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The IWW in 1917--Revolutionary, Big & then Crushed. What's the Lesson?

If we don't learn the lesson--win the public to oppose unjust wars--, we're doomed to be ruled over and dominated by the rich forever.


by John Spritzler

April 23, 2018

In 1917 the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, a.k.a. the Wobblies, was an American (USA) labor organization that was explicitly revolutionary (it aimed to "abolish the wage system" and "do away with capitalism"). The Wobblies organized workers on the basis of wonderful working class solidarity--All for One and One for All--with One Big Union for all workers regardless of craft or industry or race or ethnicity. The Wobblies, in excellent contrast to the AFL-CIO unions, refused to sign contracts obliging the workers to pledge not to strike; the Wobblies advocated waging the class war and winning it.

The IWW Threatened the Ruling Class

Formed in 1905, by 1917 the IWW was large and growing larger. Just to picque your interest in the IWW so that you will read about it on your own, here is how the organization was described in one good book (the source for all quotations in this article unless otherwise stated) about it:

"On the eve of America's entry into the First World War [April 2, 1917] the IWW stood poised to open a new and more successful chapter in its history. It appeared ready to generate a sense of solidarity and a spirit of organization among workers long neglected by the trade unions: Minnesota loggers, Western hop and fruit pickers, harvest hands following wheat crops from Texas to Canada, Negro dockworkers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, white and black Americans as well as Spanish-speaking seamen, sailing the Great Lakes and the seven seas; hard-rock miners in Arizona's company towns and the anti-union bastion of Butte; riggers and day laborers in the oil fields of Kansas, Oklahoma, and California. The IWW hoped to accomplish what no other American labor organization had ever done, or even attempted: effectively organize America's disinherited and dispossessed, including some of the the lumpenproletariat whom even Marxists found unlikely recruits for unions or for revolutionary objectives.

"The IWW proposed to organize the disinherited not by offering pie in the sky, or revolution in the sweet by-and-by, but by winning for them more now! The IWW increasingly addressed itself to higher wages and shorter workday, to improved conditions of life and job security; and it said less and less about revolution to come and utopias to be...

"Although statistics concerning the organization's membership growth between 1916 and late 1917 are at best imprecise, it seems likely that during the brief period the IWW more than doubled its membership--from roughly 40,000 in 1916 to 100,000 or more at one point in 1917." [We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW The Industrial Workers of the World, pp. 345-6, 349 by Melvyn Dubofsky, Quadrangle paperback edition, 1973]

The IWW led numerous strikes in the months just before and after the United States entered World War I, and these strikes were in industries vital to the war effort: in particular agriculture, lumber and mining. "As the IWW increased its economic power during the first months of American involvement in the war, employers, faced with an increasingly assertive labor force, struck back against the Wobblies. Using the war emergency as a pretext and accusing the Wobblies of sedition and treason, businessmen enlisted public opinion and government power to repress the IWW." [p. 357]

Employers' Vigilante Repression

By July, 1917, employers were organizing violent vigilante attacks on the Wobblies. For example, in the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, where the Wobblies were very strong, the sheriff deputized almost two thousand anti-IWW townsmen and at dawn on July 12 he led them on a "Wobbly hunt" that corralled more than twelve hundred men (almost half American citizens), and at the point of rifles and bayonets put them on cattle cars (provided free by the railroad companies) and left the men stranded with minimal food in the desert at Hermanas, New Mexico. The federal Army took the deportees in and held them. This was a totally illegal deportation that the sheriff justified by the "Universal Law of Necessity" and for which he was not punished. [p. 386]

In the mining town of Butte, Montana where the Wobblies were very strong, vigilantes flat-out murdered a prominent Wobblie organizer, Frank Little. "State and local authorities did nothing to apprehend Little's murderers, and federal officials lacked any basis for action, for in this case, at least, no federal law had been violated. Even if the federal government had had a basis for intervention, it seems unlikely that Butte's vigilantes would have suffered any more than their Bisbee counterparts. In fact, the lynchers won sympathy from prominent politicians and from much of the nation's press. Many Americans seconded the verdict of Montana's senior senator, H. L. Myers, who blamed Washington, not Butte, for Little's murder. 'Had he been arrested and put in jail for his seditious and incendiary talks,' the Senator wrote, 'he would not have been lynched.'" [p. 392]

