The Centennial of the Founding of the IWW: The Failure of Revolutionary Syndicalism

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A century ago on June 27, 1905, in a crowded hall in Chicago, Illinois, Big Bill Haywood, leader of the militant Western Miners Federation, called to order “the Continental Congress of the Working Class,” a gathering convened to create a new working class revolutionary organization in the United States: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), often referred to as the Wobblies. Haywood solemnly declared to the 203 delegates in attendance, “We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism…The aims and objects of this organization should be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.…this organization will be formed, based and founded on the class struggle, having in view no compromise and no surrender, and but one object and one purpose and that is to bring the workers of this country into the possession of the full value of the product of their toil.”

The IWW, however, never lived up to its lofty goals. It’s critique of capitalism never transcended a visceral hatred of the system’s exploitation and oppression, and never attempted to examine the nuances and intricacies of capitalist development and understand the significance of the consequent changing conditions under which the working class waged its struggles.

Historical Context for the Foundation of the IWW

The rise of the IWW in the U.S. was in part a response to the same general tendencies that triggered the rise of revolutionary syndicalism in western Europe: “opportunism, reformism, and parliamentary cretinism.” [1] The crystallization of this general international tendency in the US was conditioned by certain American specificities, including the existence of the frontier; the accompanying large scale immigration of workers from Europe to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s; and the vitriolic clash between craft unionism and industrial unionism.

The Frontier and Immigration. The existence of the frontier and tremendous influx of immigrant workers were strongly intertwined and had significant consequences for the development of the workers movement in the US. The frontier acted as a safety valve for burgeoning discontent in the populous industrial states of the northeast and Midwest. Significant numbers of workers, both native-born and immigrant, alienated by their exploitation in the factories and industrial trades, fled the industrial centers and migrated westward to the frontier in search of self sufficiency and a “better” life. This safety valve phenomenon disrupted the normal and routine evolution of an experienced proletarian movement.

The differences between native-born, English-speaking workers (even if the latter were only second generation immigrants themselves) and newly arrived immigrant workers who spoke and read little or no English were used to divide the workers against themselves. These divisions were a serious handicap for the working class in the US because it cut off the native Americans from the vast experience gained by workers in Europe and made it difficult for class conscious American workers to be current with the international theoretical developments within the workers movement. This retarded the theoretical development of the workers movement in America, and hampered its ability to resist effectively against opportunist and reformist currents, and understand its political tasks.

Another consequence of the frontier tradition was the tendency towards violence in American society. The American bourgeoisie displayed no reluctance to utilize repressive force in its confrontations with the proletariat, whether it was the army, state militias, private militias (i.e., the infamous Pinkertons), or hired thugs that were deployed to suppress numerous workers struggles, even massacring strikers and their families. Such circumstances readily exposed the viciousness and hypocrisy of the class dictatorship of bourgeois democracy and the futility of trying to achieve fundamental change at the ballot box. This in turn triggered widespread skepticism among the most class conscious workers about the efficacy of political action, which was generally perceived as synonymous with participation in electoralism.

Craft Unionism vs. Industrial Unionism. The clash between craft and industrial unionism was a dominant controversy within the workers movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In essence this was a dispute about which type of unitary class organization best corresponded to proletarian class interests in the period of capitalist ascendancy, when capitalism was still historically progressive in the sense that had not yet reached its historic limits and continued to foster the further development of the productive forces. Since it was possible for the proletariat to wrest structural reforms and improvements in wages, and living and working conditions from the bourgeoisie in ascendant capitalism, this dispute over whether unions organized along narrow craft lines, confined primarily to the most highly skilled workers, or unions organized along industrial lines, uniting skilled and unskilled workers in the same industry in the same organization, was a substantive issue for the advancement of working class interests.

Craft unions regrouped in the American Federation of Labor, which accepted the inevitability of capitalism and the wage system, and sought to make the best deal possible for the skilled workers it represented. Under Samuel Gompers’ leadership the AFL presented itself as a staunch defender of the American system, and a responsible alternative to labor radicalism. In so doing, the AFL abandoned any responsibility for the well being of millions of unskilled and semiskilled American workers who were ruthlessly exploited in the emerging mass employment manufacturing and extractive industries.

