Review: Franklin Rosemont. Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture.
Chicago, Charles H. Kerr, 2003. 

Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill is in many ways a beautiful book. In these days of war without end in the Middle East,  and Kerry vs. Bush,  and visible “politics” in the U.S. seemingly reduced to a right-wing party and a far-right party,  the book gives me a high that makes me wants to run out the door and organize. I feel like a curmudgeon criticizing it in any serious way. The book is above all important for a new generation of activists trying to situate itself in the rubble bequeathed by the 20th century bureaucratic-statist “left” (Social Democratic, Stalinist, Third Worldist, Trotskyist) and the latter’s wooden ideologies.

There’s something breathtaking and exhilarating about a book that gets Hill and the IWW into the same narrative with Apollinaire, Artaud, Franz von Baader, Basho,  Blake, Bosch, Lester Bowie,  Byron, Duerer, Victor Hugo, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, Man Ray, Thelonious Monk, Gerard de Nerval, Charlie Parker, Erik Satie,  Shelley, Vico  and Hoene Wronski, to give the reader just a faint whiff  of its breadth (and Rosemont mainly manages to  make it all seem effortlessly self-evident). It was a labor of love to pull together the scant traces of Hill’s itinerant life and to connect them, and the IWW, to much of the radical culture and politics of the 20th century.  (The book is also abundantly illustrated.)  For initial inspiration, Rosemont had the good fortune of discovering the IWW in 1959 and of being able to meet a fair number of “old timers” who still gathered at the remaining Wobbly offices in places such as Chicago and Seattle, some of whom had known Hill personally.   Thus, before getting into any criticism, it is necessary to outline what Rosemont has done.

He provides an admonitory “review of the literature”, concluding that a “first-rate, truly comprehensive history of the IWW is yet to be written”. (Rosemont points out  how such a task is made far more difficult by the outrageous crime of the U.S. government’s 1917 seizure and destruction of the IWW’s records.)  He talks about the vitality of the IWW’s relationship to Marx, with worker self-education and study groups on Capital an ongoing part of the organization’s life. In contrast to much of the subsequent left, the Wobblies “actually read and studied Marx”. Their story, and this dimension of it,  is interwoven with that of Charles H. Kerr Publishers. Whereas later leftist vanguards mainly produced publications, “some of them admittedly of high quality”, for workers, IWW publications were “of and by as well as for”. Most Wobblies, in Rosemont’s view, rejected the “syndicalist” label, and were considered too Marxist by most actual syndicalists and as too anarchist by other (and subsequent) currents of Marxism. The IWW was “truly informal, wide open, constantly rejuvenated by new energies from the rank and file”. By the “high place it always accorded to spontaneity, poetry and humor, the IWW was unique in the history of the labor movement”. They knew “too much about work to be ‘workerist’”. Rosemont also evokes the social space created by the IWW’s meeting halls scattered across the U.S.

Rosemont confronts the problem that “biographical data on Hill is discouragingly skimpy”, though “he is probably the best-known hobo in U.S. history”. Without false modesty, Hill, in his own words,  did “not have much to say about my own person”.  Rosemont particularly (and rightly) takes apart Wallace Stegner’s 1948 slanderous portrayal of Hill as a common criminal.  He gives a brief biography from the “armful of solid facts, some strong probabilities, and a bedraggled suitcase of educated guesses and plausible suppositions” about Hill’s life. “In his own lifetime,” writes Rosemont, Hill “was above all known for his poetry and his song”, contributing many songs to the IWW’s Little Red Song Book. While the IWW press was full of poetry written by its members, the true “Wobbly poets” as poets have received almost no recognition.  The Wobblies sang, at meetings, on strike, and in their halls. Hill, like many Wobblies, went to Mexico during the revolution there. He participated in the Fraser River Strike in Canada in 1912. Then, in January 1914, passing through Salt Lake City, he was arrested as a suspect in the murder of a local grocer, framed and, in spite of an international defense campaign, was executed in November 1915. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral in Chicago, the biggest such gathering since the funeral of the Haymarket martyrs in 1887.

