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The Birth of the IWW

April 24, 2019

Edited by Nuevo Curso. 


The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is today a myth of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism. However, it was born as part of the conscious effort of American Marxists to overcome craft unionism, which divided workers from the same workforce, in favor of "class unionism" or "new unionism," as Engels had defined it.


The Socialist Party of America (SPA)




In 1897 a joint convention of the American Railway Union, founded by Eugene Debs, and the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, an organization aspiring to fill the country with "socialist colonies", met to form "Social Democracy of America". The question of socialist colonies, however, was controversial. The tension reached its peak when the report in favor of the colonization scheme was approved by a majority of the votes in its first national convention. The defeated minority left the convention and formed a new party, the Social Democratic Party of America.

At the same time, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) was debating, as we saw in the last installment of this series on American socialism, about the attitude to take towards the old reactionary and supposedly "apolitical" unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Not a few militants were dissatisfied with the SLP for its antagonistic position towards the AFL. Morris Hillquit, one of these disaffected members, described it this way:


"The narrow policy of the Socialist Labor Party described in the preceding chapter had the double effect of disgusting many old-time workers in the movement who withdrew from the party in large numbers, and of making the organization unpopular to the majority of newly converted socialists".


What was this "narrow policy"? Fundamentally, the promotion of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA), the attempt to promote a union that would recognize the class struggle between the capitalist class and the working class. Hillquit and others like him argued that the promotion of ST&LA,


"antagonize existing trade-unions, while accomplishing little itself, and that it would eventually lead to an estrangement between the party and the rest of the labor movement in the country".


This opportunist attitude would be consolidated in the Volkszeitung, the main socialist paper of the time, leading to the "party coup" of 1899.[1] On July 9, 1899, a false meeting of the General Committee of the Section of Greater New York was called for the following day. The meeting "dismissed" all local, state and national Party officials and "elected" new ones. They then marched to the Party headquarters and demanded the property and infrastructure of the Party.[2] The new SLP of the "coup plotters" began to publish a newspaper with the same title as the original party, installed a national committee in its own headquarters, and took legal action to force the party to withdraw its electoral candidacies, which also coincided in name and symbols with those of the "cloned" party. The courts, however, declared in favor of the SLP National Executive Committee and not with the Volkszeitung trend. The illegitimate SLP, which represented the disaffected and pro-AFL members of the party, had failed.


To assert itself, the national committee of the "coup plotters" convened a national convention in Rochester. The convention condemned the ST&LA and adopted a resolution calling for a "quick merger" with the Social Democratic Party to form "a strong, harmonious and united socialist party".[3] Such a merger would finally take place in 1901 and result in the Socialist Party of America (SPA).[4]


This organization is often presented in American historiography as the product of a "democratic revolt" against the leftist authoritarianism of the SLP. In reality, it was in continuity with the reactionary and conciliatory tendency between classes, which had been born from the resistance of the craftsman to proletarianization and which had crystallized in the corporate craft unions that openly collided with the state and the industrial bourgeoisie. This tendency had its main bastion in the AFL, a national organization that allowed that tendency to enter the political "big game" as a "representative" of the working class as a whole, hence it was willing to take risks on any other plane to avoid its position from being questioned. Nor were they ashamed to admit it.


"Yes, the New Yorker Volkszeitung went so far in its defense of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that it accepted the risk of a split in the Socialist movement of America in order to prevent a split in the trades unions movement of the land, and to keep up the American Federation of Labor as the united body of American unionism".[5]


It is obvious, however, that there was no unified and harmonious trade union movement. What the SPA wanted was to present the AFL, its objectives and its character, as representative of the movement of the class to plant demands. It was a movement that was reduced to "plain and simple unionism", that is, the rejection of any class perspective in favor of the simple negotiation of salaries of trade or category, dividing the workforce in the same workplace and aborting any expression of common interests. The antithesis of class struggle.