Perhaps the most important current in the evolution of the industrial unionist perspective, particularly in terms of its direct impact on the founding of the IWW, was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Embittered by their experiences in what literally amounted to open class warfare with the mining companies and the state authorities (both sides were often armed), the WFM became increasingly radicalized. In 1898, the WFM sponsored the formation of the Western Labor Union, as a “dual union.” A regional alternative to the AFL, it never really had any independent existence beyond the influence of its sponsor. While their immediate demands often echoed the same “pork chop unionism” wage demands of the AFL, by 1902 the long range goal of the WFM was socialism. The 1904 WFM convention directed its executive board to seek the creation of a new organization to unite the entire working class, which initiated the process that led to the founding convention of the IWW.

IWW’s Revolutionary Syndicalism vs. Anarcho-syndicalism

Despite the incipient syndicalist viewpoint that permeated the views of the founders of the IWW, particularly the idea that the socialist society would be organized along the lines of industrial unions, there were sharp differences between the IWW and anarcho-syndicalism as it existed in Europe. The men who gathered in Chicago in 1905 considered themselves adherents of a Marxist perspective. Except for Lucy Parsons, widow of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons who attended as an honored guest, no anarchists or syndicalists played any significant role in the founding congress.

Coming out of the founding convention, “every IWW official was a Socialist Party member.” [2] In addition, the IWW’s general organizer from 1908-1915, Vincent St. John, made it clear that he opposed tying the IWW to a political party, and “struggled to save the IWW from Daniel DeLeon on the one hand and from the ‘anarchist freaks’ on the other.” [3] IWW leaders regarded syndicalism as an alien, European doctrine. “In January, 1913, for instance, a Wobbly partisan called syndicalism ‘the name that is most widely used by [the IWW’s] enemies.’ The Wobblies themselves had few kind words for the European syndicalist leaders. To them, Ferdinand Pelloutier was ‘the anarchist,’ Georges Sorel, ‘the monarchist apologist for violence,’ Herbert Lagardelle was an ‘anti-democrat,’ and the Italian Arturo Labriola, ‘the conservative in politics and revolutionist in labor unionism.’” [4]

In contrast to the decentralized vision of anarcho-syndicalism whose federationist principles favored a confederation of independent and autonomous unions, the IWW operated in accordance with a centralist orientation. While the IWW’s 1905 constitution conferred “industrial autonomy” on its industrial unions, it clearly established the principle that these industrial unions were under the control of the General Executive Board (GEB), the central organ of the IWW: The subdivision International and National Industrial Unions shall have complete industrial autonomy in their respective internal affairs, provided the General Executive Board shall have power to control these Industrial Unions in matters concerning the interest of the general welfare.” This position was accepted without controversy. The GEB alone could authorize an IWW strike.

The Anti-Political Perspective

The preamble to the IWW constitution adopted at the founding convention was clear in its commitment to the revolutionary destruction of capitalism. “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life…Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system…It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.” The organization was not clear, however, on the nature of this revolution or how it would be made. It wasn’t even clear if the revolution was a political or an economic act.

Despite their Marxist sympathies, the dominant view amongst the IWW’s founders held that for the workers the political struggle was subordinate to the economic, and that the organization should not be directly involved in politics, much to the chagrin of Socialist and Socialist Labor Party militants who sought to get the IWW to affiliate with their respective organizations. In the interests of unity, the convention formulated a convolutedly worded concession to socialists from both parties, by agreeing to the insertion of a political paragraph in the preamble to the IWW constitution, which read as follows: “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial field, and take hold of that which they produce by their labor, through an economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.” For most delegates this concessionary reference to politics was incomprehensible. [5]

The opposition to politics derived from a theoretical misunderstanding of the nature of the class struggle and the proletarian revolution and the political tasks of the proletariat. For the IWW, “political” meant participation in bourgeois elections, which offered only propagandistic value in demonstrating the futility of electoralism.

This narrow definition of politics failed to understand the political nature of the proletarian revolution. What could be more political than the destruction of the capitalist state, taking control of the means of production, and the imposition of the proletarian revolutionary perspective over the whole of society? The proletarian revolution is the most audacious and thoroughgoing political act in all of human history – a revolution in which the exploited and oppressed masses rise up, destroy the state of the exploiting class, and impose their own revolutionary class dictatorship over society in order to achieve the transition to communism.

