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Volume 7361

Burroughs, the Activist Author, vs. the Wobblies
by Alan Hanson and John Martin

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Burroughs, the Activist Author, vs. the Wobblies
by Alan Hanson and John Martin

In a 1923 article in the Los Angeles Times, Edgar Rice Burroughs expressed his admiration for Owen Wister’s classic Western story, The Virginian. He punctuated his praise, however, with a political jab that had no connection to Wister or his novel.
I believe ‘The Virginian’ to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, and though I have heard that Mr. Wister deplores having written it, I venture that 100 years from now it will constitute his sole link to fame — and I am sure that ‘The Virginian’ will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the I.W.W. permit civilization to endure so long as that.
Americans of the 1920s used the term “Bolshevists” to identify not only Russian revolutionaries but also their American counterparts who were intent on spreading the philosophy of communism in the United States. Burroughs, like many Americans, was convinced that the communists were doing their subversive work in the U.S. through the I.W.W. Those initials did not need to be spelled out in Burroughs’ time, but they may be unfamiliar to many Americans nowadays.

I.W.W. stands for the Industrial Workers of the World, a union of working men that was both famous and infamous during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Its goal was to merge all the unions of the world into one big, powerful force. The concept behind the I.W.W. was revolutionary, and its members then were, in many respects, revolutionaries themselves — militant, unyielding, determined, single-minded, and, their opponents claimed, lazy good-for-nothings. Passions ran high on both sides, and trouble followed the Wobblies, as union members were known, wherever they went. There was mob violence, unfair justice, and even murder. Both the Wobblies and the authorities who resisted them in those times must share the blame for the tragedies that dogged the movement.

Burroughs developed an early distrust for the I.W.W., which was born, like the author, in the city of Chicago. On June 27, 1905, the “Continental Congress of the Working Class” was called to order in Chicago, and several unions and factions came together under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World. Just months earlier Burroughs had returned to the city after unsuccessful attempts to make a living dredging gold in Idaho and working as a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City. Over the next few years, as Burroughs worked at various jobs before trying his hand at writing, he would have been aware of the growing Wobbly movement, as its activities were often in the press of its headquarters city.

In 1912, the same year that Burroughs’ first Martian story and first Tarzan story both appeared in pulp magazines, Wobbly activity began to escalate in San Diego, California. As the Wobblies tried to organize the city’s workers, the city council tried to curb rabble-rousing public speeches by closing the downtown area to street meetings. The nation’s press covered the resulting arrests, beatings and other violence through the summer of 1912.

Although the lawlessness caused many travelers to avoid the California city, the following summer Edgar Rice Burroughs moved his family to the San Diego area. By the time they arrived, the Wobbly unrest had calmed down. Over the next year and a half that he lived there, Burroughs enjoyed one of the most prolific periods of his writing career, penning all or parts of stories that eventually appeared in book form under the titles of The Return of Tarzan, At the Earth’s Core, The Cave Girl, The Monster Men, The Warlord of Mars, The Mucker, The Mad King, The Eternal Lover, The Beasts of Tarzan, and The Lad and the Lion

With a family to support, Burroughs concentrated during this period on writing entertaining fiction that would sell. In none of the above stories did he mention the I.W.W. or his growing concern about the violence surrounding the workers’ movement in the country. In March 1914 Burroughs and his family returned to Chicago. Over the next five years, the I.W.W. was involved in many highly publicized incidents around the nation. For instance, on November 19, 1915, Wobbly activist Joe Hill was executed by a Utah firing squad for a murder which some believed he had been falsely convicted. The I.W.W. transported Hill’s coffin to Chicago, where 30,000 people attended its internment at Graceland Cemetery.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was not one of the mourners. By nature he was an entrepreneur, a pursuer of capitalism’s promise of wealth. Only for short periods in his life did he work for wages, and in each case his dissatisfaction with that economic state caused him to leave it for some commercial project that he hoped would bring him riches. As he was not one of them, Burroughs found it hard to relate to the American working class, and especially to the worker dissatisfaction that led to the rise of the I.W.W.

Burroughs’ growing reputation as a writer of fiction, combined with his increasing disgust with the I.W.W. movement, caused him to begin speaking out against the Wobblies in his fiction. In writing the first part of The Land That Time Forgot in 1917, Burroughs created two villains. The first was German submarine commander Baron von Schoenvorts, a naturally loathsome character for most American readers due to Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare at the time. The second villain, however, was Benson, an American saboteur, who tried to return the U-boat to German control after Bowen Tyler and his American crew had commandeered it. In Benson’s dying declaration to Tyler, Burroughs decided to take his first fictional swipe at the I.W.W.