Daniel de León said in response to both the Volkszeitung and Wahrheit, who had attacked the ST&LA's "interference" in "union differences",


"The duo contends, in the first place, that it is a cardinal principle with their party not to 'interfere in Trades Unions differences.' The assertion is false; the reverse of it is true. What, if not an 'interference in Trades Union differences' was their posture in slapping the face of the A.L.U. in the 'difference' that broke out between the A.L.U. [American Labor Union] and the A.F. of L. on the subject of the latter’s endearing relations with the Civic Federation? – They do not 'interfere in Trades Union differences', don’t they? Why are they up to their elbows in interference, but always on only on the side of the labor-lieutenants of the Capitalist Class, always consequently, on the side of scabbery".[6]


As DeLeon himself explained in "The Socialist Reconstruction of Society", there is really no such thing as abstaining from politics. The "AFL's rejection of politics" and its guild character is political in reality, just as the anarchist's rejection not only of electoral participation, but of politics in general, is in itself political. It is not surprising that the Stalinists who wrote about the SLP, like Carl Reeve of the official Stalinist Party of America, had no problem with accusing them of being "anti-union lassalleans" and, in fact, delighted in propagating that slander. The CPUSA, which supported Stalinist Russia, had all the reason to present the SLP in this way, since it was interested in presenting the unions as organs of the working class.


The Birth of the IWW


Chicago, 1904. Six labor leaders met informally: William E. Trautmann (editor of the Brauer Zeitung, the official organ of the United Brewery Workmen), George Estes (President of the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees), W.L. Hall (General Secretary and Treasurer of the same railway organization), Isaac Cowen (American representative of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of Great Britain), Clarence Smith (Treasurer and General Secretary of the American Labor Union), and Thomas J. Hagerty (editor of Voice of Labor, the organ of the previously mentioned union). These individuals responded to the need to intervene effectively in the labor movement. Industrial unions - organized along the lines of businesses and sectors - such as the American Labor Union, the Western Federation of Miners or ST&LA, although they pointed in the right direction, were not able to be an effective counterbalance to better-paid trade unions such as the AFL. These individuals, responding to this need, decided to send a letter of invitation to thirty prominent socialists and labor activists.


"We invite you to meet us at Chicago, Monday, January 2, 1905, in secret conference to discuss ways and means of uniting the working people of America on correct revolutionary principles, regardless of any general labor organization of past or present, and only restricted by such basic principles as will insure its integrity as a real protector of the interests of workers".


The attendees of the January 1905 conference included Charles H. Moyer (President of the Western Miners Federation), William Haywood (Secretary of the same union), J.M. O'Neill (editor of Miners' Magazine), A.M. Simons (editor of the International Socialist Review), Frank Bohn (of the SLP and ST&LA), T. J. Hagerty, C.O. Sherman (of the United Metal Workers), and "Mother Jones". They drew up a Manifesto criticizing the craft unions and proposing the creation of a body to fulfill the mission that these unions were unable to carry out. The June convention called by the Manifesto had two hundred participants. It was the First Annual Convention of the World's Industrial Workers. Daniel de León and twelve other ST&LA delegates attended this convention.


According to Clarence Smith, Secretary General of the American Labor Union,

"It therefore seemed the first duty of conscientious union men, regardless of affiliation, prejudice or personal interest, to lay the foundation upon which all the working people, many of whom are now organized, might unite upon a common ground to build a labor organization that would correspond to modern industrial conditions, and through which they might finally secure complete emancipation from wage-slavery for all wage-workers".[7]


The IWW did not begin as an anarcho-syndicalist project. It was conceived by socialists as an organ that would give political leadership to the demands of the working class, differentiating itself from everything represented by the AFL and "pure and simple" trade unionism. The preamble to the statutes and declarations of the first congress of the IWW would emphasize this with the famous "three clauses".


  1. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

  2. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.

  3. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toiler come together on the political, as well as the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party.


Shortly after the congress, Daniel de León would deliver his speech, "The Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World", later renamed Socialist Reconstruction of Society. It is a series of comments on these three clauses.

