Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I Scribe Marcantonio (I) Pamphleteer

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti by Ben Shan
After serving one term in Congress, Rep. Vito Marcantonio was swept away in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 re-election king tide. 

Yet, even with powerful waves rolling Democratic, Marc's opponent Jimmy Lanzetta barely prevailed by a vote of 18,772, to 17,212. Marc would win the rematch two years later.

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress,” Alan Schaffer posited that the freshman representative's downfall could be blamed, in part, on his rift with Luigi Antonini, leader of the the powerful Italian Dressmakers Local 89, International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  

The one-time allies split, Schaffer asserted, when Marcantonio's efforts on behalf of the anti-fascist struggle in Italy led to increasingly constructive contacts with communists.  

The matter is open to dispute. Some say Marc could never have withstood the Roosevelt landslide,  but in any case, his next move was to assume the presidency of the the International Labor Fund (ILD).

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” professor Gerald Meyer describes the ILD as brainchild of Joseph Brodsky, legal counsel to the Communist Party, to which the organization was tied.  

Marcantonio's defeat, Meyer wrote, influenced his decision to become president of the ILD.

According to Meyer, it was a role in which Marc's congressional experience enhanced the outfit's infrastructure for influencing public policy. 

Marc's work with the ILD involved him in high-profile cases of the day, such as that of labor activist Tom Mooney, wrongly jailed for bombing a World War I “Preparation Day” parade in San Francisco. Marc joined the defense of West Coast longshoremens union rabble-rouser Harry Bridges, whom the government wanted to deport to Australia. He fought dictatorial Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague over union and civil rights alike.  

The ILD post, Meyer wrote, “catapulted Marcantonio into the position of national spokesman for the left and deepened his relationship with the Communist Party.”  

In 1937, as International Labor Defense chairman, Marcantonio penned the pamphlet, “Labor's Martyrs.” 

The document was published with an introduction by William Z. Foster, a prominent American communist: “The militant trade union movement of today,” Foster wrote, “heading towards a broad People's Front, is the direct lineal descendant of the great strike movement of the 1886 Chicago martyrs.” 

Foster is talking the "Popular Front" policy of international communists in the 1930s, which called for collaboration with other forces on the political left to fight spreading fascism.


“The Chicago martyrs” he is linking the policy to were those hung for the Haymarket Affair and it is with that historical event Marcantonio begins his discourse. The second part deals with the saga of Sacco and Vanzetti.  

Entitled “Labor's Martyr's,” labor, the organized kind, is the text's primary focus. 

Marcantonio suggests that organized labor is American as apple pie, is in the country's DNA: “Noble attempts to build [the labor movement] had been made in the days of our Revolutionary forefathers,” he writes.  

The Haymarket Martyrs
And Marc, a man who drew logistical support and droves of votes from the union rank-and-file, knew his syndicates. 

He notes that Albert Parson, one of the Haymarket defendants [Marc prefers the term “victims”], “was a printer, a member of the powerful International Typographical Union which, even in those days, had over 60,000 members.”  

Membership counts are the currency of the union movement and source of their leverage in collective bargaining and street action alike. A consummate political operative, Marcantonio probably knew the rank-and-file tallies of the many unions blossoming across the country at the time.  

With color and pace, the phenom from East Harlem recounts the Haymarket debacle in a prose colored by a sense of great grievance and a promise that labor's part of the fighting has just begun.  

The text recalls the May Day strike of 1886. August Spies, a German metalworker and union organizer was invited to speak at the McCormick Reaper plant in Chicago. Police rushed the assembly with guns and clubs and scores were brutalized. A bomb was set off.

“Chicago papers were quick to point out that 'only' two had lost their lives!” Marcantonio's exclamation point underscores the purpose of this particular ILD production, which is to tie labor's contemporary battles to prior confrontations. To tell a longer, more emotional story.  

In “Labor's Martyrs” Marc is less the journalist and more the instigating pamphleteer. The text is a call to action rather than an academic or purely historical work. 

And it is a youthful work. Marcantonio died at the age of 51 and accomplished his many achievements as a young, brash and precocious force of life. He is just 35 years old at this point in his truncated, yet breathless career.  

Vanzetti and Sacco
Marcantonio writes that Spies rushed back to the German radical paper “Arbeiter-Zeitung,” which we highlight simply because he does not run from the word “radical” the way most American politicians did and still do. 

Authorities hung the bombing on eight anarchists making them a part of labor history in the process. 

“What the press made of it is one of the rawest frame-up trials in American history,” he writes, factually, vintage Marcantonio, who often resorted to expressions like “rawest” and “frame-up,” because of whom he chose to defend and the kind of battles he was obliged to fight. 

