In June 1905, the American workers’ movement took a huge leap forward, with the establishment of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago.
Its roots lay in the militancy of mine workers in the mid-western states, where for a decade the Western Federation of Miners had been fighting intense class battles with the employers, uniting skilled and unskilled workers and relying on workers’ own strength and solidarity to defeat the bosses.
The need for an organisation like the IWW (known commonly as the “Wobblies”), emphasising class struggle and solidarity, and organising the unorganised, black workers, immigrants and women, was provided by the severe shortcomings of the existing American Federation of Labour (AFL).
The AFL’s high dues and initiation fees put membership out of reach for many workers. Dubbed the “American Separation of Labour” by the Wobblies, it was a craft union, concerned with protecting the narrow interests of particular skilled workers in a given industry, even if it was to the detriment to workers in the industry as a whole. In taking a reactionary approach to immigration, scaremongering about the “yellow peril” and calling for immigration controls, the AFL put the interests of settled white workers ahead of the unity of the working-class. This approach excluded huge swathes of the American working-class. Between 1860 and 1900, the population of the USA grew from around 31 million to 76 million, including 14 million immigrants. Irish were the largest group, and their families constituted the majority of the population in many northern industrial cities.
The IWW, by contrast, organised immigrant workers and set about creating “an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.”
The AFL prided itself more on its benefit funds than its capacity to fight the bosses, and its president Samuel Gompers and its officials co-operated with the National Civic Federation, bringing trade unions and industrialists such as J P Morgan together “to settle disputes between capital and labour.”
In response, the socialist Daniel De Leon had exposed AFL class collaboration and involvement in strike-breaking, denouncing union officials of this type as “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
This view was shared by the IWW, which stated in its Preamble that: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth…
“…Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system’.”
As the delegates met in Chicago at the founding convention of the IWW, the revolutionary strike wave in Russia was growing, and reverberated in the hall. The revolutionary labour organiser Lucy Parsons told the delegates that: “You men and women should be imbued with the spirit that is now displayed in far-off Russia and far-off Siberia where we thought the spark of manhood and womanhood had been crushed.... Let us take example from them.”
Due to the politically raw nature of many IWW members, existing political organisations such as the SLP and the left-wing of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) around Eugene V Debs did much to set the political character of the union. De Leon was elected to its executive at the first conference and was a dominant figure for the next three years.
De Leon now envisaged workers gradually building up their strength inside capitalism, as the bourgeoisie had done under feudalism. As the IWW Preamble stated, by “organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
This social power would be measured by the workers “raising the political temperature” at the ballot box, backed up by industrial union. In response to capitalist resistance, the workers would, “in possession of the might conferred and implied by the industrial organisation of their class… forthwith lock out the capitalist class.”
For Connolly, De Leon’s ideas on industrial unionism, as W K Anderson writes, “offered both a concrete structure and an ideology which provided a logical extension of his own, much more tentative thoughts on organised labour and revolution.” and helped Connolly “focus his own radical but somewhat unconnected ideas on craft unionism, workers’ control of industry and the shape of socialist society.”
Moreover, the IWW offered Connolly scope for the sort of work he loved the most, organising with workers and devising strategies to overcome the employers.
Connolly’s politics in this period can accurately be described as semi-syndicalist, and as W K Anderson noted, his syndicalism “is best understood within the context of his aggressive, class-based hatred of capitalist society.”
In the early part of the twentieth century, syndicalism was in part a reaction to the failure of both conservative craft unions and the Second International combination of Marxist propaganda and gradualist electoral methods to resist workers’ falling living standards.
For many workers, a more radical and combative stand was what was required, stressing class struggle in the very engine room of capitalist production — the work-place. On the positive side, this emphasis on work-place class struggle was lively and democratic, resting on workers’ self-organisation from below to produce the future socialist society.
Yet the syndicalist rejection of the existing socialist parties could be one-sided. In France, for instance, the syndicalist trend was embodied formation of the CGT in 1902. It took a distinctly anti-political line, accepting the Marxian class critique of capitalism but rejecting not only the orthodox state socialism of the French socialist parties but what syndicalist leader Emile Pouget called the “virus of politics” in general.
The IWW was divided on the question of “political action”. The original IWW constitution contained a political clause, pledging the union to fight for workers’ interests economically but also at the ballot box.
Connolly became an IWW organiser in New York, drawing him into activity with left-winger members of the SPA, and hoped that the IWW would launch “its own political party [that will] put an end to all excuse for two Socialist parties and open the way for a real and effective unification of the revolutionary forces.”However, the political clause would be a casualty of a growing “anti-political” mood in the IWW, in no small part a reaction to De Leon’s increasingly sectarian behavior in the union.
