WHEN INTERVENTIONS DIE: WOBBLING TOWARDS OLD BEARDISM

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Old Beard

noun

usually male (but not always) usually older  (but not always) comrade who dominates conversations or meetings with their ideas or their craziness. Seemingly ignoring social cues and norms, the old beard foams at the mouth with their ideas and insists your interruptions of his interruptions are interrupting him.

Recently, a blog and Facebook page called ‘Wobbling Towards Communism’ appeared. It claims to be the “Official blog of the Communists of the IWW” (it is no such thing). In April of 2014, it announced itself, with little fanfare. Their four paragraph announcement of a blog with no content yet was submitted to the Industrial Worker editor, who declined to print it (understandably in my opinion). Like many an insistent Wobbly before them, who often view the IW as an on-demand publishing service, the WTC folks raised a stink about this, screaming about ‘censorship’ on the IW‘s Facebook page. This was, unfortunately, the first time any significant portion of IWW membership noticed them.

With this new-found attention, expressed mockingly as those who scream about IW censorship are usually treated, WTC picked one of those objections, ‘No politics in the union’¹, and used it to explain themselves further. Their initial flailing, lack of content and capitalization of the word ‘communism’ led some to believe that they were a Trotskyist or Stalinist outfit aiming to inject the politics of the Soviet Union into the IWW. But they are not. It is very easy to see from the language they use, which is similar to Gilles Dauve’s work, and who they quote (Bordiga), that they are left communists.

What is this so-called ‘left communism’?

For many, even those in an anti-capitalist organization such as the IWW, terms such as left communism and its traditions can be unfamiliar. Although many ideas from left communism have been influential, individuals and organizations who identify as such are relatively rare.

Left communism is rooted in the experience of the workers movement in Europe after World War I.

In Russia, left communism found its expression with dissidents within the Bolsheviks such as the Workers Opposition faction, who opposed the new Soviet bureaucracy and believed that the unions should take over and direct the economy, rather than the Party. Most of these factions were disbanded as the 1920s rolled on, and many of their adherents were purged and persecuted as Stalin strengthened his power in the Party and in the USSR. Today, there are no direct descendants of these organizational factions.

In Italy, Amodeo Bordiga and his faction within the Italian Communist Party (PCI) represented left communism. Eventually, like most Communist parties internationally, the PCI was ‘Bolshevized’ and left communists were purged or bailed out to form their own groups and parties. While the Italian Left’s politics are a bit complex, and sometimes hard for to separate from regular Leninism, they were among the first to call the USSR ‘state capitalist’. Today, there are a number of small parties and organizations, mostly in Italy, that consider themselves within the Italian Left or Bordigist tradition.

Finally, in Germany and the Netherlands, an alphabet soup of organizations such as the KAPD, AAUD, AAUD-E and others were to be called ‘council communists’ and generally seen as left communists. Militants such as Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, and Otto Ruhle wrote scathing critiques of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and in turn were among the subjects of Lenin’s infamous Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder?. Today there are really no direct descendants of this tradition, although there are German Wobblies who identify as council communists, and plenty of small ‘ultraleft’ writing groups in Western Europe are influenced by the tradition.²

What does this have to do with the IWW?

The IWW is not now, and was not during this period, an island unto itself. It was part of the workers movement that the Russian, Italian and German-Dutch Left was, as well.

The IWW actually published a translated version of The Workers Opposition by Alexandra Kollontai, who was one of the main members of the faction in the Bolshevik Party with the same name as the pamphlet. The German-Dutch Left looked at the IWW admiringly. The KAPD sent articles to be published in The One Big Union Monthly. The AAUD and AAUD-E rejected trade unionism (what we call business unionism) and were revolutionary unions that saw themselves as organs for revolutionary activity during revolutionary times, not as an organizational form for bread-and-butter. This is a bit different than the IWW, but familiar enough that they can be considered fraternal organizations from the past.³ There was some crossover, as well. A number of German IWWs joined the various left communist groups in Germany when returning home, and vice versa. Paul Mattick, who while living in Germany traveled in KAPD/AAUD circles, became involved in the IWW’s unemployed organizing in Chicago during the 1930s. As for Bordiga, although not one of my favorites, he had insightful things to say when it came to the nature of the Soviet Union, capitalism and the environment.

The arcane of reproductive critique

I felt it necessary to explain some of the politics of Wobbling Towards Communism as I understand them, because I see some get really stuck on the word ‘Communist’ and can’t get past it. When it comes down to it, there is little to seriously object to in WTC’s views. The IWW opposes wage labor, and aims for its abolition. The elimination of wage labor is inseparable from the abolition of money and markets and the establishment of a classless society, which is communism. WTC is against using the state. There are plenty of Wobblies who object to our use of the NLRB, whether in the form of elections or ULPs. WTC is against mindless activism, anti-intellectualism, business unionism ‘with red flags’, and cooperative enterprises as a solution to abolish capitalism. Many IWWs would agree (including myself).

