Harold Lord Varney "Exposes" the I. W. W.

One Big Union Monthly, March 1920

(Originally Published in the New York World, 8 February 1920)

For some time past Harold Lord Varney, ex-secretary-treasurer of Metal and Machinery Workers' Industrial Union No. 300, and well-known I. W. W. writer, has acted rather queerly. He all of a sudden moved his headquarters from Chicago to New York—over the protests of some members, and otherwise proved that there was something wrong with him. He had a surprise in store for the I. W. W. members. He contemplated renouncing us. This he has now done. He has "exposed" us in a whole page article in the New York Sunday World of February 8, and in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, thus making his backsliding public business and capitalizing it for what it is worth. For the latter purpose Varney poses as a very important person in the I. W. W. in the past, concealing the fact the I. W. W. is so built that the arrest or disappearance of any 100 or 200 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 for that matter of its most "prominent" members will not seriously affect the life of the organization.

We are happy to state that Varney's sudden departure from the I. W. W. was of so little importance to the I. W. W. that it would never have been noticed by the membership had he not himself advertised it. This is a warning to all of us—not to get "the swell head". While our services may be useful and acceptable to the I. W. W., none of us is such a god that the organization could not dispense with his services without the slightest inconvenience.

As far as Varney is concerned he must have suffered terribly of late in his double role, and we certainly are glad to be rid of him, now that we know what ailed him.

The following is an exact reproduction of Varney's "exposure" as it appeared in the Sunday World. (For further comments, see the articles, "One More Renegade", by George Andreytchine, and "Man Overboard", by John Sandgren, in this issue:)


The I. W. W. Exposed by its Chief Propagandist


Harold Lord Varney, "Bill" Haywood's Counsellor and aid, charges that the main object of the leaders is to bring about the destruction of the American Federation of Labor. The masses of the country promptly uproot every revolutionary movement, for they are loyal to America and its institutions of government.


By Harold Lord Varney

I FIRST met Bill Haywood some seven or eight years ago. I doubt whether Bill even remembers the occasion. But to me it was a decisive, unforgettable day.

It was in a little rafter-walled two-room home in St. Louis—a flat finished off in the loft of a carpenter shop and belonging to a dim individual who was then Secretary of the St. Louis Socialists. "Big Bill" had come to town to lecture for the I. W. W., and the Secretary and I had bestirred our-selves to arrange a supper to welcome the great man. Busy women "comrades" had filled the tables with good things. And after the supper we pushed back our chairs and listened hungrily to the talk of the famous I. W. W. "chief."

I was then eighteen years old. A few months earlier I had read Marx and Kautsky and Spargo and I had been washed into the Socialist Party in a hot tide of emotionalism. I had given up my former dreams of the bar. All the bright plans of my boyhood had suddenly slipped away. A lawyer's career became strangely detestable to me. I deter-mined to become a Jean Jaures—a Eugene V. Debs—a Bill Haywood, a glamourous leader of revolution.

There was another youth in St. Louis at that time, some two years older than myself—John Gabriel Soltis. Socialism had come to Soltis also in a law school. We met in the "local," and the first night we formed an alliance. We burned with great plans and we shrieked at the stodgy old "comrades" in the party who seemed so hopelessly stupid and inert.

I can see Soltis now--a shaggy headed, boyish figure, mounted on a platform in the little Socialist hall, screaming at an audience of a dozen drowsy figures, shaking his arms wildly as he entreated them, "in the name of suffering humanity," to support the Socialist Tribune. For we had started a paper! The Socialist Tribune was the joint product of our plannings. Every week we poured into it florid Varney-and-Soltisisms. To pay the bills we entered the working class—Soltis in a restaurant and I in a machine shop. I can remember the soft, affectionate tone that used to creep into Soltis's voice as he mouthed the magic name—Socialist Tribune. And I suppose that my voice shivered too.

Joining the I. W. W.

The coming of Bill Haywood was an event for both Soltis and me. For "Bill" was coming to us, hot from the Lawrence strike. He was coming to us from spectacular, vivid scenes which we had followed breathlessly in the newspapers. St. Louis is off from the beaten track of revolutionary incident, and the coming of Haywood was like a breath from hot, furious mill towns, from wild, battling mining camps—from polyglot steel towns—and from ocean docks, astir with industrial revolt.

Soltis was very learned that evening as we sat in front of the attic feast and drew out the rich fund of tales which Haywood brought us. He assailed "Big Bill" with ponderous questions couched in deadly polysyllables. But I was strangely silent. I was listening to the leader and his talk of the I. W. W. I sat in the background with a new thought stirring in my mind. The I. W. W.! Should I join it? Should I leave the Socialist Party and its timorous dilettantism? For months already I had been howling for "sterner chords and wilder music" in my Socialist Tribune. I had been groping for something "redder." Should I abandon the political party and throw myself into the frankly revolutionary group?

