(1) The Bold Design
When the Founding Convention of the IWW — the Industrial Workers of the World — assembled in Chicago in June, 1905, the general strike movement initiating the first Russian revolution was already under way, and its reverberations were heard in the convention hall. The two events coincided to give the world a preview of its future. The leaders at Chicago hailed the Russian revolution as their own. The two simultaneous actions, arising independently with half a world between them, signalized the opening of a revolutionary century. They were the anticipations of things to come.
The defeated Russian revolution of 1905 prepared the way for the victorious revolution of 1917. It was the “dress rehearsal,” as Lenin said, and that evaluation is now universally recognized. The Founding Convention of the MW was also a rehearsal; and it may well stand out in the final account as no less important than the Russian action at the same time.
The founders of the IWW were indubitably the original inspirers and prime movers of the modern industrial unions in the mass production industries. That is commonly admitted already, and that’s a lot. But even such a recognition of the IWW, as the precursor of the present CIO, falls far short of a full estimate of its historic significance. The CIO movement, at its present stage of development, is only a small down payment on the demands presented to the future by the pioneers who assembled at the 1905 Convention to start the IWW on its way.
The Founding Convention of the IWW brought together on a common platform the three giants among our ancestors — Debs, Haywood and De Leon. They came from different backgrounds and fields of activity, and they soon parted company again. But the things they said and did, that one time they teamed up to set a new movement on foot, could not be undone. They wrote a Charter for the American working class which has already inspired and influenced more than one generation of labor militants. And in its main essentials it will influence other generations yet to come.
They were big men, and they all grew taller when they stood together. They were distinguished from their contemporaries, as from the trade — union leaders of today, by the immensity of their ambition which transcended personal concerns, by their. far — reaching vision of a world to be remade by the power of the organized workers, and by their total commitment to that endeavor.
The great majority of the other delegates who answered the call to the Founding Convention of the IWW were people of the same quality. They were the non — conformists, the stiff-necked irreconcilables, at war with capitalist society. Radicals, rebels and revolutionists started the IWW, as they have started every other progressive movement in the history of this country.
In these days when labor leaders try their best to talk like probationary members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, it is refreshing to turn back to the reports of men who spoke a different language. Debs, Haywood and De Leon, and those who stood with them, did not believe in the partnership of capital and labor, as preached by Gompers and Co. at the time. Such talk, they said in the famous “Preamble” to the Constitution of the IWW, “misleads the workers.” They spoke out in advance against the idea of the permanent “co — existence” of labor unions and the private ownership of industry, as championed by the CIO leaders of the present time.
The men who founded the IWW were pioneer industrial unionists, and the great industrial unions of today stem directly from them. But they aimed far beyond industrial unionism as a bargaining agency recognizing the private ownership of industry as right and unchangeable. They saw the relations of capital and labor as a state of war.
Brissenden puts their main idea in a nutshell in his factually correct history of the movement: “The idea of the class conflict was really the bottom notion or ‘first cause’ of the IWW. The industrial union type was adopted because it would make it possible to wage this class war under more favorable conditions.” (
The I.W.W: A Study of American Syndicalism,
by Paul Frederick Brissenden, p. 108.)
The founders of the IWW regarded the organization of industrial unions as a means to an end; and the end they had in view was the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a new social order. This, the heart and soul of their program, still awaits its vindication in the revolution of the American workers. And the revolution, when it arrives, will not neglect to acknowledge its anticipation at the Founding Convention of the IWW. For nothing less than the revolutionary goal of the workers’ struggle was openly proclaimed there 50 years ago.
The bold design was drawn by Bill Haywood, General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, who presided at the Founding Convention of the IWW. In his opening remarks, calling the convention to order, he said:
“This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” (Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, p. 1)
The trade unions today are beginning to catch up with the idea that Negroes are human beings, that they have a right to make a living and belong to a union. The IWW was 50 years ahead of them on this question, as on many others. Many of the old Gompers unions were lily-white job trusts, barring Negroes from membership and the right to employment in their jurisdictions. Haywood, in his opening speech, indignantly denounced the policy of those unions “affiliated with the A. F. of L., which in their constitution and by-laws prohibit the initiation of or conferring the obligation on a colored man.” He followed, in his speech at the public ratification meeting, with the declaration that the newly-launched organization “recognizes neither race, creed, color, sex or previous condition of servitude.” (Proceedings, p. 575.)
And he wound up with the prophetic suggestion that the American workers take the Russian path. He said he hoped to see the new movement “grow throughout this country until it takes in a great majority of the working people, and that those working people will rise in revolt against the capitalist system as the working class in Russia are doing today.” (Proceedings, p. 580.)
Debs said: “The supreme need of the hour is a sound, revolutionary working class organization ... It must express the class struggle. It must recognize the class lines. It must, of course, be class conscious. It must be totally uncompromising. It must be an organization of the rank and file.” (Proceedings, pp. 144, 146.)
De Leon, for his part, said: “I have had but one foe — and that foe is the capitalist class ... The ideal is the overthrow of the capitalist class.” (Proceedings, pp. 147, 149.)
De Leon, the thinker, was already projecting his thought beyond the overthrow of capitalism to “the form of the governmental administration of the Republic of Labor.” In a post-convention speech at Minneapolis on “The Preamble of the I.W.W.'’, he said that the industries, “regardless of former political boundaries, will be the constituencies of that new central authority the rough scaffolding of which was raised last week in Chicago. Where the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World will sit there will be the nation’s capital.” (Socialist Reconstruction of Society, by Daniel De Leon.)
The speeches of the others, and the official statement adopted by the Convention in the Preamble to the Constitution, followed the same line. The Preamble began with the flat affirmation of the class struggle: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Following that it said: “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the workers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold” the industries of the country.
These were the most uncompromising, the most unambiguous declarations of revolutionary intention ever issued in this country up to that time. The goal of socialism had been previously envisioned by others. But at the Founding Convention of the IWW the idea that it was to be realized through a struggle for power, and that the Power of the workers must be organized, was clearly formulated and nailed down.
The men of 1905 spoke truer than they knew, if only as anticipators of a historical work which still awaits its completion by others. Between that date of origin and the beginning of its decline after the First World War, the IWW wrote an inerasable record in action. But its place as a great progressive factor in American history is securely fixed by the brave and far-seeing pronouncements of its founding convention alone. The ideas were the seed of the action.
The IWW had its own forebears, for the revolutionary labor movement is an unbroken continuum. Behind the convention assembled in Chicago fifty years ago stood the Knights of Labor; the eight-hour movement led by the Haymarket martyrs; the great industrial union strike of the American Railway Union; the stormy battles of the Western Federation of Miners; and the two socialist political organizations — the old Socialist Labor Party and the newly-formed Socialist Party.
All these preceding endeavors were tributary to the first convention of the IWW, and were represented there by participants. Lucy Parsons, the widow and comrade-in-arms of the noble martyr, was a delegate, as was Mother Jones, the revered leader of the miners, the symbol of their hope and courage in trial and tribulation.
These earlier movements and struggles, rich and tragic experiences, had prepared the way for the Founding Convention of the IWW. But Debs was not far wrong when he said, in a speech a few months later: “The revolutionary movement of the working class will date from the year 1905, from the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World.” (Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, p. 226.)
Next page: An Organization of Revolutionists