John Reed had long opposed Lenin and the Comintern’s position that Communists in the U.S. should work within the American Federation of Labor, instead advocating an orientation to the I.W.W. His position was defeated during the trade union discussion at the Second Congress of the Comintern. Here transcribed for the first time is John Reed’s substantial report and analysis on the I.W.W. to the Comintern conference held in July and August of 1920, just weeks before his death from typhus.
‘The Fighting I. W. W. in America’ by John Reed from Communist International. No. 13. May, 1921.
INDUSTRY in the United States is civil war. Almost every strike Is a battle, in which the workers are opposed by the whole machinery of the State, and also by private armies, equipped with rifles and machine guns and composed of hooligans. These armies can be hired by anyone with the necessary money, and they are licensed by the government. Moreover, their members are usually appointed deputy sheriffs by the chief justice of the county in which the strike occurs, thus making them a branch of the government.
The courts, the police, the special police (such as the State Constabularies of Pennsylvania and New York, which, established nominally for the policing of the rural districts, are in reality used entirely for the suppression of strikes) and the law officers of the State, county and city, are mobilised against any movement of the workers. Also the extra-legal forces of the capitalists—the Press, the churches, chambers of commerce, citizens’ committees, and even armed bourgeois bands, such as the organisations created during the war, ostensibly to protect the community from German spies, such as the National Security League, Knights of Liberty, American Defence, Society, and, since the war, the ‘‘ anti-Bolshevik ’’ organisations, such as the American Legion, composed chiefly of demobilised officers —all these come into action against the workers.
There are still less tangible enemies of the workers: the blacklist, which makes is impossible for an active striker again to find employment; the deliberate assembling in one industry of workers of many different nationalities and religions, and the incitement of racial and religious prejudices among them, such as lead to the massacres of negroes, and, most important of all, the maintenance of the craft union system of labour organisation and the open corruption of its leaders.
Although the State and local governments have always frankly assisted in the process of strikebreaking, the Federal government has, until the war, managed to create an impression of impartiality, in spite of such actions as that of President Cleveland, who, in 1894, sent the Federal troops to break the strike of the American Railway Union in Illinois.
But the war provided an excuse for direct government control of industry through the agency of the Council of National Defence which, made up of the great manufacturers and bankers, openly usurped the power. The end of the war released the capitalists from any sort of government supervision, but not Labour. For instance, the Lever Act, passed during the war to prevent the obstruction of food supplies, is now still in force, and is interpreted to forbid strikes in the food industry. The railroad strike of last autumn was met with the threat of armed force by the government. The coal strike was formally declared illegal by the Federal courts, and hundreds of active workers are now in jail for having disobeyed the injunction against leading or helping this strike. The Attorney General of the United States has issued a declaration to the effect that all strikes in industries ‘‘affecting the national welfare’’ are criminal acts. No worker any longer believes that the Federal government is “neutral” in labour disputes.
The worker in the United States who goes on strike takes his life and the lives of his family in his hands. Workers are murdered by gunmen with impunity, and the strike leaders are charged with murder. Such, for example, was the case of John Lawson, one of the leaders of the Colorado coal strike of 1913, who was accused of murder after the State militia had set fire to the strikers’ tent colony and burned many women and children to death; such was the case of Giovannitti and Ettor in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike of textile workers, where a militiaman shot a striker dead; of Carlo Tresca and others in the Mesaba Range iron miners’ strike, where a deputy sheriff shot one of the workers. . All over the United States today hundreds of men once active in strikes languish in jail, convicted of murders they never committed. Of the countless martyrs of the American Labour movement, here are a few:
The MacNamaras, Schmidt, and Kaplan, convicted of blowing up the office of The Los Angeles Times, the labour-hating paper.
Tom Mooney, shut up for life for the alleged throwing of a bomb in the militarist demonstration in San Francisco—a charge that has been proved absolutely false.
Ford and Suhr, life imprisonment for murder committed during the hop pickers’ strike—a murder really committed by deputy sheriffs.
Joe Hill, the I.W.W. organiser and poet, condemned and executed for a murder which he never committed.
Frank Little, member of the General Executive Board of the I.W.W., taken from his bed at night during the Butte copper miners’ strike and hanged by a gang of Copper Trust officials.
One hundred leaders of the I.W.W., convicted at Chicago in 1918 on the charge of obstructing war operations and sentenced to terms of from ten to twenty-five years at hard labour.
The list is endless. Savage imprisonments, lynchings, deportations, are the lot of workers in America who try to organise their class. Hundreds die of disease in prison; hundreds go mad; hundreds commit suicide. There are dreadful tortures in American gaols.
