Klan-Baiting the Wobblies: Unreasonable

About the only thing A. Barton Hinkle gets right about the Industrial Workers of the World in “Meet the Left-Wing Extremist Running for U.S. Senate” is not calling them the “International Workers of the World”.

Although at least Reason likening the “Wobblies”, whose founding antedates the Russian Revolution by over a decade, to “warmed-over Lenin” is not the most anachronistically wrong description published by a major libertarian organization. After all, the Ludwig von Mises Institute has called them Stalinist.

The use of “extremist” as an automatic pejorative in the headline is already a sign we’re entering intellectually lazy territory. Perceptive leftist Chip Berlet has long tried to explain to his comrades that heedless use of the term “can actually unintentionally undermine civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent”.

Sure enough, the article’s sneering reference to a desire “to overthrow the entire American economic system” in its opening sentence is already an indication that it will probably not be contributing much of value to the cause of freedom. After all, “to overthrow the entire American economic system” is a pretty good description of, say, Murray Rothbard’s goal. (Not to mention the libertarian pioneers like Karl Hess who were red-card-carrying Wobblies.) And while Reason is far from the rabble-rousing ends of the libertarian movement, even its relatively squishy devotion to independent-leaning people increasingly “born after the Cold War’s end, to whom old tribal allegiances, prejudices, and hang-ups … simply do not make sense” has little to do with what quickly turns out to be a spasm of old-fashioned red-baiting.

The target, Amanda Curtis, is a Democratic senatorial candidate. That should already raise an, um, red flag about any supposed faithfulness to the principles of the IWW, whose Constitution prominently contains the unequivocal rule that “No member of the Industrial Workers of the World shall be an officer of a trade or craft union or political party.”

Hinkle winds himself up by spending half the article griping that center-left Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-style ridicule doesn’t give equal time to mocking the far left.  Because libertarianism should embody nothing more than a vital-center view of the political spectrum, and was not launched by a rejection of it.

Hinkle’s mention that “Curtis has said some unflattering things about gun rights” might seem, since Reason is presumably supportive of the Second Amendment, an indication of her being not Wobbly enough. In the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre, Eugene V. Debs weighed in on the subject self-defense against John D. Rockefeller’s strikebreakers:

you should have no more compunction in killing them than if they were so many mad-dogs or rattlesnakes that menaced your homes and your community.

Recollect that in arming yourselves, as you are bound to do unless you are willing to be forced into abject slavery, you are safely within the spirit and letter of the law.

Eventually, Hinkle finally gets to the “far-out” Wobblies.

He starts things off with the egregious assertion that the IWW passively “let the 20th century pass it by”. As Howard Zinn notes, they were in fact bitter opponents of — and crushed by — the century’s dominant economic powers, who were collaborators with state privilege:

In those years, the permanent characteristics of the United States in the twentieth century were being hardened. There was the growing power of giant corporations… And this era saw the inauguration of benign governmental regulation of business, supported by a new consensus of businessmen, Presidents, and reformers, which traditional historians have called “the Progressive Era,” but which Gabriel Kolko (in his book The Triumph of Conservatism) terms “political capitalism.” In retrospect, the IWW appears to have been a desperate attempt to disrupt this structure before its rivets turned cold.

Rothbard ridiculed consensus intellectuals for identifying with progress “the century of horror, the century of collectivism, the century of mass destruction and genocide”. Why should libertarians of all people follow suit?

Hinkle then presents a passage from the IWW Preamble as self-evidently Leninist. Let’s take a phrase-by-phrase closer look:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.

First of all, this “working class” and “employing class” aren’t simply automatic aggregates of workers and employers. What makes the population into classes isn’t an inherent tendency of voluntary decisions to engage in employment relations to stratify power, but the predominance of such relations by systematically ruling out alternatives to wage work, artificially increasing the amount of wage work necessary to earn enough to survive, and limiting the opportunities for wage work to those permitted by a restricted pool of employers most of whom can act together as a stable cartel. All of these, and the resulting formation of privileged employers into an employing class, require the coercive power of a state to back them up.

