(7) The Turning Point
The whole record of the IWW — or at any rate, the best part of it, the positive revolutionary part — was all written in propaganda and action in its first 15 years. That is the enduring story. The rest is anti-climax.
The turning point came with the entrance of the United States into the First World War in the spring of 1917, and the Russian Revolution in the same year. Then “politics,” which the IWW had disavowed and cast out, came back and broke down the door.
These two events — again coinciding in Russia and America, as in 1905 — demonstrated that “political action” was not merely a matter of the ballot box, subordinate to the direct conflict of the unions and employers on the economic field, but the very essence of the class struggle. In opposing actions of two different classes the “political state,” which the IWW had thought to ignore, was revealed as the centralized power of the ruling class; and the holding of the state power showed in each case which class was really ruling.
From one side, this was shown when the Federal Government of the United States intervened directly to break up the concentration points of the IWW by wholesale arrests of its activists. The “political action” of the capitalist state broke the back of the IWW as a union. The IWW was compelled to transform its principal activities into those of a defense organization, striving by legal methods and propaganda, to protect the political and civil rights of its members against the depredations of the capitalist state power.
From the other side, the same determining role of political action was demonstrated positively by the Russian Revolution. The Russian workers took the state power into their own hands and used that power to expropriate the capitalists and suppress all attempts at counter-revolution. That, in fact, was the first stage of the Revolution, the pre-condition for all that was to follow. Moreover, the organizing and directing center of the victorious Revolution had turned out to be, not an all-inclusive union, but a party of selected revolutionists united by a program and bound by discipline.
The time had come for the IWW to remember Haywood’s prophetic injunction at the Founding Convention in 1905: that the American workers should look to Russia and follow the Russian example. By war and revolution, the most imperative of all authorities, the IWW was put on notice to bring its theoretical conceptions up to date; to think and learn, and change a little.
First indications were that this would be done; the Bolshevik victory was hailed with enthusiasm by the members of the IWW. In their first reaction, it is safe to say, they saw in it the completion and vindication of their own endeavors. But this first impulse was not followed through.
Some of the leading Wobblies, including Haywood himself, tried to learn the lessons of the war and the Russian Revolution and to adjust their thinking to them. But the big majority, after several years of wavering, went the other way. That sealed the doom of the IWW. Its tragic failure to look, listen and learn from the two great events condemned it to defeat and decay.
The governing role of theory here asserted itself supremely, and in short order. While the IWW was settling down in ossification, converting its uncompleted conceptions about the real meaning of political action and political parties into a sterile anti-political dogma, the thinking of others was catching up with reality, with the great new things happening in the world. The others, the young left-wing socialists, soon to call themselves Communists, lacked the battle-tested cadres of the IWW. But they had the correct program. That proved to be decisive.
The newly formed Communist Party soon outstripped the IWW and left it on the sidelines. It was all decided within the space of two or three years. By the time of its fifteenth anniversary in 1920 the IWW had already entered the irreversible road of decline. Its strength was spent. Most of its cadres, the precious human material selected and sifted out in heroic struggle, went down with the organization. They had borne persecution admirably, but the problems raised by it, and by all the great new events, overwhelmed them. The best militants fell into inactivity and then dropped out. The second-raters took over and completed the wreck and the ruin.
The failure of the main cadres of the IWW to become integrated in the new movement for the Communist Party in this country, inspired by the Russian Revolution, was a historical miscarriage which might have been prevented.
In action the IWW had been the most militant, the most revolutionary section of the workers’ vanguard in this country. The IWW, while calling itself a union, was much nearer to Lenin’s conception of a party of professional revolutionists than any other organization calling itself a party at that time. In their practice, and partly also in their theory, the Wobblies were closer to Lenin’s Bolsheviks than any other group in this country.
There should have been a fusion. But, in a fast-moving situation, a number of untoward circumstances, combined with the inadequacy of the American communist leadership, barred the way.
The failure of the IWW to find a place in the new movement assembling under the banner of the Russian Revolution, was not the fault of the Russians. They recognized the IWW as a rightful part of the movement they represented and made repeated attempts to include it in the new unification of forces. The first manifesto of the Communist International specified the American IWW as one of the organizations invited to join. Later, in 1920, the Executive Committee of the Communist International addressed a special Open Letter to the IWW, inviting its cooperation.
The letter explained, in the tone of brothers speaking to brothers, that the revolutionary parliamentarism of the Communist International had nothing in common with the ballotbox fetishism and piddling reformism of the right-wing socialists. Haywood says of that letter: “After I had finished reading it I called Ralph Chaplin over to my desk and said to him: ‘Here is what we have been dreaming about; here is the I.W.W. all feathered out!’” (Bill Haywood’s Book, p. 360.)
In war-time France Trotsky had found his best friends and closest collaborators in the fight against the war among the syndicalists. After the Russian Revolution, in a notable series of letters, published later as a pamphlet, he urged them to join forces with the communists. The theses adopted by the Communist International at its Second Congress recognized the progressive and revolutionary side of pre-war syndicalism, and said it represented a step forward from the ideology of the Second International. The theses attempted to explain at the same time, in the most patient and friendly manner, the errors and limitations of syndicalism on the question of the revolutionary party and its role.