Federal Government Repression

"On the morning of September 5, 1917, Justice Department agents and local police officers in Chicago, in Fresno, in Seatle, in Spokane, indeed in every city where the IWW had an office and where influential Wobblies congregated, invaded local IWW headquarters and the homes of Wobbly officials. Operating under perhaps the broadest search warrants ever issued by the American judiciary, federal agents seized everything they could find: minute books, correspondence, typewriters, desks, rubber bands, paper clips, and (in Chicago) even Ralph Chaplin's love letters. From Chicago headquarters alone the federal authorities confiscated over five tons of material. Weeks after the raids had occurred, IWW officials were still unable to carry on ordinary organization business because they lacked the equipment with which to handle bookkeeping and correspondence." [p. 406]

Using what they found in the IWW offices (evidence that the IWW was organizing strikes for demands such as an 8 hour day, which the government said constituted treason and sedition because it interfered with the war effort), "[t]he Justice Department easily succeeded in persuading a Chicago federal grand jury to indict 166 IWW members...Other federal grand juries returned similar indictments in Fresno, Sacramento, Wichita, and Omaha. By prosecuting the IWW's national leaders as well as its primary regional officials, the Justice Department obviously intended to put the IWW out of business."[pp. 407-8] The Wobblies did not flee into exile but instead willingly allowed themselves to be imprisoned.

After the government crackdown in 1917 the Wobblies were never the same.


"Almost as meteorically as the menacing IWW had risen in the official and unofficial public mind, it faded from view. The organization continued to exist after its repression in 1917-18, as indeed it still does today, but only on the fringes of American society. Many of its leaders had been lynched or imprisoned, others died or deserted to more promising causes; and the remnants of the organization gradually vanished into what one writer has called the 'haunted halls' of American labor history." [pp. ix-x]. This was a far cry from the earlier days when "leading American businessmen, the President of the United states, his Secretaries of War, Labor, and Justice, the United States Army and Navy, state governors, and local district attorneys pondered the 'Wobbly' menace" and when "in some fevered minds, the IWW 'subversion' ranked with German imperialism and Russian bolshevism as an immediate danger to national security." [p. ix]

"Indeed, so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or as disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities." [p. ix]

What's the Lesson?

In order to draw a useful lesson from the failure of the IWW, I believe three key things need to be realized.

First, when it came to organizing workers to fight for better wages and working conditions, the Wobblies were superb. The Wobblies were masters at building solidarity and preventing the employers from pitting workers against each other with all the various schemes that the employers always tried to use. And because of the Wobblies' emphasis on solidarity, they met with tremendous success in recruiting workers of all races and nationalities to the IWW.

Second, there is nothing useful to be gained from arguing that the Wobblies did not make a serious mistake and that the capitalist (ruling) class would have been able to crush the Wobblies no matter what they had done. Nobody can prove that this is true. The only effect of such an argument is to prevent us from grappling with the task of learning the lesson from the IWW's failure so we can succeed in removing the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor (a.k.a. make an egalitarian revolution to abolish class inequality, which is what the Wobblies meant by their aim of abolishing the wage system and capitalism.)

Third, a revolutionary movement cannot succeed unless it is able to prevail in a contest of force (including violence) against not only particular employers but the employers' state (i.e., the government) with its police and especially military forces.

The Government Was Confident It Could Carry Out the Repression Safely

The IWW was defeated because the federal government (an instrument controlled by and acting on behalf of the large employers) was confident that it would not risk sparking a successful revolution if it violently suppressed the IWW. In particular, the government was confident that there would be no resultant massive public opposition to the government and support for the IWW.