Hill was an artist: a poet, a composer, songwriter, painter and cartoonist. Once again, the role of poetry and song in the daily life and struggles of the IWW, anticipating such strikers’ festivals as May 1968 in France, and at such antipodes to the grim atmosphere of the politics of much of the organized left in the U.S. since World War I, cannot be overemphasized.

Rosemont also takes apart the posthumous myths, positive and negative, which have clouded the historical reality. Hill was neither a larger-than-life super-militant nor an itinerant petty criminal; as Rosemont points out, to mystify the organizing role of the modest Hill is to feed into an alienated cult of “leaders” for an organization that prided itself on the anti-demagogic slogan “We are all leaders!”.

Rosemont shows commendable nuance on the issue of race, one  on which the IWW, for its time, went radically against the grain of  the dominant reactionary culture.  “Even Joe Hill”,  he writes, “… fell somewhat short of perfection in this regard”, citing Hill’s song “Scissor Bill” which attacks the backward white worker for his racial hatreds, attributing to Scissor Bill a series of ugly racial epithets which nonetheless “in any racially mixed gathering…could only have provoked embarrassment among singers and listeners alike”.   There is no question that the IWW, precisely in the decade before World War I when Jim Crow was reaching the height of its influence, when the “progressive” President Woodrow Wilson was an unabashed white supremacist,  went farther in attacking America’s white problem than any working-class organization before or since. Its founding convention was addressed by Lucy Parsons, the firebrand of black and Mexican Indian ancestry; at a time when the “American Separation of Labor” (the AF of L) was openly supporting anti-Asian legislation and when many of its affiliated unions had explicit “whites only” membership clauses, the IWW welcomed wage-workers of every color and nationality into its ranks. One Wobbly was Covington Hall, poet, organizer and agitator who participated in the IWW’s battles in the Alabama timber industry, which organized blacks and whites together in the heart of the Jim Crow South. The IWW was also strong among black longshoremen in Philadelphia, Baltimore and elsewhere.

Rosemont (similarly author of the brilliant pamphlet “Karl Marx and the Iroquois” available on line) shows how the IWW, in its relations with and attitudes towards Native Americans,  was more attuned to the sensibility of Marx’s (then unknown, and today still little-known) Ethnological Notebooks than any Social Democratic, Stalinist or Trotskyist current ever was. (Nothing, he admits, is known about Joe Hill’s views on these matters.) In the midst of anti-Asian “Yellow Peril” hysteria, Hill cultivated a talent for cooking Chinese food. Rosemont points to direct testimonies from those who participated in the “highly egalitarian and anti-racist” Wobbly hobo camps.  The Wobblies were similarly far ahead of their times on the woman question, with many women in the front ranks,, even if they also sometimes had a tendency to describe their “Rebel Girls” as  being there to boost the morale of the “Rebel Boys”. They spoke frankly of prostitution as being a direct product of the immiseration of the working class. They fought against “Pie in the Sky” religion,  while inheriting elements of the millenarianism of the radical Protestant sects of an earlier era. Rosemont has some particularly acute insights into the way in which the capitalist use of thugs and gangsters against the IWW facilitated the “gangsterization” of the U.S. : once local elites had allowed gangsters to run amok against labor organizers, the latter knew too much to be gotten rid of, and took over their share of the loot on a permanent basis.

