IWW a Prime Target of Historical Distortion


The People
June 24, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 6


EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article is taken from the WEEKLY PEOPLE of Sept. 1, 1970, and is reprinted here in conjunction with the 90th anniversary of the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, held at Chicago, June 27-July 8, 1905.


Tortured and weakened into submission, Winston, the central character in George Orwell's frightening novel, 1984, repeats after his tormentor the slogan: "'Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.'"

There is much truth contained in what Orwell wrote. The virtual monopoly the capitalist class has over the production of textbooks and other sources of information gives it a powerful lever with which to distort and alter the facts of history to suit its own purposes. Its enormous material interest under present circumstances acts as a potent force to conceal from the general knowledge of society many historic developments that point a certain finger of death at the present social order. Many who benefit materially from capitalism assist in the work of historical exclusion and distortion in the hope that the working class -- those who do NOT benefit by capitalism- -can indefinitely be kept from the historical development of their class, a knowledge of which would greatly advance the cause of their ultimate emancipation from wage slavery. Any number of instances could be cited to illustrate the point, as, for example, the matter of "Labor Day." But our purpose here is to deal with the evolution of a historic PRINCIPLE most important as it affects the labor, or socialist, movement in America.

A major victim of capitalist-inspired historical distortion and, in part, exclusion, is the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary labor union that for three years (1905- 1908) threatened to topple the American Federation of Labor and to mobilize the working class for the overthrow of the capitalist system. Most workers have never heard of the IWW and the principles around which it was originally organized. If they know anything about it at all it most often has to do with what the IWW degenerated into after its capture by anarchists in 1908. By that time the intentions of the founders, along with many of the most significant among the founders themselves, were tossed out; what remained was, at best, a "rat hole conspiracy" obsessed with the notion that it could bomb and sabotage its way to revolution. It is to the latter development that capitalist "history" directs the attention of the curious worker. Though there are important lessons to be learned from that period, it is to the IWW as initially organized, and to the history of the labor movement of which it was the culmination, that workers must give their attention if they are to gain a true perspective on the meaning and implications of the concept of revolutionary industrial unionism.


The IWW was organized at a constituent convention held in Chicago in June 1905. It was the outcome of many years of working-class evolution and development, harking back to the very beginnings of industrial capitalism. For decades, unions functioned as secretive and conspiratorial groups operating outside the law and at the risk of the liberty of their members. They were organized primarily as defensive agencies to resist the lowering of wages by capitalists.

Along with the capitalist mode of production there necessarily arose a class of wage laborers to operate the then newly devised means of industrial manufacture. In those early days competition between the individual owners of the emerging capitalist economy was hot and heavy. But the strife that characterized the nature of early capitalism was not limited to the ranks of the ruling class. Large numbers of disinherited people, who formerly lived agricultural or pastoral lives, were cast into the centers of manufacture where they congregated in such quantity that many could find no livelihood to sustain themselves. Competition tore into the ranks of the working class as fiercely as into those of the master class, and worker was pitted against worker in an unrelenting life-and-death struggle for the insufficient openings available in the limited number of factories then in existence. It was this inner-class rivalry that first gave rise to the notion that "combination," as the first attempts to form unions were called, was necessary if workers were going to have a fighting chance at effectively opposing capitalism's crushing pressure of sinking the wages of labor to lower and ever lower levels.

"The workers are in a constant competition among themselves as the members of the bourgeoisie [capitalist class] among themselves...But this competition of the workers among themselves is the worst side of the present [1844] state of things in its effect upon the worker, the sharpest weapon against the proletariat [the workers] in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Hence the effort of the workers to nullify this competition by associations, hence the hatred of the bourgeoisie towards these associations, and its triumph in every defeat which befalls them." (Frederick Engels, THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND.)

In the United States, as in England, the growth of industrial capitalism generated a similar ripping conflict among the workers. The miserable condition left the capitalists free to press wages downward; but, at the same time, it awoke the instinctive urge to "combination."

The first labor union of a mass nature to be organized in the United States was the Knights of Labor. In his address, REFORM OR REVOLUTION, Daniel De Leon sketches the history of that first significant attempt of American workers to band together.

"The Knights of Labor, meant by Uriah Stephens [in 1869], as he himself admitted, to be founded upon the scientific principles of socialism -- principles found today [1896] in no central organization of labor outside of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance -- sank into the mire. Uriah Stephens was swept aside; ignoramuses took hold of the organization; a million and a half men went into it, hoping for salvation; but, instead of salvation, there came from the veils of the K of L local, district and general assemblies the developed ignoramuses, that is to say, the labor fakers, riding the workingman and selling him out to the exploiter. Disappointed, the masses fell off."

