This space is dedicated to the proposition that we need to know the history of the struggles on the left and of earlier progressive movements here and world-wide. If we can learn from the mistakes made in the past (as well as what went right) we can move forward in the future to create a more just and equitable society. We will be reviewing books, CDs, and movies we believe everyone needs to read, hear and look at as well as making commentary from time to time. Greg Green, site manager
Thursday, January 16, 2014
HONOR THE THREE L’S-LENIN, LUXEMBURG, LIEBKNECHT-Honor An Historic Leader Of The American Labor Movement-“Big Bill Haywood
EVERY JANUARY WE HONOR LENIN OF RUSSIA, ROSA LUXEMBURG OF POLAND, AND KARL LIEBKNECHT OF GERMANY AS THREE LEADERS OF THE INTERNATIONAL WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT. DURING THE MONTH WE ALSO HONOR OTHER HISTORIC LEADERS AS WELL ON THIS SITE.
Big Bill Haywood, Melvyn Dubofsky, Manchester University Press, Manchester England, 1987
If you are sitting around today wondering, as I occasionally do, what a modern day radical labor leader should look like then one need go no further than to observe the career, warts and all, of the legendary Bill Haywood. To previous generations of radicals that name would draw an automatic response. Today’s radicals, and others interested in social solutions to the pressing problems that have been bestowed on us by the continuation of the capitalist mode of production, may not be familiar with the man and his program for working class power. Professor Dubofsky’s little biographical sketch is thus just the cure for those who need a primer on this hero of the working class.
The good professor goes into some detail, despite limited accessibility, about Haywood’s early life out in the Western United States in the late 19th century. Those hard scrabble experiences made a huge imprint on the young Haywood as he tramped from mining camp to mining camp and tried to make ends mean, any way he could. Haywood, moreover, is the perfect example of the fact that working class political consciousness is not innate but gained through the hard experiences of life under the capitalist system. Thus, Haywood moved from itinerant miner to become a leading member of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and moved leftward along the political spectrum along the way. Not a small part in that was due to his trial on trumped up charges in Idaho for murder as part of a labor crackdown against the WFM by the mine owners and their political allies there.
As virtually all working class militants did at the turn of the 20th century, Big Bill became involved with the early American socialist movement and followed the lead of the sainted Eugene V. Debs. As part of the ferment of labor agitation during this period the organization that Haywood is most closely associated with was formed-The Industrial Workers of the World (hereafter IWW, also known as Wobblies). This organization- part union, part political party- was the most radical expression (far more radical than the rather tepid socialist organizations) of the American labor movement in the period before World War I.
The bulk of Professor Dubofsky’s book centers, as it should, on Haywood’s exploits as a leader of the IWW. Big Bill’s ups and downs mirrored the ups and downs of the organization. The professor goes into the various labor fights that Haywood led highlighted by the great 1912 Lawrence strike (of bread and roses fame), the various free speech fights but also the draconian Wilsonian policy toward the IWW after America declared war in 1917. That governmental policy essentially crushed the IWW as a mass working class organization. Moreover, as a leader Haywood personally felt the full wrath of the capitalist government. Facing extended jail time Haywood eventually fled to the young Soviet republic where he died in lonely exile in 1928.
The professor adequately tackles the problem of the political and moral consequences of that escape to Russia for the IWW and to his still imprisoned comrades so I will not address it here. However, there are two points noted by Dubofsky that warrant comment. First, he notes that Big Bill was a first rate organizer in both the WFM and the IWW. Those of us who are Marxists sometimes tend to place more emphasis of the fact that labor leaders need to be “tribunes of the people” that we sometimes neglect the important “trade union secretary” part of the formula. Haywood seems to have had it all. Secondly, Haywood’s and the IWW’s experience with government repression during World War I, repeated in the “Red Scare” experience of the 1950’s against Communists and then later against the Black Panthers in the 1960’s should be etched into the brain of every militant today. When the deal goes down the capitalists and their hangers-on will do anything to keep their system. Anything. That said, read this Haywood primer. It is an important contribution to the study of American labor history.