A reader’s response To “Nonviolent direct action and the early IWW”

A response to an article that appeared in the December 2013 IW about the IWW and 'nonviolent direct action'.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 1, 2014

If Stephen Thornton’s article on nonviolence in the early IWW (“Nonviolent Direct Action And The Early IWW,” December 2013 Industrial Worker, page 11) was meant as an argument in favor of nonviolence being or becoming a “strategy” (his term) of the IWW, it deserves a response. I am bound to say “if” because it is not clear what the aim of the piece is, whether he means nonviolence as an overall strategy, to apply it to the IWW as an organization or to the class as a whole, or to identify a trend. Unfortunately, the problem here could become more than ambiguity.

First, we should rule out the possible interpretation that nonviolence is or has been an overall union principle. If this were true without restriction, it would mean all other matters, including considerations of class justice and the elimination of the class system, would be subordinate to the principle of nonviolence, which is anathema to everything the IWW has stood for in any of its manifestations.

Not only is the blanket rejection of non-violence true to our historical principles, it is also the right thing to do. While conceding that it is our union’s job to be, to some degree, a leader in working-class thought and conscience, it is also our responsibility to accept direction from the class. There is no class struggle that has not had violence as a factor, even if just as a backdrop alternative. One of the clearest examples is the story of the civil rights movement as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only was King’s effectiveness enhanced by the specter of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, not only was King’s nonviolent doctrine eroded by his latter-year involvement with opposition to the imperialist war and the plight of workers in Memphis and elsewhere, but we have also learned that King was shadowed by a force of defenders who did not avoid violence, according to Lance Hill’s “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.”

But developing competing lists of examples doesn’t prove anything, except perhaps who is the best empiricist. The point is that we should not involve ourselves in ruling out tactical options, or suggesting that they are passé without reference to their impact on and response to the complicated and unique conditions at hand and our overall strategy of workers’ control. An example of such circumstances out of our Colorado history might help.

In the early 1900s, Colorado was a hotbed of class struggle, especially in the mining industry, largely because coal and metals were becoming a huge part of developing imperialism, new technology, and new forms of manipulating workers in mass-oriented industrialization. Big Bill Haywood, the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW all had their roots in this development. In 1914, the resulting conflict made headlines when women and children were slaughtered in the Ludlow Massacre, which triggered federal military intervention and an imposed peace with some concessions to mineworkers. We are currently in the midst of a spate of 100-year commemorations of these events statewide.

In 1927, after the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) had retreated from the state in the wake of Ludlow and other failed attempts to unionize the coal and hard rock mines, another statewide strike broke out. This one emanated from northern Colorado, just 15 miles or so north of downtown Denver, and resulted in the Columbine Mine strike and massacre where state militia machine gunned dozens and murdered at least six picketing miners. This strike was waged under the banner of the IWW and is the centerpiece of a book which was published in 2005 by the IWW and which I helped edit along with the late Fellow Worker Richard Myers.

What the official histories of both Ludlow and Columbine (actually all part of a protracted miners’ struggle all up and down the Colorado Front Range) reveal is that violence played a pivotal role in their eventual success. At Ludlow in the south and, 13 years later, at Columbine in the north, it was organized workers’ militias that were key in forcing concessions from the bosses and the state. Organized workers’ militias, along with the reputation of the IWW as a militant and perhaps violent union, are what led to the unionization of the coal fields because that’s where the struggles eventually led: to armed standoffs between state militias and miners’ militias (complete with military training camps) which forced not only concessions but union representation as well. The coal capitalists chose to soften the blow by recognizing the UMW instead of the IWW.

The use or threat of violence was neither pre-ordained nor pre-conceived on our side. It grew organically out of the selfdefense and offensive—the line between the two is often obscure—requirements of the situations, implemented by those directly under attack and not for the purpose of inflicting harm per se. There is a place for calculating the appropriate use of force in hindsight; all our decisions should be informed by not just our immediate experience but also by that of our predecessors. In other words, there is a role for intellectuals and historians here. This kind of assessment is not limited to reviewers, however, our culture carries these kinds of lessons within it, available to those directly involved, in real time, and sometimes much more clearly than the analyses of intellectuals. Sometimes the further we are away from the immediate situation the more likely we are to import distorting biases into the process. In this case, and I suspect many others, the IWW’s opposition to the use of this violence would have placed it outside the struggle as it existed, and would have violated our real dedication to the most effective use of class leverage to achieve power.

In general it isn’t the use of violence or the myth of a violent IWW that is at the heart of the matter any more than the employment of nonviolent tactics would be. Both are part of an arsenal of tactics that are available in life-and-death struggle and must be determined as conditions unfold. In this case it was a series of accidents and acts of courage—including the violent seizure of control of nearby towns—that on balance garnered sympathy and a popular feeling that, at least, the miners were justified in responding in kind. It also served, and if our Colorado Bread and Roses Workers’ Cultural Center has anything to say about it, still serves as an inspiration to workers hungry to take control of their lives, even by force if necessary, and a reminder that workers do not have to accept a ruling class monopoly on the use of force. Details on these events are documented in our “Slaughter in Serene: the Columbine Coal Strike Reader,” available from the IWW or online at http://www.workersbreadandroses. org, and Scott Martelle’s “Blood Passion: the Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”

As always it’s important to view the Colorado events in the context of the broader political and historical landscape. The struggle of the early 1900s, from which the IWW sprouted, was a scene in transition between the naked authoritarianism of feudal times and modern bourgeois rule. This “new deal” rule was marked by the mythology of capitalism as a universal solution to all woes, and policies that tended to subdue the class by a combination of repression and partial appeasement and (thanks to the intriguing collaborative efforts of the “progressive” reform movement in the United States and the state capitalist communists in the Comintern) the establishment of the state as the overarching mediator of capitalist domination. It follows that a movement designed more toward capturing the hearts and minds of those deceived by this form of rule should become more prevalent, and with it, nonviolence. But again, this is a tactical decision, not a universal principle, based on the fact that times change, time changes, and with them, tactics.

We should, finally, applaud Thornton’s emphasis on the role of women’s involvement in struggle, but, again, we should add some balance to his references. We dedicated a section of our book to the toooften unrecognized leadership of women militants in mineworkers’ struggles. So we noted the leadership of not only icons like Mother Jones, who led marches of mineworkers and their supporters on the Colorado state capitol at the time, but also on much less acknowledged militants like Colorado’s “Flaming Milka” Sablich and Santa Benash, as well as others in Kansas, Illinois and beyond.