The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia

by Mick Armstrong • Published 28 February 2020

NOTE: This article was subsequently updated and published as a pamphlet by Socialist Alternative.

The Industrial Workers of the World – IWW or Wobblies – are legendary in the history of the Australian labour movement. Their prominence in the World War I anti-conscription campaigns, their iconoclastic militancy, and the savage frame-up of twelve of their leaders for conspiring to burn down Sydney, are renowned. They built the first revolutionary organisation with any serious following in Australia. Along with other syndicalists, they played a pioneering role in opposing the hegemony of the racist White Australia policy within the labour movement. Their defiant opposition to the imperialist war, their flamboyance and assertiveness and their irreverent and irrepressible songs have inspired generations of Australian socialists.

Yet compared to their American co-thinkers the IWW’s Australian experience has been subjected to little serious analysis.[1] This article will concentrate on the lessons that Marxists today can draw from the IWW experience. It will necessarily be critical. For unless we learn the lessons of the past, of why those revolutionaries who have gone before us were defeated, we are doomed to make the same mistakes. However, this criticism comes from a perspective of endorsing the revolutionary goals of the Wobblies. For unlike the pathetic reformists of the ALP, who sought to patch up the present system, the syndicalists set out to destroy capitalism root and branch through revolutionary industrial struggle. As the IWW proclaimed in their famous preamble:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.

The Industrial Workers of the World were founded in the United States in June 1905 as a militant, indeed revolutionary, alternative to the conservative, bureaucratised and craft-oriented American Federation of Labor. They sought to establish industrial unions of all workers in the same industry, and in turn to link up these industrial unions into the One Big Union – the IWW. The workers, once organised, would simply take over the factories and begin running society collectively. A general strike would be sufficient to overcome any resistance by the bosses. In the meantime, workers were to build up their organisation by militant direct action – strikes, go slows, industrial sabotage, job control actions and the like.

IWW ideas first began to have an impact in Australia in 1907. In that year the main socialist organisation, the Socialist Federation of Australia, called for the reorganisation of the union movement along IWW lines. Under socialist influence the militant Newcastle miners adopted the IWW preamble as their own. Subsequently a state-wide union conference in NSW and even the Melbourne Trades Hall debated the IWW project.

In 1908 the IWW split in the USA. The outright “direct actionists” were now predominant. All reference to political action was dropped from the IWW preamble. A minority, supporters of Daniel de Leon’s highly sectarian Socialist Labor Party, which endorsed political action, attempted to form their own rival IWW, but it came to nothing in the USA. This split soon had ramifications in Australia. The IWW Clubs, which had been established by de Leon’s local supporters, began to argue out the same issues. However it was not until early 1913 that the “anti-political” direct actionists won out and captured the IWW here. 1913 then marks the genuine foundation of the IWW in Australia. By the end of that year the local Wobblies had 200 members.

The great expansion of the organisation came during World War I with the explosion of bitter industrial and anti-conscription struggles. The Wobblies’ strident opposition to the war, biting criticisms of Labor politicians and their emphasis on industrial militancy fitted with the aggressive mood of many militants from mid-1916. In particular they were able to make headway in the course of the bitterly fought campaign which defeated the first conscription referendum in October 1916. The Wobblies became synonymous with opposition to the war. Especially after Tom Barker, the editor of their weekly paper Direct Action, was prosecuted for publishing the famous anti-war poster “To Arms!”.

IWW membership peaked in mid-1917 at around 4,000, 1,500 of whom were in Sydney. The circulation of Direct Action reached about 15,000 copies. Their main support outside Sydney was among the miners of Broken Hill, and the miners, meat workers, cane-cutters and rural labourers of northern and western Queensland. They were relatively weak in both Melbourne and Brisbane. Broken Hill was the one place where the red IWW membership card was virtually accepted as a union ticket. This reflected the exceptional militancy of the miners of the AMA, who according to Melville Birks, the surgeon superintendent of the local hospital, regarded a scab as;

the lowest moral grade a man can descend to. A scab can be treated as an outlaw. To smash his windows, poison his dog, or steal his bicycle is an honourable act. He must be deprived of work and his family can starve.[2]

July 1917, however, proved to be the high point for the Wobblies. By 1920 they had virtually disappeared. To understand the rise and rapid decline of the IWW, we need to examine both the development of the class struggle in Australia and the broader international context. The decade before World War I saw the rise of syndicalism in a series of countries. The syndicalists emphasised militant trade union action, both as a means to defend workers’ immediate interests and to fundamentally transform society. Syndicalism took a variety of forms – anarcho-syndicalism in France and Spain, revolutionary syndicalism in Britain and Ireland, industrial unionism in the US. Some syndicalists stood for the transformation of the existing union movement from within, while others like the Wobblies argued for building completely new revolutionary unions. Most stood for industrial unions, but the French syndicalists organised along craft lines. The anarcho-syndicalists saw the need for an armed uprising to overthrow capitalism, whereas others considered that a peaceful general strike would be sufficient. Most were totally opposed to political action, though some, such as James Connolly in Ireland, considered themselves Marxists.