Benson died that night. He remained defiant almost to the last; but just before he went out, he motioned to me, and I leaned over to catch the faintly whispered words.

‘I did it alone,’ he said. ‘I did it because I hate you — I hate all your kind. I was kicked out of your shipyard at Santa Monica. I was kicked out of California. I am an I. W. W. I became a German agent — not because I love them, for I hate them too — but because I wanted to injure Americas, whom I hated more. I threw the wireless apparatus overboard. I destroyed the chronometer and the sextant. I devised a scheme for varying the compass to suit my wishes … I am sorry — sorry that my plans failed. I hate you.’

The passage reflects Burroughs’ belief, often restated in the coming years, that the Wobblies hated America and sought to injure the country. In death, Benson was afforded no sympathy by the loyal Americans under Bowen Tyler. They unceremoniously threw his body overboard.

As a well-known fiction writer, Burroughs found newspaper and magazine editors willing to publish an occasional essay by him. At times he used that forum to take the fight directly to the enemy. In “Peace and the Militia,” an article published November 16, 1918, just days after the end of World War I, Burroughs warned his fellow Americans that they still faced a determined enemy at home in the guise of the I.W.W.

… it is very possible that we shall see loosed upon the community a raft of street corner-orators of the I.W.W. and Bolshevik types … We have thrashed the trouble makers of Europe and it is within the range of possibilities that we may have to deal with similar cattle here.

“I could obtain information on the I.W.W.”

Burroughs often tied his dislike of the I.W.W. with his concern about the successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Like many other Americans, he linked the goals of the international Bolshevik movement with the aims of the Wobblies in the U.S. In his Burroughs biography, Irwin Porges explains how Burroughs hoped to use his fiction to alert Americans to the threat of communism. In a December 1918 proposal sent to the Department of Defense, Burroughs explained that he had in mind a novel showing the future conditions one or two hundred years from then, presupposing a world-wide adoption of Bolshevism. 
It is not my expectation to write anything that will revolutionize public opinion as my stories are primarily for entertainment,” he explained, “but if I could obtain information on the I.W.W. movement here and also Bolshevik literature which would permit me to write more intelligently on the aims and practices of these parties, it might be that my story would be of value in setting people to thinking of the results which must follow the continued dissemination of this type of propaganda.
After a Justice Department official responded that Burroughs’ plan might do more harm than good, an irked Burroughs fired back. “I doubt if my fiction would be taken seriously enough to do any harm and the only possible value it could have outside of entertainment might be to suggest a line of thought inimical to anarchist tendencies.

Undeterred by the attitude of the Justice official, Burroughs spent three weeks in the spring of 1919 writing his proposed story, titled Under the Red Flag. His efforts to get it published, though, were unsuccessful. Frustrated, he voiced his determination to see the story in print, even if he had to pay for it himself. Instead, in early 1922 he rewrote the story in science fiction format. The oppressive communists became the Kalkars, invaders from the moon who had conquered the earth generations before. Retitled The Moon Men, it was published in book form as the middle part of The Moon Maid trilogy. 

Burroughs wrote the opening part of the trilogy as a straight science fiction adventure, but to make it flow smoothly into the thinly veiled political theme of The Moon Men, he had to insert in the opening section an explanation of how the Kalkars came to power on the moon before later extending their oppressive rule over the earth. Porges explains how Burroughs did it.

In the origin of the Kalkars on the moon, they were first members of a secret society called The Thinkers, ‘who did more talking than thinking,’ but who managed to influence the people to rise up and take over the government. The implication of similar dangers from communism is obvious. Burroughs, however, a man of action, is also exhibiting his contempt for the passive intellectuals who merely theorize. As described in ‘The Moon Maid,’ The Thinkers ‘would not work, and the result was that both government and commerce fell into rapid decay.’ Here Burroughs, in his own way, is jeering at the Communists and especially at the IWWs of World War I whom he had previously condemned; these radicals were merely idle ‘thinkers,’ who wouldn’t stoop to hard work and who had impractical and dangerous political solutions for the world’s problems.
Since Under the Red Flag has remained unpublished, just exactly how much of it Burroughs revised to make it into The Moon Men is not known. However, a reading of The Moon Men leads to the conclusion that, other than changing the names of the conquerors from communists to Kalkars, Burroughs may not have had to change much at all. It’s still a story of people living under a totalitarian and cruel regime, where neighbors can be spies, where taxes are unfair, where religious worship is forbidden, and where people who defy the government are either killed or sentenced to hard labor.