In the very forefront of Labour’s struggle against this overwhelming evil power the I.W.W. fights a guerilla warfare with all weapons, from guns to sabotage, propaganda, strikes, and open battles—outlaws and heroes, murdered and imprisoned by the hundreds, indestructible, singing their defiant, ironical songs.
As in all countries, the Labour movement in America had not kept pace with the formidable concentration of industry characteristic of the end of the nineteenth century. This was intensified in the United States after the Spanish-American war, which marked the formal emergence of America upon the world stage of capitalist imperialism, and was the beginning of the great era of monopolistic development. The American Trade Union movement, by which each industry was split into innumerable warring and competing craft unions, had not only proved inadequate to serve the workers in their daily struggle for bread, but did not correspond with the structure of industry.
The Industrial Workers of the World was founded at Chicago in 1905 at a convention called by a previous conference of a few Labour revolutionists. It is interesting to note that only two men declined invitation to this conference— Victor Berger, the Socialist Party leader and social-traitor, and Max Hayes, the Socialist Labour leader, afterward one of the chief reactionaries of the Trade Union movement.
At the convention were representatives of all the revolutionary and industrially formed unions of the time: the American Railway Union, Debs’ organisation, then of little consequence, since its crushing defeat in the strike of 1894, the American Labour Union, a loose, rather vague, ‘‘general” workers’ union from the West; the Brewery Workers’ Union, a powerful industrial organisation without much revolutionary spirit; the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance, Daniel De Leon’s vain attempt to create a rival organisation to the American Federation of Labour; some unions of the United Mine Workers, and most important of all, the Western Federation of Miners, who were the backbone and inspiration of the new organisation and out which came Haywood, St. John, Ryan, George Speed, Hazlewood, Frank Little.
The I.W.W. stood for industrial: unions, one union to include all the workers of various crafts in an industry, and all industrial unions to unite in a single organisation. This method of organisation was not only for the daily economic struggle of the workers, but was to be the weapon by which the workers should assume control of industry.
Daniel De Leon, leader of the Socialist Labour Party, formulated the theory of Industrial Unionism, leading up to the overthrow of the capitalist State and its substitution by an industrial administration based on the industrial unions.
“The Labour Union,’’ said De Leon, ‘‘ is the embryo of the future society.” And, describing the aims of the new organisation, he said, “where sits the General Board of the I.W.W., there will be the government of the world.’’
This revolution was to be accomplished by “action both in the political and industrial field.’ Another slogan of the I.W.W. was ‘‘To build the new society within the shell of the old.’’ In other words, to organise the workers in industrial unions, which would then exercise their power, probably by a general strike, upon which capitalist society would fly to pieces, and the industrial administration would take its place.
The chart of organisation of the industrial unions was drawn up by W.E. Trautmann, of the Brewery Workers. ‘The preamble to the constitution, one of the clearest definitions of the class struggle ever written, was composed by T.J. Haggerty, a former Catholic priest: “Between the two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system…”
This was at the time when the American Federation of Labour—through the mouth of John Mitchell—was advocating that the interests of Capital and Labour were identical—or at least ‘reciprocal.’
It is noticeable that the impulse to form the I.W.W. came, not from the highly-developed old capitalist East, but from the new country of the West. This is generally true, moreover, of all revolutionary labour movements in the United States. The class struggle is much more bitter in the West than in the East; the I.W.W. is stronger in the West than in the East; and the A.F. of L. is stronger in the East.
This is due to several circumstances peculiar to industrial development in the United States.
To think of the American West as a ‘‘new”’ country is to get a false impression. The capitalism which is exploiting the West is an old capitalism, wise from long experience in the old-settled East, wise and cruel. The nature of Western capitalist enterprises—mines, railroads, forests, cattle-ranches and vast agricultural developments, all in a thinly-settled country, far from educated Liberalism and the humanitarian cant of crowded cities, made it possible to conduct the class war openly, crudely, And in these far regions, more or less out of the public eye, capitalist development went on unhindered; gigantic trusts sprang up, whose headquarters were in the East, but who fastened ruthlessly on the West, looting the national resources, stealing the public lands, arming themselves with armies of gunmen, with closed towns (whole cities built on company property, owned by the company and surrounded by a stockade or wall).
It is erroneous to think of the West as capitalistically immature; the mining regions, the great wheat farms, the lumber industry, and the railroads are capitalist enterprises developed to the highest point.
And the workers, too, are not “raw” Labour, but real proletarians, most of whom have come from the East within two generations. Foreign immigrant labour in the East long ago drove the American unskilled workers West. But, more significant still, the native rebels and militants of the Labour movement, who could be easily blacklisted and driven out of the Eastern industrial centres, went West, and under different names entered the harvest fields, the mines, and the forests. In the East the American workers are the skilled or semi-skilled aristocracy of Labour superior to unskilled foreign immigrants. In the West the bulk of the workers are either Americans, or immigrants who have worked and lived among Americans instead of in immigrant colonies.
