Big Bill Haywood


Although syndicalism is extremely heterogenous, it has certain core ideas that span countries, time periods, and organizations. These fundamental are: capitalism can only be overthrown by the direct action of workers at the point of production and a hostility to politics, political parties and state power. These core ideas constitute both the strengths and the weaknesses of syndicalism, strengths and weaknesses that become evident when we examine the development of one most famous syndicalist organizations - the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The formation of the IWW in 1905 was an incredibly important development in the American workers' movement. It was the first attempt to build a mass revolutionary workers' movement in the U.S. to overthrow capitalism. They took the slogan, "an injury to one is an injury to all," from an earlier union group, the Knights of Labor. Yet, unlike the Knights, they extended it to a group of workers the Knights shunned: the Chinese. The IWW championed industrial unionism, the idea that all workers, regardless of skill, race, nationality, creed, craft, or sex could be effective only if they were organized into One Big Union. They understood that a working class divided against itself would be unable to fight the capitalists.

The founding convention in Chicago was attended by over 200 radical union workers representing 43 different organizations. The bulk of the members were from a few unions: the Western Federation of Miners (27,000 members), the American Labor Union (16,750 members), and the United Metal Workers (3,000 members).1

Big Bill Haywood, the IWW's most famous leader, called the convention to order with words that echoed the language of the American revolution in 1776:

	Fellow Workers, this is the Continental Congress of the working class. 

	We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a 

	working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation 

	of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.2 

Haywood was joined at the convention by the most important figures of the radical wing of the American labor movement at the time: Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party, Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, and Mother Jones of the United Mine Workers. The convention adopted the following text as the Preamble to the IWW's Constitution:

	The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There 

	can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of 

	working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all 

	the good things of life.

	Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of 

	the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the 

	machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.

	We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer 

	and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever 

	growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state 

	of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another 

	set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another 

	in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to 

	mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have 

	interests in common with their employers.

	These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class 

	upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members 

	in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work 

	whenever a strike or lookout is on in any department thereof, thus 

	making an injury to one an injury to all.

	Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wages for a fair day's 

	work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 

	"Abolition of the wage system."

	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. By organizing industrially we are forming the 

	structure of the new society within the shell of the old.3

The IWW's uncompromising class politics and courageous militancy put them on a collision course with the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgans, and Carnegies (better known as the Robber Barons) who ran American capitalism in the early 20th century. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of worker militants were killed in the course of the all-out war between labor and capital. IWW members (or Wobblies as they became known) led strikes, fought lockouts, and launched bitter free-speech fights, and capital retaliated by hiring private armies, using the police and militias, and utilized the full power of the state to frame, jail, and in some cases execute Wobblies as in the case of Joe Hill, the brilliant song-writer.

Their commitment to class struggle unionism put them at odds not only with the bosses but also with the mainstream union federation of the time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by Samuel Gompers. The AFL of that era was notorious for its commitment to finding "common ground" with employers, refusing to organize women, blacks, and Chinese, organizing only skilled craftsmen and ignoring the unskilled or semi-skilled, calling for racist immigration restrictions, obeying any and all court injunctions against picketing - in short, doing the exact opposite of everything the IWW did.

Yet it has to be said, for all their militancy, for all their heroism in spite of relentless and deadly persecution, their brilliant tactics, their creative and moving songs, and their revolutionary fervor, the Wobblies did not succeed in their goal of overthrowing capitalism. Some of the IWW's political shortcomings were products of the underdeveloped, primitive nature of the American class struggle in the early 20th century. Although strikes were often extremely violent and bitterly fought, they generally had a local character; life-and-death battles took place between local workers on one side and the police, the local courts, and local politicians on the other. This meant that the class struggle did not develop the national scope which have been necessary for a socialist revolution and the seizure of power by the working class. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of strikes, protests, and uprisings by the working class ended in bloody defeat for the workers; it was not until the 1930s that large numbers of industrial workers were able to secure union recognition, not to mention decent health care, good wages, reitrement plans, and safe working conditions.

The IWW's failure to achieve its goal certainly cannot be attributed to a lack of effort, to cowardice, to a betrayal of principles, or anything of the like. Its failure was rooted in its inadequate understanding of how to overthrow capitalism, the dynamics of the revolutionary process, and how revolutionaries need to organize if they want to win, inadequacies which are built into syndicalism itself. These important shortcomings, however, were not insurmountable, nor was the course and trajectory of the late IWW a matter of inevitability.

The main problem with the IWW was in how it saw itself and its goal. It proclaimed the message of "One Big Union," that any worker could join without regard to race, sex, skill, nationality, language. At the same time it proclaimed that any worker could join, it proclaimed its intention to overthrow capitalism and replace it with the rule of the working class. The IWW tried to simultaneously be One Big Union and a revolutionary party made up of the most class-conscious and militant socialist workers. The problem the IWW never grappled with was the fact that, outside of a revolutionary situation in which power is up for grabs, the bulk of the working class does not have revolutionary consciousness. Generally speaking, it has mixed consciousness. In other words, the working class as a whole rejects some of the bosses' ideas but accepts others. Some workers hate their boss but are trying to save money to start their own business or are trying to become "good" managers; some workers reject racism but make sexist remarks to co-workers; some workers hate "the system" but believe fighting back is hopeless; some workers think that being a union militant is good enough and that a revolution is not desirable or necessary; some workers think the government and politicians are a bunch of greedy, corrupt liars but think "we need to take back our government," etc.

