‘The Prison Story of the Wobblies’ by Harrison George, Illustrated by Maurice Becker from Workers Monthly. Vol. 4 No. 5. March, 1925.

Harrison George, former wobbly turned leading Communist, comes to terms with the five years he did in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary as one of the hundreds of I.W.W. and radical activists imprisoned for their opposition to World War One. With illustration by Maurice Becker.

‘The Prison Story of the Wobblies’ by Harrison George, illustrated by Maurice Becker from Workers Monthly. Vol. 4 No. 5. March, 1925.

It is four-thirty in the morning of February 2, 1923. Wakeful, I had awaited the “get up” call of the guard, whispered through the barred front of my cell on the second gallery of “D” cell house at the great federal penitentiary at Leaven- worth, Kansas. I was “going out on expiration of sentence.” I had done my jolt and was going out… going out…!

The hush of night lay over the whole prison, broken only by the fitful coughs and snores of hundreds of sleeping men, penned in steel cages of the cell-block with its five galleries rising into lofty obscurity. The prisoner who goes out is aroused long before the others, and already I had said good-bye to my fellow workers the day before. There are some heart wrenchings for the companions of years left behind.

Now comes the guard with added, but welcome, racket. He unwinds the gallery lock and throws the lever, brings clinking keys to my cell door, unlocks it, rolls back the door and escorts me down to the cell desk, where he checks out my numbered cadaver while chattering sotto voce of a most interesting murder.

“Reckon he’ll swing for it. Pretty slick… come up from Kansas City in a taxi… But they got ‘im. If he’d been a n***r he’d been lynched…. Leavenworth folks sure wuz sore… Heard some of our best people in the crowd a-sayin’…”

But the story was interrupted. The captain of the guards came to unlock the cell-house door to admit me to the main hall. Thence to my last neglected breakfast of oatmeal and vile coffee. In forty minutes, by way of the clothing department, I was fitted out with prison-made shoddy clothes, given five dollars, and checked out the main gate.

The trolley station was pointed out. In its cold shelter I waited. Its wooden walls were adorned with varied scrawled obscenities. The wind was piercing cold… but clean. The car came. Personal responsibility nearly overcame me when I had—for the first time in a long, long while—to pay my fare.


Resurrection! Not after three days, but after five years! Everything is strangely new, yet strangely old. The car joggles on a devilish rough track. Above, advertisements, colored gaudily—canned goods, tooth paste, cough drops capitalism! Ten, the passengers, workers with greasy caps over their ears, whiskered, stooped—some of them—in old clothes or overalls, lugging dinner pails, dour of face and taciturn, going to work as the whistles begin to blow. More capitalism…! Now, at last, I know that I am free…!

It was a beautiful autumn day, September 7, 1918, that day we wobblies had arrived at Leavenworth. We arrived from Chicago in style, on a special train, though deuced cramped from being handcuffed in pairs on tiresome day-coach seats all night and all day. Tired, too, from singing wobbly songs all night and at every opportunity. Big Jim Thompson had shared my seat and my handcuffs, and had listened patiently while I had read him Swinburne’s great lyric “The Triumph of Time.” Significant title!

After the train had crossed the Missouri river, it stood on a switching track between rows of factories. Merrily we piped up, “Hold the fort, for we are coming, union men be strong,” and the workers began hanging out of shop windows to listen. Then the train took the winding tracks up the long slopes to the prison.

From the railroad, or rear entrance, the prison is a towering citadel sitting atop a barren hill. Trusties, with yellow stars sewed on their coats, hung about the great gates which opened to swallow the whole train.

At last we are ordered to detrain. We are inside the walls. We can stretch gloriously as we are lined up and checked off by the accompanying marshalls and a guard, pistol at belt, whose jaws leak tobacco juice. Other guards high in the towers atop the walls look down nonchalantly as they lean on their rifles. They had heard us singing as the train pulled up the last slope and into the other gate—”For justice thunders condemnation, a better world’s in birth.” Maybe so, maybe so, but the wobblies were in prison!

