A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


While the Progressives were busy "doing good," cleaning the house of industrial capitalism, including all of its dusty, neglected corners, there was another group of people who felt that the entire house needed to be demolished and rebuilt, this time according to a new set of blueprints.

I refer here to those Americans who joined the radical movements of that time. Indeed, the Progressive era was the heyday of the American socialist movement. (After this "chapter," you will see a page with some statistics and figures testifying to the popularity of socialism at the time. Please note any and all terms on the page). There were basically two reasons why the socialist idea was as prevalent as it was: to some it appeared that true justice was simply impossible to obtain under capitalism; also, many brought these radical ideas with them as part of their intellectual baggage which they carried on their immigrant voyage across the ocean. Socialism was particularly strong among those of Jewish, Scandinavian, and German descent. It would not be until the 1930's and 1960's that radicalism would revive on anything that approached the scale of the early 1900's.

What was the socialist ideal for which these people fought? Most socialists sought a society where the government not only regulated industry, but owned it in the name of "the people"--meaning the workers or "the laboring masses," whose work, they argued, created the nation's wealth in the first place. This society would, over time, become "classless," with neither rich nor poor, for incomes would be distributed as equally as possible. Both the poverty-stricken Lower East Side and the opulent Newport, R.I., would become things of their past, relics of an age when "man was wolf to man."

Socialists tried to realize their dream through unions. But even more important to their hopes was the the American Socialist Party. Basically, theirs was a political strategy.  Socialists would run for every office from dog catcher to President of the United States. When socialists won over enough state legislative and congressional seats, when they democratically captured the White House, they would then begin passing the necessary laws (and constitutional amendments) to transform the U.S.A. into a democratic socialist republic. (For their successes, also see pages which follow). Please note that American socialists were committed to a political democracy, both in terms of winning power and governing. They would have said that they just also wanted some economic democracy to go along with it. The leader of the Socialist Party during this time (and its perennial presidential standard bearer) was Eugene Victor Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana. There are few monuments to American socialists, but there is a "Eugene Victor Debs Rest Area" on the interstate highway going through Indiana. (I know this because I used the restroom there and I recommend it. I also know that Debs would have approved, because this was a clean, well-managed, government-owned toilet! By the way, I grew up thinking Debs was Jewish, because he was very popular among New York Jews. Should you venture to the Big Apple and have the overwhelming desire to listen to the Yiddish-language radio station there, you can find it by its call letters "WEVD." Farshtay? )

There was another group--rivals of the American Socialist Party--that sought to reshape the American commonwealth. It was called the "Industrial Workers of the World" (IWW), also known by its nickname, "The Wobblies." This was surely one of the most unusual organizations in American history. Its most important leaders were the one-eyed "Bill Bill" Heywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The Wobblies believed in "anarcho-syndicalism," which is one variety of anarchist thought. (See their founding statement at end). Like socialists, Wobblies believed in a classless society where workers reaped the fruits of their labor and where people lived in relative equality. Unlike socialists, however, the Wobs did not believe in any large governmental structure, whether it be socialist- or capitalist-oriented. In their vision of the "good society," they saw self--governing communities, with the main power being exercised by factory councils of elected workers. These councils would run not only factories, but the surrounding communities as well.
The Wobblies differed from socialists and non-socialists unions in other ways. First of all, there was the issue of "means": while they led many traditional strikes, the Wobblies were not adverse to preaching sabotage (There is little evidence that they actually practiced sabotage, but they never disavowed its use). Moreover, they advocated the use of the "general strike" to bring down the capitalist order. So, unlike the socialists, the Wobblies believed in an economic, not political, route to power for the working class

The Wobblies argued that the way for workers to maximize their power was to organize into the IWW--"The One Big Union"--rather than into trade unions where workers were divided amongst themselves according to skill. The Wobblies (unlike the AFL) were therefore happy to organize all workers, including blacks, women, the unskilled, and immigrants. Every worker was welcome under the big tent of IWW, where "An Injury To One Is An Injury To All." Indeed, the symbol of the IWW (at least in the public mind) was the "hobo," most of whom were unskilled migrant workers. According to legend and lore, once the Wobblies sent out the call to their so-called "Overalls Brigade," hoboes all over the country would jump trains and head to whatever place the Wobs needed reinforcements.

Here's another difference: Wobbly unions did not believe in signing contracts with employers. If the bosses yielded to workers demands, fine, but no written contract was possible because workers needed to maintain their freedom of action in the eternal war-unto-death with the capitalist class.

What's hardest to describe, or reduce to paper, is the Wobbly spirit. The Wobs were defiant, irreverent, militant--and unlike many activists, they had a sense of humor.  Wobblies could even laugh at themselves.

Before the Wobblies could organize workers, they found that they had to first win for themselves the right to free speech. It seemed that towns would pass laws against street speaking whenever the Wobs were about to come to town. In cities throughout the West, the Wobblies were hauled off to jail whenever they put down their soapboxes. They fought back in Spokane, Washington, where they used a tactic that would later become a model for the modern Civil Rights Movement. They called for reinforcements and purposely filled the jails to the point where the city itself was facing financial hardship. Ultimately, their free speech rights were reaffirmed. The Wobblies won most of their "Free Speech Fights."

