several meetings of the strikers had been broken up by uniformed armed thugs of the steel company, he invited me one morning to take a walk with him down to the docks. With a pistol in his pocket and his hand on it, we walked for an hour or two around the docks, directly past all the places swarming with gunmen, till we had completed the entire rounds, crossing and recrossing company property many times. It was a rather dangerous trip to undertake, but he insisted on it, so there was no alternative.

He considered it necessary, he said, “to show the gunmen that we are not afraid of them and also to show the strikers that we’re not afraid, so they won’t be afraid.”

Jail was double hell for Frank. The wild Indian strain in him, combined with his rebel worker spirit, rendered confinement particularly odious to him, and he used to chafe in jail like a tiger caught in a trap. Yet he never flinched from it, and p so great were his inner resources – he knew how to contain himself, to hold his rage in hand and to bear himself with a quiet dignity in jail which jailers as well as jail mates could not but be affected by. I remember vividly to this day the quieting effect of his entrance into the jail in Peoria, during the strike and free speech fight there in 1913, and the rebuke he gave, in the tone of a father talking to a child, (he was about thirty-five then and was already recognized as a veteran) as he sat on the bunk, calmly chewing his tobacco, to an impulsive lad who wanted to start a “battle ship” prematurely.

He also possessed moral courage, never fearing to take an unpopular stand in the organization, never hesitating for a moment to identify himself, positively and aggressively, with any proposal or tendency he thought was right, regardless of how many stood with him or against. “Decentralization” was a quite popular movement in the I.W.W. at that time. The migratory workers, with their individualistic spirit, responded quite readily to the idea of doing away with leaders and centralized authority and letting each local run affairs as it saw fit. Prank Little stood like a rock against this. He was one of the strongest pillars in the camp of the so-called “centralizers.”

His sound organizational instincts, fortified by wide experience, enabled him to recognize quickly the disintegrating tendencies of the “decentralization” movement. He poured out the most withering invective on the heads of those who wanted to change officers every year, etc., and in the faction fight over this issue his energetic and determined struggle against decentralization was one of the most decisive factors in the defeat of the movement in 1913.

Frank Little’s last speech, for which he paid with his life, was directed against the capitalist war. In that speech he set up his own doctrines against those of the warmongers. His philosophy, compressed into a single sentence, was picked up and carried all over the country on the telegraph wires with the news of his assassination. “I stand for the solidarity of labor.” This was the final message from that tongue of fire.

Labor leaders on every side, in this and other countries, were fooled, bullied, or bribed into supporting the capitalist slaughter-fest. Frank Little was not one of them. And with a wisdom never learned in books, he seemed to sense the great historical significance of the stand he was taking. His speech at Butte, his letter to Haywood, his resolution introduced in the General Executive Board of the I.W.W. on the subject of the war, will influence the rising young generation of the labor movement much more than that of his own day.

Frank Little sensed this. His letter to Haywood indicates clearly that he expected he would have to pay with his life for the stand he was taking against the war, but he considered it worth the sacrifice. He knew himself, without being able to scientifically explain, the great power of example, and always considered that in the last resort all philosophies are tested by deeds.

The memory of Frank Little seemed to be obscured for a time. Months and even years passed by, and we did not see it mentioned anywhere. But that is passing now. The rising revolutionary movement of today is learning to see past events in truer perspective and the name of Frank Little, and his fame also, are beginning to grow bigger. The life and deeds of Frank Little are beginning to stand out as those of a hero of the American revolution, who has left a priceless heritage to the coming generation.

James P. Cannon.

Frank Little will become a tradition, one of the greatest traditions of the American movement. A study of his life will become part of the revolutionary education of the American revolutionary youth. His personal characteristics of courage, honesty, straightforwardness and self-sacrifice and rebel spirit will exert a strong influence, which is much needed, on the new fighters.

The fragmentary notes which a few of us are putting into this special number of the Labor Defender to keep his memory green, will not be the last words said about Frank Little by any means. It will not be long till more systematic work is done and the accounts of his manifold activities and struggles will be gathered together and woven into a story of his life and work which will become a textbook for the movement.

The Frank Little tradition is one of the best traditions of America. It is a tradition of the American revolution.

Labor Defender was published monthly from 1926 until 1937 by the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Workers Party of America, and later Communist Party-led, non-partisan defense organization founded by James Cannon and William Haywood while in Moscow, 1925 to support prisoners of the class war, victims of racism and imperialism, and the struggle against fascism. It included, poetry, letters from prisoners, and was heavily illustrated with photos, images, and cartoons. Labor Defender was the central organ of the Scottsboro and Sacco and Vanzetti defense campaigns. Not only were these among the most successful campaigns by Communists, they were among the most important of the period and the urgency and activity is duly reflected in its pages. Editors included T. J. O’ Flaherty, Max Shactman, Karl Reeve, J. Louis Engdahl, William L. Patterson, Sasha Small, and Sender Garlin.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/labordefender/1926/v01n08-aug-1926-LD.pdf

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