This does not mean, however, that the I.W.W. is a nationalistic organisation. Indeed, quite the contrary. The I.W.W. is the only Labour organisation which organises the unskilled foreigners. It has more immigrant members than any other Labour Union. It makes no distinction of race or colour. It maintains an immense Press, publishing periodicals and pamphlets in at least a dozen languages. But it was formed, and is directed, by the revolutionary American workers; it is a real expression of the native American working class.
These workers, most of them moving with the seasons or according to the conditions of employment from place to place, men without votes, without homes, without families, the most revolutionary elements of the Labour movement; bitter from long injustice, hardened in battle, without a trace of nationalistic or racial prejudices, are bound together for the purpose of overthrowing the capitalist system.
That their experience with treacherous leaders, with politicians, has made them distrust leaders in general and reject all activity in the capitalist political machinery; that the American tradition and the conditions of their life have maintained in them a strong individualism, an instinct to keep authority in the hands of the masses, to oppose centralisation—all these facts do not alter the truth that the rank and file of the I.W.W. is the best revolutionary material in America.
The I.W.W.’s first three years was a period of rapid growth, of strikes—some won, more lost, but all characterised by new tactics of mass action and drawing into the open class struggle of new, wide strata of workers—the unskilled and the immigrants. In 1907 was the great Goldfield strike, tying up an entire city—the first important general strike in America. In the same year occurred the steel strike at McKee’s Rocks. This was the I.W.W.’s first attempt in the East, and the first attempt to organise the foreign-born workers and to bring out from the factories people of many different races and languages. The American Federation of Labour, by this time, had been driven out of the steel industry. But the I.W.W., although bitterly fought by the A.F. of L., was not trying to compete with the craft unions; the I.W.W. organised these workers which the A.F. of L. refused to touch, the foreign immigrants. Moreover, the I.W.W. made and makes no distinction between members, organised or unorganised workers during a strike; all workers are regarded as proletarians, as brothers-in-arms in the class war.
The McKee’s Rocks strike was the first big strike in America conducted on an industrial basis; the first strike in which foreigners were held together. It was met by the concentrated ferocity of the Steel Trust, supported by the Pennsylvania State Constabulary, who massacred the workers with guns. But the I.W.W. leaders replied, “For every striker killed we will kill three State police,” and this threat was carried out. Although the strike was lost, it had an immense effect in awakening the workers all over the country. Here the I.W.W. proclaimed dramatically its conviction that the semi-skilled and unskilled workers were just as important as the skilled.
But there was an internal struggle going on within the organisation—the issue of “industrial” versus “political,” that is to say, parliamentary, action. This came to a head at the convention of 1908, when the phrase in the constitution advocating the unity of the workers on the “political” as well as the industrial field, was stricken from the constitution. Daniel De Leon was driven from the convention, the credentials committee refusing to seat him. At this convention the fundamental I.W.W. doctrine of overthrowing capitalism through the seizure of the industries by the organised workers took definite shape.
But at no time did the I.W.W. ever expressly condemn “political action”; always there have been many members of the I.W.W. who were active members of political parties—among them Haywood, who was in 1912 a member of the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party.
It remained for the Socialist Party finally to drive the I.W.W. into the industrial camp, by repudiating, in 1912, industrial unions and extra-parliamentary action as a means of overthrowing capitalism. Again and again the Socialist Party rejected resolutions endorsing the I.W.W. and industrial unionism. It supported the A.F. of L. and craft unionism, with the pro- gram of capturing these unions by electing Socialists as their officials—a policy which led to L…
After the victory of the Industrialists many elements left the I.W.W., De Leon continued with his followers as the I.W.W. (Detroit faction) which stood for the original principles of the organisation, and which, growing weaker and ever smaller and smaller, finally became the Workers’ International Industrial Union, an organisation of small importance in the Labour movement. Debs became identified with the Socialist Party. The right wing in the Western Federation of Miners, led by Moyer, withdrew the support of that organisation in the following year, and finally joined the A.F. of L., although the best elements of the miners remained in the I.W.W., which the capture of the Socialist Party by the A.F. of today practically controls the metal mining industry.
This split was a severe blow to the I.W.W., but many new figures arose in the organisation, such as Vincent St. John, for many years general secretary, and Joe Ettor, the Italian, strike leader and organiser.