After the gathering dispersed I got Haywood alone. Diffidently I put the question: "Shall I join the I. W. W. ?"

And peculiarly enough Haywood answered "No." I remember the amused light that came into his one eye as he heard me out.

"The I. W. W. is composed of different kinds of fellows than you," he explained to me. "You can help the I. W. W. a great deal from the outside. But don't join it. You won't fit in."

But, nevertheless, I joined it. A few days later I climbed three dingy flights of stairs in an old ware-house building and found the St. Louis I. W. W. headquarters. I came out with a red card in my pocket.

I have carried that card ever since. Through lights and shades of adventure that have eclipsed the maddest melodramas of fiction I have gloried in my I. W. W. card. Seven years of strike leading, seven years of delirious speech-making, seven years of lecturing and of writing and of tireless journeyings through emotion-heated labor fights! So I have lived since that first night.

But now the fire begun to cool. And as I look back to the beginning I am able to realize that Haywood was right. I shouldn't have joined the I. W. W. I didn't belong there. I came into the I. W. W., emotion-driven, and I have remained there through the years because the glamour of its battles gripped me like a magnetic spell. The I. W. W. is a boy's organization. It comes to youth as it came to me—full of the tempest and the throbbings of idealism. But when the ideals cool into doubt, the glamour tarnishes away.

A few weeks ago I was holding one of the highest offices in the I. W. W. I had slowly mounted up in the movement until I was at last one of its national leaders, and I sat with Haywood in its national councils. I had made a very definite place for myself in the I. W. W. I was the writer and interpreter of the movement. Two of my books were used as textbooks by the organization. I had written a history of the I. W. W., and I had delved out my material from every nook and cranny of I. W. W. incident. I was the foremost lecturer of the I. W. W., traveling constantly to fill ever-increasing dates. I got on the inside: I got to know the I. W. W. with all the intimacy that comes to the man who is at the head. My life was choked with its responsibilities.

The Dream Flickers

And it was then—just as I had finally got my hand on the throttle of the American revolutionary movement; it was then—just as my boyhood dream of labor leadership began to realize itself—that everything began to pale and sicken. The dream tarnished. The ideal flickered out. I had a sense of things falling; all the delicate balances of my beliefs seemed to shake. My life—crowded and gripped by I. W. W. duties—suddenly became flat and empty.

There were a few weeks of wavering—of desperate struggles to recover my I. W. W. self—and then, finally, I found myself standing outside, an apostate from the I. W. W., a believer in the established order. And now I begin to see the I. W. W. with the cold aloofness of one who has grown beyond it.

I am writing this paper to explain why I left the I. W. W. I am going to try to put my reasons before the public. And these reasons are all intellectual reasons.

I did not leave the I. W. W.—as I entered it—led by another emotional flare. Emotionally I would have remained with it. There were my friends, my comrades of fights and thrills and dangers; there were the faithful ones who had loved and trusted me through the years; there were the memories, which will ever be sweet to me with the witchery of my youth. Certainly, for emotional people, the I. W. W.'s will always be more attractive than the existing order. Whatever virtues the present system may have, it hasn't got the emotional pull which is found in the ideals of revolution.

The capitalist system of society can never be so alluring to youth as the dream of Communism or the apocalyptic vision of Utopia. Existing orders are always based on logic, and logic is cold and thin. But revolutionary programmes flow from the emotions, and emotional movements are magnetic and rich with fascination. It is only when the young begin to turn—as I have turned—from their emotions to their reason that they right themselves and become reconciled to the necessary existing order. The I. W. W. mind is a vicious circle, and one goes round and round and never escapes until he frees himself from unreasoning sentimentality. But when one begins to think, the I. W. W. faith turns to ashes in his mind.

The chief reason which has weakened my I. W. W. faith has been the knowledge that the I. W. W. is not the uncompromising revolutionist which it claims to be. I have been struck by the unbelievable disparity between its radical public utterances and its weak, compromising inner self.

I have long been conscious of the fact that my I. W. W. isn't what it seems. Of course I couldn't have guessed this when I joined. Only by climbing to the top and surveying the weltering field of its national membership could I convince myself that the I. W. W. has no historic destiny; that it is only another of those doomed organizations which have the seeds of their own destruction planted in their heart. The I. W. W. is paralyzed by a contradiction which guts every limb of its organization.