The principles that were aborning in the K of L, but which never reached maturity, were left for its heirs -- the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, and the Socialist Labor Party.

Its "backbone" formed by District Assembly 49 of the rapidly disintegrating K of L, the ST&LA was launched in December of 1895. To it and the political organization, the SLP, to which it was closely associated, fell the task of perpetuating and perfecting the evolving tactical concepts of revolutionary socialism.

Initially it was felt by Daniel De Leon, the man most responsible for the perfection of socialist tactics and objectives in America, that the political organization would lead the way to revolution. After a time, however, it became clear to him that the economic arm of labor was best suited to gain the final goal. This was so because the objective of socialism, the wresting of the means of wealth production from the capitalist class, was beyond the ability of a political organization.

The fruition of the experiences gained by the K of L, the ST&LA, and the SLP were embodied in De Leon's address on THE BURNING QUESTION OF TRADES UNIONISM. De Leon had learned that "the trade union has a supreme mission. That mission is nothing short of organizing by uniting, and uniting by organizing, the whole working class industrially -- not merely those for whom there are jobs, accordingly, not only those who pay dues. This unification or organization is essential in order to save the eventual and possible victory from bankruptcy, by enabling the working class to assume and conduct production the moment the guns of the public powers fall into its hands -- or before, if need be, if capitalist political chicanery pollutes the ballot box. The mission is important also in that the industrial organization forecasts the future constituencies of the parliaments of the Socialist Republic."

THE BURNING QUESTION OF TRADES UNIONISM was delivered by De Leon one year before the founding convention of the IWW. The principles it embodied -- both as they affect the tactics and objectives of the revolutionary socialist movement -- were the essential principles upon which the IWW was built. As noted, they were the outcome of many years of historical working-class development and social evolution. The conditions of capitalist society that force the working class into greater depths of misery spur it on to its own undoing; for it causes the oppressed mass of toilers to seek the way to their eventual emancipation from class-dominated society.

By the time the IWW was organized in 1905 the theory of unionism and the classconsciousness of many thousands of workers had matured to the point where they understood that as long as capitalism remained it would continue to press the working class deeper and deeper into the hole of perpetual poverty. The time for mere defensive organizations meant to resist the wage-depressing pressures of the capitalist class had come to an end. It was time for the working class to take the offensive, and to assert its right to own and control the means of production which it, and it alone, operates. Consequently, as originally organized, the IWW recognized the existence of a constant class struggle between those who own the means of production -- the capitalist class -- and those who perform the actual wealth-producing toil. It recognized, too, that those who labor -- the working class -- are robbed of the bulk of what they alone create.

Another aspect of its formulated principles, as contained in the preamble of the initial constitution, was that the entire working class must "come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field," to put an end to capitalism. The form and tactics of the new organization were all aimed at the specific objective of establishing a new society -- socialism -- to be founded upon the concept that the wealth of society should be owned by the producers alone.

From its very inception, however, the IWW contained the seeds of its own destruction. Aside from arousing the hatred of the capitalist class and the AFL, forewarned by their experience with the K of L, there were in its ranks those who opposed the principle of all workers banding together into a single, all- embracing industrial union, and who conspired for its renovation into a carbon copy of the disjointed, craft- oriented, AFL. In addition, there were the anarchists who directed their energies toward having the fledgling union forsake its original acceptance of the need for political as well as economic activity for the overthrow of capitalism. It was primarily the latter element, assisted by the disruptive activities of the pseudo-Socialists of the bogus "Socialist" Party, who managed to wrest control of the 1908 convention and to expel all those who were firmly committed to the original plan. Having gained control of the organization, the anarchists dumped the political clause of the constitution and, thereby, effectively destroyed the IWW as a revolutionary organization.

It is at this point that most capitalist "histories" BEGIN the story of the IWW. In reality, it is actually the point at which the IWW, as a revolutionary industrial union, ceases to exist. The principles upon which it was erected were, however, the essential and significant contribution of the IWW to the final formation of the revolutionary movement in America. The end of the IWW in 1908 merely marked the temporary termination of the application of those principles.

"...Be it noted, that the ST&LA," wrote Henry Kuhn in THE SOCIALIST LABOR PARTY, 1890-1930, "and later the original IWW, did accomplish one profoundly important thing -- they planted once and for all the seed of the industrial union principle so that, today, that principle is alive in millions of minds and awaits but the ripeness of economic conditions to step forth and become a living and dominant fact. Given the economic conditions, the American working class cannot but form its militant battalions along the lines laid down by the development of our industries, for there is no other way to deal with capitalism and the capitalist class. Nor is there any danger that the spark so kindled will ever die out; capitalism and its works, and the Socialist Labor Party and its work will see to that. Meantime we must labor and wait."