Jim Higgins

Revolutionary Trade Unionism

(February 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.46, February/March 1971, pp.27-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Workers are taught organisation not by their superior intelligence or by outside agitators but by the capitalists themselves. They are organised on the assembly lines, in the factory gangs, in shifts, in work teams, in the division of labour of capitalism itself. Capitalism cannot grow without organising its workers and teaching them the virtues of a form of ‘solidarity’ of working together. – Hal Draper: Why the Working Class is the Key to Progress.

The development of capitalism in Britain was accompanied by massive movements of population, unparalleled in brutality until Stalin undertook a similar exercise 100 years later. The enclosures, the ending of outdoor relief and the growth of the segregated workhouse, the importation of thousands of Irish labourers and the virtual destruction of the skilled hand-craftsman all conspired together to drive the people into the grim barrack-factories of the industrial revolution.

In short order, these uneducated workers, without the benefit of precedent or kindly middle-class tutelage, combined into trade unions. The first lesson learned in the hard workshop school of the factory masters was solidarity: solidarity within the factory and, in the Chartist experience, solidarity as a class. This is not to say that the early attempts at combination were all successful. Struggles were localised and communication bad. Poverty and frequent unemployment made the continuous existence of trade unions difficult almost to the point of impossibility. The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (having at its best 30,000 members) was unable to survive a prolonged strike of tailors.

But despite defeats, despite government repression, trade unions were formed and the struggle continued. Capitalism had decreed the factories, the division of labour and must needs live with and battle with the social and political consequences. The objective difficulties of trade union advance meant that the response was generalised into the struggle around the Charter. Taken in its historical context, the demands of the Charter and, in particular the movement that grew up around the programme, had profoundly revolutionary content. At its birth, capitalism could only view the simple demands for political democracy and human rights as completely subversive – and they were right.

For Marxists, in their consideration of working-class organisation, the early trade unions and the Chartist movement provide, among other things, a lesson in the infinite capacity of the working class to give organisational form to their struggle for emancipation. The disparate elements that went into the making of the working class were able to construct organisations to challenge the whole ethic of capitalism. For decades the ruling class lived in fear of the activities of the ‘mob’. It is part of the complex of contradictions that run through the history of the working class that the trade unions that represented a threat to the very structure of capitalism at its inception should today be a bulwark of that system.

The demise of Chartism, the greater economic power and concentration of capitalism and the consequent growth of stable employment for the skilled sections of workers gave rise to financially viable trade unions along craft lines. Unlike the early trade unions that saw their task as obtaining for the worker the full product of his labour, and unlike the Chartists who saw the extension of political democracy as the inevitable emancipation of the oppressed, the craft unions saw themselves as a pressure group maintaining the standards of the trade and the sectional interests of their members. The problems of the unorganised and unskilled were not the problems of craft unionism. The later movement among the unskilled labourers, epitomised in the great dock strike, came not as a result of the activities of the trade unions, but from the spontaneous struggle of the workers themselves and the agitation and propaganda of socialists like Eleanor Marx, Tom Mann and John Burns.

The growing prosperity of the system was reflected in the growing prosperity of the trade union bureaucracy. Organisation of craftsmen, the extension of the franchise, all contributed to the importance to capitalism of the trade union bureaucracy. Wages for the skilled were as much as three times the wages of the unskilled, continuity of employment was much greater for craftsmen and their higher wages allowed for higher contributions to cater for unemployment and sick pay. The power that trade union stability conferred on the leadership was recognised by employers and politicians alike. Their views were sought, their social and financial desires, at least partially, satisfied. They were in no time at all transferred, in De Leon’s phrase, into ‘Labour Lieutenants of Capitalism’.

In political and social terms the trade union bureaucracy was a conservative layer, enjoying special privileges and dedicated to maximising those privileges within the context of capitalism. The super profits of empire and exploitation of the unorganised and unskilled made all this possible. The further expansion of capitalism, the growing division of labour, made the work of the unskilled more important within the process of production. This coupled to the example of comparatively successful craft unionism led on to the organisation of whole new layers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, less stable, with a heavy turnover of members and more prone to the effects of any economic downturn but making up in numbers what they lacked in other respects. (Between 1870 and 1900 the number of unions affiliated to the TUC grew from 47 to 184 and affiliated membership from 250,000 to 1,250,000.)

