The Bees (1930)

by Paul Mattick

Sam was on strike. More than one coal mine was at a standstill. Eleven thousand men had been on strike for weeks on end. Now Sam could stay at home during the day and play with his kids. He had seven of them, and his wife was pregnant with the eighth.

Sam spent the last beautiful days of autumn sitting on his butt in the grass in front of his house. The neighbours came over, they played cards, and the children buzzed around. Sam didn’t talk much, and if he really had something to say, he would first take both hands and stroke his black, seal-like beard, smile, and only then, deliberately and seriously, would he permit a few words that merely hinted at what was running through his mind. He never revealed what he really wanted to say.

Sam was a miner, and he looked like one. The coal dust had settled into his pores, and working in the shaft for twenty years had straightened out his spine. His small grey eyes lay deep in the shadow of their sockets, and though they sought nothing, rarely looked up. They peered sleepily into his little world.

Sam chewed on his cigar and waited on the food. With one eye he watched the tykes, and sometimes he had to laugh. Harvey had wet his new trousers; Sam crinkled his forehead even more than usual, causing his hat to slide up. “You little pig, mother’s gonna’ tan your hide.” He grabbed the whining brat and felt the damp spot, hoping it wasn’t too wet to dry on its own. Then there was more crying. Little Mae had got caught in the bicycle chain and Sam could not get her to be quiet. By the time her mother appeared in the doorway of the lopsided clapboard house with her square face and dirty apron upon which she repeatedly wiped her wet hands and announced that dinner was ready in a voice even louder than the crying from the children, Sam was faced with rounding up all his brats, something only possible by uttering the most terrible threats. It was even harder to keep order, as Sam put it, at the dinner table. It would have been nighttime before all seven of them had time to wash up at the single water spigot. It was impossible to stop them from grabbing the potatoes and bread with dirty hands.

Sam got annoyed any time there were guests in the flat. He would slap the children’s fingers repeatedly, self-righteous as if swatting flies. Afternoons after dinner were his alone, the best part of the day. That was “his”, and he drank “one”. He could drink quite a lot before he’d get shaky. Then he’d start to lick his beard more often, twirl it in his fingers, and speak more fluently. On Sundays, his wife always had company. She belonged to an evangelical congregation that had not yet managed to build a church and so had to gather in the homes of its members. The pastor always found a topic. He would pose questions such as “Are the apostles still with us?” or “What is a soul?” People would blush and guess sheepishly, stammering softly and anxiously divine inspirations. A pasty-looking, bug-eyed older woman with only a few blackened teeth guessed “Blood.” A tired-looking boy, partly bald already, ventured “Heart” with lowered eyes and knees clamped ever tighter together. “No, it’s not any of those things,” sermonised the preacher, looking skyward but still not explaining anything.

Sam had nothing to do with any of this. Oh, women’s nonsense! He couldn’t help it if Harvey peed in his new trousers, and he couldn’t help it if his wife was evangelistic. She washed and kept the house clean, and that was all he needed her to do. He didn’t believe in such phantasms, but he didn’t see why he should let it bother him either. Without bitterness and without laughter, already half gone, he sometimes listened, and when asked about life after death, he answered calmly and surely: “A person who is dead no longer lives. Once you are gone, you will not return.” Then he drank “one” more to emphasise his point and stretched out on the floor out of caution, since he had fallen accidently once before. The children waited for this moment; Sam had become their giant toy. The little ones threw themselves on him, trimmed his beard, brushed his hair, climbed atop him like a hill, together rolled him on his side, balanced on his legs, and often fell asleep in his arms once he stopped moving.

As it grew dark during the long, eternal evenings and he was overcome by anxiety about the next day, Sam took his children to visit Frank. Frank, a foundry worker, lived just two streets over. He brewed a good beer and was very friendly as long as you didn’t ask for more than that.

Sam knocked; the door was always locked. He waited, listened, hoped. The children kept silent, as they had been told, holding their breath and sniffling. They didn’t have any tissues and had not yet learned to use their fingers to clear their sinuses. They had watched in awe each time Sam did so, but it was too hard to imitate; his method remained a mystery to them. No matter how often they tried, they always hit the tips of their boots; it was better to leave matters where they were. “You’ll never learn,” Sam grumbled, pointing to the sleeves of their jackets.

Frank was not at home. His heavyset wife came to the door and said something. She did not have children and did not like them either. They only make life harder. They bring dirt into the house, are always hungry, pull the glass beads off the floor lamp, and cannot sit still.

