Against the IWW series Part I: The bankruptcy of the American labor movement

The first in a series of reposts of common arguments against the IWW (both historical and contemporary).

Submitted by Recomposition on October 5, 2013

In this series, we want to present some of the arguments against the IWW (present and historical). The debates around the strategy of the IWW have a way of repeating themselves both in practice and in the labor movement. How should dissident unions relate to existing unions? What role do ideas play in labor organizations? What is the best use of our energy at work?

The first offering is from William Z. Foster. Foster was an IWW early in his political career before turning to one of it’s harshest critics. His trajectory took him from anarchosyndicalism to hardline Stalinism, and was one of the few Americans to be buried in the Kremlin (ironically next to Big Bill Haywood of the IWW). Foster’s arguments against the IWW are used by many unionists today against the creation of new competing organizations. Despite his Stalinism, his ideas around “dual unionism” (creating secondary left unions to compete with existing unions) have currency in a wider pool, even occasionally with some anarchists. Included is an excerpt from a larger work. The chapters we’ve chosen deal most closely with the IWW and dual unionism, but reading the complete text will give a better sense of Foster’s Trade Union Education League and their perspective.

Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster
Published by the Trade Union Educational League (1922)

Chapter 2
Cause of the Bankruptcy

The weakness of the American labor movement, its lack of social vision and its general backwardness politically and industrially, as compared with the labor movements of other countries, has long been a matter of common knowledge. It cannot be denied or disputed, nor do real labor students try to do either. Their aim is to explain it, to find out the reasons for the paradoxical situation of the world’s most advanced capitalistic country possessing such a primitive working class movement. Two explanations for this condition, widely accepted among labor men and students generally, are (1) that the influx of so many millions of immigrants, with their innumerable racial, language, national, and religious differences, has enormously complicated the problems confronting the labor movement and hindered the work of unionization and education by bringing together a practically unorganizable mass in the industries, and (2) that the workers of America, because of the existence of the free land for so long and the opportunities presented by the unexampled industrial expansion, have been better able to make a living, and consequently have not felt the need for organization and a revolutionary spirit to such an extent as the oppressed workers of Europe. Or, in other words, that too many immigrants and too much prosperity are to blame for the extreme backwardness of Organized Labor in the United States.


Regarding the first of the explanations: Although, undoubtedly, the presence of so many nationalities in the industries makes the problem of organization more difficult, it is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. The situation is not nearly so bad as it has been painted. The “unorganizability” of the foreign-born workers is a very convenient cloak for labor leaders to cover up their inefficiency and the weaknesses of an unfit craft unionism. The fact is, the immigrant workers are distinctly organizable, often even more so than the native Americans. This has been demonstrated time and again in strikes during the past 10 years. In the big Lawrence strike of 1912 it was the immigrant workers, a score of different nationalities, who were the backbone of the great struggle. Likewise in the packing house movement of 1917-21, the whole thing centered around the foreigners, mostly Slavs. They organized the unions in the first place (the Americans quite generally refusing to come in until after a settlement had been secured), and they are the ones who made the final desperate fight. The same experience was had in the great 1918-19 organizing campaign and strike in the steel industry. Although in some mills there were as many as 54 nationalities, they joined hands readily and formed trade unions. There was much more difficulty in organizing the minority of Americans than the big majority of heterogeneous foreigners. And when the historic struggle with the steel trust came the foreign workers covered themselves with undying glory. They displayed the very highest type of labor union qualities.

The majority of the membership of the United Mine Workers of America are foreigners. Yet that is one of the very best labor organizations in this country. Indeed, one can search the world’s labor movement in vain to find a union with a more valiant record. But the best illustration of the organizability of the foreigners is to be found in the clothing trades. In that industry the unions are made up of a general conglomeration of nationalities, principally Jews, Poles, Italians, and Lithuanians. The Americans form but a small minority of the membership and almost nothing of the administration. Yet the unions, all of them, are miles in advance of the ordinary American trade union. In fact, they will compare with the average European labor bodies. Most of the criticisms of the American labor movement, outlined in Chapter I, do not apply to these organizations, made up chiefly of immigrants. They are the one bright spot in a generally dismal movement.

Again it must be said that, although somewhat complicating the problems of the labor movement, the immigrant workers cannot be seriously blamed for its present deplorable condition. Intellectually they are radical and receptive of the most advanced social programs. If they, making up the bulk of the working forces in the great industries, have not been organized industrially and politically before now it is immediately because of the utter sterility and incompetence of the Gompers regime.


To urge the comparative prosperity of the American working class as an explanation of the backwardness of our labor movement is just as futile as to blame it upon the foreigners. The fact is that exceptional prosperity, instead of being a deterrent, is a direct stimulus to labor organization and radicalism. The workers progress best, intellectually and in point of organization, under two general conditions the antipodes of each other, (1) during periods of devastating hardship, (2) in eras of so-called prosperity. When suffering extreme privation they are literally compelled to think and act, and when the pressure of the exploiter is light, during good times, they take courage and move forward of their own volition. The static periods, when very little is accomplished in either an educational or organizational way, are when times are neither very bad nor very good. Then both factors for progress, heavy pressure and stirred ambitions, operate at a minimum.