The growth of trade unionism resulted in a growth in the real standard of British workers. (Taking 1900 as 100, the index of real wages rose from 63 in 1869 to 99 in 1895.) Trade unionism in Britain grew on the dynamic of British capitalism. As capitalism became more prosperous, so the chance of suborning wider sections of the trade union bureaucracy became possible. From being a bar to the free expression of early capitalism the trade unions became a spur to greater capitalist rationalisation and concentration. The growth of political reformism developed in this period, the rise of Fabianism in Britain, the revisionism of Bernstein in Germany. What has developed is, for the reformist, the end point of analysis, not what the present has developed from and what it is developing towards. Capitalist democracy could afford not just reformist trade unions but also a reformist working class politics.

After 1900 the situation for the trade unions and the working class began to decline rapidly. The downturn of the economic cycle had an immediate and disastrous effect on working class standards. Prices rose uninterruptedly during the following decade while wages remained static. Unemployment rose until, in 1907, it was higher than it had been at any time in the previous 25 years. [1] The Taff Vale judgement, which cost the railwaymen’s union some £200,000 in 1901, drove the trade union leadership into support for the political expression of reformism in the Labour Representation Committee and subsequently the Labour Party. But neither political or industrial reformism could answer the simple needs of the working class.

In France the syndicalists built a trade union federation based on the skilled workers and dedicated to revolutionary direct action. (Sabotage derives from the word sabot – wooden shoe – that French railway strikers would place on the lines to derail blackleg trains.) In America in 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed to oppose the one big union against the combined might of the system and the ‘bread and butter unionism’ of the American Federation of Labour (AFL).

The international experience of the class found its reflection in Britain through the growth of a tendency that saw the industrial union as the immediate response to working-class needs and as the instrument for taking power and also the instrument for the exercise of that power. The syndicalist-cum-industrial-unionist tendency were uncompromisingly opposed to craft unionism and its political expression in the Labour Party. Influenced by the French direct activists and the dual unionism of De Leon and the IWW they quickly discovered that, whatever the universal validity of the notion of independent revolutionary class action, the transposition of American and French theories to the British scene were doomed to failure. The Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) an attempt by the British Socialist Labour Party to implant the IWW into Britain was a brave but dismal failure. We will return to the IWGB later but first it is necessary to examine in some detail the origin of the movement in America.

There are three figures who came together in 1905 to form the IWW: Daniel De Leon, Eugene Debs and Bill Heywood. There were, of course, many others who subsequently became as important if not more important than these three, but the past experience and personal prestige of Debs, De Leon and Haywood drew together the disparate strands they represented and gave the movement the impetus it required. Debs represented a particularly strange development as an individual within the working-class movement. In a way he reversed the popular path of a labour leader. Starting off as a railroad worker he became active in the ultra-conservative Railroad Brotherhoods and a protagonist of non-political craft unionism. He developed as the result of the manifest failure of the brotherhoods into a partisan of industrial unionism and formed the American Railway Union. The ARU’s defeat in the bloody Pullman strike of 1894 (in Chicago alone 13 people were killed and 53 injured [2]) and the assistance provided to the employers by state and federal government ended his lifelong attachment to the Democratic Party. The incapacity of the brotherhoods and the AFL turned him to dual unionism. In Cook County jail he learned the bare essentials of socialist theory. He became a socialist, a revolutionist, an internationalist – and a dual unionist.

Haywood represented a different tradition, a native born American who started work as a youth in the metal mines of the West and then left to become a homesteader. The government, however, took his land for an Indian reservation (an unusual reversal of tradition) and Haywood was forced back into the mines. This experience confirmed Haywood in an already well-developed antipathy to the fetters of wage slavery. Together with others in the West he saw the end of the dream of individual liberty in the terrible conditions of the metal mines.

Individual freedom was submerged in the freedom of the corporations and the power of corporate wealth was made apparent in the naked force with which they manipulated both people and government. Heywood and his like did not need, certainly felt they did not need, the abstract theories of marxism and socialism to teach them the need to struggle and the need to destroy capitalism. For them it was a fact of life, a necessary condition of working-class experience. In 1893 he helped to form the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Haywood’s philosophy is well summed up in his speech to the founding convention of the IWW:

‘between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wages system’.

