Criminal Syndicalism comes to Harlan, KY

Posted by | November 15, 2017
In November 1931, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, well known author Theodore Dreiser organized a special committee to infiltrate Kentucky’s Harlan coal mines to investigate allegations of crimes and abuses against striking miners. The self-appointed group of left-leaning writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.

Though many miners welcomed the Dreiser Committee’s interest in their plight, others in the community perceived the group of writers as Communist intruders. It should be noted that during this period, the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.

Dreiser’s life was threatened for calling attention to the matter. Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and others on the “Dreiser Committee,” as it was called, were indicted by the Bell County Grand Jury for criminal syndicalism, and a warrant was issued for Dreiser’s arrest.


“It is characteristic of our whole American attitude just now,” said Mr. [Sherwood] Anderson. We are a speakeasy country. Liberal thinking is strictly private almost everywhere. That is what makes me glad for Theodore Dreiser. He and those other people have had the nerve and the manhood to go down there into Kentucky, where there is apparently a reign of terror. They went openly, and only after other men and women had refused to go. Mr. Dreiser wanted to call public attention to what was going on. He wanted truth. And then too, he spoke out loud in a speakeasy country. He said in public what millions of Americans think in private. For that he is accused of criminal syndicalism.”
–NY Times, Dec 7, 1931


Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, said he would grant Dreiser an open hearing, and John W. Davis agreed to defend the Committee. Due to widespread publicity and public sentiment, however, all formal charges against Dreiser and the Committee were dropped.


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