Review of Lara Vapnek’s “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary”

tags: book review, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lara Vapnek

Murray Polner is HNN’s senior book review editor and a blogger.

There are very few Americans who remember Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Those who do will certainly note that she was a faithful Communist Party member from the 1930s until her death in the Soviet Union in 1964.

Even so, as Lara Vapnek makes quite clear in her spirited, sympathetic and enlightening biography, long before she ever signed a party membership card, Flynn was not just another communist apparatchik or commonplace left-winger. She was, instead, a genuine heroine of working men and women in their early twentieth century struggle against tone-deaf corporate power and hostile courts and governments.

Indeed, in this latest in the valuable “Lives of American Women” series, Vapnek, a St. John’s University historian, sees a complex Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who has been overlooked and forgotten, most likely because of her politics. Helen Camp’s 1995 biography “Iron in Her Soul” is a more thorough treatment of Flynn’s life but Vapnek’s slender volume doesn’t miss a beat as she skillfully revives the memory of this Irish-American radical.

Born in 1890 of impoverished immigrant Irish socialist parents in New Hampshire and reared in the Bronx, she inherited her family’s political views. For them, the answer to why so many lived lives of powerlessness and poverty had been explained by Karl Marx, whose “scientific” approach pointed to the class struggle as a way out. For her parents and herself, the culprit was unbridled, unregulated, capitalism and its political and governmental lackeys.

From her teenage years on, there weren’t many bruising and bloody strikes where she didn’t show up to support their cause and try to relieve the burdens of their suffering families. Married and divorced twice, she was fortunate that her mother and sister were always available to care for her young son. Thus, after hearing Flynn speak in support of striking workers in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1912, the IWW (Wobblies), impressed by her work, sent her and its leader Big Bill Haywood to assume the management of the strike after its original leaders had been arrested. Haywood to her was “the heroic giant of the American working class,” and added, “We talked Marxism, as we understood it—the class struggle, the exploitation of labor, and the use of the state and armed forces of government against the workers. It was all there in Lawrence.”

In that strike-bound city—and later in the 1913 Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike—she recognized that half the strikers were women and accordingly framed their message as employees, parents and customers while condemning the use of child laborers. Her tactics included the encouragement of “sabotage,” by which she meant work slowdowns and other nonviolent acts aimed at shutting down the mills. The journalist and anti-war crusader Mary Heaton Vorse, who became her close friend and supporter, described her as an inspiration to strikers as if “something beautiful and strong had swept through the people and welded them together.”

For the rest of her life she toured the nation as a Wobbly to help secure the right of working men and men to organize unions, raise wages, and improve their working conditions. At the Homestead Steel Works, the site of a bitter strike years before, she witnessed “an inferno with “crashing noises” and “sweating toilers, some stripped to the waist attending great furnaces and cauldrons.” In Chicago, having sympathetically read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, she observed the bloody abattoirs with horror and, as Vapnek puts it, heard “the cries of animals as they were being slaughtered,” all of which made her into a lifelong vegetarian.

And then there was the IWW’s Joe Hill, under penalty of death for supposedly killing a Salt Lake City grocer. After Flynn visited Hill he was so taken by her that he called her the “Rebel Girl,” the name she proudly gave to her memoir. After his execution by a firing squad, Flynn excoriated his executioners, damning it as another example of how hard it was for workers to receive fairness and justice in a rigged economic and penal system.

But the Wobblies were hardly pacifists and when she could no longer abide its easy acceptance of violence, she quit. She spent much of the post-World War I era defending men and women persecuted and prosecuted in one of our periodic Red Scares. With Roger Baldwin she helped organize the ACLU. She remained an outspoken defender of women in the home and in the workplace and was an impassioned advocate of free speech until, with the coming of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933, she joined the Communist Party and became a loyal partisan of Russia. After that, she was blind and deaf to what Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and so many others had seen and rightly denounced in Communist Russia.

In 1948, the CP leaders were indicted for violating the Smith Act. Then the US went after its second tier, which included Flynn, who was accused by paid informants like Harvey Matusow for conspiring to overthrow the US with “force and violence,” which, of course, was sheer nonsense. Matusow was an edgy, impulsive, smart-ass Bronx Sammy Glick out to make a name for himself. He became one of many government spies, a Jew turned Mormon who wound up criticizing Washington’s Inquisitors in a tell-all book issued by a small leftwing publisher. “Hell for him,” wrote Murray Kempton, the late indefatigable essayist and newspaper columnist, “is the condition of going unnoticed.”

It was hardly surprising that Flynn was found guilty, given the artificially-generated fear of domestic communism, and handed a three year sentence. Her book, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner tells the story of her imprisonment. Vapnek says she sent the book to some of her former liberal opponents in an effort to heal their political breach. The Socialist Party’s anti-Communist Norman Thomas replied, “You know how sorry I was when an old-time Wobbly like you joined the Communists,” adding, “But that was no reason for putting you in jail. Whatever our differences, please think of me as your friend.”

Six years after she was released from prison, more than 400 friends and admirers jammed the Belmont Plaza Hotel in Manhattan on March 29, 1963 to greet and celebrate the publication of Alderson. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker reminded the audience of Flynn’s work in 1917 in defense of striking Mesabi Range miners. Mary van Kleeck, of the Women’s Bureau, praised Flynn for fighting for democracy “against the forces, which recurrently have sought to weaken or destroy it.” By 1963, McCarthyism had been badly wounded and the celebrants disregarded her communist past and chose to remember her work on behalf of working people.

In 1964 she visited Russia, where she was honored, became ill, and suddenly died. “It took eight hours for 25,000 people to file past Flynn’s casket,” writes Vapnek. She was interred in the Kremlin wall, not far from her friend Bill Haywood. Later, some of her remains were buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, a burial ground for many leftwing American radicals since the Haymarket strike in 1886.

Much of what she fought against remains alive and well today: economic and gender inequality, and as Vapnik wisely concludes, “The power of the federal government to monitor people and organizations judged subversive.” Flynn, she writes, “would see these issues as opportunities for critical examination, and change.” And that, despite her unfathomable loyalty to a cruel and forbidding regime, is her proper legacy.

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