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How Anarchism destroyed the IWW

April 24, 2019

 

Edited by Nuevo Curso. This is the fourth part of the series on American socialism

 

Daniel de León played a central role in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and would later confront the growing anarchist and anti-political element that threatened to decentralize and disperse the workers movement. This battle within the IWW is often misrepresented as demonstrative of Daniel de Leon's "sectarianism", when in fact it was in continuity with the fight for the class independence of the proletariat and was reminiscent of the battle between Bakunin and Marx in the First International. It was an extremely significant moment in the history of the labor movement and of the movement in the United States in particular.

 

The Precarious Worker of the American West

 

The situation of the working class in the U.S. at that time was profoundly marked by the differences in capitalist development between the eastern and western parts of the country. The population centers in the West were small and distant from each other in comparison with those on the Atlantic coast and the main occupations of unskilled workers in the West were construction, agriculture, and timber. These are seasonal industries, unlike the steel and textile industries of the East. The West had become a region that specialized in export monocultures, demanding many workers, but only in harvest periods. The Western day laborer often train-hopped in order to reach these fields, but could often find himself out of work for weeks at a time when the harvest was over and had to travel long distances again to find a new employer.[1]

 

These western workers, referred to as "hoboes", were defined by their precarious living conditions and homelessness. The term "hobo" was commonly reserved for seasonal workers. But there were more terms used for other "vagabonds": the "tramps" were the wandering unemployed who begged on the roads, swindled, and committed petty thefts; the appellation "bum" was reserved for drunks who were permanently unemployed. Some have defined "tramps" as those who were looking for work or even those who were frequently unemployed but found work from time to time. All of them were victims of the vagrancy laws that by 1898 had spread throughout the U.S. because, at the end of the day, they shared unstable conditions of existence. As Dr. Ben Reitman said, "the hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders".[2]

 

 

"Police registers and court dockets from Great Plains communities show that in general, postharvest treatment was the same for all transients: hoboes who had been working nearby, tramps and bums just passing through - all were handled identically. If they were seeking employment it usually meant nothing to the police: hoboes were indistinguishable from the work-avoidance class. And in the towns the various charity groups traditionally limited their efforts to caring for residents. Non-residents’ problems – such as finding a place to sleep in cold weather – were left to law enforcement. Anyone without work was considered a vagrant".[3]

 

Those who had lived as or near hoboes, however, drew strong distinctions between the various vagabonds, despite the fact that they were all treated in the same way by the police. For them there was a clear line separating hoboes from "tramps" and "bums". In the introduction to the autobiography of a hobo "Tales of an American Hobo" we can see that,

 

"To the vast majority of Americans, the men who came to beg food at back doors were as likely to be classified as "no good bums" or tramps or vagrants as they were to be called hoboes. To the respectable residents of small town America there was no difference. To the men who were "throwing their feet" asking for a hand-out, there were important distinctions among hobo, tramp and bum. In the argot of the road "a hobo was someone who traveled and worked, a tramp was someone who traveled but didn’t work, and a bum was someone who didn’t travel and didn’t work"".[4]

 

"Tramps" and "bums" were associated with theft, swindling and violence, while hobos saw themselves as workers. However, the "hobo jungles", makeshift camps near the railroads where hoboes would congregate in while waiting for their train, included both "tramps" and "bums" who would bring and share food, acquired through begging or stealing, with the other "residents" of the "jungle". In addition,

 

"There were quite a few escaped convicts and fugitives from county jails and state penal farms, chain gangs, road gang work camps, and so on. There were also a lot of jack-rollers (muggers), dips (pickpockets), second-story men (burglars), and a goodly percentage of genuine professional yeggs (hoodlums) known as Pete men (safe blowers) and heisters (stickup men) and all manner of petty thieves, referred to as hand-burglars.

 

These people used to infiltrate the hobo jungles and mingle with the hoboes to some extent, purely for the purpose of anonymity. They were using the hoboes as a shield, to safe-guard their true identity if the "bulls" [railroad police] should show up, but there was never any true comradeship between the true hoboes and the hoodlum element of jungle society. The two groups had nothing in common and managed to survive by an unwritten law, to wit: "You leave me alone and I won’t bother you". So, the true hoboes and the hoodlum riffraff of the hobo jungles survived together under conditions that were essentially an armed truce at best".[5]

 

Anarchists and Hobos

 

 

 

The anarchists of the IWW, concentrated in the West, considered the hobos to be "more revolutionary" than the "stationary" workers of the East. It is no secret, the legacy of this history can be seen very clearly in the literature, music and propaganda of the IWW. For the anarchist, the constant migration of the hobo, his "independence," being an arbitrary and constant victim of repression, his lack of family ties, that is, everything that was secondary and extreme to his living conditions, served to render his social status as a salaried worker invisible. Anarchism found in the hobo, by idealizing it, a "revolutionary subject" of its own to oppose to the working class as a whole. Charles Ashleigh articulated this mentality when he wrote "The Floater", which compared the unskilled worker of the east with that of the west.

