The IWW: The failure of revolutionary syndicalism in the USA, 1905-1921

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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 Federation of Miners, 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.[1] 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.” (Proceedings of the First IWW Convention, p.1-2.)

This marked the beginning of the great revolutionary syndicalist experiment in the US, which will be the focus of this third installment in our series on anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalism in the history of the workers’ movement.[2] In the course of its 16 years of existence as a serious organization, from 1905 to 1921, the IWW became a force to be reckoned with by the bourgeoisie and the workers’ organization most feared and vilified by its class enemy. The IWW evolved rapidly during this period in terms of its theoretical tenets, political clarity, and its contributions to the proletarian struggle.

But before we examine the lessons to be drawn from this experience, it is worth emphasizing that the mere fact of returning to it has a particular importance in the present historical context. Today, a kind of “Holy Alliance” that runs from Al Qaeda to the far left of capital, by way of the anti-globalization movement and the governments of America’s imperialist rivals, has every interest in presenting – more or less subtly – “Yankee imperialism” (or the “Great Satan”) as the Enemy Number One of the world’s peoples and workers. According to the propaganda of this “Holy Alliance”, the American “people” are born-again Christian crusaders who profit unthinkingly from the fruits of American imperialist policy. In the United States itself, the workers are presented as being part of the “middle classes”. The experience of the IWW, the exemplary courage of its militants in the face of a ruling class for whom no violence or hypocrisy was too vile, is thus a reminder that the workers of America are indeed the class brothers of workers the world over, that their interests and struggles are the same, and that internationalism is not a vain word for the working class, but the touchstone of its very existence.

Historical context of the IWW’s foundation

The rise of the IWW in the US 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.”[3] The crystallization of this general international tendency in the US was conditioned by certain American specifics, 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; the arrival on the labor market of large numbers of ex-slaves liberated after the Civil War (1861-65); and the vitriolic clash between craft unionism and industrial unionism and the debate over “boring from within” versus dual unionism.                                                          

The Frontier and immigration

The existence of the Frontier and the 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, ferociously exploited in the factories and industrial trades, exercised the option of fleeing the industrial centers and migrating westward to the frontier in search of self sufficiency and a “better life”, as a homesteader operating a subsistence farm or in quixotic get-rich-quick schemes in mining. This safety valve disrupted the evolution of an experienced proletarian movement.  And although the frontier in effect no longer existed by the early 1890s, this escapist phenomenon continued well into the early 20th century.[4]

The divisions 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 had long been a cause for concern in the workers movement in the US. In a letter to Sorge in 1893, Engels warned against the bourgeoisie’s cynical use of divisions within the proletariat, which retarded the development of the workers’ movement in the US.[5] The bourgeoisie skillfully used race, ethnic, nationality and linguistic prejudices to divide workers amongst themselves, and to disrupt the development of a working class that saw itself as a united class. 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 keep up to date with the international theoretical developments within the workers’ movement, leaving them dependent on poor quality translations of Marx and Engels’ writings, which sometimes reflected the theoretical weaknesses of the translators. 

This retarded the theoretical development of the workers’ movement in America, which was hampered in its ability to mount an effective resistance against opportunist and reformist currents.

The theoretical deficiencies of Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), who subscribed to a variant of the Lasallean “iron law of wages”[6] – and as a result completely underestimated the importance of the proletariat’s immediate struggle – who naively believed in revolution at the ballot box, rejected the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and ruled the SLP in an authoritarian and sectarian manner, have been addressed in previous articles in the ICC press in the US.[7]  Eugene Debs, the perennial candidate of the Socialist Party of America (SPA, the SLP’s rival socialist party),[8] had great oratorical skills but limited theoretical and organizational talents. Both men participated in the founding convention of the IWW, but the fact that neither individual, nor their respective political parties, was capable of contributing political clarity to the IWW was in a large sense the consequence of the weak theoretical traditions of the American workers’ movement.

