De Leonist Society of Canada remarks about the IWW


Letter from the De Leonist Society of Canada
Dated August 26, 1999
To Frank Girard, editor of the Discussion Bulletin
Reprinted from the Discussion Bulletin
Nov-Dec 1999 #98, pages 22-26

Dear DB:

In reply to your DB96 letter: As we see it, your persistent effort to defend the IWW's political defection has become a grasping at straws, the "backbone" of which you advance in your introductory blurb thus: "The DeLeonist Society of Canada provides further evidence to support its characterization of the IWW as an anarchist organization. My letter questions the value and accuracy of their source."

As to your suggestion that our source (the SLP publication, Daniel De Leon, the Man and His Work) is questionable -- may not be an accurate rendition of the SLP's involvement in the IWW. We think the shadow you thus cast upon SLP reportage is too serious a matter to be left hanging in the air and would therefore ask that you show us where in your opinion the said source is inaccurate.

Turning to your letter and your charge that "the trouble with the book [Daniel De Leon, the Man and His Work] is that it selects what it chooses to record and makes no effort to be objective." In what way is it not objective? Do you perhaps mean that it has not been even-handed in its condemnation of the IWW for its abrogation of the political stance upon which it was founded? has failed to report what you seem to advance as an extenuating circumstance which should soften the severity of the censure which it meted out to those who led the anti-political revolt? Quoting you as follows:

"Everything I've read about the 1908 IWW convention and the events leading up to it suggests that the triumvirate that engineered the removal of De Leon and the SLP from their prominent role in the IWW acted from the belief that by doing so they were advancing the fortunes of the union, not from any anarchist ideological motives."

"Everything"? This is indeed news! You and we are evidently in far, far different ball parks! But suppose the said triumvirate did not really know what they were doing, were motivated solely by a desire to improve "the fortunes of the union" -- solely, presumably, by a simple, unalloyed desire to increase the IWW membership. What then? Should these three be excused for their anti-political action on the grounds that they suffered from myopia? We think not. As well say they were the most innocent of men who ever led a revolutionary labor movement to its destruction.

As to the facts which we marshalled as evidence that the elimination of its political clause transformed the IWW into an anarchist organization-we are appalled by your peremptory dismissal of "most" of these facts as "irrelevant to the debate." An especially glaring case in point is your sweeping rejection of "dictionary definitions of anarchism" and your filling of the vacuum thus created with your own version, to wit, that "the major principle of anarchism [is] the abolition of the political state." But this is a very incomplete statement of anarchist ideology. A spade remains a spade. As every student of De Leonism and the IWW will know -- there is a watershed that divides De Leonism from anarchism. De Leonism insists that to overthrow Capitalism and the political state, workers must come together on the political as well as on the industrial field. Anarchism derides the political element of the equation.

(Incidentally, as to your point anent dictionary definitions of Socialism, we of course recognize this and said as much in our reply of December 15, 1993 to Harry Banks of the former De Leonist Society of the U.S.A. Quoting as follows:

"Speaking generally, we have no reservation in agreeing that much caution must indeed be taken in the use of dictionary definitions of sociological terms. At the same time we do not think a taboo should be placed on all such. In practice, therefore, we have rejected some as either ambiguous or unscientific while employing others that appeared faithful to our context.")

Of a piece with your foregoing efforts to dress anarchism in civilized clothes is your statement: "Unlike anarchists, though, both the IWW and DeLeonists advocate the organization of production through a system of socialist (or collectivist) industrial unions." Here, too, your penchant for likenesses shortchanges the fundamental difference between De Leonism and the IWW -- the civilized approach of the former, the uncivilized approach of the latter.

There is one paragraph in particular where you seem to outdo yourself in your efforts to put a good face on the IWW. Thus:

"Nothing in the IWW's constitution precludes its members from joining a political party including a De Leonist one nor from advocating the political [and industrial!] road to revolution of DeLeonism nor from participating in elections. By dropping the political clause from the Preamble the IWW just no longer endorsed a political strategy for revolution. The goal remain [remains] the same."

