Edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer

Pluto Press. 312 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-9959-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s often customary to use the term “legendary” when writing about the Wobblies – the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – who, for a time (a short time lasting no more than a few years between roughly 1910 and 1919), captured the often-hostile attention of the press and public in the United States. The IWW had been formed in 1905, and it carried on after 1919, but it’s the period referred to that probably saw its main focus of activity in America with a programme of strikes and propaganda that gave it a reputation for militancy. And eventually led to the government using the full force of the law (unfairly in some cases) to crush the organisation and cause it to splinter and fall apart.

Most previous accounts of IWW activities have understandably focused on the United States. This is certainly true of books and articles that have been more widely available than material that has appeared in academic publications, or has been circulated among a minority of readers of obscure left-wing magazines. Joyce Kornbluh’s Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology (The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1964), Patrick Renshaw’s The Wobblies; The Industrial Workers of the World (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1967), and Melvyn Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW, The Industrial Workers of the World (Quadrangle, New York, 1969), are examples of books that I’d guess got displayed beyond a few radical bookshops and were reviewed outside some small, radical newspapers. But the fact remains that they were primarily about the IWW in America.

If the IWW was, in many ways, an organisation designed to function within (or against) the boundaries of a capitalist system that had evolved in America, it nonetheless had links to worldwide trends in the development of labour opposition and alternatives to the status quo. The years leading up to the start of the First World War in 1914 saw a rapid rise in syndicalist ideas, especially as they related to the formation of unions that would represent a wider membership than had previously been found in them.

Unions were nothing new, of course, but they frequently appealed largely to skilled workers and were mostly conservative in character. The aim of the “new” unions was to enlist the support of workers in the growing labour-intensive areas of employment, such as the docks, gas works, mills,   and other centres, plus migratory workers who had previously been unorganised, and so subject to poor working conditions, long hours, and low pay. The idea was to have all workers in an industry, for example, in the same union, with all unions eventually combined as one big union.

I think it’s necessary to say that syndicalist or industrial unionist theories mostly appealed to a minority of union activists. The rank and file members might go out on strike, or take other forms of  action in support of a pay claim or an improvement in conditions, but the IWW notion that every small local strike was just a rehearsal for the big general strike when the one big union would take over, wasn’t likely to be more than a dream in the minds of a few militants.

Still, the point was that for a period some unions were led by men who did think that syndicalism could work in terms of allowing the working class to achieve a victory over capitalism. Events like the 1913 strike and lockout in Dublin, and the unrest in English ports such as Liverpool and Hull around the same time, might not have got anywhere near what the syndicalists wanted, but they certainly persuaded the government and employers that there was more to the militancy than mere demands for shorter hours and higher pay.

I don’t think the IWW ever had more than a token presence in the British Isles. Bob Holton’s British Syndicalism 1900-1914 (Pluto Press, London, 1976) mentions the Wobblies only in passing, but he does refer to attempts to set up branches, and says the IWW had some following in Scotland. But elsewhere in the world, though unevenly in Europe if the essays in Wobblies of the World are a guide to what went on, functioning branches of the IWW were established.

Verity Burgmann, writing about Wobblies in Australia, says that they became “a significant force within a labour movement that was already industrially strong and represented by a politically successful Labour Party”. This is interesting because the question of political activity was something that syndicalists and industrial unionists often debated. Die-hard syndicalists usually took the view that political involvement was wrong and led to compromises that watered down the ideals of a take-over of the state. Syndicalists were often associated with anarchists and there was, in fact, a division of syndicalism that went under the name of anarcho-syndicalism. As with all left-wing groups the offshoots and sectarian struggles were many, and are fraught with difficulties for the outsider now trying to understand them.

Individuals often stand out in accounts of strikes and other expressions of dissent, and in Australian IWW history the name of Tom Barker is prominent. Born near Kendal, Barker started work early, spent some years in the British Army, then emigrated to New Zealand where he became active in the IWW. He eventually had to move to Australia to escape being harassed by the authorities, but continued his involvement with the Wobblies.

The Australian branch of the IWW probably didn’t ever have more than a few thousand members, but in their promotion of strikes, their campaigning against conscription during the First World War, and in some cases, their determination to carry out certain forms of sabotage, they were more than comparable to the most militant of American Wobblies. There are a couple of books that deal with the adventures and escapades of the IWW in Australia. Ian Turner’s Sydney’s Burning (Alpha Books, Sydney, 1969) covers, among other things, alleged IWW plans to set fire to buildings in Sydney, and also flood the country with counterfeit banknotes in an attempt to bring down the economy. Verity Burgmann’s Revolutionary Industrial Unionism; The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995) is a first-rate general history of the IWW in Australia.

