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BARS AND SHADOWS
THE PRISON POEMS OF RALPH CHAPLIN
With an introduction By Scott Nearing
INTRODUCTION MOURN NOT THE DEAD TAPS NIGHT IN THE CELL HOUSE PRISON SHADOWS PRISON REVEILLE PRISON NOCTURNE THE WARRIOR WIND TO FREEDOM THE VISION MAKER DISTANCES PHANTOMS SEVEN LITTLE SPARROWS SALAAM! THE WEST IS DEAD UP FROM YOUR KNEES! THE EUNUCH I. W. W. PRISON SONG TO FRANCE VILLANELLE WESLEY EVEREST THE INDUSTRIAL HERETICS BLOOD AND WINE THE RED GUARD THE RED FEAST THE GIRLS WHO SANG FOR US TO EDITH SONG OF SEPARATION TO MY LITTLE SON ESCAPED! RETROSPECT
Ralph Chaplin is serving a twenty year sentence in the Federal Penitentiary, not as a punishment for any act of violence against person or property, but solely for the expression of his opinions.
Chaplin, together with a number of fellow prisoners who were sentenced at the same time, was accused of taking part in a conspiracy with intent to obstruct the prosecution of the war. To be sure the Government did not produce a single witness to show that the war had been obstructed by their activities; but it was argued that the agitation which they had carried on by means of speeches, articles, pamphlets, meetings and organizing campaigns, would quite naturally hamper the country in its war work. On the face of their indictments these men were accused of interfering with the conduct of the war; in reality they were sent to jail because they held and expressed certain beliefs.
As a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Ralph Chaplin did his part to make the organization a success. He wrote songs and poems; he made speeches: he edited the official paper, "Solidarity". He looked about him; saw poverty, wretchedness and suffering among the workers; contrasted it with the luxury of those who owned the land and the machinery of production; studied the problem of distribution; and decided that it was possible, through the organization of the producers, to establish a more scientific, juster, more humane system of society. All this he felt, intensely. With him and his fellow-workers the task of freeing humanity from economic bondage took on the aspect of a faith, a religion. They held their meetings; wrote their literature; made their speeches and sang their songs with zealous devotion. They had seen a vision; they had heard a call to duty; they were giving their lives to a cause--the emancipation of the human race.
When the war broke out in Europe, with millions of working-men flinging death and misery at one another, men like Chaplin, the world over, regarded it as the last straw. Was it not bad enough that these exploited creatures should be used as factory-fodder? Must they be cannon-fodder too? Why should they fight to increase the economic power of German traders? of British manufacturers? The war was a capitalist war between capitalist nations. What interest had the workers in these nations? in their winnings or in their losses? So ran the argument.
The I. W. W. was not primarily an anti-war organization In theory it had abandoned political activity to devote itself exclusively to agitation and organization on the field of industry. Practically its funds and its energies were expended upon industrial struggles. Long before the war, the I. W. W. had made itself known and feared for its conduct of strikes, its free speech fights, and its ability to put the sore spots of American industrial life on the front page of the daily press and to keep them there until the people had become aroused to the wrongs that were being perpetrated. It was in this domain of industry that the I. W. W. was functioning, and it was among the business interests that the determination had been reached to rid the country of the organization at all costs.
Had the chief offense of the I. W. W. consisted in its expressed opposition to the war, it would not have been singled out for attack. Many of the peace societies that flourished prior to 1917 were more outspoken and more consistent in their opposition to war than were the leaders of the I. W. W. None of these societies, however, had acquired reputation for championing the cause of industrial under dogs, and for demanding a complete change in the form of American economic life. Consequently, in the prosecution, in the sentences, in the commutations and in the pardons, the anti-war pacifists were treated very leniently, while the revolutionary I. W. W. members were singled out for the most ferocious legal and extra-legal attack.
Technically, Ralph Chaplin and his comrades had conspired to obstruct the war. Actually, they had lined themselves up solidly against the present economic order, of which the World War was only one phase. This was their real crime.
Ralph Chaplin was guilty of the most serious social offense that a man can commit. While living in an old and shattered social order, he had championed a new order of society and had expounded a new culture. Socrates and Jesus, for like offenses, lost their lives. Thousands of their followers, guilty of no greater crime than that of denouncing vested wrong and expounding new truths, have suffered in the dungeon, on the scaffold and at the stake.
Not because he and his fellows conspired to obstruct the war, but because they denounced the present order of economic society and taught the inauguration of a better one, are they still held in prison more than three years after the signing of the armistice; after the proclamation of peace and the resumption of trade with all of the enemy countries; after the repeal or the lapse of the Espionage Act and the other war-time laws under which they were convicted; and after German agents and German spies, caught red-handed in their attempts to interfere with the prosecution of the war, have won their freedom through presidential pardon.
The most dangerous men in the United States, during the years 1917 and 1918, were not those who were taking pay to do the will of the German or the Austrian Governments, but those who were trying to convince the American working people that they should throw aside a system of economic parasitism and economic exploitation, should take possession of the machinery of production and should secure for themselves the product of their own toil. In the eyes of the masters of American life, such men are still dangerous, and that is the reason that they are kept in prison.
The culture of any age consists of the feelings, habits, customs, activities, thoughts, ambitions and dreams of a people. It is a composite picture of their homes, their work, their arts, their pleasures and the other channels of their life-expression.
The culture of each age has two aspects. On the one hand there is the established or accepted culture of those who dominate and control,--the culture of the leisure or ruling class. This culture is respected, admired, applauded, and sometimes even worshipped by those who benefit from it most directly. Civilization--even life itself seems bound up with its continuance. When the advocates of the established culture cry "Long live the King!" they are really shouting approval of royalty, aristocracy, landlordism, vassalage, exploitation and of all the other attributes of divine right. The world as it is becomes in their minds, synonymous with the world as it should be. For them the old culture is the best culture.
On the other hand there is the new culture, comprising the hopes, beliefs, ideas and ideals of those who feel that the present is but a transition-stage, leading from the past into the future--a future that they see radiant with the best that is in man, developing soundly against the bounties that are supplied by the hand of nature. These forward looking ones, impatient with the mistakes and injustices of to-day, preach wisdom and justice for the morrow. So imperfect does the present seem to them, and so obvious are the possibilities of the future, that they look forward confidently to the overthrow of the old social forms, and the establishment, in their places, of a new society, the embryo of which is already germinating within the old social shell.
The old culture relies on tradition, custom, and the normal conservatism of the masses of mankind, The new culture relies on concepts of justice, truth, liberty, love, brotherhood. Eighteenth century, Feudal France was filled with the prophecies of a form of society that would supplant Feudalism. Nineteenth century Russia, in the grip of a capitalist burocracy, proved to be the centre for the revolutions of the early twentieth century. The new culture, growing at first under the shadow of the old, gradually assumes larger and larger proportions until it takes all of the sunlight for itself, throwing the old culture into the shadow of oblivion.
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