If the government had not been confident of public support for, or at least grudging tolerance of, its repression of the IWW then the government probably would not have opted to violently crush the IWW. The reason is the government would have had good reason to fear the following turn of events:

  • The government uses police to violently attack the IWW.

  • The public then massively demonstrates support for the IWW, with militant actions of some kind. It's more than the police alone can handle so the military is called in.

  • But many rank-and-file soldiers also support the IWW.

  • The pro-IWW public calls on the soldiers to refuse orders to attack them, and instead to join them--with their weapons--in defending the IWW.

  • The soldiers realize that if they join the pro-IWW public then they and the public together can defeat whatever violence the pro-ruling class sides brings to bear; the soldiers would be on the winning side and therefore not shot for refusing to obey orders.

  • So the soldiers go over to the side of the pro-IWW public.

  • This amounts to the ruling class losing power!


This is a revolution. This is what the ruling class fears the most. I discuss this further in my article, "How We CAN Remove the Rich from Power."

Why Was the Government So Confident?

The government enjoyed this confidence because the capitalist class, using its control of the mass media--mainly newspapers and magazines and cinema at the time--had persuaded a sufficiently large proportion of the population that the "War to End All Wars" was a good war in the (so-called) "national interest" and that the IWW, in organizing strikes, was committing treason, and hence was so evil that violent repression of it was perfectly justified. The mass media had inflamed nationalism to such a pitch that all labor organizations in the U.S. except the IWW feared speaking out against the war. This is why the government was so confident.

How Did the IWW Respond to the War?

The Wobblies did not foresee that the large public support for the war effort (some called it mass hysteria even) would enable the government to destroy the IWW. The Wobblies knew the war was anti-working class, and tried to figure out how to respond to it, but they didn't perceive it as the means by which the employers would crush them.

The Wobblies debated among themselves how to respond to the war. The question was never whether or not to oppose it (they all did), but rather what, exactly, to do during it. The Wobblies decided to downplay their opposition to the war. Thus they decided to allow IWW members to remain members in good standing if they accepted being drafted instead of refusing and going to prison. And they decided not to call a general strike against the war. The motive for this decision was an awareness that the IWW did not have the strength to stop the war.

Rather than trying to do what was impossible--stop the U.S. government from waging war--the Wobblies decided to do what was possible, which was to build the IWW to be much larger by organizing workers to fight for things like the 8 hour day and better wages and working conditions generally. The Wobblies imagined that by organizing workers on the job and increasing the size of the IWW's One Big Union sufficiently, they would eventually control the entire economy. Then, so the implicit thinking seemed to go, they would be able to prevent warmongering. The idea was that the One Big Union could then just refuse to produce any war materiel and the workers would just refuse to fight in the war. All the workers would have to do is what one Wobbly organizer, when asked a similar question about what the workers would do, expressed with a non-verbal answer by just folding his arms.

The Wobblies did not seem to realize that if they succeeded in doing "what was possible" (organize increasingly large numbers of workers on the job to fight for better wages and working conditions) the government would use public support for the war to enable it to crush the IWW. The Wobblies therefore gave no thought to how they could prevail in a contest of force (including violence) against the government's police and military forces. When the government repression came down on the IWW, they were helpless.

The IWW's Mistake

The Wobblies' mistake was in not realizing that it is possible--and absolutely necessary--to persuade the general public that wars such as WWI are bad, not good, for ordinary people. The Wobblies failed to realize that failure to persuade the public of this means that the capitalist class would be able to crush them before they could get at all close to actually controlling the economy by becoming a huge One Big Union.

Note that doing things to persuade the public that a war such as WWI is bad for ordinary people and only good for the ruling elite is not at all the same thing as engaging in militant actions against the war such as refusing to be conscripted or trying to pull off a general strike against the war. The measures of success for these two different things are very different. The former is judged a success if it increases the number of people who understand that wars such as WWI are bad for ordinary people and only good for the ruling elite. The latter is judged a success only if the war is stopped. The Wobblies could have succeeded in the former effort, even though they could not have succeeded in the latter.

