So I was working on another post and remember I’d written this thing, which I thought I had put up on the blog before but which apparently I didn’t (I couldn’t find it, anyway). It’s from when I had plans to study the IWW. During that time I also wrote this and this and this.


This talk is part of an overall project, the working title for which is “IWW Marxism.” Two caveats – I’m not trying to say all of the IWW was the same. I’m really talking about some parts – big and important ones, though – of the IWW, and mostly prior to the 1920s. I’m also not trying to establish the IWW as being capital ‘m’ Marxist in order to claim the IWW for the marxist tradition or to subsume them into some lineage. My goals are different. First, I want to argue for the relevance of the IWW to marxism. Second, I want to loosen or blur some of the lines drawn around what is and is not considered properly marxist. Third, I consider this work to be part of a broad anti-bolshevik and libertarian marxist and communist tradition.

This project is shaping up to have two general parts. One part is dedicated to tracing the influence of the IWW outside the union’s immediate context in space and time. I don’t really talk about that here, but if people would like to discuss it I would love to do so. This part might be considered “IWW memory studies,” investigating the ways the IWW was taken up productively in different places and times. The second part is about ideas held by people in the IWW. Paul Buhle wrote in his 1987 _Marxism in the United States_ that “[t]he Intellectual-political side of the Industrial Workers of the World has been badly neglected by traditional historians.” (Buhle, 282.) Since then, a few works have appeared which begin to redress this neglect, but only a few. This neglect is part of what I’m beginning to work on, trying to balance the scales a bit. Basically, I’m interested in treating the wobblies as having ideas worth taking seriously. One way to put this is that I want to treat the wobblies as having a theory connected with their practice, and I want to take this theory seriously in the present in the same way that other radical moments or movements and traditions are taken seriously and drawn upon in the present, like Lenin and Gramsci and the early 20th century Communists, or various instances within the history of feminism.

My talk is titled “Industrial Unionism and the Chicago Idea.” The Chicago Idea refers to the IWW’s founding in Chicago and to its being a revolutionary project. Industrial Unionism refers to the IWW’s organizational model. In a nutshell, industrial unionism is the idea that all workers in an industry should be in the same union, with an industry being defined by the product made rather than the tool used. (Savage, 3.) Marion Savage writes that this organizational form “is based on the conception of the solidarity of labor, or at least of that portion of it which is in one particular industry.” (Savage, 4.) While this worthwhile in and of itself, despite some of the IWW’s occasional rhetoric it’s not clear to me that this is in and of itself a revolutionary idea, particularly given that there have been and are non-revolutionary industrial unions. The IWW’s particular version of industrial unionism was revolutionary industrial unionism. It is my view that the IWW’s revolutionary industrial unionism constituted a coherent theory of revolutionary organization and revolutionary transition, or at least a coherent enough theory to be taken as seriously as others such as Bolshevik ideas about the Party and the seizure of the state and Gramscian ideas about hegemony and the war of position.

Thomas McEnroe writes that “a good deal of the intellectual inheritance of [the IWW] was Marxian,” (111), citing among other things a piece in the Industrial Worker which stated that the IWW “adheres to the bed-rock economic facts enunciated by Karl Marx.” (115.) McEnroe lists three main points on which the IWW can be described as Marxian – economic determinism, class struggle, and the labor theory of value. While the Industrial Union Bulletin did run a regular column called Economic Determinism and while the IWW did write of progress and historical outmodedness (such as the outmoded craft unions of the AFL that many wobblies loved to rail against), the IWW’s economism boiled down to an assertion that the point of production was the place for struggle. This lent itself to the IWW’s understanding of class and class struggle: there are two primary classes, those who live from the purchase of labor power and those who live from the sale of labor power. This analysis rested upon the analysis of surplus value, that the purchaser of labor power paid a purchase price, that is, a wage, lower than the total value produced as a result of putting labor power to work.

Engels wrote in his 1847 “The Principles of Communism” that “Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.” ( Or, as Marx and Engels put it, in the German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” ( Engels later described the communist project as “the future conversion of political rule over men into an administration of things and a direction of processes of production” (, very similar wording here –

The IWW can be considered a communist organization under these Marxist definitions. This is perhaps part of why Rocker wrote in his Anarcho-Syndicalism that “What chiefly distinguished the I.W.W. from the European Syndicalists was its strongly defined Marxist views.” The IWW doctrine disagreed, however, with some of Lenin’s writings on communism. (Perhaps this is part of why Lenin attacked the IWW in his Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.) Lenin wrote in State and Revolution that “the transition from capitalist society–which is developing towards communism–to communist society is impossible without a “political transition period”, and the state in this period can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” During this transition period, “there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie.” (

The ‘General Rules of The International Workingmen’s Association, which both Marx and Engels cited approvingly afterward (Marx here – – and Engels here – ), declared that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” ( The IWW was more in line with this position than Lenin, at least the 1901 Lenin of What Is To Be Done. Lenin approvingly quotes from the “profoundly true and important words of Karl Kautsky,” that “Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so (…) The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia (…) Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously (…) the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle.” Against this idea, the IWW believed that revolutionary consciousness could and did arise from the class struggle without the assistance of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This was connected to the belief that in terms of revolutionary potential the working class was a self-sufficient class and the union a self-sufficient organization, at least under the right conditions.

