Dora B. Montefiore Vanguard July 1920

Capitalist Political Prisoners

Source: Vanguard, July 1920, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford

The capitalists of the world are suffering from fear, and the more they “get the wind up,” the more men and women who are fighting in the ranks of the workers are being shut away in prison. We are living under the dictatorship of capitalism, and capitalism has (until the workers decide otherwise) at its command, the army and the navy, the police, the taxes, and customs duties wrung from us, and, if we dispute or question its authority, it has its vile prisons in which it shuts us up. These prisons are organised on the approved old basis of the dungeon. As much of the light of day as is possible is shut away from the prisoner behind non-transparent glass windows and iron bars. Three times a day, with much jangling of keys and rattling of locks, food is pushed in to the prisoner, and once a day the prison authorities inspect the cell to see that the prisoner has rolled up his bedding and stowed it in the exact spot pointed out by the warder, and that his tin utensils, wooden spoon and Bible are in their official places. English prison rules do not recognise “political” prisoners, so they are treated to the same indignities as are criminals, wear prison clothes, and are known only by a number. Most of the European countries grant special treatment to “politicals,” and at a model prison in Buda-Pesth I saw in 1906 two rooms allotted to each “political,” a bedroom and a study; and they could have what books they required, and could see their friends once a week. But whether the man or woman who is up against the present political and social order be treated in prison as a criminal, or whether he or she be allowed certain “privileges,” they are nevertheless serving the people’s cause just as much as if propaganding with pen and tongue, and interpreting for the people the meaning and portent of passing events. They are, for the time being, the silent witnesses to the great cause of the World Revolution which is even now going on, and whose rumblings and thunder we hear, now in Slavonic, now in Latin, now in Scandinavian, and now in Anglo-Saxon countries. Because that Revolution is actually going on, Debs, Haywood, Larkin and thousands of others are behind prison bars in the United States; Peter Larkin and eleven others have been “doing time” for the last four years in Australia; John Maclean, J.D. Macdougall, Willie Gallacher and many others have endured, during recent years, the insolent cruelties of the British prison system. It is because that Revolution is going on that Liebknecht, Luxembourg and Zetkin suffered imprisonment in Germany, while the two former paid the full price in their blood. It is because that Revolution is going on that Sweden cast its anti-militarists into prison, and that the out-and-outer conscientious objectors in Britain passed the four war years in an alternation of guard-rooms and prisons. It is because that world revolution is going on that the capitalist countries vainly attempt through their petty passport system to keep the workers of the various nations asunder, and prevent a world understanding between Communist leaders. Their passport systems, their legations, their consulates, their vises, are just so many mops attempting to keep back the swirling oncoming waves of revolution. As to their prison bars, which have lacerated the souls of tens of thousands of dreamers and seers – the moment. is very near when

“The locks shall burst in sunder,
The hinges shrieking spin;
When time, whose hand is thunder,
Lays hand upon the pin,
And shoots the bolts reluctant, bidding all men in.”

Of the men in prison now in America, I feel honoured to think that Debs, Haywood and Jim Larkin are personal friends of mine. Debs is the finest and most incisive indicter of the capitalist system I have ever heard; and when in the States I never missed an opportunity of hearing him speak. Two of his aphorisms always linger in my memory: “Boys, the capitalists don’t employ you; you employ them to collect and spend the surplus wealth you create. And again: “A capitalist does not kill, his business rival; he makes him a partner.” Debs refuses to accept release unless his fellow politicals are released with him. Morally, it would be better to stand in Debs’ shoes than in those of President Wilson; and one thinks of Whittier’s words:

“Right for ever on the scaffold,
Wrong for ever on the throne.”

Bill Haywood has already been tried for his life" and was only released because the workers of the world demanded that their leader and champion should be set free. He himself told me of the steel and concrete cell – the condemned cell, in which he passed days and nights before even he was tried; of the two warders who watched him day and night, of the refusal to let him see counsel or friends; the brutal prison system has him once more in its clutches. What, comrades, is to be the end? Jim Larkin I came across daily at the time of the Dublin Transport Workers’ Strike. He and his sister, Delia, with Jim Connelly, were the “live wires” of Liberty Hall, organising, helping, counselling, fighting. When my friend Mrs. Rand and I were arrested in Dublin on a trumped-up charge of kidnapping the children of the Transport Workers whom we had come over to help, Larkin stood by us, sent friends to bail us out, was a “comrade” in the true sense of the word. I have known and watched Labour leaders in every part of the world, but I have never met a better friend to the working man and woman than Jim Larkin, nor one who more thoroughly shares their life with its many sorrows and few joys. What are the workers going to do for Jim Larkin?

Of the men sentenced four years ago in Australia because they were I.W.W. men, and because they were interpreting to the Australian workers the class struggle, only Peter Larkin is personally known to me; but I know that at the trial his liberty and that of his comrades was sworn away by detectives who since have been dismissed from the police force for blackmailing suspected persons, and by a chemist who has since signed a statement that the evidence was concocted by the detectives. Anyhow, the Australian workers are getting busy about the fate of their imprisoned comrades, and a Defence Committee has been formed in this country to agitate for their release. The address is 28 East Road, City Road, London, E.C. But the real point for the workers to decide is how long they are going to allow their best friends and leaders to be shut up at all in Capitalist gaols? In proportion as the class struggle becomes more concentrated, so the Capitalists will become more alarmed and more violent, as witness the repression going on in Ireland and in India. Ireland is at the present moment “the” object lesson to the workers, not only of what their tactics in the class struggle should be, but of what Capitalism’s fighting methods will be. Amritsar is another case in point. To-day it is Indian workers meeting in public places to discuss their wrongs and denounce their exploiters, to-morrow it will be British workers! And there will be found plenty of “Dyers” for both occasions. At the War Museum at the Crystal Palace may be seen the 3000lb. bombs with which it was arranged to bombard Berlin. Keen militarists must feel it is a pity to leave untested such instruments of advanced civilisation!

When the French nation, more than a century ago, rose in its agony and made its famous revolution, the prison of the Bastille, which was the visible symbol of the Government’s iniquities, was stormed by the multitude, and after the prisoners were liberated, war razed to the ground. When Russia shook off her Czarist yoke, the prison of Schlusselberg, where so many martyrs to the people’s cause had suffered and died, was also stormed by the outraged people, while their friends and comrades were released. Ireland does not forget her hunger-strikers for the cause of Irish freedom. We do not forget our comrades who, behind prison bars, have suffered in the past or are suffering now in the cause of the people; and the fight will go on till the Red Flag lies over every Capitalist gaol, and the political prisoners walk out free men.