Are you sure that it’s Syndicalism we’re discussing here?

By Steve Ongerth – IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 15, 2015

I have been closely following the debate between various members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Tom Wetzel (a syndicalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area) which began with Tim Goulet’s review of Ralph Darlington’s Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism on April 22, 2015 and has bounced back and forth since then.

I want to say, before I go any further, that I consider myself a syndicalist, specifically a green syndicalist (the very first IWW member I met was Judi Bari, in 1995, and it was through her that I found my way to the Wobblies). I have been a dues paying IWW members since 1995, and I have a fairly deep knowledge of IWW history, as well as contemporary discussion on matters of strategy and tactics within the IWW.  Three years ago, I cofounded the IWW’s Environmental Unionism Caucus with two other IWW members. I am also a member of System Change not Climate Change, and I work fairly closely with a handful of ISO members that also belong to SCnCC. I think there is little to be gained by engaging in sectarian squabbles when our very existence is threatened by the capitalist economic system which all of us, syndicalists and socialists alike agree, must be overthrown and replaced by something different, and I suspect that we’d find much agreement on what that different system would look like and how it would function.

However, I also recognize the need to debate strategy, tactics, theory and praxis if we’re to be effective as revolutionaries and devise a winning strategy to successfully combat capitalism. This debate on syndicalism to some extent qualifies, but I’ve also noticed a good deal of sectarianism from some of the ISO folks in this discussion, not to mention some rather glaring omissions and inaccuracies. The most recent entry, from comrades Joe Richard and Ty Carroll (The Wrong Place at the Right Time), represents for me a particularly egregious example.

My friend Tom Wetzel, who is not now–nor, for that matter, has he ever been a member of the IWW–has addressed many of the points made by the aforementioned ISO members (Boring from Within Won’t Work) so I won’t duplicate his efforts.  Instead, I wish to address a root fallacy in the argument that has been made whenever this debate arises–and it arises a great deal–since the schism between the Leninists and the “syndicalist” IWW arose in the first place, a series of events that Richard and Carroll invoke in their piece, and that is the erroneous notion that the divide has anything to do with syndicalism AT ALL!

“In the U.S., the IWW did lead strikes in wartime industries where there wasn’t real competition with the AFL, but by 1920, the focus of IWW organizing shifted to the agricultural Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. So it was not a part of the massive strikes of the postwar period by the railroad shopmen (400,000 workers on strike), the coal miners (425,000 workers on strike), the national steel strike (350,000) or the packinghouse workers strike (50,000) or even the Seattle general strike, which was called by the AFL’s central labor council. Thousands of other strikes were called by AFL locals in too many cities to count across the U.S., in one of the largest strike waves in world history.

“The IWW’s abstention from the AFL in this period was indeed a real separation from the mass movement. As William Z. Foster pondered at the time, what if those thousands of radicals who had been in the IWW had instead focused their forces for years before on building the capacity for these mass strikes and developing mass industrial unions? 1919 was one of those years of mass, revolutionary struggle that come along so rarely, and the IWW missed the boat.”

First of all, the IWW was hardly abstaining from anything. There were rank and file IWW members involved in each and every one of the struggles mentioned here, including especially Seattle, but more than that, Richard and Carroll neglect to mention that none of these efforts by the AFL would have ever happened if the IWW hadn’t been organizing in each of these regions and each of these industries to begin with. Seattle in 1919 is an especially telling example, because–contrary to what Richard and Carroll write–the IWW was *already organizing in the agricultural Midwest and the Pacific Northwest* prior to and during World War I. There is substantial documentation about the IWW organized Agricultural Workers Organization #400 and Lumber Workers Industrial Union #500, and those who bother to read it will note that the AWO began organizing in 1915 (and its efforts spread like wildfire throughout the midwest), and that the LWIU’s major campaigns took place between 1916-18.  In fact, it was during the efforts of the latter that the very first widespread strike-on-the-job campaign took place and resulted in the Lumber Workers winning the eight-hour day. The 1919 Seattle General Strike happened in the wake of these strike efforts by the IWW, so this claim that the IWW “missed the boat” is utterly false.