Some people in the early IWW described their goal as the creation of a cooperative commonwealth, defined as a condition where production is managed entirely by freely associated production. The term cooperative commonwealth appears in an 1884 book of the same name by Laurence Gronlund, and in the 1887 novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, who I believe got the term from Gronlund. Achieving the cooperative commonwealth for the IWW meant a the elimination of surplus value through raising what was counted as socially necessary labor time, that is, by increasing the portion of production which accrued to the working class, such that there would be no appropriation or imposition of surplus by anyone above the working class.

The immediate practice of the economic organization was to begin to implement this goal in three ways. One was the raising of costs to the capitalists and the wages and conditions of workers – raising socially necessary labor time by raising the cost of variable capital (that is, of labor power), thereby reducing surplus value which could be appropriated by the capitalists. The second was the form of organization. Industrial unions were to be organized as closely as possible to the way that production would be organized and managed in the cooperative commonwealth. Everyone in healthcare, for instance, would be part of the same industrial union in order to increase their efficacy in struggle and to increase their experience in and organization for self-management after the elimination of capitalism. This was the third implementation of the goal, the struggle itself. Struggle with the enemy class was a form of training. Rather than the vanguardist conception of the class ‘disciplined by production’ this conception is of the class organizing itself, training itself for and via class struggle in order increase its own capacities. Transition as training. This can be consider what Antonio Negri has described as an attempt to take up a position between spontaneism and voluntarism – the position starts with encounters with and among the class where it is at in its variety, which in turn change people and create new potentials, which then are themselves in turn the ground for new changes etc. (This might also be a less abstract and more useful way to describe the so-called aleatory materialism of late Althusser. It’s noteworthy both that Althusser sees the more historical passages of Marx as the most aleatory materialist and that Altussher references little about actual class struggle in formulating his aleatory materialism. See Philosophy of the Encounter.)

In 1913 Paul Brissenden wrote that “[s]yndicalism is the most modern phase of the revolutionary movement.” Brissenden hastened to add that “to express accurately what in French is implicit in the word “syndicalism,” it is necessary to make use of three words – Revolutionary Industrial Unionism,” the doctrine of the IWW. Brissenden noted that “the Industrial Workers of the World is not the first organization of workingmen built upon the industrial form. Even its revolutionary character can be traced back through other organizations” such as the Knights of Labor, the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union, the United Metal Workers International Union, the Brewery Workers, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. (Brissenden, 2.) Which is to say, the IWW did not drop from the sky but was the product of a process of thought based on earlier experiences and ideas.

The IWW founding convention in Chicago in June of 1905 resulted from a prior convention, also in Chicago, in January of that year, which in turn resulted from an informal meeting and exchanges of letters between radical unionists in November of 1904. The November 29th letter (sent after the meeting by Clarence Smith, George Estes, W.L. Hall, William Trautmann, Thomas Haggerty, and Isaac Cowan, and signed by Trautmann, Estes, Hall, Eugene Debs, Smith, and Charles Sherman) which called for the January conference states the need for “a labor organization builded as the structure of Socialist society, embracing within itself the working class in approximately the same groups and departments and industries that the workers would assume in the working class administration of the Co-Operative Commonwealth.” (Proceedings, 82-83. How this phrase traveled from the perhaps utopian and certainly co-operativist circles that read Gronlund and Bellamy and related material into the labor movement – or perhaps this is an anachronistic dichotomy, I can’t say – would be a worthwhile project.)

This organization would, in the words of a December 16th, 1904, letter from Hall to W.C. Critchlow of the International Laborers’ Union, “represent class conscious revolutionary principles.” (Proceedings, 94.)] (Incidentally, there was an exchange of letters between Hall and a W.C. Walsh of the Grand Lodge Switchmen’s Union of North America, resident in Minneapolis. Walsh expressed excitement at the proposed January conference and regret that his health prevented him from attending. If anyone has information about Walsh or the Switchmen’s Union I’d love to hear it.)

