Ralph Chaplin looks back at how martyred working class leader Frank Little, and the I.W.W., responded to World War One. Marvelous memories from one of his closest comrades.
‘Frank Little and the War’ by Ralph Chaplin from Labor Defender. Vol. 1 No. 8. August, 1926.
Frank Little is the name of a man who had fame thrust upon him in the form of a hang-man’s noose. Frank Little was a workingman — a metal miner — and a rebel against the existing system of society. The bestial creatures who killed him were gunmen in the employ of the copper trust. Little had gone to Butte, Montana, to help organize miners there who were then engaged in the desperate strike which followed on the heels of the Speculator mine disaster in 1917.
Little went to Butte on crutches. His right leg had been fractured in an automobile accident in Arizona. He had been rushing from one camp to another on behalf of the strikers of the Southwest. The atrocious Bisbee deportation had aroused the fighting spirit of the miners to fever heat. The strike lines of the copper miners extended from Arizona to Montana. Little was a copper miner and a rebel. He was heart and soul with the fellow workers of his industry in their titanic effort to thwart the efforts of the profit greedy copper interests to gouge incredible profits from the labor of poorly paid producers. No one will ever know how seriously Frank Little took the big copper strike of 1917. No doubt he had looked forward all his life to the day when the miners would develop and use their industrial power in this manner.
Little was heart and soul with the miners in their judgment of union matters also. Little, it may be said now, was the breath of life of the Metal Mine Workers’ Union of the I.W.W. Little was an industrialist to the core. He was strong for industrial unionism at all times and under all conditions; but the one thing that always aroused his tongue to eloquence and his spirit to action was the vision of metal miners standing as one — organized into one mighty union — a solid unbroken front to oppose the greed of the exploiters.
In the technique of class warfare Little was a master. He had been trained in the Western Federation of Miners — one of the group of leaders like Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John who came into the I.W.W. from the W.F.M. bringing an incomparable fighting spirit and organization principles, born of a wealth of experience on the firing line.
In order to understand Little’s reaction to the war it is necessary to know Little’s relation to the working class — his relation to the I.W.W. The I.W.W. was either a fighting organization or it was nothing because, apart from the preamble, its philosophy was vague and its literature pathetically inadequate. But the I.W.W. had learned things, just as Little had learned them, from bitter experience, instead of books. It opposed capitalism with rare consistency in matters of spirit and tactics. Perhaps the truth is that the rebel spirit of the I.W.W. at its best was born of a marvelous instinctive revolt against capitalism — one that was born in the very heart of the class struggle in America. The preamble of the I.W.W. said nothing about war, and yet the organization to a man responded to the rebel attitude towards war. And Frank Little was among those most fiercely and passionately opposed to the war. Little was not a man who could be classed as a conscientious objector. He was by nature a fighter and had been in many battles — had been, at war with capitalism all his life. Little had no sympathy with the sentimental objections against war and was not interested in ethical considerations as to whether war of any sort was “right” or “wrong.” Little only knew that this was a capitalist war, and, as such he had nothing to do but despise it. Little’s half cynical smile was the most eloquent answer imaginable to the war bromides about the “war to end war” and the “war for democracy” and similar platitudes which were current in 1917. Little, taking the position of one of the vast number of exploited workers, said that the only enemy the workers have is the capitalist system and the workers’ only war, the world over, the class war.
The war really took the I.W.W. off guard. The great growth of membership in 1917, the huge strike in the Lumber industry and the strike of the metal miners had made the general office in Chicago a bee hive of activity. As the war cloud settled down and the American participation in the war became a fact, the membership of the I.W.W. clamored for the union to take a definite stand and to publish a statement about the way the I.W.W. felt regarding this war.
At this particular time I was editor of Solidarity, official English organ of the I.W.W. Letters came to my desk by the dozens every day asking why a statement of the position of the I.W.W. regarding war had not been published. There was nothing for me to say because the G.E.B. had not yet convened and a statement of my own would have been in no sense of the word “official.” I had written a great many editorials against the war, it is true. And they were liked by the workers in the field, but the thing demanded was a statement by the G.E.B. which would put the organization on record and show the world just where the rebel I.W.W. stood.