For the next two years the I.W.W. conducted no important strikes. But, meantime, it had become active in a new way—the “free speech fight.” This is an institution unknown in other countries. An I.W.W. organiser would be arrested for speaking on the street. He would telegraph to the I.W.W. locals round about, the news would spread, and from every part of the country, riding on the top of freight trains, the “fellow workers” would gather in thousands, pouring in upon the doomed city like a barbarian invasion.
There they would proceed to speak on the street, a new speaker arising as soon as his predecessor was arrested and others waiting to take his place. Offering no violence they would continue to speak and be arrested, filling up the jails and ever coming and coming, until the authorities were helpless, and would have to surrender. Then, having won their point and established “free speech,” the I.W.W.’s would melt away as quickly as they had come, most likely bound to another “free speech fight” two thousand miles away.
This singular guerilla warfare lasted from 1907, when occurred the first “free speech fight” at Spokane, Washington, until 1917. There were hundreds of such battles—in Missoula, Montana; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Kansas City, Sioux City, St. Louis, Tacoma, indeed, in almost all Western cities. All over the West the mere news that the I.W.W. was coming terrified a city into tolerance. But these fights were not bloodless; men were beaten in gaol until they died; in San Diego the police, firemen, and bourgeois volunteers crippled scores of I.W.W.’s, killed a few, and burned others with hot irons. And in the last “free speech fight,” at Everett, Washington, when the I.W.W. was organising the lumber workers, the sheriff and a band of Lumber Trust gunmen opened fire upon a steamboat full of I.W.W.’s who were approaching the city, and killed five of them, wounding others, and charging the rest with murder…
In 1911 the I.W.W. led a great strike-struggle in the lumber camps of the South. This region, the Louisiana forests, is exploited under a despotic régime, where, in the closed towns (communities owned entirely by the company, surrounded by walls and guarded by men with rifles), the miserable workers, whites and Negroes together, lead a life of terrorised poverty. It was open warfare with guns; many workers were killed, and thirty-seven were tried for murder. The strike was totally lost, the organisation in the Southern forests completely smashed. But it was the first time in any big strike that whites and Negroes acted together against the employers…
In 1912 the miserably underpaid, starving workers of the textile industry in Lawrence. Massachusetts went on strike and called the I.W.W. to lead them. The A.F. of L. Union immediately offered its services to the police to assist in driving the I.W.W. from the city. In the Lawrence strike thirty-one nationalities were made to act as one man. Organisers went over all New England, crippling the entire industry. Dramatic episodes occurred, carefully arranged by the I.W.W., such as sending the starving children of the strikers to Boston and New York. The publicity thus aroused by the methods of the strikers spread all over the country, creating public sympathy for the strikers, and the workers of the entire nation became interested in the whirlwind mass tactics of the I.W.W. The strikers won a brilliant victory, gaining the greatest wage increase ever won by a strike in America.
The following year came the Paterson silk strike, on the same great scale. But this time the employers were ready. After holding out for seven months, the twenty-five thousand strikers were starved back to work; but the solidarity of workers of many different nationalities had been demonstrated. Also the power of the I.W.W. mass tactics.
The characteristics of an I.W.W. strike are these: The workers are discontented; they are either unorganised, or their union will not support their demands. A spontaneous strike movement occurs, the I.W.W. is called in to take charge. Union or non-union, it makes no difference to the I.W.W., whose aim is to completely tie up the industry. Other workers are called out in sympathy. The mass is kept constantly stirred up, with speeches, demonstrations and mass picketing, leading to collisions with the police. Meanwhile, the leaders educate the strikers in a revolutionary way, preaching the necessity for the overthrow of capitalism, advocating the “perpetual strike”; that is to say, “This is not a strike for wages. When we have won this strike we shall strike again and again and again, until the capitalists are finally ruined and the workers will take over industry.”
The I.W.W. does not believe in accumulating strike funds and planning action beforehand. No contract or agreements must be signed with the employers; the working class must be free to strike whenever the opportunity comes.
But in spite of great strikes, many of them victorious, the I.W.W. was unable to keep up an organisation in the Eastern industries.
Within six months after the victorious Lawrence strike, for example, the I.W.W. organisation had disappeared. The same in Paterson. From all the assaults upon the factory industries, from all the great strikes in the East, there is only a skeleton of organisation left to tell the tale, Why is this? Is it a defect of organisation? Is the I.W.W. unadapted to organisation of the factory proletariat? Is it perhaps because the I.W.W. is an organisation built to fight and not to construct a permanent organisation? The capitalists bitterly hate and fear this army of implacable trouble-makers, bent upon their destruction, who refuse to sign any truce in the class war. Ina settled industrial community it is comparatively easy to destroy such an organisation, to discharge and blacklist all its members. And then, too, I.W.W. strikes are generally fought with masses of uneducated workers, who, when they are not exalted by the contagion of the mass movement, relapse into their former apathy…
In the 1912 convention arose a new crisis, long brewing in the I.W.W.—the struggle between centralisation and decentralisation. This came just as the organisation was recovering from the effects of the 1908 split between the “industrialists” and the “political actionists,” and the fight between the two factions almost tore the I.W.W, to pieces.