The IWW hardly abstained from AFL efforts during this (or any other) period and not only supported the rank and file workers during such struggles, but quite often urged the rank and file to take even more militant and forceful actions. Not only that, then–as now–the IWW welcomed in its ranks rank and file members of AFL (now AFL-CIO) unions, and it was often these “dual-card” members who were the “leading lights” (as the IWW press of the time) of these struggles. It was constant agitation by IWWs (as well as socialists and anarchists who were not IWW members, but fellow travelers) who initiated the strikes and struggles that Richard and Carroll mention.

Tellingly, Richard and Carroll are parroting the rhetoric of William Z. Foster, whose assessment of the IWW is as biased as it is false, and was largely motivated by sour grapes. What many in the ISO apparently don’t realize (or choose not to mention), is that originally Foster had been a member of the IWW (in the early 1910s), and during his time as an IWW member, he travelled to various European nations and spent significant time studying the *revolutionary syndicalist* unions there. It’s also crucial to understand that at the time, that the American Federation of Labor was a conservative craft based union, mostly only open to skilled craft workers, which were dominated by English speaking, male WASPs. Where workers of color were members, they were members in segregated locals (this was not the case in the IWW, however, who meant it when they declared they would organize “one big union”). The AFL disdained class struggle and organizing workers by industry (rather than skilled crafts). The IWW wasn’t the first labor organization to challenge the AFL’s conservativism.  Indeed, the Knights of Labor in the latter quarter of the 19th Century, had made many of the same criticisms that the IWW later made, but collapsed due to internal divisions caused largely by confusion over issues of class and factional squabbles over which “socialist” (or “social democratic”) political party to support (which explains–to some extent–the IWW’s insistence that such matters be kept out of the union hall). Upon Foster’s return to the US, he began advocating that the IWW cease organizing independently of the AFL, and instead, refocus its efforts on joining various AFL unions and attempting to “bore from within”. Ironically, Foster called this strategy “syndicalism”, and founded an organization called the Syndicalist League of North America (SLNA) [Ford, Earl C and William Z. Foster, Syndicalism, Chicago, Kerr, 1990] for this purpose.

Most IWW members were not especially welcoming of Foster’s recommended strategy, mainly due to the fact that they would not have been eligible for membership in the AFL in the first place!  It should also be noted that many of the IWW members, including a great many of its leaders, *weren’t anarchists or syndicalists*. On the contrary, a great many of them considered themselves Marxists of one sort or another, but as such, were open to working with anarchists and other radical tendencies, because they believed in the vision of One Big Union of the Working Class (as long as it was anti-capitalist). Indeed, most of the “leadership”–that Richard and Carroll later point out–that joined the Communist Movement were Communists already. Furthermore, Foster’s strategy might have worked in a European context, where the conditions were ideal for the sort of strategy he was advocating, but in a US or Canadian context, it simply didn’t translate. Foster stubbornly insisted that it would, but found few supporters within the IWW, and–for that matter–few supporters from outside, at least for a time as will soon be seen, and his SLNA collapsed before the Russian Revolution in 1917.

After have found no love among the “syndicalists”, Foster opportunistically pitched his ideas to the Communists who were more receptive, and it’s cosmically ironic that when the Red Trade Union International approached the IWW about affiliation, they did so under the stipulation that the IWW would have to adopt Foster’s “boring from within” strategy in order to do so, demanding:

(1) …that the I.W.W. avoid the splitting of other organizations where they are well established, by starting a parallel organization of its own;

(2) that it confine itself to industries where it is already dominant, and

(3) that it cooperate with other revolutionary bodies towards the building of a united front against one of its most bloodthirsty opponents — American Capitalism; and

(4) If the I.W.W. is to be a real factor in the Labor Movement, it must change its attitude towards other Labor Unions

To which the IWW responded by stating, “This is equivalent to saying that the I.W.W. must cease to be the I.W.W,” because the “other organizations (which were) well established” meant the conservative, racist, exclusionary, non-skilled-workers-need-not-apply, divided-by-craft American Federation of Labor, in which most IWW members would not be welcome!