 

"The arduous physical toil in the open air does not have the same deteriorating effect as does the mechanical, confined work of the eastern slave. The constant matching of wits and daring needed for the long trips across country have developed a species of rough self-reliance in the wandering proletarian of the West. In health and in physical courage he is undoubtedly the superior of his eastern brother. The phenomenal spread of the propaganda of the I.W.W. among the migratory workers indicates that this great mass, so long inarticulate, are at last beginning to realize their economic oppression and to voice their needs".

 

The mythology of the IWW did not emphasize the universal character of the proletariat, but instead promoted a particularism based on the "identity" of the hobo and the vagabond based on their "lifestyle". A lifestyle - not a class condition - that, they felt made the hobo more receptive to revolution. Thus, the songs that the IWW created and incorporated into its songbook appealed not only to hobos, but also to "tramps" and "bums". As the anarchists extolled the "identity" of the hobo, they minimized, if not completely rejected, the unity of interests among workers on both sides of the country. Irremediably blurring the differences between the hobo proletarians and the rest of the rootless vagrants led them to create a false division between the "integrated workers" and the precarious or "unstable" workers.

 

 

Daniel de León against "Haywoodism"

 

The confusion between precarious workers and lumpen could not but produce slippages that would turn that confusion of ideas into the blurring of class boundaries. Bill Haywood referred to "high grading", the pilfering of the highest quality gold by the miners, as a legitimate alternative to turning "over to the stuff, to a white-collared dude". It was, according to him, a "privately entered claim for a part of the loot of the bosses".[6] And it was well known that members of the Western Miners' Federation and the IWW interpreted this activity as an individual form of expropriation, on the basis that the mineral "really belonged" to those miners.

 

It is obvious that surplus value is not obtained by the bourgeoisie individually, from worker to worker, or even business to business. It is a complete system that requires, at the very least, the scale of a national market. But that was not the question. It's not so much that Haywood or the miners were wrong about the social nature of the capital-labor relationship; they were in fact wrong about it. What is really serious about his slip is that he reduced the proletariat to the same terms as bourgeois morality: isolated individuals maximizing "private" income whose only goal is to get a larger share of the "spoils". This is an unquestionably bourgeois ideology that disintegrates into oblivion what the proletariat signifies, its historical tasks. The historical objective of the proletariat, which is the only thing that defines communist morality, has nothing to do with "individual appropriation".

 

Haywood's extolling of theft culminated in 1914, after the death of Daniel de León, when he encouraged the unemployed to loot warehouses. At the ninth convention of the IWW where delegates agreed with Haywood that the places where the unemployed should demonstrate should be places with food that they could loot, he had declared,

 

"Millions have been appropriated for the militia; nothing for the wealth producers who will be without work. Where warehouses are full of food, go in and take it; where machinery is lying idle, use it for your purposes; where houses are unoccupied, enter them and sleep".[7]

 

It would be difficult to express more clearly the plundering logic of the bourgeoisie and its "competition". No wonder Daniel de León disparagingly called the anarchist faction of the IWW "bummery". The anarchists were pushing the working class to cross a class barrier: centralism, or in other words, the principle of collective organization and solidarity. Anarchists can express all the disdain they want towards communist morality, but their individualism - fundamental to the religion of the commodity - will lead them again and again to dissolve any collective expression of the class.

 

Haywood's attempt to "organize the unemployed", as one author described it, is a good example: he turned the unemployed into gangs of brigands. The unemployed workers, whose historical mission is the same as that of the rest of the proletariat, were condemned to pillage and were abandoned by those who proclaimed themselves to be "socialists". He dispersed them by promoting an "every man for himself" morality; he disorganized them. It was a complete and utter betrayal.

 

 

 

Daniel de León, although he did not live to see this specific incident, understood that this was the conclusion to which the anarchism of the IWW necessarily led. He knew that the proletariat, if it wanted to maintain its class independence, had to mark a distance with the lumpenproletariat.

 

"While straining every nerve to remove the conditions that can generate and the environment that can perpetuate and intensify slummism, the Movement’s experience has taught it that deep and wide is the chasm that separates the slum from the industrial proletariat; that, while upon the latter, the industrial proletariat, depends the life of society and the success of the Social Revolution; the former, the slum proletariat, is a parasite, with all the vices of such, ready at all times to betray the workers by making common cause with the exploiters".[8]

 

The battle between the SLP and the anarchists was not simply based on "tactics" nor did it have anything to do with the supposedly authoritarian personality of Daniel de León. It was a question of basic principles.

