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

Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor - Part 2

Foundation of the "Black International"

In the midst of the burgeoning labor movement of the 1880s, the rudimentary revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist groups and scattered individuals came together, clarified their ideas, and evolved into a national movement. This was the famous "Black International" or International Working People's Association--IWPA (organized in Pittsburgh, 1881).

While the IWPA had in common with revolutionary syndicalism the replacement of state by " . . . a free society based upon the cooperative organization of production, and the regulation of public affairs by free contracts between autonomous communes and associations . . . "; it differed in a very important respect, from the "Bakuninist" revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist wing of the ("First") International Workingmen's Association (IWMA, founded 1864) to which it has been compared.

Where the IWMA put greatest stress on the economic struggles for shorter working hours and better working conditions under capitalism in preparation for the expropriation of industry and the self-management of the economy by the unions; the IWPA rejected strikes for shorter hours, increased pay and better working conditions as essentially reformist, serving only to prolong capitalism. It over-emphasized (to the detriment of direct economic action) armed insurrection and violence.

Revolutionaries like the Haymarket martyrs, Parsons, Spies, Fielden and Schwab, themselves active unionists, soon realized that movements isolating themselves from the workers by downgrading their economic struggles for immediate improvements are bound to degenerate into impotent sects.

. . . The revolutionary movement flourished after it abandoned this suicidal policy. Although it numbered only about three thousand in Chicago, the IWPA became, as Henry David put it, " . . . a forceful factor in preparing for the great May 1st General Strike for the eight hour day . . . (History of the Haymarket Affair, p. 150). It was a manifestation of the class struggle and had to be supported.

In stressing the crucial importance of direct economic action for immediate improvements, the revolutionaries accelerated the radicalization, at least to some extent, of the labor movement. The repercussions of the Haymarket tragedy on the development of the radical labor movement is difficult to gauge--particularly, the role of the anarchists. David concludes that the IWPA survived intact "with little decrease in propaganda . . . the decade after 1887 witnessed a more active, intelligent, widespread, discussion of revolutionary doctrines than ever before . . . " (p. 400).

In addition to the employers and the state, the eight-hour-workday movement had to contend with reactionary labor leaders like P.M. Arthur, Grand Chief of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, who to his eternal shame, opposed the eight-hour day movement because:

. . . two hours less work means two hours loafing about corners and two hours more for drink....

The Knights of Labor

To the extent that the Knights of Labor (founded Philadelphia) 1869 contemplated a "radical change in industry" and the abolition of the wage system; proclaimed the principle of industrial unionism and welcomed largely unskilled and semi-skilled workers, irrespective of sex, race or nationality, into its ranks under the slogan "An injury to one is the concern to all," it could be considered a forerunner of the IWW.

But these sentiments should not be taken at face value. The Knights of Labor, too, was infected with the chronic counter-revolutionary, class collaborationist afflictions which, from its inception, still plagues the labor movement. Like the class collaborationists, the Knights proposed to achieve their goals, not by the overthrow of capitalism, but within the confines of the system itself.

Strikes and other forms of direct economic action for more wages, shorter hours, better working conditions should, according to the policy of the Knights, "be avoided wherever possible." Conflicts should be amicably settled by employers and employees, and failing that, by arbitration. Social changes should be made by enacting favorable legislation, via the ballot.

Like the conservative unions, the Knights maintained that the iniquities of capitalism--"free enterprise" or state--could be legally corrected by the establishment of worker controlled consumers and producers cooperatives. The workers would, in effect, go into business for themselves, out compete, and hopefully price the capitalists out of business .

At no time did the cooperative movement, from its inception nearly two centuries ago today (with membership close to four hundred million), constitute the slightest threat to the "establishment." On the contrary, municipal, state and national governments, and even the United Nations, have for years encouraged and heavily subsidized all sorts of cooperative enterprises. Under capitalism, there is no substantial difference, in effect, between such fraudulent "cooperatives" and trusts established by cooperating capitalists bent on increasing profits .

The pernicious obsession that the chronic afflictions of capitalism can be peacefully corrected without struggles, imbues the workers with a capitalist mentality. It erodes their revolutionary vitality, and atrophies the will to fight the system.