But try tho you will, the thing will not wash. Can you not see that the very facts which you elicit in support of the IWW are facts which, upon reflection, militate against it? A union that professes a revolutionary goal, yet opens its doors to one and all irrespective of their political persuasion, can hardly qualify as a revolutionary union! What is more, tho the IWW may profess the same goal as De Leonism (the organization of production through "collectivist" industrial unions), its anarchist arsenal for the winning of it casts it outside the orbit of civilization therefore utterly beyond kinship with bona fide Socialist Industrial Unionism. For these reasons the IWW is widely recognized as being an anarchist or, more descriptively, as an anarcho-syndicalist, union.

In our opinion your attempts to prove us "simply wrong" about the IWW are, with one axception, merely a play of smoke and mirrors that does away with the anarchist character of the post-1908 IWW by simply ignoring it. That, exception is your legitimate concern as to the "accuracy" and "objectivity" of our source -- the SLP publication, Daniel De Leon, the Man and His Work. Under this circumstance we felt obliged to look beyond the SLP for corroboration of its findings. Two such sources came readily to hand. The first is The Origins of American Marxism by David Herreshoff, Monad Press, Copyright 1967 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48202. The second source from which we drew corroboration is, curiously, The Socialist Labor Party, 1876-1991, A Short History, by Frank Girard [!] and Ben Perry, Livra Books, Philadelphia, 1991, Copyright 1991 by Frank Girard and Ben Perry.

Quoting from The Origins of American Marxism:

"Trautraann and St. John were not De Leonists. They agreed with De Leon only on the need for a revolutionary union; they saw no need for socialist political action: they were American anarcho-syndicalists.,.. At the 1906 [IWW] convention it was settled that the IWW would remain a revolutionary union. It remained to be settled whether the IWW would be a Marxist or an anarcho-syndicalist union. Two more years were required to settle that issue. In 1908 De Leon and his followers were excluded from the IWW and the 'anti-politicals' under St. John assumed undisputed control."

Quoting from The Socialist Labor Party, 1876-1991:

"The IWW Split "The growing 'direct action' wing of the IWW, hostile to political action, tried and failed to defeat De Leon and remove the Preamble's political clause at the 1907 IWW convention....

"A year later, the anarcho-syndicalists were better organized. Recognizing that they had a fight on their hands in the IWW, the SLP saw to it that its members and friends paid their back dues, and De Leon, Rudolph Katz and other SLP members were elected as delegates....In the West, an 'Overalls Brigade1 of unskilled and unemployed workers was recruited, apparently to pack the convention. They were the prototypes of the militant, horny handed,' anti-intellectual wobbly that the IWW has since come to symbolize....Many of these newly-minted members knew little about the issues except for the alleged need to get rid of De Leon. The SLP, on their side, derided the 'bummery' and condemned what they saw as a dangerous trend toward glorifying physical force. The SLP felt it necessary to provide bodyguards for De Leon.

"After considerable debate, De Leon was denied his seat on the basis of credentials never previously questioned. Clearly a pretext, it saved the anarcho-syndicalists from having to face a master of debate and parliamentary procedure. The SLP promptly left the convention and organized a rival IWW which became known as the 'Detroit IWW'. The original far better known 'Chicago IWW,' whose constitutional preamble no longer mentioned politics, became increasingly well known for militant strikes, free speech fights, and often violent repression by company and government police."

But while the foregoing surely vindicates the SLP record of the IWW debacle, it is puzzling to us to realize that the leniency which you presently accord the IWW is conspicuous by its absence in your above short history of the Socialist Labor Party. Have you had "second thoughts"?

If there is one sentence in your letter that would seem to typify your present attitude toward the apolitical IWWt we think it would be this one: "By dropping the political clause from the Preamble the IWW just no longer endorsed a political strategy for revolution."