Thus, the division of society into a productive class and a coercive exploiting class that do “have nothing in common” is entirely consistent with longstanding libertarian class analysis of a “productive class” and “political class” drawing their wealth from what Franz Oppenheimer called the “economic means” of obtaining wealth through labor and voluntary exchange and the “political means” of compulsory taking. The analysis is also a rebuke to the “we’re all in this together” liberal rationales, with their eliding of conflicts of interest.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until

No parasitical class in history has ever given up its power of its own accord. This “struggle” wasn’t the storming-the-Winter-Palace kind, and not even voting (Father Hagerty dismissed the idea that “Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box” could effect meaningful popular control of the state). As Zinn explained, “the Wobblies’ big weapons were the withholding of their labor, the power of their voices.”

the workers of the world organize as a class…

Such “organization” was decentralized, based on a voluntary understanding of common purpose rather than obedience, and always staunchly in contrast to not only vanguardism, but in a very deep sense politics itself. Zinn noted “They were suspicious of politics”. Samuel Edward Konkin III, an anarcho-capitalist whose Movement of the Libertarian Left (MLL) was a direct predecessor of C4SS, explained:

MLL supports genuine anarchosyndicalist unions which consistently refuse to collaborate with the State. (In North America, that’s the IWW and nothing else I know of.) Second, if you look at the bottom, you’ll note the abhorrence of the IWW to politics and party; they split with the nascent U.S. Socialist Party on the same grounds that MLL split with the formative [U.S. Libertarian Party] — rejecting parliamentarianism for direct action.

The ideal of class-wide organization is also obviously incompatible with — and was in fact a direct response to the existing craft unions’ dependence on  — the model of organizing only a portion of workers to get benefits for them at the expense of workers as a whole. Which is the very model whose modus operandi is persistently assumed to be the only possible one in “libertarian” union-bashing rhetoric.

…take possession of the means of production…

This has nothing to do with nationalization’s possession in name only, including the social democratic kind. See the Mondragon cooperatives for a case study of an economy of distributed “possession” in an allied association of enterprises.

…abolish the wage system…

This is not, as often misunderstood, a call to ban wage labor. Just as the working class and the employing class aren’t mere aggregations of workers and employers, the wage system is not the mere aggregation of voluntary decisions to engage in wage labor. What gives the wage system its systematic form and exploitative power is the marginalization by political suppression of all alternative forms of subsistence. As Kevin Carson explains:

“Abolition of the wage system,” for me, does not mean an end to the sale of labor (after all, according to Tucker, that labor should be paid is the whole point of socialism); it means an end to state-enforced separation of labor from ownership, and labor’s resulting tribute to the owning classes in the form of a wage less than its full product.

C4SS has already explained this in greater detail in an article arguing that “Free the Market, Abolish the Wage System” are a naturally fitting means and end, and in its FAQ on wage labor‘s elaboration that “By abolishing the state, we abolish state-driven monopolization of capital so that there would no longer be a ‘wage system’ in which one’s only choices are working for somebody else or starving.”

Thus, the ideal of many prominent classical liberals of an economy dominated by worker cooperatives, with wage labor receding to a marginal role, is one where the wage system has been abolished in the preamble’s sense:

The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and work-people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves. —John Stuart Mill

But such few cooperative bodies of the kind described as survived, might be the germs of a spreading organization. Admission into them would be the goal of working-class ambition. They would tend continually to absorb the superior, leaving outside the inferior to work as wage-earners; and the first would slowly grow at the expense of the last. Obviously, too, the growth would become increasingly rapid; since the master-and-workmen type of industrial organization could not withstand competition with this cooperative type, so much more productive and costing so much less in superintendence. —Herbert Spencer

Provided the sphere of capitalism is restricted, and a large proportion of the population are rescued from its dominion, there is no reason to wish it wholly abolished. As a competitor and a rival, it might serve a useful purpose in preventing more democratic enterprises from sinking into sloth and technical conservatism.  But it is of the very highest importance that capitalism should become the exception rather than the rule, and that the bulk of the world’s industry should be conducted on a more democratic system. —Bertrand Russell

And Konkin explicitly argued that wage labor would become obsolete in a free market:

And wage-labor’s historical benefit may have been as great as the invention of the diaper — but surely toilet-training (in this case, entrepreneurialization) is even a more significant advance?

