A friend quoted a bit from a work by Gilles Dauve. The quote’s wrong.

The quote goes “The IWW, an organization of radical economic struggle, born in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, had historical roots which extended back to Owen’s theory of One Big Union (ca. 1830). The workers in the IWW were organized by factory and by industry. The IWW had various tendencies, one of which—a minority—asserted the need to form an alliance with a revolutionary political party; this tendency was inspired by DeLeon and was actually excluded from the IWW. The DeLeonist SLP and the workers groups under its influence worked in parallel with but separately from the IWW. DeLeon thought a party distinct from the unions was necessary in order to destroy the State: once this purely negative act had been consummated, the party would be eclipsed by the unions’ administration of society. The majority of the IWW’s membership rejected this dual party/unions structure, and wanted to make the IWW the sole revolutionary organization. Dannenberg, having arrived from America, led a small unionist tendency in Braunschweig, and was undoubtedly influenced by DeLeon. The greatest difference between the IWW and anarchosyndicalism was the IWW’s dedication to the principle of the factory organization.

The IWW was considered to be a sympathetic but confused movement, or as one of those rare cases of a workers organization which was “not manipulated” from outside by a “party”. It played a role in the formation of the German Left. When the KAPist worker P. Mattick immigrated to the USA in 1926, he joined the IWW. The IWW’s real nature must be acknowledged, as well as its failure in 1914, just like that of the parties and trade unions against which it carried out such an effective struggle. Its failure was not due only to its repression, which it had neither wanted to prepare for nor was capable of confronting. From its founding in 1905, it tried to remain on the margin of political groups, but it had an overwhelming tendency to ignore the question of power as well as that of the destruction of the State. It was more apolitical than antipolitical.[18] The IWW’s 1916 congress called for the organization of a general strike in case of war. Just like the resolutions of the Second International (cf. Chapter 4), this proposal would not be respected. A minority fraction demanded the implementation of the decisions of the 1916 congress when the US entered the war in April 1917. The IWW’s General Executive Board, after long deliberation, refused to do so. Even after April 1917, when the IWW was under attack by the State and armed gangs (assassinations, arrests, destruction of its offices), the GEB took no action. B. Haywood, the IWW leader, stated that everything would return to the way it was before the war and that the organization would rebuild itself. For the next two years, the IWW restricted its defensive activity to the legal system . . . which the State itself did not respect.19 The war revealed its limitations, just as it had exposed those of the trade unions and socialist parties.” It’s from here: http://libcom.org/files/Chapter%209%20-%20Revolutionary%20syndicalism%20and%20unionism.pdf

I wrote a reply and it got long so I figure I’ll keep it here.

This is really underwhelming. Lots of unsupported assertions with the occasional profound sounding vagueness. For instance: “The IWW’s real nature” – meaning what? “its failure in 1914”- meaning what? “it had an overwhelming tendency to ignore the question of power” – meaning what? There’s a lot to criticize about the early IWW, but it would require more substantive engagement with the actual organization.

This quote annoys me because Dauve’s a respected figure in some far left circles and he says a great deal that’s either false, misleading, or unsubstantiated speculation, which shouldn’t be passed off as truth.

So, getting into some of the details – I’m skeptical about the supposed connection to Owen. It’s an interesting idea but Dauve offers no evidence of that other than an asserted terminological similarity. (The first footnote after that claim is unrelated.) I suspect he’s doing the philosopher thing of mistaking terminological parallels for actually existing historical relationships. I don’t remember seeing that claim in anything else on the IWW I’ve read. I did some googling and there are references to Owen in attacks on the idea of the one big union, dating from the 1910s through the 1930s. But those are comparisons, they don’t establish actual connections, and they’re polemical comparisons (comparing the idea of one big union to a scheme by a utopian socialist business owner would have been rhetorically useful back then.) As far as I can tell, Owen never used the term one big union. He called for a ‘grand national consolidated trade union.’ That’s basically one big union, but I don’t seen any evidence there’s any actual connection. There is a 1938 pamphlet the IWW published, written by Justus Ebert, that cites Owen’s Grand National idea as a fore-runner of the IWW. I’ve got the first 3 IWW conventions in PDF. Text search=no mention of Owen. So I think Dauve’s wrong there. There is another 19th century socialist who it’s really established was an influence on the IWW’s official ideas and in the idea of many of its member – Marx. That Dauve claims the IWW has roots in Owen’s ideas but says nothing about Marx despite the Preamble quoting him… that’s sloppy at best.

