An analysis of the preamble to the IWW constitution.
The preamble is the centre piece of the IWW’s philosophy and ideology. Originally written in 1905, it went through several iterations up until 1908, after which it has remained largely unchanged apart from a small addition in 1991.
The history of the Preamble and the changes within it show the wealth of political debate that took place in the early years of the IWW. These discussions continue today between members and outside observers in a ceaseless conversation on whether the IWW is Anarchist, Marxist, Syndicalist, or something between the three — and whether or not this mix is the cause of the IWW’s inability to bring about the end of capitalism.
Not all fellow workers engage in these conversations. It’s unfortunate that many in our union see such engagement with ‘theory’ as detracting or apart from ‘real’ organizing work. This ignores the fact that any action is built (consciously or not) on some sort of theory and it is the very theory found within the preamble that can help us understand what to do and how to do it. In other terms, theory provides not just the foundations of actions but also the constraints on what good action represents.
Some fellow workers also dismiss discussion on theory as a snobbish activity reserved for academics in ivory towers. Although there is truth in the idea that those who engage exclusively in theory usually have nothing better to do, dismissing engaging in theory for that reason does nothing but reinforce the division of mental and physical labour brought about by capitalism. Something antithetical to the very purpose of the IWW. Dismissing theory also ignores the reality that managing the means of production as workers requires complex decision making. If, as the preamble suggests, “The army of production must be organised…to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.” We need to get used to, and actively educate ourselves in, the theoretical work that underpin our jobs in our respective industries — from healthcare provision and education, to smelting and agricultural techniques.
The responsibility does not fall on individuals alone, there is much to be said about the lack of theoretical discussion within the organs of the union itself. At its height, the IWW had more than 90 publications in multiple languages to discuss workplace organizing, theory, and strategy. Today, there is one official english publication —Industrial Worker—, one official spanish publication (Solidaridad) and multiple blogs associated to local branches. This means that discussions had at a local level tend to stay there instead of getting a wide circulation and engaging many.
Dissecting the Preamble
Going back to the preamble, this is not the first piece ever written to expand and elaborate on it (and hopefully not the last). Many have come before it, and I would like to take the opportunity here to highlight one written back in 2003 by FW Tim Acott from the Twin Cities GMB – Annotated Preamble to the IWW Constitution. In that piece the Preamble is broken down and explained almost sentence by sentence, making it a great explainer to newcomers and long-time members alike.
The mission of this piece however is not to just give a walkthrough of what the Preamble means for Wobblies, but also to elaborate on how the philosophical underpinnings of the Preamble compare to (and differ from) other revolutionary ideologies. This is obviously a gargantuan task, so this will by no means be a comprehensive analysis, nor will it be the only interpretation of differences. But setting down the broad similarities and differences in ideologies should allow us to integrate a wider lens when making decisions or reflecting on ones we’ve already made.
Sing along (Method)
To dissect the Preamble, I’ve reproduced it here with a number at the beginning of each sentence. I’ll extract sentences that relate to each other and group them into “concepts” which will then be explained. It’s worth noting that although I’m attempting to dissect the Preamble sentence by sentence, many of the sentences relate to each other and touch on more than one concept. Also, none of these concepts can be understood as stand-alone ones, it is the relationship between all the concepts that makes the IWW what it is.
(1) The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. (2) There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
(3) Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
(4) We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. (5) The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. (6) Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
(7) These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
(8) 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.”
(9) It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. (10) The army of production must be organised, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. (11) By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
Concept 1: Ceaseless struggle
- There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the 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 organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
These lines can directly be linked to the opening of the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”. The idea behind this is simple but with wide reaching consequences. History is divided between the have and the have-nots, those who own the means of production (or auxiliary forms of capital) and those who are doomed to sell their labour to continue to exist. The preamble, however, substitutes Marx’s Proletariat and Bourgeois with Worker and Employer. Why? Coming out of the labour union movement (the IWW came to life as an amalgamation of several trade unions) the IWW wanted to locate its struggle in the workplace. Additionally, worker and employer are much more concrete categories than the abstract Proletariat and Bourgeoise and more relevant to those the IWW is trying to organize.
This dividing line is something the IWW still upholds today by helping us limit who can join the union. Where some trade unions have no problem admitting people at supervisor level and above, the IWW has developed the rule of thumb to bar anyone with hiring and firing power from joining. At that level, a supervisor or a manager becomes part of the employing class as their interest in maintaining their job means their role increasingly depends on squeezing as much surplus value from employees as possible, that is to say, their role becomes aligned with management.