What united them all was their hostility to the betrayals of the official Marxists of the Second International. In opposition to the pale reformism of the parliamentary Labor and Socialist parties, the syndicalists argued for militant direct action from below. Similarly, they had nothing but contempt for the timid bureaucrats of the mainstream trade union movement. In opposition to the bureaucrats’ support for arbitration and other schemes for industrial peace, the syndicalists counterposed class war.

Syndicalism grew out of the revival of working class industrial militancy in the years leading up to World War I. The 1905 revolution in Russia was an important source of inspiration for the left wing of the labour movement after a lengthy period of retreat. Then in 1910-1914 there was a major upsurge of struggle in a number of countries including Britain, Ireland, Russia, Spain, New Zealand, and Italy. In these years there were in essence two forms of syndicalism. On the one hand there were broad movements of industrial revolt involving masses of workers which went well beyond the normal channels of parliamentary reformism and official trade unionism. Within this mass movement there was a smaller layer of syndicalist activists and theorists, who attempted to give a direction and coherence to the movement, but who never numbered more than a few thousand in any one country.[3]

In Australia the union movement had been severely undermined by the defeats of the 1890s and the long drawn out Depression. The organised labour movement had turned to parliamentary action and Arbitration in response to these defeats. By the early years of this century the ALP had established itself as a national political force and had shed any vestiges of its initial radicalism.[4] The Australian economy did not revive on a sustained basis from the Depression till about 1906. However, with this economic upturn came a revival of industrial militancy and a sustained recovery of union membership. The period from 1906 to 1909 was to mark the first phase of syndicalist development in Australia. There was increasing rank and file disillusionment with Arbitration and with the timidity of trade union officialdom, who refused to take advantage of the improved industrial circumstances to obtain substantial wage gains. This combined with growing criticism of the moderate stance of ALP politicians, in particular over their refusal to support workers in two key struggles.

Those two decisive battles were the four month lockout of Broken Hill metal miners in 1909 and the 18-week coal strike by Newcastle miners which ended in early 1910. In both these struggles the state savagely intervened in support of the bosses. Heavily armed police were used to intimidate strikers, there were widespread arrests, and union leaders were jailed. Miners’ leader and International Socialist Peter Bowling was sent in chains to Goulburn jail.

These setbacks brought to a close the first phase of the syndicalist upsurge. While they were not crushing defeats, indeed at Broken Hill union organisation emerged strengthened, workers had suffered severely. They now sought an “easier” route to make gains. There was a sharp swing back towards political action by the mass of workers in the southern states. Furthermore the ruling class, recognising the legacy of bitterness from these battles, sought to use the Labor Party to co-opt the heightened radicalisation. The elections of 1910 witnessed a marked increase in the Labor vote. The ALP was elected in NSW and federally – forming the first majority Labor government.

Queensland developments lagged a little behind the southern states but essentially followed the same pattern. The early syndicalist phase in the north peaked with the five-week Brisbane general strike of 1912. The response to the general strike was euphoric – workers saw it as ushering in a new social order, but their hopes were soon shattered. There was no clear leadership to give direction to the enormous groundswell of working class enthusiasm. The forces of the state once again intervened brutally and were backed up by a strike-breaking militia of armed farmers brought in from the bush. Once again the Labor parliamentarians were the main beneficiaries of the defeat, which ushered in a prolonged period of ALP government.

While industrial setbacks led the mass of workers to tum to parliamentary action as a substitute for their weakness, among the activist minority it led to a considerable rethinking and a general turn away from “politics” towards more outright syndicalist positions. The example of Tom Mann, one of the key leaders of the Broken Hill strike, epitomises the trend. Mann was a British socialist, who in his first few years in Australia played a pivotal role in the formation of the Victorian Socialist Party. The VSP achieved a broad following in trade union and left-intellectual circles. Initially VSP members had been active in the ALP, becoming the dominant force on the Labor left. However, Mann had been increasingly uneasy with Laborism, and even before the Broken Hill strike the VSP had split from the ALP. In the wake of the defeat, he was to tum decisively away from parliamentary politics towards syndicalism. Hi s example was followed by many other socialists and Marxists. The Socialist Federation of Australia split in July 1910. A moderate minority argued to re-enter the ALP, while the militant majority, under the leadership of Harry Holland, placed their prime emphasis on industrial action.

Initially, with Labor in office after 1910 there was a lull in the struggle. Nevertheless, this first prolonged period of Labor government proved to be something of a turning point. Naturally enough, workers at first had profound illusions in what Labor could accomplish. What is more remarkable is not the extent of the illusions, but the rapidity with which a section of workers began to cast them off. Within a couple of years the syndicalist current began to deepen with the growth of working class anger over the slow pace of reform. In NSW in particular, this was reflected from 1912 in growing clashes and tensions between the parliamentary ALP and the trade union bureaucracy over the state government’s handling of industrial disputes, its failure to abolish the Legislative Council and a series of other issues.

