"No politics in the union"? Come off it


This blog post argues that "No politics" is a bad idea and an inaccurate description of the IWW.

There’s a kind of common sense about the IWW, among some members and some nonmembers that says “the IWW is apolitical.” I think that’s a weird idea. (I’ve argued a bit about this in a discussion paper I wrote called Mottos and Watchwords.) Among other reasons, it’s a weird idea because the IWW is openly anti-capitalist and our organization’s preamble quotes Karl Marx. If that’s apolitical, well, that seems to me like a weird definition of apolitical. I think there are several sources of this idea that the the IWW is apolitical, including people outside the IWW with an axe to grind (“they don’t have my politics, so they don’t have politics at all!”), bad views about the possibilities for unions to be radicals (“if we have politics then some workers’ views won’t be represented and we can never be a real union!”), and real discomfort and difficulties that many of us in the IWW have when it comes to talking about and advocating for our organization’s core values. All of that stuff is important and I’m sure there are other important sources as well. What I want to talk about here, though, is what I think is another source of this idea. Specifically, it’s an IWW pamphlet called One Big Union, which has a section called “No Politics in This Union.”

The IWW Constitution says that all new members shall be given a copy of the OBU pamphlet. (Article VIII section (g).) By requiring that all members be given this pamphlet, it elevates the status of the pamphlet and its words within the organization in a way, as if the pamphlet represents the views of the whole organization, or as if all members ought to agree with that pamphlet in the same way that we all ought to agree with the IWW Preamble. This makes the One Big Union pamphlet seem different from any other official literature or publication of the organization - we don’t expect every member to agree with all content in the Industrial Worker, for example. I think this pamphlet being listed in the IWW constitution has helped feed and spread this idea of the IWW as having “no politics.” (I’m told that the constitutional language requiring we hand out the OBU pamphlet to new members was introduced in the 1970s. I think we in the IWW should have a conversation about whether or not to keep this constitutional requirement. It's also not the best pamphlet to give to brand new members, in my opinion. Personally I think Tim Acott's Think It Over and his Annotated Preamble are much more relevant to new members than the OBU pamphlet, if we're going to have constitutional language requiring members to receive copies of pamphlets. Personally, I also think we should sort out what we do with literature and why, and develop some categories for different kinds of literature. If there are materials we want all members to receive, we should talk about that, and how best to do that.)

The pamphlet has also probably helped feed and spread that idea because it’s a historic pamphlet dating back to the early 20th century. The first One Big Union pamphlet was written by William Trautmann and Thomas Hargety, two people involved in founding the IWW. This makes it seem like “no politics” is a part of the IWW’s heritage from the beginning. That’s a mistake, though, in two ways. For one thing, the meaning of the word ‘politics’ as it was used by a lot of people in the era when the IWW was founded is different from the meaning of the word in a lot of the circles IWW members move in today. In the early 20th century U.S. the word “politics” meant the ballot box. There were, for instance, debates between political socialists and nonpolitical socialists. The phrase “nonpolitical socialist” may sound like a contradiction to us today, because we tend to believe there can be politics through other means than the ballot box. In the early 20th century, though, “political” meant basically “state parliamentary,” so “political socialists” were people who believed that socialism could happen through voting. So, material from the early days of the IWW that is critical of “politics” is critical of state parliamentary approaches to social change. Today we might call that non- or extra-parliamentary politics. Whatever we call it, though, we generally believe that there are forms of politics beyond the ballot box. When we talk about stuff like that, we’re talking about stuff that people in the early 20th century would have considered outside of or opposed to politics, because politics had a narrower meaning. This means that it’s a mistake to appeal to the early 20th century history of the IWW for the idea that the IWW is apolitical.

There’s a second reason why it’s a mistake to link “no politics” to the IWW’s early history tied to the One Big Union pamphlet. It’s a simpler reason, which is that the phrase “no politics in the union” doesn’t appear in the original One Big Union pamphlet at all. What we have today as the One Big Union pamphlet is very, very different, so that it’s a bit weird that it has the same title. The IWW published a pamphlet in 1910 or 1911 called One Big Union, written by William Trautmann with some material by Thomas Hagerty. It was used until 1943. Looking at the One Big Union pamphlets from 1911 to 1943 it's clear how much "no politics" is a clumsy way to express our views. Just two examples. Trautmann's early pamphlet referred to "the great words of a great thinker, Karl Marx: "The emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the working class itself. Workers of the World, Unite!" That's hardly an apolitical statement. The 1911 edition of the pamphlet, printed and distributed by the IWW, also had an ad at the end reading "The only popular illustrated magazine in the world that advocates industrial unionism is the International Socialist Review. (…) The volume entitled "Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches," contains all of Eugene V. Debs' most important writings on Industrial Unionism. (…) The Pocket Library of Socialism includes six books by Debs and one by Trautmann on industrial unionism." Again, this hardly sounds nonpolitical to me. While the early editions of the pamphlet did criticize "political socialists," meaning socialists who thought the ballot box was a meaningful tool for social change, it's a mistake to call this pamphlet nonpolitical.

In 1944, the organization published a pamphlet of the same name but with dramatically different content. We're still using the 1944 edition today, with very minimal changes. It was that 1944 edition that added the “No politics” section. (Incidentally, “no politics in the union” was an AFL slogan in the early 20th century, one used against radicals in unions.)