Another consequence of the Frontier tradition was the tendency towards violence in American society. Frontier settlements initially lacked any formal state apparatus, including institutions of law and order, and this contributed to the rise of a culture of guns and violence, which persists to this day, with the proliferation of guns and a level of violence in society that far exceeds that of any other major industrialized nation.[9] In this context it was doubtless inevitable that the class struggle of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the US was extremely violent. 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 (the infamous Pinkertons), or hired thugs that were deployed to suppress numerous workers’ struggles, even to the point of massacring strikers and their families. Workers for their part were not reluctant to respond in self-defense. 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. This confusion was fed particularly by the SLP’s DeLeon whose bizarre fetishization of the ballot perpetuated the mistaken notion that political action was by definition identical to electoralism. The failure to understand that the revolution was a fundamentally political act, the confrontation with and destruction of the capitalist state, and the conquest of power by the working class, would have severe consequences for the Wobblies.

Craft unionism vs. industrial unionism

The Knights of Labor, which grew to one million members by 1886, was the first national labor organization of significance in the US. Although the Knights considered that workers should conceive of themselves as wage earners first, and as Irish, Italian, Jewish, Catholic or Protestant second, they remained (as was inevitable for this period in the development of the working class) a group of national trade unions which organized workers along narrow craft lines, “organizing carpenters as carpenters, bricklayers as bricklayers, and so forth, teaching them all to place their own craft interests before those of other workers.”[10] The clashes around the struggle for the 8-hour day, which led to the Haymarket massacre of 1886,[11] dealt the Knights a severe blow, and by 1888 they were clearly in decline. The craft unions then regrouped in the American Federation of Labor (founded in 1886), 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 semi-skilled American workers who were ruthlessly exploited in the emerging mass employment manufacturing and extractive industries.

In this context, the clash between craft and industrial unionism, often seen as a clash between “business” or class collaborationist unionism and “industrial” or class struggle unionism, was a dominant controversy within the workers’ movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While this debate reflected the historical specificities of the “Anglo-Saxon” countries (in particular the combination of a strong trades union movement and a weak socialist and marxist political tradition within the working class), it was above all the expression of far-reaching changes taking place within capitalism itself: on the one hand, the development of large-scale industry epitomized by the rise of “Taylorism”,[12] and on the other, the fact that capitalism’s ascendant period was drawing to a close, imposing new historical goals and methods on the class struggle.

The first trades unions (as the English term implies) were based on particular crafts within industry, and much of their activity was devoted to defending their members’ interests not only as workers in general, but also as craftsmen. This included the enforcement of barriers to entry into a trade that required certain craft qualifications (generally acquired after a period of apprenticeship), or the defense of “demarcation lines” reserving certain jobs for members of certain unions, for instance. As such, the trades union organization in its traditional form tended both to create divisions among the workers in different trades, and to exclude completely the vast masses of unskilled workers who poured into the new mass-production industries that developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The fact that such unskilled workers were often recent immigrants from the countryside or from abroad often also isolated them from craft workers in terms of language and racial prejudice (which was by no means limited to the prejudice between whites and blacks).

The other key development was the fact that, in the early years of the 20th century, the end of capitalism’s ascendant period began to impose new demands on the workers’ struggle. As we have seen in the articles on the Russian revolution of 1905 (International Review n°120, 122, 123), the class struggle was reaching the point where the fight to defend or improve wages and living conditions increasingly meant mounting a political challenge to the whole capitalist order. More and more, the question was no longer one of gaining reforms within capitalism but of deciding the key question of power: was political, state power to remain in the hands of the capitalist class, or on the contrary was the working class to destroy the capitalist state and take power into its own hands for the construction of a new, communist (or socialist, as the IWW would have said) society?

On both counts, the narrow craft unionism of the AFL was not only inadequate, but also downright reactionary.

