XV. AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY INDUSTRIAL UNIONISM
VERY different from the Anarcho-Syndicalism of the French was the Syndicalism of the Americans which developed in the twentieth century (1905-1918). (*1) By the twentieth century the United States had become a vast industrial country of enormous size and titanic strength. We have pointed out the basic causes that led to such an enduring and deep-seated Liberalism in this country and those tendencies which could foster an Anarchist ideology. To these forces we must add the following to complete the picture and to show why Syndicalism grew and why it took the form that it did.
The industrialization of America took place vigorously, thoroughly, and ruthlessly, exposing all capitalist contradictions in the clearest light. On the one hand the factories advanced quantitatively, evoking a vast stream of labor to compose which all the European countries added approximately a million emigrants to our population each year. On the other hand, the factories grew qualitatively and, with the rapid introduction of all possible new machinery and its widespread application, crafts and skills became obsolete over night and an army of men would be thrown out of work. So long as American capitalism, on the whole, was on the rise, those thrown out of work could find re-employment relatively easily, but as the contradictory forces developed, and American capitalism began to reach its maturity, re-employment became more difficult.
It is solely in a non-industrial country that Anarchism, or Anarcho-Syndicalism can flourish. In a thoroughly industrialized country, only a centralized, authoritarian type of movement can satisfy the needs of the workers becoming increasingly revolutionary. It is in such a country that the Marxian analysis of the dynamic laws of motion of capitalism can be verified most easily and tested out in practice. According to the foregoing, then, it should have been Socialism which took root in this country; if there arose not Socialism, but Syndicalism, then we must look for the special conditions in the United States that could have fused Socialism and Syndicalism together into an entity unknown in any other country in the world.
We have noted that even in regard to the skilled workers of the American Federation of Labor, by the twentieth century, it had become impossible for the organized working class to ignore the State. So long as there had been a frontier, the worker had been predominantly agrarian, class formations had been slow in maturing. The transformation of the United States into an industrial country placed the whole problem of classes before society as a whole in a manner it could dodge no longer. The transition from agrarianism to industrialism had produced the great strike waves of the last decades of the nineteenth century and the establishment of skilled labor organizations. The transformation of America to an imperialist country saw the unskilled worker articulating his demands and exerting his pressure. American Syndicalism was the form of expression by which the unskilled worker made known his interests. It was the sign manual that revolutionary class formations were taking place in the United States as well as in other countries.
The general immaturity of the working class on the American continent was bound to affect the unskilled workers, even the foreign born. If they could no longer ignore the State or the rule of the capitalist class, if they could no longer hide the fact that their aim was not “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” but the abolition of the wage-system, at the same time they were not able to free themselves from the limitations of American life. The peculiarities of that life prevented the mass of workers from attaining a revolutionary socialist, that is, Communist position, but forced these workers to stop midway, in revolutionary Socialist-Syndicalism. “Pure and simple” trade unionism of the A. F. of L. found its echo in the Industrial Workers of the World, modulated with a revolutionary resonance.
The I. W. W. came to life coincident with the refusal of the A. F. of L. to organize the mass of unorganized unskilled workers rapidly becoming the overwhelming majority of the working class as a whole. The bitter, cynical exploitation of the masses was bound to generate an explosive reaction. Like the skilled workers of the A. F. of L., these unskilled laborers placed no reliance upon governmental legislation but only upon their own power. Like the A. F. of L., they firmly believed that their unions could solve all their problems. For Socialism without the parliamentary Socialist Party, this was as far as the organization of the unskilled could attain at the time.
Under the banner of the I. W. W., then, American Socialist-Syndicalism was organized in 1905 with the guidance of a group of revolutionary minded Socialists, Eugene V. Debs, Wm. D. Haywood, Daniel De Leon and others. (*2) A Socialist Party member, Sherman, was the first president. Many other prominent members were Socialists. The backbone of the organization was the Western Federation of Miners, an organization of metal miners in the West (Colorado, Montana, etc.) which, in order to exist, had been forced to wage intense battles and to utilize all possible weapons against the forces of their employers so as to improve the workers’ lot.
Launched in 1893, the Western Federation of Miners had grown rapidly up to 1900. Having to fight extremely powerful corporations whose connection with the governments of the mushroom towns and newly formed counties and States were of the most openly brazen kind, the metal miners could not help identifying the various strikes they were forced to conduct with open battles against the State troops and sheriff’s deputies sent against them. Every strike took on the nature of a civil war in miniature scale. In the course of their struggles they were forced to break from the A. F. of L. and to organize, in 1899, their independent organization, the Western Labor Union, which later became the American Labor Union.
It was thus natural that these workers of a heavy, basic, large-scale industry should turn to revolutionary Socialism. As members of a union that had forged its way through self-help and direct action, they could not tend but to rely upon themselves rather than upon politicians and to scoff at the efficacy of the ballot. In their desperate need for solidarity, these unionists wanted to organize all the workers, particularly the unorganized, into strong unions, not craft unions, but modern centralized, powerful, industrial unions.
Besides the American Labor Union there was the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance (having a considerable German membership) which had been organized by the Socialist Labor Party in 1895 and which stood for Socialism and political, that is, parliamentary action. These two groups composed the leading elements at the first convention of the I. W. W. in Chicago in 1905.
Here we can contrast the American type of Syndicalism with the French. (*3) The first was influenced by Socialism, the second by Anarchism. The Syndicalists of both countries were but organized minorities; whereas in France the Syndicalist workers rationalized themselves into a theory of “militant minority,” the I. W. W. stressed the task of winning the unorganized and unskilled masses. Not the elite but the rank and file should control.
