A Comrade Responds to Socialist Alternative on the IWW

In my recent post, Thoughts on Anarcho-Syndicalism in Australia, I mentioned an article Daniel Lopez had published Socialist Alternative back in April (it was an edited summary of a talk he gave at Marxism 2012), ‘One Big Union? The IWW in Australia’.

Ben D of the IWW’s Melbourne GMB published this response in the most recent edition of Direct Action, and Daniel Lopez has since responded in turn.

Daniel Lopez’s article is a standard reproduction of the Socialist Alternative line on the IWW.

Socialist Alternative respond to the history of the IWW by trying to appropriate it. They praise it’s successes and militancy before and during World War I, and argue that it was actually quite Marxists, it’s practice and propaganda resembled that of a revolutionary Marxist party, and it had little if anything to do with anarcho-syndicalism.

Then they criticize it’s syndicalism strategy, arguing that this strategy led to the defeat of the IWW when faced with state repression, and that openly embracing the model prescribed by Socialist Alternative could have avoided defeat. The outcome is clear, anyone who respects the history of the IWW should join Socialist Alternative, the true modern heirs to it’s legacy!

This line was enunciated in detail by Verity Burgman in her 1995 book, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia.

Burgman is a Professor of Political Science at Melbourne University. She is also a product of the 1970s Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which she joined whilst completing her undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics.

The following was prepared by a Perth based Wobbly for his various encounters with Socialist Alternative and Solidarity members arguing the line advanced by Burgman in Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. I think it’s worth reproducing in full (not that I endorse it entirely and uncritically).

Mike P:

First of all let me say that I do not have much more than general knowledge of the IWW in the United States. I know that there were anarchists in it but I don’t know much about them so I am arguing from the history of our union in Australia. It seems to me that the biggest part of your argument is based on the research done by Burgmann in Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. This is unfortunate because it is my opinion that she is a bit one-eyed in this area. Anyway she essentially uses two witnesses from the first period of I.W.W. activity to show that the I.W.W. was Marxist and was certainly not anarchistic:

Bill Genery, who joined the I.W.W. in 1916, conceded in a 1969 interview that Wobblies regarded the I.W.W. as “an offshoot of the syndicalists.” When asked by a new left student whether the Wobblies considered themselves anarchists he replied, very definitely, that they did not.

And Norman Rancie in a 1957 interview explained: “Anarchists believe in complete freedom and each man a law unto himself. They refuse to recognise any form of organisation or authority. This is the very antitheses of all the principles of the I.W.W. which believes in organisation, discipline, and not every an a law unto himself’, but every member responsible to his organisation which has a book of rules and a constitution, which, of course, is the very negation of anarchism.” Anarchists, he was adamant, “would never by any standard fit into the I.W.W.”

Coming from the other side of the issue Burgmann gives some references from what she describes as “the real anarchists of the time,” – the Group d’Etudes Scientifiques. This group published in 1916 an attack on the I.W.W. protesting against, “that rotten mass of rules” in order, “to clear Anarchism and to disqualify I.W.W.ists as Anarchists”

Clearly this evidence does not stand up to even peripheral scrutiny.. To state the obvious critiques, both Rancie and Genery came from the Melbourne Local, which was generally regarded as the most conservative of all the Australian Locals being in some ways more like a political party than other Locals, probably because of the influence of Tom Mann’s Victorian Socialist Party. Rancie’s statement, further, was clearly not directed against anarchism as it was conceived by practitioners of the faith but rather against the popular misconception of it. He clearly never felt the need to research anarchism in any greater depth than this and no one can, of course, blame him for this. Several quotes from Burgmann, however, almost seem to indicate that she shares the same erroneous impression of the movement and this in a historian of working class political movements, is less excusable. “However, unlike the anarchists,” she writes “the Wobblies aspired to be organised”. Or again, “A perceived similarity with anarchism existed primarily in the minds of the I.W.W.’s detractors and cannot be detected an any serious analysis of its political practice, which emphasised collectivity, unity, organisation and centralisation.” Of course, none of the larger factions of the anarchist movement the anarcho-communists or the anarcho-syndicalists would have disapproved of collectivity, unity or organisation. The more the better. So it is only the last of these paradigms centralisation, that would give them any real problems.