The January conference produced a document called the Industrial Union Manifesto, which called for the June convention at which the IWW was founded. This Manifesto called for an organization which would “build up within itself the structure of an Industrial Democracy – a Workers’ Co-Operative Republic – which must finally burst the shell of capitalist government, and be the agency by which the working people will operate the industries, and appropriate the products to themselves.” (Proceedings, 7. Any significance to “republic” vs “commonwealth”?) James Kennedy, in his article “How the IWW is Organized”, published in the May 1921 issue of the Industrial Pioneer, summed up the IWW’s aims in three points. “(1) To organize the workers in such a way that they can successfully fight their battles and advance their interests in their every-day struggles with capitalists. (2) To overthrow capitalism and establish in its place a system of Industrial Democracy. (3) To carry on production after capitalism has been overthrown.” (18.)

Savage wrote that for the IWW “capitalism will ultimately be overthrown” only “when the workers are thoroughly prepared for it, and when capitalism is ready to collapse (…) Meanwhile its forces must be undermined and practical concessions gained by means of guerilla warfare in the form of intermittent strikes and sabotage or the “strike on the job.”” (Savage, 151.) For the IWW, these smaller acts prior to the general strike were precisely the means through which the working class would become prepared to overthrow capitalism and to run society after this overthrow. Philip Foner wrote that “IWW strikes were fought to improve the economic welfare of the workers. Strike issues were higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. But every one of these strikes was a school in which the workers trained themselves.” Foner quoted an issue of the Industrial Worker saying “This training is most necessary to prepare the masses for the final ‘catastrophe,’ the general strike, which will complete the expropriation of the employers.” (Foner, 140.) Melvyn Dubofksy wrote that “To the convinced Wobbly, each battle, whether for higher wages or shorter hours, better food or better bedding, prepared the participant for the final struggle with the master class. Only by daily fights with the employer could a strong revolutionary organization be formed.” Dubofsky quoted the Industrial Union Bulletin, that “The very fights themselves, like the drill of an army, prepare the worker for ever greater tasks and victories.” (Dubofsky, 155.) This is reminiscent of Rosa Luxemburg’s remark that regardless of whether a strike or other action is ostensibly successful or not, they “have perhaps their most important effect as beginning points of union organization,” and that from many “such “unsuccessful” and “ill-advised” strikes (…) over and over arise the foundations of union organization.” (Theory and Practice part 2, Daniel DeLeon wrote in a March 4, 1905 article on the Industrial Union Manifesto that one function of the union is “to drill the membership of the working class in the habit of self-imposed discipline” – or, to train the class to use its capacities for self-organization – which will make workers’ class consciousness effective. (16-17.)

This is an important gloss on – or, better yet, a correction of a bad understanding of – Marx’s remark that working class is “disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.” (Capital v1 ch32,, a remark which Lenin cited in his “Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism” ( and repeated in his “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?,” saying “we have class-conscious workers disciplined by long capitalist “schooling” (it was not for nothing that we went to learn in the school of capitalism).” For DeLeon at this point and for the IWW, the workers’ created their own discipline through creating and in order to create their own organization, the class conscious and revolutionary industrial union in struggle against the capitalist class.

An article titled “Industrial Unionism” in the October 12, 1907 issue of the IUB stated that the IWW “teaches its members that each dispute in which they are involved is merely an incident in the great struggle between capital and labor – a struggle which can only be brought to an end by the overthrow of capital” and “this supreme end must be ever kept in view.” As a result “every incident in the life of the union, every skirmish with the employers is made the text for proletarian education.” (3.) Sophie Cohen, who was a child during the Paterson strike, said that “[t]he IWW left people with a taste for organization. Every time workers win a strike, it helps straighten out their backs a little bit more and lifts their heads a bit higher. Even though the big strike was lost in Paterson, there was a feeling of togetherness among the workers. (…) From then on, there were a series of strikes and every shop had to be reorganized. Every shop refought the eight hour day all down the line.” (Solidarity Forever, 68.)

The education of individual members occurred through the direct action of those workers themselves, defined by James Kennedy as “use of their economic power by the workers themselves” against any parliamentary or other substitution for workers’ own power. (21.) Powers Hapgood’s journal quoted a local IWW branch secretary named Jack Terrill who Hapgood met in Billings, Montana, in 1920. Terrill “was about to go to jail for seven years for being caught with an IWW song book.” Terrill expressed a theory of member education which as at the same time a theory of revolutionary transition: “If something should happen tomorrow so that the workers would have to run industry when they go to work tomorrow, there would be chaos. They are not educated up to that point, but the IWW is trying to organize them into one big union and educate them so that they can run industry when the time comes.” (Power Hapgood Papers, folder 3, p24.) This education occurred best through struggle:

“[T]he revolutionary character of the working class is best developed while the workers are engaged in actual struggle against the masters,” wrote Henry Van Dorn in an article in the July 1921 issue of the Industrial Pioneer, adding that “[a] well conducted strike will do more towards developing class-consciousness and radical sentiment than ten tons of revolutionary propaganda of a general nature.” (19.) The idea here is straightforward: struggle changes people. Being involved in struggle one’s self, instead of delegating one’s power to another, maximizes and shares the transformative effect of the struggle.

