J. Peter Campbell, "The Cult of Spontaneity: Finnish-Canadian Bushworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World in Northern Ontario, 1919-1934," Labour/Le Travail, 41 (Spring 1998), 117-46.
THE STORY of the spectacular rise, and equally spectacular fall, of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been told many times. (1) Organized in Chicago in 1905, the IWW gained international attention during the Lawrence strike of 1912 and the Patterson, New Jersey strike of 1913, before suffering a precipitous decline during the state repression of World War One. Many of its top leaders, including the legendary William "Big Bill" Haywood, left the IWW to join the newly-formed Communist Party. The IWW fought on in the 1920s, but internal dissension, Communist Party intrigues and attacks, and the general malaise of organized labour in the America of Coolidge and Hoover seriously weakened the vaunted spirit which had rejected the business unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and called for the abolition of the wage system. Following the mid-August 1918 conviction of 101 leading members of the IWW for having supposedly committed more than 10,000 crimes, it became increasingly difficult for the organization's adherents to convince their many critics that the revolutionary unionism of the IWW:
rejected violence because the nature of the revolution they envisioned simply did not require it. To the IWW, the new society was to be accomplished not by an electoral victory nor by taking to the barricades but by a general strike that would paralyze the economy and force the employing class to hand over peacefully the means of production...Strikes for immediate gains were also rehearsals for the eventual general strike and therefore also need not be violent. (2)
The critics carried the day: in the ensuing years the Industrial Workers of the World became a synonym for violence and a symbol of the essential futility of indigenous American radicalism. (3)
Canadian historians, although often evincing a genuine admiration for the "Wobblies" in the Canadian context, have picked up the futility theme and focused on the organization's early demise. (4) William Rodney has suggested that, due to the Canadian wing's dependence on the American organization, the IWW had "failed" by the end of 1913. (5) Ross McCormack's summation of the fate of the Wobblies in Canada is that by 1914 IWW locals in western Canada were "disintegrating." (6) Bryan Palmer gives the Wobblies a bit of a reprieve, but concludes that the IWW in Canada had become "nearly non-existent" by 1918. (7) Gordon Hak's analysis of the IWW in British Columbia echoes McCormack's assessment by claiming that "the organizational structure of the IWW disappeared in the 1910s," although he adds that "IWW delegates continued to haunt logging camps" as organizers for the Lumber Workers Industrial Union into the 1920s. (8) Stephen Gray points out that in the late 1930s the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) "faced the difficult task of convincing men steeped in the Wobbly legend to adopt the longer-range plan of establishing the union and negotiating signed collective agreements instead of restoring to a strike over every `two cent issue," as IWA organizer Hjalmar Bergren put it. (9) The language is striking: Wobblies in the 1920s "haunt" the logging camps, as if they are ghostly apparitions, not flesh and blood human beings. IWA organizers in the late 1930s have to deal with the Wobbly "legend," a word that evokes images of the ethereal and the gone forever, instead of a politics of direct action and antiauthoritarianism that has over the course of the 20th century appealed to hundreds of thousands of workers of both genders, all colours, and speaking many languages. (10)
In his analysis of labour radicalism in the Ontario north woods, Bushworkers and Bosses, Ian Radforth chronicles the important role Finnish Wobblies played in the labour struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, putting a human face on the IWW in the 1920s. Radforth notes that the "remarkably tenacious" Finnish Wobblies who fled state repression in the United States "gained considerable influence" in northern Ontario. However, by suggesting that the "syndicalist phase" of bushworker protest ended before 1921, Radforth conforms to the prevailing view of both Finnish and non-Finnish historians of bushworker struggles that in the 1920s the Wobblies were largely hangers-on in a struggle led by the Communist Party. (11)
Finnish Wobbly women have suffered a similar fate. Varpu Lindstrom-Best, in her pathbreaking work Defiant Sisters, notes in her introduction that she will not be able to explore the participation of Finnish immigrant women in the Industrial Workers of the World. (12) While a study confined to English-language sources can lay claim to few insights into a question a Finnish author has found few sources on, it can at least test the opinion of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who worked with Finnish Wobblies in Minnesota during World War One, and who came to the conclusion that the Finns "are one people among whom the women are truly equal, participating in plays, meetings and all affairs, side by side with their menfolk, an example for all others." (13) What lends credence to Gurley Flynn's analysis is not only the prominent role women played in the social democratic movement in Finland, but also the prominent role they played in Finnish sports, social, and cultural organizations in Canada. (14)
The Industrial Workers of the World itself, however, like all left organizations of the early 20th century, was male-dominated at the leadership level. (15) A reading of the English-language Wobbly press -- Industrial Solidarity, most notably -- indicates that the contributions of Finnish women were briefly noted, but almost always in connection with cultural and social activities. This was indeed the locus of women's activism, but the impact of that activism reached far beyond the social and cultural spheres. In northern Ontario in the 1920s and early 1930s Finnish Wobblies were not in a position to revolutionize Canadian society, but they were capable of convincing large numbers of bushworkers to rely on rank-and-file direct action in the workplace, and to reject the signing of collective agreements that prohibited strike and other action for the length of those agreements. Given that the Wobblies placed little emphasis on building up strike funds when not on strike, during labour disputes great demands were placed on the women responsible for feeding striking workers, picketing, selling pamphlets and newspapers, and organizing fund-raisers involving dances, plays, recitals, and political speeches. The Communist Party's characterization of the IWW as the "cult of spontaneity," as well as denigrating the commitment to rank-and-file initiative in the bush camps, also served to disguise the fact that the hard work of Finnish Wobbly women made such a strategy viable in the first place.
