More notes, as always. Incidentally, anyone know of any material on the IWW in Spanish or in Portuguese? Or, know of where I can look other than google?

Transnational history questions the nature of the nation and state, at least as categories for scholarship. While nations and states remain important, they are considered as historical, and as objects of historical inquiry rather than factors determining the shape of inquiry.1 That is to say, transnational history rejects methodological nationalism – or, more polemically, “the tyranny of the national” – defined as the assumption of the “apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states.”2 At the same time, while “the need to expand the boundaries of [historical] inquiry beyond the nation-state, to internationalize the subject and render it more cosmopolitan” has been recognized, “there is confusion over the appropriate perspective and methodology.”3
Parsing out the degree to which IWW much historiography can be considered as transnational vs methodologically nationalist is a difficult task. On the one hand, there is a sort of transnational thread which runs through much writing on the IWW, even if this thread is deliberately downplayed on occasion. A number of IWW histories place the IWW in a context of international labor and radical movements; the circulation of ideas within those movements; the transnational flows of migrants to, from, and through the U.S.; international events such as the First World War; and, to a lesser extent, the global economy. [Expand, give examples.] On the other hand, much of IWW history has sought to establish the IWW as a particularly American entity. This may have been in part an attempt to protect the contemporary IWW at the time – or to retroactively vindicate the IWW after the fact – from critics which used claims the IWW being un- and anti-American to underwrite all sorts of attacks on the IWW, only the least of which were rhetorical. [Expand.]