Why Is It Possible to Persuade the Public to Oppose Wars Such as WWI?

The main reason it's possible to persuade most ordinary people that wars such as WWI are bad is because it is true that they are bad--bad for ordinary people. Does this mean that it is possible to persuade most ordinary people of this fact easily, or quickly? No. Of course not. It's a very difficult task because the capitalist class works so hard to promote pro-war lies and has the mass media with which to do so. But if we focus on it we can succeed. Some examples of my articles exposing unjust wars are here (World War II), here (the Cold War), here (War on Terror) and here & here (Israel's war against Palestinians.) Good arguments are in fact persuasive.

Here's the point. A revolutionary organization or movement that ever grows large enough to be a serious threat to the ruling class will, like the IWW, be crushed by the ruling class unless the organization or movement has the support of the great majority of the general public in its opposition to the ruling class's warmongering. If the revolutionary movement fails in this task, the ruling class will be able to persuade the public that the revolutionary movement is an evil "traitorous" "seditious" force that must be crushed, and then use the government to crush it. There is thus no point in aiming to remove the rich from power--or even merely to challenge the rich substantively as the Wobblies did in 1916-7---unless there is total determination to win over the general public on the question of war. Making excuses to avoid this task is equivalent to suicide for a revolutionary movement.

How Can We Persuade the Public to Oppose an Unjust War?

There are two questions involved in persuading the public to oppose an unjust war. One question is, "What argument(s) are persuasive?" The other question is, "How can we reach lots of people with the persuasive argument?"

In my experience, the most persuasive argument against whatever bad thing the ruling class is doing (not just warmongering) is this. Expose the purpose behind what the ruling class is doing. Invariably the purpose is to strengthen the power of the upper class over everybody else so as to prevent ordinary people from doing what the vast majority already would love to do--which is abolish class inequality, to remove the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor in a society based on mutual aid, not people being pitted against one another in wars or other ways. This is egalitarianism. It's what most people (after they hear about it) actually want. (This video illustrates that.)

Most ordinary people, not just blue collar workers on whom the Wobblies focused, or white collar workers but also--and this is KEY!--most members of the general public would love to live in an egalitarian society, and would oppose a war when they understand its actual purpose is to prevent people from making society egalitarian. When I say "most members of the general public" and not just workers, this is what I mean. Small business persons (as I discuss here) would be much happier and better off in an egalitarian society. Most professionals, likewise, enter their profession with a desire to make it a better world for ordinary people, not to make the rich even richer. They discover in the course of their career that Big Money's power in our society is what prevents them from fully using their professional knowledge and skills to accomplish what they would like. This is discussed further here in one section of which, for example, it discusses how Big Pharma has corrupted medical research and how a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine has written forcefully against this corruption.

When, in a conversation with a person, one has made this argument effectively in regards to any one particular thing that the ruling class does (such as treating workers on the job like dirt or corrupting medical research) then it becomes much easier to persuade that same person that the ruling class has the same bad motive for other things it does--such as warmongering. (Read here to see this connection spelled out further.)

This is why it is important to focus on what we--the vast majority of people--actually want: egalitarianism. With this focus we can defeat the ruling class's attempt to make people think that the bad things it does are good things. And THIS is how to prevent the ruling class from being able to crush an egalitarian revolutionary movement.

As for the second question (how to reach lots of people with the persuasive argument) I'm tempted to just say that where there's a will there's a way, no matter how high the obstacles placed in our path by the rulers. But I have written about some ways to do it in my article titled, "How We CAN Remove the Rich from Power." This article is about how an explicitly egalitarian revolutionary movement can prevail in a contest of force (including violence) against the ruling class's military and police forces and in that context it discusses how to build the egalitarian revolutionary movement by spreading knowledge about the kind of wonderful and practical society for which it aims. My article, "Violent Repression is a Fact; What Should We Do?" is about how we can minimize the repression we encounter as we build the egalitarian revolutionary movement.

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