Although the I.W.W. is not mentioned specifically in The Moon Men, Burroughs did refer to one the objectives stated in the “I.W.W. Industrial Code.” One of the Wobblies’ early goals was to limit a workingman’s day to eight hours. But the long-range target was a four-hour day, thus assuring jobs for everyone. In The Moon Men Burroughs explained how the embracing of the four-hour workday led to the deterioration of society under the conquering Kalkars.

 “Father said that most of the railways were destroyed during the war after the Kalkars overran the country and that as workmen were then permitted to labor only four hours a day, when they felt like it, and even then most of them were busy making new laws so much of the time that they had no chance to work, there were not enough labor to operate or maintain the roads that were left, but that was not the worst of it. Practically all the men who understood the technical details of operation and maintenance, or engineering and mechanics belonged to the more intelligent class of earthmen and were, consequently, immediately thrown out of employment and later killed.
Later in the story Burroughs explained how the capitulation of the American working class to Kalkar philosophy led inevitably to disaster for the country. Julian 8th, representing the former capitalist class, castigated his neighbor Jim Thompson for the actions of his laboring ancestors.
 “Your people never took a stand against the invaders. They flirted with the new theory of brotherhood the Kalkars brought with them from the moon. They listened to the emissaries of the malcontents and, afterward, when Kalkars sent their disciples among us they ‘first endured, then pitied, then embraced.’ They had the numbers and the power to combat successfully the wave of insanity that started with the lunar catastrophe and overran the world — they could have kept it out of America; but they didn’t — instead they listened to false prophets and placed their great strength in the hands of the corrupt leaders.
Since Burroughs admittedly wrote Under the Red Flag as a warning of what could happen if communism and the I.W.W. came to power in the U.S., the previous passage reveals his belief that only the working class of his day had the “numbers and power” to defeat the red menace then threatening American society. To Burroughs there was no reason for laborers to embrace the Wobbly philosophy, since, as he declared in The Moon Men, “There was never a more prosperous or independent class of human beings in the world than the American laboring man of the twentieth century.

“Treat your men right, or suffer the consequences”
Under the Red Flag
was the first story Burroughs wrote after moving his family permanently to Southern California in 1919. The family took up residence on the former ranch of Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, who coincidentally was a fireball opponent of the I.W.W. His newspaper was an activist and editorial force against the labor movement, and it is credited with being the first to use the term “Wobblies” in print. In 1911 twenty-one lives were lost when Otis’ L.A. Times building was bombed. Police traced the dynamite to members of the Times typographical union, not to the Wobbly leaders themselves. Yet it was the Wobblies who were blamed. After the bombing, the San Francisco Chronicle led the attack on “that hobo gang which calls itself the Industrial Workers of the World.

In his first few years in California, Burroughs’ distaste for the I.W.W. found its way into several of the stories he wrote while living on his Tarzana ranch. The first was The Efficiency Expert, written in the fall of 1919. In it, a struggling college graduate, Jimmy Torrance, gets a job as an efficiency expert for a machine-making company and exposes Harold Bince, a manager who has been embezzling money to support his gambling habit. Burroughs inserted two malicious labor figures into the plot. One is Pete Krovac, described by Burroughs as a “rat-faced little foreigner,” who worked in the machine company shop. Burroughs was obviously painting Krovac as an I.W.W. type. “He nursed a perpetual grievance against his employer and his job,” Burroughs explained, “and whenever the opportunity presented, and sometimes when it did not present itself, he endeavored to inoculate others with his dissatisfaction.”

Even worse was labor leader Steve Murray, who is described as never having done a “decent thing in his life.” Murray and Bince conspired to destroy evidence of the latter’s embezzlement. To throw suspicion elsewhere, Murray sent an anonymous note to Mason Compton, president of the International Machine Company. It read:


It concerned Compton that even one Wobbly might be in his employ. “It may be nothing,” he told his assistant manager, “but I don’t like the idea of it. There is apt to be something underlying this, or even if it is only a single individual and he happens to be a crank he could cause a lot of trouble. Suppose, for instance, one of these crack-brained foreigners in the shop got it into his head that Torrance here was grinding him down in order to increase our profits? Why, he might attack him at any time!” Burroughs made it clear several times that none of the employees had complained about Torrance’s efforts to streamline the shop. The author was clearly implying, though, that when it came to the I.W.W., one bad apple had the power to disrupt a smooth-running shop. 