What then could be done about it? Two solutions were hotly debated throughout the history of the syndicalist movement:[13] “dual unionism”, and “boring from within”. “Dual unionism”, which in effect meant setting up a new movement to rival the old trades unions, was a high-risk strategy: it opened the syndicalists to accusations of splitting the labor movement, and could only hope to be effective if it could attract enough adherents, as the fiasco of DeLeon’s fruitless attempt to establish an “industrial union” in the late 1890’s showed all too clearly. The strategy of “boring from within”, on the other hand, could only hope for success if the syndicalists were able to take control of the existing unions, and in the meantime left them at the mercy of the unprincipled methods of their “traditionalist” opponents like Gompers in the AFL.

In the final analysis, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and still more of 1917 rendered the whole debate moot by creating a new form of organization, the soviet (workers’ council), which was fitted to the new conditions of proletarian struggle in a way that neither craft unions nor the IWW’s “industrial unions” could ever be.

There were a number of notable strands present in the evolution of the industrial unionist camp. One example was that of Eugene Debs, who in 1893, disenchanted by the mutual scabbing and strikebreaking activity of craft unions in the railroad industry during his 17 year career in the rail workers’ craft unions, founded the American Railway Union (ARU) as an industrial organization open to all rail workers, regardless of skill or craft. The union grew quickly, attracting not only unskilled workers but also skilled workers who understood the need for broad solidarity in their struggle against the employers. In 1894, the ARU found itself locked prematurely in struggle in the Pullman strike, a strike which led to the union’s destruction and to a six-month prison term for Debs. The experience would be an important moment in the political evolution of Debs, who became converted to socialism in prison, and emerged as a leading critic of Gompers’ brand of unionism.

In the late 1890s, the Socialist Labor Party, under the leadership of Daniel DeLeon, abandoned its policy of competing for leadership of the AFL unions, “boring from within,” and opted for a policy of “dual unionism,” creating the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance, as a rival socialist labor organization, in which enrollment in the party was a prerequisite for union membership. This organizational attempt met with limited success.

The founding of the IWW reignited the charge of “dual unionism” as a central element in Samuel Gompers’ propaganda attack against the IWW and led to considerable controversy. French anarcho-syndicalists who had triumphed in winning control of the CGT by successfully “boring from within”, and by winning control of essentially craft unions, were critical of the IWW’s abandonment of the AFL unions. William Z. Foster, an IWWer who fell under the influence of the French anarcho-syndicalists during a visit to France, argued vehemently for disbandment of the IWW and re-entry into the AFL before he eventually left the Wobblies.[14]  

IWW leaders denied the accusations of dual unionism, as seen in Haywood’s insistence that the IWW’s mission was to organize the unorganized, the unskilled industrial workers who were ignored by the craft unions of the AFL. The IWW did not seek to raid the memberships of AFL unions or even to compete with the AFL in winning the support of particular labor forces.  However, it was undeniable that the IWW was in effect a rival to Gompers and the AFL.

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 to be found in the attempts by workers in the mining camps of the Colorado, Montana, and Idaho to organize on an industrial basis in the 1880s and 1890s which gave rise to 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 (WLU), 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. 

For example, in his 1902 farewell address to the WFM convention, outgoing president Ed Boyce warned that pure and simple unionism was not enough to defend the interests of workers. In the final analysis, the answer, he argued was “to abolish the wage system which is more destructive of human rights and liberty than any other slave system devised.[15]

In 1902, the AFL urged the WFM to disband the WLU and to rejoin the AFL, but the WFM responded by transforming the regional organization into the American Labor Union, to compete with the AFL on a national level, and by embracing socialism even more openly. The ALU began to openly advocate positions that would subsequently serve as the guiding principles for the IWW: the primacy of economic action (what the IWW would later call “direct action”) over political action and the syndicalist model for the organization of the revolutionary society. The ALU Journal stated:

The economic organization of the proletariat is the heart and soul of the Socialist movement (…) The purpose of industrial unionism is to organize the working class in approximately the same departments of production and distribution as those which will obtain in the co-operative commonwealth, so that if the workers should lose their franchise, they would still retain an economic organization intelligently trained to take over and collectively administer the tools of industry and the sources of wealth for themselves.”[16]

 The 1904 WFM convention directed its executive board to seek the creation of a new organization to unite the entire working class. After two secret meetings during the summer and fall, each attended by a slightly differing array of representatives of various organizations, a letter was sent to thirty individuals, including industrial unionists, Socialist Party members, Socialist Labor Party members, and even members of AFL unions, inviting them “to meet with us in Chicago, Monday, January 2, 1905, in secret conference to discuss ways and means of uniting the working people of America on correct revolutionary principles (…) as will insure its [labor’s] integrity as a real protector of the interests of the workers.[17] Twenty-two people attended the January meeting. Several, including Debs, were unable to attend but sent their strong support. Only two of the invitees, both influential Socialist Party members, refused to attend because of their preference for working within the AFL. The January meeting issued a call for the founding convention of the IWW.

Revolutionary syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism?

As a revolutionary syndicalist organization, the IWW embraced an orientation that placed it in sharp contrast to the anarcho-syndicalism of the French CGT, discussed previously in “Anarcho-syndicalism faces a change in epoch: the CGT up to 1914,” International Review n°120. Despite the syndicalist vision that permeated the views of the IWW’s founders, 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. These differences can be seen clearly in three vital questions: internationalism, political action and centralization.


In the period leading up to the outbreak of the first world imperialist war, the anarcho-syndicalists of the French CGT, expressed their opposition to war in a manner more akin to pacifism than proletarian internationalism. At the onset of war in 1914 the CGT completely abandoned any anti-war perspective and rallied to the support of the French capitalist state, participated in the mobilization of the proletariat for imperialist war and thereby crossed the class line to the side of the bourgeoisie. Contrary to this betrayal of class principles, the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World defended an opposition to imperialist war prior to US entry into the conflict that mirrored that of Social-Democracy before the outbreak of war between the major European powers. For example, the 1916 IWW convention adopted a resolution that declared:

“We condemn all wars, and for the prevention of such, we proclaim the anti-militaristic 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.

We extend assurances of both moral and material support to all workers who suffer at the hands of the capitalist class for their adherence to these principles, and call on all workers to unite themselves with us, that the reign of the exploiters may cease, and this earth be made fair through the establishment of Industrial democracy.” (Official Proceedings of the 1916 Convention, p.138)

Whatever the ambiguities that characterized the IWW’s actions when the US eventually entered the global imperialist slaughter in April 1917 – which we shall discuss in more detail in our next article – unlike the French anarcho-syndicalists they never endorsed the war and for this refusal they faced violent state suppression.

The class difference between the IWW and the CGT in their reaction to war was not merely the result of different historical circumstances: the fact that the United States only entered the war in 1917, and did not face foreign invasion of American territory. The difference between the CGT’s capitulation and the IWW’s internationalism in the face of war was prepared by a profound difference in their practice. As we have shown in the previous article in this series, the CGT remained tied to a “national” vision of revolution which owed much to the experience of the French bourgeois revolution of 1789. The IWW, by contrast, never lost sight of the international nature of the class struggle and took seriously the words “of the World” in its organizational title. From the outset, the IWW’s ambition was to unite the entire world proletariat into a single, class-struggle organization: affiliated sections of the “One Big Union” were created as far afield as Mexico, Peru, Australia and Great Britain. Within the United States, the IWW pioneered in bridging the gap between immigrant and native-born, English speaking workers in the US, and welcomed blacks into the organization on an equal basis with white workers, at a time when racial segregation and discrimination was rampant in society at large and when most American Federation of Labor unions denied admission to blacks. 