In these questions was reflected the difference in the stages of maturity attained by the working classes in their respective countries and their different needs. To the French, democracy was secondary to the question of how to conduct the class struggle. They knew well that the entire working-class could not be organized before the ruling class broke into violent action leading to a revolutionary situation. They understood clearly the meaning of bourgeois democracy and they made no fetish of it. To the Americans, however, democracy, in the sense of meaning the right of each person to be as good as anyone else, was an end in itself, and the class struggle was made subordinate to it. Here the American Syndicalists showed how closely they were rooted in a liberalistic bourgeois environment.
On the other hand, the theory of the elite played well into the hands of the French skilled workers and their bureaucracy who, in fact, were placed in a position to break the revolutionary movement, as they later did. In the French Syndicalist movement, the Anarchists refused to permit proportional representation, that is, to allow the larger unions to have more votes than the smaller. (*4) In this way the small locals, often composed of the more reactionary elements, could control the situation in a critical moment. In America, this whole reactionary tendency of the Anarchists was uprooted entirely. Not only was the principle of proportional representation and centralization established but, as much as possible, decisions were referred to the rank and file in referendum votes.
The method of sabotage was not very popular in the United States. The Socialists within the I. W. W. (DeLeon and others), as well as without (the Socialist Party), fought the tactics of sabotage both from the viewpoint of its being a measure of force and hence a means of converting the union into an illegal apparatus, and from the collectivist principle of opposing individualist and loosely controlled acts.
Before the war, the question of sabotage caused a bitter struggle to rage in the Socialist Party, the Right Wing attacking it as it attacked all revolutionary practices, the Left Wing defending it on principle, though not agreeing with its Anarchist usage. Involved in the conflict were other questions also, such as whether the Socialist Party should support the I. W. W. or the A. F. of L. Finally, in the convention of 1912, Article 11, Section 6, of the Socialist Party Constitution was adopted. It declared that all those advocating sabotage be expelled from the Socialist Party. A considerable group was consequently forced to withdraw from the Socialist Party.
After the war, bleeding from the brutal persecution which had been its lot, the I. W. W. officially dropped the word “sabotage.” On the general question of violence it issued the following statement:
“Its historic attitude in opposition to violence was reaffirmed at its twelfth convention which unanimously turned down a communication favoring change in its tactics …” “… we, the General Executive Board of said Industrial Workers of the World, do hereby declare that said organization does not now, and never has believed in or advocated either destruction or violence as means of accomplishing industrial reform; first, because no principle was ever settled by such methods; second, because industrial history has taught us that when strikers resort to violence and unlawful methods all the resources of the government are immediately arrayed against them and they lose their cause; third, because such methods destroy the constructive impulse which it is the purpose of this organization to foster and develop in order that the workers may fit themselves to assume their place in the new society….” (*5)
On the question of industrial unionism, the I. W. W. and the French movement were at opposite poles. The French had been content with the locally controlled craft unions. The Americans, in order to meet the trustification so omnipresent in American life, made a veritable fetish of industrial unionism. To the I. W. W., structure was the inevitable counterpart of function, and it was impossible to conceive of a union’s carrying on the class struggle without creating the industrial union form so as best to realize the energies of the militant workers and to mobilize the classes for battle. The I. W. W. theoreticians tended to make the frame of unionism an end in itself, as though perfection in structure could guarantee militancy in function.
The I. W. W. were erroneous in their assumption that mere form of organization can become a cure for opportunism. Industrial unions totally unconnected with revolutionary movements have existed. Conversely, there have been a number of craft unions which have carried on militant strike struggles and have had Socialist philosophies. At the same time, the industrial form of unionism has become typical for company unions in America and Fascist unions in Europe.
The industrial unions of the A. F. of L. have been in violent opposition to the principles practiced by the I. W. W., since, like their brother craft unions, these unions concurred in such A. F. of L. policies as collaboration with the employers, establishment of and utmost loyalty to long-term contracts, etc. Nor have these A. F. of L. industrial unions in the past favored the transformation of the A. F. of L. into an authoritarian center of industrial unions, but have been quite content to live with the craft unions within the same federation, and, indeed, to justify the craft position of others. Like the other unions, they were ridden with an exceedingly arrogant bureaucracy.
Two specific types of industrial unionism have existed in the A. F. of L. The first exemplified excellently by the United Mine Workers of America. In this union all miners, helpers, and laborers of a given mine or locality are joined together in the same local.
The second type is represented by the Ladies Garment Workers and the Brewers Union. Unlike the United Mine Workers, these unions, while ostensibly organizing all the workers in their respective industries, keep the workers separated in craft locals, although tying up these locals in compact joint boards and councils. In the Ladies Garment Workers Union, the operators are divided according to their crafts and sometimes even according to their language. In the case of the Brewers Union, “Instead of forming mixed locals, made up of various types of workers, the usual policy of the union has been to organize drivers, bottlers, brewers, soda water workers, etc., separately, and then unite them by means of the joint boards for concerted action. No two locals of the same branch may exist in the same locality.” (*6)
Outside the A. F. of L. are a number of independent unions organized on an industrial basis similar to that of the Ladies Garment Workers. A good illustration is the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. This union, moreover, being in intense sympathy with Soviet Russia, adopted an advanced socialistic program, indeed, at one time launched a movement for the purchasing of bonds to finance the rehabilitation of the clothing industry in that country.
