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December 2004 • Vol 4, No. 11•

James P. Cannon’s ‘IWW’

By Nat Weinstein


This month’s selection from the arsenal of Marxism first appeared in print in the summer-1955 edition of the revolutionary socialist periodical, Fourth International, under the title, “The IWW On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Founding Convention.” Its author, James P. Cannon, closely examined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), began a far-sighted and heroic attempt to form an international union of revolutionary trade unions nearly a hundred years ago. Cannon’s purpose, was to draw from the IWW strategic approach its most important lessons,which could not be more timely than they are today for an American labor movement suffering a decades-long decline.

Cannon treats the historic role of the IWW from several vantage points:

• First in order of importance: While the IWW never came close to realizing its dream of “one big union” encompassing all organized workers in America, it made a profound impression upon the leftwing trade-union vanguard in the AFL’s industrial and semi-industrial unions, as well as among the class-conscious and socialist sectors of the American working class.

Moreover, while it failed to achieve its goal, Cannon argues that without the IWW trailblazing demonstration of the power of industrial unionism, it is unlikely that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) would have come into existence as early as 1934.

Cannon argues that it was the IWW example that has inspired workers ever since.

• Second, Cannon contrasts the class struggle strategy embraced by the IWW rank and file and its revolutionary leaders with the class-collaborationist policies of the labor officials of his time, which have become even more bureaucratized and pro-capitalist today than at any other time in American history.

• And third, Cannon describes the contradiction in the IWW conception of its own historic role, in attempting to be both an all-inclusive union as well as a revolutionary vanguard. The following is Cannon’s description of the IWW’s contradiction:

One of the most important contradictions of the IWW, implanted at its first convention and never resolved, was the dual role it assigned to itself. Not the least of the reasons for the eventual failure of the IWW—as an organization—was its attempt to be both a union of all workers and a propaganda society of selected revolutionists—in essence a revolutionary party. Two different tasks and functions, which, at a certain stage of development, require separate and distinct organizations, were assumed by the IWW alone; and this duality hampered its effectiveness in both fields. All that, and many other things, are clearer now than they were then to the leading militants of the IWW—or anyone else in this country.

This concise description of the IWW’s contradictory conception of its role came primarily from Cannon’s first-hand experience as an IWW organizer and agitator, as well as from accounts by historians. But what is most important today, is Cannon’s account of the social character of the Wobblies (the nickname for the IWW cadre and its principal leaders.) Cannon’s account, as we shall see, provides clues as to where an important component of the next generation of revolutionary working-class leaders and fighters will come from. It also helps explain the objective factors that will point this new leadership toward playing a similar role in the class struggle that its predecessors played in the formation of the IWW and later in the CIO.

Cannon explains in great detail the very different objective social conditions of workers in the western states—and the many in the East who had sought to escape joblessness by migrating westward at the turn of the century—giving birth to the rough-and-tumble class struggle fighters that were the heart and soul of the IWW. The following description exemplifies Cannon’s insightful understanding of the Wobblies as they really were and how they came to be:

There was no such thing as “full employment” in the time of the IWW. The economic cycle ran its normal ten-year course, with its periodic crises and depressions, producing a surplus labor army squeezed out of industry in the East. Unemployment rose and fell with the turns of the cycle, but was always a permanent feature of the times…. Many of the unemployed workers, especially the young, took to the road, as those of another generation were to do again in the Thirties. The developing West had need of a floating labor force, and the supply drifted toward the demand. A large part of the mobile labor population in the West at that time, perhaps a majority, originated in the eastern half of the continent. Their conditions of life were pretty rough.

They were not the most decisive section of the working class; that resided, then as now, in the industrial centers of the eastern half of the continent. But these migrants, wherever they came from, responded most readily to the IWW program for a drastic change in the social order.

The IWW was right at home among footloose workers who found casual employment in the harvest fields—traveling by freight train to follow the ripening of the grain, then back by freight train again to the transportation centers for any kind of work they could find there. Railroad construction workers, shipping out for temporary jobs and then shipping back to the cities into unemployment again; lumberjacks, metal miners, seamen, etc., who lived in insecurity and worked, when they worked, under the harshest, most primitive conditions.

This narrow stratum of the unsettled and least privileged workers came to make up the bulk of the membership of the IWW. It was often said among the Wobblies, only half facetiously, that the name of their organization, “Industrial Workers of the World,” should be changed to “Migratory Workers of the World.”

Cannon’s sociological analysis of the hard-core rebels that were attracted to the IWW then, applies in some important respects to today’s “migratory workers of the world”—that is, the latest waves of immigrants coming to this country as well as to many of the world’s most advanced industrial countries. But while their motives are similar, they are not identical.

Migratory workers from other lands, throughout most of American history, came to America for somewhat different reasons than did jobless workers who rode the rails westward in their search for jobs in the heyday of the IWW and again during the stormy days of the Great Depression, also migrated to wherever the jobs were, including back East. That is, in accord with the changing harvesting or economic seasons.