With few relatively minor reservations, today the proposals of Knights of Labor would be enthusiastically endorsed by the liberals, the "progressive" clergy, and even the moderate socialists. Terence Powderly, "Grand Master Workman" and President of the Knights, in the following pronouncement, best summarized the attitude of his organization and confirms our observations:

. . . if the wages lost in strikes were set aside in a special fund and invested in cooperative enterprises, it would be possible to amass a sum sufficient to erect shops and factories and give work to idle brothers . . . but I fail to see lasting good in strikes . . . a strike is a relic of barbarism. . . (Philip Taft, The AFL in the Time of Gompers, p.22)

The Knights: Leaders versus Rank-And-File

The Knights of Labor refused to endorse the eight hour workday movement. While local rank-and-file assemblies were 100% solid with the Haymarket anarchists, the official organ of the Knights, American Labor Budget, applauded the assassination of the Haymarket martyrs:

. . . Socialism, anarchism and murder find no defenders in the Knights of Labor. They are the friends of law and order and are determined that the laws shall be obeyed....

Ray Ginger in his biography of Eugene V. Debs tells that Powderly and the Knight leaders not only urged members not to strike, but actually tried to break strikes when they did take place:

. . . when packinghouse workers completely shut down the Chicago stock yards, the conditions indicated that there was every chance of victory, Powderly ordered the strikers to return to work . . . the strike was soon broken and so was the Knights of Labor in Chicago.... (The Burning Cross, p.49)

The massive strikes in the 1880s were spontaneous uprisings called by the local Assemblies of the Knights of Labor, against the orders of the leadership, or were grudgingly tolerated when the leadership could do nothing to stop them. (To borrow a sentence from Jeremy Brecher's STRIKE!) " . . . members went on strike first and joined the union later.... " In preference to the ballot box, the rank-and-file stressed direct economic action--boycotts, slowdowns, passive resistance, and- in self-defense, confrontations with armed thugs and armed government strikebreakers.

In no other organization was there greater contrast between the reactionary policies of the leadership and the radical temper of the members. Those habitually singing hosannas to the Knights of Labor--and there are far too many--should remember that it was the "ordinary" workers and not their misleaders, who should be credited with carrying on the militant tradition of the American labor movement.

Birth Throes of the IWW

A tendency, as the word implies, is an imprecise, vague inclination to move in a certain general direction. It is not an organization with a clearcut ideology and definite program of action. With the launching of the IWW, the revolutionary syndicalist tendency, intermeshed with and obscured by other conflicting tendencies and groupings, lost its ambiguous character and became a distinct, organized movement. It is only natural that the IWW in the process of working out its clearly defined principles and tactics, different and often conflicting concepts should emerge.

Soon after the first founding convention of the IWW in June 1905, irreconcilable differences between opposing factions almost wrecked the organization. The main controversy revolved around parliamentary political action versus direct economic action for the attainment of the cooperative commonwealth. Shall the IWW remain an exclusively fighting economic movement or shall it also endorse and become, in effect, an electioneering agency for a "workers" political party?

This was also the main issue involved in the conflict between the two opposing concepts--state socialism versus anarcho-syndicalism--which wrecked the ("first") International, as it threatened to wreck the IWW. The controversy was important because it, to a great degree, shaped the character of the modern labor movement. The nature of the controversy was clearly spelled out in Resolution #9, article 7A, of the Marxist dominated 1872, Hague Congress of the International:

. . in the struggle against the collective power of the propertied classes, the working class cannot act as a class except by CONSTlTUTING ITSELF INTO A POLITICAL PARTY, distinct from, and opposed to all other political parties....

. . . the constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to insure the triumph of the social revolution, and its ultimate aim, the abolition of classes . . . THE CONQUEST OF POLITICAL POWER HAS THEREFORE BECOME THE GREAT DUTY OF THE WORKING CLASS.... (my emphasis).

The revolutionary members of the IWW insisted that the IWW must remain an exclusively fighting economic movement. On the basis of their own experience and the lessons of past history, they maintained that it was impossible to unite, on the basis of their different--often conflicting--racial, religious, political, social and cultural affiliations. The struggle for economic well being is the one common interest that unites all the workers.