The individualism of the Western members, scattered over wide spaces of country, distrustful of distant authority, was reinforced by the entrance into the organisation of large numbers of Anarchists and by the spreading of Syndicalist ideas in America. The decentralisers wanted to abolish General Headquarters, to establish a system of loosely-federated local unions, on the ground that the workers in the localities alone understood local conditions, and locally to publish their own papers, to raise and spend their own funds, etc.
This policy had such a disastrous effect that hundreds of the best, most experienced members of the organisation were disgusted, and the big Industrial Unions received a severe setback. In the convention, however, the “decentralisers” were defeated, after a hard battle; thousands of them left the I.W.W., and did not return until the period of great battles which preceded the war.
The convention of 1919, held when the best and most active members, the leaders and organisers, were all in prison, again gave the victory to the “decentralisers”; but the decisions of this convention were practically ignored, and the “decentralisers” are now in a minority.
It was the 1916 convention which finally elaborated the form and structure of the I.W.W. as it exists today.
The I.W.W. is made up of unions organised on the base of the industries, every worker in a certain industry, whatever his craft or trade, being a member of the union of that industry.
In addition to the General Recruiting Union, which enrolls and distributes new members among the Industrial Unions, and also unites workers in whose industry no union yet exists, there are now seventeen Industrial Unions in the I.W.W.:
Metal Mine Workers. Construction Workers. Agricultural Workers. Textile Workers. *Marine Transport Workers. Ship Builders. Railroad Workers. Coal Miners. Printing and Publishing Workers. Hotel, Restaurant and Domestic Workers. Rubber Workers. Oil (Petroleum) Workers. Furniture Workers. Automobile Workers. Fishery Workers. Metal and Machinery Workers.
The dues-paying membership of the I.W.W., which fluctuates greatly from year to year, amounts now to about 125,000. The membership figures of the different unions, however, total double that. This is due to the seasonal nature of the work done by the majority of the I.W.W. members. For example, the Agricultural Workers and the Lumber Workers, the two most powerful unions in the organisation, have a membership of about 45,000 each. But this membership is largely the same for both unions; the same men who work in the harvest fields during the summer go into the woods in winter. So, also, with the oil workers, who become to a large extent agricultural workers during the summer, as do many I.W.W.’s in the city industries.
In the old days the I.W.W. loose form of organisation. Local Industrial Unions acted autonomously. In order to call a general strike of the industry a referendum among the Local Unions was necessary. Local Unions practically conducted their business to suit themselves, assessed their own dues, etc.
At the present time Local Unions no longer exist. Instead there are branches of the Indus- trial Unions, whose headquarters are all centralised in General Headquarters at Chicago—all, that is, except the Metal Mine Workers, whose executive Is in Butte, Montana. All branches must do business through headquarters. Branches can strike in their localities, but a general strike of the industry can only be called by the Industrial Council, which contains representatives of each Branch in the industry, and is its governing body. The members of the Industrial Council are also organisers, always in close touch with the workers.
In each district there is a District Council, made up of representatives of Branches of all industries in the district, which can call a general strike of all industries in the district.
The central organ of the I.W.W. is the General Executive Board, composed of five members nominated by the convention and elected by referendum. Between conventions the General Executive Board is supreme. It can call a strike of any industry, or of all industries. If one industry is on strike it can order another out to help it. The members of the General Executive Board are general organisers and must travel over the country, organising and leading strikes.
But in the I.W.W. no official has any power during a strike. The Strike Committee elected by the rank and file is supreme. Nor can any official, or even the Strike Committee, settle a strike. This must be done by a majority vote of the strikers alone.
However, although in theory the I.W.W. is now a centralised organisation, in practice this is far from true. The big Industrial Unions are still jealous of their autonomy; they still control the use of their own funds and manage their own affairs. The General Executive Board is very chary of exercising the authority granted to it by the constitution, and only rarely interferes with the Industrial Unions. But it is in the I.W.W. press that this looseness is the most evident; the I.W.W. papers often contradict each other in different sections of the country, and they are under no control, apparently, of the General Executive Board.
After all, the I.W.W. is not so much a regular Labour Union as a propaganda committee. Every year thousands of workers enter its ranks, and every year thousands leave it. But the I.W.W.’s insinuate themselves everywhere, in all craft unions, in all factories, eternally preaching and arguing for industrial unionism and workers’ control of industry. When, as is happening in America at present, the old craft unions are smashed by the revolt of the workers against their corrupt leaders and the intolerable narrowness of their organisations, the rebels do not enter the I.W.W., which has the reputation of being “too revolutionary.” But the new insurgent Labour organisations which spring up are indelibly stamped with the mark of the I.W.W. Such, for example, is the Canadian One Big Union.