The political compromise embodied in the arcane wording of the political paragraph in the 1905 preamble was not sufficient to maintain the unity of the organization. By the 1908 convention, the anti-political perspective triumphed. The political clause was deleted from the preamble, DeLeon was barred from attending the convention on a credentials technicality, and his followers split with him to form their own IWW based in Detroit that was subordinate to the SLP. Eugene Debs, along with many other Socialist Party members, permitted his membership to lapse and withdrew from IWW activities. Haywood remained in the organization and in 1911 served simultaneously as a leading member of the IWW and a board member of the Socialist Party, until he was removed from the latter after membership in the IWW was deemed incompatible by the Socialists because of the IWW’s stance on sabotage and opposition to political action.

Confusing the Revolutionary Organization and the Unitary Organization

For the IWW the industrial union was an all-in-one organizational form. The union would not simply be a unitary organization what would serve as a mechanism for working class self defense and the form for proletarian rule after the revolution but it would also be an organization of revolutionary militants and agitators. According to its 1908 constitution, the IWW believed that “the army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” As we have pointed out in International Review 118, such a syndicalist vision that sees the possibility to form “the structure of new society within the shell of the old …springs from a profound incomprehension of the degree of antagonism between capitalism, the last exploiting society, and the classless society which must replace it. This serious error leads to underestimating the depth of social transformation necessary to carry out the transition between these two social forms, and it also underestimated the resistance of the ruling class to the seizure of power by the working-class.” [6]

With this vision revolutionary syndicalism also confounded the two types of organization that have historically been secreted by the working class: revolutionary organizations and unitary organizations. They failed to appreciate the difference between the revolutionary organization that regroups militants on the basis of a shared agreement on, and commitment to, revolutionary principles and program, and a unitary organization of the class that unites all workers as workers on a sociological basis. This failure condemned the IWW to an unstable existence. The open door to membership that the organization maintained was literally a revolving door, through which perhaps as many as a million workers entered and just as quickly exited between 1905 and 1917.

Furthermore, the battle waged by the industrial unionists against craft and business unionism was increasingly anachronistic. The historic period changed in the early 20th century with the completion and saturation of the world market, which accentuated the effects of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, and ushered in the onset of capitalist decadence and the evaporation of the possibility of durable reforms. Under these changed conditions, the trade union form of organization itself, whether industrial or craft, became irrelevant to the class struggle and was absorbed into the capitalist state apparatus as a mechanism for working class control. The experience of the mass strike in Russia in 1905 and the discovery of soviets, or workers councils, by the proletariat in that country was an historical watershed for the world proletariat. The lessons of these developments and their impact on class struggle were the focus of theoretical work by Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Anton Pannekoek, and others in the leftwing of the Second International. In the real struggle of the proletariat, workers councils displaced the trade unions as the unitary organization of the working class. This new type of organization united workers from all industries in a given territorial area in the revolutionary confrontation with the ruling class and constituted the historically discovered form that the dictatorship of the proletariat would take. Unfortunately, all this theoretical work seemed completely lost on the IWW, which never understood the significance of the changed period or of the workers councils, and continued to laud “industrial unionism [as] the road to freedom.” [7]

Centrist Hesitancy in Response to World War I

Moments of war and revolution are historically determinant for organizations that claim to defend proletarian class interests, a litmus test revealing their true class nature. In this sense, the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 revealed the betrayal of the major parties of the Social Democracy in Europe who rallied to the side of their respective bourgeoisies, turned their backs on the principles of proletarian internationalism and opposition to imperialist war, participated in the mobilization of the proletariat for the slaughter, and thereby crossed the class line to the camp of the bourgeoisie.

When war broke out in Europe, the Wobblies formally espoused principles of proletarian internationalism, and opposed the war. In 1914, the IWW convention adopted a resolution that stated, “…the industrial movement will wipe out all boundaries and establish an international relationship between all races engaged in industry…We, as members of the industrial army, will refuse to fight for any purpose except for the realization of industrial freedom.” In 1916, another resolution committed the organization to a program advocating “anti-militarist propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting Class Solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the General Strike in all industries.[8]

However, when US imperialism entered the war in April 1917, the IWW lapsed into a centrist hesitancy and failed miserably to put its internationalism and anti-militarism into practice. Unlike the AFL, the IWW never endorsed the war or participated in mobilizing the proletariat for war. But neither did it maintain an active opposition to the war. Instead, antiwar pamphlets like The Deadly Parallel were withdrawn from circulation. IWW soapbox speakers stopped agitating against war. The majority of the General Executive Board, led by Haywood, regarded the war as a distraction from the class struggle and the more important work of building the union and feared that active opposition to the war would open the IWW to repression. [9]