“The newspapers from coast to coast, our worthy 'New York Times' not excepted, howled for their blood, raved about an Anarchist plot to blow up Chicago, seize the government, murder, arson, pillage, rape – the whole program which William Randolph Hearst has made only too familiar to the American public.” 

Marcantonio had a special axe to grind when it came to Hearst, whose newspapers relentlessly attacked the congressman.

Gerald Meyer writes that Hearst's “Daily Mirror” described Marcantonio as a “political maggot” who “must feed on decay and corruption to survive.”  

Marcantonio continues: “The judge, Judge Gary, gave one of the most shameful performances that this country has ever seen, and it has seen plenty from its judges.”

Marc, that ambitious first generation son of Italian immigrants, loves America when it fulfills its promise, but his brand of patriotism does not preclude the telling of a true, people's history.  

That people's history he told had words of the following kind: “The bigoted speeches of the prosecutor Grinnell, and his aides, are equaled only by the speeches of the prosecution in the Mooney case, the Herndon case, the Scottsboro case. In other words, they established a fine precedent for all anti-labor prosecutions.”  

Marcantonio knows of what he speaks, because he served as an assistant U.S. attorney, a primarily prosecutorial post. He is writing on behalf of the International Labor Defense, a legal outfit, and as the lawyer chosen to spearhead its political efforts. 

The focus is legal and his point is that “Labor's Martyrs” were created as much in courtrooms as in the streets or on the shop floor. There is more than a chronicle going on here. There is this larger question of labor's role at the crux of 1930s social change and revolution.  

After the Haymarket convictions, Marcantonio wrote, “Chicago papers collected a purse of $100,00 to divide among them as reward for work well done.”  

He doesn't offer any evidence. If Marc seeks a more just labor law, he is not beyond spinning a bit of labor lore in that effort. 

“And then came the appeal to the United States Supreme Court,” he forges ahead. “Old as they are, none of the present incumbents were then sitting on the bench. But their worthy forerunners were equally reactionary.”  

A keen sarcasm laced with indignation was a tool Marc used for slashing the arguments of opponents from the House well, or the East Harlem street corner. It was not academic talk. It was a popular lexicon he could employ at will, without condescending, because it was his own organic idiom. 


“They did not die in vain,” he rallies. “Taught by the lessons of the Haymarket tragedy, such an organization as the International Labor Defense has been built by the workers and progressive people of America, to stand guard and prevent such legal murders today.”  

“Legal murders.”  

Marc as master of the subversive sobriquet.

Sacco and Vanzetti


Marcantonio Scribe then recalls, “two other labor martyrs who must be honored at the same time as the Haymarket heroes. The tenth anniversary of their death coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the former I
n this year 1937.” 

Here he is writing of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Marc begins with a quotation from the latter.  

“I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times I would live again to do what I have done already.” 


It is a generous passage granted by the writer; gives voice to one unjustly silenced, in their own chosen words.

“To me these words are particularly poignant,” writes Marcantonio. “For I am an Italian, and proud to be of the same people that produced such a great spirit as Vanzetti, the descendant of Garibaldi, the forerunner of those heroic anti-fascist brothers who are today fighting Fascism and Mussolini in Italy and Spain.”  

Marc positions himself firmly along the historical leftist continuum; openly links himself to men executed for murder by the state. And he joins that tradition to the Italian spirit for the benefit of his constituents who were subject to a career-long history lesson from the settlement-house-teacher-cum-congressman.


Marcantonio writes of Sacco and Vanzetti, as workers and organizers.  

“Both found only hard knocks. Sacco was a shoe worker. Vanzetti had followed many trades after his arrival here in the summer of 1908. He worked in mines, mills, factories. Finally he landed in a cordage plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. That was the last factory job he held. For here, as in all the others, he talked union and organization, and organized a successful strike. After that, he was blacklisted for good and had to make a living peddling fish to his Italian neighbors in the little town known as the cradle of liberty.”  

Marc sees, not just victims of legal murder, but heroes in their own right, beyond their victimization: “The tragedy of their untimely and cruel death is still an open wound in the hearts of many of us who remember them as shining spirits, as truly great men such as only the lowly of the earth can produce.”  

For Marc, this is the meaning of Sacco and Vanzetti.  

The Lowly of the Earth. These were Marcantonio's chosen constituency. His decision to join forces with the ILD rather than hang around Washington D.C., and peddle his influence in some lucrative fashion, says all that needs to be said about his motivations. 

With “Labor's Martyrs,” and his wider activities for the ILD, Marcantonio demonstrated how his electoral defeat in no wise diminished his fight for that constituency. Being a congressman was just one way to achieve the same ends.  

Marcantonio was not a career “politician,” so much as a dedicated advocate for the Lowly of the Earth.



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