Not long ago, a good friend and fellow organizer made the statement, “Sadly, most people that align themselves with the movement are not interested in doing the Jimmie Higgins work.”
“What in the hell is Jimmie Higgins work,” I asked?
He replied, “You know, the unromantic side of organizing.”
I did some research and found an obscure book by Upton Sinclair from 1919 titled “Jimmie Higgins.” Though nowhere near as famous as “The Jungle,” ” Oil!,” or “King Coal,” it is arguably more relevant.
Comrade Jimmie Higgins, the protagonist, is a member of the Socialist party. He works various working-class jobs, struggling to keep his family out of poverty. He understands the value of effort, especially the seemingly mundane.
Each chapter is nothing short of a parable on organizing, complete with parabolic titles like Jimmie Higgins Debates the Issue or Jimmie Higgins Faces the War.
For example, Sinclair writes, “He was not one of the speakers, of course – he would have been terrified at the idea of making a speech; but he was one of those whose labor made the speaking possible, and who reaped the harvest for the movement.”
Jimmie Higgins is a riveting window to a time in history – during World War I – when sadly nationalist sentiments divided the world’s socialist movement. It also paints an accurate description of labor organizing before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
As much as I enjoyed Sinclair’s book, within lies a truth abandoned by the socialist movement during the New Left years of the 1960s: that ‘Jimmie Higgins work’ is what truly wins victories in the struggle for democracy, equality, peace, jobs and socialism.
No one likes phone banking or signature gathering or door knocking.
Personally, I would rather make a healthy financial donation if it will get me out of phone banking. However, these tedious, non-romantic, mundane endeavors are the bedrock of building a movement.
When we are young in the movement, many of us have starry-eyed dreams of addressing throngs of factory workers or entertain visions of sailors in study groups reading pamphlets, etc.
Soon, one of two things happens. We retract these pipe dreams of admiration and get into the grunt work, the Jimmie Higgins work, or we never learn that ego and privilege often drive these visions and we split from established grassroots, movement-based organizations and form go-nowhere cliques and continue dreaming.
Michael Parenti, in his book “Black Shirts and Reds,” declares one of the most difficult struggles of Communist Parties in Eastern Europe was “convincing the next generation of workers that pushing a button in a factory was winning the revolution.”
However, in “Jimmie Higgins,” Sinclair makes an excellent case about how important allegorical button-pushing is to the overall movement.
The downfall of this book is the ending, where Higgins loses his sanity in a military prison.
In my opinion, a collection of parables does not need an ending because the argument could be made that there is no beginning or middle. The value of “Jimmie Higgins” rests not in the plot. Rather, it can act as a guide for activists – those who struggle to continue, who do the arduous thankless tasks that make our movement possible.
By Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Available in new and used paperback and hard cover editions, NOOK (e-Book), and The Project Gutenberg EBook.