- Joe Hill, the IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture
Franklin Rosemont's book is neither a definitive biography of the mysterious Wobbly bard Joe Hill nor a scholarly history of the Industrial Workers of the World, although he manages to recover enough raw material to serve as a basis for either. Rosemont's treatment is far too passionate, polemical, and downright entertaining. What he does give us is an extended and detailed argument for considering both Hill and the IWW for their contributions toward creating an autonomous and uncompromising alternative culture. Excepting that Rosemont's subject is the American working class, this book is most analogous to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus.
The author is unapologetic in employing both the terminology and tone common to the Wobblies throughout, replete with the humor, wordplay, and detournement characteristic of Joe Hill's songs. The effect is amplified by the generous use of lyrics, poems, and period illustrations, not a few by Hill himself.
Rosemont does try to add to our knowledge about the elusive and legendary songwriter-martyr, tracing evidence for his involvement with the Magonista uprising in Baja California and the Fraser River strike in Canada. He refutes those depictions of Joe Hill—Wallace Stegner's being the best known—as [End Page 101] a murderous criminal deserving of his execution by the authorities in Utah.
The author is similarly concerned with rescuing the IWW from misrepresentations by its opponents, as well as by misguided admirers. For example, he goes to some length to identify the predominate view of Wobblies as libertarian Marxist. In so doing, he disputes a rather common perception that the animating viewpoint of the IWW owed a very great deal to anarcho-syndicalism. And Rosemont does not shy away from waging his own polemic against the Communist Party in terms no Bakuninist would find objectionable. Given the tendency of ultraleft currents to converge with anarchism, Rosemont's anxiety to establish the IWW's Marxist credentials might be misplaced.
Readers might legitimately ask whether this lively and fascinating screed hold lessons for the current debate over the future of the AFL-CIO and organized labor in America. In terms of organizational structure, Rosemont insists that, apart from 1915-23, the IWW was predominately composed of "mixed locals," industrial union intentions notwithstanding. His account also makes clear that, regardless of folk heroes like Hill, there was a great deal of self-directed activity and initiative from the rank and file. In our age of mass media, apart from some interesting possibilities offered by the internet and cable television, one wonders if the sort of counterculture Rosemont documents in early twentieth century America is still a possibility for labor.