The McNamara Case
and the Labor Movement
by Eugene V. Debs
Published in International Socialist Review, vol. 12, no. 7 (Jan. 1912), pp. 397-401.
This article is inspired by the report I have just read in a morning
paper of a two days' conference held in Washington by the "McNa-
mara Ways and Means Committee of the American Federation of La-
bor," and telling of the cowardly and contemptible action of that
body with Samuel Gompers presiding over it, in denouncing the
McNamara brothers and exonerating themselves; and not only this,
but "expressing the satisfaction of organized labor that the culprits
have been commensurately punished for their crime"; and all of this
abject sycophancy to curry favor with the capitalist class.
It is truly a spectacle to see these national leaders of the American
Federation of Labor joining the Otises, the Posts, the Parrys, and the
Kirbys 1 in savage denunciation of their own union brethren, whose
crime consists in their having carried out the policy of Gompers craft
unionism to its logical conclusion.
The McNamara brothers, whatever else may be said of them, are
at least, in this respect, more decent and self-respecting than their
former official associates; their lips are sealed. They have accepted the
penalties imposed upon them without a word and have refused to
implicate anyone but themselves.
The acts to which the McNamaras have confessed and for which
they are now in prison I do not approve, nor does any other Socialist;
and such acts would never be committed if it were in our power to
prevent them. But realizing as I do, as a working class brother of the
1 Reference is to Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), anti-union activist and publisher of the
Los Angeles Times; C.W. Post (1854-1914), prominent food manufacturer and leading an-
tagonist of the labor movement over the Los Angeles bombing; David M. Parry (1852-1915),
President of the National Association of Manufacturers from 1902-06 and founder of the
anti-union Citizens' Industrial Association of America (CIAA); and John Kirby, Jr., industrial-
ist and activist in the "open shop" movement as a former head of the CIAA.
McNamara brothers after as well as before their confession and con-
viction, that there are mitigating circumstances of a vital nature to
take into consideration, I absolutely refuse to join in the capitalist
clamor and craft union claque of denunciation of these condemned
First of all, I am not caring what the capitalist class think of me
and I am not tempering my judgment or shaping my acts to meet
their favor. I am concerned only with what is right and what is my
duty, and the rest can take care of itself.
Admitting that the McNamaras are guilty of all they are charged
with in the way of dynamiting buildings and bridges, their acts are the
logical outcome of the impotency and hopelessness of the craft form of un-
ionism, typified by Samuel Gompers and his official associates in the
American Federation of Labor, and of which the condemned men are
faithful disciples and loyal devotees.
The McNamara brothers are not "Socialist fanatics" and "unbe-
lievers"; they had no sympathy with industrial unionism; but they
were members of the Democratic Party, and of the Catholic church,
and of the pure and simple labor union. They were active allies of
Gompers in the support of the Democratic ticket, and with their
chieftain they believed in "rewarding their friends and punishing their
And then they saw the representatives of pure and simple union-
ism kicked out of Congress and out of all the state legislatures, year
after year, under both Republican and Democratic administrations;
they saw their unions paralyzed by court injunctions; they heard the
President [Theodore Roosevelt] denounce union men as "undesirable
citizens," deserving of the gibbet; they saw governors calling out the
militia and sheriffs swearing in deputies to shoot union men dead in
their tracks for striking against famine and picketing to save their
jobs; they saw the Steel Trust crushing one union after another, dis-
charging and blacklisting their members, throwing them into jail and
putting human bloodhounds on their tracks to deprive them of em-
ployment and literally starve them and their wives and drive their
daughters into prostitution; and understanding little or nothing fo
the philosophy of the class struggle and of the enlightened methods
of working class warfare, reflected in the class-conscious movement of
the workers, based upon the unity not of the craft but of the entire
class, who shall say that these craft unionists, the McNamara broth-
ers, defeated at every turn and threatened from every side by the re-
morseless power of the trusts and the forces of government, are con-
scienceless criminals when in such a desperate extremity they resort to
the brutal methods of self-preservation which the masters and ex-
ploiters of their class have forced upon them?
As between this blind and cruel extreme and the opposite extreme
of abject and cowardly surrender, the former is infinitely preferable;
for at least the spirit of resistance to oppression, and the poverty and
misery which spring from oppression, keep the hope alive that the
horrors of slavery shall not endure forever. But for that spirit the sun
of labor, if it ever had one, had long since set in everlasting gloom,
and if unfortunately, or tragically as in the present case, that spirit is
expressed in blind ferocity and brutal revenge, at least those who are
morally responsible by having inculcated crime, should have human-
ity enough in their hearts to restrain their cruel hands from stoning
the victims and rejoicing in their calamity. If they lack the moral fiber
to avow their own responsibility and accept it as becomes men they
should at least preserve the decency of silence.
