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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

James P. Cannon

Vincent St. John
(1873–June 21, 1929)

(20 June 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 43, 20 June 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The following account of a great fighter’s life is from an article written at the time of St. John’s death by James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (The Militant, July 1, 1929). [1] Comrade Cannon worked with St. John in the glorious days of Wobbly militancy and activity.

* * *

The death of Vincent St. John at San Francisco marks the passing of another of the great figures of the American revolutionary movement whose deeds helped to make its tradition and whose names will not be forgotten. “The Saint,” as he was known to those who knew and loved him, died at the age of 56 after a long illness complicated by high blood pressure. He will be sincerely mourned by thousands whose lives were influenced by him, particularly by those who belonged to the old guard of the I.W.W. in its bravest days when he was its moving spirit and guiding intelligence.

Vincent St. John, like Haywood and Frank Little, was trained in the hard school of the Western Federation of Miners, that model labor union whose mighty struggles threw their shadow across the world in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century and the first years of the Twentieth. A metal miner by trade, he joined the Western Federation in 1894, and became one of the most militant fighters in its ranks and an influential voice in its councils. Despite his modesty of disposition, his freedom from personal ambition and his lack of the arts of self-aggrandizement, his work spoke loudly and brought him widespread fame. His stirring deeds as a pioneer organizer became legends of the movement and remain such today. Until 1907 he was a member of the executive board of the W.F.M. and in that strategic position became the leader of the left wing in the looming struggle between conservative and revolutionary unionism which centered around the question of affiliation to the I.W.W. which the Western Federation had played a role in founding in 1905.

Led “Direct Actionists”

At the second convention of the I.W.W. in 1906 St. John headed the revolutionary syndicalist group which combined with the S.L.P. elements to oust Sherman, a conservative, as President and to establish a new administration in the organization with a revolutionary policy. He became the general organizer under the new administration, breaking with the W.F.M. on the withdrawal of the latter body, and giving his whole allegiance to the I.W.W. He presided at the 1908 convention which saw the split with the S.L.P. and the elimination of the “political clause” from the preamble. St. John was the leader of the proletarian “Direct Action” forces which defeated the “political” wing of De Leon. Thereafter he served as General Secretary of the I.W.W. until 1914, and undoubtedly did more than anyone to shape its course and prepare the ground for its later development under the active leadership of Haywood.

He withdrew from activity on leaving the office of General Secretary and engaged in a mining enterprise, doubtless with the illusory hope of acquiring a fortune to help finance the organization of the workers. Despite his retirement at the period, fear of his abilities, and the prospect of his return to the office vacated by the imprisonment of Haywood, dictated his own arrest and subsequent conviction with the Chicago group of I.W.W. wartime prisoners. He served two and a half years at Leavenworth before commutation brought his release.

From his earlier concepts of revolutionary socialism St. John, in revolt against the parliamentary reformism of the Socialist Party and the sectarian, ultra-legal concepts of the Socialist Labor Party, developed along the line of revolutionary syndicalism, the path taken by many of the best proletarian fighters of the period. In many respects this represented a step forward from parliamentary socialism, but the prejudices and theoretical falsity of the syndicalist or industrialist position were storing up disasters for the future. The philosophy of the I.W.W., which St. John did so much to shape, was too simple for the complex situation brought about by the entry of the United States into the World War. The great sacrifices and heroic deeds of its members were unavailing against this handicap and were greatly discounted by it. The spirit of the I.W.W. died in the war, and not the least of the signs of this tragedy was the loss of faith of practically the entire body of the old guard which had made its history and its glory. St. John was among them. Spiritual death is the real death of revolutionaries.

To the great loss of the workers’ cause, St. John, and with him the great majority of the leading militants of the I.W.W., failed to make the theoretical and tactical adjustments necessitated by the experience of the World War and the Russian Revolution. Their limited industrialist concepts remained unchanged. Communism, especially its American representatives, impressed them unfavorably and they could not swim with the current of the new movement. The enormous errors, presumptuousness and tactlessness of the Communist party leadership are partly responsible for this calamitous state of affairs. American communism should have been a natural growth out of the soil of the pre-war movement represented in part by the I.W.W. The early years of the Party were weakened and hampered by this failure and the I.W.W. movement, alienated from Communism, lost its old time vigor and passed into an inevitable degeneration and decline.

A Tradition to Be Valued

But despite the tragedy of the after-war years, the earlier work of the I.W.W. militants – and St. John in the front rank – retains all its validity. They wrote much of the tradition of the American revolutionary movement in letters of fire that will never be extinguished. The modern movement of Communism, which is the heir to their achievements, should value this tradition highly and honor the memory of the men who made it. The memory of Vincent St. John will always be a treasure to the revolutionary workers of America in their aspiring struggle for the workers’ world.

For those who knew the “Saint” as a man and friend, his untimely death brings a deep and poignant grief. He was a most admirable personality – brave and resolute, loyal and honest. He was a gifted and inspiring leader and organizer who gave himself, throughout the years of youth and manhood prime, untiringly and unsparingly to the workers’ cause. And with the highest executive qualities he combined the rare gift of friendship, of warmly human consideration and concern for others, of loyalty in personal relations, which bound men to him in life-long affection. Those who were so bound to him, who knew the warmth of his handclasp, enshrine his memory in their hearts along with the best memories of the great cause for which we live and strive.

Hail and farewell, Soldier, Man and Friend!

Note by ETOL

1. The obituary actually appeared in The Militant, Vol. II No. 12, 1 August 1929, p. 8.

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