Within the A. F. of L. several other distinct movements have arisen tending towards industrial unionism. The first such trend was initiated by the conventions of the A. F. of L. designed to bring together the craft unions in given industries to discuss common action and grievances. As a result there were formed various departments of the A. F. of L., the building trades department being organized in 1908, the metal trades department in 1909, the mining department and the railroad employees in 1912. Another tendency leading towards industrial unionism was part of the movement for nationalization of industry which the unions indorsed after the war. The Railroad Brotherhoods, the United Mine Workers, and others, had each come out for nationalization of certain industries. This drift to nationalization was bound to bring about a policy of mutual co-ordination of the various national trade unions in a given industry for joint action and for eventual fusion. In Great Britain this tendency was even more noticeable and became a definite process for gradual amalgamation into industrial unions.
At the same time, a minority movement composed of Left Wingers was organized under the slogan of “Amalgamation or Annihilation.” The movement swept the country, it being estimated that an overwhelming majority of the trade unions and locals were in favor of such action. The officialdom then adopted a vigorous policy of expulsion of those militants favoring the minority movement. Unable to withstand the attacks launched against it, and suffering from the extremely limited Communist leadership, the amalgamation movement soon collapsed.
The industrial unions not subscribing to the theories of the I. W. W. differed greatly as to their constitutional provisions for local action. In the Miners Union no local strike was permitted without the authority of the District Executive Board. Thus, in spite of an industrial form of organization, the militancy of the lower bodies was stifled by the complete control maintained by the bureaucracy. In other organizations, as in the United Textile Workers Union, autonomy was permitted in many cases, the Executive Board having the power to step in only when petitioned for help.
In the struggle against the A. F. of L., therefore, the I. W. W. was unable to use the argument of industrial unionism versus craft unionism as freely as otherwise it would have done. Necessarily restricted, the I. W. W. attack against the A. F. of L. unions stressed, first, that the industrial unionism of the A. F. of L. was a sham and not a genuine variety, and second, that the A. F. of L. did not carry on the class struggle.
In regard to the second point, the I. W. W., for example, denounced the agreement policy of conservative unions. On its part, the I. W. W. at first opposed the entire idea of a contract with the employer. As revolutionists, they would have nothing to do with their enemy. Since might was the basis of right, contracts were of no value because the moment the slightest advantage was given either side to break it, class interests, not paper phrases, would prevail.
However, such a policy of incessant open warfare was bound to meet with resistance from the organized workers themselves who needed periods of recuperation from specific battles and who did not believe in a ceaseless fight in which they themselves would be worn down and destroyed. Thus, the I. W. W. had to change its policy and agree to enter into contracts with employers. However, they stipulated that under no consideration would they tolerate a specific limitation of the duration of a contract, nor would they grant the necessity of giving notice to the employer before making new demands for strike action, or of binding members to work only for a certain association of employers, or of regulating the price of the product.
The I. W. W. further criticized the lack of solidarity in the strike policies of the A. F. of L. and ridiculed the idea of waiting for large strike funds to accumulate before calling strikes or of needing high strike benefits to be paid to workers. The I. W. W., pre-eminently representing the unskilled, knew that from these poor workers they could not accumulate much funds. Accordingly, prolonged strikes were generally out of the question. The strike would have to be short, wide, and militant rather than of the narrow, prolonged, and pacific type of the craft unionists. However, even in its strike policy, the I. W. W. found rivals within the A. F. of L. and outside, in independent unions. The miners, the clothing workers, and the textile workers, for example, were able to put up stirring militant battles, although not under the banner of the I. W. W.
Thus, the I. W. W. was reduced finally to arguing interminably about the internal form of structure of an industrial union. Even this refuge was taken away when, later, they were to be attacked from the Left by several other types of organization, the Shop Steward Movement in Great Britain, the Works Council Movement in Germany, the One Big Union movement of Canada, and Communist unionism as typified in the Soviet Union.
The One Big Union movement in Canada grew out of the discontent of the Western unions with the Trades and Labor Congress of the Dominion, On March 13, 1919, a conference was called at Calgary, Canada. The 237 delegates who attended immediately voted to sever connections with the old body and the A. F. of L. and to form a new industrial organization to be known as the One Big Union. (*7) The Conference adopted an exceedingly revolutionary program calling for the abolition of the profit system, for the endorsement of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an efficient and competent method of terminating capitalism, and for the sending of greetings, to the Russian Soviets and to the German revolutionary Communists, the Spartacists. It also passed a resolution urging a general strike in June, 1919, should the Allies persist in their attempts to overthrow the Soviets.
The movement grew rapidly, twenty-five thousand members in 188 unions, including the Vancouver Trade and Labor Council, joining in a comparatively short time. By the end of 1919, eight central labor councils, two district boards and one hundred and one local units, with a reported membership of 41,150, had affiliated. (*8) Branches were also formed in the United States.
The movement received decided impulse through the Winnipeg general strike in 1919. (*9) The strike had been called by the regular craft and trade unions, but was participated in by leaders of the 0. B. U. to such effect that by July 15, the entire Winnipeg Trades Council had joined the new body and Winnipeg became the stronghold of the 0. B. U.
The 0. B. U. stressed class organization rather than industrial organization. In pursuance of this class policy it did not condemn political action, but rather declared that the only hope for the workers was “in the economic and political solidarity of the working class, One Big Union and One Workers’ Party.” (*10) Following the English custom, however, these unionists could not escape, transforming political action into a purely parliamentary movement; they carried out their decisions of “One Workers Party” by having several of the 0. B. U. members run for office on a labor ticket.
But it is not on these differences with the I. W. W. that stress is laid here. Regarding the primary question under discussion, namely, the type of structure that an industrial union must take, the 0. B. U. asserted that organization by industries was just as archaic as organization by crafts, since unskilled workers moved from one industry to another as occasion demands. Thus the 0. B. U. firmly adopted the principle of placing all workers, regardless of at what they worked, within the same locals. In larger places, separate locals were formed which might coincide with different industries, but not necessarily. In that case, all the locals were connected by central labor councils which controlled the locality. Thus the 0. B. U. formed, not industrial union locals, but what amounted to Soviets on practically a territorial basis, with the exception that the 0. B. U. Soviets were entirely restricted to actual bona fide workmen.