Buhle called the IWW the “vehicle of industrial socialism.” (97.) “Discussion of a more radical, more democratic” – and, according to Brissenden, more effective, at least in the eyes of the discussants – “style of unionism precipitated new insights into labor and the Marxist tradition.” (99.) In this conception, “the actual agency of socialism, preparing the society to come, was the industrial union itself. Its very structure (…) drafted the blueprint of a ‘government of things’ en route to replacing the government of politicians.” (100.)

Here’s one way to explain the IWW’s doctrine. For Marx, the commodity was the cell-form of capitalist society. For the IWW, the industrial union was the cell-form of the cooperative commonwealth or of socialism. The industrial union could be considered an instance of communism in the sense Marx gave of it, as the real movement which abolishes the existing order. The famous IWW slogan of building the new within the shell of the old was the production of these cells of the new society within capitalist society. [See also CLR James, The Invading Socialist Society; Mario Tronti’s problematic but still somewhat parallel reference {where, I forget?} to working class struggle as the eruption of the workers’ state under and against the present rule of capitalism.] Just as capitalism requires an accumulation of surplus value – that is, a reinvestment of wealth extracted via surplus labor in such a way that reinforces the ability to impose surplus labor – industrial unionism under capitalism requires an extension of gains made, power won, and class conscious developed until the cooperative commonwealth is established. [See also Tronti and others on the laws of labor instead of the laws of capital, and the ‘accumulation of struggle.’] “Under capitalism, the functions of the union are militant and aggressive; under the Socialist Republic they will be administrative only. This change of function will involve no internal transformation of the union, as it is precisely those powers whereby it can inflict injury upon the capitalist that will enable it to take up the work of production. It is precisely its control over production (…) that give[s] its power for militant action” and this power will be deployed for cooperative production after the end of capitalism. (“Industrial Unionism.”)

At the risk of belaboring the metaphor, if the industrial union is the cell of the new society, then the components of the cell are key to the health of that cell and its role in the creation of the new society. This means that the IWW’s theory of transition encompassed both the macro levels of conflict between the organization and companies and the conflict of class against class, but also the micro-level of development of individual members.


original proposal –
In 1905, the delegates to the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World came together to form One Big Union of the entire working class. The assembled delegates expressed opposition to two primary things: capitalism, and the prevailing form of working class organization. Against both, the delegates proposed the same answer: industrial unionism. These delegates didn’t invent industrial unionism, though. They refashioned it, and the IWW continued to refashion over the course of its existence.

A number of sources came together to form industrial unionism as the IWW preached and, to some extent, practiced it. The IWW’s different senses of industrial unionism were expressed in a variety of pamphlets, articles, and speeches within the wobbly milieu. In forming its versions of industrial unionism, the IWW drew from the experiences and (counter)cultures of the working classes at the time, and it varied within the IWW by geography and industry. IWW industrial unionism also drew upon prior historical experiences and theoretical discussions in the United States and elsewhere.

This presentation will survey and discuss the above material, and present what formed the core of IWW industrial unionism. It will also discuss significant variations to IWW industrial unionism, and obstacles to its implementation. Given the current state of the US labor movement, this history contains valuable lessons for the present.

various quotes —
Anton Pannekoek, _Workers’ Councils_

“the two forms of organisation and fight stand in contrast, the old one of trade unions and regulated strike, the new one of spontaneous strike and workers’ councils. This does not mean that the former at some time will be simply substituted by the latter as the only alternative. Intermediate forms may be conceived, attempts to correct the evils and weakness of trade unionism and preserve its right principles; to avoid the leadership of a bureaucracy of officials, to avoid the separation by narrow craft and trade interests, and to preserve and utilise the experiences of former fights. This might be done by keeping together, after a big strike, a core of the best fighters, in one general union. Wherever a strike breaks out spontaneously this union is present with its skilled propagandists and organisers to assist the inexperienced masses with their advice, to instruct, to organise, to defend them. In this way every fight means a progress of organisation, not in the sense of fees paying membership, but in the sense of growing class unity.