How much of a drawback would this be in fact? If we take the article in *Direct Action *from ‘Flaneur’ (probably Jack O’Neill) in Western Australia, for example, we would not suspect very much at all. “The workers of the West need a new weapon,” he wrote, “Here it is: ‘Direct Action’. The I.W.W. by insisting that each individual unit in that organisation shall retain the power of control, directly, his or her own industrial and social welfare, and by rigorously restraining the profiteering instincts of parasite officials to fasten on the organisation, offers the only way out of wage-serfdom. Speed the revolution!” Not much rampant centralism to worry about there.

The Group d’Etudes Scientifiques was scarcely resting anywhere near the centre of gravity within the anarchist movement. It was an offshoot of the Groupe d’Etudes Scientific of Paris, run by the prodigious author Paraf-Javal its main propagandist in Australia was Dr. Xarus Sphinx, (pseudonym of the Austrian Bjelke Boekgen who with his son lectured on the Sydney Domain and was (as were many Wobblies) deported by the authorities after World War One.) The main purpose of the group was to advocate forswearing of poisons such as tobacco, alcohol and condiments and fighting for logical, scientific thinking. All those indulging in ‘a piori’ reasoning were judged to be ‘abruitis’ – which was apparently close to the source of all evil. You would be hard to find a reference of them today they were an absolute fringe group and represented the opinions of no anarchists but themselves.

There would almost certainly have been anarchists closer to a mainstream position who would have felt that the I.W.W. was too centralist and that its program could have had authoritarian possibilities should that organisation accomplish its goals fully. But that does not disguise the fact that many anarchists saw in the I.W.W. a practical way of implementing at least a major part of their program. “With the Education of the workers,” Mike Sawtell, for example, had written, “will follow as a necessary sequence, their real organisation. Not only will the workers find they can do without Parliament, but without a host of other barbarities besides – such as unpleasant surroundings, as long hours, high prices and wars etc. The future Parliaments will be at the union meetings, men and women will meet to discuss what they are vitally interested in – the economic resources of the earth. Such questions as divorce, as religion, or bi-metalism, can be left to those who are mutually interested in such things. The I.W.W. conception of what society ought to be, judged by present day standards is, no doubt ‘remarkable’, but it is good.”

Michael Sawtell, the Kropotkinite anarchist, was far closer to the heartland of anarchism than the troupe d’Etudes Scientific ever could be. He made no great effort to hide his anarchism and had articles admitting this fact published in Direct Action. Which same publication offered for sale pamphlets by Kropotkin, published quotes from Bakunin and, when its own members were jailed could find no better epitaph than those of the anarchist Chicago martyr Spies “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

It is not, nor ever has been, my contention that the I.W.W. was an anarchist organisation. It was and is, a union whose membership is open to all members of the working class. It was and remains a revolutionary industrial union – not some sort of positional confession. Its members could and do range widely in the sources that they draw inspiration from. It was, and I very much hope it remains, an organisation in which anarchists felt they could join and participate in without compromising themselves. The anarchists formed a minority within a union while Marxism was the key theoretical tool. This arrangement was made possible because the variant of Marxism present was a leftward revision of Marxism, much as Bernstein’s was a rightward revision, and was a variant that would without doubt have horrified the great man himself.

One feels that this tension between anarchism and Marxism and that slab of ideas and attitudes Wobblies created all by themselves (and of course other influences – we always had people in our ranks whose first source of inspiration was Christianity, Emersonians were popular in places and, of course, the Irish everywhere added their own insights and style) were found in very different strengths in different members and Locals. It is my belief that this tension was one of the ingredients giving the I.W.W. so much of its vibrancy and its effectively. If the Melbourne Local was at the more conservative, Marxian-socialist, end of the spectrum then Perth and Fremantle were nearer the anarchistic. If Rancie was more Marxist then Sawtell and Miller were more anarchist and syndicalist. If this creativity did stem from the organisation’s ability to take for itself ideas from both camps as it needed and to integrate activists holding these sometimes disparate ideas (all there, it needs not saying, to build the union rather than to win recruits to their own positions at its expense) then any winning out or domination of one over the other would have been destructive.

This balance became progressively harder due to the preponderant influence of the Soviet Union and its propriety claims over Marxism. I personally think that the experience of a century of so-called Marxist governments over much of our planet will mean that there will probably be a greater proportion of anarchist members in our union than there were in the early days of the last century.

– Mike P, Perth.


