James P. Cannon

The IWW Convention

Written:January 1924
First Published: 1924
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 Labor Herald, journal of the Trade Union Educational League.

The IWW has just finished its Fifteenth General Convention. It lasted for 18 days and was attended by 26 delegates representing a membership of approximately 38,000. The great bulk of the members represented are migratory workers, nearly two-thirds being engaged in three industries-lumber, agriculture and general construction. All the delegates were from the rank and file, coming directly from the job. It can be pretty safely assumed, therefore, that the convention was a fairly accurate reflection of the present state of mind of the IWW. It will be of interest to consider some of the outstanding decisions of the convention and see what that state of mind is.

The question of international relations has been “settled” several times already by the officials of the IWW, but, in spite of all, it came up again at this convention and was the biggest issue before it. This is natural and inevitable. There was a plainly manifested desire on the part of most of the delegates to have done with this troublesome question which has vexed them so much since the formation of the Red International of Labor Unions. But such an issue cannot be put aside today by any body of militant workers. It came before the convention in three separate proposals: 1) To send delegates to the forthcoming World Congress of the Red International; 2) To affiliate with the so-called Syndicalist International; 3) To regard the IWW itself as the only International. All three propositions were defeated. The present position of the IWW on the question of the International is no position.

Nevertheless the convention marked a distinct step forward on the road that cannot but lead the IWW to the Red International. It advanced from an attitude of open hostility to an attitude of neutrality. And, for the first time in the long controversy, a representative body of the IWW listened to an argument for the Red International made by its accredited representatives. In response to a cablegram from the Executive Bureau at Moscow the convention, after a sharp struggle, granted the floor to Robert Minor and the writer to speak for the acceptance of the invitation to send delegates to the World Congress. Although the invitation was rejected, the action of the convention in consenting to hear the question discussed cannot represent anything else than a step forward from its past attitude of opposition and hostility and a step closer to the Red International. Several of the delegates made the statement on the floor that they had never heard before the side of the Red International. This is the real explanation of the bitter antagonism of the past. The members of the IWW have been prejudiced against the Red International by misrepresentation of its program and purpose.

Other actions of the convention showed a commendable moderation of attitude and give the hope that the black night of dogmatism and intolerance is passing in the IWW, and that its rank and file membership is drawing closer to an appreciation of the need of friendly cooperation with other revolutionary groups and tolerant consideration of the rights of minority elements in its own ranks. One of these was the decision of the convention in the case of Ralph Chaplin, Forrest Edwards, Richard Brazier, and a number of others who accepted President Harding’s conditional commutation from Leavenworth, and the other was the case of Harrison George who was put on trial for “Communism.” This “trial” was conducted by a Chicago branch during the sessions of the convention and the spirit of the convention undoubtedly had a determining effect on its outcome.

A majority of 15 out of 26 IWW prisoners at Leavenworth, including Ralph Chaplin, Forrest Edwards and other old and tested militants, accepted the commutation last June, while a minority of 11 rejected it. A sharp factional controversy then arose within the IWW over the demand of some of those who rejected the commutation that those who accepted it be excluded from the right to take part in any of the work of the IWW General Defense Committee in behalf of class war prisoners. This demand was pressed at the convention by H.F. Kane and F.A. Blossom who, with others, had even gone to the point of issuing circulars against Ralph Chaplin and attempting, by this and other means, to disrupt meetings addressed by him. This controversy raised a question of no little importance. The excellent standing and long-proven revolutionary integrity of the men involved made their case of concern to the entire radical labor movement. Any official action to discredit them and to exclude them from activity would have been a decidedly reactionary step and would have produced a most unfavorable impression.

The convention, fortunately, took the right viewpoint. After thoroughly going into the whole matter, it exonerated those who had accepted the commutation and declared them to be eligible to any responsible post assigned to them by the General Defense Committee or the General Executive Board. More than that, it condemned those who had resorted to public agitation against them.