While the outbreak of the World War in August 1914 checked the development of the class struggle for a period, it was soon to burst forth on a higher plane. The working class insurgency which commenced in 1916 reflected a series of factors. The first was bitterness over wartime wage controls which led to severe wage cuts as inflation skyrocketed. This was compounded by a sharp rise in unemployment in the early war period. Furthermore, the initial enthusiasm for the war was gradually undermined as the fighting dragged on interminably and the full horror of the slaughter in the trenches gradually seeped through. The rigid censorship and increasing authoritarianism of the Hughes Labor government also provoked a reaction. Local radicalism was fuelled when the British Army crushed the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland. This turned the large Irish-Australian component of the working class sharply against the imperialist war. Subsequently, the successful Russian Revolution in 1917 offered an inspiring way forward.

All the tensions came to a head in the course of the two anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917 and in the nine week NSW general strike of 1917. This was a period of enormous upheaval. There was a series of massive demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of workers, insurgent and violent strikes erupted outside the control of union officialdom, and organised violent assaults broke up pro-conscription meetings. In Broken Hill a Labor Volunteer Army was formed to fight conscription and defend working class meetings and organisation. Subsequently this example was taken up in other cities. The Labor government was torn apart by this turmoil, eventually splitting after being forced by rank and file pressure to expel prime minister Billy Hughes. The industrial struggle receded after the savage defeat of the 1917 general strike and the subsequent widespread victimisation of militants but 1919 saw a renewed offensive. Brilliantly conducted strikes by seamen and Broken Hill miners resulted in major victories in defiance of Arbitration. As the strike wave spread, mass support developed for the One Big Union scheme. The militants captured union after union and the Trades Hall Reds, under the leadership of Jock Garden, cemented their control over the NSW Trades Hall.[5] The growth of pro-Bolshevik sentiment among workers was matched by a furious mobilisation of bourgeois forces. A series of right wing “secret” armies, under the command of leading establishment figures, unleashed a wave of violence and terror. In Queensland alone 70,000 respectable middle class citizens enrolled in the ultra-right militaristic King and Empire Alliance.[6]

While the IWW is the most renowned of the revolutionary organisations that grew in the course of this upheaval, they were far from being the only syndicalist current in Australia. In fact, they grouped together only a minority of the syndicalist activists.[7] Most socialists and Marxists were influenced by syndicalist ideas during this period. Many of these activists, while sympathetic to the ideas of the Wobblies, were repelled by their sectarian approach of counterposing the IWW to the whole of the existing trade union movement. Instead, this broader syndicalist movement looked to reorganising the unions along industrial lines into the One Big Union. It was this more diffuse One Big Unionist current, rather than the Wobblies, that achieved a mass following in the wake of the defeat of the 1917 NSW general strike and during the explosion of militancy in 1919. It was out of this current that many of the leaders of the fledgling Communist Party emerged.[8] By then the IWW was in disarray. They proved incapable of building out of the greatest upsurge of struggle in Australian history. The IWW played little role in the 1917 general strike and by early 1919 its remnants had degenerated into squabbling sects.[9] Despite extremely favourable conditions, the Wobblies had failed.

The demise of the IWW is popularly portrayed as being due to vicious police persecution.[10] There is no doubt that the Hughes government was out to destroy them. From 1916 onwards they faced increasing state repression. Twelve of their leaders were arrested in September 1916 for conspiracy to burn down Sydney. They were subsequently sentenced to between five and 15 years’ imprisonment on these framed-up charges. In July 1917 the organisation was banned. Direct Action was suppressed, their press and literature seized and their Sydney meeting hall closed. IWW membership was now a criminal offence and punishable by six months’ imprisonment. A wave of arrests and deportations soon followed in NSW. Undoubtedly this onslaught threw the organisation into a severe crisis. Much of its activity now centred around the defence campaign for its imprisoned leaders.[11]

Still this begs the question – why was the IWW unable to meet the challenge of state repression? Particularly as the objective situation was still extremely favourable. The Wobblies as an organisation had suffered a serious setback, but the working class movement was far from broken and the struggle was soon to reach new heights. Why didn’t the IWW go underground and reorganise? Why was no organisation preserved into the early twenties? All revolutionary organisations face crises. The Russian Bolsheviks survived much more severe repression and went on to lead a successful revolution. It is meeting the challenge of such crises that steels and tests a revolutionary cadre.

The limitations of syndicalism

To answer these questions it is necessary to examine the debilitating political and theoretical weaknesses of the IWW and of syndicalism more generally. One specific weakness has already been touched on – dual unionism. The IWW projected itself as an alternative to the whole of the existing trade union movement. Even in the US, where the working class was less organised than in Australia and where the conservative American Federation of Labor concentrated on organising skilled, craft workers, dual unionism severely limited the potential of the IWW. It never became a mass trade union movement.[12] The dual unionist approach merely served to isolate some of the best militants from the rest of the class and thus strengthen the hand of the reformists.

