By James P. Cannon
Introduction | A Short Political Biography of James P. Cannon
1. The Bold Design
When the Founding Convention of the IWW—the Industrial Workers of the World—assembled in Chicago in June, 1905, the general strike movement initiating the first Russian revolution was already under way, and its reverberations were heard in the convention hall. The two events coincided to give the world a preview of its future. The leaders at Chicago hailed the Russian revolution as their own. The two simultaneous actions, arising independently with half a world between them, signalized the opening of a revolutionary century. They were the anticipations of things to come.
The defeated Russian revolution of 1905 prepared the way for the victorious revolution of 1917. It was the “dress rehearsal,” as Lenin said, and that evaluation is now universally recognized. The Founding Convention of the IWW was also a rehearsal; and it may well stand out in the final account as no less important than the Russian action at the same time.
The founders of the IWW were indubitably the original inspirers and prime movers of the modern industrial unions in the mass production industries. That is commonly admitted already, and that’s a lot. But even such a recognition of the IWW, as the precursor of the present CIO, falls far short of a full estimate of its historic significance. The CIO movement, at its present stage of development, is only a small down payment on the demands presented to the future by the pioneers who assembled at the 1905 Convention to start the IWW on its way.
The Founding Convention of the IWW brought together on a common platform the three giants among our ancestors—Debs, Haywood and De Leon. They came from different backgrounds and fields of activity, and they soon parted company again. But the things they said and did, that one time they teamed up to set a new movement on foot, could not be undone. They wrote a Charter for the American working class which has already inspired and influenced more than one generation of labor militants. And in its main essentials it will influence other generations yet to come.
They were big men, and they all grew taller when they stood together. They were distinguished from their contemporaries, as from the trade-union leaders of today, by the immensity of their ambition which transcended personal concerns, by their far-reaching vision of a world to be remade by the power of the organized workers and by their total commitment to that endeavor.
The great majority of the other delegates who answered the call to the Founding Convention of the IWW were people of the same quality. They were the non-conformists, the stiff-necked irreconcilables, at war with capitalist society. Radicals, rebels and revolutionists started the IWW, as they have started every other progressive movement in the history of this country.
In these days when labor leaders try their best to talk like probationary members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, it is refreshing to turn back to the reports of men who spoke a different language. Debs, Haywood and De Leon, and those who stood with them, did not believe in the partnership of capital and labor, as preached by Gompers and Co. at the time. Such talk, they said in the famous “Preamble” to the Constitution of the IWW, “misleads the workers.” They spoke out in advance against the idea of the permanent “coexistence” of labor unions and the private ownership of industry, as championed by the CIO leaders of the present time.
The men who founded the IWW were pioneer industrial unionists, and the great industrial unions of today stem directly from them. But they aimed far beyond industrial unionism as a bargaining agency recognizing the private ownership of industry as right and unchangeable. They saw the relations of capital and labor as a state of war.
Brissenden puts their main idea in a nutshell in his factually correct history of the movement: “The idea of the class conflict was really the bottom notion or ‘first cause’ of the IWW. The industrial-union type was adopted because it would make it possible to wage this class war under more favorable conditions.” (The I.W.W: A Study of American Syndicalism, by Paul Frederick Brissenden, p. 108.)
The founders of the IWW regarded the organization of industrial unions as a means to an end; and the end they had in view was the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a new social order. This, the heart and soul of their program, still awaits its vindication in the revolution of the American workers. And the revolution, when it arrives, will not neglect to acknowledge its anticipation at the Founding Convention of the IWW. For nothing less than the revolutionary goal of the workers’ struggle was openly proclaimed there 50 years ago.
The bold design was drawn by Bill Haywood, General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, who presided at the Founding Convention of the IWW. In his opening remarks, calling the convention to order, he said:
“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.” (Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, p. 1)
The trade unions today are beginning to catch up with the idea that Negroes are human beings, that they have a right to make a living and belong to a union. The IWW was 50 years ahead of them on this question, as on many others. Many of the old Gompers unions were lily-white job trusts, barring Negroes from membership and the right to employment in their jurisdictions. Haywood, in his opening speech, indignantly denounced the policy of those unions “affiliated with the AFL, which in their constitution and by-laws prohibit the initiation of or conferring the obligation on a colored man.” He followed, in his speech at the public ratification meeting, with the declaration that the newly-launched organization “recognizes neither race, creed, color, sex or previous condition of servitude.” (Proceedings, p. 575.)