An example for such a union might be found in the great American union “Industrial Workers of the World” (I.W.W.). At the end of last century in contrast to the conservative trade unions of well-paid skilled labor, united in the “American Federation of Labor,” it grew up out of special American conditions. Partly out of the fierce struggles of the miners and lumbermen, independent pioneers in the wilds of the Far West, against big capital that had monopolised and seized the riches of wood and soil. Partly out of the hunger strikes of the miserable masses of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, accumulated and exploited in the factories of the Eastern towns and in the coal mines, despised and neglected by the old unions. The I.W.W. provided them with experienced strike leaders and organisers, who showed them how to stand against police terrorism, who defended them before public opinion and the courts, who taught them the practice of solidarity and unity and opened to them wider views on society, on capitalism and class fight. In such big fights ten thousands of new members joined the I.W.W., of whom only a small fraction remained. This “one big union” was adapted to the wild growth of American capitalism in the days when it built up its power by subjecting the masses of the independent pioneers.” (Pannekoek, 65-66)

“With the exception of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), the labour organisations in recent history were always considered as complementary to capitalism – as one of its assets. The objective observer must admit that all the organised and unorganised working masses are still under the sway of capitalism, because there developed with expanding capitalism not a labour movement, but a capitalist movement of labourers” (Paul Mattick, “Council Communism” . See also Steven Wright, “LEFT COMMUNISM IN AUSTRALIA: J. A. DAWSON AND THE SOUTHERN ADVOCATE FOR WORKERS’ COUNCILS” for info on the IWW and councilists in Australia.)

Gabriella M. Bonacchi wrote of a “convergence of the remnants of the IWW and the council communists” taking place between the two world wars. (“The Council Communists between the New Deal and Fascism,” “[M]iddle-European left-communists [who] chose to emigrate to the U.S. (…) proclaim[ed] the “fatal crisis of capitalism” and the ensuing “worldwide workers’ revolution,” (…) saw the U.S. as the strongest capitalist country with the most radical labor tradition (the IWW) -hence, as providing the ideal conditions for the rapid development of that class autonomy which in Europe had been handicapped by capitalism’s structural backwardness and by the labor movement’s tradition of reformism.” “[T]he theoretical debate [about the historical necessity or contingency of the revolution] that had tormented first the left-communists and then the council communists moved to the U.S. or, more precisely to the remaining active centers of the IWW.” cites “German militants connected with the IWW working in the new Chicagoer Arbeiter Zeitung, edited by [council communist Paul] Mattick” in the early 1930s.

Buhle: “the notion also proved the most internationally recognized theoretical or strategic perspective developed in the USA. Its popularization coincided with the great internationalization of the unskilled proletariat, from Glasgow to Berlin, Turin and Petrograd, and gave those movements a logic outside the Socialist parliamentarianism or fading anarchism. Thousands of craft workers, longtime sympathizers or new converts to a doctrine that met their own desire to resist the further degradation of their industrial autonomy, joined hands with the semi-skilled or held their own remarkable exercises in solidarity. The ideas and the drama of the Wobblies had helped make these developments coherent. Revolutionary industrial unionism was, then, also the first American doctrine to win political adherents in virtually every large-scale industrial center. In this case, if none other, the more Marxist, the more American and the more American, the more Marxist. (100.) “For Daniel DeLeon, at least during his involvement in the IWW, “the actual agency of socialism, preparing the society to come, was the industrial union itself. Its very structure, in DeLeon’s conception, drafted the blueprint of a ‘government of things’ en route to replacing the government of politicians. DeLeon’s formulation of industrial unionism’s revolutionary role marked a fascinating shift in American Marxist logic.” (99.)

tracing the influence of the IWW outside the union’s immediate context in space and time (for instance, the IWW as taken up by communists, particularly anti-bolshevik communists, between the two world wars, mainly the Dutch-German left, as taken up by the New Left in the US and Italy, and as taken up by Italians in the anti-globalization movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s.)

[IWW Manifesto, see Brissenden 6-7 and 17-18 in particular, 8-42 as well]



And, a second paper, abandoned in draft-and-note form, mostly about the late Althusser (trying to make links between the IWW and Althusser’s aleatory materialism, especially the stuff on catching a moving train).

– Late Althusser on voids, atoms, encounters, abandonment of causal origins
– keep in mind earlier Althusser on two points: voids are produced from within worlds (“no one chooses their starting point”), and everything is artifactual
– Althusser’s work is not an ontology (find refs where he scoffs at ontology) but rather is a thought of organization (find where he talks about organization). Thus his book Machiavelli and Us.
– this means, while beginnings must still occur, they are to some extent arbitrary, in the sense that one can always indicate a prior point in relation to any point taken as a starting point
-the IWW founding convention

— one doesn’t have to say “aleatory materialism” to effectively be an aleatory materialist.
— aleatory materialism is theory of practice (find references), it can thus be embodied in practices
— passage on the workers movement without marxism, IWW as something like that except it was informed by marxism but not lead by the official marxists, instead self led.

* * *

Badiou here parallels his one time teacher Louis Althusser. Althusser made rupture and break key aspects of his theoretical work. Althusser sees processes and procedures of break characterizing intellectual and political history. Althusser also abandoned causal predictive power and causal determinism.