Russia and Germany, in their revolutions, gave conclusive proofs of the tremendously rapid spread of labor organization and radicalism when the workers are under terrific pressure from the exploiters, and many years’ experience all over the world has demonstrated that the labor movement also makes good progress under the very reverse conditions of “prosperity.” Australia is a classical example. That has long been a land of “good times” and “opportunity.” An abundance of cheap land has been constantly at hand, labor has always been scarce, and unemployment practically nonexistent. If there were anything to the theory that prosperity kills the militancy of the workers then certainly the Australian labor movement might be expected to be weak and insipid. But in reality it is one of the most advanced working class organizations to be found anywhere in the world, and it has been such for many years past. This is no accident or contradiction. Australian Labor is strong, not in spite of the prevailing “prosperity,” but because of it. It is exactly since opportunity is plentiful and labor scarce, which means that the employers are to some extent deprived of their powerful ally unemployment, that the workers’ fight is easier and they are encouraged to make greater and greater demands upon their exploiters. Germany, before the war, was another typical example of the working of this principle. It was by far the most prosperous country in Europe, and consequently it also had the best organized and most intelligently radical working class.

Even in the United States can be traced the benefits conferred upon Organized Labor by “opportunity” and “prosperity.”’ The West has always been the land of opportunity, the traditional place of labor shortage and high wages in this country; and likewise it has ever been the natural home of militant labor unionism and radicalism in general. It is in the East, where labor has been most plentiful, wages lowest, and opportunity scarcest for the worker of small means, that labor organization and revolutionary understanding have made slowest progress. By the same token, when hard times prevail over the country the labor unions become weak, and the workers, defeated, grow pessimistic and lose all daring and imagination. But when the hard times are succeeded by a wave of “prosperity” the workers’ cause picks up at once; the unions, victorious, grow rapidly and, having had a taste of power, they are ready for further conquests, no matter how radical. This tendency was well illustrated during the war and the boom time following it. Never were the workers more prosperous, never were wages higher, job conditions better, and working hours shorter than in this period. But the prosperity, instead of injuring the labor movement, gave it the greatest stimulus, physically and intellectually, in its history. The workers, acting as they always do under such favorable circumstances, poured into the organizations by hundreds of thousands. Then the latter, tremendously invigorated by this enormous influx of new strength and finding the capitalists’ fighting ability greatly handicapped because of the labor shortage, insisted upon concessions and conditions such as they hardly dared dream of in pre-war times. A basic radicalism developed throughout the working class, not the classic Marxian revolutionary understanding, it is true, but a closely related deep yearning and striving for more power over industry and society generally. Naturally enough also it was in 1919, when the railroad unions were at the very zenith of their power and influence, that they announced the Plumb Plan to take the railroads out of the hands of their present owners.

The workers, particularly in a backward labor movement like ours, learn by doing. It is just when they enjoy greatest power and well-being, in times of prosperity, that they are most stimulated to desire and demand more. Because this is the case, because the workers habitually take advantage of every lessening of the pressure upon them by expanding their organizations and increasing their demands, periods of abounding prosperity are periods of danger to capitalism. They are eras of genuine progress to the working class, even as are the times of unbearable hardships. The explanation that the backwardness of American Labor is due to too much prosperity will not stand up. The workers as a class do not become enervated by prosperity, they are energized by it and developed into militancy. Because American workers have been comparatively well off is a reason, not that they should have a weak labor movement, but that their organizations, political, and industrial, should be powerful, and revolutionary.


The American labor movement is in its present deplorable backward condition not because of the reactionary influence of the immigrant workers, or because of the stultifying effect of the higher standard of living prevailing in this country. This is plain when a serious study is made of the matter. Under certain circumstances both of these forces, particularly the former, may exert a hindering influence on the development of labor organization, but at most they are only minor factors. The real cause of the extraordinary condition must be sought elsewhere. And it is to be found in the fatal policy of dual unionism which has been practiced religiously for a generation by American radicals and progressives generally. Because of this policy thousands of the very best worker militants have been led to desert the mass labor organizations and to waste their efforts in vain efforts to construct ideally conceived unions designed to replace the old ones. In consequence the mass labor movement has been, for many years, systematically drained of its life-giving elements. The effect has been shatteringly destructive of every phase and manifestation of Organized Labor. Dual unionism has poisoned the very springs of progress in the American labor movement and is primarily responsible for its present sorry plight.

In order to appreciate the destructive effects of dual unionism it is necessary to understand the importance to Labor of the militant elements that have been practically cancelled by the dual union policy : Every experienced labor man knows that the vital activities of the labor movement are carried on by a small minority of live individuals, so few in number as to be almost insignificant in comparison to the organization as a whole. The great mass of the membership are sloggish and unprogressive. In an average local union of l,000 members, for example, not more than 100, or 10% of the whole, will display enough interest and intelligence even to attend the regular meetings. And of this 100 usually not more than half a dozen will take an active part in the proceedings. In other words, the actual carrying on of the real work of the labor movement depends upon a minority, which in the present state of things, does not exceed 1% of the mass.

This militant minority is of supreme importance, to every branch of the labor movement, It is the thinking and acting part of the working class, the very soul of Labor. It works out the lighting programs and takes the lead in putting them into execution. It is the source of all real progress, intellectual, spiritual, and organizational, in the workers’ ranks. It is “the little leaven that leaveneth the whole lump.” The militant minority, made famous by the Russian revolution as the “advance guard of the proletariat,” is the heart and brain and nerves of the labor movement all over the world.

