Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Articles from the November 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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Polarization past & present

An article by J Pierce on the polarization of society during revolutionary upsurges.

Two summers ago, the Phoenix IWW held an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution. That same summer, while visiting a friend, I toured various abolitionist, African American, and Civil War historical sites around Virginia. Meanwhile, the struggle over the rights of immigrant workers in Arizona was heating up and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on the subject. I think connecting these historical dramas could assist our work in the IWW and the concept of social polarization might be the key.

The IWW Organizer Training teaches that organizing leads to a polarization of the workplace. We must get our coworkers to support the union effort or they will side with the boss. Once the union is public, there is no more grey area. Those who attempt to stay neutral wind up helping the boss in the end. When looking at the broader society, however, does this principle remain true?

Civil War in Spain: Fascism vs. Workers’ Revolution

In the summer of 1936, Spain witnessed uprisings from both the Right and the Left. Military officers attempted a coup d’état while anarchists responded with factory and land takeovers. These rebellions hardened into the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 as the country polarized into not just fascists vs. anti-fascists, but into a three-way war based on competing class interests.

The Nationalists were a mix of contradictory right-wing tendencies. They wanted a radical restructuring of society based on modernist, fascist ideology or a restoration of the Catholic Church, the monarchy and regionalist separatism. The anarchists, in the form of the CNTFAI- AIT (the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, Federación Anarquista Ibérica, and Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores) acted as the pole that attracted the working class and peasants to libertarian communism. The republicans, social democrats, and Socialists, by and large, wanted to maintain capitalism and liberal democracy. The Communist Party, in attempting to gain control of the government, became a pole for politicians, employers and police within the anti-fascist camp.

The divisions and contradictions were inescapable as the war engulfed every aspect of society and forced people of all backgrounds to choose sides. The fascists led an illegal uprising against the elected government and therefore divided Spanish society into camps supporting the republican government or opposing it. The anarchists were in a strange position of deciding how to fight the fascist uprising and acquire arms without reinforcing the present government. Not only did the population polarize over the uprising, but the anti-fascist camp itself polarized over how to respond. Arguments over the CNT’s course of action are valuable conversations for contemporary IWW members.

Civil War in the States: Slavery vs. Freedom

A different type of polarization occurred in the United States surrounding slavery as it led to the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The country divided regionally, between the North and the South, as well as socially on the issue of slavery. Abolitionists engaged in myriad efforts to polarize the nation over the continuance of the slave system. Their task, with respect to whites, was to bring the horrors of slavery into every city and every home, forcing whites to make a choice between righteousness and evil. With respect to Blacks, the task was to arm every African American with the weapons of liberation— be they books, newspapers, escape routes, or rifles.

Similar to the Spanish case, the federal military in the South lined up with their local right wing, in this case the confederate slavocracy, and led a treasonous uprising against their own government. For many whites, the outbreak of war stripped them of their ability to view the conflict from a distance. They were forced to side with either the North or the South, and ultimately, regardless of their own racial attitudes, Worker.with abolition or slavery. For African Americans, the war presented an opportunity to liberate themselves and their kin, either as soldiers in the Northern army or as “contraband,” escaping bondage to cross Union lines. Many prominent abolitionists threw themselves into the Union cause, and thus behind the republican-led government. Notably, Harriet Tubman worked as a scout, a spy, and an army nurse; Frederick Douglass recruited Blacks for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, including his two sons. The early abolitionist movement—a handful of Northern church-goers and pacifists, as well as isolated slave rebellions—might be an intriguing subject for Wobblies who are interested in the development of polarization to study.

Both of these civil wars provide disturbing parallels for our time and place. A frenzied and lawless right-wing element panicked over the changing times’ resorts to insurrection against their own government— one to which they would otherwise profess the holiest of loyalties. It appears, at times, that we are much closer to rightwing rejection of liberal democracy than we are to proletarian revolution. For those of us in the United States, it would be a strange situation to find ourselves on the same side of a struggle as the American government—but it is not without precedent or plausibility.

The IWW as a Pole

The past is often directly in our midst here in the present. At your average gun show in Phoenix, right wingers can be heard berserking themselves for a civil war against the liberals, the socialists, and the Mexicans. Arizona gun nuts notwithstanding, our task as Wobblies is to shift the divisions away from ”politics” and race hatred toward a class-based struggle; the goal being to pit the exploited class—including right wing whites—against capitalism. We need to define the conflict in terms that encourage workers to join our side: slavery vs. freedom; fascism vs. democracy; or perhaps the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. We must define capitalism as the enemy and sharpen the conflict so that the financially disgruntled elements find themselves, perhaps inadvertently, on the side of their co-workers and against their employers. We must create a situation in which white workers have to decide, “Am I on the side of the bosses and politicians— of fascism, Nazis and slavery? Or am I on the side of working people—of democracy and freedom?”