Two years later, while writing The Girl from Hollywood, Burroughs inserted a short, off-handed remark about the I.W.W. During a conversation on Rancho del Ganado, a friend of the ranch owner counseled against allowing a film company to work on the ranch. “You can’t tell anything about them,” he said. “I understand they pick up all sorts of riffraff for extra people — I.W.W.’s and all sorts of people like that. I’d be afraid.” Burroughs based Rancho del Ganado in the novel on his own Tarzana ranch, which at times he opened to movie companies. It’s possible that the passage in The Girl From Hollywood was based on his observations of Hollywood film crews. 

In Marcia of the Doorstep, written in 1924, Burroughs grew bolder in his criticism of the I.W.W. After the survivors of a shipwreck had gathered on deserted Pacific Island, Homer Ashton first explained why two of the sailors from his sunken yacht were resisting his authority on land and then went on to condemn the Wobbly leaders.

They’re both good workers but they’ve been inoculated with I.W.W. virus and are ‘agin’ the government, no matter who or what it is. Everyone who wears a white collar is an enemy of the laboring man to them — they never consider the fact that their own leaders not only wear fine linen and live off the fat of the land, but do it without labor, at the expense of the damn fools upon whose ignorance and credulity they play. Wait until the intelligent working men wake up  — the first heads they’ll lop off will be those of the flannel mouthed, paid agitators whose masters find their only hope of survival is making America a nation of bitter enemies.
The yacht’s captain also distrusted some of his sailors. “Keep your weather eye on ’em every minute, Mr. Jones,” he cautioned his mate. “If they were all regular sailors I wouldn’t worry. For a sailor’s got more horse sense than to stick his head into a halter, but these damned wobblies ain’t got any sense — their grafting agitators have taught ’em they’re the real stuff if they go to jail and little tin gods if they got hanged for mussing up the rich …” 

It seems that these passages in Burroughs’ fiction represent his personal feelings about the I.W.W., as none of them are essential to the stories in which they appear. The Efficiency Expert deals with a crooked company manager, and Burroughs’ attempt to insert a sense of worker unrest into the plot is weak and unneeded. The I.W.W. reference in The Girl From Hollywood again has no relationship to the story’s plot, which is based on drugs, Hollywood morality, and prohibition. As for Marcia of the Doorstep, Burroughs had ship-wrecked groups of characters on deserted islands in other stories without inserting worker unrest as a threat to the group’s survival. In this case, inoculating the sailors with the “I.W.W. virus” simply over-complicates the scenario.

“Cast out the American traitors and foreign agitators”
In the early 1920s Burroughs again expressed his contempt for the I.W.W. in several articles printed during the period. He spoke out openly and passionately about the danger of the I.W.W. and the communist philosophy that he felt was driving it. In Sharpless Dobson Green’s compilation, “Letters From Famous People,” published in 1925, Burroughs advised the nation’s youth to “guard their Americanism and foster their loyalty to the government.” As part of that loyalty, he implored them to help “cleanse our social fabric” of those who “foment revolution and the absolute overthrow of our government.
 “The Socialist, the I.W.W., the Bolshevist, does not hesitate to deride and threaten our most cherished ideals and forms. He ridicules any profession of love or reverence for flag or country; he attributes only the vilest motives to all whose judgment differs from his.
 “And what do many of us do? How do we answer him? We apologize for our love of country, for the reverence in which we hold the flag.
 “What we should do is meet propaganda with propaganda, agitation with agitation, and ridicule with ridicule.
In the essay, Burroughs condemned the I.W.W. and their associates in the strongest terms he had used so far against them. He implored the nation’s young men and women to proclaim their love of country just as strongly as their country’s enemies “broadcast their treasonable teachings.” He encouraged them to “demand that our colleges, our high society and our labor unions cast out the American traitors and foreign agitators who are breeding class-consciousness and class hatreds …

By the opening of the 1930s, the power of the I.W.W. had faded, but in the multitude of the Depression’s displaced workers, socialist teachings still found fertile ground. In his fiction and essays during the decade, Burroughs continued to beat the drum of caution against Russian interference in U.S. society. In Tarzan the Invincible, written in 1930, Burroughs criticized those American businessmen, who, for the sake of profit, cooperated with Russian interventionists. Early in the novel, Zora Drinov explained to fellow conspirator Miguel Romero that greedy Americans strengthened the cause of international socialism.

