Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Workers of the World Indeed

By Gabriel Kuhn

This is a review of Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer (London: Pluto, 2017).

The book’s very first sentence reads: “Like many great ideas, this book was born while drinking beers with friends.” This is not a perfect start for a straight edge reviewer who believes that many ideas born while drinking beers are terribly stupid. In this case, however, the editors are right. Compiling a “Global History of the IWW” was a great idea, filling a void within an otherwise rich body of literature dedicated to perhaps the most legendary radical union of all, rivaled only by the Spanish CNT.

Wobblies of the World brings together 19 contributions by a diverse group of scholars, and is divided into three parts: “Transnational Influences on the IWW,” “The IWW in the Wider World,” and “Beyond the Union: The IWW’s Influence and Legacies.” All contributions are of great interest and include articles on hitherto mostly overlooked episodes of IWW history, for example Tariq Khan’s “Living Social Dynamite: Early Twentieth-Century IWW–South Asia Connections, and Mark Derby’s “Ki Nga Kaimahi Maori (‘To All Maori Workers’): The New Zealand IWW and the Maori.”

Part I makes clear how diverse the IWW was even within US boundaries. Even for folks well-versed in IWW history, it might come as a surprise that “of the 14 weekly and biweekly Wobbly newspapers appearing in 1917, only three were for English readers.”

Highly relevant for current discussions is Wayne Thorpe’s article “The IWW and the Dilemmas of Labor Internationalism,” considering that this very year there has been some disagreement within the IWW over whether to join the newly founded International Confederation of Labour. While the North American branches decided to do so, others stressed the fact that the IWW is an international confederation by its very definition.

Another contribution highly relevant for today is Matthew White’s piece about “The Marine Transport Workers and the Spanish Civil War.” Global chains of production and just-in-time manufacturing put transport at the center of capitalism’s machinery more than ever, making it highly vulnerable to concerted protest and strike actions.

Wobblies of the World is of value both for labor scholars and for radical union organizing on the ground. A success.

(July 2018)

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