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.


Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, 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.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 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 Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 2 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.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.