Review: Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff By Anatole Dolgoff
via Rebel Worker
The advent of the Trump Administration in the US has witnessed more waves of attacks on civil liberties, more intense police repression, more tax cuts favouring the rich, the beefing up of the military and a range of other onslaughts. Employers have been encouraged to intensify their war path against workers on the job. Whilst an important base of support of the Trump electoral campaign has been demoralised workers in the “rust belt” hard hit by de-industrialisation. Lately Trump has even been whipping up support from ultra right wing forces by his provocative tweets. The union bureaucracy associated with the AFL-CIO-CIA has typically announced its willingness to “work” with the Trump administration.
The syndicalist movement and the so called anarchist milieu is currently in a poor state, unable to tackle the increased tempo of the employer offensive associated with the Trump presidency. According to a major article in the Summer edition 2017 of “Industrial Worker” paper of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) a major tendency in the organisation is associated with the oppression mongering and enthusiasm for identity politics which is such a feature of the middle class leftist subculture. Interwoven with this tendency is the influence of much Stalinist legacy informed “navel gazing” associated with “safe spaces policies” featuring in many IWW locals and the so called “anarchist” milieu. This tendency in the IWW, however is being confronted by an industrial organising approach.
A major contribution to this unwholesome influence of the former tendency must be seen in regard to the IWW’s resurgence in the 1960s stemming from a major influx of radical students and workers with high levels of autonomy in their jobs associated with the education and the university milieu. Constituting a significant base of its membership. As a result, the resurgent IWW lacked the core of highly experienced militants which played such a dynamic role in its formation and expansion in the early 20th century.
“Incremental Shop” Versus “Strategic” Organising
The contemporary IWW pursues all manner of organising drives in diverse sectors Whilst for many years has engaged in a sort of incremental organising of mainly small shops oriented toward winning contracts which have had no-strike clauses. Where there has been success in this approach, the result has been a situation similar to shops organised by some sections of the corporate unions with a largely passive membership. Effectively in these shops the IWW had become a micro democratic version of the corporate unions. (1)
Whilst another focus by Wobblies and some in the so called “anarchist” milieu has been “solidarity networks”. Where relatively small groups of workers are assisted with grievances. A role performed by the corporate unions on occasion, which in no way raises the morale of workers on a large scale and plays into the role of activoid super heroes and pseudo social workers. It fits neatly into middle class leftist oppression mongering and guilt tripping, providing excuses for social occasions and has nothing to do with serious syndicalist industrial organising. Again this activity is very much in the orbit of corporate unionism. The corporate unions are effectively having their normal work fanned out to leftist activoids, who do it for free.
In sharp contrast, key militants of the IWW in its early days, displayed an excellent grasp of strategic organising and the associated deployment of limited personnel and resources in key sectors. Success in this organising would facilitate the winning of major victories in the class struggle raising the morale of workers across industries, slowing the tempo of the employer offensive and turning the tide in the class struggle. Facilitating strike waves and the emergence of transitional steps toward mass syndicalist industrial unionism. This orientation is illustrated with the IWW’s organising drives in the Philadelphia maritime sector up until the mid 20’s and the Detroit auto industry in 1937. This memoir of Sam Dolgoff throws important light on this and other organising issues which are critical to a resurgent mass syndicalist union movement.
This memoir by Sam Dolgoff’s son, Anatole sheds light on his father’s many years of militancy in the IWW and various socialist and anarchist groups. After initially being involved in the Socialist Party, he was expelled as he was critical of the careerism of its middle class and student members and statism. Dolgoff went on to be involved in a range of anarchist and syndicalist groups.
In the early to mid 1920’s he joined the syndicalist IWW. The author shows he became drawn into its strategic organising and associated major organising controversies in the organisation. Dolgoff played an important role in the IWW organising drive amongst soft coal miners in South Illinois in the 1920’s which resulted in the Progressive Mine Workers Union (PMWU) becoming closely associated with the IWW. Dolgoff played a very effective role as a soap boxer helping defeat the well funded and resourced Communist Party United Mine Workers Union attempt to make inroads in the base of the PMWU.