This splendid formulation is interesting. The emphasis on the abolition of the wages system in a way harks back to the early British trade union philosophy – the opposition of the independent producer to the tyranny of the wages system – the demand for the full product of his labour, by the man who hates the naked and direct exploitation of the capitalist. This feature of the WFM and other dissident American trade unions indicates one reason for the difficulty in implanting the forms of the IWW into the conditions of Europe. Only in Australia, which had a .similar internal frontier, was the IWW able to exert more than a transitory influence. Hayward was also a member of the American Socialist Party and, at least while he maintained membership avoided the worst non-political attitudes of the extreme Wobblies. Nevertheless he was at one with Debs and a significant group in the ASP that opposed Gomper’s AFL and was committed to dual unionism.

De Leon was a totally different personality from the other two, a doctrinaire marxist in that most doctrinaire of organisations the Socialist Labour Party. A former lecturer in law at Colombia University, he joined the SLP at a low point in its fortunes. The SLP, an organisation largely composed of immigrants, experienced in somewhat exaggerated form the controversies of the European movement. The Lassalleans and the marxists fought incessantly for theoretical control of the party in frequently unreal and dogmatic terms. For the Lassalleans the ‘iron law of wages’ made it futile to engage in the economic struggle of trade unions. De Leon managed formally to straddle the positions of the two tendencies in the SLP and evolve a theory to combine political and industrial activity. In practice the party adopted such an exclusive tactic that the advantages of certain rectitude (De Leon once wrote ‘The SLP has all the “tyranny” of truth’ [3]) and disciplined organisation were lost in the almost universal opposition they provoked.

In 1893 he entered the Knights of Labour and by superior organisation and force of personality captured District 49 of the union. For 12 months the SLP exercised considerable influence in the organisation. Inevitably the extreme dogmatism of his position met with revulsion and the SLP adherents were expelled. In 1894, in concert with several small ‘socialist’ unions. De Leon managed to lead a battle for building in socialist objectives to the AFL constitution. In this they were unsuccessful but together with the Mineworkers they did manage to defeat Gompers for the presidency. Twelve months later Gompers was back and De Leon was out. For De Leon boring from within was now a dead letter and he set up, under SLP auspices, the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance. The ST&LA never numbered more than 10,000 members and was solely based in New York among immigrant trades. The sectarianism of the SLP, the shrillness of its polemics and its virulent dual unionism eventually gave rise to a split within the SLP. In 1898 a sizeable section of the party, behind Morris Hillquit, bolted. Three years later the Hillquit group formed the basis for the American Socialist Party.

By 1905 the ST&LA had reduced in membership to 1,500. There was no way for the organisation to exist unless it merged with the growing forces within the independent unions and, the left wing in the SP for an industrial unionist opposition to the AFL. De Leon’s errors were large ones and most commentators, especially those of the Communist Party – who made all of De Leon’s mistakes without any of his justification – concentrated on these errors. But despite his dogmatism, he made a genuine contribution to socialist thought and his work on the way the victorious working class would exercise their power through their own industrial organisation was a reasonably accurate forecast of the Soviets.

These three personalities, with all their faults and strengths, came together in 1905 to form the IWW. The Knights of Labour had declined and then failed and the AFL was almost exclusively craft unionist and organised only 5 per cent of the workers. To charges of splitting the trade union front the Wobblies replied that the AFL was not a trade union at all. In another section of his speech to the inaugural convention of the IWW, Hay wood said:

‘It has been said that this convention was to form an organisation to rival the AF of L. This is a mistake. We are here for the purpose of forming a Labour organisation.’

Debs went even further.

‘To talk about reforming these rotten graft infested (AF of L) unions which are dominated absolutely by the labour boss, is as vain and wasteful of time as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses.’ [4]

There is more than a little justification for these remarks. The exclusiveness of the AFL went further than mere craft. They were also lilywhite and their refusal to organise the unskilled meant that the migrant and immigrant workers were left entirely at the mercy of the employers. AFL policy was effectively: I will not organise them but neither must anyone else. Between 1896 and 1897 the WFM was affiliated to the AFL, This brief association ended with recrimination on both sides. The political and industrial quietism of the Gompers-led AFL, together with a failure to effectively support the miners in the Lead-ville strike, were the causes of the split. The WFM immediately started a rival Western Labour Union to ‘organise all labour west of the Mississippi irrespective of occupation, nationality, creed or colour’. In the next seven years the WFM fought a series of bitter, bloody, long-drawn-out disputes, generally around the issues of the eight-hour day, union recognition and wages. Sometimes they lost, more often they won and they maintained the union and spread the appeal of militant industrial unionism.