Perhaps the chief circumstance operating against a patient and fruitful discussion, and an orderly transition of the IWW to the higher ground of Bolshevism, was the furious persecution of the IWW at the time. When the Russian Revolution erupted in the victory in November, 1917, hundreds of the IWW activists were held in jail under excessive bail, awaiting trial. Following their conviction a year later, they were sentenced to long terms in the Federal Penitentiary.
This inprisonment cut them off from contact with the great new events, and operated against the free exchange of ideas which might have resulted in an agreement and fusion with the dynamically developing left-wing socialist movement headed toward the new Communist Party. The IWW as an organization was compelled to divert its entire activities into its campaign to provide legal defense for its victimized members. The members of the organization had little time or thought for other things, including the one all-important thing — the assimilation of the lessons of the war and the Russian Revolution.
Despite that, a number of IWW men heard the new word from Russia and followed it. They recognized in Bolshevism the rounding out and completion of their own revolutionary conceptions, and joined the Communist Party. Haywood expressed their trend of thought succinctly, in an interview with Max Eastman, published in The Liberator, April, 1921.
“'I feel as if I'd always been there,’ he said to me. ‘You remember I used to say that all we needed was fifty thousand real I.W.W.’s, and then about a million members to back them up? Well, isn’t that a similar idea? At least I always realized that the essential thing was to have an organization of those who know.'”
As class-conscious men of action, the Wobblies, “the real IWW’s,” had always worked together as a body to influence the larger mass. Their practice contained the essential idea of the Leninist conception of the relation between the party and the class. The Bolsheviks, being men of theory in all their action, formulated it more precisely and developed it to its logical conclusion in the organization of those class-conscious elements into a party of their own.
All that seemed clear to me at the time, and I had great hopes that at least a large section of the Wobblies would recognize it. I did all I could to convince them. I made especially persistent efforts to convince Vincent St. John himself, and almost succeeded; I didn’t know how close I had come until later, when it was too late.
When he was released from the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth on bond — I think it was in the early part of 1919 — The Saint stopped over in Kansas City and visited me. We talked about the Russian Revolution night and day. I believe he was as sympathetic at that time as I was. The revolution was an action — and that’s what he believed in. But he had not yet begun to grapple with the idea that the Russian way would be applicable to this country, and that the IWW would have to recognize it.
His hostility to a “party” and “politicians,” based on what he had seen of such things in this country, was the fixed obstacle. I noted, however, that he did not argue back, but mainly listened to what I had to say. A year or so later we had several other discussions in New York, when he was still out on bail before he was returned to prison in the fall of 1921. We talked a great deal on those occasions; or rather, I did, and The Saint listened.
In addition to my proselytizing zeal for communism in those days, I had a strong personal motivation for trying to win over Vincent St. John to the new movement. Coming from the syndicalistic background of the IWW, with its strong anti-intellectual emphasis, I had been plunged up to my neck in the internal struggles of the young Communist Party and association with its leading people. They were nearly all young intellectuals, without any experience or feel for the mass movement and the “direct action” of the class struggle. I was not very much at home in that milieu; I was lonesome for people of my own kind.
I had overcome my own “anti-intellectualism” to a considerable extent; but I knew for sure that the Communist Party would never find its way to the mass movement of the workers with a purely intellectualistic leadership. I was looking for reinforcements for a proletarian counter-balance on the other side, and I thought that if I could win over St. John it would make a big difference. In fact, I knew it.
I remember the occasion when I made the final effort with The Saint. The two of us went together to have dinner and spend the night as guests of Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at their cottage on Staten Island beach. We spent very little time looking at the ocean, although that was the first time I had ever seen it. All through the dinner hour, and nearly all through the night, we discussed my thesis that the future belonged to the Communist Party; and that the IWW militants should not abandon the new party to the intellectuals, but come into it and help to shape its proletarian character.
As in the previous discussions, I did practically all the talking. The Saint listened, as did the others. There was no definite conclusion to the long discussion; neither expressed rejection nor acceptance of my proposals. But I began to feel worn-out with the effort and let it go at that.
A short time later St. John returned to Chicago. The officials in charge of the IWW center there were hostile to communism and were embroiled in some bitter quarrels with a pro-communist IWW group in Chicago. I don’t know what the immediate occasion was, but St. John was drawn into the conflict and took a stand with the anti-communist group. Then, as was natural for him in any kind of a crisis, once he had made up his mind he took charge of the situation and began to steer the organization definitely away from cooperation with the communists.
Years later — in 1926 — when Elizabeth Gurley Flynn herself finally came over to the Communist Party and was working with us in the International Labor Defense, she recalled that night’s discussion on Staten Island and said: “Did you know you almost convinced The Saint that night? If you had tried a little harder you might have won him over.” I hadn’t known it; and when she told me that, I was deeply sorry that I had not tried just “a little harder.”
The Saint was crowding 50 at that time, and jail and prison had taken their toll. He was a bit tired, and he may have felt that it was too late to start over again in a new field where he, like all of us, had much to learn. Whatever the reason for the failure, I still look back on it regretfully. Vincent St. John, and the IWW militants he would have brought along, could have made a big difference in everything that went on in the CP in the Twenties.
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