History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Vol. 4

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

PREFACE

In his pioneer study of the I.W.W., published in 1919, Paul R. Brissenden wrote: "The public still knows little about the organization and its members.... The public has not been told the truth about the things the I.W.W. has done or the doctrines in which it believes. The papers have printed so much fiction about this organization and maintained such a nationwide conspiracy of silence as to its real philosophy -- especially to the constructive items of its philosophy -- that the popular conception of this labor group is a weird unreality."

Despite the appearance since 1919 of a number of valuable studies of the I.W.W. (and less valuable accounts, including novels and poems, which over-romanticize the organization), Professor Brissenden's statement is almost as applicable today as when he made it. In general, the letters "I.W.W." still conjure up the picture of a sinister internal enemy of American society, an organization of "bomb-throwing" hoboes who preached and practiced violence for no reason but to make trouble. Thus, a work published in 1956, The Rocky Mountain Revolution by Stewart Holbrook, sums up the history of the I.W.W. as a "great soaring saga of violence." And a review in the New York Herald-Tribune of June 12, 1955, summarizes Wallace Stegner's novel, The Preacher and the Slave, as follows: "Stark, unrelieved violence is the beginning, substance and end of Mr. Stegner's novel. If its swarming hoboes, bums and soapbox evangelists are not committing crimes in the name of the I.W.W. and the O[ne] B[ig] U[nion] which so alarmed the nation in the early days of this century, they are glorying in past depredations or planning future outbreaks." Robert G. Sherrill stated flatly in The Nation of March 9, 1964, that members of the I.W.W."talked to their implacable employers: with fire, gunshot and dynamite." In The Quest of the Dream, published in 1964, John P. Roche writes that "romanticization of violence" was the dominant characteristic of the I.W.W.

No one would realize from these accounts that the I.W.W. made valuable contributions in the campaign to organize the unorganized (particularly the unskilled, the foreign-born, women, and Negro workers), spear- headed the fight for free speech, and pioneered in the battle for industrial unionism. Fortunately, the year 1964 also saw the publication of Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology, edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh, made up of articles, songs, poems, cartoons, and photographs from the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library. But this work, despite its value in providing a true picture of the I.W.W., is not a history of the organization.

-9-

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