Samuel Gompers and his official associates should be the very last
to join the labor-crushing magnates of the trusts and their swarms of
mercenary hirelings in condemning the McNamara brothers and ex-
pressing satisfaction over their tragic fate. Rather should they weep in
anguish that in their moral cravenness they not only deserted their
own deluded followers, but joined their enemies in the cry to crucify
them to exculpate themselves. And here I leave them, the prey fo their
own remorse, those keen pangs will torment them in the days to
come if their hearts are not dead and their moral sensibilities turned
We Socialists are making no apology for any word or deed of ours
in the McNamara case, and as for myself personally I shall not de-
nounce them. I condemn the crime, but I pity all the victims, all of
them, the McNamaras included.
Jim McNamara said he did not intend to take life in the blowing
up of the Times. I believe him against all the corporation detectives
Jim McNamara pleaded to go to the gallows, loaded with infamy,
accepting it all to himself, to save the life of his brother. The love and
fidelity of these two brothers for each other in the shadow of the gal-
lows put to shame the spirit of those good Christians (!!!) who now
traduce them, and if the Nazarene of twenty centuries ago, who was
also crucified for opposing the rich, were here his voice would not be
heard mingling with the voices of the Pharisees in the city for their
We are not forgetting in this hour of wholesale denunciation that
the McNamaras were kidnapped; that an outrageous crime was perpe-
trated upon them, and we are not unmindful of the fact that their
kidnappers have not been and will not be punished, nor of the reason
why. We are going to see to it, moreover, that the fact is not forgot-
ten, no matter how long it may be, until that crime against the work-
ing class has also been atoned for.
We Socialists are revolutionists, not murderers; we stand for edu-
cation and organization, not assassination; and for that very reason we
are opposed to capitalism, the prolific breeder of all these revolting
Roosevelt, who morally is still in the jungle, says that "Murder is
Murder" in denouncing the McNamaras and congratulating Burns,
2 but murder is not murder when it is for capitalism, and killing is not
killing when it is for capitalist profit.
The capitalist owners of the St. Paul mine at Cherry, 111., buried
nearly 300 miners two years ago, some of them surviving for over a
week. Compared with this heart-breaking catastrophe the Los Angeles
Times affair pales into insignificance, but this is not murder. The
coroner's jury fixed the responsibility upon the capitalists, but they
are not guilty of crime.
The capitalist proprietors of the Bayless mill at Austin, Pa., as de-
liberately killed their employees in the dam disaster there, according
to the coroner's inquest, as if they had placed dynamite under the
hovels, but this is not murder, and not one of them will be punished.
The capitalist mine owners of Pennsylvania had the sheriff and his
deputies massacre a body of miners who were marching peaceably
along the road near Latimer, with an American flag at the head of
their procession, but this is not murder.
Under the ethical code of capitalism the slaying of workingmen
who resist capitalism is not murder, and as a workingman I absolutely
refuse to condemn men as murderers under the moral code of the
capitalist state for fighting according to their light on the side of the
2 Reference is to William J. Burns (1861-1932), head of the William J. Burns International
Detective Agency, hired by the city of Los Angeles to investigate the October 1, 1910 bomb-
ing of the Los Angeles Times building.
If the McNamara brothers had been corporation detectives and
had shot dead 21 inoffensive union pickets, instead of placing dyna-
mite under the Los Angeles Times, they would have been protected by
the law and hailed by admiring capitalists as heroes.
I utterly abhor murder, but I have my own ideas as to what con-
stitutes murder. John Brown was an atrocious murderer in the eyes of
the slave power, but today he is one of the greatest heroes of history.
Sherman blew up and otherwise destroyed all the property within his
reach, killed indiscriminately, and spread desolation and despair all
the way from Atlanta to the sea, but he was a hero and not a mur-
Do the capitalists ever rave and tear their hair over killings com-
mitted by them, or their mercenaries, in their interests and for their
Does an Otis ever howl with rage when workingmen are buried
alive or blown to atoms in a mine through the criminal greed of their
It is only when a killing interferes with their piracies that it is
murder. All their tender sensibilities are then aroused and in frenzied
concert they cry about "the law" and invoke all its terrors to glut their
I have not changed my mind about the theory that the dynamit-
ing of the Los Angeles Times was instigated by the capitalists them-
selves. I am convinced that all these dynamiting crimes had their in-
spiration in capitalist sources and their genesis in capitalist camps. I
have many reasons for this which time and space will not now permit
me to fully set forth. I can but suggest a few of these, which to most
of the readers of the Review are sufficient in their suggestiveness;
First, the war of the Steel Trust on all the iron and steel workers'
unions and the declaration of [J. P.} Morgan that the unions had to be
Second, the fate of the Amalgamated Association, the Lake Sea-
man's Union, and others which were crushed beneath the iron heel of
Third, the joining of these unions by the police spies and detec-
tives of the Steel Trust, such as McManigal, who was permitted to
continue his career of crime for three years without being appre-
hended, and if the whole truth were known it would be found that
McManigal, the corporation hireling, who will be cleared, if tried at
all, is far more guilty than the McNamaras and led them into crime
instead of being their dupe. 3
Fourth, the fight between the Erectors' Association and the inde-
pendent contractors. When the Whiskey Trust was organized the war
raged fiercely between the trust and the independents and a number
of distilleries were blown up with dynamite for the same reason that
incited the war of the nightriders in the tobacco growing states of the
Certain it is that Otis and his Merchants' and Manufacturers' As-
sociation who had sworn to wipe organized labor from the Pacific
coast had everything to gain and nothing to lose by blowing up the
Los Angeles Times, while organized labor had everything to lose and
nothing to gain from this and similar outrages.