In his late work, Althusser develops what he terms “aleatory materialism.” Althusser uses the metaphor “philosophy catches a moving train,” to describe what he means by aleatory materialism. [WHO? WAS IT AUGUSTO ILLUMINATI?] compares the aleatory materialist philosopher to an IWW member, a hobo freight-hopping to travel.

Althusser draws upon ancient atomist philosophy to develop his aleatory materialism. The account goes that there are two initial components before the world existed, atoms and the void. Atoms fall through the void, empty space, parallel to each other. They never touch each other and they have no relationships with each other. These two components do not suffice to form a world. A third component is needed, which will bring about relations between atoms. At least some atoms must encounter each other for a world to exist. That means at least one atom had to deviate from its path parallel to all the others, in order to run into another atom or atoms. The name of this swerving off of the parallel line is “clinamen,” which means “swerve.” The swerve of one atom away from a parallel line is what makes encounter between atoms possible.

Encounter alone is not enough to form a world. The atom which swerves might bounce off the atom it encounters, and get bumped back into its original path or some other path parallel to all other atoms. To form a world, there must be a relationship established during the encounter. The encounter or its effects must last.

There is no guarantee that an encounter will happen or that it or its effects will last. Even if they do last, there is no guarantee that the effects will continue to last. There is a world, so swerve must have happened, which means encounters must be possible, and lasting encounters or encounters with lasting effects must be possible. Still, none of this had to happen. The world could have not come into existence at all, or it could have come into existence with different traits. Its current make up may change. It may cease to last, that is, cease to last.

In atomism, under Althusser’s discussion of it, in a sense the world already contains everything it needs. The pieces need rearranging, certainly, but such a rearranging is possible. Aatoms are capable of swerve. They are capable of encounters, and they are capable of making encounters last. They are, of course, also capable of continuing to fall parallel to each other such that encounter do not occur and they are capable of disentangling themselves from encounters such that the effects do not last.) The point is that there are capabilities. Capabilities do not determine outcomes, and outcomes do not indicate the absence of capabilities. To think otherwise is a mistake.

Any assertion of absence of capabilities forcecloses the aleatory, the openness of possibility, the prospect for swerve, encounter, maintaining of encounter or its effects, and dissolution of encounter or its effects. The world has (the atoms have) all the capacities they need. They can swerve, encounter, maintain encounters, construct worlds, and dissolve worlds.

To say the world has all the capacities it needs does not, of course, mean the world is fine. The world needs a lot of different actualities, and a lot of actualities in the world need to be dissolved. The point is that the path from this world – a far cry from the best of all possible worlds – to better worlds starts here. To get from point A to point C starts at point A. That is to say, what is valuable in this perspective is to orient us toward what is as our starting point. The problem is not one of impossibility – inability to pierce ideology, incapacity to free ourselves from consumerism, and any of a number of despairing lamentations. The problem is that the current actuality must be abolished and – which is to say the same thing – a new actuality is to be produced using our capacities. Asserting impossibility is simply to state that one hasn’t started.

Again, though, there are no guarantees. Encounters may well not happen or not last last. Encounters that last for a time may cease to last. One should never mistake “did not happen” or “has not happened” for “could not have happened” or, even worse “can not happen.”

Althusser’s work on atoms is not a claim about actual atoms and void or the origin of the world. The point is one about possibility and guarantees. There are no guarantees. Althusser uses ancient atomism to think his way out of some bad habits of thought within the Marxist tradition and within philosophy. One such habit is taking the accomplished fact of something’s existence – say, the world – as if to mean it had to exist this way, or that it had to exist. Another version is a certainty as to outcomes – what will and will not, can and can not, happen next. The doctrine of the inevitable passage from capitalism to communism is an example of this insistence on certainty.

The swerve of the atoms essentially serves for Althusser to distance himself from a certain of causality as centrally important. The point is not so much why something did or did not happen, and certainly not that something must have happened or could not have happened, but rather simply that it did happen or did not happen, or does happen or does not happen. Actuality, the material world as it is, that’s the starting point.

Along these same lines, it’s important not to read the swerve of the atom as an external occurrence, a hand which reaches down and knocks the atom out of its parallel course. That reintroduces a causal perspective, a “must be” or “can not be,” the logic – or rather, the fantasy – of the guarantee. The emphasis is simply that atoms swerve sometimes. If we can identify conditions when swerve seems to happen more often, then we can seek to replicate those conditions, remembering, of course, that outcomes are not guaranteed of pre-determined.

Halfway through “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter” Althusser writes that the history of philosophy given in the first half is all “historical remarks” – on the history of philosophy – and is “just a prelude” to what he is interested in discussing in Marx. (188.) This suggests that the apparatus of void, atoms, and so forth, functions as a mechanism to acquire a certain sensibility, rather than as a set of beliefs or claims about ontology.