In 1902 Debs persuaded the WFM to change the name of the Western Labour Union to the American Labour Union (ALU) and to extend their sphere of activity to the whole country. The dual unionist challenge was being made with a vengeance. In the summer of 1905 the founding conference of the IWW met in Chicago. Beside the WFM, the ALU and De Leon’s ST&LA there were delegates from a number of independent unions, some state federations of unions, some Canadian unions and the American branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of Great Britain. All together some 200 delegates attended. It was a mixed bunch. The seeds of future difficulty already existed in the two main strands that were represented – the anarchist trend (Father Hagerty and Lucy Parsons – widow of the Haymarket martyr) and the orthodox marxists (the left of the SP, the SLP). For the anarchists and syndicalists,

‘Political action leads to capitalism reformed. Direct action leads to socialism ... death to politics ...’ [5]

As late as April 1904 De Leon still believed that American socialism could be ushered in by the ballot box, although he was later to concede that if the capitalists used fraud to deprive the workers of victory then direct action should be taken to redress the balance. De Leon however did not explain why workers with the ability to redress the balance should wait for the bosses to use fraud before exercising direct action.

The keynote for the IWW founding convention in 1905 was given by Bill Hay wood:

‘This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism’. (Proceedings of the First Convention of the IWW)

The proceedings were much taken up with debates around the question of politics. It is a measure of the strength of De Leon’s personality that politics were seen in his terms: the ballot box versus direct action, the IWW as the industrial appendage of the SLP or as the combination of revolutionary cadre and mass trade union. But De Leon’s apparent victory in securing the inclusion of political aims in the preamble to the IWW constitution was short lived. At the 1906 convention the first week was spent in a wrangle about whether De Leon was a bona fide worker who could be seated at all. The anti-political anti-De Leon forces were gaining strength. The most stable section of the IWW, the WFM, was especially hostile to De Leon’s particular brand of politics. (The editor of the Miner’s Magazine wrote that the second convention was ‘part of a conspiracy that contemplated the resurrection ... of a political corpse – the Socialist Labour Party’. [6]) In July 1908 the WFM withdrew from the IWW. De Leon was blamed for the alienation of this, the only stable union in the IWW, and at the September convention the annual attempt to deny De Leon a seat was successful. The SLP set up a rival IWW in Detroit, which lasted until 1925 (after De Leon’s death called the Worker’s International Industrial Union). De Leon had succeeded once more in driving the SLP into splendid isolation and intensified the anti-political reaction of the IWW.

Despite its theoretical crudity, despite its anti-political Philistinism, the IWW involved literally thousands of militants in the organisation. The dedication of the Wobblies and their willingness to suffer beatings by company and state thugs, their readiness to go to jail and their fortitude and defiance at judicial frame-ups to the point, and beyond, judicial murder, made the name of the organisation and its militants known and respected throughout the labour movement. It also made them known and execrated in the press and legislatures.

They fought a strike in Goldfield, Nevada, and organised virtually all workers in the town (with the exception of a few AFL skilled trades) they forced up wages and conditions from $1.75 for a ten-hour day to $4.50 for an eight-hour day. At Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, they turned wage cuts for some 30,000 workers into a wage increase. Between 1907 and 1916 they ran 13 major free speech campaigns against local ordinances specifically directed against IWW organising meetings. In these campaigns they drafted in literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Wobblies to defy the ordinances and to jam the jails and often they won. But none of these great struggles left the IWW with a continuing organisation in the towns of the East. The power of the corporations, the difficulty of organising workers divided into as many as 20 language groups (as at Paterson, New Jersey), the state and government repression and the IWW’s refusal to consider bargaining with the bosses, made stable organisation impossible. In Lawrence, at the end of the strike, the IWW had 14.000 members in the local. Twelve months later they were down to the pre-strike 400.

