Le mythe Sacco-Vanzetti (Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?)

Therefore, I, Michael S. Dukakis, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts … hereby proclaim Tuesday, August 23, 1977, « NICOLA SACCO AND BARTOLOMEO VANZETTI MEMORIAL DAY »; and declare, further, that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from the names of their families and descendants, and so … call upon all the people of Massachusetts to pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires. Michael S. Dukakis
It is hard to explain, harder no doubt for a new generation to understand, how the « intellectuals » and « artists » in our country leaped with such abandoned, fanatic credulity into the Russian hell-on-earth of 1920. They quoted the stale catchphrases and slogans. They were lifted to starry patriotism by the fraudulent Communist organization called the Lincoln Brigade. The holy name was a charm which insured safety and victory. The bullet struck your Bible instead of your heart. Katherine Ann Porter

Reprenant, en ce 29e anniversaire du Sacco-Vanzetti Memorial Day, notre exploration de l’antiaméricanisme renaissant, il nous faut naturellement revenir, après le grand sommet dans les années 50 de l’Affaire Rosenberg, au véritable mythe fondateur que fut 20 ans plus tôt l’exécution des célèbres anarchistes italo-américains.

Même mythique erreur judiciaire (tout comme Julius Rosenberg, Nicola Sacco était réellement coupable et, à l’instar d’Ethel Rosenberg, Bartoloemeo Vanzetti aurait préféré se sacrifier plutôt que de parler). Même aveugle conviction (jusqu’à aujourd’hui !) de l’intelligentsia américaine et internationale de leur innocence (de Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos et Upton Sinclair aux Etats-Unis à George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells et Bertrand Russel en Grande-Bretagne). Et surtout même campagne mondiale de désinformation orchestrée par les services secrets soviétiques qui avaient déjà largement infiltré les milieux intellectuels américains, provoquant en cascade toute une série de mouvements de masse en Europe (émeutes à Londres et en Allemagne, bombe à l’Ambassade américaine à Paris, etc.).

D’où l’intérêt du récit (repris par l’historien américain Stephen Koch) de ce véritable acte de naissance de la pensée de gauche américaine (son Affaire Dreyfus en quelque sorte) que fit, 50 ans après et dans le magazine the Atlantic, Ia grande dame des lettres américaines Katherine Anne Porter.

Surtout que pour elle ce fut à la fois sa première et… dernière grande expérience de militante de gauche:

Extraits :

It is hard to explain, harder no doubt for a new generation to understand, how the « intellectuals » and « artists » in our country leaped with such abandoned, fanatic credulity into the Russian hell-on-earth of 1920. They quoted the stale catchphrases and slogans. They were lifted to starry patriotism by the fraudulent Communist organization called the Lincoln Brigade. The holy name was a charm which insured safety and victory. The bullet struck your Bible instead of your heart.


« For me and others like me, the Kremlin meant the Third Internationale and this meant the organization of the ‘workers of the world’ to vindicate their human rights against everything we hated in contemporary society. » Edmund Wilson wrote that, as well and clearly expressed as it has been until now.

« I have seen the future and it works. » Lincoln Steffens is reported to have said this, though it has been much denied.


It was some time later that afternoon when we were discussing world events, and all of us wanted to know how in the world Russian people could survive the latest disaster to their government, and he said: « All progress takes its toll in human life. Russia is the coming power of the world. I have seen the future and it works. » So much for that. No matter how sad it may seem now, Mr. Steffens said it then, jovially, but in earnest. I wrote it down word for word, then and there, in my notebook.