But despite these broad agreements, its perfectly understandable to disagree with WTC’s tone, such as their bombastic entry into the ‘safer-spaces’ debate or just think their analysis of what’s going on in the union is inaccurate.

For example, in their (all capital letters, I might add) “THESES ON THE DEGENERACY OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD AS A GENUINE PROLETARIAN ORGANIZATION“, WTC list 10 points (and a Bordiga quote) that they see as problems within the IWW. This is their most explicit and overarching view of what’s wrong with the union, so its worth looking at it more closely.

1. Since its heyday in the early 20th century, the IWW has degenerated into a grotesque shell of its former revolutionary proletarian self. Once the closest realization of “the party” in the United States and beyond, the IWW is now a haven for ragtag leftists, lifestyle evangelists, historical re-enactors, moralist-scold anarchists, and labor lusters who would just as soon join the SEIU or an AFL-CIO union if they had open membership. This is not a reflection on workers who get involved with organizing campaigns at their workplace, but rather those who have made the IWW their personal ideological clubhouse.

The IWW here is presented as an organization with continuity. A continuity that can be traced from its heyday until its present ‘degeneration’. Like many Marxists, they compress history into simple upward or downward developments, completely ignoring the complexity of the IWW’s existence and development. Whether intentional or out of ignorance, there is no professed understanding of the stops and starts the union has gone through since the 1920s. One wonders if we are now more ‘degenerated’ than in the 1950s, when we mainly existed in the shoe-boxes of the elderly, or in the early 1990s, when we had little presence outside of leftist incubators such as the Bay Area. Are we as ‘degenerated’ now as the late 1930s, when most of our shopfloor strength came from signed contracts with employers, and enforced by the state’s labor courts?

As for the insults, the IWW has always included ‘ragtag leftists’. What else could you say the founding convention, made up of dissident unionists, random anarchist personalities and representatives from various socialist parties was? And what was the significant and well-known hoboism of the historical IWW, if not ‘lifestyle evangelism’? The ‘historical reenactors’ part has some truth to it, but not really as much anymore. There was a time once where many GMB’s had no one under the age of 40, and the past was the meeting’s main subject. This is no longer as common. WTC are making critiques and using the terms and problems of Wobblies 10 years ago to write polemics against the IWW of today.

2. For much too long, the IWW has fetishized decentralization and autonomy. This has led to small cliques and personal fiefdoms in elected union offices. It is not unusual to see members running for union office unopposed in yearly elections. Members who have held the same office for multiple years with nobody running against them become comfortable and complacent.

Ironically, in many ways, the IWW is the most centralized revolutionary union in the world. We are more based on elected representatives than assemblies, which most similar unions are based on. Admittedly, there has long been a streak of extreme decentralization and autonomy in the union. In the contemporary IWW this is influenced by some strands of anarchism, but even the historical IWW had battles on this issue. I mean, they split over it, for chrissakes.

However, the ‘small cliques and personal fiefdoms’ claim is nonsense. If anything, there is too much turnover in our officer positions. People don’t serve out their terms, because it can be hard, unpaid work. Or they feel they are not appreciated by the membership. Or they have too much going on in life. On the international level, you’d be hard-pressed to find many that held their officer position continuously 3 years ago, and virtually no one that did 5 years ago. Contrast this with AFL-CIO unions, who, at the international or local level, have had people who have been officers for decades.

3. This trend toward decentralization has led to a complete mishmash of ideologies and ideas left to infect and fester in the IWW, which has led to the promotion of all sorts of concepts which fly in the face of the preamble. These include, but are not limited to, support for $15 minimum wage, cooperatives, and no coordination at the branch level. Reformist cretinism has no place in a revolutionary union, leave that for parliamentary cretinism.

There has always been a variety of outlooks and ideas in the IWW. Indeed, in any revolutionary union that isn’t a tiny sect. Ironically, the Industrial Worker, which WTC later condemns in this piece as “only good for lining cat litter trays” was one of the first to publish anything critical of the Fight for $15 campaign, removing from a paywall, Erik Forman’s ‘Fast Food Unionism: The Unionization of McDonald’s and/or the McDonaldization of Unions’. The IW also published critiques of the ‘venture syndicalism’ of Fight for 15 and the Wal-Mart campaigns. In addition to what was published in the IW, Adam Weaver, an active IWW member, wrote a critical blogpost of the campaign that got an angry response in the letters section of the International Socialist Organization’s Socialist Worker website. Until the controversial In These Times expose by Arun Gupta, the only voices on the left critical of the Fight for $15 were small eclectic Marxist collectives…and the IWW.