Ironically, Hinkle would have been correct if only he had bothered to describe the Preamble as Marxist, since its “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’ ” is merely a slightly altered quotation of Marx’s “Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!‘ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!’ ” But the Wobblies were not interested in seizing control of what Marx called “the State parasite feeding upon, and clogging the free movement of society”. In sharp contrast to the redistributionism and fuzzy collectivism of pop Marxism, Big Bill Haywood’s summation of Marx was unrelentingly individualist, both methodologically and prescriptively: “If one man has a dollar he didn’t work for, some other man worked for a dollar he didn’t get.”

…and live in harmony with the Earth.

A phrase that wouldn’t sound out of place on the bumper of David Van Driessen’s car seems an odd thing to point to as “extremist”. And while it dilutes the anti-wage system thrust of the original version (which also had “take possession of the earth“), it’s in line with the ecological theme and nature imagery used since the beginning (the “shell” in “the new society within the shell of the old” was not just a figure of speech). And it doesn’t fit with the affinity of twentieth-century Communism for ecologically heedless mega-industry that spawned Chernobyl.

To Hinkle, Curtis’s use of a Facebook avatar of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is proof of “her admiration for communist economics”. But while the ranks of the founding Wobblies included communists, capital-C Communists, and supporters of the Soviet Union, that is not the source of their enduring appeal. Murray Rothbard observed that the left’s admiration for Che Guevara was

Surely not because Che was a Communist. Precious few people in this country or anywhere else will mourn the passing, for example, of Brezhnev, Kosygin, or Ulbricht, Communist leaders all. No, it is certainly not Che’s Communist goals which made his name a byword and a legend throughout the world, and throughout the New Left in this country.

What made Che such an heroic figure for our time is that he, more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, was the living embodiment of the principle of Revolution.

When searching for twentieth-century communists for its pantheon, the contemporary real left has gone far beyond the Old Left’s Trotsky and the New Left’s Che, Mao, and Castro, digging deep to find figures marginal in winners’ history, like Rosa Luxemburg, who are untainted by statism.

Voltairine de Cleyre pointed out a factor that crosses over economic shibboleths:

Miss Goldman is a Communist; I am an Individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property; I wish to assert it. I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual, is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should. But whether she or I be right, or both of us be wrong, of one thing I am sure: the spirit which animates Emma Goldman is the only one which will emancipate the slave from his slavery, the tyrant from his tyranny — the spirit which is willing to dare and suffer.

An examination of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s actual life reveals an individual ill-represented by the single data point of her affiliation with Communist Party USA, which is enough for Hinkle to equate her with “the president of the American Nazi Party”. This “Rebel Girl” who fought the system ever since age sixteen was a real-life Katniss Everdeen. Like the IWW as a whole, she endured repression in the form of both private thuggery and governmental repression in the form of frivolous arrests, trumped-up charges, and censorship. She advocated for feminism and birth control at a time when unions were male dominated, and helped found the ACLU.

It is true that the Soviet Union gave her a state funeral in Red Square, which in context rings as bitterly ironic as Kropotkin spending his final years in the USSR finishing his research on ethics. However, her final resting place is more fittingly in a Midwestern cemetery with American-as-apple-pie anarchists. These include the Haymarket martyrs whose kangaroo-court hanging led a generation of labor organizers to distrust the state, Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman (both cases in point), Lucy Parsons (yet another fellow “rebel girl”), and Goldman’s lover and “whorehouse physician” Ben Reitman.

Finally, we get the comparison to the Ku Klux Klan. The comparison of a group that produced posters denouncing the KKK as “anti-labor”; that was formed in large part as a direct response to the exclusionary racism of the elitist unions of the time; that prominently counted within its ranks such people of color as Lucy Parsons, Ben Fletcher, and Frank Little; that was among the first to systematically defy segregation laws; that was repressed by KKK-style vigilante thuggery. All solely on the grounds that they must be comparable to the Klan since they’re as “extreme”. And all particularly ironic since Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’;” — and who is equally opposed to “extremists for hate or for love”.

But hey, IWW and KKK have the same number of letters in their acronyms, so potayto, potahto.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory