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Saved Stories – None: Celebration of erased heroes, by Evelyne Pieiller (Le Monde diplomatique, January 2021)


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P Aul Robeson was a world glory, and American revolutionary unionism experienced successes and tragedies worthy of being told with epic fervor. Unless you take a close interest in the struggles of African Americans and the labor movement, except to frequent the works of Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, we have little more than a vague idea, and it is probably a understatement. As the famous saying goes, history is written by the victors; more precisely, it is rewritten, and whole sections of the struggle for the transformation of the world are erased, as well as their tenacious and magnificent actors, which one cannot certainly not reduce to the status of vanquished. 

The Italian writer Valerio Evangelisti, made famous by his cycle devoted to the figure of the Inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich  ( 1 ) , closes with Breakers  ( 2 ) a trilogy centered on the history of American trade unionism  ( 3 ) . This last well-documented novel first and foremost accounts for the genesis, debates, victories and defeats of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) over some fifteen years from their beginnings in 1905. The book is bushy, sometimes ungrateful, especially as his ” hero  Is a sad bastard, who chooses to be the thug of a security agency, evoking the Pinkerton, made famous by its efficiency in the service of employer repression. Without the slightest qualm, he carries out his infiltration missions by posing as a “ red worker , which allows him to denounce sympathizers and inform his masters of the wobblies ‘ plans , as the members are called. of IWW.  

But, if its frequentation is often trying, the fact remains that we are thus accompanying the great moments of an organization of the working class (railway workers, miners, seasonal agricultural workers, etc.), which includes women as well. as blacks or foreigners, with the unmistakable stated aim of abolishing capitalism. Their propaganda was remarkably effective, from tracts written in the language of immigrants to sassy songs, like those of Joe Hill. They knew how to always be on the ground (especially thanks to the hoboes, the homeless), modulate all forms of strike, impose considerable improvements and face repression commensurate with the fear of the owners.Leaders and demonstrators were killed in numbers by the police and the henchmen of these informant agencies, one of which was institutionalized to become in 1908 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the interwar period, laws against ” criminal unionism ” will allow the arrest of thousands of wobblies, then the factory of oblivion will be exercised. But the IWW, internationalists and revolutionaries, still exist, tenuous perhaps but stubborn, with in their ranks Chomsky and Tom Morello, the guitarist of the group Rage Against the Machine.  

Slave descendant Paul Robeson (1898-1976) shines until the beginning of the 1950s. He could have contented himself with a career thanks to a remarkable bass baritone voice, which Ol ‘Man River made famous. . On the contrary, he decides not to dissociate his artistic choices and his political choices, to put himself fully, concretely, grandiosely, at the service of the fight for racial and social justice. His biography is a little applied at times  ( 4 ), but it gives an account of an effervescent and intrepid life, which leads him to sing for the workers as for the jet-set, to affirm his sympathy for the Soviet Union and his rejection of the Korean War, to support the separatists Africans and to play a major role in the militant intellectual debates of the time. He will be discredited in his country as a communist, and his career will be shattered. While his birthday was a national holiday in many countries, his concerts and his declarations were events with international repercussions, he will be erased or almost from the dominant memory. Just like Joe Hill, which he sang, and the wobblies.

( 1 Valerio Evangelisti, Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitor, twelve volumes published, Payot & Rivages – La Volte – Le Livre de poche, Clamart-Paris, 1998-2021.

( 2 Valerio Evangelisti, Breakers de strike, translated from Italian by Paola de Luca and Gisèle Toulouzan, Libertalia, Montreuil, 2020, 528 pages, 18 euros. Announced for April 22, 2021: Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer (ed.), Solidarité forever. Global history of the Industrial Workers of the World union, Hors d’Ateinte, Marseille.

( 3 Valerio Evangelisti, Anthracite and We are nothing are everything  !, Rivages, coll.  Noir  ”, Paris, 2008 and 2010 respectively.

( 4 Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson, translated from English (United States) by Joëlle Marelli, Otium, Ivry-sur-Seine, 2020, 332 pages, 25 euros.

( 1 Valerio Evangelisti, Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitor, twelve volumes published, Payot & Rivages – La Volte – Le Livre de poche, Clamart-Paris, 1998-2021.

( 2 Valerio Evangelisti, Breakers de strike, translated from Italian by Paola de Luca and Gisèle Toulouzan, Libertalia, Montreuil, 2020, 528 pages, 18 euros. Announced for April 22, 2021: Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer (ed.), Solidarité forever. Global history of the Industrial Workers of the World union, Hors d’Ateinte, Marseille.

( 3 Valerio Evangelisti, Anthracite and We are nothing are everything !,  Rivages, coll. Noir ”, Paris, 2008 and 2010 respectively.  

( 4 Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson, translated from English (United States) by Joëlle Marelli, Otium, Ivry-sur-Seine, 2020, 332 pages, 25 euros.

Saved Stories – None