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(en) Britain, Direct Action #35 - CLOSERLOOK: A ‘Wobbly’ Century, political parties, +

Date Mon, 29 Aug 2005 07:10:14 +0300

A ‘Wobbly’ Century
In late 18th century America, European immigrants with anarchist
ideas combined with strong anti-statist traditions of US workers to
create a burgeoning anarchist current. By the 1880’s, anarchist
influenced ideas dominated the emerging US revolutionary movement, with
anarchist groups developing across North America, producing a diverse
range of papers and magazines in a myriad of different languages.
It was no accident that anarchists in Chicago were at the centre of a
movement that looked to the unions as a means of bringing about an
anarchist society. They had been active in the workplace for many
years, and had taken a prominent role in the struggle for the 8-hour
day that led to the fateful demonstration at the Haymarket in 1886.

Anarcho-syndicalist ideas also developed in numerous anarchist
groups especially in Paterson, New Jersey where Spanish and Italian
anarchists were active. They published numerous articles reporting
the development of European revolutionary syndicalism, and created
a silk workers’ union which was to later join the IWW. They
were also important in helping to spread anarcho-syndicalism
amongst western mine workers who were to play such an important
part in future developments.
In the manifesto from the meeting in January 1905 that led to the
creation of the IWW, the basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism
were clearly evident. The main author, Thomas J Hagerty, was
influenced by European anarcho-syndicalist ideas.

political parties

The original manifesto saw no role for political parties, arguing that
workers should organise industrially to “take and hold that which
is produced through an economic organisation of the working
class”. On the basis of the January Manifesto, a convention was
organised on the 27th June 1905, again in Chicago.
The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), led by Bill Hayward,
who chaired the convention, provided the largest presence. The
WFM was a radical western industrial union that had in recent years
fought a number of bitter disputes with owners who had engaged
private armies against workers. There were also in attendance
delegates from socialist organisations, including the two main US
socialist parties (and bitter rivals), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP)
and the Socialist Party of America (SPA).

The convention produced a preamble that sought to link the
immediate struggle to the wider aim of overthrowing capitalism. The
main tactic was unambiguous; the newly formed IWW was to set
about organising workers into “one big union”, whose aim
was revolution, after which the union would take over the running of
society in the newly established co-operative commonwealth. In the
build-up to the revolution, the IWW would wage class war against
the capitalist class, developing workers’ revolutionary
consciousness in the process.

From the outset, the new union condemned racism. The convention
declared that any wage earner could be a member regardless of
occupation, race, creed or sex. Anti-discrimination and
internationalism quickly became part of its culture and two of its
major strengths. Racism especially was recognised as a major factor
used by capitalism to divide the working class, affecting both black
Americans and newly arrived Asians and Europeans. The American
Federation of Labor (AFofL) was openly racist - for example, it
produced stickers drawing consumers’ attention to those goods
that had been produced by white workers.

From the IWW’s earliest days, a source of controversy was its
stance on political parties. The clause excluding a role for parties in
the workers’ struggle had been dropped from the January
Manifesto on the insistence of Daniel de Leon, the SLP leader. De
Leon, a recent convert to industrial unionism, was much admired by
Lenin, who was later to develop the idea of using workers’
economic power to win himself state power in Russia. After much
debate, a compromise was reached under which the general strike
was included in the constitution as well as a role for political action.

turning point

At the 1908 IWW convention, a Chicago motion was passed which
removed all reference to political activity from the constitution. In
response, the SLP delegates formed a rival IWW based in Detroit,
which had little impact. This proved to be a turning point. Detached
from the SLP, the IWW developed its core revolutionary policies
over the next few years. The strategy that emerged stated that in
building “One Big Union”, the IWW would seek to
“form the new society inside the shell of the old”. In time,
the point would be reached where the workers’ organisation
would be powerful enough to use the general strike, take over the
means of production, and abolish the wage system. In a nutshell,
this would lead to the establishment of industrial democracy, in a
workers’ commonwealth.

The voting strength that had enabled the organisation to escape the
influence of the SLP had come mainly from the west coast groups.
Over the next few years, it was this vibrant part of the IWW which
would create the culture of struggle that formed the central essence
of the organisation. Often politicised by anarchism, they despised
both capitalism and the state. They also had a deep mistrust of
politicians and leaders in general, extending to the IWW leadership.
Eastern-based radicals did not look too favourably on the western
workers. Dismissed by the likes of de Leon as the “Overalls
Brigade”, criticism was not confined to the socialist
intelligentsia. Some East Coast anarchists also berated them as
“this bunch of pork-chop philosophers, agitators who have no
real, great organising ability or creative brain power”.