The fate of all labor organization depends directly upon the effective functioning of these militant, progressive spirits among the ignorant and sluggish organized masses. In England, Germany, and other countries with strong labor movements the militants have so functioned. They have remained within the old trade unions and acted as the practical teachers; stimulators, and leaders of the masses there assembled. Consequently they have been able to communicate to these masses something of their own understanding and revolutionary fighting spirit, and to make their movements flourish and progress. But in the United States dual unionism for years destroyed this natural liason between the militants and the masses, which is indispensible to the health and vigor of Organized Labor. It withdrew the militants from the basic trade unions, and left the masses there leaderless. This destroyed the very foundations of progress and condemned every branch of the labor movement, political, industrial, co-operative, to stagnation and impotency. Dual unionism, so to speak, severed the head from the body of American Labor.


Before indicating more directly the devastating effects of dual unionism it will be well for us to glance for a moment at the historical development of that tendency in this country: Dual unionism is essentially a product of utopianism; it is the result of a striving to reach the revolutionary goal by a shortcut of ready-made, perfectionist organizations. In the early days of our labor movement, 30 to 40 years ago, it played little or no part. Then the militants, not yet having worked out the fine-spun union theories and cartwheel charts of our times, accepted the primitive mass unions of those days as their working organization. Consisting principally of Anarchists and Socialists, these early fighters took a very active part in the everyday struggles of the organized workers. They sought diligently, not to coax the workers to desert one set of supposedly unscientific unions and to join another set supposedly perfect, but to give vigor and intelligence to the fight of the primitive organizations. Without realizing it they acted in harmony with the most modern militant tactics. The result was that the workers responded to their efforts, and our trade union movement speedily took its place, as a progressive, fighting organization, right in the forefront of international Organized Labor. Though free land and opportunity were much more prevalent then than now, they were powerless to stem the radicalism of the working class.

During the ’8Os, when the revolutionists were particularly active in the old unions, the American labor movement was an inspiration to the workers of the world. The Knights of Labor were radical and aggressive. Most of the leaders were Socialists. Even Gompers paraded as a revolutionary. In 1887 he said: “While keeping in view a lofty ideal, we must advance towards it through practical steps, taken with intelligent regard for pressing needs. I believe with the most advanced thinkers as to ultimate aims, including the abolition of the wage system.” [J. R. Commons, History of Labour in the United States, Vol. II, P. 458.] The trade unions were also radical. It was not the K. of L,. as many believe, but the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions (later the A. F. of L.) that called and engineered the great general strike of 1886. This historic movement entranced the working class rebels all over Europe, not only because it was the first modern attempt to win the universal 8-hour workday, but especially because it marked the first successful application of their beloved weapon, the general strike of all trades in all localities. In after years they named as Labor’s international holiday the day, May lst, upon which the strike began. In those stirring times our labor unions stood alone in the world for militancy and fighting spirit. This the international labor movement looked upon as perfectly natural. The prevailing conception was that inasmuch as the United States (even in those early days) had the most advanced type of capitalism it was bound to have also the most advanced labor unions. The common expectancy was that this country would be the first to have a working class revolution.

Even after the unsatisfactory outcome of the great 8-hour strike and the execution of the rebel leaders, Parsons, Spies, Fisher, Engel, and Lingg in connection with the Haymarket riot, the Socialists and other radicals enjoyed great power and influence in the trade unions for several years. They were on friendly terms with the leaders of the Federation and constantly making headway with their program. Yet they had a steady fight to make with the reactionary elements. This was being carried on successfully until the appearance of Daniel DeLeon as a power among the radicals. DeLeon, with his dynamic personality and alluring program of separatism, was quickly able to put a stop to the work in the trade unions and to start the rebel movement definitely upon the road to dual unionism.


Few men have made a greater impression upon the American labor movement than Daniel DeLeon. His principal accomplishment was to work out the intellectual premises of dual unionism so effectively as to force its adoption and continuance as the industrial program of the whole revolutionary movement for a generation. He was an able writer, an eloquent speaker, a clever reasoner, and a dominant personality generally. But despite his brilliance he was essentially a sophist and a utopian. He particularly lacked a grasp of the process of evolution. He made the fundamental mistake of considering the old trade unions as static, unchangeably conservative bodies, and in concluding that the necessary Socialist unions had to be created as new organizations. He did not know that the labor movement is a growth, intellecually from conservatism to radicalism, and structurally from the craft to the industrial form. DeLeon’s industrial program of dual unionism was merely the typical utopian scheme of throwing aside the old, imperfect, evolving social organism and striving to set up in its stead the new, perfect institutions.

