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Albert Gates

Books You Should Know

Wobbly

(29 November 1948)


From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 48, 29 November 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Wobbly
by Ralph Chaplin
The University of Chicago Press, 1948, 427 pages.

Aside from P.F. Brissenden’s book, no one has attempted a thorough and serious study of that distinctly American rebel movement, the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, or the “Wobblies” as they were alternately called with hatred and affection, was a short-lived movement. But in its meteoric rise during the years of the First World War it set patterns of labor struggle which have left their mark on the subsequent development of the American labor movement.

When one thinks of the IWW, one first recalls its brave struggles, the persecution and lynching of so many of its leaders and the hopeless odds the new movement of revolutionary industrial unionism faced in their battle against the powerful, ruthless and murderous gang of monopolists and their government. But the Wobblies did succeed in organizing thousands of workers, lumberjacks, harvest hands, textile workers, miners and scores of migratory workers. The class-struggle preamble of the IWW reflected the socialist and Marxist influence on a movement that tried desperately to be non-political (its chief ideological weakness) the while it fought endless political battles. And – though it embraced a select and small section of the conscious proletariat of this country – the movement was indeed the most militant we had come to know in the United States.

When the announcement was made that Ralph Chaplin was writing Wobbly, one had a right to expect an invaluable contribution to the great history of this heroic movement. Chaplin, the poet of the IWW, the author of Solidarity Forever, was for many years a leader of the IWW. He played an important and intimate part in its development. Those who knew him well, and even those who were merely chance acquaintances were always favorably impressed by this poetic person of fine manners and consistent activity in behalf of victims of class warfare and class justice. And though one wondered in recent years what had become of this man, no one doubted that he remained a steadfast rebel to the end.

The book, therefore, comes as a shock to memories which go back some years and recall the old Chaplin. He has not written a history of the IWW; he has not written even a full and accomplished story of the movement. His book is his life story – from proletarian rebel and poet of the class struggle to American patriot, a man who has embraced Christ and Christianity in his waning years.

The story of the IWW thus becomes a lean portion of the book. Although there are some fine chapters on Joe Hill, on the early struggles of the American working class against what is possibly the most vicious and murderous capitalist class we have known in modern times, and some fine sketches of Bill Haywood, Frank Little, Gene Debs and Vincent St. John, the book is a terrible disappointment. Throughout the story Chaplin interweaves his own doubts, ideological procrastinations, and periodic revulsion to the struggle. He reveals that he is a typical victim of poisoning by the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the principles and practices of Stalinism.

Chaplin explains his slowly paced travel away from socialism on grounds that are quite familiar these days. Equating socialism and Stalinism he regards the abolition of capitalism fearfully because a working class triumph would produce “a new ruling class, just as arrogant, just as merciless, and just as predatory as its predecessor.” Lacking pertinent theoretical of, rather, ideological conceptions, he is exceedingly and unfavorably impressed by the fact that Stalinists sing his song Solidarity Forever, a song which he no longer looks upon fondly.

He has discovered the “new” factor of life. Thus, he writes:

“Freeing my faculties of the Socialist notion of materialistic monism had given me an awareness of the moral factor.”

You can almost guess at what is coming next. It appears in interrogatory form:

“Who else but Christ had ever linked humankind with the purpose of universal law? Who else had by his own message and example, ever proved himself worthy of world leadership? Who else had ever stated the mechanics of unlearning hatred and learning love? Who else had called the attention of all men to the terrible responsibilities and immeasurable reward of freedom.”

And so? Ralph Chaplin joined the First Congregational Church of Tacoma. The man who went to jail for his opposition to the First World War, worked for the Red Cross, the USO and the War Chest during the slaughter just past. And he ends the book with his message:

“... I do not wish to finish my story by appending any glib panacea for the ills of the world. Someone smarter than I will have to come up with the ultimate answers. About all I have been able to salvage from many and varied contacts with the realities of American life is a certain awareness of growth and becoming based on the general principles of collaboration with God’s universal law instead of collaboration with Chaos. But with this as chart and compass, I am no longer wandering in strange fields.”

Some are only just starting out on the multiple roads that lead from socialism, the one hope of humanity. Others are far along these same, according to their lights. Ralph Chaplin is one who has already arrived at the inglorious impasse that is the reward of such travel.

 
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