[Marxism] Joe Hill. The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Thu Jul 29 09:20:22 MDT 2004

>From Loren Goldner's website, "Break Their Haughty Power"

Review of:

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.

Full: http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/joehill.html

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