(4) Vincent St. John
The second split of the IWW, which broke off De Leon and SLP elements at the Fourth (1908) Convention, likewise occurred over a doctrinal question. The issue this time was “political action” or, more correctly, conflicting conceptions of working class action in the class struggle which — properly understood — is essentially political.
The real purpose of the split was to free the IWW from the Socialist Labor Party’s ultra-legalistic, narrowly restricted and doctrinaire conception of “political action” at the ballot box; and to clear the way for the St. John conception of overthrowing capitalism by the “direct action” of the organized workers. This, by a definition which was certainly arbitrary and inexact, was declared to be completely “non-political.”
In a negative gesture, the 1908 Convention merely threw the “political clause” out of the Preamble. Later, going overboard, the IWW explicitly disavowed “politics” altogether, and political parties along with it. The origin of this trend is commonly attributed to the influence of French syndicalism. That is erroneous; although the IWW later imported some phrasemongering anti-political radicalism from Europe, to its detriment. Brissenden is correct when he says:
“The main ideas of I.W.W.-ism — certainly of the I.W.W.-ism of the first few years after 1905 — were of American origin, not French, as is commonly supposed. These sentiments were brewing in France, it is true, in the early nineties, but they were brewing also in this country and the American brew was essentially different from the French. It was only after 1908 that the syndicalisme révolutionnaire of France had any direct influence on the revolutionary industrial unionist movement here.” (Brissenden, p. 53.)
The IWW brand of syndicalism, which its proponents insisted on calling “industrialism,” never acknowledged French origination, and had no reason to. The IWW doctrine was sui generis, a native product of the American soil. And so was its chief author, Vincent St. John. St. John, as all the old-timers knew, was the man most responsible for shaping the character of the IWW in its heroic days. His public reputation was dimmed beside the glittering name of Bill Haywood, and this has misled the casual student of IWW history. But Vincent St. John was the organizer and leader of the cadres.
Haywood himself was a great man, worthy of his fame. He presided at the Founding Convention, and his magnificent utterances there have already been quoted in the introductory paragraphs of this article. The “Big Fellow” conducted himself as a hero of labor in his celebrated trial in Idaho, and again called himself thunderously to public attention in the great IWW strikes at Lawrence, Paterson and Akron. In 1914 he took over from St. John the office of General Secretary of the IWW, and thereafter stood at its head through all the storms of the war and the persecution. There is historical justice in the public identification of Bill Haywood’s name with that of the IWW, as its personification.
But in the years 1906-1914, the years when the character of the IWW was fixed, and its basic cadres assembled, it was Vincent St. John who led the movement and directed all its operations. The story of the IWW would not be complete and would not be true if this chapter were omitted.
St. John, like Haywood, was a miner, a self-educated man who had come up to national prominence the hard way, out of the violent class battles of the western mining war. If “The Saint,” as all his friends called him, borrowed something from the writings of others, and foreigners at that, he was scarcely aware of it. He was not a man of books; his school was his own experience and observation, and his creed was action.
He had learned what he knew, which was quite a lot, mainly from life and his dealings with people, and he drew his conclusions from that.
This empiricism was his strength and his weakness. As an executive leader in practical situations he was superb, full of ideas — “enough to patch hell a mile” — and ready for action to apply them. In action he favored the quick, drastic decision, the short cut. This propensity had yielded rich results in his work as a field leader of the Western Federation of Miners. He was widely renowned, in the western mining camps and his power was recognized by friend and foe. Brissenden quotes a typical report about him by a mine-owners’ detective agency in 1906:
“St. John has given the mine owners of the [Colorado mining] district more trouble in the past year than any twenty men up there. If left undisturbed he would have the entire district organized in another year.”
In dealing with people — “handling men,” as they used to say — Vincent St. John had no equal that I ever knew. He “sized up” men with a quick insight, compounded of simplicity and guile, spotting and sifting out the phonies and the dabblers — you had to be serious to get along with The Saint — and putting the others to work in his school of learning by doing, and getting the best out of them.
“Experience,” “decision” and “action” were the key words in St. John’s criteria. He thought a man was what he did. It was commonplace for him to pass approving judgment on an organizer with the remark, “He has had plenty of experience,” or “He'll be all right when he gets more experience.” And once I heard him say, with a certain reservation, of another who was regarded as a corner in the organization: “He’s a good speaker, but I don’t know how much decision he has.” In his vocabulary “experience” meant tests under fire. “Decision’ meant the capacity to think and act at the same time; to do what had to be done right off the bat, with no “philosophizing” or fooling around.
St. John’s positive qualities as a man of decision and action were contagious; like attracted like and he created an organization in his own image. He was not a back-slapper but a leader, with the reserve that befits a leader, and he didn’t win men by argument alone. In fact, he was a man of few words. The Saint lived his ideas and methods. He radiated sincerity and integrity, and unselfishness free from taint or ostentation. The air was clean in his presence.
The young men who fought under his command — a notable cadre in their time — swore by The Saint. They trusted him. They felt that he was their friend, that he cared for them and that they could always get a square deal from him, or a little better, as long as they were on the square with the organization. John S. Gambs, in his book, The Decline of the I.W.W, a postscript to Brissenden’s history, remarks: “I have heard it said that St. John, among outstanding leaders, was the best loved and most completely trusted official the I. W. W. have ever had.” He heard it right.
The IWW, as it evolved under the influence of St. John, scornfully rejected the narrow concept of “political action” as limited to parliamentary procedures. St. John understood the class struggle as a ruthless struggle for power. Nothing less and no other way would do; he was as sure of that as Lenin was. He judged socialist “politics” and political parties by the two examples before his eyes — the Socialist Party bossed by Berger and Hillquit and the Socialist Labor Party of De Leon — and he didn’t like either of them.
That attitude was certainly right as far as it went. Berger was a small-bore socialist opportunist; and Hillquit, although slicker and more sophisticated, wasn’t much better. He merely supplied a little radical phraseology to shield the cruder Bergerism from the attacks of the left.
De Leon, of course, was far superior to these pretentious pygmies; he towered above them. But De Leon, with all his great merits and capacities; with his exemplary selflessness and his complete and unconditional dedication to the workers’ cause; with the enemies he made, for which he is entitled to our love and admiration — with all that, De Leon was sectarian in his tactics, and his conception of political action was rigidly formalistic, and rendered sterile by legalistic fetishism.
In my opinion, St. John was completely right in his hostility to Berger-Hillquit, and more than half right in his break with De Leon. His objections to the parliamentary reformism of Berger-Hillquit and the ultra-legalism of the SLP contained much that must now be recognized as sound and correct. The error was in the universal opposition, based on these poor and limited examples, to all “politics” and all political parties. The flaw in his conceptions was in their incompleteness, which left them open, first to exaggeration and then to a false turn.
St. John’s cultivated bent to learn from his own limited and localized experience and observations in life rather than from books, and to aim at simple solutions in direct action, deprived him of the benefits of a more comprehensive theory generalized by others from the world-wide experiences of the class struggle. And this was true in general of the IWW as a movement. Over-simplification placed some crippling limitations on its general conceptions which, in their eventual development, in situations that were far from simple, were to prove fatal for the IWW. But this took time. It took the First World War and the Russian Revolution to reveal in full scope the incompleteness of the governing thought of the IWW.
Next page: The Long Detour