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By Benjamin Stolberg
August 14, 1937
Vol. 145, No. 7, P. 166-168
THE NATURE OF VIGILANTISM
The average innocently educated American has a certain picture of American vigilantism which, like so many of his stereotyped vagaries, he gets from our so-called liberal historians, who know a lot they do not dare to understand.
In this view, vigilantism is a peculiar American phenomenon. It began, the story goes, in California in 1851, when outlawry was in wild and bloody flower and when every adventurer could buy a woman for the asking plus a sack of gold. Naturally, the better elements of the community wouldn’t stand for it, and so they started a vigilante movement for law and order. (That, as you can see, was the only thing to do.) During the same 1850’s there also flourished the know-nothing movement, composed of native white trash, which swept into office a lot of politicians of the Townsend and Coughlin type. (That, of course, was a bad thing.) Then came the post-Civil War KKK, because such narrow bigots as Thaddeus Stevens and his fellow Northern radicals did not know that the war was over and that the “best elements” of the South would not be run by a lot of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and too suddenly emancipated Negroes. (That was a bad thing, but quite understandable.) Then came the Mollie Maguires—Irish, Catholic, and labor—who went around killing mine superintendents. (That was a bad thing; it hurt labor.) After a number of more innocent know-nothing movements, we finally get into our own century, which is punctured by all sorts of violence, frame-ups, labor wars, and judicial assassinations. (This is all terrible; it hurts democracy.) And since the World War things have got worse. The last decade, especially, we have had a veritable plague of new moronic, inverted-populist movements—infantile, illiterate, confused, and vicious. In the late 1920’s there was a revival of the Klan with its mummeries and wizardries. Today there are innumerable shirt organizations, night-gown rackets, the Black Legion, the Friends of New Germany, the Americaneers, the Committees of 100, of 200, of 1,000,000, the Women’s National Association for the Preservation of the White Race; literally hundreds of such outfits. These in turn reach over into the darker corners of the D.A.R., the R.O.T.C., the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the chambers of commerce, the Lions, the Elks, the Eagles, and the rest of the zoo of small-time Babbittry. (It’s all very dreadful, and Lord knows where it’s leading to.)
Such is the hazy historic view of vigilantism that floats in the mind of the average middle-class liberal American. It leads him to one of two conclusions, depending on whether he is a right liberal or a left liberal, whether his respectable perplexity is passive or active. If he is a right liberal, he usually decides that, since we have always had the vigilantes with us, they cannot be very dangerous. If he is a left liberal, he is likely to join some happy, innocent front like the American League Against War and Fascism, which without any class analysis lumps into a “united front of all democratic forces” everybody from prima-donna left-wing movie stars and drawing-room communists to steel workers and Georgia sharecroppers.
Now what’s wrong with this liberal conception of American vigilantism? It is not so much the facts. For all their nebulous outline, they are substantially correct. What’s wrong with the picture is its complete classlessness, its slightly pompous sociological naivete, which is far more peculiar to the more or less educated American mind than is vigilantism to its more or less illiterate counterpart. For obviously vigilantism is the most brutally clear of all class phenomena, the most desperate and regressive, and hence, in its last analysis, the deepest expression of class domination; which means that it is no more peculiarly American than is sex or sport, though like them it parades in every country in its own national costume. Vigilantism is as old as anti-Semitism and as new as the persecution of revolutionaries by the G.P.U. under Comrade Yezhov. It may be as brutally ignorant as the Black Hundreds under the Czar or the Black Legion in Flint or the Black or Brown Shirts. Or it may be as hoary with sophistication as British imperialism, which is the greatest vigilante movement of them all. (It is well to remember that under the “labor” ministry of Ramsay MacDonald Indian villages were “pacified” by bombing planes.)
Vigilantism is the spirit of permanent counter-revolution, infinitely variegated by place, power, time, and circumstances. In days of peaceful social exploitation it is dormant. In days of growing social unrest it becomes more articulate and sinister. It may become articulate in the esoteric hokum and pretentious “scholarship” of a Pareto or a Sorokin, or in the rabble-economics of a Father Coughlin. But it is always nonsensical, because it would preserve class spoliation by violence without deepening social contradictions. Hence its logic is absurd and its sociology impossible.
The characteristic rationale of vigilantism is always the defense of class exploitation in the name of law and order. The appeal is never rational, but always directed to the deepest anti-intellectual and regressive instincts: to chauvinism, to race hatred, to the spirit of violence. And finally the technique is always the same. Since no movement can beat the masses without a mass base, such a base must be created. It is recruited from the most backward layer in the social pyramid. In modern society this is the lower middle class, which is bewildered by the split between its real and its fancied interests.
To what degree is vigilantism dangerous? Exactly to the degree in which the dominant classes of a society encourage, exploit, and, what is most important, subsidize it. The best thermometer of the menace of vigilantism is money. Thus the post-Civil War Klan was a dangerous force, which is still alive in the lynch law of the South, because it was guided and subsidized, behind the scenes, by the “best elements,” the degraded Southern plantocracy, which had made a deal with the Northern conservatives against the Northern radicals. The Klan in the 1920’s was not so dangerous, because big industry decided that it did not need it in defeating a prone labor movement. Today the Klan is once more riding in the South because of the textile drive by the C.I.O. and the stirrings of the sharecropper.