To organise unskilled workers in the west was no easy task. The
western US was far less industrialised than the east. The workers
were largely migrant and so had no permanent workplace through
which they could be physically organised. As an alternative, western
workers made the “mixed local” the basis of their
organisation. Centred on the union hall, the mixed local was a
geographically based organisation, which included both the
employed and unemployed. This contrasted with the
workplace-based locals in much of the eastern IWW.

The union hall began to evolve as the centre of working class
organisational life, and developed into the local intellectual and
cultural centre. Here was to be found the basis of an alternative
working class culture centred on the idea of solidarity and struggle.
Combining art and politics, the western IWW groups produced
plays, poems, songs and cartoons. In meaningful, emotional and
personal expressions, Wobblies (as IWW members became known)
sought to analyse the world from a working class perspective and
create a rich culture of both unity and diversity.

free speech

From this culture of solidarity and self-respect emerged the famous
free speech campaign which propelled the IWW to prominence
before the First World War. It grew out of the struggle against
employment agencies which operated in gateway towns for the
mining, lumber, and agricultural industries in the west. The IWW
called for a boycott of the agencies and for workers to be recruited
via union halls - similar to the recently successful CGT campaign in
France. “Soapbox orators”, the most common form of IWW
agitation, set up outside employment agencies to denounce their
corrupt practices. The police responded by prohibiting street

From 1908 to 1916, the free speech campaign became the focus of a
bitter battle between the IWW and the US state, during which some
5,000 IWW members were imprisoned. The prisons rapidly filled,
forcing the state to back down. In the process of winning the
campaign, the IWW also exposed the brutality of the US prison

The emphasis on community, culture and free speech did not stop
the IWW from taking on the capitalists in the workplace. After a
difficult few years, by 1910 the IWW had recovered some of its early
strength, organising many strikes. Perhaps the most prominent
strike was in Goldfield, Nevada, where the IWW attempted to
organise all of the 30,000 population. They won an 8-hour day and a
minimum wage of $4.50, before being brutally repressed by the state
militia. By 1912, the IWW was strong enough to embark on what
became two of the most famous strikes at Lawrence and Paterson.

In Lawrence, a Massachusetts textile town, 30,000 immigrant
workers toiled in appalling conditions. Organising was particularly
difficult as workers were from over a dozen countries, and spoke
many different languages. The Lawrence strike took on an
insurrectionary nature from the outset. The IWW made no attempt
to play down its revolutionary ideas; on the contrary, they sought to
raise revolutionary consciousness among workers. The state brought
in 1,500 militia, backed up by the police.

shock waves

During the bitter dispute, these forces used guns, clubs and bayonets
to try and force workers back to work, resulting in a number of
deaths. Hundreds were arrested, some on false murder charges.
Despite this, the IWW organised a tremendous victory, with a pay
rise for unskilled workers of 25%. As a result, the American Woollen
Federation was also forced to increase wages by 8% across 32 cities.
The strike sent shock waves across America and acted as a rallying
cry for the unorganised.

Paterson was next, in 1913. As already noted, this silk weaving
centre near New York had a strong anarchist tradition. The IWW
sought standardised, improved wages and conditions for 25,000
workers. However, after months of ruthless militia activity, with
several workers killed and hundreds imprisoned, the strike ended in
failure. This was a bitter blow despite the consolation that events in
both Lawrence and Paterson had ensured that the IWW was now
seen as the formidable organisation.

Behind the IWW’s growth and success, however, was a rising
controversy over internal democracy. Western locals were concerned
that the IWW was too centralised. At the 1911 convention, western
delegates had attempted to pass resolutions to limit the power of the
General Executive Board (GEB) and devolve it to the regions.
Though defeated, the resolutions reflected a growing rift between the
eastern and western wings of the organisation.

At the following convention centralisation again reared its head. This
time eastern sections argued for the free speech campaign to be
brought under GEB control. This outraged the western delegation,
reinforcing fears of centralisation.

The 1913 IWW convention is often portrayed as a conflict between
anarchist de-centralisers on the west coast and the more socialist
centralisers of the east coast. This is too simplistic. The division
between east and west in many ways reflected two different cultures
based on different conditions. To the eastern IWW, workplace
organisation was far more important. The west was far less
industrialised, with a large migrant workforce who campaigned on a
wide range of issues.

Undoubtedly, anarcho-syndicalism was, and remains,
anti-centralisation, so it is not surprising that many found the IWW
over-centralised. That is not to say that anarcho-syndicalists would
have backed many of the one hundred motions put forward by
western delegates. If passed, these would have reduced the IWW to
a loose-knit confederation of autonomous groups, with the attendant
difficulties of maintaining cohesion.