As an organisation the I.W.W. will never be able to gain the majority of the workers, or to control the economic life of the nation. But as a propaganda centre, as a destructive and revolutionary force, it is one of the chief agents in wrecking the great American Federation of Labour, in reaching and making class conscious vast proletarian masses, and for fifteen years it has held aloft with unflinching heroism the ideal of the overthrow of capitalism, an example to the workers everywhere.
The European war came at a time when the I.W.W. had recovered from the “decentralization” fight, and was everywhere—in the coal- fields, on railroads, in the steel industry, among the sailors—-making rapid headway. The dockers were organised in 1913, and today the I.W.W. controls the Port of Philadelphia. In 1914-15 the Agricultural Workers’ Union was launched; in 1915, the Lumber Workers’ Union was started.
As early as 1912-13 scattered attempts had been made by the Local Unions to organise the vast throngs of migratory workers who pour into the harvest fields in summer. Each local union being practically autonomous at that time, with its own organisers and its own rate of dues, the organisation campaign was feeble. Frank Little, member of the General Executive Board, afterward murdered by the copper mine operators in Butte, originated the plan of centralised operations, which was afterward carried out. In 1915 a conference of representatives of the Western Local Unions was held in Kansas City, the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union was launched, central headquarters established, uniform dues fixed and organisers sent out. The leaders in the fight were the men just released from prison after the Sioux City “free speech fight”—the dare-devils and fighting men of the I.W.W.
It was a task for warriors. Nothing like the conditions in the harvest fields of America exists in any other country in the world. The harvest begins in the southern State of Texas in the summer and with the advancing season a mighty wave of thousands of workers moves north through the great producing Middle States, across the Canadian frontier and up into the immense wheat plains of Manitoba. These migratory workers who reap the harvests come into the fields with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They live on the country as they go, travelling vagabond-like on freight trains or under the cars, begging their food or expropriating it from the farmer’s vegetable patches and fruit orchards, living in “jungles,” some spot in a field or a patch of woods where they lie out under the sky and share their worldly goods together.
They are a rough lot—mostly migratory unskilled workers, who have been the prey of every exploiter, who have grown bitter and violent under the terrible lash of American capitalism; they have no nationalist or racial prejudices; they are without fear, having incessantly to battle with the railroad men, who try to keep them off the freight trains; with the police and local authorities, who persecute them as out- laws, and with the farmers, who exploit them. They have no property, no family, no votes….
This was the mass which the I.W.W. set out to organise and to revolutionise. The struggle took on the character and the proportions of a vast, bloody, civil war. The farmers, themselves ground between the’ banks and the workers, mobilised the entire machinery of the State, legal and extra-legal, against the I.W.W. Organisers and members were imprisoned by the thousands, crippled, wounded, and killed. Outlaws, with all other classes up in arms against them, the I.W.W. carried on their campaign, in the first year enrolling fifteen thousand members. They were armed; in answer to the organised violence of the farmers, mysterious fires destroyed miles of growing wheat, mysterious accidents ruined incalculable quantities of farming machinery. It was war; everything was fair, from open battles with guns to sabotage…
Even at the period of the most terrible repression against the I.W.W.—during the war —the Agricultural Workers’ Union continued to grow and fight. And every year the same bloody drama takes place…
In 1915, when the harvest season was over, many fanatical I.W.W.’s went into the lumber camps of the Northwest and began an agitation among the forest workers, who lived in horrible conditions, exploited to the limit of endurance, like beasts. The Everett “free speech fight,” in which many I.W.W.’s were shot, grew out of the attempt of the Lumber Trust to stop the organisation campaign of the I.W.W. among the timber workers.
In1917, just at the time that the United States Government desperately needed every inch of timber for war purposes, the Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union felt itself strong enough to call a strike, one of the most bitterly and violently fought in the history of American Labour. The Lumber Trust imported hired gunmen, who murdered right and left; it sent spies into the organisation, produced false evidence to convict active workers of opposing the war; it evoked the deportation laws, and shipped hundreds of foreign-born workers out of the country, or held them in prison for years without trial. Backed by the threat of the Agricultural Workers to strike, and thus ruin the entire wheat harvest, the Lumber Workers employed the intermittent strike, the “strike on the job,” and fought back. The Lumber Trust finally surrendered, leaving the I.W.W. in control of the forests.