My group was headed by Rosa Baron, a dry, fanatical little woman who wore thick-lensed spectacles over her blue, accusing eyes–a born whip hand, who talked an almost impenetrable jargon of party dogma. Her « approach » to every « question » (and everything was a question) was « purely dialectical. » Phrases such as « capitalistic imperialism, » « bourgeois morality, » « slave mentality, » « the dictatorship of the proletariat, » « the historical imperative » (meaning more or less, I gathered, that history makes man and not the other way around), « the triumph of the workers, » « social consciousness, » and « political illiteracy » flew from her dry lips all day long. She viewed a « political illiterate » as a conventional mind might a person of those long-ago days born out of wedlock; an unfortunate condition, but reprehensible and without remedy even for its victim. Conservative was only a slightly less pejorative term than Reactionary, and as for Liberal, it was a dirty word, quite often linked in speech with other vaguely descriptive words, even dirtier, if possible. There were many such groups, for this demonstration had been agitated for and prepared for many years by the Communists. They had not originated the protest, I believe, but had joined in and tried to take over, as their policy was, and is. Their presence created the same confusion, beclouding the issue and discrediting the case as it always had done and as they intended it to do. It appeared in its true form and on its most disastrous scale in Spain later. They were well organized to promote disorder and to prevent any question ever being settled–but I had not then discovered this; I remarked to our Communist leader that even then, at that late time, I still hoped the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti might be saved and that they would be granted another trial. « Saved, » she said, ringing a change on her favorite answer to political illiteracy, « who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive? »

I was another of those bourgeois liberals who got in the way of serious business, yet we were needed, by the thousands if possible, for this great agitation must be made to appear to be a spontaneous uprising of the American people, and for practical reasons, the more non-Communists, the better. They were all sentimental bleeders, easily impressed.


Lenin was known to think little of people who let their human feelings for decency get in the way of the revolution which was to save mankind: he spoke contemptuously of the « saints » who kept getting underfoot; he had only harsh words for those « weak sisters » who flew off the « locomotive of history » every time it rounded a sharp curve. History was whatever was happening in Russia, and the weak sisters, who sometimes called themselves « fellow travelers » were perhaps, many of them, jolted by the collision with what appeared to be a dream of the ideal society come true, dazzled by the bright colors of a false dawn.

I flew off Lenin’s locomotive and his vision of history in a wide arc in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1927; it was two days before the putting to death of Sacco and Vanzetti, to the great ideological satisfaction of the Communist-headed group with which I had gone up to Boston. It was exactly what they had hoped for and predicted from the first; another injustice of the iniquitous capitalistic system against the working class.

Toasts were drunk at parties « To the Red Dawn »–a very pretty image indeed. « See you on the barricades! » friends would say at the end of an evening of dancing in Harlem. Nobody thought any of this strange; in those days the confusion on this subject by true believers, though not great, was not quite so bad and certainly not so sinister as it is now. It was not then subversive to associate with Communists, nor even treasonable to belong to the Communist Party. It is true that Communists, or a lot of people who thought themselves Communists–and it is astonishing how many of them have right-about-faced since they got a look at the real thing in action–held loud meetings in Union Square, and they often managed to get a few heads cracked by the police–all the better! Just the proof they needed of the brutalities of the American Gestapo. On the other hand, they could gather thousands of « sympathizers » of every shade of political and religious belief and every known nationality and carry off great May Day parades peaceably under police protection. The innocent fellow travelers of this country were kept in a state of excited philanthropy by carefully planted stories of the struggle that the great Russian reformers were having against local rebellious peasants, blasted crops, and plagues of various kinds, bringing the government almost to starvation. Our fellow travelers picketed, rebuking our government for failure to send food and other necessaries to aid the great cause in that courageous country. I do not dare say that our government responded to these childish appeals, but tons upon tons of good winter wheat and other supplies were sent in fabulous quantities. It turned out that the threatened famine took place there–it was real–under orders from Lenin, who directed a great famine or an occasional massacre by way of bringing dissidence under the yoke, and I remember one blood-curdling sentence from a letter of his to a subordinate, directing him to conduct a certain massacre as « a model of mercilessness. »

What struck me later was that I had already met and talked to refugees from Russia in Mexico who had got out with their lives and never ceased to be amazed at it. In New York I saw picketing in Times Square and Wall Street, solemn placard-carrying processions of second-generation descendants of those desolate, ragged, hopeful people who had landed on Ellis Island from almost every country in the West, escaping from the dreadful fates now being suffered by their blood kin in Russia and other parts of the world. Not one of them apparently could see that the starvation and disease and utter misery were brought on methodically and most successfully for the best of political and economic reasons without any help from us, while the Party was being fed richly with our wheat.