Let the reader who has begun to think he is to read “all about prison” be undeceived at once. I state flatly that no one can tell the depth of prison’s wound, its stark agony, its persistent painless ache, its void. One floats, as it were, in the trough of the sea of years, the years that roll past like great, cold, gray waves, yet leaving one always without glimpse of horizon, down in the trough of the sea….

It is folly to swim in the trough of the sea… One had better float… In the sea of prison years the sharks of madness devour the fools who swim…

Some time, when I was floating, in some book, whose title and author I forget, I read a passage by a famous prisoner of the Czar:

“History is a tremendous mechanism serving our ideals. It moves slowly, it is incalculably cruel, but the work goes on. We believe in it. Only at moments, when like a monster it drinks the living blood of our hearts to serve it as food, do we wish to cry out with all our might— ‘What thou dost, do quickly!’.

Going to prison is part of a revolutionist’s job. Coming out of prison, still a revolutionist, is the other part.

As for a man, so for a movement. The cause which has passed through prison must not only pass through, but must emerge inwardly strengthened, shrewder, more daring. It is a real tragedy that the I.W.W. lost strength, grew confused, become hesitant, legalistic, pacifist….

The more the capitalist dictatorship shed its democratic mask, the more the I.W.W. pined for democracy’s Loreleian song. It forgot what was said at the 1912 convention, “that no legal safeguard can be invoked to protect any member of the working class who incurs the enmity of the employers by s standing between them and unlimited exploitation of the workers.”

It forgot that the only way to avoid persecution by the ruling class is to overthrow it, and the only modification possible to obtain comes from fear of revolution given by extra-legal strikes or mass political demonstration.

We wobblies felt pretty cocky when we first got to Leavenworth. We had been thoroughly trained in the theory that “ideas cannot be imprisoned” and we felt that we had won a great “moral victory” over the tyrannous government. We would not be hard on President Wilson, but we were determined to stay in prison long enough to teach his administration a lesson…

Shortly after our arrival our attorney came to consult us on the matter of an appeal. He spoke to us collectively in the chapel. “Third Rail Red” questioned the wisdom even of going out on bonds; “I think it will be better for the movement if we stay here for another six months, anyhow.”

Ah, but that unrepentant government….!

Wobbly spirit and morale was good during the first year or so. If their souls needed consolation they concealed it, though the official consoler was available always upon request, made in writing the night before. This was Chaplain Allen, who had charge of the library and the spiritual punishment.

The library boasted 10,000 books, which were circulated to the cells upon request. Since each book contained an estimated number of 10,000 bed-bugs, the 100,000 in each cell stood in no danger of racial deterioration through in-breeding. They were all good, strong bugs. It was an arrangement of genius, no less than the Federal Reserve banks’ control of credit and circulating media…

Attendance at Sunday morning chapel was compulsory, at first. But it was quickly discovered that the wobblies were singing rebel parodies of the most saintly songs. Thereafter chapel attendance was optional. Reverend Allen announced it with annoyance and promised a very unchristian punishment for those who came to get out of their cells and remained to scoff.

The chapel, the House of God, had bars on the windows and bars even on the sky-light. Guards, with clubs, ushered the marching lines of grey-clad convicts into divine worship. Chaplain Allen, Bearer of God’s Word, sermonized from the pulpit. Beside him sat always the Captain of the Guards with unprayerful scowl and a 20-inch hickory club. After the invocation the convict congregation stood, and with eyes raptly directed toward the bars of the skylight sang soulfully, “Safely Guarded Through Another Week.”

But the Chaplain was not such a bad scout, after all. There was a little matter of getting away with government gasoline which really deserves more attention. His innate humanity would out. As spiritual guardian of the convicts he confiscated all the naughty books found, and had acquired a private library which he read with great gusto.