Never was there such a strike victory won in the United States. From $40 a month wages jumped to $5 a day; from living conditions unfit for beasts the workers were given electric lights, shower baths, clean bedding and good food; from ten and twelve hours their work-day fell to eight hours…
In 1916 came the Mesaba Range strike, the strike of the iron miners, in which once more the I.W.W. defied the Steel Trust. After a long, dramatic fight which lasted many months, organising and pulling out twenty-five thousand unorganised workers of many nationalities, in the face of the gigantic and ruthless forces of the Steel Trust and the government combined, the strikers won a large part of their demands.
In 1917 the copper miners of the West went out, striking in the two great centres—Montana und Arizona. The Copper Trust turned loose its gunmen, its courts, its Press. The United States was then at war, and under the plea of patriotism outrages unknown before were practised. This was the occasion when Frank Little was dragged from his hotel bedroom by a band of assassins and murdered. In Bisbee, Arizona, the local bourgeoisie and the Copper Trust officials hunted the strikers and their sympathisers out of their homes, tore them from their families, and at the point of a gun forced them into a train of cattle cars and sent them into the desert to starve to death, from which fate they were temporarily saved by the Government, which however, has never taken any serious action against those responsible for this crime…
There were other strikes led by the I.W.W.; for example, that of the Rubber Workers’, which show the same indomitable courage on the part of the I.W.W., and the same savage repression by the capitalists…
This repression grew ever more savage as the United States drifted closer and closer to the whirlpool of war. The entrance of America into the conflict, and the vesting of the great corporations with complete control over the State, let loose the full force of the storm upon the I.W.W. as upon no other organisation in the United States.
True to its tradition of being a non-political body, the I.W.W. officially took no attitude toward the war. Indeed, later, when on trial for obstructing the war, some of the I.W.W. leaders actually attempted to demonstrate that the I.W.W. was a more patriotic organisation than the A. F. of L.
Not so the rank and file of the ILW.W., however. These young, fearless fighters, unprepared, undirected, without a plan, instinctively opposed the capitalist war. The I.W.W. Press denounced it unanimously, and thousands of members did not register for military conscription at all. It is calculated that there were between twenty and thirty thousand I.W.W.’s in prison on account of their opposition to the war.
But the American bourgeoisie saw also in the war its opportunity to destroy the I.W.W. forever. No sooner was war declared than State after State began to pass “criminal syndicalist” laws, statutes aimed at making the I.W.W. an outlaw organisation, punishing by heavy penalties anyone advocating the “overthrow of established government” or the “unlawful destruction of property,” in which last clause, of course, can be included everything from the income tax to sabotage (sabotage, by the way, was officially repudiated by the 1918 convention of the I.W.W.). The new immigration law, too, which provided for deportation of any foreigner without trial, merely upon the opinion of the Immigration Inspector, who is almost always in the pay of some great corporation, was used to round up and ship to the seaboard, with revolting cruelty, hundreds of active militants.
But the capitalists’ main support was the Espionage Act, which was presumably designed to catch and punish German agents, but under which only a dozen or so Germans were punished, while thousands of American proletariats rot in jail to this day. On the charge of “obstructing the war,” the I.W.W. was decapitated. One and hundred and ten of its best men, all its well-known leaders, editors, speakers, organisers, were arrested under this law, and after being kept in prison almost a year, were tried and sentenced to terms ranging from ten to twenty years. In Wichita, Kansas, the centre of the Agricultural Workers’ territory, thirty-five more I.W.W. members were arrested under the same law; three indictments were drawn against them and all dismissed by the judge; one was finally found to fit the probabilities, and the men, after being held two years without trial (several went insane, one committed suicide) were sentenced to prison for terms up to seventeen years. In Sacramento, California, forty-three I.W.W.’s were rounded up, held for a year in prison until some charge could be invented against them, and then charged with “obstructing the war,” the evidence being mostly concerned with events which had happened while the men were in jail! In this trial was employed “the silent defence.” The prisoners did not employ a lawyer, and refused to testify or to speak at all. These are only samples…
But the worst of all was the hideous mob violence of war-maddened bourgeoisie and their hired gunmen. These raided I.W.W. headquarters, killed some members, tortured others, wiped out every trace of the organisation they could find. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the centre of the Oil Workers’ district, the Oil Trust hirelings tarred and feathered every I.W.W. in town, because the I.W.W. organisation refused to contribute to the buying of an enormous American flag and refused to march in a “loyalty parade.” Then came the Everett massacre, and last autumn the Centralia massacre, also committed by the Lumber Trust gangsters. A parade of war veterans was being held to celebrate Victory Day, when a shot was fired, apparently coming from the window of the I.W.W. headquarters. This is, of course, a very common trick of American provocators. The shot was a signal for the mob to storm the hall, wreck the place, kill two or three unarmed young men, and send the rest to trial for murder…
And the end of the terror is not yet.