And he wound up with the prophetic suggestion that the American workers take the Russian path. He said he hoped to see the new movement “grow throughout this country until it takes in a great majority of the working people, and that those working people will rise in revolt against the capitalist system as the working class in Russia are doing today.” (Proceedings, p. 580.)
Debs said: “The supreme need of the hour is a sound, revolutionary working class organization…It must express the class struggle. It must recognize the class lines. It must, of course, be class conscious. It must be totally uncompromising. It must be an organization of the rank and file.” (Proceedings, pp. 144, 146.)
De Leon, for his part, said: “I have had but one foe—and that foe is the capitalist class…The ideal is the overthrow of the capitalist class.” ( i, pp. 147, 149.)
De Leon, the thinker, was already projecting his thought beyond the overthrow of capitalism to “the form of the governmental administration of the Republic of Labor.” In a post-convention speech at Minneapolis on “The Preamble of the IWW,” he said that the industries, “regardless of former political boundaries, will be the constituencies of that new central authority the rough scaffolding of which was raised last week in Chicago. Where the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World will sit, there will be the nation’s capital.” ( i, by Daniel De Leon.)
The speeches of the others, and the official statement adopted by the Convention in the Preamble to the Constitution, followed the same line. The Preamble began with the flat affirmation of the class struggle: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Following that it said: “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the workers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold” the industries of the country.
These were the most uncompromising, the most unambiguous declarations of revolutionary intention ever issued in this country up to that time. The goal of socialism had been previously envisioned by others. But at the Founding Convention of the IWW the idea that it was to be realized through a struggle for power, and that the power of the workers must be organized, was clearly formulated and nailed down.
The men of 1905 spoke truer than they knew, if only as anticipators of a historical work which still awaits its completion by others. Between that date of origin and the beginning of its decline after the First World War, the IWW wrote an inerasable record in action. But its place as a great progressive factor in American history is securely fixed by the brave and far-seeing pronouncements of its founding convention alone. The ideas were the seed of the action.
The IWW had its own forebears, for the revolutionary labor movement is an unbroken continuum. Behind the convention assembled in Chicago fifty years ago stood the Knights of Labor; the eight-hour movement led by the Haymarket martyrs; the great industrial union strike of the American Railway Union; the stormy battles of the Western Federation of Miners; and the two socialist political organizations—the old Socialist Labor Party and the newly-formed Socialist Party.
All these preceding endeavors were tributary to the first convention of the IWW, and were represented there by participants. Lucy Parsons, the widow and comrade-in-arms of the noble martyr [Albert Parsons], was a delegate, as was Mother Jones, the revered leader of the miners, the symbol of their hope and courage in trial and tribulation.
These earlier movements and struggles, rich and tragic experiences, had prepared the way for the Founding Convention of the IWW. But Debs was not far wrong when he said, in a speech a few months later: “The revolutionary movement of the working class will date from the year 1905, from the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World.” (Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, p. 226.)
An Organization of Revolutionists
The IWW set out to be an industrial union movement uniting all workers, regardless of any differences between them, on the simple proposition that all unions start with the defense of their immediate interests against the employers. As an industrial union, the IWW in its heyday led some memorable battles on the economic field, and set a pattern of organization and militant strike strategy for the later great struggles to build the CIO.
The CIO became possible only after and because the IWW had championed and popularized the program of industrial unionism in word and deed. That alone—the teaching and the example in the field of unionism—would be sufficient to establish the historical significance of the IWW as the initiator, the forerunner of the modern industrial unions, and thereby to justify a thousand times over all the effort and sacrifice put into it by so many people.
But the IWW was more than a union. It was also—at the same time—a revolutionary organization whose simple and powerful ideas inspired and activated the best young militants of its time, the flower of a radical generation. That, above all, is what clothes the name of the IWW in glory.
The true character of the IWW as a revolutionary organization was convincingly demonstrated in its first formative year, in the internal conflict which resulted in a split at its second convention. This split occurred over questions which are normally the concern of political parties rather than of unions. Charles O. Sherman, the first general president of the IWW, was an exponent of the industrial-union form of organization. But that apparently was as far as he wanted to go, and it wasn’t far enough for those who took the revolutionary pronouncements of the First Convention seriously. They were not satisfied with lip service to larger principles.
When the Second Convention of the IWW assembled in Chicago in September, 1906, Haywood was in jail in Idaho awaiting trial for his life; and Debs, never a man for factionalism, was standing aside. Vincent St. John, himself a prominent figure in the Western Federation of Miners, and a member of its delegation to the Second Convention of the IWW, came forward as the leader of the anti-Sherman forces, in alliance with De Leon.
