Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1



Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman (eds.)
Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World
Verso, London 2005, pp. 305

WOBBLIES: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World is edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. Buhle is a long-time chronicler of the American radical movement and popular culture. Schulman is an artist on the editorial board of World War 3 Illustrated, which began ‘17 years ago as an anti-war comic book, inspired by the experience of growing up under the shadow of nuclear weapons and by the shock of a second-rate actor’s finger on the button’.

Wobblies is timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the IWW and a travelling exhibition of IWW memorabilia that Buhle helped curate (http://www.wobblyshow.org/). For today’s radicals, the IWW has a powerful mystique since many of the leading figures were martyrs to the cause, including the hobo and folksinger Joe Hill. Hill’s songs have enormous staying power as demonstrated by Billy Bragg’s cover of There is Power in a Union:

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union

Wobblies tells the story of Joe Hill and many other legendary figures such as Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood through the comic book medium. Buhle’s love for and commitment to this medium is about as long-standing as his ties to the radical movement. In an article entitled The New Scholarship of Comics in the Chronicle of Higher Education for 16 May 2003, Buhle writes:

Mad comics (1952–55) were the most special. The editor and frequent scriptwriter of that early Mad, Harvey Kurtzman, was a hero of my childhood; when I interviewed him, decades later, as to why he had fallen to the depths of scripting a Playboy strip called Little Annie Fanny, he could only say that he had been unable to live up to his own promise. Actually, the moment had passed. Due to the pressure of the Comics Code, EC Comics, Mad’s publisher, turned it into a successful black-and-white magazine that Kurtzman quit after failing to gain a controlling interest. But what a run he’d had!

The influence of Mad comics on later comics artists has been testified to by Robert R, Crumb (of Zap Comix and more), Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker artist Art Spiegelman, among others. Mad ridiculed, but also interpreted and demystified, the invasion of the childish mind by movies, television, tabloid newspapers – and also comics, both strips and books. I was a little young to enjoy all the original Mads, but several 35-cent Ballantine paperbacks put the best of the early material on the drugstore shelf, albeit with panels squeezed down to size, lines blurred, and in black-and-white rather than the colour originals. No matter. Those were my alternative to schoolbooks and classic novels, because they put the details of popular life under the microscope.

The comic book medium lends itself to the story of the IWW since it is essentially one of the underdog battling powerful evil forces. Whether it is Spiderman or Big Bill Haywood taking on fiendish captains of industry, the artist has a lot to work with.

The artists who worked on Wobblies are a who’s who of the contemporary underground comic book scene. Josh MacPhee, who provided the artwork for the Big Bill Haywood story, is a well-known graffiti artist based in Chicago. In an interview with www.drawingresistance.org, MacPhee stated:

There are very few laws I feel shouldn’t be broken. For artists in particular, I think we need to attack all laws that continue to enclose our ‘commons’ and privatise everything and anything, be it space, economy, intellectual property, plants or human DNA. It is becoming increasingly difficult to do any sort of art in what we used to call public space.

In other words, MacPhee has the same attitude toward private property that the Wobblies did. If they chained themselves to a lamppost while making incendiary speeches in pursuit of free speech rights, artists like MacPhee mount the same challenge with a spray can.

One panel from MacPhee’s strip (he wrote the story as well) suggests that much has changed in the labour movement. The contrast between the revolutionary leader of the Western Federation of Miners, Big Bill Haywood, and the reformist leader of the United Mine Workers, John Mitchell, could not be starker. Haywood lost an eye in a mining accident in his first year at work, when he was nine years old. Mitchell, on the other hand, enjoyed socialising with powerful politicians and businessmen.

Today’s labour ‘leaders’ clearly style themselves after John Mitchell, even if they offer up lip service to the rights of working people. This extends to issues of war and peace as well, as labour officials offer support for the latest imperialist adventure of a declining superpower. On 20 March 2003, AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney issued a statement on the war with Iraq that was virtually indistinguishable from a White House press release:

The Iraqi regime is a brutal dictatorship that is a threat to its neighbours and its own citizens. We support fully the goal of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. We sincerely hope this conflict will result in a more democratic and prosperous Iraq and a more peaceful and stable region, and that it will be resolved with little loss of life.

If there was anything that defined the IWW, it was its resistance to imperialist war, especially the First World War. The Wobblies were repressed during the war, not just for their political opposition but for their role as strike leaders in crucial war industries. Imperialist warfare abroad always requires class peace at home, even if won at the point of a bayonet. Wobbly picket lines were broken up in Arizona in 1918 on the pretext that copper production was a ‘war utility’. Hindering production would make the offender liable to prosecution under a new Sabotage Act.