The IWW is uniquely situated to sharpen this polarization into class conflict. We are the abolitionists and antifascists of our time. We have the power to drive a class wedge into the present turmoil and become a pole for multi-racial, social revolution. To do this, we’ll need to consider numerous tensions: building coalitions vs. relying on ourselves as the IWW; focusing on the liberation of workers of color vs. focusing on turning white workers against the system; illuminating the contradictions in the unions and on the left vs. organizing for mutual self-defense; and continuing a program of union organizing vs. developing a more overtly “revolutionary” orientation.

The IWW is slowly positioning us to be facilitators, if not leaders, of a powerful class movement internationally. We must be ready to become the pole that attracts the revolutionary working class.

Editor’s note: Part 3 of the Building Blocks series on building the Richmond General Membership Branch (GMB) will run in the December 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Reviews: valuable lessons from the Sojourner Truth Organization

Nate Hawthorne's review of Michael Staudenmaier's Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986, for the Industrial Worker.

Staudenmaier, Michael. Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2012. Paperback, 304 pages, $19.95.

“Truth and Revolution” is about the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a small radical group based in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. Historian Michael Staudenmaier presents a good overview of the political world that the organization lived in. The STO first formed during the tail end of the civil rights movement and the New Left of the 1960s. STO members paid attention to rising black radicalism in the United States and social upheavals in France and Italy. Later, the group engaged with political events, including the Iranian revolution, the movement for Puerto Rican independence, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-fascist movement. Staudenmaier summarizes each of these important pieces of history, and his footnotes offer a lot to people who want to do further reading on any of these topics.

IWW members in particular should read this book because the STO focused heavily on workplace organizing and wrote about that experience. I will return to this, but first I want to say that the STO’s flaws make them particularly good for IWW members to read about because the limits and failures of the STO speak to the problems that we are still working on as we build the IWW we want to see. The STO was predominantly white, probably never had more than 100 members, repeatedly split in a way that left them on the edge of collapse and held some really bad political perspectives, tied in large part to their Leninism.

Despite the improvement, the IWW remains a small organization. Our successes are inspiring and exciting but often temporary and partial, while our failures are often heartbreaking for the organizers involved. This reality of our organization means that Straudenmaier’s book offers us a kind of mirror to help us think about ourselves. While the STO was briefly national in scope and engaged in dialogue and published for a national audience, at its largest the STO was the size of a mid-to-large IWW branch today. There are both positive lessons we can learn and inspiration we can draw from the STO and there are negative lessons from which we can learn about things we should avoid.

STO members did some workplace organizing throughout the organization’s lifespan, but the group only focused heavily on this for about five years. The STO’s workplace activity will be familiar to people active in IWW organizing. The group printed and distributed leaflets at workplaces, both where they had members and where they did not, ran workers’ centers that offered legal support, engaged in strike and picket support, and helped create job actions in members’ workplaces.

The STO confronted a few persistent difficulties in their organizing, which also speaks to both the strengths we have and the difficulties we face in the IWW today. The STO rarely managed to recruit members out of its workplace organizing, in part because they weren’t sure how, or if they should even try to do so. Likewise, the organization often built new organizations depending on the facility or company they were organizing in, and encouraged non-members to participate. This approach had its strengths, like placing a priority on collective action, but it had one major downside: it inhibited organizational growth. While this approach seemed like it was based on respect for the independence of the workers involved, it resulted in STO members specifically being able to make decisions that had an impact on the workers without the workers’ input. This happened above all because of the organization’s decision to make workplace organizing into much less of a priority.

One quality of the STO that was both positive and negative was that the organization tried to pay a lot of attention to and analyze changing social and economic conditions. This is important, but the way that the STO did it resulted in a sort of ambulance-chasing mentality whereby the organization repeatedly changed its priorities based on an analysis that assumed that the latest social/economic change meant that something really big was going to happen next. Staudenmaier quotes one former member of the STO who criticized the organization for sometimes having a “get rich quick” mentality whereby the group would drop everything and focus on the latest new development in the class struggle in the hopes of finally hitting the revolutionary jackpot. This resulted in a neglect of long-term organization building, as well as a turn away from the slower but ultimately more productive practices of long-term workplace organizing. IWW branches often have these same problems. This is not to say that workplace organizing is the only thing that matters, but rather that, since we see the IWW as a workplace organizing group, we should make that our main emphasis in terms of time and energy. We should also be very honest with ourselves about what our non-workplace activities actually do to help build the organization and to improve our workplace organizing.