To be effective against the enemy, the IWW correctly argued that a union has to include every worker at a given workplace in its ranks. That means including workers who have all kinds of backward and reactionary ideas - racist workers, sexist workers, homophobic workers, right-wing pro-war workers all have to be in one union if they are to defend their economic interests. By contrast, an organization that is dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, in order to be effective, cannot allow into its ranks racists, sexists, people who believe the U.S. is a wonderful free-market democracy, or people who believe that capitalism can be reformed and made humane. To put it a different way, union membership is based on one's objective economic position, on one's relationship to both the means of production and the process of production. Membership in a revolutionary party is based on one's subjective political positions.

Inevitably the attempt to simultaneously be a mass economic organization of workers and a more narrow political organization led to tensions and to splits within the IWW. In 1907, the Western Federation of Miners, the single largest organization within the IWW, voted to disaffiliate by a two-to-one margin because they believed the focus of the organization should be on day-to-day "bread and butter" issues rather than making revolutionary propaganda the IWW's 1908 convention a split took place with a majority rejecting political action (political action meaning voting for the Socialist Party in elections) and a dissenting minority who believed in voting for the Socialist Party and in the IWW's industrial unionism.4

Attempting to combine the functions of a union with those of a revolutionary organization also hampered the IWW on a practical level. Historian Howard Zinn noted that the organization "never had more than five to ten thousand enrolled members at any one time."5 It was unable to build a sizable, stable membership because of its continual conflict with the capitalist state, its principled refusal to sign contracts with capitalists (since this would legitimize wage-slavery), and its attempt to be both broad organization to defend workers' living standards and a revolutionary party of anti-capitalist workers.

Instead, its membership swelled during strikes and free-speech fights but then collapsed dramatically when the struggles ended, with only a small cadre of full-time organizers keeping the organization's continuity. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the IWW local there had 14,000 members; a few years later, it shrank to a few hundred.6

Furthermore, its focus on "direct action" at the point of production led to some sections of the organization to embrace sabotage of machinery by a small minority as a legitimate form of (or more accurately, a substitute for) the class struggle. Reject political action of any kind had negative consequences: it meant not campaigning head-on against segregation in the South and it meant not taking a stand against World War One. Both were political issues.

The anti-political stance of the IWW did not save them from the intensely political consequences of World War One and the savage repression by the government which followed the war, repression which intensified after the seizure of power by the Soviets in Russia which fed Wall Street's fear of revolution at home. The federal government ruthlessly attacked, jailed, framed, and deported thousands of its members; the corporate media dutifully whipped up a Red Scare attacking the IWW members as back-stabbing disloyal pro-German traitors; and right-wing mobs lynched Wobblies and burnt d'sown local offices.

However, these blows from above were not the sole nor even main explanation for the IWW's terminal decline following World War One. As I argued earlier, the IWW's syndicalist politics and contradictory organizing strategy did not mean it was inevitably doomed. Its single most important mistake was the failure to learn to incorporate or adapt to the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the world's first workers' revolution that overthrew capitalism. The Bolshevik party had accomplished in Russia in 1917 what the IWW sought to accomplish in the U.S. since its foundation in 1905. While their political strategies differed, their goals were the same. The IWW did not send representatives to the newly formed Communist International despite being invited, although anarcho-syndicalists from Spain, France, Ireland, and Italy did.7 Although much of the IWW's time, energy, and the organizationís resources were consumed in legal battles against the federal government, representatives from revolutionary groups around the world, some of them operating under conditions of vicious repression like the Sparticists of Germany, made it a priority to join their brethren in Moscow to learn and to contribute to the creation of mass communist parties with significant influence in the working class.

The IWW's hostility to "politics," to political theory, and to political debate of any kind prevented them from learning political lessons from other countries where the class struggle had reached a higher level and where revolutionaries had been able to successfully overthrow capitalism thanks to their clearer understanding of how to organize themselves and how to intervene in non-revolutionary struggles in such a way as to advance the cause of the revolution they stood for.

This failure to learn or adapt, more than anything else, prevented the IWW from assimilating the lessons of the Russian revolution and taking their rightful place in the new American Communist Party (CP) which could have used the decade's worth of shopfloor militancy that the Wobblies possessed. As a result, the IWWnever recovered its strength or influence in the American workers' movement and the American CP was weakened at its birth. However, the Wobblies did leave behind a heroic legacy and blazed a trail for the industrial unions that Communist and Trotskyist militants would play a leading role in establishing in the upheaval of the 1930s.
  1. Paul Brissenden, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism, pp. 73-75.
  2. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, p. 79.
  3. Preamble to the IWW Constitution, available online:
  4. Smith, pp. 81-82.
  5. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 331.
  6. Smith, pp. 86-87.
  7. See Lenin's Moscow by Alfred Rosmer, a french anarcho-syndicalist who became a communist through his participation in the early Communist International.
Back Next 1