Co-editor Nicole Schulman provides the artwork and story for IWW leader Frank Little, who was arguably their most visible anti-war figure. Looking at a full-size pic, we can see Little on a speaker’s platform in Butte, Montana where he is recounting a discussion with Arizona’s governor. After Little had promised a miner’s strike, the governor blustered: ‘Why man, you wouldn’t do that. This country is at war.’ Little replied: ‘Governor, I don’t care what country your country is fighting. I am fighting for the solidarity of labour.’

In the early hours of 1 August 1917, six masked men broke into Frank Little’s hotel room and dragged him off to his death. His body was found some hours later hanging from a railroad trestle. It was rumoured that Pinkerton detectives or members of the Butte police were responsible.

Like many members of the IWW, Frank Little came from the ranks of the outcast. He was born in 1879 to a Quaker father and a Cherokee mother. His fellow workers said that he was half White, half Indian and all Wobbly. Other Wobblies came from persecuted immigrant communities like the Italians or the Finns. Unlike the dominant craft unions led by people such as John Mitchell, the IWW also welcomed African-Americans into its ranks. In 1913, Philadelphia longshoremen, who were primarily black as was their leader Ben Fletcher, opted to join the IWW as Local 8 of the Marine Transport Workers Union. A black minister in Philadelphia is reported to have said: ‘The IWW at least protects the coloured man, which is more than I can say for the laws of the country.’

While it is tempting to romanticise the Wobblies, Buhle and Schulman insist on rendering the IWW, warts and all. This makes the IWW more understandable and ironically more sympathetic, especially to people who have done labour or radical organising themselves. It is obvious that people involved in such activities, as opposed to Spiderman, do not have superhuman powers.

For example, despite all the great publicity that attended the Paterson silk workers’ strike of 1913 (including a theatrical production based on the strike mounted by journalist John Reed), the strike did not achieve a victory. As artist and writer Ryan Inzana relates in To Live and Die in Paterson, unity broke down under pressure from the bosses. The IWW was spurned by the workers, and after six months on strike there was no improvement in pay or working conditions.

Although the IWW was extremely successful as an example of standing up to the bosses, it fell apart after the First World War. Its demise was attributable to two main factors. Firstly, repression did have the effect of draining the movement’s energy and finances. Although radicals tend to view repression as a sign of a movement’s strength, at a certain point it can destroy it. This was true of the black liberation movement of the 1960s. A similar dynamic seems to have taken place in the anti-globalisation movement of the more recent past, especially after a young activist was killed in Genoa. Essentially, movements grow through victory, not defeat. Towards the end of its life, the IWW was experiencing fewer and fewer victories.

But the more important factor undoubtedly is the triumph of the Russian Revolution, which convinced working-class radicals that socialist parties based on Marxism were the way to victory. Although the IWW’s anarcho-syndicalism was not specifically opposed to Marxist principles, it tended to shun the political arena and leave questions of conquering state power somewhat abstract. In contrast, the seizure of power in October 1917 was a specific model seemingly adaptable to all countries under all conditions.

As Big Bill Haywood told Max Eastman, just after switching from the IWW to the newly-formed Communist Party: ‘The IWW reached out and grabbed an armful. It tried to grab the whole world, and a part of the world has jumped ahead of it.’

With the end of Moscow-based Communism 15 years ago and the implosion of smaller, more radical ‘Marxist-Leninist’ parties, one might wonder if Big Bill Haywood – and the broader movement – was a bit premature. Instead of dumping native-born political traditions like the IWW or Debs’ Socialist Party, it might have made more sense to absorb them. Indeed, before the imposition of a strict hierarchical model from Moscow, many pioneers of American Communism believed that they were simply evolving out of the earlier movement, rather than transplanting something born in Russia.

For example, Charles E. Ruthenberg explained Bolshevism early in 1919 as something that was not ‘strange and new’. It was merely the consequence of the same type of education and organisation that the Socialist movement had been carrying on in the United States. His Socialist–syndicalist background showed in his description of the infant Bolshevik state as a ‘Socialist industrial republic’. His instincts were completely correct.

In the coming showdown with the US ruling class, it will be essential to construct a socialist movement out of native traditions that uses language and symbols immediately recognisable to the American working class. For help in understanding how to develop this approach, we can turn to the IWW, which did capture the hearts and minds of the wretched of the earth. Whatever other flaws, it did succeed mightily in this respect. As such, Buhle and Schulman’s Wobblies will be necessary reading to understand how the IWW did so against all odds.

Louis Proyect

This review first appeared on the Swans website www.swans.com, and is published here with permission.

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011