The Wobblies' legacy

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 10:23

This is the second part of an article* by the American Trotskyist James P Cannon about the US Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”), founded 100 years ago.

The IWW was set up as “one big union” to organise all American workers, but as Cannon explains, it was also a “revolutionary” union built by socialists. IWWers thought the union could form the basis of a new, socialist, society.

The original article was written in 1955. The article is substantially abridged here. The first part of the abridgement can be found in Solidarity 3/69. The full text can be found on the Marxist Internet Archive.

*******

The IWW plan of organisation was made to order for modern mass production industry in the eastern half of the country, where the main power of the workers was concentrated. But the power of the exploiting class was concentrated there too, and organising the workers against the entrenched corporations was easier said than done.

The IWW programme of revolution was designed above all to express the implicit tendency of the main mass of the basic proletariat in the trustified industries of the East. The chance for a wage worker to change his class status and become an independent proprietor or a small farmer was far less alluring there than on the western frontier, where such class transmigrations still could, and in many cases actually did, take place. If the logic of the class struggle had worked out formally — as it always does in due time — those workers in the industrial centres east of the Mississippi should have been the most class conscious and the most receptive to the IWW appeal.

But that’s not the way things worked out in practice in the time when the IWW was making its strongest efforts. The organisation never succeeded in establishing stable unions among the workers in modern machine industry in the industrially developed East. Instead its predominant activity expanded along the lines of least resistance on the peripheral western fringes of the country, which at that time were still under construction. The IWW found a readier response to its appeal and recruited its main cadres among the marginal and migratory workers in that region.

This apparent anomaly has been seen many times in international experience. Those workers most prepared for socialism by industrial development are not always the first to recognise it.

The economic factor eventually predominates, and the class struggle runs its logical course everywhere - but only in the long run, not in a straight line. The class struggle of the workers in all its manifestations, from the most elementary action of a union organisation up to the revolution, breaks the chain of capitalist resistance at the weakest link.

The founders, at the 1905 Convention, had noted and emphasised the helplessness of obsolete craft unionism in this field; that was their stated motivation for proposing the industrial union form of organisation. But, for a long time, the same concentrated power that had broken up the old craft unions in modern industry was also strong enough to prevent their replacement by new unions in the industrial form.

The meager success of the IWW in establishing revolutionary industrial unions in their natural habitat was not due to lack of effort. Time and again the IWW tried to crack the trustified industries, including steel, but was beaten back every time. All the heroic attempts of the IWW to organise in this field were isolated and broken up at the start.

The employers fought the new unionism in dead earnest. Against the programme of the IWW and its little band of agitators, they brought up the heavy guns of their financial resources; public opinion moulded in their favor by press and pulpit; their private armies of labour spies and thugs; and, always and everywhere, the police power of that “political state” which the IWW didn’t want to recognise.

In all the most militant years of the IWW the best it could accomplish in modern mass production industry were localised strikes, nearly all of which were defeated. The victorious Lawrence textile strike of 1912, which established the national fame of the IWW, was the glorious exception.

It took 30 years of propaganda and trial-and-error effort, and then a mass upheaval of volcanic power generated by an unprecedented economic crisis, before the fortresses of mass production industry could be stormed and conquered by industrial unionism. But the time for such an invincible mass revolt had not yet come when the IWW first sounded the call and launched its pioneering campaigns.

There was no such thing as “full employment” in the time of the IWW. The economic cycle ran its normal ten-year course, with its periodic crises and depressions, producing a surplus labour army squeesed out of industry in the East. Unemployment rose and fell with the turns of the cycle, but was always a permanent feature of the times. An economic crisis in 1907 and a serious depression in 1913-1914 swelled the army of the jobless.

Many of the unemployed workers, especially the young, took to the road, as those of another generation were to do again in the Thirties. The developing west had need of a floating labour force, and the supply drifted toward the demand. A large part of the mobile labour population in the west at that time, perhaps a majority, originated in the eastern half of the continent. Their conditions of life were pretty rough.

The IWW was right at home among footloose workers who found casual employment in the harvest fields — travelling by freight train to follow the ripening of the grain, then back by freight train again to the transportation centres for any kind of work they could find there; railroad construction workers, shipping out for temporary jobs and then shipping back to the cities into unemployment again; lumberjacks, metal miners, seamen, etc., who lived in insecurity and worked, when they worked, under the harshest, most primitive conditions.

This narrow stratum of the unsettled and least privileged workers came to make up the bulk of the membership of the IWW.