So strict was the 0. B. U. on this principle that when delegates to its 1920 Congress arrived from the powerful lumber workers’ group and insisted on representing lumber workers only rather than the territory from which they came, they were not recognized, whereupon the delegates representing twenty thousand members withdrew from the organization. This was a blow from which the 0. B. U. never recovered and it quickly became impotent.
After the war in Great Britain there arose a movement in the trade union field known as the “Shop Steward” movement, which was a product of the revolutionary fermentation of the times. The outstanding structural feature of this movement was the fact that the various groups in a given shop or factory came together at a common meeting, cutting across craft lines, and elected a shop committee and shop steward to represent the workers of that factory, regardless of their former union affiliations. The Shop Steward movement was not a dual movement to the existing unions but a supplemental one. It represented a program of social revolt.
In Germany a similar development occurred as part of the post-war revolution. There the “Works Council” movement was definitely controlled by the Communists. Under the pressure of the Communist Labor Party the Works Councils increasingly tended to become a dual union affair, splitting the workers from the regular unions controlled by the Socialists. Thus the Works Council movement became an extremely powerful revolutionary weapon for the Communists. Here, too, however, workmen who joined the factory councils were not compelled to leave their old craft or trade unions, but rather were torn by dual loyalty.
In both those movements, the organizational system stressed was the principle of placing all workers employed in a given productive unit, regardless of skill or artificial division, into one group, whereby they could act concertedly for class interests.
This principle was carried out to its highest degree in the case of the Russian trade unions which not only organized the workers nationally on the basis of industrial unionism, but insisted that the basic unit of each industrial union be shop, factory, or unit of production. This was different from the I. W. W. scheme of things which had often brought together a number of shops in a given industry to form a local. In the United States it was in the Passaic strike of 1926 that the Communists were able to demonstrate the great value of this new form of industrial organization.
In the early days of the Industrial Workers of the World, the socialists were able to induce the organization to include a political clause in its preamble which called upon the unions to carry on the fight in the political as well as in the economic field. The leaders of both the Socialist Labor Party elements and the Socialist Party group within the I. W. W. favored this clause, although they interpreted it quite differently.
To the Socialist Party, Socialism was to be ushered in gradually, through reforms, and peacefully, through the ballot. It was the political parliamentary party that would take over and run the State. The struggle in parliament was the chief one; the economic battle against employers for better conditions was secondary. Thus, to the Socialist Party members, the unions were considered subordinate in importance to the Socialist Party, which, however, was to leave the unions alone and to permit them full autonomy.
On the other side, the Socialist Labor Party conceived of the unions as more important than the political party. It also believed it could bring in Socialism through the ballot; it would achieve its aim, however, not by means of reforms, but at one stroke, following the constant reiteration of the demand for the unconditional surrender of capitalism and the convincing of the majority of the population, through education, of the necessity of Socialism. To the Socialist Labor Party, the role of the party was a destructive one solely, “to abolish the State,” while the unions’ role was a constructive one, to build a new society, the co-operative commonwealth, after the capitalist State was abolished. As the American Federation of Labor would not allow within its ranks any propaganda for Socialism, the Socialist Labor Party had organized its own “Socialist” unions and proposed the destruction of the American Federation of Labor.
On this question of the relation of trade unionism to political parties, all labor organizations in the United States in the past have come to grief. The Knights of Labor had been at the same time both a union and a party, and had ended up by supporting the petty bourgeois People’s Party. The A. F. of L. had declared its opposition to politics inside the union, not because it was more radical than the Knights of Labor and therefore refused to become an appendage to any Liberal or bourgeois Radical Party, but because it was content to deal with the Democratic and Republican Parties and was willing to sell its vote to the highest bidder rather than strike out with any independent political line of its own. The opportunist Socialist Party, having abandoned revolution for reform, was willing to abandon the struggle inside the trade unions and to allow these unions to remain reform organizations without making the slightest effort to divert them from their capitalist course. The Socialist Labor Party confused the trade union with the party, and insisted that the trade unions be mere propaganda bodies to be split according to their abstract beliefs regarding Socialism.
Neither the Socialist Party nor the Socialist Labor Party understood the combat role of the unions, the necessity for the revolutionary mass political general strike. The Socialist Party separated reform from revolution, and believed that through reform (as regards the trade union field, through partial economic strikes) the workers would be able gradually to improve their lot and win Socialism; the Socialist Labor Party separated practice from theory and affirmed that the unions were important merely as training schools for Socialist school teachers, where they could learn how capitalism must give way to Socialism.
At any rate, the forces of both Socialist groups were strong enough, in the beginning of the I. W. W., to swing it to a position of supporting parliamentary action and of trying to win the State through the democracy of the ballot. But a third force soon began to arise within the I. W. W., one that made the organization gradually change its program. The I. W. W. began to organize the migratory workers (transport, lumber, agricultural) and foreign-born workers in the cities of the East. These groups of workers had few parliamentary illusions and besides, as aliens or as migratory workers, were deprived of the ballot. These unskilled, the most exploited of all workers, abandoned by the skilled and bribed workers in the American Federation of Labor (which, unlike the English trade unions had not broadened its base to receive them) were ready for an entirely different sort of policy.
First to evacuate were the Socialist Party elements, whose general opportunism and whose support of the officials of the A. F. of L. brought them into disrepute. The position of the Socialist Labor Party was adopted, namely that the I. W. W. must smash the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” the A. F. of L. misleaders, by smashing the craft union scabs in the A. F. of L.
