‘Who’s Who in Prison: Eugene Barnett’ by Ralph Chaplin from Labor Herald. Vol. 2 No. 10. December, 1923.
The hardest part of writing ‘Who’s Who in Prison’ is to decide whom to write about. There are so many clean-cut, upstanding rebels in American bastiles and the story of each is so full of color and interest that one is bewildered when asked to choose which one to write about. Each labor prisoner is not only a problem in liberty, as Senator Borah stated, but he is a living monument and a challenge to the injustice of our present social arrangements.
The big thing to keep in mind is that the class war prisoner is a human being, each with flesh and brain and nerves that are being tortured by the strong-arm men of capitalism. But while it is true that each man thus behind the bars today has his peculiar individual appeal to the hearts and the intelligence of mankind, still, the individual is always merged in the group. And while it may be more interesting to read about the personality of an individual prisoner, still it must not be forgotten that the group, usually indicated by colorless numbers, is the more important thing.
Harrison George, no doubt with the best intentions in the world, wrote a little story about me, for the “Who’s Who in Prison,” series, that has made me lots of enemies. In prison and out, Harrison George praised me; and many persons thought that he singled me out and neglected the large group of prisoners of which I was only a humble member. The impression prevailed that I doted on such praise and welcomed the “lime-light” that should have spread its illuminating splendor impartially over all of us in prison.
I would like to write of Eugene Barnett, but I do not wish to be so misunderstood as to put this brave young man and his valiant fellow workers in a false light. Barnett is fine and big and lovable. But the others of the Centralia group, each in his own way is equally interesting and equally important. Barnett is selected as the subject for this article because he is representative of the Centralia prisoners in particular and of the class war prisoners as a body.
Barnett was convicted in 1919, with the group of I.W.W. loggers in Centralia who defended their union hall from a murderous mob of “respectable” citizens and white guards of the capitalist class. He was sentenced, as were five others, to serve from 25 to 40 years in the Walla Walla, Washington, State penitentiary. Not one of the mob’ that broke into and destroyed the lumberworkers’ union hall and lynched one of its logger members, has ever been tried or punished. Such is the justice meted out to industrial workers, in the capitalist courts of America.
Eugene Barnett was not only born into the working class, but he was born a rebel. North Carolina is his birth-place. His parents are of old American stock. Barnett is not a “good American boy contaminated by foreign ideas,” as the 100 per-centers claim. He is an American boy who learned of the class struggle from hard actual experience right here at home. If he is “contaminated” by any ideas at all, they are the ideas of independence, non-conformity and revolution, bequeathed to him by his pioneer forefathers.
Barnett not only learned from life, he learned from books also. Going to work in the coal mines at the age of eight, he was impressed early in life with the meagerness and bitterness of the workers’ existence under capitalism. Also he learned of the need for working-class organization. Afterwards he studied his way through, until he became an enlightened and class-conscious rebel. For a long time he belonged to the U.M.W. of A., but finally became an ardent believer in and member of the more militant I.W.W.
Eugene Barnett is fearless, in speech and in action. He is married, and has a splendid wife and a lovely little son. He is the only non-logger involved in the Centralia case. Together with his five logger companions, Barnett is now buried alive for 2S to 40 years in Walla Walla prison. Their crime was that they refused to permit their union hall to be destroyed and themselves helplessly murdered by a white-guard mob.
It is shameful to think that American working men will permit such valiant members of their class to remain in prison, without moving the heavens and the earth to get them out.
The Labor Herald was the monthly publication of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), in immensely important link between the IWW of the 1910s and the CIO of the 1930s. It was begun by veteran labor organizer and Communist leader William Z. Foster in 1920 as an attempt to unite militants within various unions while continuing the industrial unionism tradition of the IWW, though it was opposed to “dual unionism” and favored the formation of a Labor Party. Although it would become financially supported by the Communist International and Communist Party of America, it remained autonomous, was a network and not a membership organization, and included many radicals outside the Communist Party. In 1924 Labor Herald was folded into Workers Monthly, an explicitly Party organ and in 1927 ‘Labor Unity’ became the organ of a now CP dominated TUEL. In 1929 and the turn towards Red Unions in the Third Period, TUEL was wound up and replaced by the Trade Union Unity League, a section of the Red International of Labor Unions (Profitern) and continued to publish Labor Unity until 1935. Labor Herald remains an important labor-orientated journal by revolutionaries in US left history and would be referenced by activists, along with TUEL, along after it’s heyday.
Link to PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborherald/v2n10-dec-1923.pdf