 

For the anarchists, as for the reactionary SPA, the unions had to be protected from "politics". The anarchists, inspired by the trade unionism of the French CGT, managed to get rid of the political clause in the preamble that said:

 

"Between these two classes, a struggle must go on until all toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field".

 

This provoked a split in 1908 between the anarchist IWW and the "Deleonist" one, based in Detroit and renamed "Workers' International Industrial Union" (WIIU) in 1915.

 

But what is "politics"? The passage from the planting of demands and the imposition of human needs over and above the concrete needs of capital, to the reorganization of the entire society in accordance to those needs. The seizure of political power by the proletariat is an indispensable condition for the creation of a truly human world. The absence of a revolutionary policy in the union did not promote class independence, but on the contrary, dependence and submission to bourgeois politics and morality. Although the anarchist loves to revel in the spectacular and fantasizes about the "destruction" of the existing order, in reality, when he rejects the political, he is rejecting the power of the proletariat and its capacity to emancipate itself. Its exaltation of small acts of "sabotage" and "individual appropriation" is a reflection of its narrow-mindedness; its inability to go beyond the "individual" and perceive the materiality and current potentiality of a future of abundance. In other words: with all its grandiloquence and apparent radicalism it never ceases to be constrained by bourgeois morality and cannot cease to be that "liberal with a bomb" of which Trotsky spoke.

 

Daniel de León pointed out the anarchist obsession with destruction in 1913 and even compared Haywood, a man who did not consider himself an anarchist but who felt "more at home with the anarchists" than with the "zealots of his own ranks"[9], to Bakunin.

 

"It is impossible to fail to detect in the partly written, partly unwritten, program of Haywoodism the theoretic note and practical conduct of the officially adopted program of Bakunin’s Revolutionary International Brothers – a mob whose staff, "having the devil in their bowels", confused the "revolutionary idea" with "destruction", and had no conception of revolutionary agitation, education and organization other than – to use Bakunin’s official expression – "the unchaining of what we have been taught to call the bad passions".[10]

 

 

 

 

This love of destruction, furthermore, preserves the capitalist edifice intact. It is not the fear of dictatorship, of oppression, that motivates the anarchists' rejection of politics. It is rather the fear of real class power and all that it implies: the abolition of all particularisms that threaten to disperse the proletariat but that the anarchist embraces with open arms. What the anarchists fear, in reality, is centralism.

 

It is therefore not surprising that the SPA, created in part to defend the AFL, was the party of those who, like Haywood, felt most at home with the anarchists. Even today, on the official IWW website, there is a 2005 document written by Harry Siitonen summarizing the first 100 years of IWW's existence. His interpretation of the battle for the political clause has no trace of ambiguity.

 

"In 1908, there was a policy split (nothing new on the Left), which culminated on the 1908 Convention in Chicago. Daniel de León’s doctrinaire Socialist Labor Party group wanted to dominate the fledgling union under his autocratic dominance, and thus wanted that political action should be included in the policy. But the more radical faction, led by Saint John, Trautmann, and Haywood favored an emphasis on direct action, propaganda and strikes as the effective way forward, and opposed arbitration and political affiliation. The militants won and the De Leonists left in anger. Although Haywood himself and thousands of other Wobblies were Socialist Party [SPA] members then, the IWW since then has not been affiliated with or endorsed any political party, direct action being its forte. Present policy is that you’re welcome in the organization whatever your personal political or religious stance and can be active in such movements, but just leave your politics or anarchism or religion outside the IWW union hall".[11]

 

Appendix: An evaluation of American socialism and Daniel de León

 

Daniel de León's difficulties in delineating clearly and profoundly what the political tasks of the class - and of the party – are, is partly responsible for his difficulties in facing the rise of anti-politicism in the IWW. In the beginning of de Leon’s history in the SLP, he conceived of the "political" as playing the role of the "sword" of the working class, while the "industrial" organization, the class union, was conceived as the "shield". When the IWW was formed, he reversed the comparisons. Industrial organization was conceived of as the sword, the "might" of the working class, while "politics" acted as the shield, or the "right" that would protect the advances of the proletariat organized as a class in the union. He then went on to imagine trade unions as the organs that would "take and hold" the machinery of production... although he redefined trade unions to something we might today understand as resembling a soviet.

