Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman, eds.’ Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

cover art for Wobblies!A number of years ago I read and greatly enjoyed John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. In his jazzy, frenetic narrative style, Dos Passos provides a glimpse into the lives of several fictitious and as many real people who lived and worked and struggled during the years between the first and second world wars. That read provided my first memorable introduction to the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the IWW or the Wobblies. His newsreel chapters include biographical sketches about such Wobbly notables as Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood. Some time after this exposure, I ran across a copy of Melvyn Dubofsky’s meticulously researched 1969 classic We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW in a local used bookstore known for carrying Marxist texts.

While Wobblies! reminded me of the Dos Passos trilogy and of Dubofsky in subject matter, in style it is most like the Marx For Beginners series Pantheon initially published in the 1970s. It’s thicker and larger in dimensions than the pocket-sized For Beginners series, but it uses a very similar black on white graphic novel style to tell various parts of the history of the IWW.

In brief, the Industrial Workers of the World was established in Chicago in 1905 as a very left-radical alternative to the American Federation of Labor. The founders were inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and regarded the attempts of European peasants and workers to form communes as their models. Given to organizing among the most disenfranchised workers (recent immigrants, African Americans, American Indians, and even women) and fond of communist rhetoric and direct action, the IWW was not popular with the AF of L or with government or business leaders, all of which found ways to discredit and suppress the nascent union. Anti-socialist sentiment grew strong among American workers in the years following World War I, and the rapid loss of employment opportunities that defined the Great Depression saw the IWW nearly fade into oblivion. As the United States slowly recovered from the Depression and began to ramp up for entry into World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations began its successful drive to recruit mass-production workers and effectively ended the brief period of IWW ascendancy.

Intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the IWW, Wobblies! is an unabashed tribute to the union and its founders and members, known and unknown. The sections of the book, illustrated and written by different contributors, are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with a narrative section about the conditions that led to the founding of the IWW and ending with a section that suggests that the IWW survives into the present, particularly in groups like Earth First! and the anti-globalist movement. (There is, in fact, an IWW website that reports on current efforts to bring workers together into ‘The One Big Union.’) The stories about various IWW strikes and struggles are interspersed with brief biographies of important figures in the radical movement, including Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, Frank Little and Emma Goldman.

Wobblies! offers a unique perspective on an important and often overlooked social movement of the early twentieth century. The editors and contributors have made a good faith effort to tell the story of the IWW accurately; while they do not include Dubofsky’s book in their bibliography, the list of references includes a decent number of scholarly works, mostly secondary references. In their defense, I would venture to say that those in power destroyed many primary references (in fact, the biographical sketch of Lucy Parsons makes such an accusation in the final frame), but Dubofsky’s 40+ pages of endnotes tell me that he managed to find lots of sources. What I can safely suggest is that, by and large, the people who contributed to Wobblies! are artists and political activists rather than academic historians, so the standards just aren’t the same.

Wobblies! includes brief bio sketches for all the contributors, including the editors. What’s missing that I would have liked to see is a narrative describing the process by which the book came to be in the first place. This is especially important given the underlying ideology of the whole undertaking. Whose idea was it? How and when were the artists recruited? What were they asked to do? Were they compensated for there work, and if so, how? How and when did Verso get involved? The acknowledgements section closes with ‘Special thanks to George Kucewicz and the Puffin Foundation,’ but doesn’t tell the reader why they are being thanked. Google finds a few references to George Kucewicz that suggest that he lived in a Boston-based collective in the 1970s and is involved with music promotion and legalization of marijuana — but I can’t find any direct connection to this project. The website for the Puffin Foundation indicates that it provides funds for artistic projects undertaken by, among others, people whose social philosophies might render them unlikely to receive support from more mainstream funders. That’s fine, but how did the Puffin Foundation support this project?

(Verso, 2005)

Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.

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