  1. A few thoughts on your post…

    “Socialist Alternative respond to the history of the IWW by trying to appropriate it. They praise it’s successes and militancy before and during World War I, and argue that it was actually quite Marxists, it’s practice and propaganda resembled that of a revolutionary Marxist party, and it had little if anything to do with anarcho-syndicalism.”
    Lopez does say that the IWW were heavily influenced by Marx – more so than any anarchist writer – and that they functioned like a revolutionary party. I think this is entirely accurate. Lopez also says things like ‘Superficially, there is affinity between IWW-ism and anarcho-syndicalist ideology’ and ‘the IWW has some similarity with anarcho-syndicalism’. He mentions anarchists being part of the IWW, and people like Bakunin & Kropotkin being quoted in Direct Action. He makes an entirely fair and accurate assessment of the IWW. What I took from reading his articles and other stuff on the IWW was that it would be incorrect to call the IWW explicitly anarchist or Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist. Sure there were similarities and elements of these within the IWW, but I think to label them as one or the other would be wrong. You claimed the IWW were anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist (a position you have since changed). That seems to be what Lopez was arguing against – the common perception that the IWW was anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist. He wasn’t arguing that the IWW were Marxist. Direct Action (1914-1917) is available on Jura’s website and is a good read, so I encourage people to take a look and make up their own mind. I also encourage people to make up their own mind over who was trying to appropriate the history of the IWW –Kieran who claimed the IWW was anarchist regardless of the fact the IWW said they weren’t – or Lopez and Socialist Alternative who said they weren’t anarchist (as the IWW said) and certainly never said they were Marxists.

    “The outcome is clear, anyone who respects the history of the IWW should join Socialist Alternative, the true modern heirs to it’s legacy!”
    Socialist Alternative don’t claim to be the true modern heirs to the IWW legacy. They celebrate radical working class history & militancy, but if they have some criticisms then they don’t shy away from making them. Its about trying to learn lessons from the past. It’s fine to disagree with their criticisms, but to make absurd statements about them doesn’t help. And let’s remember, you were the one who claimed they were anarchist. Perhaps you thought that because you’re an anarchist you are the true modern heir to their legacy, until Davo convinced you that you were wrong.

    Despite my comments above, I don’t actually think you were trying to appropriate the history of the IWW, or suggesting you are the heir to its legacy. But I don’t think saying things like this about Socialist Alternative is accurate either, and I’m trying to point out that the same argument could be made of yourself – even though I don’t think it would be correct.

  2. You claimed the IWW were anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist (a position you have since changed).

    I love how, when I admit to having changed my mind on something, young Trots let out these excited yelps.

    YES! You are vanquished!! Bow down before our superior scientific socialism!!!

    Such are the deformed attitudes that a false belief “scientific” certaintity breeds.

    Yes, I’ve decided to agree with Davo in the earlier thread, that there is more to an organisation being Anarchist than having Anarchist characteristics.

    But I still contend that Syndicalism is situated within the broad anarchist tradition. If this is a novel argument to you, I’d suggest Lucien Van der Walt and Michael Schmidt’s Blame Flame might make interesting reading.

    On to the motivations of Socialist Alternative and it’s writers…

    To claim that Socialist Alternative merely “celebrates” organisations like the IWW without some other agenda is absurd.

    It is no secret, and Socialist Alternative make no secret of it, that SAlt sees itself as engaged in a battle of ideas on the left.

    Lopez’ article derrives from a talk he gave at Marxism 2012. That talk was part of a series entitled, “Rival Ideas on the Left”.

    Socialist Alternative’s focus on “winning” young activists for their interpretation of Marxism is no secret either, it’s openly detailed in numerious publications.

    Syndicalism represents a strand of thought that young activists might be attracted to. The IWW sure as hell has a more impressive legacy in Australia than Trotskyism! There is an organisation claiming to be that IWW presently recruiting in Melbourne, home turf of Socialist Alternative.

    Yes, Lopez’s talk celebrated the historical IWW, but with a purpose.

    I don’t consider any of this massively objectionable.

    Many Anarchists I encounter simply find Socialist Alternative irritating, obnoxious or down right infuriating. They propose ignoring articles and arguments like this, and getting on with the work of building Anarchism.

    I hold a different point of view.

    I argue that Anarchism is located on the far left. To begin advancing Anarchist ideas to a wider audience, organised Anarchist groups have to enter and engage in the campaigns and struggles on the left. Whether it’s refugees, marriage equality, indigenous sovereignty, summit protesting, no cuts campaigns, or the more radical industrial struggles, Socialist Alternative is already firmly inserted, or will insert itself as the oppurtunities arise.

    To advance Anarchism, will thus mean engaging with Socialist Alternative. This will require understandings and the ability to argue with other actors on a level that goes beyond “STALIN, KRONSTADT, STALIN!!!”.

    But hey, I could be wrong.


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