DeLeon came to acquire considerable prestige in the radical movement about 1888. Of a hasty, impulsive, and autocratic nature, he soon fell foul of the two great branches of the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor. He broke with the A. F. of L. over a skirmish which occurred in 1890 between that organization and the New York Central Labor Federation. The latter body, controlled by the Socialists, accepted the affiliation of a local branch of the Socialist Labor Party. But when its delegate Lucien Sanial, appeared at the following convention of the A. F. of L. he was denied a seat. Unquestionably Gompers was right in this controversy, for until this day labor organizations, no matter how radical, do not permit the direct affiliation of political parties. But the affair embittered the hasty DeLeon, who repudiated the A. F. of L. and turned his attention to the then decadent Knights of, Labor. In that organization, grace to his great activity and natural ability, he soon acquired substantial power. At the 1894 General Assembly of the K. of L. he joined forces with Sovereign against Grand Master Workman Powderly. Together they overthrew the latter, but the victorious Sovereign, disregarding his political bargain, refused to reward DeLeon for his assistance by appointing Lucian Sanial editor of the official national journal. This provoked DeLeon’s bitter ire, and he broke with the K. of L. These experiences, first with the A. F. of L. and then with the K. of L., convinced him that neither of these organizations were fit material wherewith to build up the Socialist labor movement he had in mind. Therefore, in the following year, 1895, he launched the Socialist Trades and, Labor Alliance, a radical organization designed to supplant the whole conservative labor movement. In the past there had been dual unions organized in opposition to the old trade unions (witness for example the American Railway Union founded by Eugene V. Debs), but the S. T. & L A. was the first of a general character and a revolutionary makeup. Its foundation clearly marked the embarkation of the radical movement upon its long-continued and disastrous program of dual unionism.

Of course, DeLeon did not draw his dual union program simply out of thin air. Naturally there were present many factors which made it seem the plausible, if not inevitable, method to follow. Despite their militancy, the trade unions of the time (while not worse than those of England, where dual unionism got no footing) were comparatively weak in numbers, stupid in their philosophy, and infested with job-hunters and reactionaries. To the rebels of those days, impatient and inexperienced as they were, it looked an unpromising task to convert these primitive groupings into Socialist organizations. It seemed much simpler to start the labor movement all over again, this time upon “scientific” principles. At that early date, because of the youth of the movement, they knew nothing of the unworkability of dual unionism. In 1895 DeLeon’s plan, now discarded as utopian, seemed logical and practical, almost an inspiration, in fact.


The Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance was still-born. It never amounted to more than a handful of militants, the masses refusing to rally to its standard. The same forces that ruin all such unions effectively checked its growth. But if the S. T. & L A. failed as an organization the idea behind it, of revolutionary dual unionism, made steady headway. More and more the radical movement, from left to right, became convinced that the trade unions were hopeless, more and more it turned its attention to dual unionism. DeLeon himself was a powerful factor in this development.

In 1899 the Socialist Labor Party split, largely because of the trade union question, and gave birth to the Socialist Party. For a time it looked as though the new body might declare definitely for the trade unions and against dual unionism. But it soon developed a powerful left wing, led by Debs, Haywood and others, who advocated dual unionism as militantly as DeLeon himself had done in the old party. In the meantime, the dualist concept had become enlarged from that of simply a separate Socialist labor movement to that of a separate Socialist labor movement with an industrial form. Revolutionary dual unionism became revolutionary dual industrial unionism. Sympathizers multiplied apace.

Soon the whole revolutionary and progressive movements became impregnated with the dual union idea. Even the right wing elements, who had previously fought against DeLeon over the matter, largely adopted it. Dual unions in single industries sprang up here and there. But it was in 1905 that the movement came to a head. The S. T. & L. .A. being hopelessly moribund, a new general dual union organization was deemed necessary, so, with a great fanfare of trumpets, the whole radical movement gathered in Chicago to launch it. There were Socialists, Socialist Laborites, Anarchists, Industrialists, and Progressives. The result of their historic convention was the Industrial Workers of the World, an organization devised to supplant the whole trade union structure and to realign the labor movement upon a new revolutionary basis.

The I. W. W. went forth the embodiment of great hopes and absorbing the efforts of the best workers in the country. But, nevertheless, it could not triumph over the obstacles ever confronting such dual organizations. The workers simply refused to quit the old trade unions that had cost them so much trouble and strife to build. After several years, therefore, the I. W. W. was quite generally recognized as a failure, and the rebel elements began to turn away from it. But the peculiar thing was its failure did not discourage the dual union idea, anymore than had the downfall of the S. T. & L. A. On the contrary, that idea grew and flourished better than ever.

Strangely enough, the longer the dual union policy was followed, the more logical it seemed, notwithstanding its failure to build any new unions of consequence. This was because of the fact that as the revolutionary elements continued their tactics of quitting the old unions the latter, suffering the loss of the best life’s blood, withered and stagnated. More and more they became the prey of standpatters and reactionaries; less and less they presented an aspect calculated to appeal to revolutionaries. Dual unionism became almost a religion among rebels. No longer would they even tolerate discussion of the proposition of working within the old unions. The Workers’ International Industrial Union, the One Big Union (both of which aimed at covering all industries) and scores of dual unions in single industries were launched later to put the beloved program into effect. Though all of them failed almost completely, still the separatist policy maintained its ground with wonderful vitality. The whole radical and progressive movement, from the extreme left to the liberals, was shot through and through with it.

This widespread devotion to dual unionism, which has never been equalled in any other country, lasted until about the middle of 1921. At that time a bright light broke upon the rebels. All of a sudden they became aware of the fallacy of withdrawing from the organized masses. The intellectual structure of dual unionism fell to the ground with a crash. With a profound change of tactics, which for swiftness has never been paralleled in world labor history, the bulk of them repudiated the separatist policy they had followed so loyally for a generation and turned their attention to developing the old trade unions into modern, aggressive labor organizations. But of this remarkable shift we will say more further along.