Political action

While anarcho-syndicalism rejected political action, revolutionary syndicalism, as personified by the IWW, embraced the activity and participation of political organizations at its founding convention, including the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Labor Party. In fact those who participated in the 1905 convention considered themselves socialists, adherents of a Marxist perspective, not anarchists. With the exception of Lucy Parsons, widow of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons,[18] who attended as an honored guest, no anarchists or syndicalists played any significant role in the founding congress. At the end of the founding convention, “every IWW official was a Socialist Party member.”[19]  

One of the most dramatic moments at the IWW’s founding convention was the public handshake between Daniel DeLeon, leader of the SLP, and Eugene Debs of the SPA. Despite years of bitter political and personal feuding, it was in the revolutionary syndicalist setting of the IWW convention that these two political giants of the socialist movement publicly buried the hatchet in the interests of proletarian unity.  While the IWW would come to distance itself from the socialist parties, culminating in the departure of both Debs and DeLeon by 1908, the organization remained open to socialist and later to communist party militants. In fact, in 1911, Big Bill Haywood was an elected executive board member of the SPA at the same time as he held a leadership post in the IWW. Moreover, it was the Socialist Party’s right wing faction, not the IWW’s General Executive Board, that regarded Haywood’s simultaneous leadership role in both organizations as unacceptable. Even well after the IWW had formally removed political action from its revolutionary preamble, most members voted for socialist candidates, and socialist electoral victories in such places as Butte, Montana were generally attributed to large Wobbly voter turn out.

 IWW leaders vehemently denied any adherence to the theories of syndicalism, which they regarded 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’, Herbet Lagardelle was an ‘anti-democrat’, and the Italian Arturo Labriola, ‘the conservative in politics and revolutionist in labor unions’.”[20]

However, despite the IWWers insistence that they were “industrial unionists” or “industrialists,” not syndicalists, it is in fact accurate to characterize the organization as revolutionary syndicalist, since, for the IWW, the “One Big Union” would be the proletariat’s organizing force within capitalism, the agent of the proletarian revolution, and the organizational form for the socialist society that the revolution was to create.

In fact, the IWW’s attitude to political action was ambivalent. Although many Wobblies were militants in the SPA or the SLP, as we have seen, the IWW had a well-founded distrust for the factional disputes between the political organizations: 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.”[21]

On the other hand, the IWW’s own activity was in many cases more akin to that of a political organization than a union. In particular, the IWW’s commitment to “direct action” reflected a conception that far exceeded traditional trade unionist boundaries that limited organizational activities to the workplace for the unions, or the ballot box for the political parties. It implied that the struggle could be taken to the streets and that the state as well as the employer was an enemy to be confronted. The clearest examples of this were the free speech fights waged by the IWW from 1909 to 1913, mostly in western cities that had passed local laws prohibiting soap-box speakers from addressing workers in the streets as part of IWW organizing drives. The IWW responded by mobilizing all available militants to rush to these locations, to break the law by making speeches, and literally flooding the jails. This civil disobedience mobilized support from many workers, socialists, and even AFL unions and liberal elements within the bourgeoisie. While the conception of “direct action” would eventually be linked to the advocacy of “sabotage” as a union tactic, which we will discuss later, on balance direct action was clearly rooted in a commitment to political action outside the traditional parameters of syndicalism.


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.” (Constitution and By-Laws of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1905 – Article 1).[22]  This position was accepted without controversy in 1905. The GEB alone could authorize an IWW strike. This emphasis on centralization was based on “recognition of the centralization of American capital and industry.”[23] In contrast to the decentralized, federationist perspective of the anarcho-syndicalists which encouraged frequent strikes by autonomous unions, the IWW favored fewer strikes that were more coolly planned and based on a more dispassionate analysis of the balance of forces and the strength of the workers, a decision that was better taken by an Executive Board that had a more global vision of the struggle, than by isolated workers reacting rashly to local grievances.