In Australia, where the level of union density at the time was probably the greatest in the world, the dual unionist project was doubly absurd.[13] In practice the IWW here was forced to retreat from dual unionism. It never really functioned as a union, but rather as a grouping of syndicalist activists. Still, the sectarianism of the dual unionist rhetoric and the triumphalism associated with it isolated the Wobblies from many of the best militants.[14]

The Wobblies’ advocacy of sabotage was undoubtedly another factor isolating them from some of the best militants. Wobbly soap-boxers flaunted their commitment to sabotage with gay bravado. Yet they never defined exactly what they meant by it. Most of the time the IWW insisted that sabotage meant nothing more than the withdrawal of workers’ efficiency, nothing more criminal than “going-slow”. Yet it also published the following advice: “Sabotage. Emery dust will cause bearings to heat, but sand, grounded up glass, brick dust…is just as good”.[15]

Such ultra-radical sounding rhetoric could appeal to limited sections of workers. There was some tradition of incendiarism in rural areas. For example in the sugar strikes in North Queensland in 1911 and again in late 1916, workers resorted to the widespread burning of cane fields. Generally however, individual sabotage is counterposed to mass action. Rather than drawing the mass of workers into struggle, sabotage devalues their self-activity, creating the impression that the heroic action of a few individuals can substitute for working class solidarity. As well, the advocacy of sabotage tended to isolate militants in the more settled and skilled industries in the cities from their more conservative workmates, and to provoke police repression.

If anything the Australian Wobblies made greater play of their commitment to sabotage than their American comrades. The series of pamphlets they published on the question were among their best sellers. While no Wobblies were ever actually convicted of industrial sabotage, and their leading members did not participate in it, Tom Barker, the former editor of Direct Action, acknowledges in his memoirs that some individual members engaged in a variety of criminal activities.[16] Definitely the Wobblies’ overblown rhetoric about sabotage made it easier for the press to paint them as a bunch of deranged, bomb-throwing anarchists. Even many militant trade unionists sympathetic to syndicalist ideas viewed them as alien and wild extremists. In turn, this made it more difficult to obtain solidarity action to win the release of the 12 Wobblies framed on the Sydney’s Burning conspiracy charges.[17]

A more fundamental problem was their general analysis of trade unionism. The syndicalists saw the unions as the key instrument of social change. The One Big Union would organise workers both to overthrow capitalism and to administer the new classless society. However, trade unions could never be a suitable tool to smash the capitalist state. By their very nature unions attempt to organise all workers, Liberal or Labor, backward or advanced. They therefore reflect the unevenness of the working class. Trade union consciousness then is inevitably lower than socialist consciousness. In contrast a revolutionary party starts from a position of recognising the different levels of consciousness within the class and then fights to overcome them. The party organises the revolutionary minority of workers to fight to unite economic and political struggles and ultimately makes possible the conquest of political power.

Furthermore, how were unions to avoid tendencies towards incorporation within capitalism? In particular how were revolutionaries to deal with the question of the trade union bureaucracy? The IWW saw the problem as simply one of union structure. All that was necessary was to abolish the craft and trade unions and organise along industrial lines. But this simply avoided the question of bureaucratism: the emergence of a specific mediating layer within the unions which balances between the rank and file and the capitalist class. The union bureaucracy is a profoundly conservative layer with no interest in the abolition of capitalism.[18]

Industrial unions have proven just as susceptible to bureaucratisation as craft or general unions. The syndicalist and anarchist union bureaucrats of the French CGT (General Confederation of Labour) and the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) proved every bit as hostile to initiatives from below as “political” reformists. The CGT was just as craven as the Socialist Party in endorsing the French war effort, and for all their pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric the CNT bureaucrats fought tooth and nail to sabotage the Spanish workers’ revolution of 1936. The CNT leaders entered the bourgeois government, opposed the formation of soviets and called for workers to take down the barricades in Barcelona in May 1937.[19] The syndicalists had no conception of building rank and file workplace organisation independent from the trade union bureaucracy. The experience of the Russian Revolution, where workers created from below their own organisations of direct rule – soviets or workers councils – demonstrated an alternative to the syndicalists’ narrow vision.

There is a related problem. Syndicalism provides no political alternative to reformism. Direct Action proclaimed: “The organised solidarity of the working class, at the point of production, is…the one essential factor, rendering political parties and political action futile and nugatory”.[20] This disavowal of “politics” simply vacated the political field to reformist or even outrightly reactionary ideas. They had no answer to the generalised political arguments of the Labor Party. Their only alternative was militant action. “Organise upon the job for job control; for controlling the job you control all else”, the IWW declared. However simply controlling the workplaces does not break the power of the capitalist state machine, nor does it give you control over the dominant ideas in society. The US IWW declared:

A working man may be an anarchist or a socialist, a Catholic or a Protestant, a republican or a democrat, but subscribing to the preamble of the IWW he is eligible for membership. And we are not responsible for his individual views and activities… So long as the individual performs his duties as a loyal member of the union, his personal affairs remain inviolate.[21]

But how can a worker who votes for an openly bourgeois political party be a loyal member of a union committed to the revolutionary abolition of capitalism?