Chapter 3
Ravages of Dual Unionism

Dual unionism is a malignant disease that sickens and devitalizes the whole labor movement. The prime fault of it is that it wastes the efforts of those vigorous elements whose activities determine the fate of all working class organization. It does this by withdrawing these rare and precious militants from the mass trade unions, where they serve as the very mainspring of vitality and progress, and by misdirecting their attention to the barren and hopeless work of building up impossible, utopian industrial organizations. This drain of the best blood of the trade unions begins by enormously weakening these bodies and ends by making impotent every branch of the labor movement as well; for the welfare of all Organized Labor, political, industrial, co-operative, educational, depends upon the trade unions, the basic organizations of the working class, being in a flourishing condition. Dual unionism saps the strength of the trade unions, and when it does that it undermines the structure of the entire working class organization.


Since the dual union program was outlined almost thirty years ago by DeLeon it has wasted a prodigious amount of invaluable rebel strength. Tens of thousands of the very best men ever produced by the American labor movement have devoted themselves to it whole-heartedly and have expended oceans of energy in order to bring the longed-for new labor movement into realization. But they were pouring water upon sand. The parched Sahara of dual industrial unionism swallowed up their efforts and left hardly a trace behind. The numerically insignificant dual unions of today are a poor bargain indeed in return for the enormous price they have cost.

Consider, for example, the Industrial Workers of the World: The amount of energy and unselfish devotion lavished upon that organization would have wrought miracles in developing and extending the trade unions; but it has been powerless to make anything substantial of the I. W. W. Today, 17 years after its foundation, that body has far fewer members (not to speak of much less influence) than it had at its beginning. The latest available official financial reports show a membership of not more than l5,00O, whereas in 1905 it had 40,000. Even its former revolutionary spirit has degenerated until the organization has now become little more than a sort of league to make war upon the trade unions and to revile and slander struggling Soviet Russia. The I. W. W. is a monument to the folly of dual unionism.

The One Big Union of Canada is another example of rebel effort wasted in dual unionism. Four years ago it started out with a great blare of trumpets and about 40,000 members. Its advent threw dissension into the old trade unions and shattered their ranks. They lost heavily in membership, the militants pulling out the more active elements on behalf of the 0. B. U. Yet, today, this organization, despite the great effort put into it, has but an insignificant membership, not, over 4,000 at most, and its constructive influence is about in proportion. It was a costly, ill-fated experiment, and in the main has worked havoc to Canadian labor. The Workers’ International Industrial Union, another universal dual union, has occupied the attention of the Socialist Labor Party’s active spirits for 14 years, but now it can muster only a few hundred actual members. Similar records of disastrous waste of rebel effort are shown by the dozens of dual unions started in the various single industries, all of which literally burned up the energies of the militants. Except for those in the textile, food, and shoe industries, which have secured some degree of success, these dual unions have all failed completely. They have absorbed untold labor of the best elements among the workers and have yielded next to nothing in return. Dual unionism is a useless and insupportable squandering of Labor’s most precious life force. It is a bottomless pit into which the workers have vainly thrown their energy and idealism.


The waste of rebel strength, caused so long by dual unionism, has reacted directly and disastrously upon the trade unions. For many years practically all the radical papers and revolutionary

leaders in this country were deeply tinged with dual unionism. In their program the ideas of secessionism and progressive unionism were welded into one. The consequence was that as fast as the active workers in the trade unions became acquainted with the principles of revolutionary unionism they also absorbed the idea of dualism. Thus they lost faith and interest in their old organizations, either quitting them entirely for some dual union, or becoming so much dead timber within them. The general outcome of this wholesale turning away of the progressive minority was to divorce the very idea of progress from the trade unions. It nipped in the bud the growing crop of militants, the only element through which virile life and development could come to the old organizations. Dual unionism dried up the very spring of progress in the trade unions, it condemned them to sterility and stagnation. It was a long-continued process of slow poisoning for the labor movement.

A disastrous effect of this systematic demoralization and draining away of the militants is that it has thrown the trade unions almost entirely into the control of the organized reactionaries. In all labor movements the unions can prosper and grow only if the progressive elements within them organize closely and wage vigorous battle all along the line against the conservative bureaucracy. The militants must build machines to fight those of the reactionaries. But in the United States dual unionism has prevented the creation of such progressive machines. By its incessant preaching that the trade unions were hopeless and that nothing could be done with them, it discouraged even those militants who did stay within the unions and prevented them from developing an organized opposition to the bureaucrats. Poisoned by dual union pessimism about the old organizations and altogether without a constructive program to apply to them, the militants stood around idly for years in the trade unions while the reactionary forces intrenched themselves and ruled as they saw fit. Because of their dualistic notions the militants practically deserted the field and left it to the uncontested sway of their enemies. If the American labor movement is now hard and fast in the grip of a stupid and corrupt bureaucracy, totally incapable of progress, dual unionism, through its demoralization of the trade union opposition, is chiefly to blame.