I would like to suggest some areas that a transnational approach to history – understood as a rejection of methodological nationalism – is appropriate to the study of the Industrial Workers of the World. A transnational approach is in keeping with the perspective declared by many members and publications of the IWW, and is appropriate to the transnational character of intellectual and cultural circulation within and through the IWW. Workers “have no country,” declared the Industrial Worker.4 The Red Flag” held that “the workers’ flag is deepest red,” against any particular national flags, irrespective of whether the workers were French or German, living in Moscow or Chicago. This sentiment would have been particularly striking in the eve of the First World War. Within the IWW, the song was first published in the Industrial Union Bulletin in 1908, in an article by James Wilson that asked “What is a “patriotic air” of which we hear so much and which is so much reverenced? Generally a song of praise to the virtues, such as hatred, cruelty, and avarice. The masters would persuade us that robbery is just, that cruelty is kind; and that hatred is pure love, when done under the particular flag of a national band of robbers. (…) They would teach our children at home to worship a piece of cloth consecrated by the stripes of negro slaves, and therefore a fit emblem to wave over the “bull-pen” of our own times.”5
The origins of the“The Red Flag” are transnational as well. The song was written in 1889 in England by James Connell. Connell claimed he was inspired by a dockworkers strike in London, land reform movements in Ireland, radicals in Russia, and the execution of anarchists in Chicago in the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing. The song was originally sung to the tune of a Scottish Jacobite song, “The White Cockade” and later sung to the tune of a German song, “Tannenbaum.”6
There is an additional sense of transnational history regarding the IWW. David Thelen writes that “the history we write emerges from the way we engage audiences.” For Thelen, part of moving beyond the national as a methodological framework within U.S. history means reading work by and writing for scholars from outside the U.S.7 In this sense, there are several other ways that a transnational approach is useful to the study of the IWW. The study of the influence of the IWW elsewhere in the world, both by emulation and by IWW members who left the U.S., is a relatively uncharted field. Similarly, other parts of the world outside the areas where the IWW operated is a relevant topic as well, as many members brought experiences of life and conflict in other locations into their experiences in the IWW. For both of these, scholarship by historians outside the U.S. is a valuable and largely untapped resource. In addition, more simply, the work of scholars in other countries and other languages is just as relevant as work done in the U.S. in English. Insofar as one can expect insight in any work of historical scholarship, the neglect of non-anglophone scholarship on the IWW negelects potential resources. Thelen makes a stronger claim about the importance of reading work by non-U.S. based scholars. “Foreign scholars, who by definition introduce texts and events from one culture to audiences from another, develop two approaches that can widen our approahces to the American past. First, foreign audiences expect comparison (….) Second, the foreign audiences of Americanist abroad occupy borderlands in which scholars must translate.” As a result, non-U.S. scholars can help U.S. based historians “jump start some stalled and overspecialized conversations.”8 [I must admit, I have found it tremendously difficult to find secondary sources on the IWW in languages other than English. I read Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, but reading ability alone is insufficient. I just don’t know where to look, other than google, for material in other languages on the IWW. I’ve found some material on the Italian reception of the IWW, but this is through one of my other interests, the history and marxist theory emerging out of the Italian far left in the 1960s and 1970s. I stumbled across IWW references in pursuit of material on that subject. Beyond that I’ve had little success finding non-English language IWW related material, particularly scholarly material.]9
Dubofsky is correct in a sense which he likely didn’t anticipate when he wrote that “IWW influence and effectiveness can not be measured in terms of organization membership” alone. (Dubofsky, 473. Dubofsky cites the tumult of the 1960s for a renewal of IWW scholarship during that decade. Within the US the IWW was an occasional reference point for people in the New Left. For one example which included members in the IWW in the 1960s, see Rosemont and Radcliffe Dancin’ in the Streets!. Rosemont’s introduction details his and his collaborators’ IWW membership and their own transnational connections and travels. Aside from attention paid to events and thinkers from around the world, the group corresponded with and met members of the far left groups Solidarity in London and members of the Situationist International in Paris. See also the references to the SDS – of which Rosemont was also a member – being inspired by or drawing upon the memory and history of the IWW in Bob Black’s essay and in Carl Davidson‘s The New Radicals In The Multiversity And Other SDS Writings On Student Syndicalism.)The memory of the IWW, its vision, tactics, and experiences have been put to use in other contexts after the union’s heyday. The uses of IWW history internationally offer another area where a transnational approach is relevant, though strictly speaking this would be a comparative and intellectual or cultural history rather than solely IWW history. For example, the IWW has been invoked by some on the Italian left for some time. In the 1990s a project was put forward to start an organization based on the IWW, and in the early 21st century the labor activist group Chainworkers have cited the IWW as an inspiration for a Europe-wide network of retail workers and welfare/labor rights advocates. [Cite.] In the 1970s in Italy the IWW was also a source of inspiration, and a way to intervene in political debates at the time. The historian and leftist Bruno Cartosio states that
“When we approached the IWW in Primo Maggio, the journal that Bologna, Franco Mogni, Primo Moroni and myself started in 1972 (and appeared in 1973), we studied the wobblies as an example of a non-leninist organization of the working class. And we were interested both in reviving the debate on workers’ organization and in reintroducing it into the Italian – and the
international, or at least European – left.”10 (For a point of comparison on what Cartosio and company were rejecting, see Steve Wright, “A Party of Autonomy?” and Bologna, “The Tribe of Moles.” Uses of the history and memory of the IWW would itself make for an interesting comparative project, spanning both historiography linked to political views – Foner’s history, for instance, while very useful, definitely reflects his adherence to the Communist Party’s outlook – and radical movements and organizations which could themselves perhaps be compared to the IWW within the history of radicalism and social movements.)
“[T]he first issue” of Primo Maggio, “appearing in September 1973 (…) was largely devoted to the Wobblies. Soon to become something of a myth among Italian New Leftists interested in American problems, actually the IWW – with its complex dialectic of spontaneity and organization, independence from parties’ politics, and deep, although temporary, participation in early twentieth-century mass struggles – seemed to sum up the main points of the project for a militant, bottom-up history indicated by the magazine.” (Fasce, 603. Primo Maggio aspired to be at one and the same time both a history journal and a living leftwing project in the present, connected to Italian movements and the organization Potere Operaio. See Steve Wright, Storming Heaven, 191-193 for the discussion of the IWW in Primo Maggio in particular. There is much on Primo Maggio over all throughout the book. See also material by Sergio Bologna [below], and the articles by Fasce and Bonazzi respectively.)

[Cut this later:

Sergio Bologna describes Primo Maggio as follows:

“While it is true that its founders were members of Potere Operaio (Lapo Berti, Franco Gori, Andrea Battinelli, Guido de Masi, myself), its main focus was on placing itself within a network of initiatives of self organisation at the level of political culture and formation ‘at the service of the movement’. Primo Moroni’s bookshop Calusca in Milan was the most original and important of these initiatives. If Primo Maggio had not joined this network, it would have never exercised the influence that is only today being recognised. From this standpoint, Steve Wright is right to place it in the tradition of Italian operaismo. In fact while Primo Maggio explicitly recognised itself in that experience and openly claimed continuity with it, for Negri operaismo was already dead in 1973 and the history of operaismo was concluded with the end of Classe Operaia. Primo Maggio was also able to produce interesting, new and forward looking material in the analyses of financial capital, the welfare state, history and class composition because its editorial board comprised of comrades who differed in age and experience from ‘classical operaismo’, such as Cesare Bermani, Bruno Cartosio, Marco Revelli, Christian Marazzi and Marcello Messori.