The second group to be forced out was the Socialist Labor Party itself, headed by DeLeon. If DeLeon was correct in evaluating the union as more important than the party, what was the use of the party at all? DeLeon had admitted that upon the unions rested the constructive task of building up the new society. If Socialism prevailed, it would be the party that would disappear, but not the unions, which would then come into their own as builders of Socialism. Even within capitalism, it was the unions that were building up the new within the shell of the old. Did anyone believe that a parliamentary party composed solely of talkers and educators could be sufficiently destructive to abolish the State? If the State were to be abolished, this could be accomplished far more easily by the force of the union than by the ballots of the Party. Besides, the Socialist Labor Party had proclaimed itself as opposed to the general strike, quite in the line of the French Guesdists, although without their revolutionism.
The I. W. W. removed its political clause and declared against all political or parliamentary action. With the exit of the Western Federation of Miners and other trade unions that had entered the organization at its inception (brewers, sections of carpenters, miners, etc.), the I. W. W. embraced the program to which it finally adhered. The I. W. W. could never accept the Anarcho-Syndicalist position, in spite of the great prestige the French Syndicalist movement enjoyed in the United States at this time. The I. W. W. did not even stress the efficacy of sabotage as a weapon.
Following the expulsion of Daniel DeLeon from the I. W. W., the Socialist Labor Party group formed its own “Detroit” I. W. W., a continuation of its old Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance. This new group, however, soon disintegrated, and the Socialist Labor Party from then on ceased to play any creative role in American labor life.
Returning now to the Chicago I. W. W., we must ask: What were the general views of this type of Syndicalism, strongly affected as it was by Marxism? In method, the American Syndicalists were generally eclectic mechanical materialists. Holding fast to the tenet that economic relations are more important than the political, and that politics therefore followed economics, they accordingly interpreted this general truth in a strictly mechanical manner. From their general principles they laid down the following theses:
First: only industrial unions, and not political parties, were necessary; only industrial unionism could bring about the new society and the revolution. Second: since only industrial unions could achieve the revolution, the revolution could mature only in well-developed countries where capitalism had brought powerful industrial unions in its train. Thus the revolutionary movements in colonial, semi-colonial, or deeply agrarian countries could not assume great importance. Third: the principal task confronting the workers was the seizure of the factories and not the attack upon the State. This was not to mean that the unions could nor would defend themselves against the attacks of the State through one of the methods open to them, namely, the general strike paralyzing all State functions. Parliamentary action, however, was absolutely futile. Fourth: since only wage-workers could join the industrial unions, there was no need of the intellectual. Besides, the intellectual, brought up under certain bourgeois economic relationships, could not possibly break away from them and thus would bring only confusion and corruption into the ranks of the working class. Again, what need was there for “intellect” or “theory,” since the economic relations alone were the decisive ones? The workers could emancipate themselves without the aid of those “saviors, the intellectuals.” (*11) The main object was to “organize on the job” at the “point of production.”
The American Syndicalists, breaking away from the bureaucracy and craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor and from the petty bourgeois illusions of the Socialists, and basing themselves as they did upon the poorest and most oppressed layers of the proletariat, nevertheless could not help but fall into gross errors of an opposite nature. In denying the role of the “intellectual,” they denied, on one hand, the role of “theory” and, on the other, the need for leadership.
In denying the role of revolutionary theory, the American Syndicalists denied the revolution itself as scientifically verifiable. Further, they entirely underestimated the role that consciousness plays in the efficacy of spontaneous outbursts. True products of American conditions of their times, the I. W. W.’s idealized the element of spontaneity and, confusing the requirements of winning a strike with those requisite to conquering State power, entirely underrated the difficulty of their task.
The I. W. W. took the Marxist slogan that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the working class itself, and translated it to mean that the workers do not need leaders, certainly not leaders from outside their ranks. Since common-sense and not science was necessary, the rank and file could lead themselves; therefore every leader must be a rank-and-filer. This mechanical Marxism was expanded to such an extent that a rule was passed preventing any man from being an organizer for more than one year, as otherwise he soon would become corrupted, a “pie-card artist” and faker.
In renouncing science and leaders, the workers of the Syndicalist movement lost their sense of values. “Blind” strikes, general irresponsibility and wildness, coupled with the self-protective efforts of employers, combined to prevent the organization by the I. W. W. of any real, solid union organizations. Too often the I. W. W. laid itself open to accusations by conservative union apologists that it was interested in strikes rather than organization work and, during strike action, was concerned with revolutionary propaganda rather than with the material issues of the strike. Upon the termination of a strike, it was charged there was insufficient organizational follow-up, that the locals, improperly and hastily built, would soon collapse.
After the war, when the I. W. W. was definitely on the decline, more stress was laid on the need for planning and organization, but by this time the principle of organization was stressed more than action because the I. W. W. was losing its revolutionism. If the I. W. W. was losing its amateurishness, it had also lost its youth. Linked with the later emphasis on organization went the faith that if the workers organized to the extent of fifty-one per cent or more, they easily could take over the factories—as though the ruling class of the United States would allow fifty-one per cent of its workers to become organized into militant industrial unions!
Both the American and French Syndicalists agreed on the point that no political party was necessary, but for entirely different reasons: the French because their “minority unions’ fulfilled the role of the “vanguard” and could perform every function of a party; the Americans because they considered no vanguard at all was necessary, since the masses alone were capable of the task.