As for Tom Barker, he was deported to Chile, then to Argentina. He was in Russia for a time and in the United States where he helped recruit American workers to go to the Soviet Union to assist with the country’s industrial development. Later, back in Britain, he became more moderate, and was a Labour councillor, and Mayor, in St Pancras. While I was writing this review, I came across a cutting from the British weekly paper, Tribune, dated January 1st, 1971, which has a photo of the Red Flag flying over St Pancras Town Hall on May Day, 1958. I’m sure it was an act designed to infuriate local Tories, and Barker would have been amused by their anger. A sense of humour was always prized among the Wobblies in Australia and elsewhere.

It might be appropriate to mention that the IWW often attracted its share of larger-than-life characters. Among them in Australia was the bohemian poet, Harry Hooton, described in Tony Moore’s Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians (Pier 9, Murdoch Books Australia, Millers Point, 2012) as “an anarchist and futurist” who “grafted an Australian sense of place onto his “anarcho-utopianism”.

Australia may have had Wobblies who were as colourful and enterprising as those in America, but it also had a government determined to crack down on their activities. The war situation between 1914 and 1918 gave them ample opportunities to harass and imprison IWW members, just as the entry of America into the war in 1917 gave the authorities there many reasons to use the law to break the IWW. One point of interest about the Australian situation is that the government in question was a Labour one, but it saw the IWW as a direct threat to its stability.

The fact of the matter was that, in both Australia and America, the Wobblies simply didn’t have the organisational capacity, nor the financial means, to withstand the concerted attacks of the police and local and national governments. In addition, it was obvious that a great many people in both countries, including large bodies of workers, supported the war effort and saw the IWW as an unpatriotic organisation. Popular sentiment turned against them. I’ve mentioned it before when writing about the Wobblies, but a novel of the period, Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat, reflected how many people felt when it said that IWW meant Imperial Wilhelm’s Warriors and approved of the lynching of an IWW organiser, a passage closely based on the actual lynching of Frank Little in Butte, Montana.

I’m perhaps straying a little from the contents of Wobblies of the World, where the presence of the IWW in Mexico, Sweden, and Canada is noted. It’s mentioned that in Mexico an “enigmatic German anarchist” named Ret Marut turned up. He later became well-known as B.Traven, a widely-read novelist in the 1930s and 1940s. One of his books, The Cotton Pickers, had a Wobbly at its centre.

There’s also a chapter about the involvement of Wobblies in the Spanish Civil War. They were mostly sailors who saw themselves as aligned with the anarcho-syndicalists of the Confederación National del Trabajo (CNT). They were at first welcomed in the International Brigades, but frictions soon developed which paralleled those being experienced in the United States, where disputes had developed between Wobblies and communists.

By 1936, the IWW was a shadow of its former self, and as its membership and influence declined many ex-IWW members were attracted to the Communist Party, and unions organised and controlled by it. And the fact was that, in Spain, the independence displayed by Wobblies ran counter to ideas of discipline insisted on in the communist-controlled International Brigades. It’s not a comment on the courage of individual Wobblies to see reason in the argument that allowing them to decide whether or not to obey an order was never likely to lead to a unit functioning efficiently. Armies just don’t work in that way, no matter what idealists may think.

It’s probable that most people will only know of the IWW because of a few songs that have survived and, in one or two cases, gone into popular use. And because their creator became something of a martyr to the cause when he was framed (or so his supporters claimed) on a murder charge and executed in 1915. A poem by Alfred Hayes, “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night”, was set to music by Earl Robinson,  and recorded by Paul Robeson. It was sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969. And a film by Bo Widerberg, The Ballad of Joe Hill, offered a somewhat sentimentalised version of his life in America. A later performer, the singer Utah Phillips, kept the Hill tradition alive and demonstrated how his compositions were usually designed for immediate use on the picket line or at a meeting or demonstration.  Bucky Halker’s “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: The Songs of Joe Hill Around the World” in Wobblies of the World, provides a guide to how his music has circulated to many countries over the years.

It hasn’t been possible to comment in detail on every contribution to Wobblies of the World, so suffice to say that it’s a much-needed addition to the library of books, articles, and other material relating to the IWW. It broadens our knowledge of the syndicalists in a wide sense, as well as that of the IWW in particular.

Arguments will always continue as to whether or not the organisation could ever have grown to a size where it might have been capable of carrying out its proclaimed aim of one big union bringing about a general strike that would overthrow the capitalist system. I suspect that most workers saw this as a dream never likely to be realised, and their membership of the IWW, if they were members, mostly related to bread and butter matters like shorter hours and higher pay and conditions on the job. It has always seemed to me that the very nature of the IWW, and the sort of people it often appealed to, wasn’t ever likely to make for permanency in terms of establishing local branches with a reliable membership. Young Wobblies with no family commitments could move on, but many others needed to hold on to jobs and stay in one place. There were, perhaps, too many contradictions at work to enable the IWW to have long-term viability. It could only burn brightly for a short time. Having said that doesn’t lessen the value of the dream, nor the very real bravery and dedication of many of those who tried to make it come true.