Individual militants who faced the problem of resisting conscription into the imperialist war were told that it was an individual decision, and received no organizational support. Many IWW leaders were correctly opposed to interclassist anti-war demonstrations and organizations and accurately argued that the IWW did not have sufficient influence within the proletariat to organize a successful antiwar general strike. However, they appeared equally unwilling to seek ways in which they could find a way to oppose the imperialist war on the working class terrain. In a letter to Frank Little, a leader of the antiwar faction on the General Executive Board, Haywood counseled, “Keep a cool head; do not talk. A good many feel as you do but the world war is of small importance compared to the great class war…I am at a loss as to definite steps to be taken against the war.” [10]

When an IWW activist wrote to headquarters and urged that an emergency IWW convention be convened to decide how the organization would respond to US entry into the war, Haywood deflected the request: “Of course, it is impossible for this office…to take action on our individual initiative. However, I place your communication on the file for future reference.”

In an irony of history, it was the IWW that consciously chose not to actively fight against the war once the US had entered the conflict, and not the socialist parties that opposed the war, that was targeted for repression. Only the IWW, as an organization, faced indictment for a conspiracy to sabotage the war effort. In this sense the war provided a pretext for the bourgeoisie to crackdown on the IWW for its past activities and wild rhetoric. One hundred and sixty-five IWW leaders were indicted September 28, 1917 on charges of obstructing the war effort and conscription, and conspiring to sabotage and interfere with the normal contractual economic functioning in society. At the Great Trial of Wobbly leaders, the defendants pointed out that of the 521 wartime labor strikes, only three were organized by the IWW, the rest by the AFL and disowned the views of Frank Little. After their conviction, the bulk of the IWW’s leading centralizers were sent off to Leavenworth in chains and the organization fell under the control of decentralizing anarcho-syndicalists and went into decline.

The Failure of the IWW

There persists even today a romanticized image of the Wobbly organizer as a rugged, itinerant revolutionary, who hops freight trains and hoboes from town to town, propagandizing and agitating for the One Big Union – a proletarian knight in shining armor. This petty bourgeois model of the revolutionary as exemplary individual figure, so appealing to the anarchist temperament, is of no interest to the proletariat, whose struggle is not waged by isolated, heroic individuals, but by the collective effort of the working class, a class that is both an exploited and revolutionary class.

The Russian Revolution won many of the non-anarchists in the IWW to communism, including Big Bill Haywood, who fled to exile in Russia in 1922. While Haywood became disillusioned with the Russian Revolution, in part because he was disappointed that the revolution did not take a syndicalist form, he made a comment to Max Eastman that succinctly summed up the failure of the IWW’s revolutionary syndicalism: “The IWW reached out and grabbed an armful. It tired to grab the whole world and a part of the world has jumped ahead of it.” [11]

The revolutionary syndicalists of the IWW were dedicated to their class, but their response to opportunism, reformism and parliamentary cretinism was completely off the mark. Their industrial unionism and revolutionary syndicalism did not correspond to the changed historic period. The world had “jumped ahead of it” and left it far behind.

J.Grevin, 18/6/05.



[1] Lenin’s preface to a pamphlet by Voinov (Lunacharsky) on the party’s attitude towards the unions (1907).

[2] Dubovsky, Melvyn, “We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World,” Chicago:Quadrangle Books, 1969 p.95.

[3] Canon, James, “The IWW” p.20-21 cited Dubovsky p. 143

[4] Conlin, Joseph Robert, “Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies”, Wetport, CT: Greenwood, 1969, p. 9, quoting from William E. Walling, “Industrial or Revolutionary Unionis,” New Review 1 (Jan. 11, 1913, p.46, and Walling, “Industrialism versus Syndicalism,” International Socialist Review 14 (August 1913), p. 666.

[5] Dubovsky, pp. pp83-85.

[6] “What is Revolutionary Syndicalism?” International Review No. 118, p.23.

[7] Ettor, Joseph, “Industrial Unionism: The Road to Freedom,” 1913.

[8] Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Convention of the IWW, Chicago, 1916, p. 110.

[9] Renshaw, Patrick, “the Wobbllies,” Garden City: Doublday, 1967 p. 217 citing letters, minutes and other IWW document in the US Circuit Court of Appeals, 7th District, October 1919.

[10] Haywood to Little May 6, 1917 quoted in Renshaw, p. 217.

[11] Conlin, Bread and Roses, p. 147, quoting Eastman, Bill Haywood, p. 14.