The goal of this article* is to overview the relationship the historical and modern day IWW has had with statist politics. The inspiration for it was based on the observation that while the organization today is mostly made up of self-described anarcho-syndicalists and many anti-state Marxists, there hasn’t been much written on its relationship to the State. The review starts with a look at the early fights over the Preamble and the role of Political Socialism. It then moves on to discuss the relationship between the IWW to the Profintern and the IWA as the major international unionist efforts towards organization. After this it discusses views on the State held historically by members of the union and sketches out a preliminary argument for the contemporary IWW to adopt a clear anti-state position.
The early IWW, the Preamble and the break with Political Socialism
According to Luther M. Gaylord’s case study on the IWW Politics vs. Syndicalism anti-statist politics were of an indigenous origin and did not come from the influence of the European syndicalists but “from actual concrete experiences of the lower grades of workers in the western states.” The Western IWWs looked upon the whole modern system of government with considerable disdain. They saw parliaments as little more than clearing-houses for the exchange of “vague and sterile platitudes.” They saw modern State only as an instrument capable of servicing the interests of the capitalist class.
There is a myth in the IWW that these anti-statist politics mostly came from the West but if we look at the founding convention in 1905 almost all of the delegates who came together could be described either as socialists, militant trade unionists or anarcho-syndicalists. If one reads Sal Salerno’s Red November, Black November there is a whole chapter on the influence of anarchists at the founding convention, including famous wobblies like Thomas J. Hagerty and Lucy Parsons.
Hagerty a former member of the Socialist Party is of particular interest. He had been a member until he became disgusted with what he called the “slowcialists,” and turned to revolutionary industrial unionism. In a speech to miners at Telluride, Colorado, in 1902, Hagerty advised: “That railroad is yours; those large business blocks and office buildings downtown that bring in big rent are yours; if you want them, go and take them.” Alluding to the later arguments he would make for economic direct action and organization in the first draft of the Preamble.
Hagerty’s disdain for political socialism was made clear in his speech at the founding convention, when he declared that “The ballot box is simply a capitalist concession. Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it never will.”
It is understandable then that when Hagerty composed the first draft of the IWW preamble it did not include a role for politics. Rather, it emphasized the importance of the union as the center of revolutionary struggle, contending that the proletariat should “take and hold that which they produce through an economic organization of the working class,” the classic goal of anti-statist revolutionary unionists.
However, this wording did not make it into the final draft of the Preamble because of the efforts of political socialists like Daniel DeLeon. Between 1905 and 1908 there were continual arguments over these conceptions of struggle and the unions’ ultimate goals leading up to the split with the political socialists in 1908. In that year the version of the controversial clause in the Preamble was completely re-written to reflect Hagerty’s original intent for an economic organization of the working class:
“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.”
Later commenting on the IWW’s 1908 Preamble, Samuel Yellen was struck by its similarity to the original Pittsburgh Manifesto of the Chicago anarchists. “In principle,” he wrote, “the I.W.W. resembled the “Chicago idea” anarchists of 1886, but advanced beyond them to syndicalism.” It was the conscious efforts of anarchists like Hagerty who continued to affirm in the face of great adversity the principles which the Chicago anarchists gave their lives defending. Hagerty’s contribution to the revolutionary industrial union movement lies in the endurance of the original intent of the Preamble he authored and the courage of the I.W.W.’s rank-and-file to affirm this core principle.
The IWW, the Profintern and the IWA
In the 1920s and 30s, the union came into conflict with the Communist Party which emerged as a proponent of an electoral approach to bringing about a workers’ government. While the Communists accepted the importance of industrial unionism, they also believed in the Leninist concept of a revolutionary “vanguard party.” The IWW, committed as it was to democracy preceding from the bottom up, was out of step with the Communist notion of democratic centralism. Over the years, the IWW has continued to oppose support for electoral political action and distanced itself from political solutions as a whole, continuing to stress action at the point of production.
During this time the IWW was asked to join the Red International of Trade Unions, more commonly known as the Profintern, set up by the Third International Communist Parties under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The IWW’s response to this request is telling about their commitment to smashing the State. In the IWW’s response to the Profintern there is a section titled Why IWW Is Not Political. A few quotes should make the IWW’s position on the State at that time clear:
“We believe that the class character of the state will not permit that institution to aid the proletariat in its class struggle. Therefore, we teach the workers that what they really require is not to influence the state favorably toward them, but to put themselves in such position, through an economic class organization, that they will be enabled to protect themselves against the hostility of the capitalist state.”
“The IWW is cognizant of the fact that it is trying to destroy a social relationship.”
“The capitalist class relies upon the state as its agency and instrument for holding the workers in subjection, and to preserve its rights to exploit their labor-power. The workers must provide themselves with an instrument more powerful than the repressive forces of the state — an organization for the control of their labor-power.”