In the event, the 1913 convention ended in defeat for the western
delegation. Not only did their motions fall, but their fear of
centralisation was justified by the passing of a motion bringing all
publications under the supervision of the GEB. Worst of all, the
acrimonious debate left the whole organisation deeply divided.

The outbreak of world war one led to increased economic activity
and a shortage of labour. The IWW took advantage to win
concessions and recruit workers, and entered its heyday period. By
1917, membership was 150,000, with large sections and unions in
the metal, mining, railway, forestry, agriculture and marine transport
industries. From this point on, its success and revolutionary politics
combined to bring it into ever-increasing direct conflict with the

state repression

From the start, the IWW voiced its total opposition to the war.
Hayward declared it was better to be a traitor to your country than a
traitor to your class. The IWW continued to organise strike action
wherever possible. The state response was a wave of repression.

In September 1917, the state authorities raided all the national,
regional and local offices of the IWW. They seized everything they
could lay their hands on and arrested every IWW member they could
find. Thousands of members, along with other anarchists and
socialists, were harassed, arrested, imprisoned and deported as the
state attempted to destroy the IWW. The intense, sustained tide of
repression continued for the remainder of the war and after.

As well as direct state terror, the IWW was also subject to violence
from state-backed vigilantes. Being a wobbly during the war was to
risk beating, shooting or lynching. In a cynical move, the state also
enroled the support of reformist unions. Federal labour laws
introduced state mediation, the right to collective bargaining for
AFofL affiliates; minimum pay and the basic 8-hour day. The
reformist unions were quick to respond to the state attempt to win
them over to the war effort.

In 1919, 23 states introduced criminal syndicalist laws. Overnight,
the IWW found itself liable to prosecution all over the country simply
for existing. The impact of the state terror campaign on the IWW
was serious, but amazingly, not terminal. In May 1919, the
membership was already down to 30,000.


Where state repression had failed to destroy the IWW, internal
division was soon to succeed. The dispute was triggered by
communist attempts to take over the IWW, which in turn reopened
the wounds of the bitter centralisation debate. The western sections
opposed the communist influenced GEB’s attempt to affiliate
the IWW to the Third International and demanded the expulsion of
all communists from the IWW. The communists concentrated their
efforts on attempting to win over the eastern sections to the idea of
statism, though ultimately they were to fail in this endeavour.

The GEB pursued a strategy based on the idea of left wing unity. In
1920, a communist who was attempting to take over the
Philadelphia dockers’ local accused the IWW of loading arms
for the interventionist troops in Russia. This was a long-standing
local, which had been successful in uniting black and white workers.

Though the accusations were later to be found groundless, the
damage was done. The GEB immediately suspended the
Philadelphia dockers local who, appalled that they could have been
suspended on the say of one communist, left the IWW stating:
“The history of the Philadelphia longshoremen’s union is
one of unswerving loyalty. Some have died while hundreds have
been jailed as standard bearers of the IWW.”

The IWW began to publish reports of the repression of workers in
Russia, which had begun to appear in anarchist papers around the
world. Those responsible were then condemned as traitors to the
revolution by the growing communist movement within the IWW.
The dispute came to a head at the 1924 convention, which soon
descended into chaos as fighting broke out between centralisers and

The de-centralisers put forward the “Emergency
Programme”, advocating that the GEB should be abolished,
while the centralisers sought more control at regional and GEB level.
The communists made the atmosphere worse and the convention
ended in a decisive IWW split, with a ‘real IWW’ being set
up in Utah (while the Chicago based IWW continued). The split,
coming so soon after the state repression, and coinciding with the
growing popularity of communism, proved too much. While the
Chicago-based IWW was able to resist communist infiltration and
did go on to organise major strikes in the coalfields, in Colorado
(1927) and Kentucky (1930), these were temporary high points in
the decline of the IWW.

The IWW grew from humble beginnings and, in a few short years,
was able to shake the foundations of the world’s most powerful
state and capitalism’s powerhouse - the United States. In the
process, it drew on anarcho-syndicalist ideas from Europe and
adapted them to its own unique conditions.

strength & weakness

The single greatest strength of the IWW was its emphasis on the
culture of revolution. Unfortunately, in a relatively short time this
strength was overcome by a combination of state oppression and
internal weakness. While the former was clearly inevitable, the latter
was borne out of an uncomfortable alliance between an
anti-authoritarian, pro-autonomy camp and a centralist camp - a
situation made worse by the efforts of the opportunist authoritarian
communists. In a nutshell, the IWW’s apparent early strength of
appealing to all sharing the same goals and economic tactics,
irrespective of political agenda, soon turned into a fatal weakness, as
party political opportunists sought to take over and undermine the
deep revolutionary politics of the organisation.

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