Just as Mussolini’s access to power inspired Hitler and his many lesser imitators, so Hitler’s rise encouraged vigilantism from Rumania to California. The fascist language and technique have been consciously copied by innumerable vigilante adventurers in America. But unless we include in this category the late Huey Long, all of them lacked the perverse afflatus of their European counterparts. Today the country swarms with these miscellaneous hick Führers who walk the streets of big business offering their wares. Often they run little scurrilous sheets, all-moron and half-blackmail.
Some of our vigilantes are free-lance writers, avowedly and philosophically fascist, as the group around the new American Mercury, most of them former radicals. Another reactionary free-lance writer is George Sokolsky, who sells his thinly disguised reaction in the name of American individualism. He extolled it on Independence Day to the workers of Weirton, who are terrorized by the notorious Hatchet Gang. Mr. Sokolsky is a rather tragi-comic figure, for with his Eastern European Jewish background he ought to know better than to incite the vigilante spirit. Big business enterprises distribute numerous reprints of his articles. On one occasion one of his “debates” was paid for by a large industrial outfit which contributed to a forum the exact amount of his fee. But by and large, the big boys keep the various Sokolskys on space rates.
The vigilante entrepreneurs are forever on the lookout for angels to subsidize them until comes der Tag. Thus the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, who crowds his Committee of 1,000,000 into the ballroom of the Pennsylvania Hotel, is kept going by a New York broker named Henry Marsh. Now and then a frightened dowager gives him a check for the good work. In The Nation of March 11, 1936, I told how Governor Talmadge of Georgia received from the Georgia textile manufacturers $20,000 for “campaign purposes” in a sure election—and for breaking the textile strike; and how the Liberty League gave him $5,000 for his grass-roots convention. During the Little Steel strike the worst of the vigilante outfits—in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and especially in Ohio and In Michigan—did not hesitate to engage in plain thuggery and to provoke murder. Big industry used them here it found them and paid merely for their services.
The types and their activities vary. In Toledo there are the Young Nationalists, who talk “Americanism” over the radio every Sunday. In Akron there were the Stahlmate Clubs at Goodyear’s, now pretty well shot to pieces. In Warren, Ohio, there is an active John Q. Public League. In Columbus, Ohio, the State University has become a regular center of young fascist activities. There are the Student Americaneers, run by Captain Arden S. Turner of the R.O.T.C. The Reverend Frank Throop of the Committee of 200 is also active among the students. Then there is the Ohio League for Constitutional Rights.
In Indiana and in Michigan the Klan is still going pretty strong. The automobile centers reek with vigilantism. In Dearborn, where Ford is, the Friends of New Germany and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hold joint meetings. Father Coughlin has a rather insignificant Workers’ Council for Social Justice at Ford’s. Father Coughlin is lying low because the Catholic Church is lying low. “My day will come in 1938,” he says. But he still receives 1,000 letters daily and is selling widely an anti-C.I.O. editorial service. At Ford’s there are also the Knights of Dearborn, made up of Ford Service Men under the command of Sam Taylor, a foreman at River Rouge. In Lansing the American Legion and the R.O.T.C. of Michigan State College are very active, neither of them officially. The worst vigilante in town is the Reverend Frank J. Norris, who once killed a sheriff in Texas. He now runs a paper and speaks in a church on General Motors property. He is also closely associated with K. T. Keller, president of Chrysler. The Flint Alliance, under George E. Boysen, is trying to get along now as the American Labor League; and Walter Chrysler is watching it interestedly. Such is the flotsam and jetsam of the local vigilante movements.
Then there is a multitude of service organizations, of which probably the best known and most characteristic is the National Civic Federation. It is now circularizing the American business community with “confidential” literature and cries of communism and more money, please. While Matthew Woll was acting president of the Civic Federation, it collaborated closely with all the official Nazi agents and organizations in this country. It probably still does. But of late Mr. Easley has taken a leaf from the Mohawk Valley Formula (about which more later) and is presenting a “set-up” for a new red-baiting campaign.
“To expedite the creation of a national organization,” Mr. Easley wrote on July 2, 1937, in his “confidential” circular, “the existing membership of local organizations such as the chamber of commerce, Kiwanis, Rotary and Lion clubs, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, church, civic, and patriotic chapters” will be called upon to personally visit individuals. . . . The individuals to be visited in a community or city are those affiliated with the C.I.O., on Federal unemployment relief, and WPA workers.” “It is safe to assume,” Mr. Easley continues, “that the local editor will comply with the requests of local davertisers [sic] whom he depends upon for the existence of his paper.” Of course, “appropriate literature will be supplied.” Then Mr. Easley draws up a blueprint of a proposed “sales organization.” “The advantage the sales organization created by the National Civic Federation will have over the sales organization conducted by John L. Lewis, et al., is that the National Civic Federation organization will consist of respectable citizens. . . . ” Mr. Easley’s final sentence is a plea for quick money-damned quick; for the revolution is almost on top of us.
