Book review: The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The rise and destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the Word War One Era.

Book review: The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The rise and destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the Word War One Era.

Review of Eric Chester's book on the IWW

The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The rise and destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the Word War One Era. Eric Thomas Chester. 317 pages. Praeger.

This book is refreshing in that it is written by an actual member of the IWW, currently active in Glasgow, and it thus marks itself off from the usual detached academic approach.

The Industrial Workers of the World was a mass workers’ organisation that emerged in 1905 in the USA. It soon gained the nickname of The Wobblies. It led two bitter strikes in Lawrence and Paterson in 1913 that established its radical and fighting reputation. Despite the Paterson and Lawrence strikes it failed to get as much traction in the eastern States as it hoped. In the West it was a different matter. Here large numbers of miners, loggers and farmworkers joined up to the IWW, some leaving the established unions for an organisation that openly proclaimed the abolition of the wages system: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production and abolish the wage system” (from the IWW Preamble).

Chester is convinced that this radical stance led, not to failure as standard accounts maintain, but to many workers joining because they did indeed want to transform society.

With the coming of the First World War the IWW actually increased its influence, particularly in the Western states where the war was unpopular. An economic boom accompanied and indeed set off by the war raised the fighting morale of workers and by August 1917 IWW membership had increased to 150,000.

Until the coming of the war the Federal government only regarded the IWW as an irritant. However this changed quickly once the United States had entered the War. In particular the IWW organisation of copper workers was seen as a threat because copper was essential for the war effort as it was used in guns, bullets, vehicles and warships.

Government officials and advisers now began to focus on the IWW. John W. Davis, the solicitor general and acting attorney general, talked about the “extermination” of the IWW.

A relentless attack began on the IWW until it was greatly reduced in size and influence, and was rent by bitter divisions. The Federal Government also attacked the Socialist Party of America, but this party did not have the organisational cohesion of the IWW. Only particular sections of the SP, the most vociferously anti-war, were targetted and the federal authorities did not aim at its destruction lock stock and barrel.
Chester says: “The coordinated campaign of repression directed at the IWW was a unique occurrence in U.S. history. In the ferocity of the assault and the scope of the attack, the government’s offensive on the IWW remains unequalled.” In order to do this the U.S. Government flouted many civil liberties.

The book deals with the strike of copper miners in Bisbee, Arizona which led to an unprecedented mass deportation of said strikers- 1200 in total!- in 1917 and the horrific lynching of IWW organiser Frank Little in Butte, Montana. Butte was the largest copper-mining area in the USA and Wobblies in alliance with left-wing socialist miners created a strong local workers organisation. In response, company gunmen and the Army bloodily intervened.

THE IWW stance on the War is also dealt with in detail. The IWW had always opposed war and militarism but its leadership now peddled a muted approach in the hope that this would deflect the mounting repression. It was militants like the martyred Frank Little who pushed for a clear anti-war stance.

In 1917 the Federal government in coordination with state governments made membership of the IWW a crime. The Army intervened in many areas and soldiers were ordered to disrupt IWW meetings. The Post Office banned IWW papers in the mail. Some foreign members were arrested and deported. Hundreds of Wobblies were jailed with mass trials in Chicago, Sacramento, and Wichita. Many IWW leaders received long sentences at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas with punitive hard labour that affected their health.

As a result of this the IWW was crippled and weakened. Chester claims that in 1924 internal dissensions as a result of this repression fostered by the authorities among the prisoners in Leavenworth caused a damaging split.

But should we accept this scenario? Yes, there was bitterness between those who stood by a collective amnesty and those who obtained an individual one. But many other factors were at work with the 1924 disaster. Not least of these were the differences between the decentralisers and the centralisers within the IWW, between the local branches and the Industrial Unions and the General Executive Board and General Headquarters. Also in play were those IWW members who had now joined the Communist Party and who backed the centralisers. It should be borne in mind that the IWW had refused to join the Moscow-backed Red International of Labour Unions. As a result the American Communist Party worked actively towards the destruction of the IWW.

Some of Chester’s other theses should be questioned too. He says that the IWW was wed to “the macho bravado” of the idea of sabotage as developed by French anarchists like Emile Pouget and supported by leading Wobblies like Big Bill Haywood. He claims this helped initiate the repression that came down on the IWW during the War. Sabotage was used in various ways to support strikes in the pre-WW1 period but really should it not be argued that the repression that the IWW suffered was because it was damaging the war effort, which Chester himself clearly states? Whether the IWW advocated sabotage or not was a by the by, as the Federal Government were looking for any excuse to attack it.

Did the IWW’s failure to develop a clearer stance on the War have an effect on its ability to attract more support as Chester claims? He asserts that anti-war feeling was strong in the Western states and that “millions of workers were looking to the IWW for leadership”. Certainly Haywood and the General Executive Board refused to oppose the draft and refused to come out openly in support of draft resisters. But would the IWW have been able to act as an organising force for workers? Was anti-war feeling as strong as Chester claims? Certainly whether the IWW adopted a clear anti-war position on all fronts, it was victimised because it affected the war effort full stop. As Chester argues, it would have been better to have taken a clear position to “uphold its commitment to building a social movement pointing to a new society”.

Certainly whilst the repression against the IWW during WW1 was unprecedented, perhaps more could be made of the fact that this opened the way for a following wave of repression known as the Palmer Raids in the period after the war. A. Mitchell Palmer, the new Attorney General launched a series of raids against radicals (and not primarily the Communist Party as Chester states but in particular anarchists) resulting in the deporting of 500 radicals from the USA, including anarchists like Emma Goldman. Perhaps also a comparison with the FBI Cointelpro campaign against Black Panthers, civil rights groups, the American Indian Movement etc in the 1960s could have been made.

There is much of interest in this book, in particular much information about the debates on the War within the IWW and it certainly deserves a read, despite the criticisms made in this review.

The above book review appeared in issue no 84 (Summer 2015) of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation

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Sep 19 2016 19:34


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