The American political system offered no place for the participation of this floating labour force of the expanding west. They were overlooked in the whole scheme of things. They lacked the residential qualifications to vote in elections and enjoyed few of the rights of political democracy accorded to settled citizens with a stake in their community. They were the dispossessed, the homeless outcasts, without roots or a stake any place in society, and with nothing to lose.

Since they had no right to vote anyway, it took little argument to persuade them that “political action” — at the ballot box was a delusion and a snare. They had already been convinced, by their own harsh experiences, that it would take more than paper ballots to induce the exploiters to surrender their swollen privileges. The IWW, with its bold and sweeping program of revolution by direct action, spoke their language and they heard it gladly.

The IWW became for them their one all-sufficient organisation — their union and their party; their social centre; their home; their family; their school; and in a manner of speaking, their religion, without the supernatural trimmings — the faith they lived by. Some of Joe Hill’s finest songs, it should be remembered, were derisive parodies of the religious hymns of the IWW’s rivals in the fight for the souls of the migratory workers milling around in the congested Skid Row sections of the western and mid-western cities.

These were not the derelicts who populate the present day version of the old Skid Row. For the greater part, they were the young and venturesome, who had been forced out of the main industries in more settled communities, or had wandered away from them in search of opportunity and adventure. They had been badly bruised and beaten, but not conquered. They had the courage and the will to fight for an alleviation of their own harsh conditions.

The IWW proclaimed that by solidarity they could win everything. It gave them a vision of a new world and inspired them to fight for the general good of the whole working class.

These footloose workers, recruited by the propaganda and action of the IWW, became the carriers of its great, profoundly simple message wherever they travelled — the message expressed in the magic words: Solidarity, Workers’ Power, One Big Union and Workers’ Emancipation. Wherever they went, they affirmed their conviction that “there is power in a band of working men,” as stated in the singing words of Joe Hill — “a power that must rule in every land.”

They felt themselves to be — as indeed they were — the advance guard of an emancipating army. But it was an advance guard separated from the main body of troops in concentrated industry, separated and encircled, and compelled to wage guerrilla actions while awaiting reinforcements from the main army of the proletariat in the East.

Many a worker recruited to the IWW under those conditions was soon on the move again, carrying his red card and his newly found convictions with him and transmitting them to others. All the progressive and radical sections of the labour movement were heavily influenced by the IWW in the years preceding the First World War.

The left-wing socialists were ardent sympathisers of the IWW, and quite a few of them were members. The same was true in large measure of the more militant trade unionists in the AFL. “Two-card men” were fairly numerous — those who belonged to the AFL unions for bread and butter reasons and carried the “red card” of the IWW for the sake of principle.

The IWW struck a spark in the heart of youth as no other movement in this country, before or since, has done. Young idealists from “the winds’ four quarters” came to the IWW and gave it all they had. The movement had its gifted strike leaders, organisers and orators, its poets and its martyrs.

The turning point came with the entrance of the United States into the First World War in the spring of 1917, and the Russian Revolution in the same year. Then “politics,” which the IWW had disavowed and cast out, came back and broke down the door.

These two events demonstrated that “political action” was not merely a matter of the ballot box, subordinate to the direct conflict of the unions and employers on the economic field, but the very essence of the class struggle. In opposing actions of two different classes the “political state,” which the IWW had thought to ignore, was revealed as the centralised power of the ruling class; and the holding of the state power showed in each case which class was really ruling.

From one side, this was shown when the Federal Government of the United States intervened directly to break up the concentration points of the IWW by wholesale arrests of its activists. The “political action” of the capitalist state broke the back of the IWW as a union. The IWW was compelled to transform its principal activities into those of a defence organisation, striving by legal methods and propaganda, to protect the political and civil rights of its members against the depredations of the capitalist state power.

From the other side, the same determining role of political action was demonstrated positively by the Russian Revolution. The Russian workers took the state power into their own hands and used that power to expropriate the capitalists and suppress all attempts at counter-revolution. That, in fact, was the first stage of the Revolution, the pre-condition for all that was to follow. Moreover, the organising and directing centre of the victorious Revolution had turned out to be, not an all-inclusive union, but a party of selected revolutionists united by a program and bound by discipline.

By war and revolution, the most imperative of all authorities, the IWW was put on notice to bring its theoretical conceptions up to date; to think and learn, and change a little.

Some of the leading Wobblies, including Haywood himself, tried to learn the lessons of the war and the Russian Revolution and to adjust their thinking to them. But the big majority, after several years of wavering, went the other way. That sealed the doom of the IWW. Its tragic failure to look, listen and learn from the two great events condemned it to defeat and decay.