De Leon seized upon an article by Connolly in the IWW’s Industrial Bulletin about the necessity of counter-acting the wage cuts hitting the IWW’s base in the wake of the October 1907 stock market crash, accusing him of bringing party disputes into the IWW. Connolly had written that “few economic questions are of such great practical importance to the labour movement” as fighting for wages increases under capitalism, and briefly mentioned his 1904 dispute with De Leon.
At the General Executive Board of the IWW, De Leon accused Connolly of having a “destructive effect”, intimating that he might be a policy spy, and accusing him of being a Jesuit, who had “ruined the SLP in Ireland.”
Connolly left the SLP in April 1908. Not long after, at the 4th Convention of the IWW in September 1908, the political clause was dropped, severing the IWW’s formal connection with the socialist parties, and declaring itself against fighting on the political front.
De Leon was unseated from the unions’ leading bodies. Some opposed De Leon’s policy on wages, others were syndicalists determined to cut ties to the political parties, and still others were opposed to De Leon’s contention that in America the socialist revolution would be peaceful affair crowned by a victory at the ballot box — a view which had the SLP conflating mass revolutionary action with individual acts of terrorism. When the De Leonites split and formed their own “IWW” in Detroit, they condemned the Chicago organisation as “physical forceists” and “anarchists”.
Connolly opposed the removal of the political clause but remained in the IWW. He felt that it would be “impossible to prevent the workers taking [political action]” if it came to it, and continued to insist that it was “incumbent upon organised labour to meet the capitalist class on every field where the latter can operate to our disadvantage.”
Connolly’s 1909 pamphlet Socialism Made Easy shows the strong influence of De Leon. It advocates industrial unionism, which he argues “prepares within the framework of the capitalist society, the working form of the Socialist Republic.” However, the real battle was the industrial one, fought by the primary revolutionary instrument of the industrial union. For Connolly, “the fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle; it is only the echo of the battle.”
Yet Connolly was by no means anti-political. He stressed the need to “bring workers as a class into direct conflict with the possessing class as a class — and keeping them there…Nothing can do this so readily as a action at the ballot box.” But Connolly’s conception of the socialist political party had changed from the propagandist-electoral routines he had first learned in the SDF.
Whereas for De Leon, the party was envisaged an elite of highly-trained socialists, Connolly’s battle with the SLP seems to have pushed him too far in the other direction, rejecting De Leon’s sectarian version of party-building only to downgrade completely the importance of organising together the most class-conscious workers into a coherent socialist tendency. The party is seen in the broadest terms: “The attempt of craft organised unions to create political unity before they had laid the foundation of industrial unity is premature. But when that foundation of industrial union is finally secured, then nothing can prevent the union of the economic and political forces of labour.” In other words, industrial unionism makes sharp political arguments unnecessary; the correct industrial organisation will itself guarantee adequate socialist politics.
This argument, paradoxically, manages to combine the active class-struggle instincts of the syndicalists with the deterministic materialism of some elements of the Second International, for whom socialist progress at the ballot box was a reflex of economic development. Ironically, too, if revolutionary industrial unionism was in part a response to the staidness of orthodox Social Democracy, it was the trades unions which exacerbated the conservative drag on these officially Marxist political parties.
When the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg defended the idea of the mass strike as the main lesson of the 1905 Russian Revolution, she was attacked by the German trade union leaders, with Karl Liegen dismissing the notion as “general nonsense”.
At the SPD’s Mannheim Congress in September 1906, Karl Kautsky worried that if “the trade unions want peace and quiet, what perspectives open up for us if they are fastened to the already cumbersome party body as brakes?” The congress produced a compromise which gave the union leaders a de facto veto over the use of a mass political strike by German Social Democracy. One radical SPD journal, the Leipziger Volkszeitung, concluded glumly that after struggling against revisionism in the party for a decade, “the revisionism we have killed in the party rises against with greater strength in the trade unions.”
This is because trade unions are, by their very nature in capitalist society, workers’ basic self-defence organisations to fight for higher wages, within the framework of wage-labour and of capitalism. To do this effectively, trades unions need, in ordinary times, to organise as widely as possible from within the working-class — not just the radical workers who might be attracted by revolutionary syndicalism.
Yet this bargaining function within capitalism, and the full-time union bureaucracy which sees its role as an intermediary between workers and capitalists, at a certain pitch of struggle can find itself in opposition to the wider socialist goal of abolishing the wage system altogether. It is the latter that the revolutionary socialist party exists independently to argue for within the working class.
Notwithstanding these political failings, Socialism Made Easy was a vivid work expounding the importance of industrial unionism in a clear form. It was Connolly’s first widely read work.