While wages are the key issue, the limitations of syndicalism may not be so apparent. But once the struggle moved beyond immediate economic or workplace issues, the IWW was disarmed in the face of political reformism. This is particularly apparent over questions like racism and women’s oppression. With their workerist orientation the Wobblies focused on these issues purely on the basis of overcoming divisions within the working class. So, while they fought discrimination and stood for organising women and blacks, they had no conception of black or women’s liberation. For the IWW in the US there was

no race problem. There is only a class problem… The economic interests of all workers, be they white, black, brown or yellow, are identical, and all are included in the program of the IWW. It has one program for the entire working class – the abolition of the wage system.[22]

This meant that the IWW had no real answers for blacks facing discrimination and segregation. The reality is that for blacks there is a “race problem”, and it is no answer for them to be told that their salvation lies in “the abolition of the wage system”. Despite its opposition to segregation in the labour movement, the failure of the IWW to concern itself with the black struggle for civil and political rights restricted its appeal to the black masses, and offered no challenge to petty-bourgeois black nationalism.

In Australia the IWW were in the forefront of anti-racist agitation. They denounced the ALP’s White Australia policy and the racial exclusionism practised by unions such as the AWU. They campaigned for working class unity across racial lines and sought to organise Chinese workers. This principled anti-racist stance of the IWW and other syndicalists represented a sharp break, not just with the racism of the mainstream labour movement, but also with the local socialist movement, which by and large until then had endorsed White Australia.

However the IWW’s workerism meant that it had no serious theoretical explanation for the virulence of racism and the dominance of White Australia within the labour movement. They tended to blame it on the narrowness of craft unionism. This ignored the fundamental issue of the nature of Australian capitalism as a white colonial settler outpost in Asia and the pivotal role of racist nationalism in cohering the settler community. This may in part explain why, despite their previous history of opposition to racism, the IWW made concessions to chauvinism at the height of the 1916 anti-conscription campaign. The mainstream anti-conscription forces had raised the bogey of “coloured” labourers being brought in to replace conscripted white workers as a central issue in the campaign. Direct Action unfortunately joined this racist chorus:

In previous wars we find that the ruling classes repeatedly broke all promises made to lower classes… The South African heroes found they had fought to get the mines for the plutocrats and the jobs for the Chinese. It is quite likely that a similar event might occur here.[23]

Similarly, while the IWW placed a stress on organising women workers, fought for equal pay and the like, they did not address the issue of the special oppression of women. Thus in the US while the Wobblies did not formally oppose the women’s suffrage movement, they regarded it as of no importance to working class women who were reminded that the “vote will not free women” and were advised to “find their power at the point of production where they work”.[24] This workerist abstention from political struggle, far from offering a revolutionary challenge to the conservative leadership of the suffrage struggle, effectively conceded leadership to the bourgeois feminists.[25]

If anything the Australian Wobblies were even more backward on the issue of women’s liberation than their American comrades. There were no significant female Australian IWW leaders of anything like the stature of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in the US. And the percentage of women members was minuscule. This may in part reflect the local Wobblies ‘ idealisation of the single male outback worker, who roamed from mining camp, to shearing shed, to cane fields, to railway construction site or meatworks, as the epitome of militancy and working class solidarity. By comparison, they saw the influx of women into the workforce as a step backward, as “she brings a psychology better fitted to the intensification of exploitation than its annihilation. She has less instinct for social solidarity than has man”.[26] This was combined with a certain paternalism. They argued against conscription as it would “leave your women-folk without protection and without organisation, to be insulted sweated and exploited”.[27] Whereas Marxists see the family as the basis of women’s oppression, the Wobblies tended to idealise it and exhibited a certain sexual prudery.[28]

Syndicalism is the mirror image of Laborism. Both draw a sharp distinction between politics and economics. While for the Labor parliamentarians the industrial struggle counts for little or nothing and the emphasis is placed on parliamentary manoeuvres, the syndicalists disavow politics for “direct action”. Only Marxism offers a perspective which overcomes this dichotomy. For Marxists, politics is not centred around parliament, but infuses every aspect of social life. Whenever the masses fight to defend or improve their rights, whether the issue be the environment, civil liberties or abortion, they are engaging in politics. But in turn these political questions are inextricably linked up with the broader class relations in society, that is with economic questions. Furthermore, in order to win basic political rights, workers have commonly been forced to exercise their economic power through strike action.

Similarly, when workers fight around basic economic issues like wages, a whole series of political questions such as the nature of the state, the role of the ALP and the trade union officials, the position of women and so on, inevitably are thrown up and have to be confronted. There are no pure economic struggles that can be separated off from politics. This is why the blinkered approach of the syndicalists is so disastrous. In contradistinction, Marxism fuses both the struggle from below in the workplaces and the political struggle against the institutions of capitalist rule – the state, the media, the church and so on – and the broader battle of ideas. Furthermore, unlike the syndicalists, Marxists see the necessity of building a political party of the best working class militants to lead the struggle against reformism in every sphere.