While the IWW was settling down in ossification, converting its uncompleted conceptions about the real meaning of political action and political parties into a sterile anti-political dogma, the thinking of others was catching up with reality, with the great new things happening in the world. The others, the young left-wing socialists, soon to call themselves Communists, lacked the battle-tested cadres of the IWW. But they had the correct program. That proved to be decisive.

The newly formed Communist Party soon outstripped the IWW and left it on the sidelines. By the time of its fifteenth anniversary in 1920 the IWW had already entered the irreversible road of decline. Most of its cadres, the precious human material selected and sifted out in heroic struggle, went down with the organisation. They had borne persecution admirably, but the problems raised by it, and by all the great new events, overwhelmed them. The best militants fell into inactivity and then dropped out. The second-raters took over and completed the wreck and the ruin.

In action the IWW had been the most militant, the most revolutionary section of the workers’ vanguard in this country. The IWW, while calling itself a union, was much nearer to Lenin’s conception of a party of professional revolutionists than any other organisation calling itself a party at that time. In their practice, and partly also in their theory, the Wobblies were closer to Lenin’s Bolsheviks than any other group in this country.

The failure of the IWW to find a place in the new movement assembling under the banner of the Russian Revolution, was not the fault of the Russians. They recognised the IWW as a rightful part of the movement they represented and made repeated attempts to include it in the new unification of forces. The first manifesto of the Communist International specified the American IWW as one of the organisations invited to join. Later, in 1920, the Executive Committee of the Communist International addressed a special Open Letter to the IWW, inviting its cooperation.

The letter explained, in the tone of brothers speaking to brothers, that the revolutionary parliamentarism of the Communist International had nothing in common with the ballot box fetishism and piddling reformism of the right-wing socialists. Haywood says of that letter: “After I had finished reading it I called Ralph Chaplin over to my desk and said to him: ‘Here is what we have been dreaming about; here is the IWW all feathered out!’” (Bill Haywood’s Book)

In war-time France Trotsky had found his best friends and closest collaborators in the fight against the war among the syndicalists. After the Russian Revolution, in a notable series of letters, published later as a pamphlet, he urged them to join forces with the communists. The theses adopted by the Communist International at its Second Congress recognised the progressive and revolutionary side of pre-war syndicalism, and said it represented a step forward from the ideology of the Second International. The theses attempted to explain at the same time, in the most patient and friendly manner, the errors and limitations of syndicalism on the question of the revolutionary party and its role.

Perhaps the chief circumstance operating against an orderly transition of the IWW to the higher ground of Bolshevism, was the furious persecution of the IWW at the time. When the Russian Revolution erupted in the victory in November, 1917, hundreds of the IWW activists were held in jail under excessive bail, awaiting trial. Following their conviction a year later, they were sentenced to long terms in the Federal Penitentiary.

This imprisonment cut them off from contact with the great new events. The IWW as an organisation was compelled to divert its entire activities into its campaign to provide legal defence for its victimised members.

Despite that, a number of IWW men heard the new word from Russia and followed it. Haywood expressed their trend of thought succinctly, in an interview with Max Eastman, published in The Liberator, April, 1921.

“‘I feel as if I’d always been there,’ he said to me. ‘You remember I used to say that all we needed was fifty thousand real IWWs, and then about a million members to back them up? Well, isn’t that a similar idea? At least I always realised that the essential thing was to have an organisation of those who know.’”

As class-conscious men of action, the Wobblies, “the real IWWs,” had always worked together as a body to influence the larger mass. Their practice contained the essential idea of the Leninist conception of the relation between the party and the class. The Bolsheviks, being men of theory in all their action, formulated it more precisely and developed it to its logical conclusion in the organisation of those class-conscious elements into a party of their own.

When Vincent St John was released from the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth on bond — I think it was in the early part of 1919 — The Saint stopped over in Kansas City and visited me. We talked about the Russian Revolution night and day. I believe he was as sympathetic at that time as I was. The revolution was an action — and that’s what he believed in. But he had not yet begun to grapple with the idea that the Russian way would be applicable to this country, and that the IWW would have to recognise it.

His hostility to a “party” and “politicians,” based on what he had seen of such things in this country, was the fixed obstacle.

In addition to my proselytising zeal for communism in those days, I had a strong personal motivation for trying to win over Vincent St. John to the new movement. Coming from the syndicalistic background of the IWW, with its strong anti-intellectual emphasis, I had been plunged up to my neck in the internal struggles of the young Communist Party and association with its leading people. They were nearly all young intellectuals, without any experience or feel for the mass movement and the “direct action” of the class struggle. I was not very much at home in that milieu; I was lonesome for people of my own kind.

