How I Became a Rebel. A Symposium. Part 2. The Labor Herald, July 1922, p. 25-26.
By Robert Minor
BY A childhood of poverty I was moulded for life membership in the working class.
When I left school at fourteen to work in a sign painter’s shop my love of picture making developed to a fierce passion. It may seem incredible that this had a great deal to do with making me a rebel, but I say seriously that even the scant, pitiful art possibilities of a sign shop gave me an impression of conflict between every artistic impulse and the needs of commercial life. Few outsiders know that sign painting shops cover many really talented young workers, but my kid eyes saw and understood the conflict between young workers’ instinct for beauty and the need of the shop to drive for money.
The smallness of the wages of a sign painter’s apprentice drove me from that small Temple of Art, to start learning the carpenter’s trade. Here I contracted the peculiar pride of the craftsman. Carpentering seemed to have a relation to art, and I maintain to this day that it has. My relatives got me out of this and into a “nice clean” job in a railroad office, with a chance to work up to be president of the railroad. But I couldn’t stand it. I was already branded with a different iron; I quit and went off to wander on freight trains as a hobo laborer. Fifteen hours a day on a farm, at fifty cents a day, soon gave me my fill of agriculture; and I drifted into easier jobs at ten hours a day with pick and shovel. This was the serious beginning of the opening of my eyes. One day an old mule-freight teamster caught up with me on a lonely Texas road and told me I could ride if I was a working man. On the wagon he gave me a long tirade on the wrongs of the working people and the need of the working class to stick together and make a revolution. His words sunk into my memory to stay.
At camp fires in railroad construction camps and on the freight trains and in the “jungles,” the conversation of wandering laborers from all quarters of the earth gave me my “cosmopolitan culture.” Here I learned the indescribable beauty of that spiritual fraternity of cummunism which was poured a few years later into the songs and the deeds of the old-time I. W. W. And I learned the dreadful curse of God upon a scab.
When I returned to my native town to work at the carpenter trade and joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, my rather crude working class loyalty got a slightly more definite form. Two members of the Union puzzled me by endlessly talking Socialism; of their hifalutin words I couldn’t remember a thing except the constant repetition, “Carrol D. Wright to the contrary notwithstanding.” But I learned more definitely what a scab is. The order came for all hands to make a stand for the Union scale of wages, which was not being paid. I was the only Union member on my building job, and I walked out on strike alone. I never got another job at the carpenter trade.
I wandered about Texas and New Mexico on freight trains, looking for work living by handouts, learning the peculiarly bitter lesson of the unemployed man sleeping on the open ground in Winter.
Unable to get work at carpentering or sign painting, I found a job as cartoonist for a small daily newspaper. This was my entrance to a trade that has taught many a man what a rotten core is inside of the social system. I didn’t notice it at first, but was for some time absorbed in the rapid ambitions of the newspaper life. I got a better job on a big St. Louis newspaper. But about this time the trial of Willim D. Haywood at Boise, Idaho, came to disturb me–to awaken all of the old-time dreams–the call of my class. Simultaneously I met a Russian Jew, the first one that I had ever known. The strange talk of this man changed my understanding of what life is for. He filled me full of the fever to learn and feel. At first this merely stimulated my work and brought me some of the petty newspaper success that I had thought I wanted. Now that it came, I didn’t want it. About 1908 I went into the Socialist Party. I was elected to the City Central Committee, but drifted out of the party as it began to change its character, about 1912, and began to take an interest in the Anarchist movement.
At the age of 29 I got my first opportunity to study art, and went to Paris with my saved-up wages to attend the French national art school. To my bewilderment I found that the “art schools” have not the slightest interest in art, but concern themselves solely with teaching men the way to make money, which I already knew. They have exactly· the same motives as the sign painters’ shop in Texas. This shook me off the track again. I could not associate with the foul bourgeois in the art academies. In the working class neighborhoods of Paris I learned the French language mainly by listening to agitators’ speeches, and with the language I absorbed a typical Paris working-class point of view–anarcho-syndicalism. I returned to New York with no appetite for the job I had already contracted for, as a cartoonist on the New York World.
Unfortunately the first day’s instructions in my new job were to begin a series of cartoons which were to be a campaign to fasten guilt for a bomb explosion (July 4, 1914) upon Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. It was an affair with which they had nothing to do, but which the “World” wanted to fasten upon them in one of its well-known circulation drives. For refusing to participate in this, and perhaps also for suggesting that I might publicly protest against it, I was reduced to the rank of cartoonist for the evening edition of the “World.” I take space to mention this only because it is illuminating to show how a man is literally beaten along the path to one side or the other of the class struggle. I was allowed to make anti-war cartoons to my heart’s content in the Evening World for about a year. Then a strange thing happened: all of the great newspapers in America (except the Hearst press) were suddenly lined up FOR the war on the English-French side. I was ordered to begin turning my cartoons to the Allied side. I quit and went over to the New York Call, where I thought I could make revolutionary cartoons.
Later, I went to Europe as correspondent for a “liberal” newspaper syndicate. There I saw as plain as daylight the beginning of “the transforming of the Capitalist war into civil war and revolution”–the event of which Lenin’s little group in Switzerland was the prophet. This prediction of course ran like a red thread through all of my writings and stuck out in my drawings. The newspaper syndicate quit printing my stuff. I came home in the steerage, amongs “my kind.” I had advanced a long way–I had learned that soldiers, and not unarmed people make revolutions. It opened wide vistas thought.
The last underpinning of respect for the “democratic” social organization was knocked out of me by the Mooney case. I happened to be in California and was drawn into the organization of the Mooney defense. The Chamber of Commerce, the street car corporation, “respectable”” labor union officials, strike-breakers, policemen, petty criminals, pristitutes and “class-conscious”‘ petty business men, conspired to frame up and hang strike leaders. Helping to untangle this amazing conspiracy, opened up to my eyes catacombs of crime and filth upon which capitalist society is built, of the existence of which I could otherwise have had only a feeble dream. I had never before known that every Labor case in a criminal court is a stage play deliberately fixed in advance by direct bribery of witnesses and, usually, of the jury. The staggering completeness of it is almost incredible to me even now, as it will be incredible to the reader. It was like standing on a mountain while the mists blow away, revealing in the valley the terrific battle of the classes; the thundering sounds of life are shown to be artillery, and the dimly swirling silhouettes become men in the grapple of death.
That is all of “How I Became a Rebel.”
But the time had already come when “being a rebel” didn’t mean anything! … George Washington was a rebel, but if brought into the society of today he would not function as such, Robespierre was a rebel, but he wouldn’t have any significance now. Emma Goldman was a revolutionist in July, 1914, but today she doesn’t mean anything. And I discovered when I returned from a trip to Russia in 1918 that “being a rebel” just generally, without taking a definite place in the Communist revolution, didn’t mean any more than being a Methodist. I noticed while I was in a military prison that the officers disputed very seriously as to whether I was an Anarchist or a Bolshevik, and upon deciding that I was only an Anarchist they treated me more as a moderately respectable man. This very much humiliated me, and set me to wondering.
So, “How I Became a Rebel” doesn’t mean anything, and the story’s no good. How I became a specified kind of a rebel against a specific thing and for a specific thing in a specific way–that is the only tale that means anything.
And that’s a different story.