Solving the social problem through economic direct action - John Sandgren

An article by John Sandgren which outlines his views on IWW organization and is critical of the Communist Party (USA).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 20, 2014

Transcriber's Note: This article, in which Sandgren outlines his views on proper industrial organization and its implications for the new society, got him fired as editor of The One Big Union Monthly for its criticism of armed revolution, the Bolsheviks, and the "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Sandgren was an early opponent of political action and the parliamentarist De Leon faction in the I.W.W. He (among others) debated De Leon in the New York Daily People in 1907. That debate was later published by De Leon as a pamphlet, "As to Politics".

Solving the Social Problem Through Economic Direct Action

A resolution, numbered 43, and adopted at the 12th annual convention of the I. W. W., in the year1920, reads as follows:

...Resolved, that we always preach and practice our only weapon--Economic Direct Action--in order to abolish the present system of exploitation.

In this connection let us quote the last two passages from our preamble, as follows:

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.

By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The above is a picture in words of what the I. W. W. tries to accomplish. To make it more plain we are accompanying this article with a sketch of a chart designed to give a total view of the structure of the new society which we are building.

Industrial Communism Illustrated

The society that the I. W. W. is building is a society of Industrial Communism.

We propose that the people of the whole world should get together on industrial lines, in order to create the organs that are needed for the running of a communist society.

The organs we need are of two kinds, namely, first, organs of production and distribution, and secondly, organs of local and regional administration.

The I. W. W., having for its aim to establish industrial democracy and to anchor for all time all power within the useful layers of society and to make social parasitism impossible, establishes a new basic unit of the social structure.

The basic unit of our new society is The Shop or Job Branch. Every human being of working age, no matter what his occupation, is referred to some shop or job branch, even where the occupation is not properly speaking industrial in the commonly accepted sense of the term. Our chart includes them all.

These shop and job branches are on our chart illustrated by means of the ring of radial lines, which form so to speak the rim of the wheel-like structure.

From these basic units, or basic organs, all the other organs are derived.

The spokes in the wheel, so to speak, are the Industrial Unions, which are formed by uniting all the shop and job branches of every industry or occupation, whether it be shoemaking or the teaching of sciences at the universities.

The hub of the wheel is formed by the Industrial Union Administration, Departmental Administration and the Genera! Administration.

All these together, however, are only part of the structure of Industrial Communism. They form only the productive and distributive machine. The purpose of these organs is to produce what mankind needs and to distribute it.

The old I. W. W. chart did not go any further. It depicted only the organs of productions and distribution, for the simple reason that the need for other organs was not apparent while the organization was small and purely in an agitational stage.

As the organization developed it became apparent that we must add to it organs for local and regional administration if we wanted to cover the whole field of human activity.

We have had these organs in an embryonic shape for many years in our City Central Committees, and Councils of different kinds, but they never got beyond the experimental stage.

However, as the overthrow or the collapse of capitalism approaches and comes dangerously near, we realize the absolute necessity of new organs of local and regional administration as well.

These we have depicted on our chart as the iron tire, so to speak, which holds the wheel of production and distribution together. The two organs supplement each other and are equally necessary. And both of them are drawn from the shop, or the job branches. Through a system of industrial representation, that is, through representatives elected from the job branches, organs of administration will be formed which will replace the present organs of local and regional administration, when these no longer function, due to the fact that the whole system on which they rest has collapsed.

By drawing the productive and distributive organs as well as our administrative organs from the shop and job branches, by vesting ownership and control direct with the industrially organized masses we secure both industrial communism and industrial democracy.

This chart, which could very likely be improved upon in many different ways, depicts quite clearly how the I. W. W. proposes to solve the social problem through Economic Direct Action, as the 12th annual convention puts it.

No Room for a Political Party

As will be seen this plan leaves no room for a political party, city, state or national.

The City administration will consist of the City Central Council. As for state administration, as in U. S. or provincial administration such as in Canada or in Europe, the justification for them is disappearing.

The provinces in various countries may have a historical, or an ethnographic or political explanation in most cases, but the state lines on this continent are nearly all artificial boundaries.