“Is that all of them?” she asked Sam with a smile, though her eyes remained aloof. “Yes, slowly they’re growing up. Elfriede will start school soon. How old is the youngest now? Oh? –– on the way.” This time she laughed out loud and narrowed her eyes. Sam began to speak after each question, but was in no rush to answer. He stroked his moustache. His small, animated eyes followed his brood with affection, his eyes brightly-lit and all-seeing, like a spotlight flitting here and there, focusing on each one for a few seconds. His eyes took on the appearance of children’s eyes that glance blissfully at birthday presents one last time before heading to sleep, where dreams will make them larger than life.

Then Sam laughed, though it looked as if he had swallowed the laughter, since it made no sound and his throat danced as he did so. His face was prepared to see something quite glorious, something you have to let sink in before you can speak about it. He began to speak, but only to himself, reciting a poem, happily, tearfully, expressed more by facial expressions than in words. He hummed a harsh-sounding word, which both warmed and chilled your heart if one had an ear for it. “Like bees,” and again more cheerfully, “like bees!” The woman laughed, but her eyes did not change.

Winter descended on the strikers, and Sam had less time to spend with his bees. He gathered wood to keep the house warm and went to the IWW hall more often to get support1. Some hundred thousand Sams had joined in. The strike had been extended, and only one pit was still working. Workers from other trades, districts, and states sent money and clothes. Solidarity expressed itself as it could, but it was not yet strong enough to bring about a settlement or victory.

A hundred thousand was enough for the bourgeoisie to take notice. Rockefeller’s goons did the dirty work. They did everything to prevent the strike from spreading further. They protected the strikebreakers, brought in new ones, and exercised their power under the stars and stripes as they guarded the pits. Machine guns were positioned at the pit entrances and at the crossroads leading up to them. Attack aircraft hovered above and terrified the picketers. Boxes of tear gas lay stacked in the offices of the administrative buildings, and snipers waited for work and honour.

The IWW hall had been stormed and looted a few times already. A striker and a fifteen-year-old boy who were staying in the rooms had been beaten to death like rats. To justify the murder, someone had placed cudgels in the rigid hands of the dead. On the streets, the strikebreakers had ample opportunities to test the elasticity of their rubber truncheons on proletarian skulls. Strike leaders were arrested wherever they could be found, but new comrades kept coming from other cities to take their place.

The majority of the strikers stuck closely together. They ate together, and slept in the halls’ common quarters. There was only one thing on their minds: the strike. No debate took place without it. The masses were in struggle, and keeping this mass together was the primary consideration for the militants. Only a negligible number of the miners had anything like class consciousness; the majority among them consisted of Sams, people so beaten down that they had lost the desire to struggle. They had enough to take care of on their own. Work, even the hardest work, seemed inviolable to them—like a law of nature; fatigue had made them batty. “Home, sweet Home” stood on their front doors, even though the doors hung crooked on their hinges and were patched with cardboard.

The “bees" brought them back down-to-earth. Whether they wanted to or not, they had to live for them, and thus they wanted to. Each had his own cage, and when the Sams left home, they weren’t alone. Wherever they were, the group stuck together, as if trapped.

The strikers were Spanish, Italian, Greek, Polish, German, English, and African-American. Having come from many countries, having travelled thousands of miles, they were stuck in the pits. They had married because they did not want to seem like the women who turned out the lights and hung from the windows, or like their little girls who cut their fingers on tins of food, ate until they were full, and then ran away. They wanted most of all to come home, loosen their shoelaces, and sit in a chair that was theirs alone. Because the women were so incredibly fertile, the bees followed, each time easier than the last. The bees were there every evening and all-day Sunday; they got sick and got well again, died or were maimed. But one thing was clear, they forced the Sams to deal with them. They ate, tore their clothes, or grew out of them; and things so costly in terms of money and worry become the basis for your life and dreams.

Your back becomes hunched, and your legs ache in rainy weather. You get tired and fall asleep over the newspaper, until finally you cancel the subscription. If you close your eyes, stretch your legs, and let your head sink, you can count the years until your wife comes and chases you to bed. Fred will soon be an adult; by Easter, Anny will have finished school; in another year, Bill can get a job––soon, things will get easier!

