The last of the Wobblies

Years ago, I knew an anarchist.  As a lad from New York, he wound up in the Korean War in Army Intelligence.  The experience turned him into a political radical, though his pre-existing bohemian tendencies may have also contributed to that process.  When he got out of the army, he joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).

A while later, Stalin had one of his assassins murder a rather popular CPUSA mover and shaker, much as he had Leon Trotsky murdered in Mexico.  My friend and several others quit the CPUSA in disgust.  He then found a political home in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), AKA the Wobblies.

The Wobblies, as anarchists, were in conflict with "Big Labor" and had been marginalized as a result.  They espoused "Industrial Democracy," where workers elected their managers, etc.

When I met my friend, he had become a typesetter so he could help put out radical pamphlets.  I had become a partner in a start-up printing company so I could avoid having a real job.  Somehow, I got referred to him when a client of mine needed to have "camera ready" copy produced for a major textbook.  This was back in the late 1970s when there was still a lot of confusion between printing and typesetting.  Over the previous few decades, photo offset had seriously eclipsed letterpress printing.  Hot lead was replaced by cut-and-paste.

After a while, even if I had no business to transact with him but found myself in his neighborhood (North Oakland, just below the Berkeley line), I'd stop in for a chat.  Having rheumatoid arthritis, he was pretty sedentary.  It was remarkable how he could set type with virtually frozen fingers. He used his shoulders and elbows to guide his fingers to the proper keys.

Yeah, we'd talk politics and typesetting.  I complained about large blocks of text set in italics or ALL CAPS, which were much harder to read than regular type.  He said that if the type isn't easy on the reader's eyes, the reader will, at least subconsciously, resent the writer.  He also went into what the Wobblies stood for.

I had, at some time around then, become the vice-chairman of the county Libertarian Party.  He called himself a Black Anarchist, and he called me a White Anarchist because Libertarians embrace capitalism while still being hostile to authority.  We did particularly agree on one serious point:  the sovereignty of the ordinary person. 

He once told me the origin of the word sabotage, something anarchists are keen on.  It comes from "sabot," the wooden shoe worn by French peasants.  Just fling a wooden shoe into the works of a machine, and all havoc breaks loose.  "Spanner in the works" refers to a metal wrench used in the same way.  I had already learned that the first labor union was formed among the Flemish weavers.  They could get away with it because they had a skill and could not be easily replaced.  Organized labor has long struggled with this issue. In today's world, the SEIU is a rising powerhouse, and it represents floor-sweepers and the like.

Also in today's world, the threats to the sovereignty of the ordinary person have become more obvious...and the fads and fancies of the elite gentry (trust fund babies and their cronies) have become more influential and ridiculous (read: global warming).  While a hundred or so years ago the political winds were swirling around the processes of urbanization and industrialization — hence the Wobblies — today's winds carry stormclouds of information, both good and bad.  Conjured statistics have led to grotesquely intrusive public policy regarding (now get this) bovine flatulence.  Cow farts are now what's an ordinary person to do?

Judges have been nullifying the results of elections.  Egregious media bias has tainted objectivity.  Dissent from elite orthodoxy is censored, sometimes politely and sometimes not.

My friend knew that the Wobblies were obsolete, just a group of angry old men left over from a different time, and it was his anger that kept him in the fold.  One of the last times I saw him, he told me that he had gotten a letter from Wobbly headquarters in Chicago.  He had been elected president of the IWW...and he didn't even know he was a candidate.  He had also just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Image: IWW.

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