This is not surprising, since the rest of Richard’s and Carroll’s letter is full of flimsy understandings of history and syndicalism, as one of my fellow IWW members has been quick to point out. For example, the former wrote:

“In Germany, the KAPD (followers of Dutch Communists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek) theoretically and practically rejected trade unionism in principle and demanded that their members abandon trade unions in order to create new revolutionary economic organizations (which by the way never amounted to anything). In a revolutionary moment, when millions of German workers were pouring into trade unions by the year…”

To which my fellow IWW member replied:

“The KAPD did indeed have its members leave the unions for form the largely-ineffective AAUD- especially the workers who were in the syndicalist Free Association of Trade Unions, which grew six times faster than any other German labor organization after the war. The Free Association shut down mining across the Ruhr in a general strike that involved 75% of the region’s miners, and by 1919 had 60,000 members after starting the war with just 6,000 in 1914. By December of 1919 it had over 111,000. It was reorganized into the Free Workers Union of Germany, or FAUD, after merging with several left-communist minor unions. So, the ISO is trying to criticize syndicalist dual unionism by attacking left-communists for leaving a syndicalist union– a union that other left-communists joined!

“They (also) talk about the resistance within the CGT to the Sacred Union leadership as an example of why revolutionaries should work within bureaucratic unions. They forget that the CGT was built as a syndicalist union and had been dominated by anarchist tendencies up until 1914. After it got taken over by Jauhaux, the anarchists continued their resistance in the minority throughout the war but were *largely ineffective at dismantling the ‘sacred union*. The revolutionaries in the CGT failed to recapture an organization they had formed and been in control of just a few years earlier- so eventually, they left. After the war, the CGT split and radicals who left or were purges out formed the CGTU, taking most of the CGT’s membership with them. The CGTU was very promising, but by 1924 was taken over by friends of the … Kremlin, and promptly driven into the ground by purging the syndicalists (who formed the CGTU-AS). The CGTU didn’t re-merge with the CGT until 1936, and the persistent efforts to work within the CGT bureaucracy to reclaim its once-revolutionary (syndicalist) past have never been successful. The main uprising of CGT rank and file in the decades that followed was 1968, when they by and large rejected bureaucracy and political parties in favor of a general strike with a political demands- a basically syndicalist stance.”

The IWW’s decision to decline affiliation had nothing–zero–to do with the Wobblies being “syndicalist” (and it’s debatable that the IWW was exclusively syndicalist then as now) and the RTUI being “communist”–no doubt well schooled in Lenin’s wisdom. It had everything to do with the Third International’s ignorance of the conditions in which the IWW organized and found itself. It should be pointed out that the IWW doesn’t seek to divide the working class, it seeks to unite it. Where workers are members of unions other than the IWW, they are welcome and encouraged to also carry IWW union cards (then as now). Charges of the IWW engaging in “dual unionism” are utterly false. On the Other Hand, the Third International began instructing its members to support the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) between 1929-35, which was by /definition/ a “dual” union.

It seems to me, then, that the *real* transgression that the IWW committed, in the eyes of Lenin and his followers, is that it refused to align itself with Moscow. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the IWW had been syndicalist, communist, or Satanist (or all three), the results would probably have been the same.

Yours for the One Big Union, Fellow Worker Steve Ongerth, x344543

* An Injury to One is an Injury to All! –

* Author of Redwood Uprising: From One Big Union to Earth First! and the Bombing of Judi

* Abolish wage slavery AND live in harmony with the Earth: IWW’s Environmental Unionist Caucus – | Earth First! – | Rising Tide North America – | Sunflower Alliance – | System Change not Climate Change –

* Transportation Workers Unite! – Railroad Workers United – | Transport Workers Solidarity Committee –

* To contact me by phone or skype: 510-459-6586

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