The sudden blast of persecution would have totally destroyed an organisation less tough than the I.W.W. With all its leaders gone, its best men locked up in prison, its Press almost destroyed, its headquarters banished from most cities, the very organisation a crime in many States, few persons expected that it would weather the storm. But it has not only lasted up to now, but grown. The I.W.W. is larger than it was before the war, they say.
However, all this has not been without a bad effect. With the experienced fighters all gone, with the best thinkers shut away from contact with the world, with the organisation in the hands of younger, greener men, the I.W.W., always more or less vague about the details of its revolutionary program, has grown vaguer, looser, less definite.
The speakers, the editors, the writers who have remained active are mostly older men, of fixed ideas—men who have learned nothing by the war, or by the Russian Revolution—men who still think, even now, that it is possible to “build the new society within the shell of the old,” who still think that industrial action alone will overthrow capitalism, and make way immediately for the administration of the world by Labour Unions; men who reject the dictatorship of the proletariat, who do not realise that this is a revolutionary period.
A phrase from the resolution adopted by the1919 convention will demonstrate my meaning; a statement which shows that in the mind of the persons who wrote it there was no conception of any transitional period between capitalism and Communism:
We hereby reaffirm our adherence to the cause of the International Proletariat, and reassert our profound conviction that the program of Industrial Unionism not only furnishes a method of successful resistance against the aggressions of a rabid master class, but provides a bas‘s for the reconstruction of society when capitalism shall have collapsed.
The rank and file, however, is by no means so dogmatic. The average I.W.W.—the Western I.W.W., who is the real I.W.W.—does not think very clearly about the revolution, and does not think at all of what will immediately follow the seizure of State power. State power must be destroyed utterly, he says; usually he will tell you that the general strike will do it. The new society will have no State, only an industrial administration.
But all this is not real to him. Actually he cannot form a picture of the revolution. If questioned, he will, of course, agree that the bourgeoisie must be suppressed by force; in fact, being a man of experience in strikes and mass movements, he knows the value of centralisation, and advocates the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority.
But mention the words “politics” or “political party,” and he is off. He has never heard of a revolutionary political party. “Politics” means to him only the shabby tricks of politicians. He cannot conceive of revolutionary parliamentarism, and he does not know the true meaning, in the Marxian sense, of “political.” He will say, as one of them said to me just before I left America, “I’m a Bolshevik, but am not a Communist. A Communist is a member of a political party…”
He is wholeheartedly in favour of the Russian Soviet Republic so long as he thinks that the Soviets are Labour Union district councils administering industry. But when he hears that the Communist Party is supreme in Russia, he looks disappointed, and mutters, “politicians!” It is hard to make him understand that the revolutionary political party which leads the revolution is not made up of intellectuals, but is composed of the revolutionary minority of workers who also function in the Labour Unions…
But it is not surprising that he does not know, when the I.W.W. “intellectuals” and theoreticians repeat in the I.W.W. Press old, outworn or foolish formulae; such as Justus Ebert, who used to know Marx, but now continues to speak of “building the new society within the old”— as if the old society were going to last forever; or John Sandgren, who solemnly explains that the Bolshevik Revolution merely gave the Russian people the vote.
The fact is, the I.W.W. has been so busy fighting the class war at home that it is singularly badly informed about the world Labour movement—as are many other less revolutionary and less active organisations in America. And being a body composed of fighting men, with a really revolutionary temperament, and having gone through bitter persecution, such as perhaps no other group of men in the world have suffered, except the Russian Revolutionists, the I.W.W. members have a sort of fierce love for their organisation, a sort of sensitive patriotism which resents any criticism implying that even the doctrines of John Sandgren are not revolutionary…
But if these men can be reached, if the position of the Communists can be explained to them in their own language, their native common sense will show them that we are right. And this must be done, for the I.W.W. is the advance guard of the American proletariat, and it is they who must lead the assault on capitalism in America.
The ECCI published the magazine ‘Communist International’ edited by Zinoviev and Karl Radek from 1919 until 1926 irregularly in German, French, Russian, and English. Unlike, Inprecorr, CI contained long-form articles by the leading figures of the International as well as proceedings, statements, and notices of the Comintern. No complete run of Communist International is available in English. Both were largely published outside of Soviet territory, with Communist International printed in London, to facilitate distribution and both were major contributors to the Communist press in the U.S. Communist International and Inprecorr are an invaluable English-language source on the history of the Communist International and its sections.
PDF of full issue: https://archive.org/download/communist-international-no.-1-17-1919-may-1921/Communist%20international%20no%2011-13%201920.pdf