During the great movement of the packinghouse workers the indifference of the radicals towards the old unions wrought particular havoc. A handful of rebels, free from dual union ideas, were primarily responsible for the historic movement. Soon they found themselves in a finish tight with the conservatives for control of the newly formed unions. Occupying the strategic position in the organizations, especially in the Chicago stockyards, they begged the dualistic radicals, who worked in the industry, to come in and help them control the unions, offering to place them in secretaryships and other important posts. Had this offer been accepted, it would have certainly resulted in the big packinghouse unions, then numbering over l00,000 members, coming entirely under progressive leadership. But so strong was the spirit of dualism at that time, in 1919, that the outstanding rebels, mostly extreme left-wingers, would not participate constructively in the trade unions even under such exceptionally favorable circumstances. They refused the invitation with insults and contempt. The consequence was that the few militants within the old unions were swamped by the reactionaries, who soon wrecked the whole organization by their incompetence and corruption. It was a splendid opportunity lost. Similar opportunities existed in other industries. It is safe to say that if the radicals had been free of dual unionist tendencies during the war period and had been active in the trade unions, the great bulk of the working class would have been organized, instead of the comparatively few that were gotten together by the reactionaries, who controlled the unions.


Dual unionism’s steady drain upon the vitality of the trade unions by withdrawing and demoralizing the militants piecemeal has been ruinous enough, but the many great secession movements it has given birth to have made the situation much worse. It is the particular misfortune of the American labor movement that just when some trade union is passing through a severe crisis, as a result of industrial depression, internal dissension, a lost strike, or some other weakening influence, the dual union tendency breaks out with unusual virulence and a secession movement develops that completes the havoc already wrought. Exactly at the time the militants are needed the most to hold the organization together is just when they are the busiest pulling it apart. In such crises those who should be the union’s best friends become its worst enemies. This has happened time and again. During the past two years, for example, the longshoremen and seamen have had bitter experience with such breakaway movements. Both organizations had lost big strikes, and both were in critical need of rebuilding and rejuvenating by the progressive elements. But just at this critical juncture the latter failed, and, instead of strengthening the unions, set about tearing them to pieces with secession movements. Four or five dual unions appeared, and when they got done attacking the old organizations and fighting among themselves all traces of unionism were wiped out in many ports. Similar attacks are now being directed against the weakened railroad shopmen’s unions.

A great secession movement, typical for its disastrous effects, was the famous “outlaw” strike of the switchmen in 1920. That ill-fated movement began because of a widespread discontent among the rank and file at the neglect of their grievances by the higher union officials. It was a critical situation, but had there been a well-organized militant minority on hand the foment could have been given a constructive turn and used as a means not only to satisfy the demands of the workers but also to defeat the reactionaries. But the long-continued dualistic propaganda in the railroad industry had effectively prevented the organization of such a minority. Hence, leaderless, the movement ran wild and culminated in the “outlaw” strike. Then, as usual, the secessionist tendency showed itself and a new organization was formed. The final result was disaster all around for the men. The strike was lost, many thousands of active workers were blacklisted, the unions were weakened by the loss of their best men, and the grip of the reactionaries on the organization was strengthened by the complete breakup of the rebel opposition. The “outlaw” strike of 1920 was one of the heavy penalties American workers have paid for their long allegiance to utopian dual unionism.

Likewise typical of the ruin wrought by dual unionism was the movement that gave birth to the Canadian One Big Union in 1918. Freeing themselves for the moment from the dual union obsession, the rebels had raised the banner of industrial unionism in the old trade unions, and the workers, seeing at last an escape from reactionary policies and leadership, responded en masse. Union after union passed into revolutionary control, and the movement swept Western Canada like a storm. It seemed that finally an organization of militants, without which there could be no progress, was about to be definitely established in the trade unions. But just when the movement was most promising the dualists got the upper hand and steered the whole business into the quagmire of secession by launching the 0. B. U. as a new labor movement. Havoc resulted. The new union, of course, got nowhere, and the old ones were split and weakened by dissensions and the loss of many thousands of their very best workers. But, worst of all, the budding organized minority within the trade unions was wrecked, and the organizations passed completely into the control of the reactionaries. The 0. B. U. secession set back the whole Canadian labor movement for years.


One of the great tragedies caused by dual unionism was the smashing of the Western Federation of Miners. This body of metal miners, organized in 1893, was in its early days a splendid type of labor union. Industrial in form and frankly revolutionary, it carried on for many years a spectacular and successful struggle against the Mine Owners’ Association. Brissenden says that its strikes in Coeur d’Alene, Cripple Creek, Leadville, Telluride, Idaho Springs, etc., were “the most strenuous and dramatic series of strike disturbances in the history of the American labor movement.” Time after time the miners armed themselves and fought it out with the gunmen and thugs of the mining companies. Their valiant battles attracted world-wide attention. [The history of the W. F. of M gives the lie direct to the argument that prosperity kills the militancy of the workers. That union was made up mostly of American born workers and operated in what was then the most prosperous section of the country, the Rocky Mountain district.]

