Relationship between the IWW and the CPA

The Emma Goldman Papers
Last updated
Oct. 19, 2010, 9:44 p.m. (view history)

Like virtually all radical groups, the IWW met the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917 with great enthusiasm. That a backwards country like Russia could create a revolution was inspirational to the IWW, whose membership consisted mostly of unskilled workers. The organization also approved of the ousting of moderate socialists from power in November 1917, drawing a comparison to the American situation, where left wing groups like the IWW were growing increasingly wary of the parliamentary tactics of the conservative wings of the socialist and organized labor movements.

Regardless of how they felt about Communists abroad, however, the leadership of the IWW did not approve of the nascent Communist party in the United States. They portrayed the left wing socialists who created new parties attempting to follow the Russian model as naïve adventurists who cared more about theories than the actual revolutionary environment in the United States. Instead, they attempted to portray themselves as the most obvious American allies of the Russian revolution. When the Bolsheviks began to form the Third International in Moscow, the IWW was invited as a member. The General Executive Board recommended compliance in 1919, stating that “Whereas, the I.W.W. is the only revolutionary organization in the United States whose program is absolutely scientific and uncompromising, and is the logical American unit of the Third International, and … The proletarian revolution is world-wide, and not national or local in its scope; … Resolved, that the I.W.W. shall create a committee on International Relations, which shall at once establish and maintain correspondence and fraternal relations with [other sympathetic groups] and shall provide for the representation of the I.W.W. as a constituent member of the Third International.” Two pamphlets were published which attempted to portray the IWW as the true American Communists: “Industrial Communism—The IWW” (1917) by Harold Lord Varney, and “Red Dawn: The Bolsheviki and the IWW” (1918) by Harrison George.

The new General Board who assumed power in 1920 were less enthusiastic about affiliation with the Third International, perhaps after observing that the Russians required strict discipline from their allies. In a referendum put to the entire IWW membership which included three degrees of support for the International, only one passed, which stated “That we endorse the Third International with reservations, as follows: that we take no part in parliamentary action whatsoever and that we reserve the right to develop our own tactics according to prevailing conditions.” This referendum would later be thrown out because of perceived inconsistencies in the vote, but the end result was the rejection of the Third International by the IWW. Leadership also rejected the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), another Russian creation which was said to be a group seeking economic rather than political alliances. Both the Board and George Williams, the IWW’s delegate to the conference of the RILU in Moscow, condemned the group in late 1921, stating that it was only concerned with maintaining discipline along the Russian Communist Party line.