For some time I wondered at some of my fellow rebels going to the theosophical service which took place every second Sunday in a room of the chapel. The theosophy chap came up from Kansas City twice a month.

I wondered on, until once I went there myself, and discovered that besides the inconsequential lecture and literature available in the little room, the mystic brought with him— doubtlessly in conformity with his philosophy that Nirvana is attainable through physical processes—a bevy of charming daughters of Eve.

On Sunday afternoons in good weather we “got the yard,” were allowed to wander at will inside the walls. The wobbly parade ground was along “Wall Street.” Not the den of thieves in the shadow of Trinity on lower Manhattan, but the open space along the inside of the north wall, running from the stone shop on the west to the brickyard at the east.

Harrison George, 1930.

Ambling up and down in groups of from two to six, we discussed and settled with certain finality all the problems of the supposed human race. These were the hours of diversion. Sweating hand-ball contestants shouted. Base- balls flew everywhere. Around a guitar Mexicans clustered, singing with mellow passion the love songs of the border. Italians shouted, with staccato unison, their finger-guessing game. Expert safe-crackers revealed in confidence to anxious neophytes, the art of rifling vaults without the use of nitroglycerine. And in the shade of the stone shop, Brent Dow Allinson called a conference of the prison intelligentzia.

Brent was an excellent type of “conscientious objector” who had read “The Great Illusion” and become convinced that the diplomats of capitalist imperialism do it an ill service by indulging in wars. He had but begun to instruct them on their error when he encountered the obstinate contradiction of an imperialist war. It was somewhat discouraging, but he insisted that, anyhow, the business of killing people was not to his taste, and, since he took his punishment with fortitude, no one can gainsay his sincerity.

In the conference sat several wobblies, Allinson, Taraknath Das, Doctor of Philsophy and Indian nationalist, Earl Browder, and a German count, Von Shaack, who had fallen upon evil days in which his only hope was that the German social democrats would save his Prussian estate from the vandal hordes of Bolshevism. A hope, needless to say, in which he was not disappointed.

These conferences drew up minute plans of the new society, despite the dubious dissent of the count, who insisted that a world without class distinctions, particularly between counts and commoners, was both impossible and undesirable…

There came a time when the Wilsonian “heart of the world” era began to pall upon Allinson, and under wobbly tutelage we had hopes of him. He even told me that he would fight, if it were with the Red Army. But, alas, he was expelled from our college before his education was completed, and straightway set about trying to teach diplomats not to be diplomats, and bourgeois not to be bourgeois…

In two or three years a considerable number of the wobblies began to feel that either the government had been sufficiently punished or that it was wholly unconscious of its misdeed and mistake of putting workers in prison merely for advocating the overthrow of capitalism. An amnesty movement upon this basis sprang up outside, and received much support from liberals who, two or three years after the war was over, contended that though we had done nothing in the first place. it was now perfectly safe to release us.

But if it is easy to get a wobbly into jail, it is no small task to get him out. Wobbly etiquette is a stickler for all formalities. When getting into prison, the government did the deciding and we all came. But when getting out was the question, and whether we got out, and how we should get out, had to be decided by the wobblies, then the trouble began. Woe to him who ventured to foresee a problem and offer a plan of action to metit. Firstly, he was rebuffed as a damned “intellectual” and secondly he was apostate from the wobbly creed of drifting into political crises with no other plan than the Preamble and the Industrial Union Chart.

Some waited for a general strike and scorned other methods, others were willing to have appeals to the President made for them but not by them. After some had made individual appeals it was decided that they had done wrongly. Then the question arose, “Shall we all appeal?” A statement refusing to appeal for clemency was drawn up, but no more than a few could agree on its items. Finally, however, someone sent it out and it was published over the names of all prisoners without their knowledge as “An Open Letter to President Harding.”

There was a storm of protest until, suddenly, it was discovered that the detested thing was winning great publicity among the liberals. At once and ever after, those who had protested it most were most set upon upholding their interpretations of “The Open Letter.”