There are other radical subtexts in these sentences. They can either be read as a proclamation of war (class war) or, inversely, as claims that peace itself cannot be achieved unless classes are abolished. War, environmental degradation, and want are direct results of this class division; it is only by the abolition of this division that peace can be achieved. “there can be no peace” = “there will be no peace (because we won’t allow it)” or = “it is impossible for peace to exist under these conditions”.
This concept of a ceaseless struggle may be obvious, but it is extremely distinct from forms of individualist anarchists and post-anarchists (who derive a lot of their theories from individual anarchists such as Max Stirner). For them, struggling against power structures does nothing but reinforce their existence and constrain the type of activities they can take. The only way to effectively fight against power structures then is not to confront them, but to build practices that exist outside of them. This can come in the form of counterculture or autonomous spaces. What these theories obviously neglect is that ignoring power structures doesn’t make them go away even if it may provide some level of reprieve. Individual anarchists and post-anarchists do have a fair point in warning that a direct confrontation with power has a tendency in corrupting movements by focusing solely on the attainment of power, reducing social transformation to an afterthought.
Concept 2: Rejection of Mediation
1.) The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.
6.) Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
This is a very important one and ties very closely to Concept 1. The IWW here claims that trade unions are not representatives of the working class (they are no longer strong enough (sentence 4) or are too fragmented to be representative (sentence 5). Instead of being representative of the working class, trade unions have become mediators between the two classes. They have succumbed to institutionalisation or bureaucratization and are now more concerned with maintaining themselves as institutions under capitalism (with the recognition and blessing of the capitalist state) than representing the needs of the working class.
For the IWW, this refusal of mediating institutions extends beyond trade unions but to the institutions of the capitalist state itself. This is why our constitution rejects any sort of political affiliations and officers cannot hold office in political parties or other trade unions. If they do, they can potentially be co-opted by the state.
This rejection of mediation is very close to Anarchist and Syndicalist formulations. French Syndicalist Georges Sorel, in his book Reflections on Violence (a must read!) explains this rational saying that “in entering into bourgeois institutions, revolutionaries have been transformed by adopting the spirit of these institutions: all the parliamentary deputies agree that there is very little difference between a representative of the bourgeoisie and a representative of the proletariat.” Sorel argues that it is only by rejecting these institutions that the antagonism between classes can be highlighted and the end of capitalism swiftly brought about. Emma Goldman is also a major advocate for direct emancipatory action and even applies this rhetoric to argue against women’s suffrage claiming that “There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot. In the darkest of all countries, Russia, with her absolute despotism, woman has become man’s equal, not through the ballot, but by her will to be and to do.”
This is in complete contradiction to Social-democratic and Leninist interpretation of the role of these institutions, especially the parliament. For social-democrats, capitalism will end itself due to its inherent and increasing contradictions. Since these contradictions will do the dirty work, there is no need for a revolutionary party. The task of socialists then becomes to push for reforms that improve the life of workers now until that collapse comes.
Leninists, on the other hand, are under no illusion that capitalism will end itself. They also agree that capitalists will never allow you to vote them away, so their objective is not to capture power through bourgeois democracy (they remain dedicated revolutionaries). However, they do see Parliamentary involvement as a good opportunity to spread communist propaganda. In “Left-Wing” Communism Lenin says “participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory on the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifically for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, and for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden and ignorant rural masses.” He takes a similar stance on involvement in trade unions accusing those who are not involved as being frivolous.
In the place of participation in mediating bodies the IWW leans on direct action. That is, direct mass confrontation with those in positions of power to wrestle concessions from them. This can be the government, the boss, or even the local council.
Concept 3: Beyond Union Organizing
- 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.”
- It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.
These three sentences are perhaps the most interesting in the Preamble and lead to the most conversation within the union. In short, these three sentences, combined with sentence 3 (“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”) clearly show that the IWW is not just about dealing with current workplace issues (working hours, conditions, pay, etc.) but go beyond it.
Sentence 8 is lifted directly from Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit which is dedicated to showing how increased competition, specialisation in the division of labour, and automation depress wages. Trade unions, Marx argues, are limited to a defensive role in a daily struggle against this onslaught. The division of unions also means that the workers are not being organized together as a unified class, which is what is needed to surpass capitalism. Marx says “Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it”.
These sentences then are a clear response to that identified limit. It makes it clear that the IWW is trying to organize workers in their entirety as a class. It is from this starting point that the concept of the One Big Union arises and is why the IWW also organizes unwaged workers such as the unemployed, houseless, and those engaged in unpaid housework.