In Germany, England, France and elsewhere, "socialist" politicians and adventurers infiltrated and eventually dominated the labor move-ment. " . . . Constituting the working class into a political party . . . (Marx) drains the revolutionary vitality of the workers, deprives them of economic action (their most effective weapon), rendering them defenseless against the combined onslaughts of their mortal enemies, the employers and the state.

A strong case can be made for the proposition that "enlightened" political action by labor unions for the election of a "socialist" government, or a government that will be "friendly to labor," consti-tutes a greater danger to unionism than out-and-out racketeering. Open corruption can be seen and fought, but the illusion that the state--ANY STATE, can be friendly to labor is hard to dispel. This pernicious obsession leads only to the paralysis of the labor move-ment and paves the way for totalitarianism.

Eugene Debs and the IWW

Although Debs, a founder of the IWW, left the organization because it rejected Marx's political party platform, he must be credited with anticipating the IWW's critique of the AFL. He saw the need for revolutionary industrial unionism, "The One Big Union" of the working class. Debs' experience in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, awoke in him the necessity to organizing the unorganized and organized workers into an all embracing federation of railway workers.

The American Railway Union (ARU) came into being because the reactionary job-trust Railway Brotherhoods did not care to organize the unskilled and neglected crafts--carmen, section hands, switchmen, etc.--who, according to Debs' biographer Ray Ginger:

. . . rushed pell mell into the ARU so fast that the union officers were unable to pass out charters fast enough to keep pace with the flood of applications.... (The Bending Cross)

After emerging victorious from the great strikes against the giant Union Pacific and Great Northern Railroads, the ARU launched a nationwide boycott in support of the striking employees of the Pullman Palase Car Co. The boycott actually became a strike when the ARU refused to move trains carrying Pullman cars. The strike, which gave every evidence of success, was brutally crushed by federal troops sent by President Grover Cleveland.

Debs was not at that time a socialist. He started out in 1877 as a defender of capitalism against " . . . the lawless, violent strikers, and insurrectionists . . . " (great 1877 railway strikes). Debs campaigned to elect Cleveland President. It was the realization that the struggle had developed " . . . into a contest between the producers and the money power, with the courts against the strikers . . . " that impelled Debs to join the Socialist Party.

As the Socialist Party's leading propagandist and perennial candidate for the presidency, Debs enthusiastically proclaimed Marx's political party formula. He never realized, as Emma Goldman put it, in a conversation with him, that "Political action is the death knell of economic action." (Ginger, p. 198)

Ray Ginger points out that Debs left the IWW because he strongly disagreed with its anarcho-syndicalist orientation. Its " . . . radical leaders . . . " condemned all government. They thought that socialist politicians were just as phony as capitalist politicians, " . . . elections were a lot of bunk . . . " and believed that only the unions should " . . . run the country.... "

When the 1908 convention of the IWW eliminated the political action phrase from its Preamble to the Constitution:

. . . it was inevitable that Debs, who insisted on both industrial unions and the socialist party as a cornerstone of his social policy should resign from the IWW....

Debs did not publicly attack the IWW but ceased paying dues. However, recent research by historian Bernard J. Brummel shows that Debs revealed his true attitude in a letter written in 1913 to the socialist leader William English Walling:

. . . The IWW for which Haywood stands and speaks, is an anarchist organization in all except name, and this is the cause of all the trouble . . . when they [the IWW] cannot dominate you and use you for their own purposes they will denounce you as a traitor . . . the very name IWW was often offensive to the great mass of the workers.... (Eugene v. Debs--p 144)

It is obvious that Debs cannot, in the true sense of the term, be considered a founder of the IWW.

The IWW and the Western Federation of Miners (WFM)

In view of the fact that out of 51,000 members of the IWW when it was founded in 1905, 44,000 belonged to the WFM, the relations between these organizations need clarification.

