Chapter 1: the philosophy of the I.W.W.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 18, 2015

Vincent St. John, one of the early "Wobblies", expressed the basic aims of the organization as follows:

The I.W.W. wants the world for the workers, and none but workers in-the world. By organizing industrially, we (the workers) are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.1

The last paragraph of the Preamble (Appendix I), as well as the following phrase from its second paragraph, also helps one to understand its objectives. "...the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system. The last paragraph of the Preamble states: "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 capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown...”

The I.W.W. point of view is based on two assumptions. One of these is that in order to protect themselves against the exploitation characteristic of the capitalistic system, the workers must organize. The other is that the organization developed must be democratic.2

In order to understand these aims it is necessary to consider what capitalism means to the I.W.W. Its papers and pamphlets continually stress the weaknesses of the system, and remove any doubt from a reader's mind as to why the I.W.W. wants to get rid of it.

To the I.W.W. capitalism is the co-operation of the many for the profit of the few. It observes that the capital invested in modern industry is owned by private individuals, called capitalists, and is used by them to exploit labor primarily for their own private profit. To them capitalism is wage slavery, because it binds the workers through capitalist ownership to the control of the capitalist class. At the same time without the cooperation of millions of laborers modern industry, with its accompanying exploitation, would be impossible.

Furthermore, the control is actually in the hands of only a few giant combinations and financiers who control lands, mines, ore deposits, oil fields, forests, pipe lines, steamship companies, railroads, banks, etc. The literature of the I.W.W. is full of the details of this control.

This literature points out that the business, or capitalist class which controls industry is anxious to keep that control and the privileges that go with it. Hence, it strives to control all social institutions. It tries to participate in the writing and administering of the laws. It seeks to control the schools, the press, movies and all other means of molding public opinion. In addition, when it has found that it has been unable to prevent the organization of labor in opposition to its interests, it has sought to control the organizations which have been formed. When unsuccessful in this, it has tried to create disharmony among them and to destroy them by playing one against the other.

The I.W.W. teaches its members how modern capitalism grew from the days of the owner-worker, who owned his own tools and had control over his production, to today's big business, industrial empires international in scope, chain combinations, etc., controlled by a few capitalists.

It stresses the defects which accompanied this growth. As the worker lost control over his tools and his production, industrial independence was replaced by industrial servility. Skilled workers became few, armies of unskilled appeared. Industrial opportunity for the vast majority vanished; part-time employment and unemployment became common. Wealth and income became concentrated in the hands of the few. These undesirable features became more pronounced because of the massing of the workers in the cities to be near employment. It became practically impossible for the average man to escape the unhealthy city environment by migrating to the farm. His wages were not sufficient to enable him to live properly let alone to save enough to own his own business or to obtain a farm. Often. if he was lucky enough to become temporarily financially independent, he soon found he was unable to compete with concentrated capital either in business or in farming. Farm tenancy became the lot of many, since big capital had also taken over control of farming.

The I.W.W. emphasizes the point that under the capitalistic system profits are first in importance, the common good, secondary. Therefore, capitalists do not hesitate to disregard the common welfare if it interferes with the accumulation of profits. They are not even above leading the workers to war, if by doing so there is a chance to enrich themselves or to solidify their control.

Generally speaking, the I. W. W. believes that most social problems are caused by capitalist mismanagement and greed. They state that to this greed can be traced the need for foreign markets, world wars, race wars, class wars, and discouragement of projects directed toward improving the welfare of the masses. However, it should be observed that the I.W.W. is more critical of the capitalistic system than of individuals who are capitalists. It doesn't propose to reform human beings. Instead, it intends to reform the industrial system so that the common good rather than profits for those in control will be the goal.

The I.W.W. notes that soon after the Industrial Revolution began, various movements were started to reform or abolish the obvious defects of the capitalistic system. It refers to the granger, anti-monopoly, anti-trust, greenback, free Silver, populist and other movements for more control over industry and capitalism. Of particular interest to the I.W.W., of course, were the early labor movements. It has studied these movements effort to benefit by the mistakes of its predecessors. It that these movements started as soon as the workers became of their existence as a separate class in society. Then, they began to organize themselves against their employers and capitalistic system in general.