Similarly interesting is Rosemont’s material on the relationship between the IWW and the American Communist Party (or “Comical” Party, as the Wobblies called it). While the IWW obviously  hailed the Russian Revolution, by 1921 it was already suspicious of the growing statism apparent in Russia. Rosemont’s formulations are worth quoting at length:

“From the IWW point of view, the CP turned out to be one of the worst things that ever happened to the U.S. labor movement…moreover, Wobs knew the difference between the Party’s hidebound elite and the broad rank-and-file…It was the Wobblies’ own bitter experience with the Communist leadership—the self-styled ‘vanguard’—which led them to conclude that the Communist Party was not truly a workers’ organization at all, but a hopelessly authoritarian middle-class political party, neo-byzantine in its hierarchical and bureaucratic structure, thoroughly dominated by a parasitical bourgeois intellectual elite…”

Rosemont also provides material on Wobblies who were also members of the AF of L and later of the CIO, pushing for revolutionary industrial unionism.  More interesting still is his account of “the countless acts of violence perpetrated by Stalinists against more radical elements in the labor movement here in the U.S.”  which, as Rosemont points out, “are almost never mentioned in books on U.S. radicalism”.

Past the peak of the IWW’s mass influence in the working class, Rosemont shows the Wobblies to have had a quite advanced awareness of what today would be called ecology, echoed in Hill’s letters. He traces the subsequent influence of the IWW from the Beat Generation (above all through Gary Snyder) to popular literature. And, once again, the poetry:

“For me, indeed, and for many of my friends…poetry was vitally important in our introduction to the IWW. The union’s historic and ongoing emphasis on poetry and song immediately impressed us as one of the decisive qualities that made it unique among labor and left organizations. And we were right: That the IWW produced and inspired more and better poetry than all other unions combined serves not only to distinguish it from all other unions, but also tells us a lot about the kind of world it was trying to build.”

This poetic dimension propelled the IWW’s influence into the modernist avant-garde, as in Big Bill Haywood’s ties to Greenwich Village, or the Village artists who worked on the 1913 Paterson Pageant during the famous New Jersey strike. Rosemont also captures another dimension of the IWW’s heyday with a chapter on the lost art of soapboxing, central to many of their campaigns and called by Vachel Lindsay “the Higher Vaudeville”.

So what are my curmudgeonly—and, I emphasize, secondary– criticisms of Rosemont’s book? The main one is an irritating resort to a kind of “special pleading” linking Joe Hill to broader themes Rosemont (rightly) wants to discuss. Joe Hill was in Mexico for a time during the Mexican Revolution; fine. Rosemont writes, in the midst of eleven (very interesting) pages on the IWW and the Mexican Revolution: “And what role did Joe Hill play in all this? Here, as almost everywhere else in Hill’s biography, the absence of precise detail is glaring and frustrating.”

Hill went to Hawaii in 1911. Rosemont writes, amidst, again, a very interesting discussion of IWW activity there:

“Although no documents have come to light regarding Hill’s doings in Hawaii, it is a virtual certaint that he visited other representatives of the IWW while he was there. In view of what we know of his activity in other places, it does not seem unlikely that he lent a hand to the union’s agitation in Hawaii. And it is not impossible that his impact there was far greater than anyone has ever dreamed. After 1911, in any case, Hawaii became a Wobbly hot spot.”

Rosemont has nine illuminating pages on the IWW and Native Americans. Once again: “And Joe Hill? Here we draw a complete blank. We know as much about Hill’s views on the “Indian Question” as we know about his opinion of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Don Quixote, or the poetry of Li Po: that is, nothing at all”. On Hill’s Chinese cooking:

“In such a hate-filled climate, proclaiming one’s passion for Chinese food and flaunting one’s knack for using chopsticks would quality as acts of dissidence and defiance. I am not trying to make too much of too little; I realize that Hill’s simple gestures cannot be considered acts of great courage or revolutionary import, and do not tell us much about his thinking. Nonetheless, such small, personal, “non-political” signs of non-conformism should not be altogether dismissed; surely they count for something in the broader scheme of things.”