 “You are of the working class — you are loyal to the workers of your own country — but these others are of the capitalistic class; their government is a capitalistic government that is so opposed to our beliefs that it has never recognized our government; yet, in their greed, these swine are selling out their own kind and their own country for a few more rotten dollars.
The conspirators’ plans to bring Russian influence to Northeast Africa depended on a fleet of 200 bombers and fighter planes “made available through the greed of American capitalists.” Only the combined efforts of Tarzan, the American agent Wayne Colt, and a vengeful Zora Drinov foiled the Russian conspiracy.

In 1931 Burroughs inserted his contempt for communism and labor agitators in Pirates of Venus. Carson Napier’s parachute brought him down in Vepaja, a once widespread and prosperous nation on Venus. In the distant past, a lazy and incompetent criminal named Thor had preached a gospel of class hatred that led to a bloody revolution that overthrew the Vepajan government. A few members of the cultured class were able to escape to an uninhabited island, where they built tree cities to hide themselves from the Thorists.

In explaining how the happy and prosperous nation of Vepaja fell, Burroughs returned to the dangers of class hatred. The Thorists were able to gain a large following among the “ignorant masses,” whose common hatred of the upper class was encouraged. Of course, the prosperity of the working class evaporated once it turned ruling power over to the lazy and incompetent Thorists. The implication is that in Vepaja, as in America, everyone was happier and more prosperous with a trained governing class guiding the nation.

Later in the decade, Burroughs was no longer mentioning the I.W.W., but he still saw labor unions as one of the institutions through which communists attempted to subvert the nation. In a 1937 radio speech supporting the reelection of Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw, Burroughs warned of the continuing danger posed by the “activity of those subversive forces that have bored their way into our labor unions, our schools, and even our hospitals.

“Deep in the fiber of our being is suspicion and distruct of … Russia”

Even in the 1940s, the last decade of Burroughs’ life, he continued to preach against the dangers of communism in both his fiction and essays. In his Tarzan stories he continued to insert off-handed comments about the dangers of communism. In Tarzan and the Madman, written in 1940 (but not published until 1964), Burroughs included the following brief discussion between a Russian, Ivan Minsky, and fellow ivory poacher Tom Crump.
[Tarzan] was like all the rest of ’em,” said Minsky. “You know what they all think of us; think we’re a lot of scum and treat us like it. I hate all the damn bourgeoisie. They’re part and parcel of the capitalistic system, takin’ the bread out of workers’ mouths, grindin’ down the proletariat under the iron heel of imperialism.
Rot!” said Crump. “I aint got no use for ’em myself, but I got less use for a damned bolshie.”
“That’s because you’re a creature of capitalism,” said Minsky. “You probably even belong to a church and believe in God.
As a war correspondent in Hawaii during World War II, Burroughs wrote extensively in support of the American war effort. Even though Russia was an American ally against Germany and Japan, Burroughs was unwilling to forgive or forget the efforts of the Russian government to spread communism to the U.S. before the war. In “Whatsoever a Man Soweth,” an article printed in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1942, Burroughs acknowledged that America should do all it could physically to support Russia during the war. According to Burroughs, though, that support should have been tied to a promise. Before weapons of any kind were sent to Russia, he explained, the U.S. should have demanded that the Russian government promise that in the future it would not interfere in American politics. “Deep in the fibre of our being is suspicion and distrust of the Government of Russia,” Burroughs explained. “It is nothing of our own doing. The government of Russia, sowing deep for a quarter of a century, planted it there.

Edgar Rice Burroughs always claimed that he wrote only to entertain. In his writing, starting in 1917 and going on into the 1940s, however, Burroughs felt compelled occasionally to warn his fellow Americans about the dangers of communism. More than that, he showed a willingness to use his forum as a prominent writer to resist the efforts of communism to subvert traditional American values by infiltrating the American labor movement through the I.W.W. He certainly succeeded in his goal to entertain his readers, but his writings have some historical significance as well. They give glimpses into the philosophical struggle this nation fought against a pervasive foreign philosophy, and the great courage and intensity with which many Americans, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, spoke out against it. 

— the end —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Return of Tarzan
At the Earth’s Core
The Cave Girl
The Monster Men
The Warlord of Mars
The Mucker
The Mad King
The Eternal Lover
The Beasts of Tarzan
The Lad and the Lion
The Land That Time Forgot
The Moon Maid
The Efficiency Expert
The Girl From Hollywood
Marcia of the Doorstep
Tarzan the Invincible
Pirates of Venus
Tarzan and the Madman

"Peace and the Militia" by Edgar Rice Burroughs
"Whatsoever a Man Soweth" article by Edgar Ricee Burroughs
"ERB On The Road To Salvation Pt. 3" by RE Prindle
 "ERB and the Revolt Against Civilization" by RE Prindle

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