James P. Cannon

The IWW at Philadelphia

Written: 27 August 1920, The Toiler
First Published: 1931
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon was published in The Toiler, the United Communist Party weekly journal produced in Cleveland, Ohio. The UCP had been founded at a convention in May which united the Communist Labor Party (CLP) with a C.E. Ruthenberg-led split from the Communist Party of America (CPA). The convention had adopted a position of support to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as opposed to the reactionary business unionists of the American Federation of Labor. This policy was, however, controversial and Cannon opposed it. Cannon used the pseudonym “Dawson” at the convention and his role in the dispute on the trade-union question was described in the convention report written by Y.F. (The Communist, 12 June 1920):

The CPA convention had passed up the question of the IWW because it was apparent that this question could not be settled by agreement. Perhaps two-thirds of the CPA delegates favored a direct endorsement of the IWW and a program of cooperation, reserving criticism of the IWW theorizing. The other CPA delegates considered the IWW as essentially no better than the AFL, citing the reactionary character of the IWW in some of the Eastern cities. All of the CPA delegates were agreed upon an absolute stand against the AFL as an inherently anti-revolutionary organization which must be destroyed.

On the other hand, there was a strong current in the CLP ranks for a treatment of the subject of industrial unionism from a general viewpoint which would neither include direct endorsement of the IWW nor absolute condemnation of the AFL. The lead in this debate was taken by Dawson who argued that the AFL must be considered from the angle of the local unions, not from the side of the Gompers officialdom; that industrial unionism was having a development in many fields aside from the IWW; that the need was for a call to a new general industrial union, a new One Big Union.”

Cannon had adopted his new position of opposition to dual unionism under the influence of V.I. Lenin and the leadership of the Communist International. This position was finally adopted by the American Communist movement at the convention which fused the UCP and CPA in May 1921.

Throughout 1920, the UCP attempted to woo the IWW for communism, and by the summer there was a current in the IWW, including some members of its General Executive Board, which favored affiliation to the Third International. The August 1920 issue of One Big Union Monthly, which published the General Executive Board statement Cannon quotes in this article, was entitled “Special Bolshevik Number.”

Nothing has so stirred the radical labor movement of the East for many a day as the rumor, later verified and admitted to be a fact, that members of the IWW were loading high explosives at Philadelphia to be shipped to Poland and used in the infamous war against Soviet Russia.[1] It seemed unbelievable that the IWW of Frank Little, the IWW that has always been in the vanguard of the class struggle, bearing the brunt of the fight in America and inspiring the whole world's movement by its heroic deeds and sacrifices, could now be engaged in this nefarious enterprise—this high treason to the international working class.

The information reached New York members of the organization (from an outside source, not from protesting members at Philadelphia) on August 6, and, as a result of their prompt intervention and vigorous protest, the matter was brought before the General Executive Board and the Philadelphia branch of 7,000 members expelled. The contention that this dastardly work was done by new members, who are unfamiliar with the principles of the IWW, is not borne out by the facts. The Philadelphia Transport Workers branch is an old one, having been in existence continuously since 1913, and many well-known and influential members of the organization are in Philadelphia at the present time taking active part in the affairs of the union. No satisfactory explanation has yet been made of their failure to take quick and decisive action. True revolutionary men, confronted with such a situation, would have prevented the loading of the ships even at the cost of their own lives.

Statement of Executive Board

The General Executive Board has issued a statement in which the actions of the Philadelphia members are severely condemned as being diametrically opposed to every principle of working class honor that the IWW has “stood for, fought for and bled for from its inception.” It sounds a new note in the current literature of the organization, in refreshing contrast to the “evolutionary bunk” printed in their official organ, the One Big Union Monthly. The statement, in part, reads as follows:

“The IWW has proved by deeds that it is willing and eager at all costs to fight and sacrifice for the cause of international solidarity. It still keeps the faith.

“The organization was designed to make it impossible for one group of workers to be used against another group in the great struggle of the classes. We do not want and will not tolerate in our membership men who can stoop so low as to aid and abet any capitalist government or any other national or international section of the common enemy in keeping the working class in slavery.

“We look with horror and disgust upon the action of the Philadelphia longshoremen in loading high explosives on ships for the purpose of butchering our brave fellow workers in Russia who have established the first working class government in the world.

“The IWW has stood the brunt of the fury of master class hatred in America. More of our members have been imprisoned, murdered and brutalized than all other revolutionary organizations combined. The reason is that we stand and have always stood for the use of militant direct action to overthrow the dictatorship of the capitalist class.

“The IWW wishes to keep its fair name untarnished in the eyes of the world's proletariat.

“We call upon the membership of our organization to use their utmost power to assist the Soviet government of Russia in fighting the world's battle against capitalism.”

Appeal to Communists

“We pledge ourselves and our organization to help overthrow capitalism and everything that stands for capitalism.

“We appeal to the working class in general and the United Communist Party in particular to take a stand in industry and help build up a revolutionary organization that will make forever impossible a repetition of the dastardly action of the Philadelphia longshoremen.

“The IWW holds out the clean hand of brotherhood to the revolutionary workers of the world.” [2]


1. In May 1920 the Polish army, backed by French imperialism and under the leadership of the fascistic dictator Józef Pilsudski, invaded Soviet Russia. The Red Army soon drove out the Polish forces, but the Soviet government, hoping to spark a revolutionary uprising in Poland and link up with unfinished revolutionary developments in Germany, decided to follow the retreating Poles across the border. Unfortunately, Soviet hopes proved unfounded. The Red Army was defeated by the Poles in the battle of the Vistula in mid-August. In October the Soviet government signed a provisional peace agreement with Poland.

2. The decision expelling the Philadelphia local of Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union No. 8 was reversed in the fall when a new leadership, opposed to relations with the Communist International, took over administration of the IWW. The Philadelphia IWW local was an unusual one, made up largely of black workers. In July it had led a militant strike on the Philadelphia docks. But it functioned increasingly as a job-trusting business union, maintaining a closed shop and charging an initiation fee of $25 in order to keep out casual laborers. This was an offense against the revolutionary principles of the IWW, whose usual initiation fee was only $2. In December 1920 the new General Executive Board expelled the Philadelphia Marine Transport Workers local again—this time for charging such a high initiation fee.