Harrison George is an outspoken Communist, a member of the Workers Party, and the charges against him involved directly the right of a member of the IWW to hold Communist opinions and to openly express them. He had written an article in The Worker against the censorship of the IWW press. For this he was put on trial by the branch to which he belonged. A number of points were included in the charges against him, including charges of “dishonesty” and “insubordination”; but everybody knew that his only crime was the self-confessed one of being a Communist. Harrison George acted like a real Communist. He did not run away, but resisted the attempt to expel him and conducted a militant defense, turning it into an offensive attack against the whole policy of censorship and heresy-hunting in the IWW. His long record as a fighter in the class struggle and his years of imprisonment for the IWW, bravely borne, were in his favor. He was able to prove beyond question that his activity had not been of a disruptive character and that the charges of dishonesty had no foundation. The sessions of the trial were attended by many delegates to the convention and became a forum for the discussion of the great questions involved in it.

This historic trial ended in a complete vindication of Harrison George on every point of the indictment against him. He was acquitted by the unanimous vote of the trial committee and by the unanimous vote of the branch members attending the meeting. Of course, the vote for him was not a vote for Communism, but a vote for the right of a member of the IWW to be a Communist. And, since many well-known anti-Communists participated in the decision, the outcome gives every indication of the beginning of an end to the policy of suppressing and persecuting Communists in the IWW, and that henceforth they will enjoy the same rights of opinion and political activity that are enjoyed by other members. The IWW will never have cause to regret the adoption of this attitude toward the Communists. It will go a long way to overcome the bitter conflicts of the past, and it will very soon be demonstrated that Communists work constructively in all labor organizations and that their destructive activities are aimed only at the capitalist class and its institutions.

Two communications from the Workers Party were read to the convention. One of these was a proposal that the IWW make a united front with the Workers Party and all other working class organizations for the defense and support of the impending German Revolution. The other was an invitation to the IWW to make joint campaign with the Workers Party for the release of class war prisoners and the repeal of criminal syndicalist laws. The need for joint action on these questions is quite manifest and was freely admitted by a number of individual delegates. But the convention took no official action on the matter. This is to be regretted, but the reason for it is quite clear. The IWW has an unholy fear of “politicians,” and is very apprehensive about any dealings with them, even though the “politicians” in this case happen to be revolutionary workers who have nothing in mind except the organization of the working class for the struggle against capitalism. The IWW has not yet come to the point where it makes a distinction between capitalist politics which are aimed against the working class and Communist politics which are aimed against the capitalists. This prejudice is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of cooperation between the IWW and the other revolutionary workers in America, and one of the foremost tasks of the Communists in relation to the IWW is to overcome it.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the IWW is an intensely political organization. This is what complicates the problem of unifying its activities with those of the other revolutionary workers. The IWW is not simply a labor union. In the real sense of the word it is also a political party, and the fact that it decries politics and has nothing to do with elections does not alter the fact. Its very creed of “anti-politics” stamps it as a political body, that is, a body dominated by ideas and conceptions and not simply by immediate economic interests like an ordinary union. The IWW functions as a labor union in the real sense of the word only in a very restricted field. The convention representation, as well as the annual financial statement, revealed the fact that the unions of the IWW are almost exclusively unions of migratory workers. Its membership in the main fields of conservative labor organization is so negligible as to present no real organizational problem in relation to the other unions, but only a theoretical problem, a conflict of theory between the IWW and the Communists as to how the revolution will be made in the future, and a conflict of ideas about immediate work as to whether it is better to work within the established conservative unions in order to revolutionize them or to undertake at once to build new unions of the IWW. The conflict is thus a conflict of ideas and not a conflict between rival labor unions. In these industries, the record shows, the IWW does not exist as a labor union, but only as a small nucleus bound together by certain ideas.

In the field of migratory labor, however, the situation is somewhat different. Such organization of the workers as there is here is in the IWW. The great mass of migratory workers, like the majority of workers in all industries of America, are unorganized. But the fact that the IWW is the principal or exclusive labor organization amongst the migratory workers greatly simplifies the problem there. The adherents of the Red International take all labor unions as they find them and adapt their program accordingly. Their aim is not to arbitrarily favor one organization and oppose another, but to build the existing unions, to unify the militant workers, to bring rival organizations together and to organize the masses of unorganized workers. The practical basis of work in every case, in every industry, is and must be the already existing labor unions in the given industry.

The beginning of a more tolerant and friendly attitude of the IWW toward the Communists, as it was manifested by the recent convention and the trial of Harrison George, ought to pave the way for a better understanding and, eventually, for real cooperation between the IWW and the Communists, at least in the field of migratory labor which, as we have seen, is the field where the IWW is functioning as a labor union.

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