Cooperatives as a strategy to abolish capitalism, or at least to ‘train’ workers in self-management, is for sure a strain of thought in the IWW. I disagree with this vehemently, but I recognize cooperatives have been a part of the workers movement for 150 years. To act as if cooperatives, or the political motivation behind forming them, is a new thing or imported from the activist scene, is falsifying history.

4. The union’s newspaper, Industrial Worker, is at this point a waste of money and resources, printing only feel good articles and nothing else. For several years now, an IW website has been promised and has yet to happen, with little sign of it coming down the road. For all intents and purposes, it’s still strictly a print newspaper with a PDF posted onto a third party website for online viewing. This is an embarrassment. At the moment, the paper is only good for lining cat litter trays. The money spent each year on the IW could be better spent elsewhere, such as toward organizing funds or a strike fund (see point 9).

I share the frustration that an IW website has not been created. The IW‘s online presence is lackluster at best. Using a third party like Scribd, which requires a paid account or for the user to upload material in order to download a PDF of a newspaper is not ideal. Probably the majority of single article format pieces from the paper have been reformatted and posted to libcom.org by me, on my own initiative. That is also not ideal. I don’t know how to solve this. Using volunteer web design has been unreliable. Paying ‘web design collectives’ has been unreliable. Getting paid professional web designers to do this work has been unreliable.

However, despite this valid critique, the rest of what WTC has to say about the IW seems more motivated by their initial temper-tantrum I’ve already described, rather than the actual content of the paper.

Instead of ‘only feel good articles’, the IW has published a mass of helpful and thought provoking material that has been beneficial to the union as a whole. For 8 years, the monthly column ‘Workers Power‘ has featured brief explanations of nuts and bolts problems, and other issues one faces in workplace organizing. It has been a significant contributor to refocusing the IWW on the shopfloor, rather than activism, in my opinion.

The paper has also provided a forum for discussing how the union relates to labor law, contracts and the state, as can be seen in the ‘Direct unionism’ debate. Its regular book reviews have featured books by or about Marx, solidarity unionism, the German Revolution, history of anarcho-syndicalism, the Sojourner Truth Organization, etc. It has featured many first hand accounts of working class life, everything from how the job is every day, to organizing experiences. The IW has included defenses of revolutionary unionism, an analysis of what forming a failed solidarity network was like, and an in-depth comparison of anti-union campaigns. This is in addition to its reports on the IWW’s exciting (if modest) campaigns and projects such as Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Whole Foods, the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers, Work Peoples College, Chicago-Lake Liquors, Sisters Camelot, etc.

In contrast, WTC’s contributions up to this point have mainly consisted of ill conceived polemics and poorly expressed rants. Unlike other attempts at critique and discussion in the IWW such as the Direct Unionism and Wobblyism papers, WTC seems more motivated and inspired by the shouting matches within the Comintern 90 years ago, than any desire to constructively push and discuss the positions of the communist left in the IWW. Rather than interest, the only thing thus far they have inspired are a parody Facebook page and a scathing reply from someone who is otherwise sympathetic to the communist left.

5. The communication between branches is a complete shambles. Only those most engaged and with the least amount of a social life are able to keep up with events union wide. There is no single news source, no single twitter or facebook account, just a myriad of half updated accounts.

Ideally, all branches should be in contact with the GEB, the ODB and the ISC. They are supposed to have contacts for each of these. In reality, branches neglect to do this, file poor reports, or don’t report at all for extended periods. If they did this better, than the ODB could connect branches and campaigns that are doing similar things better. That’s how I understand the problem. But rather than this being because of ‘decentralization and autonomy’, the reality is that IWWs are swamped with other work, don’t take reporting seriously or don’t understand its importance.

It is actually relatively easy to keep up with what is going on in the union. For example, the IW, which many people still get in print, the General Organizational Bulletin (GOB) and the IWW Facebook account. There are also numerous local level sites, blogs and Facebook pages which are kept current that inform us of what’s going on. Branch-level ODB liaisons are also supposed to inform their branch of what is generally going on and if there is any solidarity work to be done.

It is possible, that if you are an at-large member with no nearby branch, do not receive the IW or the GOB in print, nor use a computer often, you will not know much about what is going on. But there isn’t much we can do about that.

6. There is a complete and utter incestuous degeneracy of revolutionary praxis (and even syndicalist praxis) with the adoption of activism. This is mostly a means to waste our time, so that people feel like they are doing something rather than trying to integrate with the class at large. With focus on soft and easy targets and an abandonment and lack of understanding that this abandonment has occurred, of a class theory of history, the reason for the existence of the IWW, and the fact that we are a union and need to have workers in it.