Perhaps the best way to understand the Wobblies is to know of their role in the most famous strike in Massachusetts history: the Lawrence "Bread and Roses" Strike of 1912.

In that year, in Lawrence, Ma., 30,000 unskilled textile workers, mainly women, spontaneously went on strike after finding "short pay" in their pay envelopes. The Massachusetts Legislature had recently passed a law limiting the hours mill workers could be forced to work. Mill owners responded by cutting pay, though workers felt they could barely survive on what they had previously been earning. They realized that they needed to be organized if they had only hope of winning, so they asked the AFL to send in organizers to unionize them. But the AFL wasn't interested, preferring to organize skilled workers only.

Only one labor federation answered the call of the Lawrence workers and that was the Wobblies. They came into Lawrence and found workers unable to communicate, because, in this very ethnic city, they spoke a dozen different languages. To forge the necessary unity, the Wobblies unsheathed their secret weapon: their "Little Red Book" of songs. By getting the workers to sing together, they helped create a spirit and and sense of trust that transcended ethnic divisions. The state government responded by recruiting Harvard students into the National Guard to help keep order in Lawrence. Tensions increased. There were sporadic incidents of violence as crowds of workers and ranks of the National Guard pushed against each other. Dynamite was found, blamed on the union, but later found to be planted. A striker named Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed while walking a picket line. She had been carrying a sign that provided the strike with its most famous slogan: "Bread & Roses" (that is, workers were fighting for necessities, "bread," but also because they wanted to be able to enjoy culture and the beautiful things in life, "roses").

 The union then devised a tactic which ultimately drew the attention of the nation. At the IWW's request, the workers sent their own children out of the city to ensure their safety. The children went to live with sympathetic families as far south as Philadelphia. One day, as mothers brought their kids to the railroad station, they were attacked by club-wielding policemen who realized that these self-imposed exiles were powerful symbols, slowly winning public opinion over to the side of the workers. But the police action backfired. Americans were shocked at news of police beating mothers and children. After three months, the mill owners decided to throw in the towel. The workers won, the pay cut was rescinded, and the Lawrence Strike goes down in our history as the first successful labor action by unskilled immigrants.

This was also the Wobbly's greatest victory. There were some other notable strikes the group was involved in (particularly among miners and lumberjacks), but the IWW was always even more important as a symbol of the radical potential of American workers. To capitalists, they were a very menacing symbol. Indeed, their symbolic power was out of all proportion to their  actual numbers. During their most vibrant years, only 200,000 workers passed through their ranks at one point or another. The IWW still exists today and has a few hundred members, but the organization is a shadow of its former self.

There is one famous postscript to the history of the IWW. One of its most important members, Joe Hill--a Swedish immigrant--wrote many of the "singing union's" most famous songs. In 1914, he was accused of killing a grocer in a botched hold-up in Salt Lake City. His defenders claimed that he was framed and that his arrest was intended to discredit an ongoing strike. The details of the case, his guilt or innocence, is still debated. He was found guilty in court though, and was sentenced to be executed by firing squad. Appeals for clemency flooded in, including one from President Woodrow Wilson. But the governor chose not to exercise his clemency power, and Hill was executed. Before he died, he wrote his famous will (which you can find below). Whether guilty or innocent, Hill became a martyr of the American labor movement, and he himself was the subject of a famous song that you will hear in class.

The period 1900 to 1914 was a time of political activism and change. Progressive reformers get top billing, but it was also a period when radical ideas and movements made a large impact on the American landscape. Ultimately, workers did not turn to radical change in order to improve their lives. Why? This is still debated, and is the subject of many books. Certainly, radical groups suffered government repression and harassment (particularly during the WWI period). So too, radicals did not find the language--or the ideas--capable of inspiring a majority of workers. Probably most important is the fact that the American economy continued to expand and most workers did experience an improvement in their standard of living. Yes, working people did have to fight, through unions, for a better life, but the American Dream did come true for many, thereby undercutting the appeal of radical movements. It is probably no coincidence that the next radical upsurge in American history would come after capitalism collapsed and the Great Depression dragged on through the 1930's.

 Still, in history, losers don't always lose--at least not completely or for all time. Sometimes losers inspire future generations (for example, the failed abolitionist John Brown). Sometimes they even eventually come to power (for example, the anti-communists in Russia today). Or sometimes
--like the radical movements of the early 20th century--they serve as a sort of public conscience, reminding citizens of all classes of the fundamental American ideal of justice for all. The Wobblies prepared a poster during the Lawrence Strike which read: "Is Massachusetts in America?" In asking this question, the Wobblies were addressing more than geography. They were speaking from their own understanding of the promises of American life.


Eugene Victor Debs
Appeal to Reason
"Big Bill" Heywood
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
"Free Speech Fights"
Joe Hill
"The Little Red Book"
Lawrence Strike
"Bread and Roses"

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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