The IWW paid scant attention to the question of how capitalism was to be overthrown. The Wobblies had no conception of the need for an insurrection to shatter the existing state machine – the police, army, courts, parliament – nor of the need for workers to take political power through their own organisations such as soviets. For them it was sufficient to take over the workplaces. All the workers had to do was fold their arms and the system would grind to a halt. When challenged about how to deal with the army, they weakly replied that a general strike would paralyse it. This underestimation of the state partly explains their own inability to cope with police repression in 1917.[29]

Not recognising the necessity for revolutionary political leadership to challenge reformism, nor the necessity of an insurrection to smash the capitalist state machine, they inevitably rejected the instrument necessary for these twin objectives – a revolutionary party. The syndicalists never adequately theorised the role of revolutionary leadership. The IWW did correctly emphasise the importance of a militant minority in galvanising the mass of workers into action. However, their failure to understand the political leading role of this minority thwarted their ability to offer a road forward for the class.

In practice the Australian Wobblies acted as neither a union nor a revolutionary party, but as a confused cross between the two, with the advantages of neither. Pragmatically, they could see in the Australian context that an attempt to operate as a union was doomed to failure. However, they were incapable of going forward from this correct insight to theorise the need for the revolutionary minority to organise on a political basis. They were more like a syndicalist sect, though held together not so much by their ideas, as by militant activism.

It was this emphasis on activism combined with their workerism that inhibited their capacity to face up to the political problems which weakened and finally destroyed their movement. There was a profound anti-theoretical trend in syndicalism. While the IWW placed an emphasis on education in Marxist economics, they were in no serious sense Marxist.[30] It is possible to find many quotes in Direct Action referring favourably to Marx. However there are also numerous references declaring that they were “true to the teachings of Bakunin” or referring favourably to the writings of other anarchists such as Kropotkin. The reality is that the Wobblies were quite eclectic when it came to ideas. Because of their workerism and their stress on activism over political theory, they saw no necessity to develop a rounded world view.

IWW membership was only open to workers. They deprecated the role of intellectuals, sharply counterposing activism to “abstract theorising”. They produced no serious theoretical works or books and developed no significant body of theorists. This limited their ability to develop a cadre, a layer of secondary leaders with a serious understanding of revolutionary politics, who were capable of arguing a clear road forward and winning other militants to their viewpoint. The IWW in Australia was extremely loose both organisationally and politically. It was overly reliant on a few leaders, such as Tom Barker. When those leaders were arrested the organisation was thrown into crisis as the secondary leadership was incapable of filling their shoes.

While it would be wrong to dismiss the Wobblies simply as mindless militants with no interest in broader issues beyond the confines of the workplace, syndicalist theory is best seen as the generalised experience of working people living under capitalism. Above all it was in action, in the aggressive struggle of workers against boss and state, that syndicalist ideas developed. They were concerned to analyse the development of capitalism and the state, but this was essentially for fairly immediate purposes. This made syndicalism empirical and pragmatic. As a theory it was ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of capitalist society and to develop a political road forward for the class. It lacked the broader and richer theoretical content of Marxism, which does not focus simply on the everyday experience of workplace and trade union struggle, but on the broader relationship between the classes.

Marxism does not focus on the immediate, surface features of capitalism, but attempts to penetrate beyond them to develop an understanding of the fundamentals of capitalism – its dynamic and laws of motion. Using this method, Marxism is capable of developing an understanding of the totality of society. It can analyse and attempt to explain every aspect of social life from economics to politics, the family, culture and art, and integrate them into an overall whole. While the IWW would approvingly quote Marx’s indictment of capitalism, they made little attempt to come to grips with his underlying theoretical method and world view.

The impact of the Russian Revolution

The successful Bolshevik revolution of 1917 presented the syndicalists with a profound challenge. It offered answers to the central questions which had plagued their movement. Prior to 1917 syndicalism had been a progressive current compared to parliamentary reformism. Unlike the official socialist parties of the Second International, the syndicalists, as Trotsky put it, “really wanted to tear the head off” the bourgeoisie. Their stress on mass struggle from below instead of parliamentary manoeuvring, their critique of Laborism, their emphasis on the importance of industrial unions, the general strike, and on the role of the revolutionary minority in galvanising struggle all contained valuable insights. Furthermore, the IWW had built the largest revolutionary organisation in Australian history. The syndicalists of the One Big Union movement had shown it was possible for revolutionaries to obtain a mass following in opposition to the Labor Party.

However the Russian Revolution now provided a new revolutionary yardstick by which to measure all working class political currents. Either the syndicalists would take on board the lessons of the first successful workers’ revolution or they were headed for oblivion. Syndicalism as such could no longer offer a road forward.