Both the French and the American Syndicalists were anti-capitalist and wanted the workers to take over the factories for themselves, but they had entirely different conceptions of the means therefor. The French planned for the unions to attack and to abolish the capitalist State by means of the political general strike; the American Syndicalists ignored politics and the State entirely. Both talked general strike, it is true, but while to the French the general strike, though possibly peaceful, was equivalent to the revolution, to the Americans the revolution was merely a general “economic” strike, even though it might be violent. The French had turned from barricades to strikes; the Americans would yet turn strikes into barricades. In France proletarian revolution had been a fact; in America only the vaguest conception of it was possible.
The convulsions of capitalist imperialism of the twentieth century placed supreme tests before Syndicalism. Everywhere it failed to meet these tests and either was crushed (Italy), or collapsed (U. S. A.), or was captured by the Socialists and Communists (France). Today strong Syndicalist organizations in Europe exist only in Spain, and even here, under the blows of the present revolution, these Spanish unions are sheering away from their Anarchist stand and are taking more of a Communist position. However, there is no denying the fact that Syndicalism, as a tendency within other movements, is still strong in some European countries.
No wing of Syndicalists could meet six important problems, namely, the World War, the problem of the army, the problem of the peasantry, the Russian Revolution, questions concerning the relationship between the vanguard” (party) and the “class” (unions), problems of unemployment.
The World War caught the Syndicalists unprepared. They had concentrated on the point of production, they had ignored politics. What about the war, which took the worker from the shop? To answer war with general strike could result only in fiasco. As a method of preventing or arresting such a tornado as the World War, the general strike program soon collapsed. And with the world torn by enormous conflicts that bathed humanity in blood, the additional theory that the general strike would have a peaceful character also went glimmering. Most of the Syndicalists turned patriots. In the United States, while the I. W. W. came out against war in general, it did not denounce specifically America’s participation in the World War. “As an organization the I. W. W. took an equivocal stand on the matter of the draft.” (*12)
This ambiguous attitude, however, was not sufficient to save the I. W. W. from the most brutal assaults. So long as it was able to call strikes during wartime, even though the strikes were called, not to retard the prosecution of the war, but solely to improve working conditions badly in need of improvement, the I. W. W. brought down upon itself the full wrath of the government.
In 1917-1918 alone over three hundred arrests took place, and federal and state prosecutions under the Criminal Syndicalist Acts and Espionage Law and other war enactments rained down upon them thick and fast. At the same time severe physical violence was inflicted upon the membership wherever possible.
Connected with this problem of the war was the question of the attitude of the Syndicalists to the army. Just as the Syndicalists “ignored” the war, so had they “ignored” the army, although the army never “ignored” them. The theory of organizing only on the job, the theory of peaceful general strike, had made them believe that it was not necessary to work systematically within the army. To rely entirely on strikes to paralyze the army, rather than upon work within and without to win the army, proved a very costly error.
This mistaken attitude towards the soldier cost the very life of the Italian Syndicalists. Because they thought only of workers and of strikes, they failed to fight for the de-classed workers, the returned ex-soldier and ex-officer whom the post-war turmoil had rendered absolutely desperate. Such desperate elements abandoned by the working class were ripe material for the Fascists, who used them to crush all working class organizations.
Not only did the Syndicalists ignore the army; they ignored the peasantry. This, too, contributed its fatal part to the defeat of the Italian working class. This gross error was exemplified most crassly by the attitude of the I. W. W. in the United States. The mechanical Marxists had learned that the forces of capitalism crowd out the peasantry and convert the peasant into a proletarian. Therefore, concluded the materialist Syndicalists, the peasantry being a doomed class, we need not bother with it. Thus, they failed to draw the class lines among the farmers and to try to win the most oppressed sections of them. To the I. W. W. all non-proletarians were one reactionary mass, unworthy of notice.
Yet, to ignore the peasantry meant to believe that the revolution cannot take place all over the world, since the peasantry are still the vast majority of the world’s population and the working class the minority. Since the I. W. W. did not believe in minority action, to be consistent they would have to postpone the revolution until such time as capitalism itself should have transformed the peasant into a proletarian.
The rebellious peasant could not win without the aid of the working class. Seeing that the workers, through Syndicalism, despised him and condemned him to ruin, was it any wonder that he helped to crush the workers in Italy (and in Hungary, Finland, Poland, and elsewhere)?
If the revolution is ripe only in countries where the working class is in the majority, then why bother with the colonial countries fighting for independence without a large proletariat? Here we see that the Syndicalist’s contempt for the peasant made him callous to the colonial revolutions and deprived him of an internationalist point of view. This lack of internationalism resulted in his putting but few obstacles in the way of imperialism, either in its World War or in its seizure of colonies. That the Syndicalists protested at all was not because of their alliance with the colonial masses, but because they themselves were asked to leave the factories and risk their lives for their employers’ profits.
The Russian Revolution imposed the severest test upon Syndicalism. For or against the Russian Revolution—there could be no neutrality. On this question the Syndicalists split wide open. The mass of Syndicalists certainly welcomed the Russian Revolution. The entire Syndicalist movement of France, and many groups elsewhere, went over bodily to the Communists. Within the Syndicalist movement itself the sharpest struggles took place over the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat and Soviets. The Anarcho-Syndicalists openly fought the dictatorship as a State inimical to the workers. Another group began to modify their theory to take the gigantic fact of the Russian Revolution into their scheme of things.
This last group could be called Communist-Syndicalists. They were only minority groups within the remaining Syndicalist movement. They were willing to endorse everything about the Soviet Revolution except the need for a political party. They favored the dictatorship, a centralized workers’ army, civil war, Communism, but they believed that, not the party with its intellectuals and inevitable petty bourgeois elements, but the revolutionary unions alone could accomplish the job as it could accomplish the task of building Socialism.