BIG BUSINESS VIGILANTISM
There are literally hundreds of local, statewide, national vigilante rackets, all of them in search of fat cats. But the fat cats, no less than the little Hitlers, have also learned their lesson from the other side. Fascism is the effort to freeze a disintegrating economy through terror. But European experience has shown that the individual capitalist is apt to become the prisoner of the terror. The fact that Herr Thyssen is at present on an enforced and luxurious vacation in South America has made quite an impression on that section of big ownership which is willing to play the fascist game. It is therefore at this moment playing the far safer game of organizing its own vigilante movement which can be kept under control. The literature of this more respectable vigilantism is not written by crackpots or illiterates, but by high-powered publicity men in air-conditioned advertising suites.
A social movement is never a conspiracy. It lives and learns and crystallizes. When the C.I.O. showed every sign of becoming a real mass movement, during the great automobile strikes and in the beginning of the steel-organization campaign, big industry gradually moved to meet it. As I made dear in my last article, the financial interests which are behind both Big and Little Steel are by no means split. They merely function on two fronts—peace with the union in one sector, war on the union in the other. Nor did Little Steel go into the fight strategically unprepared. It had thought its tactics through. In the Little Steel strike, as indeed in every recent major strike, industry followed the so-called Mohawk Valley Formula.
This formula appeared in the form of an article in the Labor Relations Bulletin of the National Association of Manufacturers soon after the Remington Rand strike at Ilion, New York. It indicated in detail the steps to be taken in a campaign of national strikebreaking. It was supposedly written by James B. Rand. Jr., though there is every reason to believe that a well-known economist who heads a national research organization had much to do with this truly Machiavellian document. It is no doubt the most significant program in the history of American vigilantism. And here it is epitomized but with its essential outline unchanged:
First: When a strike is threatened label all union leaders as “agitators.” In the plant conduct a forced balloting under the direction of foremen to ascertain the strength of the union and to make possible misrepresentation of the strikers as a small minority imposing their will upon the majority. At the same time disseminate propaganda, by means of press releases, advertisements, and the activities of “missionaries,” such propaganda falsely stating the issues involved in the strike so that the strikers appear to be making arbitrary demands, and the real issues, such as the employers’ refusal to bargain collectively, are obscured.
Second: Concurrently with these moves, by exerting economic pressure and threatening to move the plants, if that is feasible, align the influential members of the community into a cohesive group opposed to the strike, in this group, usually designated as a “citizens’ committee,” include representatives of the bankers, real-estate owners, business men, ministers, etc.
Third: When the strike is called raise high the banner of law and order, thereby causing the community to mass legal and police weapons against their wholly imagined violence, thereby suppressing all the civil liberties of the strikers.
Fourth: Call a “mass meeting” of the citizens to coordinate public sentiment against the strike and to strengthen the power of the citizens’ committee, which organization, thus supported, will both aid the employer in exerting pressure upon the local authorities and itself sponsor vigilante activities.
Fifth: Bring about the formation of a large armed police force to be built up by utilizing local police, state police if the governor cooperates, vigilantes, and special deputies, the deputies being chosen if possible from other neighborhoods. Coach the deputies and vigilantes on the law of unlawful assembly, inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, etc., and make them anxious and ready to use their newly acquired authority to the limit.
Sixth: Perhaps most important, heighten the demoralizing effect of the above measures by a “back-to-work” movement, operated by a puppet association of so-called loyal employees secretly organized by the employer. (In a superb psychological analysis Mr. Rand discusses the effect of this back-to-work movement upon the strikers, the community, and the authorities, showing that it is the best way to kill all collective-bargaining sentiments.)
Seventh: When a sufficient number of applications to go “back to work” are on hand, fix a date for the opening of the plant, which opening is of course requested by the “back-to-work” association. Together with the citizens’ committee, prepare for such opening by making provisions for a peak army of police by roping off the area surrounding the plant, by securing arms and ammunition. etc. . . . Even if the maneuver fails to induce a sufficient number of persons to return, persuade the public through pictures and news releases that the opening was nevertheless successful.
Eighth: Stage the “opening” as theatrically as possible.
Ninth: Capitalize on the demoralization of the strikers by continuing the show of police force and the pressure of the citizens’ committee, both to insure that those employees who have returned will continue at work and to force the remaining strikers to capitulate. If necessary, turn the locality into a warlike camp through the declaration of a state of emergency tantamount to martial law and barricade it from the outside world so that nothing may interfere with the successful conclusion of the “Formula,” thereby driving home to the union leaders the futility of efforts to hold their ranks intact.
Tenth: Close the publicity barrage on the theme that the plant is in full operation and that the strikers were merely a minority attempting to interfere with the “right to work” . . . the campaign is over—the strike is broken.
These ten scab commandments were followed religiously in the Little Steel strike. That’s how the strike was broken. Just how the Mohawk Valley Formula was applied, just where the money came from, just who’s who in the whole business—and the fantastic tales of the underworld at River Rouge—will be the theme of the next section of this article.
[Mr. Stolberg’s third article will appear next week.]