A Note on Joe Hill


Joe Hill/Franklin Rosemont

By Paul Buhle

Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill, appearing in 2003 from the venerable Charles H. Kerr Company (best known as publisher of revolutionary socialist books and the International Socialist Review magazine, way back in the 1910s), and reprinted in 2015 by PM Press, should be remembered as leading example of an autodidact author’s treatment of a great American martyr. So I mean to write about the writer as well as the subject.

Amid the artistic-political fringe of the Chicago Left from the middle 1960s until his death, Rosemont inherited the rich legacy of the IWW autodidacts (the “Hobo College”) and their successors in the Dil Pickle Club and the College of Complexes, running into the end of the 1950s. It was a working class, rebel bohemianism, loosely attached to Blues, Jazz, Studs Terkel and a string of radical personalities, notably if not only literary ones, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren among them. Rosemont himself, son of a Typographers’ Union leader who guided the famed 1949 Chicago newspaper strike, grew up and lived within this world, knew the aging Wobbly officers and local members of the 1950s-60s intimately, and took over the Kerr Company from the Proletarian Party and a successor who had kept it going, if barely, since the IWW decline. The other books published by the Kerr Company, from the 1980s, dealt heavily in that unique Chicago history, a significant chunk of midwesternisms little understood “East of the Hudson,” in New York literary circles.

Like Johnny Appleseed, another enigmatic American radical icon, Joe Hill is known mostly by reputation. A Swedish immigrant and Wobbly enthusiast, he rambled, he wrote immortal song lyrics satirizing capitalism and calling for rebellion and…he died a martyr, to a Utah government firing squad. Of the intimate details of Hill’s life, precious little was recorded or has been recovered, perhaps because he gloried at being a rank-and-filer or perhaps because he kept a fairly low profile. Did he refuse to save himself from a false murder charge by assuring his lover (someone else’s wife) that she should not testify to his presence during the crime? We’ll never know.

For Rosemont, these kinds of details miss the main point. The old IWW, epitomized and thematized by Hill in his songs and his attitude toward existing laws, contained a working class culture of its very own, outside the bounds of capitalist rules but also outside the bounds of nearly anything else on the Left. Hill and the Wobs refused the very logic of production and consumption under the wage system. They did not see contemporary capitalism, advancing into every corner of life, as promoting progress toward anything, and in that way, Hill stood miles apart from the mainstream of the Second International and most contemporary assumptions of socialists. In our current moment of ecological catastrophe, the case can be argued again.

But there is something more to be said in the Hill’s use of humor to attack the system--the IWW’s adoption of popular culture, vaudeville music to contemporary comic strip styles--as a way to reach ordinary folks. We do not need to imagine what a modern Joe Hill would do with social media, because so many of the facebook political postings during the last year have been so funny and so insightful. My own thoughts went back to Joe Hill when, in Wisconsin of 2011-12, rank and file jokers brought new funny signs to the massive demonstrations day after day, ridiculing conservatives but also conservative union leaders, and accepting congratulation on all sides for coming up with fresh gags.

We need more Joe Hills in the socialist present and future but, with luck, and with bright young socialists bitterly hostile toward capitalism and its politicians, we may have them.

Paul Buhle has turned to publishing comics during the last decade but his many books include It Started In Wisconsin, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle: A Documentation of Our Struggle.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Introduction to Democratic Socialism

February 27, 2017
· 65 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Sean Monahan, Providence DSA and National Political Committee member, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Sean Monahan, sean.yds@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Feminist Working Group

March 07, 2017
· 53 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

March 09, 2017
· 48 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 29 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel, peg.strobel@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 22 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.