As is customary in factional fights, all kinds of secondary charges were thrown about. But St. John stated the real issue motivating him and his supporters in his own invariably forthright manner. This resolute man was on the warpath at the Second Convention because, as he said:
“The administration of the IWW was in the hands of men who were not in accord with the revolutionary program of the organization…. The struggle for control of the organization formed the second convention into two camps. The majority vote of the convention was in the revolutionary camp. The reactionary camp, having the Chairman, used obstructive tactics in their effort to gain control of the convention…. The revolutionists cut this knot by abolishing the office of President and electing a chairman from among the revolutionists.” (The I.W.W: History, Structure and Method, by Vincent St. John.)
That action precipitated the split and consigned Sherman to a niche in history as a unique figure. He was the first, and is so far the only, union president on record to get dumped because he was not a revolutionist. There will be others, but Sherman’s name will live in history as the prototype.
This split at the Second Convention also resulted in the disaffiliation of the Western Federation of Miners [WFM], the only strongly organized union the IWW had had to start with. The other members of the WFM delegation, already turning to conservatism, supported Sherman in the split. But St. John, as was his nature and consistent practice, took his stand on principle.
Faced with a choice of affiliation between the widely advertised and well-heeled WFM, of which he was a paid officer, and the poverty-stricken, still obscure IWW, with its program and its principles, he unhesitatingly chose the latter. For him, as for all the others who counted in making IWW history, personal interests and questions of bread and butter unionism were secondary. The first allegiance was to revolutionary principle.
Sherman and his supporters, with the help of the police, seized the headquarters and held on to the funds of the organization, such as they were. St. John remarked that the newly elected officials “were obliged to begin work after the Second Convention without the equipment of so much as a postage stamp.” (Brissenden, p. 144.) The new administration under the leadership of St. John, who was thereafter to be the dominating influence in the organization for the next decade, had to start from scratch with very little in the way of tangible assets except the program and the ideal.
That, plus the indomitable spirit of Vincent St. John, proved to be enough to hold the shattered organization together. The Sherman faction, supported by the Western Federation of Miners, set up a rival organization. But it didn’t last long. The St. John wing prevailed in the post-convention conflict and proved itself to be the true IWW. But in the ensuing years it existed primarily, not as a mass industrial union of workers fighting for limited economic demands, but as a revolutionary organization proclaiming an all-out fight against the capitalist system.
As such, the IWW attracted a remarkable selection of young revolutionary militants to its banner. As a union, the organization led many strikes which swelled the membership momentarily. But after the strikes were over, whether won or lost, stable union organization was not maintained. After every strike, the membership settled down again to the die-hard cadre united on principle.
The Duality of the IWW
The IWW borrowed something from Marxism; quite a bit, in fact. Its two principal weapons—the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the workers must accomplish their own emancipation through their own organized power—came from this mighty arsenal. But for all that, the IWW was a genuinely indigenous product of its American environment, and its theory and practice ought to be considered against the background of the class struggle as it had developed up to that time in this country.
The experience of the American working class, which did not yet recognize itself as a distinct class, had been limited; and the generalizing thought, even of its best representatives, was correspondingly incomplete. The class struggle was active enough, but it had not yet developed beyond its primary stages. Conflicts had generally taken the form of localized guerrilla skirmishes, savagely conducted on both sides, between separate groups of workers and employers. The political power brought to bear on the side of the employers was mainly that of local authorities.
Federal troops had broken the ARU strike of the railroaders in ’94—“the Debs Rebellion,” as the hysterical press described it—and had also been called out against the metal miners in the West. But these were exceptional cases. The intervention of the federal government, as the executive committee of all the capitalists—the constant and predominant factor in capital-labor relations in modern times—was rarely seen in the local and sectional conflicts half a century ago. The workers generally made a distinction between local and federal authorities, in favor of the latter—as do the great majority, in a delayed hangover from earlier times, even to this day.
The all-embracing struggle of all the workers as a class, against the capitalist class as a whole, with political power in the nation as the necessary goal of the struggle, was not yet discernible to many when the IWW made its entrance in 1905. The pronouncements of the founders of the IWW, and all the subsequent actions proceeding from them, should be read in that light. The restricted and limited scope of the class struggle in America up to that time, from which their program was derived, makes their prevision of 50 years ago stand out as all the more remarkable.
In the situation of that time, with the class struggle of the workers still in its most elementary stages, and many of its complications and complexities not yet disclosed in action, the leaders of the IWW foresaw the revolutionary goal of the working class and aimed at one single, over-all formula for the organization of the struggle. Putting everything under one head, they undertook to build an organization which, as Vincent St. John, its chief leader and inspirer after the Second Convention, expressed it, would be “all-sufficient for the workers’ needs.” One Big Union would do it all. There was an appealing power in the simplicity of this formula, but also a weakness—a contradiction—which experience was to reveal.
