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Fourth International, May 1949


Vincent R. Dunne

Wobbly Apostate


From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.5, May 1949, pp.157-158.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


by Ralph Chaplin
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1948, 435 pp., $5.00.

This autobiography gives a wealth of evidence as to the active, militant participation of the author in the struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World. Ais another active participant in the struggles of the IWW reads the 400 pages, he is impressed with the fact that Chaplin does not lose a chance to damn that truly heroic workers’ organization with faint praise.

After a long and eventful journey in the turbulent waters of the class struggle from the early 1900s to the Second World War, Chaplin is, so far as his own account is concerned, now safe in the narrows that lead to the snug harbor. Will he find his way from there to serve the State Department as so many others of his kind have done? Who can say! He has joined the Congregational Church. He says: “It might have been any other church,” except that “one of my long-dead grandfathers” joined that church in 1638.

That is typical of Chaplin. It provides a pretty good explanation of his attitude toward the whole labor and revolutionary movement.

Few will say that he was not a courageous fighter in his time. No one will contend that he did not suffer from the blows of the capitalists. The record of the movement shows that he served the workers well both by his picket line activity and even more with his poetry and prose. The masters feared him and threw him into the filth behind prison bars not once but many times. The voluminous document that he calls “Wobbly” proves, however, on almost every page, that Chaplin was, and is, a superficial thinker.

He was not a Marxist scholar, although at one time he was considered by many as the outstanding intellectual of the IWW. But the clear implications of the American and the world class warfare and the Russian Revolution passed him by. With such great figures as Heywood and St. John to learn from and to lean upon, Chaplin chose as his mentor a certain Captain Eddy, a swashbuckling soldier of fortune whom he met in Leavenworth.

Almost unbelievable to many rank and filers who knew Chaplin is the fact that he devotes just about as much time and space to this “tin soldier” as he does to Debs, Heywood and St. John. Here is Chaplin’s example of what “Americanism” should mean to all militant workers. Captain Eddy died, you see ... while dumping bombs on Japanese workers!

Chaplin’s account shows that although he, in company with hundreds of other rebels of the IWW and socialist movement, struggled against the First World War as a capitalist slaughter, it did not lead him to a serious study of the causes of war. With so many other “radical intellectuals,” he was quite easily convinced that somehow the workers were responsible because of the “force and violence” they employed in fighting the armed hoodlums of the bosses for a little bit of justice. The unexampled use of atomic bombs and other forms of real force and violence by the capitalist gangsters strikes him as a superior way to win a better life.

Understandably revolted by the betrayals of Stalin and the monstrous bureaucracy in the Kremlin, Chaplin, side by side with so many American renegades, takes up the cry of the Greens and the Murrays – “Down with the Soviet Union!” It is noteworthy however, that Chaplin’s intense preoccupation with the menace of Stalinism did not lead him to give the slightest consideration to Trotsky’s struggle to build a Fourth International. The organization of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States and the early fight of the Trotskyists against the Stalinist gangsters and for democracy in the labor movement from 1928 on – left him more or less cold.

Nobody can say that the former IWW poet cannot learn. Having served nis apprenticeship under that great “democrat,” Dave Beck, he can now qualify with little difficulty for an instructor’s post in the school of higher learning run by the Brass Hats in Washington, D.C. And now that Max Eastman has blazed the trail, no one politically of age should be surprised to see Ralph Chaplin, once the arch-enemy of Gompers, Woll and company, billed as a guest speaker at an AFL convention!

Chaplin’s retreat from the workers’ firing line is merely one of the latest examples of the complete bankruptcy of syndicalism – the spurious ideology that played a major role in the degeneration of the IWW. In his book, Chaplin indicates in a number of ways that he had given considerable thought to the Spanish Revolution in 1936-39. That he was aware of the Stalinists’ treacherous game in Spain seems clear. What is entirely lacking in the thick volume is a word of condemnation of the Spanish syndicalist leaders, who ended up in the camp of the bourgeoisie. Who thinks that this is an unconscious omission? No, the difference between Chaplin and his Spanish counterparts consists only in this: they had the opportunity to betray a living revolution, but Chaplin’s apostasy can only besmirch the glorious memory of a now defunct movement.

This “Wobbly” has certainly qualified for a place in that band of “labor statesmen” and Marshall planners, who swarm around the New Leader and/or occupy well-paid positions in the big trade unions. At first glance, Chaplin may seem to be a little out of step with this regimented crew. He arrived somewhat late on the scene, but so did Budenz and others. The measured glare of the Brass from Washington can be depended upon to correct some of the awkwardness. To paraphrase Trotsky’s remark after Bukharin had gone over to Stalin and repudiated his past, “Chaplin picks with his pen and is ready.”

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