Then there was AMTORG, headquartered in New York, managed by a Russian Jewish businessman of the cold steel variety, advertised as a perfectly legal business organization for honest, aboveboard trade with the Soviets.

There was ROSTA (later TASS), the official Russian news agency and propaganda center in America, run by an American citizen, Kenneth Durant, who enjoyed perfect immunity in every Red scare of the period when dozens of suspects were arrested–not he. I assisted the editor of ROSTA for a short time and I know the subsidy was small, though the agency was accused of enjoying floods of « Moscow gold. » If this was so, I don’t know where it went. The editor claimed that Moscow gold was passed out at the rate of $75.00 a week for salaries (he took $50.00 and gave me $25.00). A perennial candidate for President of the United States popped up every four years regularly on the Communist ticket–an honest man. I knew nothing of his private politics, but his public life was admirable and his doctrine was pure Christian theory.

Once on the picket line, I took a good look at the crowd moving slowly forward. I wouldn’t have expected to see some of them on the same street, much less the same picket line and in the same jail. I knew very few people in that first picket line, but I remember Lola Ridge, John Dos Passos, Paxton Hibben, Michael Gold, Helen O’Lochlain Crowe, James Rorty, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willie Gropper, Grace Lumpkin, all very well known then and mostly favorably–most of them have vanished, and I wonder who but me is alive to remember them now? I have a strangely tender memory of them all, as well as the faces of strangers who were being led away by the police.

We were as miscellaneous, improbable, almost entirely unassorted a gathering of people to one place in one cause as ever happened in this country. I say almost because among the pickets I did not see anyone identifiably a workingman, or « proletarian, » as our Marxist « dialecticians » insisted on calling everybody who worked for his living in a factory, or as they said, « sweatshop, » or « slave mill, » or « salt mine. » It is true that these were workdays and maybe all the workingmen were at their jobs. Suppose one of them said to his boss, « I want a day off, with pay, to picket for Sacco and Vanzetti. » He would be free to picket at his leisure from then on, no doubt. There were plenty of people of the working class there, but they had risen in the world and had become professional paid proletarians, recruits to the intelligentsia, dabbling in ideas as editors, lawyers, agitators, writers who dressed and behaved and looked quite a lot like the bourgeoisie they were out to annihilate. What a vocabulary–proletarian, intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, dialectic–pure exotics transplanted from the never-never-land of the theoretically classless society which could not take root and finally withered on the stalk. Yet, they had three classes of their own and were drawing the lines shrewdly. During that time I went to a meeting of radicals of all kinds and shades, most of them workers, but not all by any means; and Michael Gold made a speech and kept repeating: « Stick to your class, damn it, stick to your class. » It struck me as being such good advice that I decided to take it and tiptoed out the way one leaves church before the end.

The Never-Ending Wrong
Katherine Anne Porter
The Atlantic Monthly
June 1977

Source illustrations:
1) détail mosaïque de Ben Shahn, Syracuse University
2) affiche française, 1924
3) dernière déclaration de Vanzetti, Ben Shahn

traduction française: Si cette chose n’était pas arrivée, j’aurais passé toute ma vie à parler au coin des rues à des hommes méprisants. J’aurais pu mourir inconnu, ignoré : un raté. Ceci est notre carrière et notre triomphe. Jamais, dans toute notre vie, nous n’aurions pu espérer faire pour la tolérance, pour la justice, pour la compréhension mutuelle des hommes, ce que nous faisons aujourd’hui par hasard. Nos paroles, nos vies, nos souffrances ne sont rien. Mais qu’on nous prenne nos vies, vies d’un bon cordonnier et d’un pauvre cœur de poisson, c’est cela qui est tout ! Ce dernier moment est le nôtre. Cette agonie est notre triomphe. (réponse de Vanzetti au juge Thayer le 9 avril 1927)

One Response to Le mythe Sacco-Vanzetti (Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?)

  1. […] beaucoup plus récemment après les grandes « peurs rouges » des années 20 et 50 provoquées par les campagnes de subversion soviétiques, les accusations de maltraitances […]


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