Submitted by an anonymous worker, who signs the cartoon “A.Slave,” the cartoon above imagines the IWW's revolutionary message of free speech and the One Big Union rattling the floppy allegorical puppets of a corrupt system.
‘‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,’’ declares the opening line of the famous Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World. Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW - later known as the Wobblies - believed that through direct action on the economic front the workers of the world could form One Big Union and thrown off the shackles of capitalism, exploitation and war. The Wobbly's manifesto - reprinted with a cartoon by Maurice Becker below - speaks of the economic class struggle, the need for industrial unionism, and the IWW’s goal of taking ‘‘possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.’’ But this ‘‘nothing in common’’ of which the Wobblies insist is not just the ‘‘nothing’’ born of opposed economic positions of exploiter and exploited. It is also the ‘‘nothing in common’’ of culture and values, of language, religion, art, poetry and song. And it is the ‘‘nothing in common’’ of joy, pleasure, and of a radically contradictory sense of humor. The radical comedy of the IWW deliberately and divisively evoked a class-consciousness, both laughing with the militant working class and at the decadent ruling class, marking that unbreachable and self-defining divide of class and class consciousness by what one finds funny and what one sees as a threat.
Thanks to their vibrant revolutionary working class culture of song, philosophy, art and organizing, the IWW's have left us with most colorful and romanticized in the history of the American left. It is also a history of violent repression, conspiracy trials
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Wobbly images of a society divided by class, yet transcended by class conscious organization in which the workers of the world run the economy for themselves, without the bosses on their backs.
WOBBLY CARTOONS OF RALPH CHAPLIN
“Unlike orthodox Marxists,” wrote Ralph Chaplin, “we had no revolutionary Bible. Our simple creed was summed up in the Little Red Song Book, the I.W.W. Preamble and a handful of ten-cent pamphlets.” Chaplin would know: it was his songs, his pamphlets, his cartoons and his newspapers that did so much to shape Wobbly culture during the organization’s most volatile years. Chaplin was born in Kansas in 1887 but raised in Chicago where his first memories draw back to his father losing his job to Pinkerton strikebreakers and watching the army march into the city during the Pullmann strike of 1894.
While Chaplin worked as an artist his interest in radicalism grew, attracted by Debsian socialism and the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Chaplin befriended the legendary Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood in 1907, but it was not until 1913 that Chaplin officially joined the IWW. Thrown into the midst of America’s increasingly violent class struggle, Chaplin responded with song, writing “Solidarity Forever” in 1915, arguably the most important lyric in the song book of American labor. By 1917 he became editor of the IWW’s official organ Solidarity, author of hundreds of political cartoons and “silent agitators” (Wobbly stickers), and stood second in command of the Chicago main office under Haywood.
In 1917, Chaplin was arrested, along with all the rest of the IWW's national leadership by the justice department and eventually sentenced to twenty years in a federal prison for conspiring against the war effort. Chaplin spent the next six years in and out of prison, where he wrote poetry and continued to draw.
Emblematic of Wobbly ideology, Chaplin’s cartoons featured sinister plutocrats and heroic workers, he sang of vigilante gangs and prison walls, and his journalism investigated the crimes committed against Wobbly organizers – all illustrated, performed and written in near perfect tune with his proletarian audience.
Known as “the Gustave Dore of the IWW” because of his conceptual richness and engraving-like detail, "Dust" Wallen figures the American political economy as the giant spider of Wall Street lording over his web of capitalism.
The web metaphor re-imagines the capitalist system as an interconnected, yet centrally manipulated network ruled by the "wire pullers" on Wall Street. But the web trope also imagines the same integrative system as a deadly trap, ensnaring everything from railroads, to farms, banking, the law, press, government and the church within its grasp. As for the human headed spider,
This monstrous personification of capital begets a vampiric image that seems to draw its inspiration from the oft quoted lines of Karl Marx: “The vampire will not let go while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited."
Wobbly version of the octopus of capital reveal their more revolutionary approach. The knife of Industrial unionism is poised to stab the beast to death in the cartoon on the left, releasing the mass of victimized and trapped humanity. Whereas the rather flippant cartoon on the right demonstrates the imagined ease by which an organized class-conscious arm of the workers can simply flick the capitalist parasite off the earth.
No one embodied the Wobbly’s cultural project better than Joe Hill, songwriter, cartoonist, and martyr for the One Big Union. Chasing jobs from coast to coast as an immigrant itinerant worker, Joe Hill’s legend emerged slowly out of the hobo jungles and Wobbly papers as he anonymously published dozens of songs and cartoons. But Hill was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight in 1915 when he was arrested and executed in Utah for a double murder. The IWW denounced this as a "frame-up," claiming Hill as a cultural warrior whose cartoons and songs the capitalist state sought to silence with a firing squad. Joe Hill wrote many of the best-known, and funniest songs in the Little Red Song Book, including "Mr Block," "Rebel Girl," and "Casey the Union Scab."
"If a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song and dress them (the facts) up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them," wrote Joe Hill in a letter, "he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science."