Althusser operates two functions here. One function is the production of a new reading of Marx. This new reading a new count of the multiple which is Marx and Marxism, one which sheds determinism and appeal to causal origins.

The second function is the abandonment of those bad habits of thought. The proposed reading of Marx is an example of thought which has shed those habits, and would be a way to inculcate the better sentiment in readers. This implies then that the remarks on the history of philosophy themselves are needed only insofar as they accomplish the acquisition of this sensibility. Anything that gives – or rather, anything which one can use to acquire – this same sensibility, then, should be considered of roughly equal value, judged in terms of achieving an aleatory materialist approach. Further, the use of the term “materialism” in naming this sensibility is “only for the sake of convenience” since “we need, after all, some word to designate the thing.” (171.) Aleatory materialism “has been christened ‘materialism’ only provisionally.” (189.) This also suggests that Marx and Marxism are only tools which can be used by working class movements, rather than necessary conditions for the success of these movements. [FIND PASSAGE IN P.O.E. ON THIS, CITE AND QUOTE.]

Central to aleatory materialism is an abandonment or bracketing out of philosophical themes of origins, final ends, and ultimate causes. (192.) This can be taken to suggest that the search for underlying causes and originating circumstances does little philosophical or other practical work: knowing where capitalism came from does not tell one how to respond to capitalism, nor does it determine a definite and determinable end to capitalism. On the other hand, if this is so, then the story of the atoms is further relativized. The series void-atoms-swerve-encounter is itself an origin story. If origin does little work, then the same must be said of the origin of worlds via collisions of atoms within some void. This suggests that the story of the encounter of the atoms is, so to speak, a negligible origin story, the purpose of which is to render origins (origin functions?) negligible. This origin story is thus something like a ladder in the sense in which Wittgenstein characterized his own ideas: having climbed up it to a new locale, one no longer needs the old ladder.

Put differently, Althusser’s atomist origin story has succeeded when it makes hearers become indifferent to origin stories, and to a search for definite outcomes based on a present state of affair. This indifference means that one must act: outcomes result from interventions, not the inertial following out of an already existing trajectory. Furthermore, outcomes are only identifiable after the fact, “by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction.” (193.) It is my view that this point can be expanded to include Althusser’s aleatory materialism as a whole. Aleatory materialism’s content is largely negative and its salutary function is to help one shed bad habits of theoretical practice picked up elsewhere.

It is ironic to polemicize against origins while at the same time invoking Marx’s remarks on the origins of capitalism in primitive accumulation. The point, however, is that the origin of capitalism is only identifiable after the fact. More strongly, the origin of capitalism is only the origin after the fact (actually a rather Hegelian thesis, in a sense), in that the result is not contained in the initial moment but may well have been averted.

Althusser himself is in tension with aleatory materialism. (This tension is consistent with Althusser’s description, which sounds rather like the dialectics of hegelian marxists I have known and liked, of every philosophy containing its opposite due to the polemical occupation of positions. See notes on “Letters to Fernanda Navarro.”) Althusser writes that the encounter constitutive of capitalism, the encounter in the market between owners of labor power and owners of money, “occurred several times in history before taking hold in the West, but, for lack of an element or a suitable arrangement of the elements, failed to ‘take’.” (198.) This lack must not be thought of as a condition wherein capitalism could not possible have come about. To think that would reintroduce idealism within aleatory materialism. The conditions at the beginning of capitalism were more or less present at some different occasions when and where capitalism did not begin, but the point is simply that capitalism did not begin prior to its beginning. Little else can be said on this (we must pass over the rest in silence, to paraphrase Wittgenstein) without positing a certain determining causal factor which would fly in the face of Althusser’s protestations against origins and final causes and which would, in doing so, become a variant of the philosophy of history Althusser finds and opposes in Marx.

It should be noted that while the late Althusser took back many of his earlier arguments, the earlier work does contain valuable points for considering the aleatory materialism of the late work.

“The contingency of Marx’s beginning was this enormous layer of ideology beneath which he was born, this crushing layer which he succeeded in breaking through, Precisely because he did deliver himself, we tend too easily to believe that the freedom he achieved at the cost of such prodigious efforts and decisive encounters was already inscribed in this world, and that the only problem was to reflect.” (74-75.) There are several points. First, Marx’s discovery – the epistemological break, which for Althusser characterizes all decisive theoretical production, not only Marx’s – is in a sense supernumerary, it is not already present in a given (ac)count or field. It is also aleatory, in the sense of not being given or determined in advance. The break reconfigures the terrain in/from which it occurs. “[N]o great discovery has ever been made without bringing to light a new object or a new domain, without a new horizon of meaning appearing, a new land in which the old images and myths have been abolished – but at the same time the inventor of this new world must of absolute necessity have prepared his intelligence in the old forms themselves;” without familiarity with these forms “he could never have conceived new ones with which to think the new object” produced within the old field (the new within the shell of the old!). (85.)

