“It’s a Wobbly Year”
2005 marks the centennial of the founding of the most bold, radical, and egalitarian mass union in US history: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies). Big Bill Haywood, “The Rebel Girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill, Free Speech fights, the Patterson and Lawrence strikes, “Solidarity Forever”, and so much more: the legacy of the Wobblies is one of the most enduring things in the American radical tradition. Paul Buhle, a professor of American Civilization at Brown University and a leading scholar of American radical history, is co-author of the new Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the IWW. In a recent interview with Left Hook (www.lefthook.org) co-editor Derek Seidman, Buhle answered some questions about the IWW, his new book, and the Traveling Wobbly show (www.wobblyshow.org).
Derek Seidman: It’s been one hundred years since the founding of the IWW in 1905. Why discuss the Wobblies now, a century after their birth and nearly eight decades after the height of their influence?
Paul Buhle: The best reason is that the labor movement, once a driving force for democratic transformation, has nearly collapsed, and despite the potential of such groups as Labor Against the War (in unions representing nearly a third of AFL-CIO members), neither exerts wide influence or represents the breadth of today’s working classes.
The Wobblies had more than a strategic plan. They had a vision of a different kind of civilization, global and transracial in character, with all key decisions made democratically. Corporate leaders and politicians would be out of a job, along with generals, admirals and other criminal types.
Seidman: So what do you believe today’s union movement could learn from the Wobblies?
Buhle: Almost everything. Lawrence Wechsler, who wrote a fine book on Polish Solidarity, commented that the Polish strike leaders had absolutely nothing to learn from the AFL-CIO. They weren’t corrupt like the Lane Kirkland office, they hadn’t made any deals with capital (or state-capital) to guarantee themselves big salaries, and they weren’t bureaucrats. (Later on they made careers for themselves by selling out the workers they had led--- but that’s another story.)
The Wobblies were first of all transracial and transborder by their nature and their aims. They faced a working class substantially made up of immigrants—much like today’s American working class. Women were among its most vivid agitators and local leaders. They were not perfect but they were deeply democratic. They understood the labor movement to be a social movement.
They were also, at a personal level, hugely courageous, and they had a great sense of humor. These two qualities alone, missing in all but a few of labor’s top leaders, would make a world of difference. We need a movement of working people able to attack but also to ridicule politicians and corporate leaders for the nitwits and thugs that they are, ruining our beautiful world for their own greed and power.
Seidman: Can you tell us about your new book, Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the IWW?
Buhle: The idea for the book first came out of my conversations with a Labor Party activist living in Vermont, George Kucewiez, who offered to provide payment for artists, and then evolved in conversations with artist-activist Nicole Schulman. The book is not intended to replace written histories or documentary films (Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill: The IWW & The Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture is the best recent book, and The Wobblies, made in 1979, remains the best film.) Rather, it is intended to introduce the story of the IWW to a new generation more visual in its grasp of history, and to restate the case for what we could call “solidarity unionism” against both employers and the political system.
Seidman: Why did you choose to put out a book of comics? What is it about the medium that appeals to you?
Buhle: First of all, comic art as a medium of social criticism has always appealed to me. Like R. Crumb, Bill Griffith and others involved in “Underground Comix” (I was the publisher of Radical America Komics in 1969, a special issue of the SDS magazine that I had founded), my sense of humor was shaped by reading MAD Comics during the 1950s. I stayed in touch with some of my favorite artists after the 1960s, like Jay Kinney, coeditor of Anarchy Comics, also Ben Katchor, Harvey Pekar and Trina Robbins among others.
The most politically vibrant of the newer comic projects was World War 3 Illustrated, and I first got in touch with its leading spirits at the time of the Radical Humor Festival in 1982. When graphic novels began to gain more attention in bookstores, a few years ago, I began looking around for a project that could connect artists with larger numbers of readers.
I was also thinking about labor artists. I’d interviewed the greatest of the mid-century cartoonists, Fred Wright, shortly before he died, and reprinted the work of Mike Konopacki among others in a forgotten little 1980s anthology of mine, Labor's Joke Book.
This came together when the extremely talented and hard-working youngster, Nicole Schulman, agreed to be coeditor of a graphic history of the Wobblies. Nicole was an editor of World War 3 as well as an important contributor, sometimes the main editor of a particular issue. More than three-quarters of the contributors to the volume are her friends. The rest are pals of mine from the old days.
What really appeals to me about this book -- and for which Nicole deserves vastly more credit than me (not even counting the memorable cover that she created) -- is the wonderful quality and diversity of the art. I like to say that there are 25 artists and 25 styles, each one fascinating in its own respect. Young artists and those not so young can learn a lot by looking at the book. So can art critics and commentators.
This is also the first of the radical “graphic history” books that I am coediting, scripting or otherwise producing. The next is a graphic version of Howard Zinn’s Peoples' History of the United States, and then a graphic novel about Emma Goldman and a graphic history of SDS, among other works. So I see Wobblies! as a brilliant model for what can be done.
Seidman: What do you think are the important legacies of the IWW within the context of American radical history?
Buhle: The Wobblies looked forward instead of backward. Like Marx before them but more definitely, they saw both capital and workers in the global economy. They reached out to the lowly not out of pity but from the sense that the lowest levels of the global working class were the deep basis of the new society.
Old-time observers of the civil rights (or “Freedom”) movement of the 1950s and 1960s sometimes commented that it seemed more like the Wobblies than any other social movement in American history. That was a shrewd observation, and not only because both movements believed in reorganizing society “from the bottom up.” Both Wobblies and civil rights activists believed in the power of culture, above all the power of song, to uplift ordinary folks and carry them through difficult and dangerous struggles. Both Wobblies and the civil rights activists believed that people had to change themselves while changing society, develop their own sense of radical dignity, rather than being uplifted by some patronizing savior. The Wobblies and the civil rights movement created new people.
Seidman: Can you tell us about the Traveling Wobbly Show?
Buhle: The Traveling Show (www.wobblyshow.org) came out of the idea of the book but has grown rapidly beyond it in several ways. Regional labor history groups, based on academics, union people and assorted activists, have adopted the Traveling Show because they wanted to do something dramatic about the Wobblies this year. Film festivals are showing documentaries along with lectures and the artists’ work. Radical bookstores, cafes and hangouts will display work and stage shows at Mayday or later. And Alternative Press fairs want to get into the act.
There are also library and gallery-type exhibitions destined to go on at least through 2007, the centenary of the Wobs in Australia and New Zealand. We are hoping that the Puffin Foundation will join us this summer in plotting a long-run strategy. For these purposes, the 25 posters based on comic panels of the book have been augmented by several posters about Emma Goldman, a half-dozen Latino Wobbly posters, and several other works, and probably more as we go along.
The idea of the Show is, finally, to give local activists and those interested in comic art and radical art a sense that we are entering a new period of unrest and possibility. We want to encourage those people to do their own comics, their own art, their own actions.
Other Articles by Derek Seidman
with an Anti-War Veteran from the Iraq War Jim Talib, HM3 (FMF/PJ)