 

That tendency to think of the party as an "administrative" organization of the political led him to think that the party would be abolished immediately after the revolution took place, since the only raison d'être of a political party was "to contend with capitalism upon its own special field: the field that determines the fate of political power". That is, at that point he viewed workers' political parties exclusively as parliamentary parties and machineries specialized in legal reform, something like class "lobbies". Consistent with this perspective, he considered that the "political movement" would usurp the power of the "central administration of the industrial organization" if it prolonged its existence after the revolutionary triumph. Daniel de León's conception of politics, however, had expanded by the time that he battled with the anarchists. Daniel de León had realized that "unresponsive to the sociologic tenet that, important though the vote is, it is not the only, or most important factor in political action, - unresponsive to all that, Haywoodism persistently asks: "What sense is there in political action when 75 percent of the working people are not voters?""

 

 

 

De León died a few months before the outbreak of the first imperialist world war. Hadn't he known of the first mass strikes from Russia to Chile that began to sprout in that decade? Wasn't he aware of the historical appearance of the soviet as a unitary organism of struggle, insurrection and class power? The truth is that he had saluted the first Russian revolution and showed signs of perceiving the signs of change that was taking place globally,

 

"The recognition of the extra-parliamentary power of organized labor, revolutionary directed – these are utterances of an importance that is excelled by no event of the many important ones that have been recently occurring the world over".[12]

 

But it seems equally clear that he did not know how to draw lessons from the essentials of 1905: the mass strike and the soviet. For most of the socialists of the time, outside a small circle of the European parties of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg's analyses of the mass strike and Trotsky's evaluation and account of the first experience of the soviets, were inaccessible before 1920. It would be the Communist International that would disseminate those lessons and, in coherence with those lessons, a conception of the class party radically different from that of the parties of the old International. Lenin and Trotsky would still find at the Second Congress a "trade unionist-revolutionary" current that emerged during the war in France and Great Britain. They would then debate with them trying to convince them that their conception of the union, that "conscious minority of the working class, that active minority that must guide their action, is nothing but the party; it is what we call the party".

But Lenin and Trotsky themselves would continue to view the unions as class bodies until the end of their lives, when in reality the fundamental changes in capitalism were refuting it even as a possibility. Only the German-Dutch left began in those years a sketch of criticism of the unions and only in the 1940s, after the experience of the role of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution did the criticism of trade unionism reach its ultimate consequences, where Grandizo Munis used Daniel de León himself as a reference.

 

"Witnessing an accelerated industrialization, already by large production units and large areas of the United States, which decisively increased the demographic preponderance of the proletariat, Daniel de León understood, from the end of the 19th century, that the organic foundation of the implementation of the oft repeated slogan "emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves" could be found in each of these cells of production. How? By the workers taking possession of all the production units, including distributive centers and reorganizing production by basing it on non-mercantile consumption, by means of elective representatives appointed in the production units themselves. That is what DeLeon called the "Socialist Republic". Thus, what Marx foresaw as the "inferior phase of communism" acquired a concrete and functional point of support, and this vision was so accurate, that today there is no other way of visualizing the abolition of classes.

 

[...] The potential strength of a proletariat in full numerical expansion [...] and the great generalized industry represented for the revolution an advantage over what the countries of Europe offered at that time. But there was an important counterpart, a major obstacle to overcome. The well-focused lucidity of Daniel de León was strongly demonstrated by his comments. He was able to see that between the proletariat and the possession of the instruments of labor, between the revolutionary class and the revolution, there was a stone barrier that had been raised by the "labor leaders". Without taking these "labor leaders" out of the way, it would be impossible to put an end to capitalism. The certainty of this matured over the years in de León's theoretical reflection. Trade union misdeeds and his knowledge of ancient civilization -ascension and decadence- allowed him to make the comparison between the leaders of the plebs in Rome and the modern political and trade union leaders. 

 

Having reached that vision, now undeniable and valid worldwide, by 1902, it is evident that Daniel de León had a sharp analytical mind and a capacity for historical synthesis that is precious to the revolutionary movement. All the more incredible it seems that these insights have remained almost universally ignored".

 

G. Munis, "Semblanza de Daniel de León".

 

 

 

 

 

- KJ

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Mark Wyman, Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), 43-45

 

[2] Ibid, 37

 

[3] Ibid, 50-51

 

[4] Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 56-57

 

[5] Charles E. Fox, Tales of an American Hobo (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989) 3

 

[6] The International Socialist Review, Volume # 16, page 25

 

[7] Paul Frederick Brissenden, The I.W.W. A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Paul Frederick Brissenden, 1920), 327

 

[8] No to Bummery!, Daniel de León

 

[9]  Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970), 489

 

[10] Daniel de León, Haywoodism and Industrialism, 1913

 

[11] https://www.iww.org/history/library/misc/Siitonen2005

 

[12] Socialist Labor Party of America, The SLP and the USSR: From the Bolshevik Revolution to the Nazi-Soviet Pact

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