The break also qualifies Althusser’s writings on void and atoms in the later work.
Althusser writes: “it is impossible to choose one’s beginnings”(64), adding later that “we all have to be born some day, somewhere, and begin thinking and writing in a given world. For a thinker, this world is immediately the world of the living thoughts of his time, the ideological world where he is born into thought. For Marx, this world was the world of the German ideology of the 1830s and 1840s, dominated by the problems of German idealism” (74).

Later Althusser uses the analogy of the ancient atomist picture of the world’s origin: atoms falling in a void encounter one another after deviating from their lines of fall parallel to each other. It would be easy to take this to imply a sort of creation from nothing. Encounters don’t happen in a void, however. They happen in a world. Or, if encounters happen in a void, the void is a product produced in a world. This is the sense in which Althusser writes that philosophy makes a void [look up and quote, ‘faire le vide’ in POE]. Philosophy is a labor (a Generality 2, in Althusser’s rather awkward terminology elsewhere) which works on something which it takes – which it treats ‘as if’ – given, in the sense of treating it as a raw material (a Generality 1, which is not actually given but is a product) in order to produce a new product (a Generality 3; the conjunction or series of the 3 generalities defines theoretical practice as a mode of production).

Marx quoted Spinoza (much beloved of Althusser) in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, writing that the identity of production and consumption is an expression of the dictum that determination is negation. Althusser’s labor of determining was also a labor of negation: producing the new (an epistemological break) from a location in the old, an old which was itself once the new and is the product of a prior determination or negation. Making is unmaking is remaking.

Althusser’s three generalities are an extension of the concept of labor, applied to theoretical practice. Any laborer labors upon something, and produces something. The product then can be labored upon by another or others. The ‘ram material’ labored upon is itself a product of a prior labor. The laborer as well is a product both of the laborer’s own labor – laboring produces the worker as worker – as well as the product of past (both waged and unwaged) labors of production and reproduction. This is a very straightforward use of concepts from Marx [FIND QUOTE].

Althusser foregrounds the point that, for the purposes of marxism, everything is an artifact, a product, including the artificer/producer. Historical or aleatory materialism involves close analysis of what is produced, in what way, in what conditions, by whom and for whom, and what happens to the products and producers afterward. Strictly speaking, of course, there is no finite and definable afterward, because production is ongoing. The limits of the field of inquiry are not specifiable in a way which be exhaustively accounted for. That is, all inquiries in marxism point beyond themselves, and have an element of arbitrarity in their limits.


Aleatory materialism is a thought of practice(s) and organization(s). What I said earlier about labor applies to organizations. Organizations are products and organizing is a form of practice. Organizations are organized by a labor of organization – conducted by organizers shaped by past and current organizing – from prior organizations. Organizations then in turn act upon and are acted upon by other organizations and other organizers. We can see this in the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Before turning to the founding convention, I want to clarify the claim that organizations are formed out of past organizations. It is important to note that the claim here is not one about formal organizations. Informal organizations count as organizations. Indeed, informal organization is the animating force of formal organization. [Define informal work group, define political and technical composition of the class, quote Marx quoting Aristotle on the zoon politikon. This may give rise to a paradox in that the claim essentially amounts to the following two claims: there is a capacity for organization, and there is actual organization. It is not politically sufficient to say that in any existing situation there is always-already organization. Clearly some organization is better than other forms, and the stakes of that better are enormous. On the other hand, it is important to note that capacity for organization is derived from a claim about actuality: that there is currently organization means that organization is possible, since an impossible actuality is a contradiction in terms. There is a counterfactual but the possibility of organization is not it. The counterfactual is that current existing organization can be interrupted – that a break can occur – in a way which (or by the the act or process which) produces a new organization.]

Within worlds voids are created. Within voids atoms collide, atoms come together. These encounters produce new worlds. Worlds arise from within worlds, in a process of break. The new appears within the shell of the old.

The encounters which occurred in the formation of the IWW are inexhaustible logically, as with any description, and practically, as with any case of exciting historical events. In the case of the IWW, there are an infinity of individual biographies and organizational histories, each in turn composed of individual and organizational stories, every moment of which is an infinite series of encounters. These historical lines stretch backward and forward in time from the IWW’s founding convention. Researching and writing upon any of this material or any subset of this material could be a life’s work. I will limit myself here to addressing the IWW’s founding convention, as depicted in the published proceedings thereof.

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