Now one could say that the IWW did not reply if they were in favor of some sort of “workers’ state” but it seems clear from the above quotes that this reply by the IWW was for an economic organization of the working class more powerful than the repressive forces of the State that would be capable of wiping away the old social relationships under capitalism.
After rebuking the Profintern the IWW went on to flirt with adhering to the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA). In The IWW Its First 100 Years, we learn that in 1934 a referendum carried to affiliate with the IWA. Though it was later rebuked by the organization because of conditions of affiliation being placed on religious beliefs, the IWW continues friendly relations with the IWA to this day. If we look at the basic politics of the IWA from its Statutes on Revolutionary Unionism it is plain to see why the IWW was and still is close to such an organization for the IWA is against those currents which seek to propagate the principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and instead sees the goal of the revolutionary union movement much like that of the Preamble, where the workers must:
“…prepare themselves in their economic organizations to take possession of the land and the factories and enable themselves to administer them jointly, in such a way that they will be able to continue production and social life.”
This is not to say that IWWs haven’t ever had critiques of those in the IWA or anarchists. In 1937, A. Shapiro a member of the IWW wrote for the One Big Union Monthly a critique of the famous Spanish IWA section the CNT’s class collaboration and entry into the government and statist turn:
“Your “real war policy,” after all, is nothing but a program for entering the Council of Ministry (government); with it you act merely as a political party desirous of participation in an existing government; setting forth your conditions of participation, and these conditions are so bureaucratic in character that they are far from weakening in the least the bourgeois capitalist regime, on the contrary they are tending to strengthen capitalism and stabilize it.”
What did other Wobblies have to say about the State?
Early in IWW history famous Wobbly Vincent St. John in his The IWW and Political Parties had a strong critique of participation in statist politics. He wrote:
“It is impossible for anyone to be a part of the capitalist state and to use the machinery of the state in the interest of the workers. All they can do is to make the attempt, and be impeached—as they will be—and furnish object lessons to the workers, of the class character of the state.”
Also, Ralph Chaplin who wrote the now infamous labor song Solidarity Forever reflected in the late 60s on the IWW’s anti-statism. In his words, “As for the author of “Solidarity Forever”, he is not at all unhappy to have been associated with the very first indigenous anti-statist, anti-totalitarian labor organization that Moscow saw fit to liquidate – and for good and sufficient reasons.” In the same reflection he goes on to describe how the Communists in Chicago despairingly referred to Solidarity Forever as the “Anarchists’ Marching Song.”
The Contemporary Era and the case for a clear Anti-Statist Position
Recently I was reading a piece by FW Nate Hawthorne called No Politics in the Union? Come Off It. The majority of the piece goes into how the disagreements over political socialism does not mean that the IWW’s favoring of economic direct action means we are “non-political” or even “a-political.” But a little nugget in the piece led me to look further into the “no politics” section of the One Big Union pamphlet for its “calls for creating a new society outside official institutional/electoral channels and without the use of the state.” If we look to the current OBU pamphlet we can see it in contemporary style reflects the original politics and intent of the Preamble and the core principles of working class economic organization of life in opposition to government and statist solutions.
“So either those in control of industry ally themselves with those in control of government to save themselves from democracy, or those in control of government extend their regulation over industry and its workers, as in the state controlled economies.
The Industrial Workers of the World see nothing good in an economy that is controlled by corporate managers or by politicians. Instead they want economic democracy–industry run by its workers through direct democratic process free from hierarchy.”
“Industrial democracy can be built only by an organized working class that is aware as a class of what it wants and how to get it, rather than giving decision-making power to friends of labor in political parties or to controlling cliques and vanguards within its own ranks.”
Now one can look at all that has been explained up to this point and think that this article is making a case for the IWW to become an anarcho-syndicalist organization, but I hope that as I have shown the IWW did not adhere to the IWA, and later even had members of a Marxist bent who criticized the anarchists in the CNT’s entry into the government. What I hope FWs and observers can see today is that there is a clear case historically and now with hindsight that the IWW should take up a position of official anti-statism, or at the very least recognize it as an anti-state organization. If there is any final reason to consider this I think we can find it in Marx, whose own lines are famously also included in the Preamble.
For Marx the Paris Commune in 1871 showed why genuine revolutionaries must be enemies of the State. He saw the Commune as a proletarian revolution against the State itself. For Marx the State might have predated capitalism, but it embodied the power of capitalists over the workers, and so the alternative was the self-government of the producers.
Lenin in the State and Revolution took up the smashing of the State, but added that it would entail the setting up of a new “workers’ state” an idea he adopted from Plekhanov. For Lenin and the Third International Communist Parties the IWW rejected, their Dictatorship of the Proletariat became a government, not the social domination of society by the working class, like we see the IWW called for. The IWW much like Marx saw that:
“One thing especially was proved by the Commune, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose.”
*Many parts of this article are essentially plagiarized from the previous works of FWs and Cdes. I am a new writer and I am going to try to get better, but for now let’s just note I am an anti-capitalist and I don’t give a shit about copyright.