It was difficult enough to make you groan and imagine that you wouldn’t be able to survive the grind. Every so often you might lash out, but afterwards you were ashamed and broke down in tears. The day disappeared, the free time flew by, and sleep stole your consciousness. All of a sudden you snapped out of it. You woke up in the mornings like a robot and never came in too late. You had your special place at the table, where everyone knew that’s where dad sat. You cut the meat, saving the biggest piece for yourself, and let the children clean your boots in the evening.

The years went by. A year has only fifty days for a worker. Frugal Sundays at the rabbit hutch behind the house, and a bit of grooming in a good establishment with a bug-infested sofa. A little love and a little chit-chat, with bone-thin and fat women alike with wet hands and messy hair, talking away and saying nothing. You only felt human at the barbershop. He was the only one who still took pride in how he looked and thought it fitting to slick down his hair on Sunday. The Sams of the world still had a few cents’ leftover for entertaining and cared what people thought of them.

“Is it going to be cold, Frank?” – “Who do you think will be elected president?”

“What are your kids up to, Sam?” He was the only one who saw eye-to-eye with him, someone who otherwise humoured himself and everyone else as part of his job.

A while ago, the barbershop had emptied out. Who still had time to think about shaving? They had no time. They even forgot about their bees because they were doing something for themselves. It wasn’t much: pinching wood, going hungry, running to meetings and listening. Listening was still the hardest part. As children they had been forced to study and consequently lost all interest in it. It was so excruciating that they referred to it as work. They would have gladly slain whoever had invented it. Half the world yammered away at them, until they just stopped listening, until nothing interested them because nothing changed their situation.

The only thing they could be sure of was that every boss was a pig and every woman a whore, that the world was so grubby that you couldn’t expect anything better from scoundrels. To save and better themselves, to protect themselves from the world’s ugliness, that’s why they were acting, otherwise they would be worn down by the futility of it all. Only when your spirits had sunk so low, as when someone had died did you realise how much they meant to you, only then did the heartache tire you so deeply that all your blinking, tearing, and sniffles became sacred. Only then could you move beyond and without sorrow, forget that sleep is necessary if you are to pour iron tomorrow.

Suddenly the Sams could hear again, even things other than those that usually moved them. They weren’t yet sure how deeply they were interested, but were nonetheless taken aback at the matter-of-factness with which they responded to the appeals of the IWW and the patience with which they listened. They talked about workers’ rights without otherwise being ashamed. They listened to one another without dismissing each other as windbags. Neither murder nor clashes sensationalised them anymore. The only thing that mattered was what came from the strike committee.

As a direct result of boycotting the factory and the mines, new conditions had taken hold. The alarm clock no longer forced them to gulp down boiling hot coffee. They were free to eat breakfast in peace. They could even attend meetings as they so choose. And they were finally free to do something for themselves. There was no longer any need to slip past their boss or the well-dressed passengers on the tram. They were now acutely conscious that they were more than a tool, a screw or lever, or a wage slave.

The more noise they made, the greater their self-confidence. The first time they went hungry, paradoxical as it may sound, brought with it an unprecedented cheerfulness that might have otherwise dampened the strike’s spirit. They laughed together, they roared, they felt strong. They rediscovered the lost passion of their youth. They weren’t all scoundrels after all!

Until then, they had only ever gathered as a group in church, where they snuck in with a nod of the head and stumbled out again without acknowledging each other. They felt silly there and acted like strangers, distant from one other. Who would have dared to ask for a cigarette in church, unlike a meeting where they readily offered them to each other?

After work, groups of them stood at the trolley car stop, each of them hoping for a small earthquake that would somehow spare only themselves and the trolley car. Otherwise they were squeezed in like animals, backed up by the dregs of society into panicky, overweight women, while talkers slobber in your face—if only they would all drop dead so that you alone could comfortably stretch your tired legs.

At meetings, people were different. Coffee and bread were handed out, and yet no one tried to hog them. Workers from the west had sent money; comrades from the east, clothes and shoes. But there was never enough. Anyone who wanted something had to hurry. Still, nobody used their elbows, the Sams heard again from the Franks: “Take it, comrade, you need it more than I do. Take something for the children, I still have a bit of money, I can wait.”

It had happened like this once before, in Ludlow in 1911, a tribute to the victims that has been recounted far and beyond.2 If the proletariat ever succeeds, it will pass out of existence. When they become really human, when they rediscover what it means to laugh and fight, to truly love. For this they must break free of this damned, dirty social order. If they step forward as self-confident proletarians, splendid youth, that’s when the beast uses steel to divide them, burns them out, and murders them.