"JUST no longer endorsed..."? MERELY no longer endorsed? That is, the act of "dropping the political clause" was an act of little consequence? We do not agree. We cannot see the matter in a roseate light. It seems clear to us that the aforesaid act was an act which, lifting the lid of a Pandora's box, released a swarm of anti-social forces bent on the destruction of the fledgling IWW. As to the nature and conduct of these forces, the testimony of Olive Johnson (contemporary with De Leon until his death in 1914) should serve to dispel any lingering misapprehension that the anarchist IWW was or could ever becomee the focal point for unification of the working class upon the economic field. Quoting Johnson as follows:

"When the I.W.W. in 1908 'sattied' the question of its relation to politics by striking from its preamble 'the political clause, it settled the question in a manner economically and historically unsuited to the conditions under which it is working and organizing, and that initial wrong has born a litter of evil consequences, so dark and foreboding as to constitute a positive danger to the wage working class of America. In view of the events of the last decade the clear, sound, and warning words of Daniel De Leon contained in these pages ring like a prophesy....

"It was not long before the evil influence of the anarchist within the ranks of the I.W.W. began to manifest itself. The half-baked 'Socialistic' elements, shaving off from the S.P., proved plastic and easily molded material by their more cunning cousin. The struggle was on within the ranks between Socialist Industrial Unionism and Anarcho-syndicalism. How much the 'honest anarchist' was aided in this struggle by the agent provocateur, the industrial or political spy, shall probably never be known. Certain it is that the work of the latter was great. The I.W.W. was a beam in the capitalist eye from the beginning. Attacks were centered upon it, and as was only natural, the element of anarchy was instantaneously detected as the new organization's weakest spot....

"From that time [1908] till within a few years ago the syndicalist I.W.W. has been enough in the. public, eye so that its escapades are pretty generally known. Utter scorn of the ballot and its 'civilized method'; advocacy of 'striking at the ballot box with an ax1; staged 'free speech' fights which really constituted a mass intrusion upon the 'sanctuary' of the jail; sneers at 'laws' and 'legal methods' bt*t instantaneous appeals to the law when trouble arrived; strikes that were deliberately turned into local riots; open advocacy and practice of sabotage, destruction, vengeance and criminal anarchy, if necessary; the glorification of theft and murder; constant appeals to the standards and the tactics of the brute and the savage!"-such was the brief, adventurous, and sensational career of the I.W.W., aided in its downward march by the industrial spy and the agent provocateur."

-- Olive M. Johnson, in her 1921 Preface to the pamphlet As to Politics, by Daniel De Leon.

As to what value are the foregoing sordid revelations, we would reply that their value is beyond price! For without sound knowledge of the past, how are workers to prepare intelligently for the future?


In conclusion, Frank, let us say that while we have crossed swords with you thus far, there is one of your views with which we are in total agreement! This is the opening sentence of your concluding paragraph, thus: "I believe DeLeonists should re-examine the idea that workers will organize in SIUs prior to [a] revolutionary situation."

Indeed, we are tempted to think that if the bona fide Socialist Labor Party had found an opportunity to reexamine this issue in depth, it might well have been able to better defend itself against the reformist/revisionist tendencies that in the latter 1970s surfaced against it. Be that as it may, however, there seems no doubt that whereas the bona fide SLP had consistently emphasized the revolutionary goal, "GRADUALISM" (the idea that workers will organize in SIUs prior to a revolutionary situation) in the hands of the revisionists witnessed relegation of the goal to a distant future together with substitution of wage consciousness (organization for "something now") in place of class consciouness (education for winning the revolutionary goal).

For the record we should add that following the founding of the Canadian De Leonist Society twenty years ago, one of the first things we did was put that gradualism idea under the microscope. As a result, and with an eye on economic and political developments over past decades, it became quickly apparent to us that genuine Socialist Industrial Union organization in advance of the ferment of a revolutionary situation could no longer be considered a viable tactic. For this reason we have embraced the hard-won lesson of the IWW fiasco: Educate first, organize afterward!



August 26, 1999