Even later, after the organization had come to reject political action and adopted a more openly revolutionary syndicalist perspective, centralizers continued to prevail over proponents of a decentralized organizational orientation. This debate pitted a “Western faction” against an “Eastern faction” in the GEB. Decentralizers were strongest in the west, with a base among migratory industrial workers – lumberjacks, miners, and agricultural workers, who were most often single, native-born Americans, who roamed from place to place in search of work. In the East, on the other hand, the IWW’s strength was centered in manufacturing industries and among longshoremen, who were often married men with families, with more stable living conditions, and after the Lawrence strike in 1912 were often immigrant workers. The Easterners favored centralization in order to keep tighter control of what was done in the name of the union and to permit the IWW to build a more stable membership by providing ongoing support to the membership even outside times of open struggles – essentially to provide the same kinds of services that the AFL unions provided. The Westerners favored greater autonomy for local groups of workers and individuals to take actions that they saw fit as a means to build morale and enthusiasm within the membership. Though he had his origins among the miners of the West, Haywood belonged to the Eastern faction and consistently favored centralization in order to build a stable, permanent union organization.

Having asserted the strengths of revolutionary syndicalism as compared to anarcho-syndicalism, it is clear that  revolutionary syndicalism represented a real effort within the proletariat to find an answer to the opportunism of the socialist parties and unions, while anarcho-syndicalism represented the influence of anarchism within this movement.” (International Review n°120). However, this is not to say that revolutionary syndicalism and the IWW did not suffer from great weaknesses.  Our intention in the next article will be to examine whether the principles of revolutionary syndicalism, as they were expressed in the IWW in the period 1905-1921, proved adequate for the class struggle as it confronted the question of war or revolution on a concrete level at a crucial moment in the international confrontation between the working class and its exploiters. This critique of the IWW’s positions in no way denies or denigrates the bravery, heroism, combativeness, and dedication of IWW militants, many of whom paid for their dedication with prison terms, or even their lives, nor does it minimize the important strikes that the IWW organized, uniting immigrant and native born, black and white workers in the class struggle. We will rather seek to look beyond the false consciousness of romanticized Wobbly mythology that still blinds well-meaning militants to the shortcomings of the organization and its heritage.

J. Grevin


[1] According to the official IWW history, “The origin of the expression ‘Wobbly’ is uncertain. Legend assigns it to the lingual difficulties of a Chinese restaurant keeper with whom arrangements had been made during this strike to feed members passing through his town. When he tried to ask ‘Are you IWW?’ it is said to have come out: ‘All loo eye wobble wobble?’ The same situation, but in Vancouver is given as the 1911 origin of the term by Mortimer Downing in a letter quoted in Nation, Sept. 5, 1923” (see

[2]. See International Review n°118 and 120.

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

[4]. For example, Vincent St. John, one of the most important IWW leaders, who had been a miner before devoting himself to organizational work, grew disenchanted with his Wobbly activity, resigned from the organization in 1914 and headed to the New Mexico desert seeking his fortune as a prospector. Of course he never struck it rich, and even though he left the organization well before the US entered the war in April 1917, when the bourgeoisie rounded up IWW leaders on trumped up charges of disrupting the war effort in 1917, they arrested the hapless St. John in the desert.

[5]. Engels, Friedrich, “Why There Is No Large Socialist Party in America”: Engels to Sorge, December 2, 1893 in Marx and Engels: Basic writings on politics and philosophy ed. By Lewis Feuer, 1959, pp.457-458. In this letter Engels answered a question from Friedrich Adolf Sorge as to why there was no significant socialist party in the US by explaining that “American conditions involve very great and peculiar difficulties for a steady development of a workers’ party.” Among these difficulties, one of the most important was “immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter into 1) the Irish, 2) the Germans, 3) the many small groups, each of which understands only itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.”

