A brief article exploring the relationship between state-centered politics and the IWW's considerations in international relations.
“As for the author of “Solidarity Forever”, he is not at all unhappy to have been associated with the very first indigenous anti-statist, anti-totalitarian labor organization that Moscow saw fit to liquidate – and for good and sufficient reasons.” - Ralph Chaplin
In my last article on the IWW, I looked at the union around the time of its founding. I focused in particular on Thomas Hagerty, who wrote the first draft of the IWW Preamble, and Hagerty’s rejection of the state and electoral politics. In this article I look at how the IWW related to two international bodies of unions, the anarchist International Workers Association, and the statist Profintern, which was affiliated with the Soviet Union. In my view, the IWW today should have a discussion clarifying our orientation toward the state and our analysis of the role of state in capitalist society. I believe these historical examples can enrich that discussion.
In the 1920s and 30s, the IWW came into conflict with the Communist Party which emerged as a proponent of an electoral approach to bringing about a workers’ government. While the Communists accepted the importance of industrial unionism, they also believed in the Leninist concept of a revolutionary “vanguard party.” The IWW, committed as it was to democracy proceeding from the bottom up, was out of step with the Communist notion of democratic centralism. Furthermore, the IWW believed in a very different vision of how to create working class revolution. Over the years, the IWW has continued to oppose support for electoral political action and distanced itself from state-centered political solutions as a whole, continuing to stress action at the point of production.
During the 1920s the IWW was asked to join the Red International of Trade Unions, more commonly known as the Profintern. The Profintern was set up by the Third International Communist Parties under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The IWW’s response to this request is telling about the organization’s commitment to smashing the State. In the IWW’s response to the Profintern there is a section titled Why IWW Is Not Political. A few quotes should make the IWW’s position on the State at that time clear:
“We believe that the class character of the state will not permit that institution to aid the proletariat in its class struggle. Therefore, we teach the workers that what they really require is not to influence the state favorably toward them, but to put themselves in such position, through an economic class organization, that they will be enabled to protect themselves against the hostility of the capitalist state.”
“The IWW is cognizant of the fact that it is trying to destroy a social relationship.”
“The capitalist class relies upon the state as its agency and instrument for holding the workers in subjection, and to preserve its rights to exploit their labor-power. The workers must provide themselves with an instrument more powerful than the repressive forces of the state — an organization for the control of their labor-power.”
I could imagine people with a state-oriented perspective saying “what about a “workers’ state”? These quotes don’t reject a “workers’ state!” Maybe. But it seems more likely that these quotes reject the state all together, than that they imply friendliness toward some (supposedly) worker-run state. In any case, it is clear from these quotes that the IWW was for an economic organization of the working class more powerful than the repressive forces of the State, an organization that would be capable of wiping away the old social relationships under capitalism.
After rejecting the Profintern, the IWW went on to flirt with adhering to the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA). In The IWW Its First 100 Years by Fred Thomson and Jon Bekken, we learn that in 1934 a referendum carried to affiliate with the IWA. This affiliation was never officially implemented and was later rebuked by the organization because of conditions of affiliation being placed on religious beliefs.
Some IWWs have had critiques of those in the IWA. For example, in 1937, A. Shapiro a member of the IWW wrote for the One Big Union Monthly a critique of the famous Spanish IWA section the CNT’s class collaboration and entry into the government and statist turn. He accused the CNT of “entering the Council of Ministry (government); with it you act merely as a political party desirous of participation in an existing government; setting forth your conditions of participation, and these conditions are so bureaucratic in character that they are far from weakening in the least the bourgeois capitalist regime, on the contrary they are tending to strengthen capitalism and stabilize it.”
Despite these criticisms and the failure to follow through on affiliation, the IWW has had and continues to have friendly relations with the IWA to this day. If we look at the basic politics of the IWA from its Statutes on Revolutionary Unionism it is plain to see why the IWW was and still is close to such an organization. The IWA is against all forms of state-centered politics, including those currents which seek to propagate the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead the IWA sees the goal of the revolutionary union movement much like that of the Preamble, where the workers must:
“…prepare themselves in their economic organizations to take possession of the land and the factories and enable themselves to administer them jointly, in such a way that they will be able to continue production and social life.”