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When Did Mother Jones Go All in for Labor?

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It’s May Day, a holiday celebrated by leftists all over the world. In Venezuela, a leftist government is starving its citizens and shooting the complainers. In Russia, a country that was once the epicenter of violent socialist revolution, a May Day celebration is held, but the real activity is centered around preparations for the May 9 parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

The United States has never had a strong socialist movement, and it’s better off because of it, but individuals in this country have long taken advantage of the freedom found here to pursue leftist causes. Mary “Mother” Harris Jones is one such individual. This is her story.

Jones was born into a Catholic farming family in Ireland that had to flee the Emerald Isle due to the famine. The Harris family first tried to eek out a living in the United States, but found life to be too hard, so the family moved to Canada. The Canadian experience proved to be a brutal one for a woman who would become one of the American Left’s most beloved icons. Anti-Catholic hostility was rampant (Canada was still a part of the British Empire at the time) and anti-immigration sentiment was at an all-time high.

Mother Jones migrated back to the U.S. in 1859, to Michigan, and then drifted into Chicago before moving to Memphis. Mary Harris married a labor organizer in Memphis in 1861, and bore him four children. Her husband and all four children died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867.

Jones then left Memphis for good and moved back to Chicago, where she continued to emulate bourgeois values by starting a small business (Jones was a homemaker in Memphis; her husband, George Jones, made enough money to support Mary and all four children). Business was good until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed her business and her home.

Crazy, right? It gets crazier.

Mother Jones became involved with the Knights of Labor while helping to rebuild the city of Chicago. The Knights of Labor, an anti-Asian, anti-immigrant (but pro-Catholic) labor union that was involved in the Haymarket Riot, was one of the most powerful organizations in the United States in the late 19th century. The Haymarket Riot doomed its prospects in Chicago, though, and Mother Jones was one of many to abandon the union.

Mother Jones had a particular brand of labor activism that has never sat well with the Leftist aristocracy. She was a staunch Christian and argued that better wages would allow women to stay home with the children, and that women’s suffrage was secondary to class struggle.

But why did Mother Jones go all in for labor? None of her biographers really ask or answer this question, and I certainly cannot do much more than offer some idle speculation: anti-immigrant bigotry drove Jones and others like her into the ideological arms of socialists. If I am correct, and I usually am, then the history of Mother Jones, and socialism in America, has much to teach us about our polarized society today.

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