But this great organization, unquestionably one of the best ever produced by the American labor movement, has long since been wrecked both in point of numbers and spirit. Insignificant in size, it has also become so conservative as to be ashamed of its splendid old name. It is now known as the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This pitiful degeneration of the Western Federation of Miners was caused directly by dual unionism. Some detail is necessary in order to show how it happened:

To begin with we must understand that in its best days only a few of the W. F. of M. membership, not over 5% at most [Estimated by Vincent St. John, former W. F. of M. militant.] were active and revolutionary. This small minority, highly organized, occupied all the strategic points of the union. Thus they were able to communicate something of their own revolutionary spirit to the mass as a whole. The organized rebels literally compelled the W. F. of M. to be a virile fighting organization. In 1905, the W. F. of M. was one of the unions that formed the I. W. W. It remained part of that organization for about two years, when it withdrew. The militant elements, the ones who had made the W. F. of M. what it was, were bitterly opposed to the withdrawal. For the most part they stayed in the I. W. W. and allowed the W. F. of M. to go its way without them. Hundreds of the best men, including such fighters as Haywood, St. John, etc., deserted the old organization, either by quitting it altogether or by becoming negative factors in it. The passage of the W. F. of M. through the I. W. W. served to sift out the active workers, to rob the W. F. of M. of its very soul. The W. F. of M. went into the I. W. W. a revolutionary organization ; it came out of it, if not actually conservative, then at least definitely condemned to that fate.

After the W. F. of M.’s withdrawal from the I. W. W. its militants, all become ardent dual unionists, declared war to the knife against it. The organization which had previously absorbed so much of their unselfish devotion was thereafter the object of their bitterest attacks. Once the very backbone of the W. F. of M., the militants now became its deadliest foes. Under these circumstances it was not long until the degeneration set in which has reduced the once splendid Western Federation of Miners to its present lowly status.

Among others, the writer was one who pointed out the folly of rebels destroying an industrial union like the W. F. of M., simply because it had withdrawn from the I. W. W., and who likewise urged that a campaign be started to take control of the union again. But the answer always given was that the Moyer machine, especially because it controlled the big Butte local union, was unshakably intrenched. And when it was proposed to capture the Butte local this was declared impossible. But the fallacy of this objection was made apparent in 1914 when, as a result of insupportable grievances, the rank and file of the Butte organization rose up, drove their officials from town and took charge of the situation. This put Butte, the citadel of the reaction, squarely in the hands of the militants. Had they but stayed in the W. F. of M. and carried on a campaign in the other locals the whole organization would have been theirs for the taking. But they were so obsessed with the dual unionism prevailing generally among rebels, and so blinded with hatred for everything connected with the A. F. of L., that they seceded at once and formed a new union. This went to smash, as such organizations almost always do. The only practical effect of the whole affair was to deal a death blow to W. F. of M., already weakened and poisoned by the desertion of its former militants.

It is one of the saddest facts of American labor history that the Western Federation of Miners was finally destroyed by the very men who originally built it and made it one of the joys of the working class. What the Mine Owners’ Association, with all its money and power, was unable to accomplish, the militants, obsessed by dual unionism, brought about with little or no difficulty. Their allegiance to an impractical theory has broken up all organization among the metal miners. And the ravages that were made upon the W. F. of M. have been visited to a greater or lesser extent upon every other trade union in the United States, for all of them have had to suffer the loss of their most active workers and to confront as bitter enemies those very fighters who should be their main reliance.


A striking example of the destructive influence of dual unionism upon other working class organizations besides trade unions, was the ruin it wrought to the Socialist Party. For many years the S. P. was the chief vehicle for revolutionary thought in this country. Gradually it grew and expanded until, in 1912, it reached a total of 118,000 members. It appeared to be flourishing and destined for a vigorous future. But all of a sudden it began to wither and disintegrate, a process which went on until now the S. P. has less than l0,000 members.

This quick collapse of the Socialist Party was one of the most remarkable events in modern labor history. It seemed that the very bottom fell out of the movement. The first immediate cause was the passage, at the 1912 national convention, of the famous Art. 8, Sec. 6, of the party constitution, stringently prohibiting the advocacy of sabotage, and other forms of direct action. This measure, amounting in effect to an anti-syndicalist law, greatly antagonized the left-wing elements and drove many of them from the party. The next blow came when the United States entered the great war. The party adopted an anti-war resolution, only to find itself confronted with a labor movement and a working class generally stricken by war fever. Result, further great losses in membership and prestige. The final stroke came with the Communist split in 1919. This pulled away at least half of the remaining party membership, and the rest demoralized, have been unable to recover and to rehabilitate the organization. Since then the S. P. has diminished constantly in strengh to its present low level.

The three above-mentioned causes for the breakdown of the Socialist Party, despite their importance, were only of a surface character. The real reason lies deeper. It is to be found in the organization’s faulty economic policy, in the dual unionism which has afflicted it ever since the party’s foundation. All working class political parties, whether Labor, Socialist, Communist, or whatnot, must be organized with the trade unions as their foundation. This is because the trade unions are the basic institutions of the working class. The fact that they carry on the everyday struggle of the workers for better conditions gives them enormous prestige and numerical and financial strength, all of which labor parties must utilize in their political work. It may be accepted as an axiom that whoever controls the trade unions is able to dictate the general policies, economic, political and otherwise, of the whole working class. All over the world the strength of the workers’ political parties is in direct ratio to the amount of control they exercise over the mass trade unions. Such a thing as a powerful labor party, whether conservative or radical, without strong trade union backing, is impossible. Therefore, one of the very first tasks of every working class political organization must be to establish its influence in the trade unions.