However, although the IWW does not limit itself to workplace organizing, it doesn’t go so far as to proclaim itself a political organization for the proletariat (although it obviously has political aims). This led to commentators such as American Trotskyist James P. Cannon saying:
“One of the most important contradictions of the IWW, implanted at its first convention and never resolved, was the dual role it assigned to itself. Not the least of the reasons for the eventual failure of the IWW — as an organization — was its attempt to be both a union of all workers and a propaganda society of selected revolutionists — in essence a revolutionary party. Two different tasks and functions, which, at a certain stage of development, require separate and distinct organizations, were assumed by the IWW alone; and this duality hampered its effectiveness in both fields… the IWW in its time of glory was neither a union nor a party in the full meaning of these terms, but something of both, with some parts missing. It was an uncompleted anticipation of a Bolshevik party, lacking its rounded-out theory, and a projection of the revolutionary industrial unions of the future, minus the necessary mass membership. It was the IWW.” Cannon adds to this weakness that “The IWW announced itself as an all-inclusive union; and any worker ready for organization on an everyday union basis was invited to join, regardless of his views and opinions on any other question.”
Cannon wrote this in 1955 after a long period of suppression of the IWW. It’s clear now that the IWW is very much still alive and has not yet completely failed — in fact, the IWW is growing!. Nevertheless, there is something to note in this contradiction the Cannon points out. The duality of the IWW being both a political organization and a workplace union puts a certain amount of stresses on our resources and leads to a continuous back and forth discussion on where our priorities should be, where our resources should go, and who we should be trying to organize. This debate resurfaces as the organizer vs activist conversation.
In my opinion, this duality is exaggerated by Cannon and those who engage in the organizer vs activist debate and can be easily overcome structurally through industrial organizing and subjectively through political education. What is clear however, is that the IWW has a clearly defined political mission and role.
Concept 4: Prefiguration
- These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
- The army of production must be organised, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.
- By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
If there was one concept that makes the IWW what it is, this would be it. Although the concept of prefiguration is not exclusive to the IWW —it can be found in other anarchist, mutualist, and councilist theories— the IWW infuses it with industrial organizing. The theory, simply put, suggests that we can present an image of what post-capitalist society will look like before its collapse. This removes the necessity of a transitory state between capitalism and socialism — what is commonly referred to as a dictatorship of the proletariat by various Marxists (mostly Leninists). Prefiguration then rejects a stagiest approach to transition from capitalism to socialism.
In part, prefiguration deals with some of the concerns raised by postanarchists. Prefiguration incorporates both direct confrontation with power structures while also organizing independently of them according to industry (education workers, transport workers, miners, etc.).
Industrial organizing can also be counterposed to trade organizing, where instead of organizing an entire trade — electricians, for example — which means a workplace may have several unions active in it, each representing a specific trade. The IWW would organize all workers in a workplace (electricians, cleaning staff, office workers etc.) to maximize the impact they can have, and all workplaces under an industry. This not just makes fighting for better working conditions more effective, but by organizing workers by industry, workers themselves can begin having the conversation as to how society will be structured after capitalism ends. For example, if all education workers (school and university teachers, researchers, museum curators and others) are organized together, they can start having conversations about what the role of education should be outside of the confines of capitalism and what the best modes of delivering an education may be. Since this is happening through the IWW in a democratic manner —where people are already voting for committee leaders in the workplace and the industrial section of the union— then you have already begun to build the alternative system that will replace capitalism.
Industrial organizing being the system that will replace capitalism is something that the IWW and Leninists agree on. This is made clear in a letter from the Third International to the IWW that reads
“In Russia the workers are organised in industrial unions, all the workers in each industry belonging to one union. For example, in a factory making metal products, even the carpenters and painters are members of the Metal Workers’ Union. Each factory is a Local Union, and the Shop Committee elected by the workers is its Executive Committee.”
But Leninists also furnish an important criticism against prefiguration in saying that capitalism itself cannot be upset without armed insurrection. As such any attempts of prefiguration will need to be set aside as the working class organizes to seize political power. It is only after political power has been seized, that is, once the state has been captured, we can go about reorganizing society without the fetters of capitalism and the struggle against it. The objective of any organization should therefore be the capture of political power first.
Some closing remarks
There is obviously a lot more to disentangle in the Preamble (from other viewpoints that I am not qualified to speak on), but I hope that this piece highlights the richness of debate around what the IWW is and isn’t. I also hope that it encourages more conversations around what the IWW should be. It is these theoretical conversations that help us shape decisions and the actions/direction we choose to take as a union. It’s only through intense democratic debate and discussion that we can build the solid foundations needed to take our next steps.