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.
The IWW announced itself as an all-inclusive union; and any worker ready for organization on an everyday union basis was invited to join, regardless of his views and opinions on any other question. In a number of instances, in times of organization campaigns and strikes in separate localities, such all-inclusive membership was attained, if only for brief periods. But that did not prevent the IWW agitators from preaching the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in every strike meeting.
The strike meetings of the IWW were in truth “schools for socialism.” The immediate issues of the strike were the take-off point for an exposition of the principle of the class struggle, for a full-scale indictment of the capitalist system all up and down the line, and the projection of a new social order of the free and equal.
The professed “non-political” policy of the IWW doesn’t stand up very well against its actual record in action. The main burden of its energies was devoted to agitation and propaganda—in soap-box speeches, press, pamphlets and songbooks—against the existing social order; to defense campaigns in behalf of imprisoned workers; and to free-speech fights in numerous localities. All these activities were in the main, and in the proper meaning of the term, political.
The IWW at all times, even during strikes embracing masses of church-going, ordinarily conservative workers, acted as an organization of revolutionists. The “real IWWs,” the year-round activists, were nicknamed Wobblies—just when and why nobody knows—and the criterion of the Wobbly was his stand on the principle of the class struggle and its revolutionary goal; and his readiness to commit his whole life to it.
In truth, the IWW in its time of glory was neither a union nor a party in the full meaning of these terms, but something of both, with some parts missing. It was an uncompleted anticipation of a Bolshevik party, lacking its rounded-out theory, and a projection of the revolutionary industrial unions of the future, minus the necessary mass membership. It was the IWW.
Vincent St. John
The second split of the IWW, which broke off De Leon and SLP elements at the Fourth (1908) Convention, likewise occurred over a doctrinal question. The issue this time was “political action” or, more correctly, conflicting conceptions of working class action in the class struggle which—properly understood—is essentially political.
The real purpose of the split was to free the IWW from the Socialist Labor Party’s ultra-legalistic, narrowly restricted and doctrinaire conception of “political action” at the ballot box; and to clear the way for the St. John conception of overthrowing capitalism by the “direct action” of the organized workers. This, by a definition which was certainly arbitrary and inexact, was declared to be completely “non-political.”
In a negative gesture, the 1908 Convention merely threw the “political clause” out of the Preamble. Later, going overboard, the IWW explicitly disavowed “politics” altogether, and political parties along with it. The origin of this trend is commonly attributed to the influence of French syndicalism. That is erroneous; although the IWW later imported some phrasemongering anti-political radicalism from Europe, to its detriment. Brissenden is correct when he says:
“The main ideas of IWW-ism—certainly of the IWW-ism of the first few years after 1905—were of American origin, not French, as is commonly supposed. These sentiments were brewing in France, it is true, in the early nineties, but they were brewing also in this country and the American brew was essentially different from the French. It was only after 1908 that the syndicalisme révolutionnaire of France had any direct influence on the revolutionary industrial unionist movement here.” (Brissenden, p. 53.)
The IWW brand of syndicalism, which its proponents insisted on calling “industrialism,” never acknowledged French origination, and had no reason to. The IWW doctrine was sui generis, a native product of the American soil. And so was its chief author, Vincent St. John. St. John, as all the old-timers knew, was the man most responsible for shaping the character of the IWW in its heroic days. His public reputation was dimmed beside the glittering name of Bill Haywood, and this has misled the casual student of IWW history. But Vincent St. John was the organizer and leader of the cadres.
Haywood himself was a great man, worthy of his fame. He presided at the Founding Convention, and his magnificent utterances there have already been quoted in the introductory paragraphs of this article. The “Big Fellow” conducted himself as a hero of labor in his celebrated trial in Idaho, and again called himself thunderously to public attention in the great IWW strikes at Lawrence, Paterson and Akron. In 1914 he took over from St. John the office of General Secretary of the IWW, and thereafter stood at its head through all the storms of the war and the persecution. There is historical justice in the public identification of Bill Haywood’s name with that of the IWW, as its personification.
But in the years 1906-1914, the years when the character of the IWW was fixed, and its basic cadres assembled, it was Vincent St. John who led the movement and directed all its operations. The story of the IWW would not be complete and would not be true if this chapter were omitted.