Surely they do.  And I could go on. A magnanimous friend suggested to me that, given the small number of known facts about Joe Hill’s life, Rosemont is like an archaeologist reconstructing a whole historical era from a few shards of pottery. And in many parts of the book, this works.  It’s just that Rosemont never asks the basic question about the IWW: WHAT WENT WRONG? Not unlike other authors he cites who have written brilliantly about little-known or forgotten radical episodes, such as CLR James (in Notes on Dialectics or in Facing Reality) or Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (in their co-authored Many Headed Hydra) Rosemont has no explanation for defeat. In these bleak times, one hardly needs to dwell on defeat. Particularly after the collapse of the so-called “Soviet” bloc (the actual soviets were defunct by 1921), all the defeated early 20th century alternatives to statist-bureaucratic “socialism” came back into view, from anarchism to syndicalism to figures such as Rosa Luxemburg or Amadeo Bordiga, and none so clearly as the IWW (and not merely in the U.S.). But if we are to reshape the imagination of the 1905-1924 IWW for our own time—a project I find as compelling (and urgent) as Rosemont does—we will have to better understand why it was eclipsed.  What happened to this wonderful group of people that we have to look back 90-100 years to find?  Rosemont’s book  is like a brilliant meteor that falls into a depressing and dull landscape on a forgotten asteroid. But, if we believe in historical processes,  we’re forced to admit that, in an odd way, there’s not much historical analysis in a 640-page book chock full of facts and loving reconstructions of the life of Hill and the  IWW and much else. If, for example, the Trotskyists are wrong to say (as they do) that the IWW was eclipsed by the Communist Party because the Wobblies lacked the coherent political perspective which the early CP got from Lenin and Trotsky, why did it occur? Why was the CP and not the IWW the mass movement of the 1930’s?  Rosemont has his hands full living up to his sub-title about the “making of a revolutionary working-class counterculture”, and he generally does it very well. It seems carping to ask of such a work that it also say something about  “economics”, technological change, the vast mutation of the capitalist state from 1890 to 1945, or about the triumph, starting in the early 1930’s,  of the Mark Hanna-Owen Young-Gerard Swope attitude towards industrial unions among big capitalists, or finally about  the impact of mass culture (radio, movies, and later TV)  and mass education on popular song and poetry, as influences on the demise of the IWW.  Most of these things aren’t even mentioned.  Rosemont attacks Dubofsky and other academics for seeing the IWW as in decline in 1919 and says, no, it was 1924, but he doesn’t ever devote one line to describing the reasons for that downturn. The depression of 1920 (coupled with the Red Scare) wiped out unions all over the U.S. What impact did it have on the Wobblies? Rosemont doesn’t mention it.

He brilliantly underscores the importance of song and poetry for the movement; great, where do I sign up? But what commonly shared body of song or poetry today could play that role as a starting point? Most lefties I know can’t even sing one verse of the “Internationale”. Rosemont talks about Joe Hill being alive and well among working people,  and I think of the working-class students I met teaching adult ed courses in New York City,  not one of whom had ever heard of the IWW, not to mention Joe Hill. Rosemont is writing from within what today is a sub-culture and dressing it up as a class culture.

Of course, Rosemont, given the vastness of what he does manage to do,  is not obliged to answer many questions about “what happened” after the demise of the IWW (which he seems to only grudgingly concede,  in a couple of asides,  ever took place). But he is not writing for antiquarian edification, but presumably to inspire the present and the future. When I close that book, with the “high” it induces, I want, once again,  to rush out the door and find the crowd that is working on making that vision alive for our time, and instead I hit a wall, or a void. And that is what raises the above questions about the limits of Rosemont’s wonderful magical mystery tour that are rarely if ever posed as a problem. Are we to suppose that tens of thousands of wonderful people came together from 1905 to 1924 and just as mysteriously dispersed or were dispersed? Many more workers didn’t join the IWW than did; who were they, and why didn’t they? To provide some historical grasp of the “specificity” of the IWW, of its strengths and its weaknesses relative to the forces that eclipsed it,  is the only way to makes its poetry potentially contemporary.