Finally, one of the STO’s most enduring contributions that the IWW can learn from is its writings. This matters in at least three ways.

First, despite the organization’s deeply flawed Leninist perspective, the STO consisted of a group of radicals who were very serious about understanding and analyzing capitalist society. The group’s intellectual efforts were engaged with struggle and were intelligent and thought provoking. These writings remain worth reading today because they convey important information about race, gender, sexuality, and the history of the Left, among other topics, but they also remain worth reading because reading serious revolutionary thought is one of the things that makes us better radicals.

Second, the STO’s collection “The Workplace Papers” lays out views shared within the IWW about the limits of state staterecognized unions and about the importance of building workplace organizations outside the normal labor-law framework. Indeed, when I first joined the IWW in Chicago, organizers in the branch spoke repeatedly of the power of the political and theoretical perspective in “The Workplace Papers” and its relevance for our style of workplace organizing.

Third, the IWW can learn from the simple fact that the STO had such a commitment to writing. Writing helps people think. As individuals, putting ideas into writing makes our ideas clearer, and identifies the areas where our ideas and practices are still murky. As an organization that is too big and dispersed to interact face-to-face or by phone, we can only think collectively by writing, reading and responding, over and over. This is an area where the IWW could improve. While reading this book, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that the STO was doing good workplace organizing of a type that I was basically already familiar with because IWW members are doing this stuff. But I only know about it because I’m friends with a lot of IWW members. By not writing that stuff down (and by not being better about saving and distributing and systematically using the writing that we do produce), we don’t learn as much from it and we don’t share those lessons as much across our organization and beyond, and newer members often have a hard time learning about the IWW’s own activity in our recent past. I was also struck that the STO often had a clearer and better idea of what they were doing while they were doing it, while our organizing is often less theoretically clear while in the middle of our actions. That is actually a strength of the IWW, as it means that we put our emphasis on fighting bosses even if we can’t dot all the theoretical i’s and cross all the t’s about what exactly our every move contributes to ending capitalism. Still, in the aftermath of our actions we could stand to write and reflect more.

I hope I’ve convinced you that this book is worth your time to read, and after you read the book, read some of the STO’s original writing, especially “The Workplace Papers.” You can find them online at If you do read any of this, consider writing a letter to the IW to make some points about it and engage other members in a discussion.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Reviews: great but unrealized possibilities in Germany

A review by Steve Kellerman of Martin Comack's Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918-21.

Comack, Martin. Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918-21. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2012. Paperback, 108 pages, $24.00.

In Germany from 1918 to 1921, the possibility of transforming the world was briefly present. Had a libertarian form of workers’ control succeeded in such an advanced and powerful a country as Germany, it would have been able to aid the Soviet Union and help prevent its decline into tyranny. It could further have encouraged similar movements in France, Italy, Britain and even the United States.

IWW member Martin Comack has written a welcome addition to the literature on post-World War I Germany, where the possibility of a substantial and permanent change in social relations was on the agenda. He writes with clarity and is able to describe complex situations in an accessible manner.

In Germany as well as the rest of the world, there existed a widespread disgust with the system which had produced the horrors from 1914 to 1918 and the desire to replace it with a new social order in which such enormities would not be possible.

Comack skillfully delineates the bureaucratic degeneration of the German Social Democratic Party and trade unions during the previous 30 years which led them to become complicit with the Imperial regime and its war.

The trade union officialdom came to be divorced from the union membership through its wartime cooperation with the authorities and the bosses. In response, workers’ committees sprang up to defend the workers’ interests during the hard wartime period and to enunciate radical doctrines of workers’ control. When the war ended in defeat and the Imperial order collapsed, these committees transformed themselves into workers’ councils, moving to take control of workplaces and form a society administered directly and democratically by workers’ and soldiers’ councils. A revolutionary mix of groups, including the Social Democrats, Independent Social Democrats, Spartakusbund (the Spartacus League)/ Communist Party, the Communist Workers’ Party, and Workers’ Councils, occupied the most advanced position advocating and, to the extent they were able, practicing worker control of industry and society. Unable to gain sufficient following among workers, the Councils were forced into retreat and by late 1920 were marginalized by the advancing rebureaucratization of the German workers’ movement.

These experiences subsequently gave rise to the school of Council Communists, the best known of whose representatives are Anton Pannekoek, Hermann Gorter, and Paul Mattick, Sr. This movement teaches that workers’ councils are the natural and spontaneous organs of workers in revolutionary situations. Council Communists emphasize vigilance about carrying the revolution to completion and resisting the pressure of aspiring bureaucrats to force affairs back into authoritarian channels.

Comack should be commended for illuminating a little-known period and movement of great but ultimately unrealized possibilities.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)