The bitter differences came over these interpretations. For the question then arose, “Shall we accept clemency which we have not applied for?” And then the question which split the prisoners into hostile groups, “Shall we accept conditional commutation?” Some wanted a vindication of innocence of any conspiracy against the imperialist war, and some wished, practically, that the government guarantee not to molest them henceforth in the perfectly legal “purely industrial” and peaceful pursuit of overthrowing capitalism.

The lack of political sagacity and planfulness among the wobblies, together with the artful maneuvers of the government to split them, harmonized nicely, and it is a tragic truth that the final release of all, instead of giving strength to the whole I.W.W., brought such division into its already confused and mediocre leadership that it still bleeds from the schism.

There is no question but that the I.W.W. suffered from the loss of leadership when the whole leading stratum went to prison. Nor is there any doubt that the test of war and prison found that leadership’s weak spot—its lack of revolutionary ideological unity, and so disrupted the group that its release from prison was another blow to the organization as a whole.

It is a practical proof that a union, even though led by heroes, so long as they do not have a unified political concept of the revolutionary struggle, cannot effectively lead and direct such essentially political struggle as is the fight against imperialist wars or even the release of political prisoners.

Where is the revolutionary leadership such as gave the I.W.W. its proud name? The historical conflict at Goldfield, the marching thousands led to victory at Lawrence, the battles of McKees Rocks, the bitter violence of the Mesaba Iron Range strike led by those whose war cry against the thugs of the Steel Trust was “Three dead gunmen for one dead miner!” Was the defense of the union hall at Centralia but an ember which flared in the darkness?

There is nothing pre-ordained about it. The I.W.W. may continue to decay under a legalistic, pacifist and sectarian leadership; or it may well be that its earnest revolutionary elements among the rank end file may organize upon Communist principles and lead the I.W.W. to a greater and better future. But it must face realities!

The unquestioned center of revolutionary unionism is today the Red International of Labor Unions. It is sectarian silliness for the I.W.W. to pretend that it is strong enough in numbers or ideas either to contest the field or stand aside in mythical “independence.” The I.W.W. has never claimed world jurisdiction, and it has officially disclaimed it. At the very First Convention, Resolution No. 16 declared the intention of immediate relations with the International Secretariat. Delegates were often sent to International Secretariat. Isolation must be ended and the I.W.W. affiliated to the Red International of Labor Unions.

Recognition that mere unionism is not sufficient for the revolutionary struggle should lead to recognition that there are two kinds of political parties, one which reflects the economic interests of the capitalist class and the other which reflects the economic interests of the working class. The I.W.W. should discriminate between these two, opposing the one, fraternizing and cooperating with the other.

Eight Centralia victims are rotting their lives away at Walla Walla, eight-five proletarian fighters of the I.W.W. are imprisoned in California, many others are scattered about the penitentiaries of this nation. Each group has its trials, tragedies and its lessons, which may not be told except by themselves. Certainly the writer would not attempt to detail their experiences as he has his own. But they are prisoners of the class war. They are our own. They are proletarian fighters. And they must be freed!

Everywhere, every Communist or militant worker must go to the I.W.W. and say, “You may differ with us on many things, but there are wobblies in prison. Do you agree that they ought to get out? If so, let us unite our forces on this one issue! Let us work together to rouse not only a protest but a revolutionary protest! Let us fight upon the basis of class struggle. Let us agree that our prisoners must be free not merely because they are innocent, but because they are workers who fought for their class. Upon that basis alone can we get their class to fight for them!

“To the capitalist government let us say, “Give back to their class the wobblies in prison!”

The World’s Workers Stand Behind Them!

The Workers Monthly began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Party publication. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and the Communist Party began publishing The Communist as its theoretical magazine. Editors included Earl Browder and Max Bedacht as the magazine continued the Liberator’s use of graphics and art.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/wm/1925/v4n05-mar-1925.pdf

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