The chief surveyor of a century ago seems to have taken a large U. S. map and a big ruler and laid out the country in squares with the exception of the places where mountains or big rivers made good physical boundary lines, without any consideration whatsoever for the natural economic boundary lines. In fact, how else could it have been done, being that the state lines were drawn up before the country was developed.

The states as political units are a nuisance like any artificial social arrangement. The nonsensical division into states is causing us to have over fifty different complete sets of regional administration without any natural basis for it, and is a tremendous expense to the American people and causes no end of confusion in our public life. It causes regions which should naturally be joined together to be split in several parts with separate administration, while it joins together pieces of regions which have little or nothing in common. Not to speak of the absurdity of having 50 sets of different laws, courts and lawyers. It almost looks as if the whole plan was devised by the lawyers. For the usefully employed men and women of these regions are only meagerly represented.

Instead of state lines a rational form of society would draw industrial boundary lines for purposes of administration according to the economic life of the country.

Thus the Pacific Coast country up to the mountains could very well be one region, while the intermountain states formed a second region, the gulf country a third region, the prairie states a fourth, the mine and forest states of the north a fifth. The tobacco and cotton states a sixth, the coal states a seventh, the factory states of the North East an eighth region, etc.

Thus the people who have most in common would be brought together under one regional administration for common welfare.

The regional Central Council would be composed of representatives selected by the shop and job branches, thus securing complete industrial democracy even on this stage.

In the same manner the shop and job branches would select the departmental and the general administration, the latter being composed of a general executive board and a general secretary-treasurer. We may not need the treasurer in the new society, but we need him at present.

The general administration would be the central exchange both for the productive and distributive machine and the machine of local and regional administration.

Where is there room for, or need for a political party in this plan? It covers the whole field. Every kind of human activity that is desirable and useful will find a place in this plan and every legitimate human interest will be safeguarded.

On the other hand this plan of society leaves no room, no opening for those who want to live the lives of parasites on humanity. All the "half-world", the caterers to vice, the criminals, and the professional politicians and the parasitical capitalist class will here be brought back to their proper place in the system of production and distribution, with no chance to get out of it. Nor would they have any chance to get on top as rulers except by formal election from the shop and job branches which would supply all the administrative forces.

Nearly all people with a socialist or near-socialist training as well as any practical minded worker will see and admit that Industrial Communism as thus proposed by the I. W. W. and many sister organizations in other countries is the proper way to solve the whole social question.

The Bolsheviki of Russia have partly built their new society according to our map. They have the industrial unions, except in agriculture, and they have the local and regional and national administration in embryo. But instead of having complete democracy, they have actually the dictatorship of a party which calls itself communist. The leaders of this party, however, declare that it is their intention to maintain the rule of this party only until such time as the industrial unions can themselves take the responsibility for production and distribution and until the soviets can be recruited from the industrial union branches exclusively.

The Central administration of the All Russian Trade Union movement, which most nearly corresponds to our general administration, is now subordinated to the rule of a political party, which has general direction not only of local and regional administration but also of production and distribution, even to the single factories and places of work.

There may have been many good reasons for this sort of an arrangement, this sort of tentative state communism, in Russia, where people were so unprepared for the task of taking over the country and all responsibilities, and where the mass of the people were unable to read print. It was an almost impossible task to transmit the plan of industrial communism on the spot to a couple of hundred million people who were either utterly illiterate or else entirely strange to industrial conceptions and ideas, such as can grow into the popular mind only in a country like America.

To the same extent that the people of the various countries have in advance propagated the idea of organizing the people into shop and job branches for the purpose of taking over all public activities, to the same extent that they have already organized such shop and job branches and industrial unions and industrial departments and central councils for local and regional administration, to the same extent will they be able to take over their respective countries without calling to their aid the political parties.

The Politicians

The politicians are looking upon such teachings with dismay. If the workers are going to take possession of the factories direct, without governmental proclamations, as they seem to be doing in Italy; if the workers continue to organize their camere del lavoro, as in Italy, or their labor exchanges as in other countries, or their local samorganizations as in Scandinavia, or their councils as in America and in England, what becomes of the political parties, the political machines and the politicians?