The question of the involvement of Finnish women in the Industrial Workers of the World goes right to the heart of the debate between the "centralizers" and "decentralizers" in the labour and socialist movement that had been a key debate within the IWW itself from its earliest days. As Patrick Renshaw indicates, the IWW's leading centralizers went into the Communist Party and supported the Third International, leaving a largely anarchosyndicalist leadership in the Wobblies. The decentralizers in the IWW were "uncompromisingly hostile" to the organization and discipline demanded by Lenin's theory of democratic centralism. (16) It was this hostility that impelled members of the Communist Party to dismiss the Wobblies as the "cult of spontaneity," a pejorative casting in a negative light the organization's commitment to rank-and-file activism, antiauthoritarianism, and decentralization. It is a pejorative that disguises the success Finnish Wobblies experienced in linking the essentially "male" economic struggle in the isolated bush camps of northern Ontario with the essentially "female" social and cultural life of urban centres such as Timmins, Sault Ste Marie, and Port Arthur. While this paper -- in part because the evidence dictates such an approach -- will focus on the economic struggles of northern Ontario's Finnish bushworkers, its important subtext is that the efforts of Finnish Wobbly women made possible the continued viability and influence of the Wobblies into the 1930s.
Keeping in mind that the history of the left in the 20th century has been one of increasing compromise with bureaucracy, centralization, and the state, we are reminded by these Finnish Wobbly men and women of the rewards, and the cost, of maintaining a decentralized, rank-and-file politics against powerful forces on both the left and the right. If they are among the "losers" of Canadian history, they are "losers" who left an important legacy of defending ideas and practices absolutely fundamental to the creation of a democratic, mass-based, socialist politics. The story of Finnish Wobbly bushworkers is one small episode in a much larger drama, but it is a story with meanings and messages that reached far beyond the bush camps and socialist halls of northern Ontario. (17)
The Industrial Workers of the World became a force to be reckoned with as a result of a fortuitous convergence of events, the arrival in northern Ontario in the late teens and early twenties of two groups of immigrants: Finnish "Reds" fleeing "White" repression during and following the Finnish Revolution of 1918, and Finnish American Wobblies fleeing the draft and state repression in the United States. The Wobbly cause was further aided by the fact that most Finnish immigrants who had come to Canada since the 1870s, and settled in northern Ontario, were workers and peasants. A significant minority of these immigrants came from Turku and Pori in southwestern Finland, one of the centres of strong Red support during the revolution of 1918. The single greatest source of Finnish immigrants, however, was Vaasa in Ostrobothnia, the stronghold of the White forces during the revolution. (18) Ian Radforth asserts that the majority of Finnish immigrants in this period were either politically neutral or actively anti-socialist, and that many Finnish immigrants were radicalized after they came to Canada, a view shared with Varpu Lindstrom-Best. (19) It seems, therefore, that few immigrants from Vaasa were socialists, but we can surmise that their experiences with the repression of the powerful White forces in their homeland made them potentially receptive to socialism and syndicalism in a Canadian setting, and to the antistatism, antiauthoritarianism, and antimilitarism of the Wobblies. We do know that in both small Finnish communities such as Intola, and in larger centres such as Port Arthur, Finnish politics in the 1920s were dominated by the Reds, not the Whites. (20) It was only on the eve of the Depression that Finnish Whites began to outnumber Finnish Reds, in part because Canadian immigration policies in the 1920s favoured White Finns. (21)
Support for the Industrial Workers of the World among Finnish immigrants, as Ian Radforth points out, cannot simply be read off from their class position. (22) Finnish history, culture, and class structure were the foundation stones, not the direct cause, of the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World in northern Ontario. There is no evidence to suggest that the IWW as an organization gained any kind of influence or organizational foothold in Finland itself. Prior to 1918 the Finnish left was dominated by the Social Democratic Party, organized in 1899 as the Socialist Labour Party. The growth of the Finnish SDP was little short of phenomenal, and in the election of 1907 -- the first based on universal suffrage -- the Social Democrats returned 80 members in the 200-seat parliament, thus becoming the single largest party. In the election of 1916 the Social Democratic Party increased its strength in the Finnish parliament, returning a slight majority of the members. With the exception of a small group of revolutionary marxists and anarchists, the Finnish left prior to the revolution of 1918 was firmly committed to the twin causes of social reform within the parliamentary system and gaining independence from the dominance of Tsarist Russia. (23)
All of this changed when the Tsar fell in March 1917 and the Provisional Government declared its support for Finnish independence. However, when the Finnish parliament decided in July 1917 to assume all powers formerly held by the Tsar's Governor General, with the exception of military and foreign affairs, the Provisional Government dissolved the parliament. In the ensuing elections in October 1917, which followed an anti-socialist campaign by the bourgeois parties, the Social Democrats lost their majority. Faced with an increasingly hostile bourgeoisie, and disillusioned with the election results, many Finnish workers "began to lose faith in the efficacy of parliamentary action." (24) As Risto Alapuro points out, Social Democratic leaders had to be "compelled to participate" in the massive general strike of 13-20 November 1917 by the Red worker guards and the masses, "but they had no real vision of what should be done with the power they obtained." (25) Control of events increasingly passed into the hands of the worker guards, and the Social Democratic leaders were gradually forced to abandon class conciliation for class struggle by events they could no longer control. During the battles of the revolution itself, which lasted from January to May 1918, more than three-quarters of the Reds killed in battle were either industrial or agricultural workers. (26) The White soldiers they faced -- mostly members of the landowning peasantry -- were backed by a Jaeger battalion trained in Germany, and the majority of intellectuals and students. One …