The Bolsheviks made a concerted effort to win the best of the syndicalists to the new Communist International. They saw them as an important revolutionary counterweight to the centrist and opportunist elements being attracted to the Comintern from the old Socialist Parties. In 1920 the Comintern issued a specific appeal to the IWW in an attempt to rally all the revolutionary forces.[31] A number of the leading European and American syndicalists were attracted to the new Communist Parties. In Australia a few prominent IWWers, including some of the Sydney Twelve after their release from jail, were involved in founding the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).[32] Those syndicalists who attempted to ignore the Bolshevik revolution and carry on in the old way as though nothing had changed were doomed to sectarian irrelevance. It meant they were turning their backs on the most important development in the history of the working class movement. They were incapable of attracting the new revolutionary forces inspired by the success of the Bolsheviks.

From 1919, there was a period of profound ideological and organisational turmoil on the Australian left. Syndicalist and socialist militants fought to come to grips with the political import of the Bolshevik experience and devoured the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, as they gradually became available. The standard argument that the demise of the IWW was simply a product of police persecution ignores or downplays the importance of this ideological crisis of syndicalism. It was undoubtedly an important factor in explaining why the Wobblies were unable to regroup even after the release of their leading activists from prison.

Indeed, all of the radical currents in Australia were thrown into crisis by the impact of the Russian Revolution. Everyone of them had to redefine themselves in relation to it. Even the most rigid and sectarian organisations, like the de Leonite Socialist Labor Party, were torn apart. When their leaderships refused to adapt and rally to Bolshevism, the best elements among their membership deserted them for the new Communist Party. The same pattern occurred among the remnants of the Wobblies. None but the most dogmatic of syndicalists attempted to carry on in the old way. The various schemes by sectarian remnants to revive the old IWW came to nought. Unfortunately however, most of the Wobblies could not make the transition to Leninism and disappeared from politics.

This trend is even more clearly seen in the case of the US Wobblies. The IWW entered World War I unquestionably as the organisation containing the largest number of working class militants. Yet the nucleus of the US Communist Party came out of the Socialist Party. A considerable percentage of the new CP was petty-bourgeois in origin, young people with no experience in the working class movement.[33] So in terms of the human material the advantage lay with the IWW. They had the tested militants, many hundreds of whom had served time in jail. They tended to look with contempt at the new communists as upstarts. But by 1922 the CP had replaced the IWW as the leading organisation of the vanguard of the US working class. The IWW, despite their experience, could not keep pace. They had not adjusted their outlook to the lessons of the war and the Russian Revolution. They had not acquired a sufficient respect for theory. That is why their organisation degenerated, while the CP with its poorer material, its inexperienced youth who had seized hold of the living ideas of Bolshevism, overtook it. There is no substitute for correct ideas in the task of building a revolutionary movement.

[1] The most substantial left wing analysis of the IWW is contained in Ian Turner’s Industrial Labour and Politics. The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in eastern Australia 1900-1921, Sydney, 1979, and his Sydney’s Burning, Sydney, 1969. Both works suffer from a tendency to romanticise and overstate the influence of the Wobblies. Furthermore, they offer no serious analysis of their demise. Similar problems are reflected in Vere Gordon Childe’s much earlier How Labour Governs, London, 1923. Verity Burgmann’s article “Directing the Action: The IWW in Australia”, International Socialist 9, further compounds these errors by spuriously arguing that the IWW was a Marxist not a syndicalist organisation. For a more right wing account see P.J. Rushton, “The Revolutionary Ideology of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia”, Historical Studies, 15, 59, pp424-46.

[2] Quoted in Brian Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale. A Social History of Broken Hill, 1883-1921, Melbourne, 1978, p146.

[3] For an overview see Bob Holton, British Syndicalism 1900-1914, London, 1976, especially pp17-23.

[4] M. Armstrong, The Origins of the Australian Labor Party, Melbourne, 1989.

[5] Garden and the coterie of union officials around him were to play a central role in the formation of the Communist Party. However, by the mid-I920s his opportunist and bureaucratic approach had led him back into the ALP.

[6] R. Evans, The Red Flag Riots, Brisbane, 1988.

[7] By 1918-19 there was a plethora of competing syndicalist and socialist sects. New groups grew rapidly and existing organisations revived. In Broken Hill the militant socialists Mick Considine and Percy Brookfield ousted ALP candidates in parliamentary elections. Even the de Leonite IWW, renamed the Workers’ International Industrial Union, now briefly achieved a sizeable following, particularly in Melbourne. In Bourke Street every Saturday night they sold 1,000 copies of their paper, the One Big Union Herald, which obtained a peak circulation of 20,000 copies. Yet in this more than favourable climate the Wobblies disintegrated.

[8] The OBU scheme was, however, still-born. Despite endorsement of the project by an All-Australian Trade Union Congress in June 1921, it was sabotaged by the reformist trade union bureaucrats and ALP politicians who were able to regain lost ground as the revolutionary tide receded as capitalism restabilised in the early 1920s.

[9] The two main competitors for the mantle of the IWW were the Industrial Labor Party formed in late 1917 by Betsy Matthias and the International Industrial Workers (IIW) which split from it in early 1919. The split was extremely bitter and messy, with allegations and counter-allegations about misappropriation of Wobbly relief funds. The ILP epitomised the worst elements of syndicalist sectarianism, condemning any political action to achieve the release of the IWW Twelve. For the ILP only industrial action was supportable. While the IIW adopted a more realistic approach to the release campaign, it did not survive for long.

