This site is a static archive. Visit the current IWW website at ▸
Skip to main content

Response to Cannon's view on the IWW #1

By P. Gage., Sunday July 24, 2011.

(1) Cannon's account of his dealings with Vincent Saint John are probably the best part about the piece and indicate to me that Cannon just simply didn't get it. It's pretty clear from the account that Cannon's main problem is that Sain John did not want to abandon the IWW in favour of the newly formed Russian inspired Communist Party. It was a choice of one or the other remember, as the 20's moved on the position from the Comintern was that the IWW dissolve itself into the AFL.

Just out of curiosity, do (those) who agree with this piece advocate this position? Do they feel that revolutionary unions are a mistake and sectarian? Do they agree with the position of Lenin, Trotsky and by extension Cannon that the IWW should merge with the existing House of Labour?

(2) I think the criticism of the IWW's use of the the term "politics" is probably correct but wrong. What I mean by this is: yes the use of the word politics is confusing, much like the IWWs use of the word "Industrial". However what politics they had were good politics and constituted a clear program. That program was one of rank and file initiative, striking on the job and seizing the economy with the workers themselves. As opposed to a military coup or through Parliament. A revolutionary General Strike where we lock the bosses out instead of the seizure of power by a Vanguard Party.

Again, do those who support Cannon also agree with his conception of the "most advanced layers" of the working class being the only ones who will be able to achieve revolution? Do you believe that contesting Government elections is a direction the IWW should go in? Do you believe an armed coup by a political minority who speak for the working class, as happened in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and countless other countries is something that can lead to anything other than political dictatorship?

(3) I find it interesting in his accounts of Saint John that Cannon also completely misses the boat on Saint John's answer to Cannon's ideological detour. As Cannon himself writes:

St. John’s positive qualities as a man of decision and action were contagious; like attracted like and he created an organization in his own image. He was not a back-slapper but a leader, with the reserve that befits a leader, and he didn’t win men by argument alone. In fact, he was a man of few words. The Saint lived his ideas and methods. He radiated sincerity and integrity, and unselfishness free from taint or ostentation. The air was clean in his presence.

Most thinkers from the Bolshevik tradition identify a very real problem in the class war. That is that often the membership is not as radical as the slogans that come out of their struggles. There are some (mostly called Wobblies) who believe that "action precedes consciousness" and that workers learn to be revolutionaries through the experience of the class struggle on the job and in their daily experiences. As long as organising is grounded in direct action and initiative by the workers themselves they will pass these experiences down through their organisations. They will learn to fight together and from the socialisation of our common struggle we will build socialism. 

For those who support Cannon's piece, what is there that needs to be taught by a revolutionary organisation that cannot be taught by a union? If you truly believe that you cannot be a union and be revolutionary what path forward do you suggest for the IWW? 

(4) Cannon believes that mass organisations cannot be revolutionary this is because he did not understand point 3. That is that workers learn through struggle and this struggle has to be direct, participatory and confrontational towards capitalist authority. Cannon's perspective leads to a mechanical and dogmatic conception of what the IWW is and leads to reformist activity on the job under the banner of radical slogans. It leads to a unionism based on Labour Board elections and "servicing members" over direct action because we expect nothing more from workers than to be passive followers. It leads to us seeing moments like Wisconsin as a "Crisis in Leadership" instead of an entirely predictable result of "revolutionary organisations" like Labour Notes, that ask nothing more from their members than to back reform caucuses in fundamentally flawed unions and to let the new radical leadership sort it out. Mass direct action merely becomes an opportunity to advance a political programme to seize power rather than the political exercise of that power. 

For those who support Cannon's piece, if you were in the leadership of the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin what would you have done differently? Do you really believe that a General Strike was in the cards of Wisconsin if the right leadership was present? Do you really agree that a revolutionary organisation can not also be an organisation with a program for mass recruitment?