They will find themselves misfits and the politicians will face the necessity of earning their living by labor recognized as useful, instead of living by monopolizing the administrative jobs from top to bottom.

There is a tendency in all political parties to organize into something we would call "The Political Workers Industrial Union". This union of each party desires the chance to govern all the rest of the people. To govern is the business of a politician.

The republican and democratic parties, the Socialist parties, the Labor parties, the Communist parties, are all "Industrial Unions" of that kind.

As far as the communists of America are concerned some of them seem to wish to have their party, much as an industrial union, incorporated into the I. W. W. plan of Industrial Communism. They want a place for their "industrial union" on the I. W. W. chart. And the chief function of the members of this union would be to fill all the more important office chairs of the new society.

This is, of course, repugnant to all friends of real democracy or self-government.

The communist parties being composed to a large extent of people outside the working class proper, of artists, literateurs and boheme, of professional men without a footing in the bourgeois world and of parliamentarians as in Sweden, Norway and other countries, hate to see the world made over in such a manner that their conspiracy to govern the world comes to naught.

Feeling and knowing that they have no prospects of getting into the office chairs by the old methods of parliamentarian elections, they want the working masses to make a revolution and lift them into power as their rulers. That is what they call the dictatorship of the proletariat. They are not very anxious that the workers should give too much of their attention to building according to the I. W. W. blueprint, for these wily politicians and desperadoes realize, that if the workers build that way, they will not need the "communist" politicians.

Consequently we find that when the members of the communist parties join the I., W. W. or the syndicalist organizations of other countries, it is not so much for the purpose of building up those organizations, as for the purpose of changing their activities so they will fall in with the current of communist political activities. They do not join for the purpose of taking a bundle of our papers or magazines or books under their arm, as a rule, in order to sell them and to spread I. W. W. information. They do not join in order to fill our treasuries or build up our unions. No, they join us, apparently, mostly for the same purpose as the saloon-keeper or the doctor or grocer joins the Elks or the Eagles, that is for business.

And in the same manner as they join the I. W. W. they join the A. F. of L. and the co-operative movement or any other movement, that is for the purpose of propaganda, or in order to break them up if they do not yield to the propaganda.

And what is their propaganda?

They want us to change our program as outlined in the beginning of this article. They want us to abandon the attempt to build the new society within the shell of the old as being useless, and to gather our forces and join with other bodies that they are trying to convert, in an attempt to capture the capitalist state through "mass action". They openly state that they mean armed insurrection.

They are an impatient element thirsting for power. They want a political revolution by force in order to get on top and tell us what to do.

But as we have outlined above, in word and in illustration, we already have made up our mind what to do. We have made up our mind to do with out them. We propose to solve the whole social problem without political action, without the aid of politicians. We propose to solve it through Economic Direct Action, and we are winning the world over to our program slowly but surely. Fifteen years ago we were nothing, and now the workers of every country are taking up our program, where they have not temporarily been carried off their feet by the desperate, last-chance agitation of the left wingers from the socialist parties.

Somebody might say that our Central Councils are nothing but political institutions, as well as the general administration, in so far as it serves as center for these councils, and that we, consequently, have a political program as well as an economic, the latter being embodied in our Industrial Unions. This hairsplitting is frequently resorted to by the cornered politician, who is loth to admit that we could do without him and his politics. Such argument is insincere.

"Polis" is a Greek word which means town or city. We have it in Constantinopolis and Adrianopolis. From that "polis" is derived the word politics and political and politician. Politics means about the same as "city business," "city affairs," or in short, "public business." Political is that which has to do with public business, and a politician is one who devotes himself to public business or public affairs.

As a matter of fact the I. W. W. is trying to make public business of most human functions. It is going to make production and distribution public business, and it is going to make city and regional and national administration public business also, instead of the private business of a political party.

From that point of view a hairsplitter might say, with the benign judge up in Bellingham, Wash., that the I. W. W. is nothing but a political party.