The fundamental difference between Primo Maggio and Autonomia Operaia and the reason it seems wrong and confusing to put them in the same basket lies in their concept of their roles as intellectuals. At Primo Maggio, we aimed to change the rules of the status of disciplines; we were interested in innovating in the areas of the methodology of history, sociology, economics and political science. We felt very close to journals such as Sapere, which had a similar role in the field of scientific disciplines (physics, medicine etc.); but since we did not think of ourselves as new Braudels or Einsteins or Webers, we, like the comrades at Sapere, felt that in the end the most important objective was that of changing the ‘social role’ of the university lecturer, doctor, physicist, sociologist, lawyer, architect and so on. On this premise the role of the political intellectual needed to change too, from being a new Lenin or a new Robespierre, into being a ‘service provider’ for the decentralised movement, capable of offering the movement a better understanding of itself, of opening up new possibilities. This is how we prematurely came to perceive that the Fordist mode of production was declining to give way to a new mode of production, now conventionally called ‘postfordism’, which contained in itself both elements of liberation from work, and elements of increased capitalist exploitation.” (From his review of Storming Heaven.)

Bologna also writes that “Primo Maggio was not even a political elite. Rather, we had refused our role as a political elite to put ourselves instead in the role of that techno-scientific intelligentsia which excavated within the disciplines. So, we wanted to excavate within the historical disciplines to make history in another way. You read Primo Maggio and it is not a political journal, in the sense that it is a journal … for the transformation of historical methodology. In the sense of transformation also of historigraphical language which has an enormous importance in political language.” (From his interview with Patrick Cunninghame.)

Unrelated but I like it very much:

“Without a clear understanding of Fordian forms of labor, we will never arrive at a true, deep awareness of the meaning of flexibilisization in the New Economy, and we can never grasp the fundamental differences between these epochs. Moreover, there would otherwise be a danger of our being tempted to consider the new so new and incomparable, so rich in future and poor in past, that we simply give up the heuristic power of historical knowledge.” (From his interview “No Past? No!”) ].

[Also the non-U.S. sections of the IWW, and their relationships between each other.]


There are two other fruitful angles to pursue. One would be to closely read the proceedings of the founding convention. The proceedings contain many references to international correspondence and the international labor movement. For example here, here, here, here, and here.

A second would be to do a comparative study of the organizations in dialog with the IWW, either as peers or as inspiration. The labor unions mentioned outside the U.S. in the founding convention Proceedings would be a good immediate starting place, along with unions and organizations which migrant IWW members either belonged to before or after their IWW involvement, like the Swedish SAC. See Pannekoek for mention of German industrial unions. Also, the IWA was founded in 1922 (I believe in December), look up references to this in the IWW press around that time. I’m not aware of any studies of this nature. Gerald Friedman’s State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914 mentions the IWW exactly twice both times only in passing, and both times in the context of failure. (150, 278.) Sima Lieberman’s Labor Movements and Labor Thought: Spain, France, Germany, and the United States consigns the IWW to a similarly minor role. (246-248.)

IUB v2 no31, March 6 1909, ran a translation of article by Ernst Rieger about German unions, criticizing the dominant unions and praising an organization called “The Free Union of German Syndicalists” and a report from an IWW sympathizer attempting to build industrial unionism in Britain.

[ IWW cultural and intellectual history — Salerno on the two being partly the same, founding convention correspondences etc ; the history of individual members who led globe-crossing lives and both how they influenced the IWW and spread the IWW’s influence elsewhere; international organizational ties and activities; the transnational economic and political elements which formed part of the context in which the IWW acted; assessment of IWW treatment as proto-transnational or not.]

[The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History, David Thelen, intro to JAH v86#3 dec 1999, intro online at
Thelen quotes Randolph Bourne, that “that the United States “is coming to be, not a nationality, but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.” More than eighty years later, scholars have shared Bourne’s vision of Americans as people whose individual lives and identities involve multiple, rich “threads” and his suspicion of those who invoke the nation-state”

“ the prefix trans suggests three angles for observing the encounter of phenomena we are interested in—popular culture, politics, migration—with the nation-state. We might imagine from afar how the phenomenon passed over the nation, observing the nation as a whole; or how it passed across the nation, seeing how it bumped over natural and manmade features; or how it passed through the nation, transforming and being transformed. And, we hoped, transnational history would convey the open-endedness both of the past and of our desire to explore border crossings and to look critically at the nation-state itself.”


[See the symposium on Dubofsky’s “We Shall Be All” in Labor History, August, 1999]