But even if Otis and his union-wrecking pals were totally inno-
cent of any direct connection with the crime, it would still be the
fruit of their own mad policy and the responsibility for it will finally
lodge upon their own heads. The Times explosion was one of the
echoes of Otis's declaration of war of extermination, one of the an-
swers, sharp and fatal, to his tyrannical pronunciamento against un-
ion labor. It was also an answer, and not the last, to government by
injunction, anti-picketing ordinances, and other capitalist devices to
stay the march of organized labor and keep the workers in bondage. It
was likewise an answer to federal court decisions legalizing the kid-
napping and blacklisting of workingmen at the command of their
And now a word to those who over their champagne and in sleep-
ing cars and at the clubs and other cozy places, with their stomachs
well filled, are demanding that we join them in denouncing the
McNamaras "to rid organized labor of its enemies." If the McNama-
ras had really been the enemies of organized labor this gentry would
not condemn them and they would not now be in prison.
But there are some who are conscientious and who really feel that
we ought to howl with the capitalist press against the McNamaras "to
clear the skirts of the labor movement," and to these we want to say
3 Ortie E. McManigal, a member of the International Association of Bridge and Structural
Iron Workers, admitted to having conducted previous terrorist activities on behalf of the
union and confessed to complicity in the Los Angeles Times bombing on April 14, 1911.
McManigal turned state's evidence in the Times case and his testimony was instrumental in
securing guilty pleas from the McNamara brothers in their highly publicized 1911 trial.
McManigal eventually served a prison term of 2-1/2 years for his activities in the Times
that before they are qualified to condemn the McNamaras they must
put themselves in their places. The McNamaras were reared as wage-
workers in the capitalist system, they were never taught in the deli-
cacy and refinement of things. Life to them has been a struggle in
which they and their class have always gotten the worst of it.
Who of those who are so fierce and relentless in condemning
John McNamara would dare to serve as a structural iron worker, sus-
pended in midair on a swinging beam, for a single day?
It is impossible for these people to known the psychology of the
worker who is compelled to risk his life every minute of the day to
provide for his wife and loved ones.
Every skyscraper is built at the sacrifice of an average of one struc-
tural worker for every floor in it.
This worker joins the union to better his condition and he finds
that it is a crime to be a union man. His union is attacked, he is dis-
charged, put upon the blacklist and hounded from place to place un-
til he is an outcast and in rags. His little home is broken up, his fam-
ily is scattered, and possibly the daughter he loved with all his honest
heart is in a house of shame.
Have you, my friend, had these experiences, or any of them? If
not, you are not qualified to sit in judgment upon men who have
been driven to these cruel extremities and forced down to these infer-
nal depths as thousands of honest men have been and thousands
more will be in the class war that is being waged with increasing bit-
terness and intensity all over the civilized world.
The less of the McNamara tragedy will not be lost upon the
American workers. It will be one more experience added to the many
they already have and all of which are necessary to clarify their vision,
increase their knowledge, and strengthen their determination to put
an end to the system in which classes war on each other to death and
destruction, and workingmen are imprisoned and hanged for crimes
of which they are only the blind and deluded victims.
In closing I want to express my satisfaction that the lives of the
McNamara brothers have been saved. For this neither praise nor cen-
sure is due to the capitalist class. The self-confessed dynamiters owe
their lives to the Socialist movement. The American Federation of
Labor did not save them.
Had it not been for the menace to the Otises of the impending
Socialist political conquest of Los Angeles both the McNamaras
would have been sentenced to the gallows. As to this, there is no
shadow of doubt.
There is in this incident food for reflection for those who sneer at
political action and decry the political power of the working class.
If the McNamara case teaches us anything it is that we must or-
ganize along both economic and political lines, that we must unite in
the same union and fight together, and in the same party and vote to-
gether, and stick unflinchingly to that program, growing stronger
through defeat as well as victory, until at last the triumphant hosts of
labor crown the final class struggle with the glory of emancipation.
Edited with footnotes by Tim Davenport
1000 Flowers Publishing, Corvallis, OR • March 2012 • Non-commercial reproduction permitted.