A major organising controversy in the IWW involving Dolgoff discussed in the book which touched on the question of strategic organising versus a simplistic incremental growth in non strategic sectors was associated with the loss of the Cleveland Metal Shops in the mid 1950’s. A major contributing factor to a devastating IWW split in the mid 1950’s. It is discussed in a quote from an analysis by Jeff Stein. It involves the issue of whether IWW shops should sign the anti-radical Taft-Hartley Act pledges. Dolgoff and others opposed the signing of these pledges due to the obvious contradicting of the IWW’s revolutionary aims. According to Stein this stance propelled this huge chunk of the remaining membership and industrial base of the organisation to leave.
However, the Cleveland shops were all drawn into fixed term contracts in breach of the IWW constitution. These IWW shops were also effectively marginalised, as they were surrounded by the AFL-CIO business union covered shops cemented in placed by a vast web of contracts. Consequently the IWW had ceased to be an expanding movement based on direct action on the job and inspiring workers in diverse sectors to follow suit in strike waves. The IWW in Cleveland had effectively become a micro democratic version of the business unions and had effectively left the syndicalist fold. Whilst the original breakthrough in the Cleveland shops stemmed from a spin-off of an unsuccessful strategic organising drive in Detroit auto in 1937.
Sam Dolgoff is most notable in the history of US syndicalism and anarchism in the 20th Century apart from his soap boxing and organising activity on behalf of the IWW, his authorship and editorship of a series of important books and pamphlets on aspects of anarchism and syndicalism, is his involvement in a range of different anarchist groups and publications with mostly an anarcho-syndicalist orientation from the 1920’s to the 1990’s. The most notable being the Vanguard Group 1932 to 1939 with its paper “Vanguard” and the Libertarian League (mid 1950’s to mid 1960’s) with its publication “Views and Comments”.
“The Vanguard Group”
“Vanguard” was one of the most outstanding on the international plane of anarchist publications. Dolgoff mainly focused on labour issues with his regular “On the Class War Front” column. It was in sharp contrast to today’s exotic identity politics and oppression mongering obsessed (2) leftist rags. The key figure in Vanguard who wrote under the pen name SENEX was Mark Schmidt. The author shows how despite being extremely opposed to the murderous policies of the early Bolshevik regime in Russia following the October 1917 Coup, he became drawn into the Stalinist orbit and copied their paranoid conspiratorial ways. Contributed by the panorama of international expanding Stalinism and the rise of Fascism in those years. The author shows these factors together with controversy over whether to support the Allied war effort against the Axis in WWII contributed to the demise of the group and paper. Another factor the author misses is the demoralisation of the international anarchist and syndicalist movements associated with the defeat of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39.
“The Libertarian League”
In regard to the Libertarian League the author discusses some of the major activities of the group which included solidarity for overseas anarchist and syndicalist militants facing state repression and exposing the authoritarian nature of the Castro Regime in Cuba. The author outlines many of the interesting speakers who featured at the regular forums of the group. However due to various factors beyond the group’s control it was unable to break out of being a small circle. The author fails to mention that it was finally dissolved by Dolgoff and his closest collaborators due to an influx of drugs and violence obsessed elements.
In Dolgoff’s final years of militancy, the author shows he became involved in the Libertarian Labor Review, now Anarcho-Syndicalist Review group. Its origins being amongst a group of young militants in the IWW involved in the Rank-and-File Organising Committee. They were influenced by Dolgoff’s ideas on industrial strategy favouring the IWW linking up with wildcat and grass roots workplace insurgencies. It opposed the IWW focusing on incremental organising of shops based on winning contracts based on the Cleveland metal shops experience of the 1930’s-50′ and NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) recognition for shop bargaining coverage.
In conclusion, the book provides plenty of food for thought about what serious syndicalist organising should look like and important organising controversies in the US which are also relevant to other countries in certain aspects. Whilst providing plenty of gritty and graphic portraits of US radicals in the 20th Century. However, the book is marred by the author’s over indulgence with some aspects of Dolgoff s private life.
1. See Discussion on Libcom.org of the US IWW and contracts.
2. See “Fellow Worker: The Life of Fred Thompson” Edited and Compiled by David Roediger Published by Charles H. Kerr. For a discussion of IWW organising in the Detroit Auto Industry in the 1930’s.
* Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network
Vol.35 No.3 (210) Dec.2017 – Jan.2018 www.rebelworker.org