Activism as a main activity is a waste of time. But when movements pop up, whether in the form of the  ‘Wisconsin Uprising’, Occupy or the ongoing anti-police brutality movement that has been created in the aftermath of the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, it is wise for Wobblies to be involved. IWWs have the potential to push the possibilities and the narrative of the movement pass mere activism. They also can connect with other working class militants they never would have met otherwise.

7. The self absorbed navel gazing in regards to organizational approaches and inner orientation as compared to an actual orientation towards the class. The IWW can no longer be a social club for pretend revolutionaries.

Not sure I understand this. It is confusing, considering its coming from a blog that is primarily concerning itself with ‘organizational approaches and inner orientation’.

8. The Union pretends to not have an historic position on political economy, forsaking the intellectual heritage of revolutionary class politics that used to be the backbone of the union. Marx’s analysis was heavily used to form that backbone and is exactly why we emphasize proletarian politics from a marxist view. The program of the IWW must include investigation into political economy.

Not sure there’s any ‘pretending’ going on. This historic position is still intact, for better or worse. The IWW has a general analysis of capitalism and why we oppose it. This is expressed through One Big Union and other documents. Stuff like this could use some updating, that’s for sure. Although, there isn’t some holy grail of discovery when it comes to political economy. Millions of words have been spent by the communist left on the nature of the period and crisis and so on, and it hasn’t necessarily resulted in a greater understanding of anything, except maybe where these small grouplets disagree with each other.

9. As far as any of us are aware, there is no strike fund in the IWW. How can the IWW consider itself a union with no form of emergency fund for IWW workers who are caught in the bad end of an organizing campaign? Your “solidarity” means nothing without this basic material necessity, and a crowdfunding campaign launched at the last minute won’t cut it. Perhaps some of the thousands of dollars which are thrown away on the Industrial Worker each year could go toward a strike fund.

Another irony, from left communists who see anarchists, syndicalists and whatever other ‘degenerated’ tendency being on the right of them…this position is to the right of the tendencies they posture against. Revolutionary unionism has almost always been against the strike fund. Not only has it been a practical matter since we’ve commonly operated on shoestring budgets as to allow low dues. But it has also been a political matter. Strikes should be short, intense and sweet if they happen, and on-the-job action is much preferred. Large strike funds are subject to seizure by state authorities and a developing bureaucracy within the union itself.

10. The focus of gender equality in the organization over political ability. As a woman, there is a preference over my sex over my ability as someone with an insight into political economy and ideology, which was never taken into account at all. This often results in situations where the political ends of a proposal are never taken into account, just as long as there is “gender balance”.

Not sure why someone’s insight’s into political economy or ideology are any better reasons for taking someone into account than their gender. As an organizer, and on the shopfloor, issues of identity are immensely more important than whether someone has read the latest Endnotes or identifies as some variation of radical leftist. There are self-identified anarchists in Minneapolis, some of who have faced actual and real state repression, who in the context of a union campaign, acted as an unpaid anti-union firm.

Polemics are the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome

To end this, it’s worth stating again that WTC’s conception of communism is perfectly inline with the IWW’s goals. Many of their views are shared by Wobblies. But at the end of the day, it is making scathing critiques based on an inaccurate view of the IWW, which is seemingly reflective of inexperience and ignorance of the actual union. WTC blisteringly insists that their real identity and experience is irrelevant, and their analysis is what is important. Unfortunately, that is not how it works in the IWW. There are plenty of people on the radical left, educated people, willing to criticize, analyze and proselytize. Less common are the ones willing and ready to be fired, to miss 3 days of work to do a training 500 miles away, to take a frantic phone call from someone worried about their campaign at midnight and other efforts. In the IWW, you have to put your money where your mouth is. Critiques looked at as existing to give answers, rather than create discussion, are frowned upon. WTC obviously has some of the right ideas, I hope they don’t squander them through clumsiness.

Footnotes

¹ – This objection to ‘No politics in the union’, which is part of the official One Big Union pamphlet, isn’t unique, and many Wobblies share. Nate Hawthorne wrote something about this phrase and its meaning back in October of 2012.

² – I’ve compressed a lot of history and views in the interest of briefness. If you’re interested, there’s quite a bit of material available on these traditions that are highly recommended. The communist left in Germany 1918-1921 by Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier is thorough and useful.

³ – For more information on the AAUD/AAUD-E, check out this PDF I made of what English language material is available online.

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3 comments

  1. good articIe and critique of WTC. however, found the titIe of the articIe misIeading. you cited at the end of your critique that the author of WTC was a woman so i don’t understand how that reIates to the “oId beard” IabeI. i think the definition had nothing to do with WTC. i was hoping to read an articIe on cranky oId wingnut Iefties interrupting meetings 🙂 that being said, i Iove and support the IWW. 🙂

    1. It’s a metaphorical beard, of course.

  2. […] my last post, I briefly went over the three left communist tendencies that emerged in Europe after the Russian […]

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