I had overcome my own “anti-intellectualism” to a considerable extent; but I knew for sure that the Communist Party would never find its way to the mass movement of the workers with a purely intellectualistic leadership. I was looking for reinforcements for a proletarian counter-balance on the other side, and I thought that if I could win over St. John it would make a big difference.

Later St. John returned to Chicago. The officials in charge of the IWW centre there were hostile to communism and were embroiled in some bitter quarrels with a pro-communist IWW group in Chicago. St. John was drawn into the conflict and took a stand with the anti-communist group. Then, as was natural for him in any kind of a crisis, once he had made up his mind he took charge of the situation and began to steer the organisation definitely away from cooperation with the communists.

The Saint was crowding 50 at that time, and jail and prison had taken their toll. He was a bit tired, and he may have felt that it was too late to start over again in a new field where he, like all of us, had much to learn. Whatever the reason for the failure, I still look back on it regretfully. Vincent St. John, and the IWW militants he would have brought along, could have made a big difference in everything that went on in the CP in the Twenties.

The IWW in its best days was more right than wrong, and all that was right remains the permanent acquisition of the American workers. Even some of the IWW propositions which seemed to be wrong — only because the times were not ripe for their full realisation — will find their vindication in the coming period.

The IWW’s conception of a Republic of Labour, based on occupational representation, replacing the present political state with its territorial form of representation, was a remarkable prevision of the course of development which must necessarily follow from the victory of the workers in this country. This new and different form of social organisation was projected at the Founding Convention of the IWW even before the Russian Bolsheviks had recognised the Workers’ Councils, which had arisen spontaneously in the 1905 Revolution, as the future governmental form.

The IWW program of industrial unionism was certainly right, although it came too early for fulfilment under the IWW banner.

The IWW theory of revolutionary unionism likewise came too early for general acceptance in the epoch of ascending capitalism in this country. It could not be realised on a wide scale in the time of the IWW. But reformist unions, in the present epoch of imperialist decay, have already become anachronistic and are confronted with an ultimatum from history to change their character or cease to be.

The mass industrial unions of workers, by the fact of their existence, instinctively strive toward socialism. With a capitalist minded leadership, they are a house divided against itself, half slave and half free. That cannot stand. The stage is being set for the transformation of the reformist unions into revolutionary unions, as they were projected by the IWW half a century ago.

The great contradiction of the labour movement today is the disparity between the mass unions with their organised millions and the revolutionary party which still remains only a nucleus, and their separation from each other. The unity of the vanguard and the class, which the IWW tried to achieve in one organisation, was shattered because the time was not ripe and the formula was inadequate. The time is now approaching when this antithetic separation must give way to a new synthesis.

This synthesis — the unity of the class and the socialist vanguard — will be arrived at in the coming period in a different way from that attempted by the IWW. It will not be accomplished by a single organisation. The building of a separate party organisation of the socialist vanguard is the key to the resolution of the present contradiction of the labour movement. This will not be a barrier to working class unity but the necessary condition for it.

The working class can be really united only when it becomes a class for itself, consciously righting the exploiters as a class. The ruling bureaucrats, who preach and practice class collaboration, constitute in effect a pro-capitalist party in the trade unions. The party of the socialist vanguard represents the consciousness of the class. Its organisation signifies not a split of the class movement of the workers, but a division of labour within it, to facilitate and effectuate its unification on a revolutionary basis; that is, as a class for itself.

As an organisation of revolutionists, united not simply by the immediate economic interests which bind all workers together in a union, but by doctrine and program, the IWW was in practice, if not in theory, far ahead of other experiments along this line in its time, even though the IWW called itself a union and others called themselves parties.

That was the IWW’s greatest contribution to the American labour movement.

The coming generation, which will have the task of bringing the class struggle to its conclusion — fulfilling the “historic mission of the working class,” as the “Preamble” described it — will take much from the old leaders of the IWW — Debs, Haywood, De Leon and St. John, and will glorify their names. But in assimilating all the huge experiences since their time, they will borrow even more heavily from the men who generalised these experiences into a guiding theory. The Americans will go to school to the Russians, as the Russians went to school to the Germans, Marx and Engels.

Haywood’s advice at the Founding Convention of the IWW still holds good. The Russian way is the way to our American future, to the future of the whole world.

The Russian Bolsheviks — Lenin and Trotsky in the first place — have inspired every forward step taken by the revolutionary vanguard in this country since 1917. And it is to them that the American workers will turn for guidance in the next stages of their evolving struggle for emancipation. The fusion of their “Russian” ideas with the inheritance of the IWW is the American workers’ prescription for victory.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.