In the current edition of the One Big Union pamphlet, the “no politics” section, section four, reads as follows:

“It is sound unionism not to express a preference for one religion or one political party or candidate over another. These are not union questions, and must be settled by each union member according to personal conscience. The union is formed to reach and enforce decisions about industrial questions. Its power to do this can be destroyed by the diversion of its resources to political campaigns. So that all the workers regardless of their religious or political preference may be united to get every possible benefit out of their job, the I.W.W. must be non-political and non religious. It lets its members attend to these matters as they personally see fit--and with the additional social consciousness, regard for their fellows, and general enlightenment that they derive from union activity. This does not mean that the I.W.W. is indifferent to the great social and economic questions of the day. Quite the contrary. We believe the I.W.W. provides the practical solutions to these questions. When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue. With the sort of organization the I.W.W. is building, labor can exert any pressure required to restrain the antics of politicians and even more constructively accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying.”

There are a few threads knotted together in the current section about "no politics," and I think "no politics" is bad summary for all of them. One thread of the current section is organizational neutrality on disputes among different capitalist politicians. We have no "preference for (…) one political party or candidate over another," so we don't pick sides among them. Fair enough.

Another thread of this section is that with proper organization the working class "can exert any pressure required to restrain the antics of politicians and even more constructively accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying." This says that it's a waste of time to use lobbying and the state because collective action is a more effective way to get what we want. Again, fair enough. Historically the IWW has tended to be generally opposed to electoralism. That was part of the conflict with the De Leonists, who were expelled in 1908. And loads of IWW members were expelled from the Social Party over their rejection of the ballot box as a meaningful avenue for change.

Yet another thread in the "no politics" part of the One Big Union pamphlet is that individual members have the freedoms to think what they like and to vote for whoever they want to, or not vote, when it comes to elections. The IWW "lets its members attend to these matters as they personally see fit — and with the additional social consciousness, regard for their fellows, and general enlightenment that they derive from union activity." Freedom of thought is a fine thing: it's a fine POLITICAL principle. It's silly to call that "no politics." (As an aside, I think it's good that the IWW doesn't take sides among political parties and that we don't see the ballot box as a tool for change. But personally I think that there should limits on the freedom of conscience allowed in the organization. Recently in Pennsylvania an openly white supremacist candidate was elected to a Republican Committee. The nazi British National Party has made significant electoral gains before and currently has two seats in the European Parliament. An IWW member who actively supported those kinds of parties ought to be expelled: while we reject political parties and don't see the ballot box as a meaningful way to make change, it's just not true that all political parties are the same.)

The One Big Union pamphlet also says that "the I.W.W. must be nonpolitical." That doesn't make any sense to me, just "no politics in this union" doesn't make sense to me. As I said earlier, the IWW preamble basically quotes Karl Marx and calls for ending capitalism. That's political. The IWW is committed to the end of capitalism and creating a new society, just through different means than elections. Prior to 1917 most IWW members would have called this new society 'socialist', the idea of the cooperative commonwealth cropped up too and that was a socialist idea that politically literate people would have recognized as meaning socialism. That's political too. (My preferred term is 'communism' but I don't like to fight over terminology.)

The "no politics" section and the OBU pamphlet over all calls for creating a new society outside official institutional/electoral channels and without the use of the state. That is a political project, it's just an anti-electoral political project. To my mind, then, this means we should drop the idea that the IWW is "nonpolitical."

With that in mind, I think we should change the title of section 4 of this pamphlet to drop the “no politics” phrase. Instead the title should be something like “Political Parties, Members’ Freedoms, and Government Elections.” I think we should change the section to something like the following:

“The IWW does not express a preference for one political party or candidate over another, no more than the organization holds a position on religious matters. If they choose to do so, individual members have the freedom to choose to vote or work on electoral politics outside their IWW activity, though the IWW discourages this. Generally speaking, we do not see much point in arguing about electoral politics at IWW functions. This does not mean we are indifferent to the great social and economic questions of the day. It means that we see the ballot box as a poor way for the working class to achieve a better life and create a new society. When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, there will be no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, large-scale crime, or similar social problems. Other social problems such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression might exist in a noncapitalist society, but they would no longer have an economic component to them. With proper organization the working class can exert any pressure required to restrain politicians and can accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying.”

And finally, just to repeat, we should openly note somewhere that declaring that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, believing that there can be no peace under capitalism, believing that an injury to one is an injury to all, and calling for a new society based on cooperation and solidarity - these are political positions.

Posted By

Oct 21 2012 06:55


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May 30 2015 03:34

2 years late but what the hell:

Nate wrote:
Thanks Y, and sorry for the delay, I missed your comment. I stand corrected on the expulsions in 1908 though it is my impression that DeLeon was deliberately pushed out by others, which isn't expulsion exactly but is in the neighborhood.

DeLeon was denied his delegate status at the 1908 convention. It was a questionable call and politically motivated by St John. DeLeon's supporters walked out and held their own IWW convention.

Nate wrote:
About the SP, I believe the SP expelled most of the IWW members in it in 1913.

Nope: They expelled the GEB members who supported the IWW.

May 30 2015 12:44

Responsive to Juan. I first joined the IWW in 1973. That vote reflected a membership of something like 150-200 global members The vast majority in the US

Jun 2 2015 15:50
Juan Conatz wrote:
Mandating every new member get a copy of One Big Union started in 1972. 73 people voted for this to be so. Old thread, I know, but I just found this out and thought I'd post.

Interesting, thanks for that. Where did you find that info and is the source online where I could read it? And is there any record of the discussion around it?

Apr 13 2016 05:06

This came up in conversation again and I couldn't remember my sources. I dug up my old notes, I looked at microfilm edition of the 1944 OBU pamphlet, full citation: One Big Union of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago: IWW, 1944. The microfilm was labeled Pamphlets in American History number L3131.