Commenting on the first clause, he focused on refuting the notion, propagated by the ruling class, that the welfare of the proletariat can only be assured with the prosperity of the bourgeoisie; he insisted that the interests of the working class are fundamentally antagonistic to those of capital accumulation. Curiously, this comment was later used by American Stalinist historians as supposed "proof" of his "lassalleanism". But the truth is that he never shared such positions. On the contrary, he understood that higher wages did not necessarily imply increased prices and that


"A class-conscious economic organization, in other words, Industrial Unionism, would prevent higher wages from being neutralized by higher prices".[8]


Commenting on the second clause, he insisted on the antagonism between classes, asserting that the standard of living of the working class continued to deteriorate while the bourgeoisie continued to expand at its expense. But the most interesting comments for understanding his subsequent positions against anarchism within the IWW are those of the third clause. He insists that the class struggle is both political and economic. Rejection of the political would signify rejecting the need of the proletariat to capture political power and thus leave the working class defenseless against the attacks of the capitalist class.




The First Split of the IWW (1906)


The first split of the IWW was not between the anarchists and the Marxists, but took place between those that represented the qualified and well-paid trades and those who understood that the organization of the majority of the proletariat, the unskilled workers, was absolutely necessary for the development of the workers’ movement. The former group was referred to by their opponents as the "reactionaries" and "labor-fakers," while the latter were termed the "revolutionaries" or "wage slave delegates".


Victor Berger and other leaders of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) had secretly promised to the president of the IWW that they would support the IWW if the revolutionary element was removed from the organization. "Millions of workers" would unite, they insisted. Charles Sherman, who came from the United Metal Workers and was then president of the IWW, could not resist the temptation to benefit from the increased tax revenues that an increase in membership would bring.


The revolutionaries, however held a pre-convention conference in Chicago on August 14, 1906, convened by the 23rd Local Union of the Department of Metallurgy and Machinery. They sent a letter to the various IWW locations in Chicago urging the convening of a preliminary conference to consider the following proposals:


"First. Is a president necessary in our form of organization?

Second. Shall this organization be the expression of the membership?

Third. Who shall direct the organization work?

Fourth. Shall the local unions receive a copy of the minutes of the General Executive Board sessions?

Fifth. Shall the local unions be represented at the National Convention, as set forth in Article VI., of the General Constitution?

Sixth. Any other question that the Conference may deem necessary to discuss".


The result? Delegates from some sixteen unions unanimously decided that the position of the president was unnecessary, that all local unions should nominate all organizers, speakers, etc., that they should be elected by the rank and file, that reports from all Executive Board sessions should be sent to all local unions and be open to the rank and file, and that at least two delegates should represent each local union at the next convention.[9]


Once the office of president was abolished at the second annual convention of the IWW, Mahoney, of the Western Miners Federation, expressed his objections, but they were rejected by the delegates by 342-246 votes. On October 2, when the convention majority elected new officers and proclaimed the legitimacy of the new amendments, Mahoney left the convention and took other members with him. This faction would organize with Sherman a fake IWW, trying to stay - unsuccessfully in the end - with its seats and properties.[10] The episode served to show the restlessness that the SPA harbored toward the efforts not only of Daniel de León, but of class unionism in general.







- KJ








[1] Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States (New York, London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906), 323-333


[2] Rudolph Schwab, Henry Kuhn, Olive M. Johnson, Rudolph Katz, Chas. H. Ross, F.B. Guarnier, Sam J. French, Ch. H. Corregan, Daniel De Leon, the Man and His Work, A Symposium (National Executive Committee Socialist Labor Party of America, 1919), 21


[3] Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States (New York, London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906), 326-328


[4] Ibid, 331


[5] Rudolph Schwab, Henry Kuhn, Olive M. Johnson, Rudolph Katz, Chas. H. Ross, F.B. Guarnier, Sam J. French, Ch. H. Corregan, Daniel De Leon, the Man and His Work, A Symposium (National Executive Committee Socialist Labor Party of America, 1919), 22-23


[6] Daniel de León, Two Flies with One Clap (1905)


[7] Paul Frederick Brissenden, The I.W.W. A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Paul Frederick Brissenden, 1920), 57-67


[8] Daniel de León, Monopoly and Wages (Daily People). In January 18, 1902, he also pointed out that "the theory that increased wages means increased wages, and that therefore an increase of wages through unionism is a barren victory, insomuch as the men would have to buy as much more as they get, is one frequently advanced by half-baked Marxists".


[9] Paul Frederick Brissenden, The I.W.W. A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Paul Frederick Brissenden, 1920), 137-139


[10] Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 61-64

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