These Communist-Syndicalists failed where all the other Syndicalists failed, that is, in understanding the relation between politics and economics, of the vanguard (party) to the class (unions). They failed to understand that the loose, broad, mass organization, the union, could be at best only the body, it could never be the head of the working class. The party must act as the political brain, that central organ which co-ordinates all political sensation. The party is the general staff of the working class, connecting all phases of the battle front, so as to marshal and to concentrate not merely the proletariat but all the forces of the toilers generally within the country against the central power of the capitalists, the State.
Connected with this problem is the problem: What will be the central organ of the working class when it takes power—the trade union councils, or soviets? The history of the Russian Revolution has answered “soviets,” broader types of organizations than the trade union councils, embracing sections of the population other than the organized working class only. The Communist-Syndicalist does not yet understand that the working class can achieve its emancipation only when it changes its perspective from that of its own class, in the narrow sense, to that of the toilers as a whole and of the other sections of the population who look to the workers to lead them.
The mechanical materialist Syndicalists, borrowing from Marx the concept that the foundation of capitalism is the exploitation of labor in the productive process, distorted this to mean that the working class is oppressed and robbed only in this process, that it has no struggles other than those of the shop. The struggle of consumers against the high cost of living, the struggle of the workers for supplementary incomes from the State (in the form of schools, hospitals, libraries, insurance, etc.) was of little importance to these Syndicalists. Certainly, the industrial union can not be expected to organize tenants’ leagues to fight evictions, housewives’ councils to fight the high cost of living, students’ groups through which workers’ children can fight capitalist oppression in the schools, etc. Yet this is precisely the job of a revolutionary political party.
Limited by their provincial Americanism and disgusted with the socialists of this country, the I. W. W.’s confused politics with parliamentarism. In the light of what is known of the Socialist International, we can not blame the I. W. W. for believing that all politicians were parliamentary careerists. This, of course, is not so. To a genuine revolutionary working class party, parliamentary activity is but one phase, and not the most important, of its work.
Linked up with their denial of the role of a party was not only the failure on the part of the American Syndicalists to co-ordinate the struggle on many fronts, but a most naive faith in the permanency of democratic institutions in the United States. Here the I. W. W. showed itself the true twin of the A. F. of L. or of the Socialist Party. That Fascism could arrive, that unionism could become illegal, that broad mass organization of workers would be outlawed and only small conspiratorial groups could survive-this was entirely incomprehensible to the I. W. W. The I. W. W. had no system by which it could function illegally.
The complete bankruptcy of the Syndicalist movement has been demonstrated not only in the question of wars and evolution, but in the question of unemployment. The present world crisis has seen tens of millions of men out of work. It is plain that a good many of these workers have been thrown out of work permanently. It is clear also that the basic tendency of capitalism results in the constant growth of this army of unemployed until it becomes a veritable standing army of the dis-employed. When a condition prevails wherein society must feed the workers rather than the workers feed society, surely we have reached the period of decline and disintegration of our present system.
How can the theory and practice of the Syndicalists fit in here? Should we have the revolution throughout the world even though the workers are not yet the majority? Should we declare the only method to be to “organize on the job at the point of production” when there are but few jobs and little production? Should strikes be the sole weapon in a period when the workers are really locked out of the factories? Should the union be the unique instrument when unionism is in a process of disintegration? Should we ignore politics when to hit the employer through the strike is useless? Should we refuse to demand social insurance from the State when we get no wages? Should we use the method of guerilla warfare at a time when history calls for the frontal attack? The Syndicalist cannot adequately answer. He has been bankrupted by events.
After the war, the I. W. W. shrank to a mere shell of its former self and underwent complete internal degeneration. It was not able to adjust itself to the tremendous, epoch-making events occurring in such rapid succession throughout the world. It had emerged from the war with a greatly reduced membership, (*13) and a relatively passive and mediocre leadership. “Its pronouncements were not taken seriously; its activity between 1924-1927 is hardly worth recording.” (*14) The initiative in revolutionary trade unionism had been taken by the Communists, as was demonstrated in the Passaic Strike (1926), the New Bedford Strike (1928), and the Gastonia Strike (1929) led by Vera Buch, myself and others.
The attack of the government reduced the I. W. W. to the status of a mere civil liberties body fighting for free speech and defending its prisoners. Although it was contrary to the policy of the organization, some of the I. W. W.’s accepted individual clemency and precipitated a fight on the question within the remaining organization. Some of the members had desired to drop defense work completely on the ground that it was political action and also because it diverted needed strength from economic organization work. However, it was impossible to leave the champions of the organization in jail without any effort to defend them. Thus the sole result of the Leftists’ argument to let those in jail rot without attention was to throw the organization into turmoil.
Increasingly the I. W. W. moved away from destructive activity of the class struggle to “constructive” contemplation of what it would do when unions took over industry. The I. W. W. set up a Bureau of Industrial Research and actually appropriated two thousand dollars in 1920 for its support. Later on it was unofficially to attach itself to the vagaries of the Technocrats; thus the organization which had been derided by smug philistines as composed of slum elements, attempted to become respectable by attaching itself to college professors and engineers.
The conservative character of the I. W. W. showed itself also in the schism that took place in 1924 when a large number of lumber workers, adhering to an Emergency Program led by Rowan, seceded from the organization. This was a sign that the larger locals of the I. W. W. that still survived were sick of revolutionary activity. This was also apparent when the Philadelphia workers in the Marine Transport Workers Union of the I. W. W., which had violated the constitutional provision for low initiation fees and had charged $25.00 to get into the union, had to be suspended from the organization. The lumber workers, too, wanted to make of the I. W. W. a plain union fighting for immediate demands without a theory of revolution.