Bill Haywood got up the now famous “Deadly Parallel” showing the contrast between the attitude of the A.F. of L. and the I.W.W. regarding war. This was circulated down to the very day the United States joined forces with the Allied Powers. But, even Haywood was simply Haywood, General Secretary Treasurer of the I.W.W. and not the G.E.B. itself.
At last members of the board began to reach Chicago for the board meeting. One or two at a time they dropped in at the general office. The strike situation was tense but favorable. The entire lumber industry of the Northwest was shut down, the copper mines of the Southwest, ditto. Word had come that Butte had joined the strike and was standing to a man with the copper miners of the Southwest.
Almost the last of the board members to reach Chicago was Frank Little. He came into the offices on crutches, his right leg being in a plaster cast up to or a little above, the knee. Then the board went into session.
It was evident to all that the war was to be used as an excuse to crush the I.W.W. And this was the thought in the back part of each board member’s mind when the matter of the war came up for discussion — or nearly every one’s mind, for Prank Little did not share the opinion of most of the rest of us. Little was for an open defiance of the war and for a statement denouncing the war and exposing to the world the hypocrisy of its pretended purposes. Other members seemed inclined, rather than to rush head on against the maelstrom, and wreck the organization, to hold fast to the union and the strikes and to ignore the war issue as much as possible.
But Little would hear none of it. He claimed the strikes and the magnificent newly born power of the strikers were all the protection the union needed. Matters stood like this for several days, each side drawing up tentative drafts of resolutions and then reaching a deadlock. I had been invited, once or twice to sit with the board, without voice or vote, so as to report the proceedings for Solidarity. As the dead line came nearer and we had to go to press with the paper, I became impatient, finally, at the last moment drawing up a little compromise statement of my own in compliance with the popular demand for a statement of some sort. This was the only statement ever used, for the board never agreed. Frank Little went to Butte and was murdered and the rest of us remained at our various posts and were gathered up in the great federal dragnet of 1917.
I was sincerely concerned about the prospect of Little going to Montana, first of all on account of his fractured leg and secondly, because of what I considered his intemperate manner of speaking — dangerous enough even in peace times. Little always blurted out the unvarnished truth as he saw it regardless of how it sounded or who it hurt. In Arizona, for instance, he was reported to have said that he would rather take a firing squad at sunrise than to be conscripted into the army. I simply couldn’t get this point of view and told him so, explaining that there would be nothing left of the strikes or the I.W.W. if we were all of us of draft age to commit suicide in this manner. To me it seemed that there was nothing the exploiting class would like better than the opportunity to eliminate the strike leaders and wreck their union over the issue of the draft. Little always replied to this argument that the exploiters would do these things anyhow — with or without excuse. Probably both of us were right, and both wrong.
The statement which he drew up for the G.E.B. was never used officially by the I.W.W. as he would have liked. It was seized in the raids and used against us in the Chicago trial. If all of the I.W.W. had been as big and as dauntless as Frank Little and the workers of this country and the world had been animated by the same spirit —! That would have been another story.
Little and I had a rough and rather boisterous way of “kidding” one another. Little always picked on me because he thought I was a “poet” and I always bullied him a bit (or pretended to) because I was the bigger of the two. He came hobbling into the office to say good-bye just before he left for Butte. I had advised him not to go.
“So you’re going anyway!” I said banteringly. “You’re a fine looking bird to go up there to buck the copper trust — one leg and one eye and limping along on a couple of saps.”
Little flashed the old crooked smile at me and his eyes narrowed in mock anger as he balanced himself perilously on his one good leg and raised the crutch as though to strike me with it. That is the last memory I have of Frank Little whom we all loved like a brother. A short time afterward the headlines on the news- stands informed me that he had been lynched in Butte for talking “treason.”
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. 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