Labor historian Melvin Dubofsky, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that the IWW, in all but name, was an exact replica of the WFM:

. . . what later became the distinguishing traits of the IWW . . . the combination of industrial labor solidarity, political nonpartnership, direct action, and syndicalism of the IWW . . . had already been subscribed to by the western federation of Miners (WFM) and its offspring the American Labor union in 1903.... (We Shall be All, p 73)

These assertions are accurate only if they apply to the influential syndicalist faction. But the WFM, as a whole was never a syndicalist organization. After a brief flirtation--a year or two--the WFM seceded from the IWW, primarily- because-the IWW excluded political action and affiliation with political parties from its Preamble and tactical programs. Militants like Saint John, Frank- Little and Bill Haywood remained in the IWW.

Although Haywood was an active member of the' Socialist Party, toured the country on its behalf, and was its delegate to the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen, he was (as we have seen) reprimanded by Debs and other socialist leaders because he associated himself with the revolutionary syndicalistic members of the IWW. This was the real reason why Haywood was dismissed from the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party.

The victorious right wing of the WFM championed electoral action and the program of the Socialist Party. Together with the socialists, the moderate and conservative leaders, who also believed in electoral politics, dominated the WFM.

At its 1895 convention the WFM endorsed the Populist Party. At the 1907 convention, WFM President Ed Boyce " . . . demanded from his followers more intelligent and effective political action." In 1900, the WFM urged labor to vote for the Debs-Harriman Socialist Party Presidential and Vice-presidential ticket. In 1903, the new president of the WFM, Charles Moyer, " . . . promised to make the WFM a union of conscious political workers." And the American Labor Union " . . . offspring of the WFM, offered its members, unswerving loyalty to socialist principles and the Socialist Party." (Dubofsky, pp. 59, 69, 71)

With Haywood's imprisonment on the false charge that he, along with Moyer and Pettibone, engineered the murder of Idaho ex-Governor Steunenberg, and left-wing IWW militants preoccupied with defense and organizing efforts, the anti-syndicalist wing of the WFM seized control of the organization entirely. They plotted to make the second convention of the WFM the " ... Waterloo of the revolutionists." In 1908, Haywood was fired.

Before World War One, the right-wing, opportunist President of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles Moyer (who ironically had been a co-defendant in the famous Haywood, Moyer, Pettibone case), dissolved the organization and propelled its remnants into the AFL. It was renamed the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW). In the 1930's, the IUMMSW joined the CIO and fell under the defacto control of the Communist Party.

Triumph of Revolutionary Unionism

Socialist politicians, officials, editors and journalists, and most of the leaders of the Socialist Party joined in brown-nosing the AFL and attacking the IWW.

. . . irrespective of their quarrels and differences, the Western Federation of Miners, the AFL, the Socialist Party and their rivals--the Socialist Labor Party--assailed the IWW as an aggregate of 'anarchists' and 'bums.' . . . (Dubofsky, p.141)

The insufferable Marxist bigot, Daniel De Leon, the Stalin of the Socialist Labor Party, tried to capture the IWW by methods just as reprehensible as any employed by the Communist Party. De Leon:

. . . sought to have the IWW journal denied second-class mailing privileges on the basis of the alleged espousal of anarchism.... (Dubofsky, p.141)

De Leon made one last attempt to capture the IWW by packing its 1908 convention with his stooges. His putsch failed. The picturesque singing "Overall Brigade" from Portland, Oregon; IWW militants from other parts of the west; wobblies from all over the country hoboed to the Chicago convention. They saved the IWW from the reformers and politicians who connived to cripple the IWW. Fred Thompson, veteran militant, historian and editor points out the significance of the victory:

. . . In one sense this [victory] is the true launching of the IWW. It is from here on that it exists as an organization with its own distinctive character The Brewery workers were not in it or likely to be; the Sherman tendency was out; the Western Federation was gone, and now the De Leon forces that had alienated so many unionists. The five thousand members it had after this 1908 convention were no longer divergent groups trying to live together but a compact organization of men attached to the IWW rather than to something else, largely rebels who had been organized by the new union, but who had long experience in the struggle with the employer, and many of whom were very familiar with all the fine points that radicals argue about. This was the IWW that was to add something new to the American labor movement. (The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, p.40).

Next page: Notes for a Discussion on the Regeneration of the American Labor Movement.