[6].The development of industrial capitalism, especially at the beginning of the 19th century, was accompanied by a continual decline in wages, plunging vast sectors of the working class into a condition worse than slavery. The idea that this situation could not be modified because of the competition between capitalists even affected certain socialist thinkers, who advised the workers to avoid struggling against their exploiters: Proudhon, for example, came out against workers’ strikes. Lassalle took up this idea that the laws of capitalism itself made it impossible to raise wages: he called this “the iron law of wages”. Marx always opposed these ideas, notably in the Poverty of Philosophy written against Proudhon’s theories in 1847, and again in Wages, prices, and profit, written in 1865: “the capitalist constantly [tends] to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction. The matter resolves itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants”. This is why Marx welcomed workers’ strikes, not just as a struggle against “the encroachments of capital”, but above all as a preparation for capitalism’s overthrow: “is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation (…) By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement” (From the chapter “The struggle between capital and labour and its results”).

[7]. See our series, “The Legacy of De Leonism in Internationalism n°114, 115, 117, and 118.

[8]. The Socialist Party of America was a mass membership socialist party in the US, which rose to prominence in the early years of the 20th century, founded by regrouping a number of tendencies, including militants who had broken with the DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party. Its most famous personality was Eugene Debs. Debs was imprisoned for his opposition to World War I and ran for president on the SPA ticket from his jail cell in 1920, receiving 1 million votes.

[9]. In 2002, there were a reported 192 million firearms owned by individuals in the US. Firearms killed more than 29,700 Americans in 2002 — more than the number of US soldiers killed during the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War. Guns are the second-leading cause of death (after motor vehicle accidents) among Americans under 20 and the leading cause of death among African-American men aged 15 to 24. Physicians for Social Responsibility estimates that gun violence costs the United States $100 billion a year. In 1999 the rate of gun homicides per 100,000 population in the US was 4.08. By comparison, the same statistic for Canada was 0.54; for Switzerland 0.50; for Great Britain 0.12; for Japan 0.04.

[10]. Dubofsky, Melvyn, We shall be all: a history of the Industrial Workers of the World, Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2nd edition, 1988,  p.95, p. 12.

[11]. The Haymarket affair arose out of a bomb attack – supposedly the work of an unknown anarchist – on a crowd that had gathered during a meeting held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on 4th May 1886 as part of a campaign for the 8-hour working day.

[12]. Frederick Winslow Taylor set forward a series of principles in his 1911 monograph The Principles of Scientific Management, which essentially aimed at increasing workforce productivity by reducing industrial production to a series of easily-learned tasks which demanded no skill on the workers’ part, and would make it easier for management to impose more intensive labour on the workers.

[13]. The debate was also important in Britain, as we shall see when we come to examine the history of syndicalism in the shop-stewards’ movement.

[14]. Foster went on to become a Stalinist leader of the American Communist Party after the failure of the Russian Revolution.

[15]. Proceedings of the 1902 WFM Convention, p. 8, cited in Dubofsky, p.69.

[16]. ALU Journal, January 7, 1904, p. 2 cited in Dubofsky, p.72.

[17]. Official version of the January 1905 conference and manifesto by Clarence Smith in IWW, Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, New York: 1905, pp. 83-84.

[18]. Albert Parsons was one of the militants arrested after the Haymarket massacre, convicted on the basis of trumped-up evidence, and executed.

[19]. Dubofsky, p.95.

[20]. Conlin, Joseph Robert, Bread and roses too: studies of the Wobblies, Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969, p. 9, quoting from William E. Walling, “Industrial or Revolutionary Unionist,” New Review n°1 (Jan. 11, 1913, p.46, and Walling, “Industrialism versus Syndicalism,” International Socialist Review n°14 (August 1913), p. 666.

[21]. Canon, James, The IWW p.20-21 cited Dubofsky p. 143

[22]. Available online at Jim Crutchfield’s IWW page

[23]. Conlin, Bread and roses too… p. 3.



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