Now again, like in 1911, workers have risen up against exploitation. With the exception of a single pit, the strike was all-inclusive, and plans were underway to incorporate this one too, lest it serve as a centre from which to undermine the strike. At a meeting, it was decided to set up pickets one day at the entrance to the pits before the start of the early shift. Sam, along with many other Sams, promised to fill out the picket line.

But when that morning came, Sam didn’t really feel like it. It was so early. It was warm in bed and little Mae lay half asleep across his chest. Gently, he placed her in a more comfortable position and reached across to the light. Sitting up, he deliberated. His wife, because the boy had pulled her pillow away, lay there like a corpse in water. Her legs were higher than her head, her mouth was open, and she was breathing heavily. Sam was cold and put his clothes on in a hurry. Marching on the picket line, he gave no thought to the fact that he had hesitated.

They kept at it for two hours. They shivered and talked loudly, deluding themselves into thinking that doing so was making them warmer. Big Bill, an old IWW comrade, was their coordinator, although he couldn’t march very well and was always at the end of the line.3 The women who joined elevated the spirits of everyone nearby.

Fog rose. As they approached, they could already make out the black lump of buildings in front of the mining shaft. The strikers turned off the road and took a little used, narrow side path to get to the shaft unnoticed. They kept quiet. As the star-spangled banner became visible above the administration building, a gang of armed police suddenly appeared in front of the marchers, darting out from their hiding place. They pointed guns at the strikers and demanded that they leave immediately. They had no time to think. Determined to further the strike, a retreat was out of the question. A surge of anger emboldened them, and they refused to budge.

Big Bill approached the commanding officer and demanded they clear the path. An obscenity was the reply. As Big Bill turned to speak to the strikers, he was struck with the butt of a rifle and knocked to the ground. At this same moment, guns were fired. Horrified, the workers fled, dragging the dead and wounded with them. The soldiers shot off volley after volley. For a shabby medal, a pitiful promotion, a filthy salary, yes, for a few extra cigars, they became executioners on behalf of the civilised world.

Yes, Ludlow, that was something else when they had fired back! But here on “Blood Road”, the proletarians were slaughtered like animals. The most disastrous and foolish thing imaginable is workers without weapons. To have demonstrated without weapons, they might as well have chopped off their hands, gouged out their eyes—the senselessness, the agony, the rage. But machine guns are expensive, and consequently thousands of proletarians pay the price, Sam and the others from Blood Road along with them.

Sam lay still now. The bees sat in their corners and cried. Little Mae stood by the bed, holding her mother’s hand. The woman’s back was bent but she did not want to sit. She just stared into space. Members of the evangelical congregation whispered in the kitchen. The pastor arrived and tried to comfort the widow. She looked at Sam and whispered, “A person who is dead no longer lives. He who is gone once will not return again.”

Frank was there and stared for a long time at the wrinkled face of the dead man. He was pale; this was the first time he had entered the apartment without laughing.

What now? “The strike will go on, but it will be difficult,” spoke a comrade from the IWW. “Maybe it would have been better if we all had died! We owe it to the dead of Blood Road, to Sam, to Bill, and all the others. They died on the street, the trail of blood stretches for two hours. Sam’s blood too; the blood of the Sams of centuries, the oppressed as well as the few who were responsible. It splits the world like the equator.”

The barber came too. Concerned about the widow, he approached her. “What now?” The sight of the children brought tears to his eyes. “The boy is almost an adult,” he added consolingly. “He’ll take his father’s place, after all isn’t his name Sam too?” Before he left, he again took the dead man’s head in his hands. He had shaved it so many times before. He wanted to fix him up again, one last time, but he had difficulty putting his head back into the right position. It was lying sideways on the pillow, eyes closed but nonetheless fixed on an astonished Mae. As evening descended, shadows changed the dead man’s features for the very last time. His old, heart-stopping smile formed around the corners of his mouth. Despite the profound stillness, a child sniffled softly. The widow jolted: had Sam not spoken? So softly and yet sonorously, so happily and yet deeply sadly: “The bees, yes, the bees!”


Originally published in: Der Kampfruf, 11. No. 1, 4 and 5, January 1930. Reprinted in Wieland Herzfelde (ed.): Dreissig Neue Erzähler des Neuen Deutschland, (Berlin, Malik-Verlag, 1932), 1983 edition (Leipzig, Reclam), pp. 205-14.