St. John, like Haywood, was a miner, a self-educated man who had come up to national prominence the hard way, out of the violent class battles of the western mining war. If “The Saint,” as all his friends called him, borrowed something from the writings of others, and foreigners at that, he was scarcely aware of it. He was not a man of books; his school was his own experience and observation, and his creed was action.
He had learned what he knew, which was quite a lot, mainly from life and his dealings with people, and he drew his conclusions from that.
This empiricism was his strength and his weakness. As an executive leader in practical situations he was superb, full of ideas—“enough to patch hell a mile”—and ready for action to apply them. In action he favored the quick, drastic decision, the short cut. This propensity had yielded rich results in his work as a field leader of the Western Federation of Miners. He was widely renowned, in the western mining camps and his power was recognized by friend and foe. Brissenden quotes a typical report about him by a mine-owners’ detective agency in 1906:
“St. John has given the mine owners of the [Colorado mining] district more trouble in the past year than any twenty men up there. If left undisturbed he would have the entire district organized in another year.”
In dealing with people—“handling men,” as they used to say—Vincent St. John had no equal that I ever knew. He “sized up” men with a quick insight, compounded of simplicity and guile, spotting and sifting out the phonies and the dabblers—you had to be serious to get along with The Saint—and putting the others to work in his school of learning by doing, and getting the best out of them.
“Experience,” “decision” and “action” were the key words in St. John’s criteria. He thought a man was what he did. It was commonplace for him to pass approving judgment on an organizer with the remark, “He has had plenty of experience,” or “He’ll be all right when he gets more experience.” And once I heard him say, with a certain reservation, of another who was regarded as a comer in the organization: “He’s a good speaker, but I don’t know how much decision he has.” In his vocabulary “experience” meant tests under fire. “Decision” meant the capacity to think and act at the same time; to do what had to be done right off the bat, with no “philosophizing” or fooling around.
St. John’s positive qualities as a man of decision and action were contagious; like attracted like and he created an organization in his own image. He was not a back-slapper but a leader, with the reserve that befits a leader, and he didn’t win men by argument alone. In fact, he was a man of few words. The Saint lived his ideas and methods. He radiated sincerity and integrity, and unselfishness free from taint or ostentation. The air was clean in his presence.
The young men who fought under his command—a notable cadre in their time—swore by The Saint. They trusted him. They felt that he was their friend, that he cared for them and that they could always get a square deal from him, or a little better, as long as they were on the square with the organization. John S. Gambs, in his book, The Decline of the IWW, a postscript to Brissenden’s history, remarks: “I have heard it said that St. John, among outstanding leaders, was the best loved and most completely trusted official the IWW has ever had.” He heard it right.
The IWW, as it evolved under the influence of St. John, scornfully rejected the narrow concept of “political action” as limited to parliamentary procedures. St. John understood the class struggle as a ruthless struggle for power. Nothing less and no other way would do; he was as sure of that as Lenin was. He judged socialist “politics” and political parties by the two examples before his eyes—the Socialist Party bossed by Berger and Hillquit and the Socialist Labor Party of De Leon—and he didn’t like either of them.
That attitude was certainly right as far as it went. Berger was a small-bore socialist opportunist; and Hillquit, although slicker and more sophisticated, wasn’t much better. He merely supplied a little radical phraseology to shield the cruder Bergerism from the attacks of the left.
De Leon, of course, was far superior to these pretentious pygmies; he towered above them. But De Leon, with all his great merits and capacities; with his exemplary selflessness and his complete and unconditional dedication to the workers’ cause; with the enemies he made, for which he is entitled to our love and admiration—with all that, De Leon was sectarian in his tactics, and his conception of political action was rigidly formalistic, and rendered sterile by legalistic fetishism.
In my opinion, St. John was completely right in his hostility to Berger-Hillquit, and more than half right in his break with De Leon. His objections to the parliamentary reformism of Berger-Hillquit and the ultra-legalism of the SLP contained much that must now be recognized as sound and correct. The error was in the universal opposition, based on these poor and limited examples, to all “politics” and all political parties. The flaw in his conceptions was in their incompleteness, which left them open, first to exaggeration and then to a false turn.
St. John’s cultivated bent to learn from his own limited and localized experience and observations in life rather than from books, and to aim at simple solutions in direct action, deprived him of the benefits of a more comprehensive theory generalized by others from the world-wide experiences of the class struggle. And this was true in general of the IWW as a movement. Over-simplification placed some crippling limitations on its general conceptions which, in their eventual development, in situations that were far from simple, were to prove fatal for the IWW. But this took time. It took the First World War and the Russian Revolution to reveal in full scope the incompleteness of the governing thought of the IWW.