The Socialist Party has never understood these cardinal facts. Its working principle, real enough even though unexpressed, has always been a presumption that it could secure its membership and backing from the citizenry generally. It has not realized that all labor parties must have as their foundation not only the masses, but the masses organized in the trade unions. Because of the tendency of its predecessor, the Socialist Labor Party, to split away the rebels from the trade unions, the thing that the S. P. necessarily had to do in order to succeed was to carry on an intense campaign against dualism and to intrench its active workers in the strategic positions of the labor organizations, where they could educate the masses and utilize their industrial, financial, and other strength to further the cause of the whole Socialist movement. But because it did not clearly understand the importance of the unions as such it failed to map out such a positive industrial program, indispensable to its life and progress. It allowed all its industrial work to be thwarted by a dual unionism which infected the party deeply from its inception.

Although when the Socialist Party developed as a split-off from the old Socialist Labor Party one of the issues it dissented upon was the latter’s policy of dual unionism, it was not long until it, too, was in the grip of the same disease. A powerful left-wing, bitter haters of the trade unions and ardent advocates of a dual labor movement, rapidly developed. The right-wing favored active participation in the trade unions, chiefly for vote-catching reasons, while the left-wing proposed the destruction of the trade unions. The party as a whole, seeking a false harmony, straddled this vital question. Its general attitude was to favor industrial unionism, but not to tell its members how to achieve this form of organization, whether through the development of the old unions or the establishment of new ones. [A classic example of this negative policy was the famous industrial resolution adopted in the 1912 S. P. convention. This resolution, accepted unanimously by dual unionists and trade unionists alike, was nothing more than an agreement between the two factions that the party in general should actively support neither the trade unions nor the dual unions, in other words, that it should have no industrial program at all.] As an organization it carried out no serious work to build up the necessary labor union foundation. Each wing of the party applied its own particular industrial policies. For some years the right-wing attempted to capture the old unions, and with considerable success in the Machinists’, Bakers’, Clothing Workers’, Miners’ and other unions, but on the whole, the left wing, by a bitter warfare against the trade unions, sabotaged such work most effectively.

Because of this negative attitude the Socialist Party never won for itself the support of the labor organizations, without which it could not possibly succeed. Its members never were encouraged to occupy the tremendously important strategic posts, such as executive officers, editors, etc., in the trade unions, which could have been used to enormous advantage for the party. On the contrary, these posts remained uncontested in the hands of the conservatives, who used them most effectively to poison the masses against Socialism. When, for example, the party adopted the anti-war resolution it would have been comparatively simple to secure the support, or at least the toleration, of the working class for that measure, had the radicals been strategically intrenched in the unions. But with the Gompers crowd in complete control the latter were able to sway the whole trade union movement, and with it the working class in general, against the Socialist Party and its anti-war attitude. In this instance the party reaped the whirlwind that it had been sowing for so many years by its failure to conquer the trade unions, a task which it could have easily accomplished had it but freed itself from dualism.

In Europe the Socialist Parties of the various countries have suffered many heavy blows since the beginning of the world war. But they have stood up under them far better than the American Socialist Party. This is because, being deeply rooted in their respective trade unions, there is some structure and fiber to them. Consider the Social Democratic Party of Germany, for example. That organization openly betrayed the workers all through the war and the revolutionary period. It forfeited its right to represent the working class. In consequence it was subjected to several great splits and innumerable desperate assaults from without by the left-wing elements. But it has maintained itself with a vigor not even remotely shown by the Socialist Party in this country. The explanation for this was its firm control over the German trade union movement. Having in its hands practically all the executive positions of the unions, it was able to control the masses even under the most trying circumstances. Had the left-wingers been able to break this trade union control, the S. D. P. would have collapsed even as our Socialist Party did. The degree of success of the German Communist Party in its present struggle against the Social Democratic Party is in direct relation to its ability to win the trade unions away from S. D. P. domination.

The Socialist Party in this country collapsed because it was built upon talk, instead of upon the solid foundation of the trade union movement. Because it did not have the labor unions behind it the organization had no real stability. Hence, when it was put to the test, as noted above, in 1912, 1917, and 1919, it went to pieces. Dual unionism kept the Socialist militants out of the organized masses and thus directly prevented the winning of the working class to the beginnings of a revolutionary program. Moreover, it made of the S. P. itself a formless, spineless movement, which was shattered at the first real shock. Dual unionism ruined the Socialist Party.

Further illustrations might be cited almost indefinitely to show the baneful effects of dual unionism upon various working class organizations. By pulling the militants out of the trade unions and wasting their energies on futile utopian separatist organizations, dual unionism has robbed the whole working class of progressive leadership. It has thrown the great labor unions almost entirely into the hands of a corrupt and ignorant bureaucracy, which has choked out their every manifestation of real progress. And in stultifying and ruining the trade unions, dual unionism condemned to sterility every branch of the entire labor movement, industrial, political, and otherwise; for if the workers in general have not been educated to an understanding of capitalism and the class struggle, if they have not developed a revolutionary ideal, if they have not yet organized politically on class lines, if they have not yet produced a powerful cooperative movement—in every instance the cause may be directly traced to the paralyzing influence of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy, which dual unionism intrenched in power. The persistence, for a generation, of the fatal dual union policy is the true explanation of the paradoxical and deplorable situation of the United States, the most advanced capitalist country in the world, having the most backward labor movement.

Originally posted: October 4, 2013 at Recomposition