The Wobblies on DVD

Today, Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer's 1979 documentary about the legendary radical union Industrial Workers of the World, titled simply The Wobblies after the IWW's nickname, is being released on DVD. Last November, I saw the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (it was sweet to see a leftist documentary in a "real" movie theater).

The film successfully captures the spirit of the IWW; the energy and avoidance of a static "talking-heads" feel is all the more remarkable given the limitations and age of the material available. The interviewees from the original era of the IWW in the early 1900s were by that time in their 80s and 90s, yet vividly conveyed their many-decades-old memories. The use of original documents and archival footage from the dawn of motion pictures was equally effective, conveying the social turmoil of the time, and the nature of work (such as a memorable shot of gigantic trees that dwarf the workers cutting them down). A particular delight is that the archive footage includes a suprising amount of propagandistic animation, including the 1925 Disney cartoon Alice's Egg Plant. In this entry in the studio's very early "Alice Comedies" series, a sinister Commie rooster (complete with a beard and a suitcase labeled "LITTLE RED HENSKI MOSCOW RUSSIA I.W.W.") infiltrates Alice's farm and convinces the hens to strike (and demand the opportunity to lay smaller eggs as well as to work shorter hours).

The discussion at the screening gave tantalizing hints of a particularly interesting production history, which one hopes will be discussed on the DVD; the filmmakers discussed the issues involved with the state of communications and film technology and the difficulty in contacting the original members (who were grateful that they had been "found" and could tell their stories), and a connection with feminism is indicated by the large role of women in creating the film (and that it was restored by the Women's Film Preservation Fund).

The doesn't go into analyzing the ideologies behind the IWW. One interviewee does briefly refer to the bitter conflict between anarchists and Communists in the IWW in the aftermath of the formation of the Soviet Union. And the film also briefly mentions the IWW's animosity towards the Salvation Army, which was allowed to speak on the streets while the IWW was prohibited by selective application of laws; the IWW was willing to critique organized religion's role in opposing labor, as in their cartoon of "the Capitalist System" and Joe Hill's song The Preacher and the Slave (while quoting the song in A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn points it out as having "a favorite IWW target, the church"). Interestingly, the spirit of the IWW itself was something of a secular equivalent to the sense of purpose and unity of religion, as this quote that was used in the screening's film description points out:
You don't remember the Wobblies, you were too young. There has never been anything like them before or since. They called themselves materialist-economists, but what they really were was a religion. They were welded together by a vision we don't possess.

In another interesting indication of the ideologies behind the IWW, one of the advisers listed in the credits is Ronald Radosh. Although he is currently a David Horowitz-style neocon, he was a New Leftist at that time. In the same era, he was also collaborating with libertarian Murray Rothbard; they co-edited the 1972 anthology A New History of Leviathan. On the other hand libertarians have been sympathetic to the IWW; see the late Samuel Edward Konkin 3's remarks on the Movement of the Libertarian Left's Yahoo mailing list about how the "free-market and pro-entrepreneur" attitude of the MLL is consistent with the IWW's direct action.


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