As early as 1831, according to the I.W.W., the New York Typographical Society had a constitutional clause under which membership was forfeited by journeymen becoming employers. Later, at the first national convention of typographical societies in the country, it was stated: "There exists a perpetual antagonism between labor and capital." Class consciousness among workers grew with the trust development after the Civil War, the panic of 1873 and the great labor outbreaks like that of the railroad strikes of 1877. Gradually, isolated unions began to see the necessity of amalgamation and closer unity. Soon came the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the Knights of St. Crispin, the Knights of Labor, and the A.F. of L. The I.W.W. recognizes certain similarities between itself and the Knights of St. Crispin and Knights of Labor, especially the principle of industrial rather than craft unionism. The Knights of St. Crispin, of course, was limited to only one industry, that of shoe manufacture.

Some of the early labor movements were like the I.W.W. in demanding abolition o~ the wage system. Some of them also were preparing themselves to take over the operation and control of the means of production and distribution. The I.W.W. believes that some of them failed chiefly due to too much preoccupation with politics. The failure of the Knights of Labor, for example, is blamed on politics, abnormal growth, lack of definite purposes, too much centralization, and to scabbery by the A.F.L.

Like some of its predecessors the I. W. W. is convinced of the reality of the class struggle. It believes that certain prominent Americans, notably Hamilton and Madison, join in that belief. It quotes Hamilton as having said: "All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and the well-born; the other is the mass of the people." Madison is considered to have been even more definite in saying:

Those who hold, and those without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide civilized nations of necessity into different classes actuated by different sentiments and views.

As evidence of the Americanism of the idea of abolishing the wage system, the I.W.W. quotes several other prominent Americans including Orestes Brownson from his book The Convert published in 1857 in which he said:

The consequence of this system is, that the owners of capital enrich themselves at the expense of the owners of labor. The system of money wages, the modern system, is more profitable to the owner of capital than the slave system is to slavemasters, and hardly less oppressive to the laborer. The wages, as a general rule, are never sufficient to enable the laborer to place himself on an equal footing with the capitalist.

Not only is the I.W.W. convinced of the reality of the class struggle and of the necessity for the abolishment of the wage system, but is also believes that it is up to labor to rid society of capitalism by the effective organization of labor.

The I.W.W. contends that the solution of modern social problems and the establishment of better social relations and ideals requires the abolition of capitalism. Only those few who would lose their special privileges would be worse off, if capitalism were to be done away with. The rest of mankind would be much better off. The original job of the capitalist was to furnish funds and management. Now management is the job of a specially trained section of the class of hired hands, and funds are amply provided out of corporate profits. In other words, the system of corporate administration that capitalists have built up has made them superfluous. The capitalists have unwittingly prepared the way for their elimination by educating some of the workers in the skills of management. It was their intention that these scientists and technicians would continue to be under their control and would continue to turn over the profits of industry to them. But this policy may prove to be their undoing. Once educated this superior class of hired hands has perceived that upon them depends capitalist civilization, and without them it can not exist. Some of them, it is hoped, may wish to use this power for the emancipation and elevation of all workers.

The big question to the I.W.W. is not the ownership of industry, but its management. It is interested in who is to say whether industry is to run or stand idle; who is to decide what is to be produced and how production and the fruits of production are to be distributed. It doesn't want this control to be in the hands of financiers, because they are only interested in profits. Nor does it want the control to be in the hands of politicians, because of the dangers of totalitarianism. It feels that it never has been safe to let a few control the affairs of many and that it never will be. The alternative that it favors is, of course, control by the workers. Industrial democracy is its goal. It believes that this is the answer to many problems. It believes that workers properly organized can make society an harmonious whole, intelligently working for the common good.

Therefore, it contends that industry should be run by organized labor. All that is necessary is for workers to stop doing what they are told to do and start doing what they collectively decide to do. The key to the problem is for the workers to discover how to organize properly. The I.W.W. claims that proper organization must serve two purposes: (1) It must provide a complete solution of the industrial problem by making possible the efficient management of modern industry by organized labor once it is in power (2) it must provide the most efficient structure for carrying on the daily struggle for better conditions and better pay in the meantime. They say the appropriate organization is one in which workers are in groups corresponding to the work they are doing; not according to their crafts, but according to their place of business or industry.

An effort was made to obtain an understanding of various phases of the I.W.W.'s philosophy, such as its attitude toward private property; what compensation, if any, would be made to present owners of industrial property; what safeguards would prevent maldistribution of wealth when the workers control society, etc. However, although such matters have often been debated in union meetings no clearly defined policies were in evidence.

  • 1One Big Union. Page IV
  • 2Ibid. Page IX