I want to take a moment and treat two famous quotes from figures in the history of the U.S. labor movement as sort of aphorisms.

Joe Hill is famously quoted, “Don’t mourn, organize.” Mother Jones, on the other hand, is quoted “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.” Hill and Jones agree on what they would like people to do about problems in the present, assuming “organize” and “fight like hell” are synonyms. It’s not clear if they agreed or nto about mourning. It’s implausible that Hill meant “never mourn.” It’s more likely that Hill was referring to how he wanted people to respond to his own execution by the state of Utah, that he didn’t want the mourning of his death and memory of his life to impede “fight[ing] like hell,” to use Jones’ phrase.

What is further unclear is the function of mourning as expressed in these two quotes. Let me offer a provisional definition of mourning, perhaps too broad for other uses. Let’s say mourning is the emotionally charged recall of some incident(s) of death and injury which took place in the lifetime of the mourners and which the mourners had some experience of or affective tie to. On this definition, mourning is a subcategory of memory, and is a collective activity. The two quotes suggest that mourning is not organizing. This is reasonable, in that clearly some mourning is not organizing and some organizing is not mourning.

Ralph Chaplin’s poem “November” suggests some tie between mourning and organizing or at least the motivation to organize. Chaplin writes of “Labor’s martyrs, Labor’s heroes, Labor’s dead” and asks, “Who are we not to remember?” The poem refers to “the pledge we made,” and exhorts the collective implied in the pronoun ‘we’ to remember that pledge and remember the evoked dead “until the fight is ended, (…) until the debt is paid.” (Big Red Songbook, 256.) The final phrase of the poem, “until the debt is paid,” posits a tie between the past events to be mourned as unjust. The line further proclaims the existence of a future moment of restitution, presumably tied to Chaplin’s vision of a new society a “Commonwealth of Toil.” (Big Red Songbook, 198.) Chaplin’s poem’s link between mourned past and hoped-for future suggests more of a tie between mourning the past and acting in the present than in the Hill and Jones quotes. [This relates to Benjamin’s remark in his 12th thesis on the philosophy of history that “the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.” This knowledge is part of “the sinews of [the working class’s] greatest strength,” one of which is “its hatred,” which is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”]


[This is a bit of preliminary stuff to get wheels turning in my head about a topic I really want to think more about (I’m like a hermit crab, approaching a point by lateral motion), which is the representation of injury, particularly fatal injury as evidence of the destruction of persons, among workers’ and radical movements in the US pre-WWI. What use did images of Wesley Everest and Frank Little have, for instance, or descriptions of women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire? I’m particularly interested in looking at these representations from a gendered standpoint. Little’s murderers certainly intended to make a point with his lynching and the way they carried it out, as did Zane Grey in his approving and only thinly fictionalized account of the murder.]