I’m not sure that the exclusion of DeLeon was primarily ideological as this implies. I don’t know either way, can’t remember from what I’ve read, and Dauve doesn’t cite any sources for that. I also think it’s kind of inaccurate to say that a minority wanted an alliance with a political party. Again I can’t remember too clearly but I think the first convention proceedings are ambiguous on this point – and I think the ambiguity points toward DeLeon-style views being pretty widespread. So I think the organization probably started out more pro-political (in the sense Dauve is using it, I think, and in the electoral sense of the word that was common in the early 20th century.) I think it’s more likely that a lot of people in the early IWW started out more in favor of electoralism and changed their minds over time in the IWW. Among other things Haywood was on the exec board of the SP until 1912 or 1913. That’s not the same as ‘alliance with a political party’ but it’s close, and speaks to how electoral positions had more currency for a while after the SLP people left. The Haywood example also shows how those positions evolved rapidly rather than being totally fixed. Haywood was far from alone, too. Loads of IWW members were in the SP until the expulsions in 1913. Here again Dauve’s sloppy and oversimplifies – it wasn’t just DeLeon who “thought a party distinct from the unions was necessary” and it’s not at all clear what proportion of the IWW’s membership rejected that idea when. It’s definitely clear, because of the large numbers of IWW members in the SP, that lots of members still believed in this idea until 1913.

He doesn’t specify what he means by failures in 1914. If that’s meant to be a claim about the IWW not opposing the war, that’s straight up false. The IWW opposed the war in print and in action.

It’s a bit unclear what Dauve means by apolitical and antipolitical here. I think by 21st century notions of political (in the sense of non-electoral politics) the IWW was really obviously deeply political. Calling the early IWW ‘apolitical’ by today’s uses of the terms political and apolitical is just silly. If political here in the Dauve quote means something about state politics (such that communism is supposed to be antipolitical) then there’s a bit more substance to that claim but only a bit, and once again Dauve fast and loose with the facts. A more accurate statement would be that the IWW’s positions were diverse and evolving. At the founding convention the IWW affirmed the need to act on both the economic and the political field. Political then probably meant electoral politics. The organization’s official stance of electoral politics changed pretty rapidly though and it reject that. But after that change, lots of members remained interested in and supportive of electoral politics, as evidenced by their SP membership. That too evolved though, because many of the IWW members in the SP came to reject electoral politics while remaining members (making them somewhat similar to organizational dualist anarchists today). That was part of what led to the expulsion from the SP in 1913. There were more strongly anti-state currents in the IWW too, that Dauve might call antipolitical. Summarizing a multi-tendency organization that changed its mind officially and had the internal tendencies change rapidly by saying “yeah it was basically apolitical” as Dauve does is goofy. As smart as Dauve is, that’s either hella lazy or intellectually dishonest.

As for the stuff on the general strike against war and whatnot, I’m open to the idea that the IWW made mistakes in how responded to the war. But the implication here is that the IWW made conservative decisions in response to the war. That’s possible. It should be addressed substantively, though, and there’d need to be some evidence that another course of action would have appeared feasible to people at the time. It’s also my understanding that the organization’s members did a variety of things, while Dauve reduces the organization to the (in)actions of the GEB. That’s an especially funny mistake for a left communist who supposedly has an analysis of how formal organizations and their members aren’t identical.

It’s also really misleading for him to say ‘the GEB failed to pass a resolution calling for a general strike against the war in April 1917, and then all they did was legal defense for the next two years.’ If you look here – http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/unions/iww/timeline.htm – the Speculator mine strike is after April 1917 as is everything after that strike, including both massive repression (which Dauve mentions but barely), serious strike activity in industries that were basically militarized because of demand for their products for the war effort (keep in mind WWI doesn’t end until late 1918), and armed self defense by wobblies. So, Dauve’s wrong and hella sloppily so there. It’s been a long time since I read the Dubofsky book that Dauve cites and I don’t think that book is all that good but I would be shocked if Dubofsky doesn’t cover this stuff.

Finally, if the IWW was so ineffectual in opposing the war and US capitalism, why the creation of criminal syndicalism laws, and the deportations, imprisonments, and murders of IWW members? Over all, that excerpt and the lack of evidence in the piece (he cites three sources on the IWW) sounds to me like Dauve set out to confirm some and ideas through a really cursory look at minimal evidence.