Joe Hill & Counterculture

— Michael Löwy

Joe Hill, The I.W.W. and the Making of a Revolutionary Working-class Counterculture
by Franklin Rosemont
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2003, 639 pages, $30 (cloth), $19 (paper)

THIS IS NOT only a wonderful biography of Joe Hill (1879–1915), folk hero and symbol of the revolutionary labour movement, but also an outstanding study of the insurgent culture of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Profusely illustrated with images, cartoons and drawings made by Joe Hill himself — for the first time collected here — and by other Wobbly artists, this book is a major contribution to what Walter Benjamin defined as the utmost task of the radical author: to write history against the grain.

Joe Hill’s name and his rallying cry — “Don’t mourn, organize!” — are familiar to millions, but the story of his life is largely lost in mist and shadow. This book is the most serious attempt so far of telling the life, the dreams and struggles of the man whose “poetic temperament” as well as “tender, sympathetic and generous nature” were celebrated by Eugene Debs.

Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Sweden, he emigrated to the United States in 1902, where he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom, later shortened to Joe Hill. After several years as an itinerant worker — a “hobo” — he joined the IWW in 1910 and soon became its most famous song-writer and poet.

In 1911 he fought in Mexico, together with other Wobblies, on the side of the Magonistas — partisans of the great Mexican anarchist leader Ricardo Flores Magon — against the federal troops of dictator Porfirio Diaz. Several years later Hill commented in a letter to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: “I had the pleasure to fight under the Red Flag once ...”

As a writer of popular U.S. labor songs he has never been surpassed: he helped to make the IWW into a “singing union.”

The Frameup

In 1915 Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the murder of a local grocer, John Morrison. Hill had no criminal record, no connection with the victim, no motive for the killing, and was not recognized by any of the witnesses of the murder (including Morrison’s son).

In spite of the fact that not one bit of evidence was ever found linking him to the crime, he was found “guilty” and condemned to death. Despite an important campaign, both in the United States and internationally, for a new trial, Utah’s governor, Mr. Spry, refused any concession.

In the words of Judge O.N. Hilton, who joined the campaign, “the trial which resulted in Hillstrom’s conviction was the most unjust, wicked and farcical travesty on justice that has ever occurred in the West.”


A few days before the execution, Joe Hill wrote a letter to IWW spokesman Bill Haywood, saying: “Don’t waste time mourning — organize!” Shortened by Haywood, this message of defiance became one of the most popular banners of the IWW.

Hill’s last song, composed in jail, was Workers of the World, Awaken!

“If the workers take a notion / They can stop all speeding trains / Every ship in the ocean (...) / Fleets and armies of the nation / Will at their command stand still.”

Surprisingly enough, these two images — stopping the train of “Progress” by revolutionary action, and bringing the historical process to a “standstill,” appear in Walter Benjamin’s seminal Theses On the concept of history (1940).

On November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was shot by an execution squad: a blatant case of judicial murder, exactly as the Haymarket anarchists before him, and Sacco & Vanzetti afterwards. His ashes were brought to Chicago, where thirty thousand people attended the funeral in an impressive “singing demonstration,” under the banner “In Memoriam — Joe Hill — Murdered by the Capitalist Class.”

Joe Hill’s songs and his image as “the IWW poet” remained very much alive in the radical labor movement. In 1936 two Communist artists, Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, wrote the words and music of the ballad Joe Hill — also known as I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.

Paul Robeson kept singing it everywhere, and contributed, more than any other person, to bring Joe Hill’s legend to worldwide attention. He also made a slight change in the wording, which dramatically improved the song.

Instead of the original script “What they forgot to kill went on to organize,” Robeson sang: “What they could never kill went on to organize ...”

Joe Hill as He Was

Franklin Rosemont spares no efforts in dismissing all sorts of legends about Joe Hill, both by bourgeois authors — who still try to smear him, and convict him once more for “criminal behavior” — and by well-wishers, who present him as The Great Organizer and Leader of the IWW.

In fact, Hill was shy, withdrawn, close-mouthed, neither an organizer nor a leader; he was above all a dreamer, a poet, a humorist, a songwriter, with his share of melancholy and pessimism.

In one of the book’s most interesting chapters, Rosemont describes the Wobblies’ culture as a form of “revolutionary working-class romanticism.” Like the early romantics such as Blake and Shelley, the IWW shared some pre-capitalist values: generosity, life as adventure, exaltation, enchantment.

Like them the Wobblies rejected bourgeois mechanization, reification, bureaucratization and the myth of Progress. Their critique of capitalism was not only economic and political, but also poetical, opposing to the established values the romantic desire for freedom, revolt, passion, defiance.

While awaiting execution, Joe Hill wrote, in two separate letters: “I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist,” and “I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel.” For him, being an artist and a rebel were the same.

The Legacy

In spite of his admiration for the IWW, Rosemont does not hide its limits. When confronted with the issues of race, or with the “Woman question,” both Hill and the IWW in general had their share of tensions, inconsistencies and contradictions. However, a rebellious, internationalist, anti-racist and emancipatory spirit was the dominant characteristic of the movement.

As an organized movement, the IWW declined after the 1930s, although it persisted as a small band of fighters and veterans. During the 1930s it had to confront Stalinism, and worked in comradely solidarity with other anti-Stalinist radicals — Anarchists, Trotskyists, Socialists.

Several leaders of the Trotskyist movement — James P. Cannon, Vincent Dunne and Arne Swabeck — were former Wobblies who despite their obvious disagreements maintained particularly friendly relations with the IWW.

Its small size and weakness notwithstanding, the IWW had a significant influence on the new radical movements of the 1950s, such as the Beat Generation, and of the 1960s, notably the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The powerful surrealist voices of IWW poets such as Ralph Chaplin, Arturo Giovannitti, Covington Hall, T-Bone Slim and Laura Tanne did not go unnoticed by the Surrealist Movement founded in Chicago (1966) by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and their friends around the IWW magazine Rebel Worker.

Without memory of the past there can be no hope for the future. But the past has to be rediscovered again by each generation, according to its own experience of oppression and struggle. The task of the critical historian, argues Walter Benjamin, is to save the tradition of the oppressed from the conformism which always tries to seize it. This book is an exemplary piece of critical history.

ATC 115, March–April 2005