But something very new began happening starting a little more than 20 years ago, which has been rapidly accelerating since the new economy-bubble went bust at the beginning of the new millennium.

Cannon’s analysis of the social character of the footloose Wobbly rebels — and what made them what they were — helps us see more clearly the consequences of the de-industrialization of the U.S. economy. The negative effects it has had on workers’ living standards is transforming a significant portion of the so-called “aristocracy of labor” from most to least satisfied sector of the American working class, foreshadowing a new mass radicalization.

The changing face of the American working class

The capitalist mass media often characterize the better paid workers as “middle class,” while referring to the unemployed and most exploited workers as the “underclass.”

Now, however, this so-called “middle class” — those with relatively good-paying jobs in the industrial heartland of America — are being steadily pushed down to the lowest rungs of the income ladder, into the reserve army of the unemployed and semi-employed part-timers.

A growing demoralization is affecting all sectors of the working class and even the lowest strata of the middle class who had until recently seen their worsening condition as temporary. Now the realization is growing that not only are conditions worsening but that it may be permanent. And as capitalism’s optimists, with the Bush administration and its cheerleaders, singing the old Depression-era song, “Happy days are here again,” many of us among the lower economic strata are now beginning to fear that those “happy days” will never be here again.

Let’s take a look at the state of the American labor movement as it has changed so far and where it is likely to go.

The decline of the AFL-CIO

It has been some time since the decline of the labor movement shortly after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. But this decline was accelerated by the defeat of the national airline controllers strike in 1980-81.

So critical has this decline become that the rank and file of today’s labor movement—including many long-time militant activists—are in an extreme state of disarray and demoralization. The American working class, more than its counterparts in the world’s other advanced industrial countries, has lost confidence in its ability to defend itself against the combined assaults of the ruling class and its bipartisan capitalist government.

A simple comparison between the percentage of workers organized in trade unions today compared to 1955, (when Cannon wrote his analysis of the IWW), is only the most obvious manifestation of the economic and political crisis of today’s American labor movement.

At that time, the proportion of the labor force organized in unions was 33.2 percent. Today, it has plummeted to 13 percent. Moreover, the way the U.S. Labor Department measures the workforce significantly underestimates its size. This leaves millions of jobless workers uncounted. Thus, the unionized workforce is actually a smaller proportion of the total workforce than has been officially estimated.

That’s not all that can be said about the worsened position of today’s working class. There’s much more, not the least of which is the decline of the most powerful sector of the organized labor movement, the industrial workers in the big mass production industries, which have been sharply reduced in numbers by the de-industrialization of America. Consequently, capitalism’s “labor experts have argued that because the industrial unions, which have always served as the heavy guns of the labor movement have been sharply reduced, the overall power of the labor movement has also been reduced.

Although it is certainly true that the industrial unions have been hardest hit by labor’s decline—having suffered most from lost jobs and union members, these ex-militants, the “labor experts” have gleefully concluded that the working class as a whole no longer has the power it once had to change America and the world.

Of course it is true that the steadily declining industrial workforce (as a proportion of the class as a whole) has weakened the power of the organized labor movement. But the main source of working class power does not come only from its commanding position in basic industry--, upon which the rest of the economy is dependent.

The decline of the industrial workforce and the labor movement as a whole derives directly from the failure of the workers to solve the subjective problem of leadership. One that understands that the class interests of workers and capitalists are diametrically opposed and that workers and capitalists are adversaries, not partners. In other words, the strategy of class collaboration must be replaced by the strategy of class struggle. It’s plain as day, as one exasperated leader of the close to a million-member autoworkers union once whined: the capitalists are conducting a “one-sided class war against the unions.” It couldn’t have been said better!

And that policy flows from the labor bureaucracy’s rationalization for class collaboration: that it is the capitalists who “lay the golden eggs,” and the fate of the workers is tied to, and dependent on the profitability of capital. To say it all in another way, the strategically decisive power of the workers comes when they, together with their natural allies—the many other victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression—utilize their intrinsic economic and social power as a class! What the labor movement has lost in terms of the size of the industrial workforce, the have gained in a much larger working class majority of capitalist America.

In other words, the power of workers when they act in their own interests as a class is greater today than ever before.

So, just as capitalism’s future is determined by its chosen leaders, so too does the proletariat’s chosen leadership determine the destiny of its class. And if the lessons of the past are any guide to the future, it will be incumbent on the world’s working classes to construct an international leadership that understands the revolutionary role assigned to it by history.

That role, of course, is to lead the struggle of the working class to the conquest over the capitalist class and establish the rule of the working class in alliance with its natural allies. And from there it must proceed toward the liberation of the entire human race from capitalism’s inexorable descent into barbarism, and to the construction of a world socialist order—a world without borders and without man’s inhumanity to man.





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