Skip to main content

Myth #8 - The IWW is an anarchist and/or anarcho-syndicalist union

The IWW has long been associated with anarchism by anarchists and non-anarchists alike. Indeed, many anarchists--including a few famous ones--have been welcome members of the IWW, but nevertheless, an IWW member needn't be an anarchist, and the IWW is not in fact an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist union.

There is nothing in the IWW Constitution or General Bylaws that explicitly defines the IWW as anarchist or syndicalist.  Those that claim otherwise often refer to this particular provision:

IWW General Bylaws, ARTICLE IV, Political Alliances Prohibited - To the end of promoting industrial unity and of securing necessary discipline within the organisation, the IWW refuses all alliances, direct or indirect, with any political parties or anti-political sects, and disclaims responsibility for any individual opinion or act which may be at variance with the purposes herein expressed.

It is true that the phrase "any political parties" rules out the IWW allying itself with specific political parties, including so-called "workers parties", a stance many sectarian leftists argue makes the IWW "anarchist" by definition--a stance the IWW rejects. 

In any case, the rest of the phrase, "or anti-political sects" was specifically included to rule out exclusively anarchist organizations or tendencies as well. Some may argue that this phrase refers to non-profit non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and while it is true that today, this is certainly the case, but at the time of its writing (1908) non-profit NGOs didn't--as such--exist.

The original source of  this myth is Daniel DeLeon and the Socialist Labor Party. One of the founders of the IWW in 1905 was the SLP's most famous and influential theorist and leader Daniel DeLeon. DeLeon's vision for the IWW differed significantly than those of other founders (notably William "Big Bill" Haywood and Vincent St John). DeLeon believed that the IWW must organize on the political field (meaning electoral politics) as well as industrially (meaning in the workplace). Between 1905-08 DeLeon and his adherents achieved an uneasy compromise with those who believed that the IWW should focus solely on organizing at the point of production. At the time, the vast majority of unskilled workers either were ineligible to vote or couldn't stay in one location long enough to become eligible (because their work was both seasonal and itinerant).

Deepening differences between DeLeon's wing and St John's came to a head at the 1908 IWW Convention. DeLeon's delegate credentials were revoked (on constitutional grounds according to St John's supporters, on a questionable technicality according to DeLeon's side), the Preamble to the IWW Constitution was rewritten to remove the language about "political action", and DeLeon and some of his followers quit the IWW. They founded a rival IWW which existed until it changed its name in 1915 and ultimately died a slow death by 1925. Like the IWW, DeLeon's theories and handful of die-hard supporters never completely died.

The Socialist Labor Party exists even today and they continue to claim that "anarcho-syndicalists" captured the IWW in 1908 (for example, see How the Socialist Labor Party differs from the Industrial Workers of the World) and rejected "political action" in favor of "physical force and violence", and proposed the organization of autonomous shops of self managed workplaces with no coordination between them, but these claims are false.

For one thing, those that overturned the "political action" clause were not an ideologically doctrinaire band of "anarchists", but rather a diverse group of IWW members, including rank and file workers from across the Pacific Northwest, socialists of numerous stripes, and perhaps a handful of anarchists united in their belief that DeLeon's uncompromising views on "political action" made the IWW unpalatable to workers who did not follow the strict doctrinaire position of the SLP.

Additionally, the SLP's claim that the IWW rejects coordination between shops is also untrue. The Industrial Union and Industrial Department structures provide the coordination between organized shops (organized by industry), organizing workers, and local industrial union branches. In fact, the IWW proposes almost exactly the same structure as the SLP calls for in its program of Socialist Industrial Unionism, except the IWW rejects the idea that this needs to be combined with electoral politics, and there is no need for a political party to accompany the IWW's program of industrial unionism. All of the coordination can and will be done by the workers and their industrial unions.

The rejection of electoral politics does not mean that individual members are not free to vote for candidates of their choice in elections or engage in the building or workers' parties, nor does it mean that the only means open to workers is violence or physical force. The acts of talking to workers, educating workers about their situations, meeting and discussing workplace conditions, engaging in public demonstrations, organizing on the job, engaging in non-violent workplace actions, and even the general strike are all examples of nonviolent actions that do not involve electoral politics.

Other sectarian leftists besides the SLP routinely claim that the IWW is an anarchist organization. This is no doubt due to the fact that the IWW steadfastly refuses to align itself with any political party.

The IWW has always maintained that by aligning itself with a political party with a narrow ideological perspective would divide workers rather than unite them, even if one political party is closer in its vision to goals and practice of the IWW than another. The IWW also believes that no political party can be close enough to the IWW in its visions and goals, thus an alliance with such a party would represent a compromise the IWW is not willing to make. Finally, it is believed by the IWW that while it is theoretically possible to achieve a few reforms for the working class through electoral politics, no election will bring about the complete emancipation of the working class from wage slavery, which is what the IWW stands for and always has.

To some, this makes the IWW seem "anarchist", and indeed many anarchists (famous and not) have been IWW members, but being an "anarchist" is not a requirement of IWW membership.

To many dogmatic sectarian parties (Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, reformist, or otherwise) the IWW's perspective is an anathema, because the IWW rejects their specific programs, and yet the IWW has played such an important role in the history of the labor movement which is something that all such parties would love to claim as their own to give them a greater sense of significance and legitimacy.

The employing class also uses this myth to scare workers who associate "anarchism" and "anarchy" with political chaos, bomb throwing madmen, and terrorism. Leaving aside the fact that anarchy and anarchism are none of these horrible things, the IWW has never advocated or practiced them either.

No matter what, everyone should remember: The IWW is open to all members of the working class (whether or not they're anarchists).

Next page: Myth #9 - The IWW is a Marxist organization.