In trade union terms, the IWW was not a success. In the sense that their intention was to build something much more than a trade union, there was a certain inevitability about lack of success. The natural ground for the Wobblies were the mass production industries of the East, the factory towns populated by a polyglot collection of immigrants working long hours in inhuman conditions for miserably low wages, at the beginning of the piece work and factory speed-up system. But the successes were confined to the migratory workers of the West and Middle West. They organised effectively among the transient harvest workers forming the Agricultural Workers Organisation (AWO) and in bloody battles forced up the wage rates and improved on the disgusting, bug-infested conditions of the farm camps. By a system of delegates actually organising on the job, by keeping non-members off the farms, they doubled wages and recruited 18,000 workers into the AWO in two years. The AWO Secretary, Walter Nef, claimed that they had established an 800-mile picket line from Kansas to South Dakota. Despite these successes among the truly dispossessed of the farms and logging camps, where the workers never stayed long enough to obtain the vote and the dubious privileges of settled citizenship, the defeat of Paterson and the failure of organisation among the Eastern working class doomed the organisation to inevitable decline.

The tenuous financial security obtained through the AWO affiliation, and one or two other effective sections, were dissipated during the war by a massive government-directed attack on the IWW. The leadership were by the war’s end either serving or preparing to serve long prison sentences. During the post-war Palmer persecutions, hundreds of foreign-born Wobblies were deported. As with every other revolutionary organisation the very fact of the Russian Revolution served to clarify the thinking of IWW members. The uneasy alliance between marxists, syndicalists, anarchists and industrial unionists that had coexisted in the IWW on the basis of a militant class war attitude, without working through a clear analysis for revolutionary change, could not survive the implications of October 1917. Many of the leading figures joined the Communist Party. The majority, however, did not. The IWW were invited to join the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) but withdrew when it became clear that the line of the International favoured working through existing trade unions and dual unionism was to be avoided.

The IWW continued its decline, by 1925 it was taken over by an extreme anarchosyndicalist tendency that completely decentralised the organisation. The IWW was involved in one or two major disputes, both among coal miners – Colorado in 1927 and Harlan County in the 1930s – but the organisation was effectively dead. In 1948 they managed to form a picket line around the offices of the New Republic magazine, in whose pages had appeared an article – by Wallace Stegner – suggesting that Joe Hill had been guilty of the murder for which he was shot in Utah in 1915. At its 50th anniversary the IWW still existed, just. It did not organise a single factory or plant.

The IWW, however, was not a failure. In James P Cannon’s phrase, it was ‘a Great Anticipation’. Without the IWW the massive outburst of industrial unionism in the 1930s would have been very different and certainly less effective. The sit-in strike tactics used to such great effect in the Congress of Industrial Organisations’ organising drives derived directly from the Wobblies. Much of the CIO cadre were old-time members of the IWW. The organisation of the mass production industries attempted with the immigrants in Lawrence, Paterson and Akron, in the brave days of the IWW, had to wait until the English-speaking second generation were ready for organisation. The great tragedy of the non-politicism of the IWW was repeated in the CIO. The greatest outburst of the American working class was not accompanied by the growth of a genuine revolutionary party. The Trotskyists spent the important period of the CIO in a faction fight over entry into the corpse of American Social Democracy, followed by a split and entry into Norman Thomas’s party. The Communist Party, after years of dedicated pursuit of each twist and turn of Stalinism, involving them in dual unionism, boring from within the AFL and independent red unions, provided much of the second line cadre for the CIO, from which position they were well able to assist Roosevelt and the trade union bureaucracy to impose the anti-strike pledge during the second world war.

The American industrial unions made the giant step forward in the 1930s, but in a short period of time they were as bureaucratised as the despised AFL. The one-page contracts negotiated with the employers in the late 1930s that merely recognised the union are today the massive documents that regulate every moment of the worker’s life. The union has become the equal partner of the bosses with equal interest in the continuance of capitalism and the exclusion of the worker from effective control over his own life. The transformation of the brave notion of industrial unionism as the harbinger of the new society into its opposite was not considered, nor could it have been, by the men who formed the IWW in 1905. Nor was it a factor in the minds of the British partisans of the IWW.


1. W. Stewart, J. Keir Hardy, p.87, quoted in Kendal, Revolutionary Movement in Britain, p.24.

2. R. Ginger, Eugene Debs, p.170.

3. P. Renshaw, The Wobblies.

4. T. Draper, The Roots of American Communism, p.19.

5. E. Higgins, Direct Action versus Impossibilism, quoted in Renshaw, op. cit.

6. Renshaw, op. cit., pp.176-78.


Last updated on 30.12.2007