[10] Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics. Burgmann, “Directing the Action: The IWW in Australia”. Childe, How Labour Governs.

[11] The impact of repression on the Wobblies however, is usually wildly overstated. Following the arrest of the Twelve in September 1916, they continued to grow rapidly, indeed they benefited from a wave of sympathy. Hughes’ first attempt to outlaw them in December 1916 had next to no effect. It wasn’t until the Unlawful Associations Act was tightened in July 1917 that there was any significant number of arrests. Nearly all the 100 or so jailed were in NSW and most served less than six months. This was hardly sufficient in and of itself to break an organisation with thousands of members. Furthermore, in Queensland, a centre of Wobbly strength, the Unlawful Associations Act was not enforced. The IWW continued to grow there in 1917 and 1918, aided by an influx of members fleeing repression in NSW. See R. Evans, Loyalty and Disloyalty: Social Conflict on the Queensland Home Front, 1914-18, Sydney, 1987 and Evans, The Red Flag Riots.

[12] P. Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917, New York, 1965.

[13] According to S. Macintyre, The Labour Experiment, Melbourne, 1989, p34, by 1911 Australian trade union membership had recovered to 354,000, 27.9 percent of all employees, while by 1921 it had exploded to 703,000, 51.6 percent of all employees.

[14] A typical example of the pretentiousness and triumphalism of the Wobblies was the Direct Action of 1 May 1914 which declared the founding convention of the IWW to be “the most portentous event as yet recorded in the history of the working class movement”.

[15] Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World, p160.

[16] E.C. Fry (ed.), Tom Barker and the IWW, Canberra, 1965.

[17] Strong trade union pressure eventually forced the newly elected Storey NSW ALP government to release the Twelve. Charlie Reeve, the last of the Twelve, was quietly released in November 1921. For details see Turner, Sydney’s Burning.

[18] See T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle. The General Strike of 1926, London, 1986, for a Marxist analysis of the role of the trade union bureaucracy.

[19] The Spanish CNT leadership’s call for trade union “autonomy” from politics was utterly reactionary – simply a cover for their betrayals. “No politics” meant the effective domination of the movement by reformist politics, while the anarcho-bureaucrats carried out a bitter struggle against revolutionary Marxist politics. For more details see Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, New York, 1973.

[20] Direct Action, 14 July 1917.

[21] Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World, p170.

[22] ibid, p127.

[23] Direct Action, 21 October 1916. There were several other articles in Direct Action in this period that are dubious to say the least on the issue of racism. On 16 December 1916 they conceded in self-criticism: “There is little doubt that many of our speakers used that bogey, i.e. the importation of ‘coloured’ labourers as a weapon to fight conscription”. See also R. Evans, Loyalty and Disloyalty, pp96-97.

[24] Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World, p168.

[25] This is a continuing problem for workerist and syndicalist currents. For example, in South Africa the workerists who played a central role in building the main trade union federation COSATU, because of their abstention on the national question, have been decisively outflanked by the Stalinists of the African National Congress.

[26] Direct Action, 1 May 1914. Various other articles reflected the same idea. On 1 May 1915 in an article on “Women and the IWW”, they wrote: “We have reached a stage in economic development when man’s dominance in industrial activity is seriously threatened by the influx of women in the labor market, with its resultant lowering of wage and standard of living. Temperamentally, she is different to the male, for in that alone do we find one of the greatest obstacles to female organisation”.

[27] Direct Action, 6 May 1916.

[28] Direct Action, 12 August 1916: “Impress upon the children the sacredness of the process of reproduction…for want of a little timely knowledge on sex matters, they may be led into self-abuse on the one part, or dissipation on the other”.

[29] Instead of going underground in Sydney and Broken Hill they decided to openly defy the banning of their organisation. They publicly proclaimed their IWW membership and hoped that by stuffing the jails they would intimidate the state. Over 100 Wobblies were imprisoned in NSW in this futile gesture. The Melbourne and Brisbane Wobblies disowned this nonsense.

[30] Verity Burgmann’s attempt to give the IWW a Marxist colouration in International Socialist, 9 is an extreme case of special pleading. Indeed, one of the Direct Action articles she quotes to demonstrate the Wobblies’ supposed Marxist credentials goes on to equate Marx with the anarchist adventurer Bakunin.

[31] To the IWW: A Special Message from the Communist International. The Australian edition was published with a foreword by Tom Glynn, a former editor of Direct Action.

[32] Tom Glynn was the first editor of the CPA’s paper. However he and J.B. King, another of the Sydney Twelve, were soon to split from the CPA in a syndicalist direction. A smattering of Wobblies became long term CPA members, the most prominent being Norman Jeffrey, one-time IWW leader in Melbourne and Brisbane, who became a long term CPA functionary. However the majority of CPA members were drawn either from the Trades Hall Reds and other looser syndicalist currents or from the socialist sects.

[33] J. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, New York, 1972, pp20-22.

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