The confusion comes from using "politics", "political" and "politician" in a double sense.

If we take these words in their original, respectable sense of "public business", then the I. W. W. is a political organization, through and through.

But the word politics, political and politician have long ago lost that sense and have gotten a new meaning that we use when we repudiate politics, political action and the meddling in our work by politicians.

The degeneration of our vocabulary has kept even pace with the degeneration of public affairs and public men during the reign of capitalism.

Politicians, instead of being public spirited men with the welfare of the people at heart, are commonly known in every country as conscienceless villains who steal and take bribes and sell out the people and their interests to the highest bidder. Politics, instead of being an honorable occupation for which honorable men compete, has become a cess-pool from which decent and self-respecting men shrink in impotent sorrow.

Politics is a cut-throat game in which only the basest participate and in which the biggest villain frequently is the victor. When the innocent working class goes into politics it quickly degenerates and falls into corrupt political machines.

The politician is after power. He wants to get that power, because it leads to everything else that he wants.

The Republican, Democrat, Farmer Labor, Socialist, and Communist politicians are all after the same thing. They all want to get possession of the government buildings in order to rule us from there. It is the same in all countries. But we do not want to be ruled. We want to "govern" ourselves.

All of them propose to "get there" by the use of the ballot except the communist politician. He proposes to get there by the use of the bullet. The Republicans and Democrats and all the other ballot politicians work their game with promises of reform within the confines of the capitalist state and a millennium in the future, perhaps, but the communist politician works his game by promising us all we ask for on the spot if we will help him into the government buildings so he can "smash the capitalist state." This change has come over the communist politicians during the last 24 months and they are still constantly changing "attitudes", "positions", "planks" and "principles." This rapid-fire evolution from parliamentarians to insurrectionists they arrogantly call "keeping abreast of the times". We call it trimming.

We refuse to see in it anything but the fury of a handful of intellectual or quasi-intellectual leaders outside the ranks of the regular wage workers who have lost their footing and are staking all on one card, the card of political revolution.

It is to further such ends and for no other reason that some of the "communist" leaders have taken up the I. W. W. as a platform plank. Some of them are issuing literature declaring open war against us. The I. W. W. has no use for their politics nor for the politics of any other party. We are enough to ourselves. We need no political help to solve the social problem. We will not reach our final goal one minute faster by deviating from our straight course of economic direct action.

The very presence of social organs like the ones we are building will in the final crisis be sufficient to make a desperate people turn to the solution we offer. If people keep their self control and adopt our program, no political revolution such as contemplated by the "communists," is needed. Any set of fools can make a bloody revolution, but it takes sensible men like the I. W. W. to attempt a complete economic revolution without bloodshed.

The Italian workers, in taking possession of the factories, have given wings to the expression "a bloodless revolution". The I. W. W. program makes such a revolution possible.

May every individual retain his political faith as well as his religious faith, if he wants to, but we hold that with increasing enlightenment all religious and political denominations shall disappear and every man and woman become a "politician" in the original and proper sense of the word, that is a public spirited person who seeks nothing but the common welfare.

But until that time we shall draw a sharp line of demarcation between political action and economic action. We will leave the name "politician" as a Cain's mark on the forehead of those who are now dragging men, women and children down in a sea of foul corruption and into bloody adventures. Our own activities we shall continue to characterize as Economic Direct Action, as per decision of our last convention, and we shall do our best to keep politicians out of it.

In the "appeal to the I. W. W." from the Third International we recognize the soft Jacob-voice of international solidarity, but in the out-stretched hand we recognize the hairy Esau-hand of wily politicians. We cannot and will not grasp that hand.

Besides, what benefit could we derive from joining a few hundred thousand politicians? We do not count certain economic bodies as their adhesion is largely sentimental and brought about in an unguarded moment by crafty politicians.

As pointed out in another article in this issue, the workers of every country are calling for an Industrial International. That will be a real, big international of tens of millions of workers with a practical, international working program, That is where the I. W. W. belongs, and not among politicians.

Transcribed by J. D. Crutchfield. Taken from a page no longer online, but available on