The Rowan faction was able partially to conceal its conservative tendencies with a number of Leftist phrases which constituted its Emergency Program. In essence, Rowan was for a complete decentralization of the I. W. W., allowing the lumber workers full autonomy. He castigated the bureaucratic loafers who headed the organization; he denounced the Press Bureau for revolutionary statements that made conviction in California easier under the criminal Syndicalist Law. This faction of Rowan actually utilized the unprecedented extreme of going into the capitalist courts for an injunction against the others.
As the organization decayed, the increasingly dominant Anarchist element was able to abolish the old-time theory of centralized control which the I. W. W. had adopted as one of the features distinguishing it from French Syndicalism, and as time went on, the I. W. W. became less and less centralized. In 1906 the office of President had been abolished and a General Executive Board set up in place thereof. At the 1913 convention an attempt had been made to abolish even this Board and to have only a corresponding secretary, proof that from the very start the Anarcho-Syndicalists had been exerting considerable pressure. Before the war, however, they had not been strong enough to dominate. Only as the organization deteriorated could they step forward in a leading position.
Today the General Executive Board is an impotent body, meeting irregularly and conducting business only by correspondence. The authority of the Executive is recognized by few of the functioning locals. Playing into the hands of this decentralization has been the rule that officials must not remain in office more than one year, and the further rule that no official may be a delegate to a general convention and no member may be a ,delegate twice in succession. These rules were originally established to prevent a bureaucratic machine from arising within the I. W. W., as it had in the A. F. of L. These decisions only aided the Anarcho-Syndicalists to build their own little cliques and to carry on their petty factional intrigues on the basis of the powerlessness of the organization as a whole to act.
It cannot be said, however, that all centralized power is completely gone. While locals may strike autonomously, without approval of the General Executive, the latter body may order a strike and can pass on all agreements with the employer, so that there still remains a slight modicum of power in the center. The Secretary, however, is not responsible to the Executive Board, but is nominated by the general convention and elected by the vote of the entire membership; thus, even within the small top administration there is no mutual responsibility, but rather general independence of one member from another.
The decay of the I. W. W. is well symbolized in the type of unemployed work that the organization carried on in the present depression. In New York City, for example, where one of their unemployed unions was formed, “Some members are sent out to beg on the streets; others to try to get bushel baskets full of carrots and potatoes…. An entry is made at the appropriate time for each man who has actively taken part in the propaganda work, clerical work, cooking, cleaning, begging.” (*15)
At the same time the General Executive Board took an extremely hostile view towards the Communist International. One of the executives actually protected its Philadelphia local of seven thousand members which had been working on ammunition to be used against the Soviet Union. When in 1920 the vote was taken on affiliation with the Third International, although the membership actually carried the motion to endorse the Third International, with reservations, (*16) by a vote of 1,111 to 994, the General Executive Board decided that it would add 127 more votes to the negative and then call the referendum null and void. Being forced to send a delegate to the Red Trade Union International Conference called in Moscow in 1920, it sent a rabid anti-Communist who came back advising the organization not to join the Communist forces but instead to adhere to the Anarcho-Syndicalist “Berlin” International, which existed only on paper. Whenever Communists became editors of I. W. W. journals, the periodicals were suspended by the executives.
This first against Communists was completely disastrous to the last remnants of the organization. It may be said that the criminal blundering of the Communist forces in this country at the time greatly helped to accomplish this result. Nevertheless, regardless of the character of the local Communists, the whole revolutionary standing of the I. W. W. was destroyed when it fought against the Soviet Union. From then on Syndicalism openly showed its transformation into counter-revolution.
Leaving aside the question of Syndicalism, we may conclude that it is highly problematical whether the I. W. W. can survive even as an industrial union. While the opportunities for industrial unionism, independent of the A. F. of L., are today greater than ever, only a miracle can retrieve and rehabilitate the organization.
1. In England, in 1911, a Syndicalist Educational League was formed in Great Britain under the guidance of Tom Mann. This organization never got much farther than mere propaganda for Socialism, class war, industrial unionism and centralization. It was the same with the Syndicalist League of North America in 1912.
2. See Brissenden: The I. W. W., a Study of American Syndicalism.
3. See also L. Levine [Lorwin]: “The Development of Syndicalism in America” in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, pp. 451-479 (1913)
4. This is one of the chief points of criticism raised by British and American opportunist socialists against Syndicalism. Compare on this point the writings of J. R. MacDonald, Syndicalism, p. 30 and following.
5. J. S. Gambs: The Decline of the I. W. W., pp. 223-224, quoting Solidarity, May 22, 1920.
6. M. D. Savage: Industrial Unionism in America, p. 80.
7. See M. D. Savage: Industrial Unionism in America, p. 177 and following.
8. See Department of Labor, Canada: Ninth Annual Report on Labour Organization in Canada, p.35.
9. How revolutionary the strike really was can be seen from the fact that when the policemen also struck they were told by the union leaders to return to their posts to keep order!
10. The 0. B. U. Bulletin, Dec. 20, 1919, given in M. D. Savage, work cited, p. 187.
11. This attack upon the intellectuals and petty bourgeois careerists who entered the organized ranks of the workers particularly incensed the opportunist Socialists. For an example, see John Spargo: Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism.
12. J. S. Gambs: The Decline of the I. W. W., p. 42.
13. At its peak the I. W. W. numbered its following at about one hundred thousand; it has now but a few thousand.
14. Gambs: work cited, p. 20.
15. J. S. Gambs: The Decline of the I. W. W., p. 153.
16. The reservations were against parliamentarism and for the right of autonomy to develop its own tactics fitting to the United States.