The contradiction lies in this: For propagandic purposes the I. W. W. represents itself as a great flaming revolutionary programme, instinct with an unspotted idealism, voicing the urges of the entire working class. It scorns the short-cuts of politics and political opportunism. It is sonorous with the phrases of Communism. It assumes the form of a labor union—not because it is interested in everyday demands, but because unionism gives it the most elastic form in which to penetrate industry and prepare for the final revolution.

I. W. W. Dress Parade for the Young

But the actual I. W. W. realizes none of these lofty aims. It is not revolutionary, and it is not an expression of the whole working class. The real I. W. W. has sunk into a paltering, hesitating mass union of laborers, confined to four industries and reflecting the spirit—not of labor, but of the lumberjack, the miner, the "gandy dancer" and the harvest "stiff." Outwardly the I. W. W. is a great barrage of revolutionary phrases to excite and attract the emotional. But in its inner circles the stress is laid, not upon destroying capitalism, but upon destroying the A. F. of L.; not upon building a new system, but upon building a new union; not upon getting job ownership, but upon getting "job control." The dress-parade I. W. W. has a grandiloquent and impressive programme to achieve a new society, but in the actual I. W. W. this programme has faded, and all the energies of its branches are turned into frittering tasks of routine and desperate efforts to gain "immediate demands." And its leadership drifts more and more into the hands of uninspired "job delegates."

Now this may all seem paradoxical and contradictory. And that is just the point. The real I. W. W. is contradictory. That is the fatal thing which makes all I. W. W. hopes shrivel into futility when we analyze them.

It is the dress-parade I. W. W. which attracts the young, as it attracted me. Every year thousands of idealists throw themselves into the I. W. W. to find an avenue to their dreams of a new society. And the I. W. W. either disillusions them or else it loads them down with tasks, as in my case, and thus keeps them bound to it by the momentum of routine. It may delude them with glamorous, melodramatic activities. But it gets them nowhere on the road to a better society.

I don't mean to suggest that the average I. W. W. man is aware of this truth. On the contrary, even the leaders of the I. W. W.—a few blase old-timers like Bill Haywood excepted—are religiously convinced that in building up the I. W. W. they are fighting a social revolution. "We are building the structure of a new society within the shell of the old," they quote glibly from their preamble. They feel that every increment to the I. W. W. means a weakening to capitalism. I believed it myself until I began to analyze the human material that we had in the I. W. W.; then I realized sickly that the faster we grew the further we drifted from our revolutionary aim.

And the case is this: The masses of this country are not revolutionary. They are not interested in revolution. They are loyal to America and to its institutions of government. And it is these masses who are the field from which the I. W. W. must necessarily glean its recruits.

In order to put across their sweeping programme the I. W. W. must have numbers. The theory of the I. W. W. is to overthrow capitalism by organizing all the workers, in all the industries into a One Big Union. They do not, like the Bolsheviki, plan a minority dictatorship. They do not, like the French Syndicalists, trust to a "militant minority." They must have all. Their theory stands or falls upon this point.

Working Class Do Not Want Revolution

But how can they rally all the workers to revolution when hardly a handful of these workers are interested in revolution? Here has been the "poser" which the I. W. W. has always faced. Can one bring revolution to a people who do not want it? The working class of America is interested in jazz and baseball and Billy Sunday. The working class of American prays to God and venerates the traditions of Washington and Lincoln. The working class own Liberty bonds and vote for the candidates of the great American parties.

The mountain of American labor did not come to the Mahomet of I. W. W.ism, when the Haywoods and the St. Johns launched their One Big Union. And so the I. W. W.—perhaps unconscious to itself —has gone to the mountain. The I. W. W. couldn't make labor revolutionary. But labor has made the I. W. W. conservative.

In order to realize its programme and get numbers the I. W. W. drifted into opportunism and thus blasted their organization with a contradiction. The masses are interested in more to eat, therefore the I. W. W. told them to join the "Wobblies" and get more food right now. The masses are interested in shorter workdays, so the I. W. W. adopted the slogan that the A. F. of L. itself had launched in 1886—an eight-hour day! The masses want sanitary conditions of labor, so the I. W. W. began to agitate for sanitation.

In fact, none of the big battles of the I. W. W. has even remotely suggested any revolutionary aim. They have all been accidents of opportunism. The I. W. W. fought in Lawrence—not for revolution, but for a 10 per cent increase in pay. The I. W. W. in Paterson merely voiced an eight-hour-day spirit. The I. W. W. at Everett fought and died in order to make speeches on the streets. The I. W. W. at Wheatland struck for more lavatories. The Butte, the Bisbee, the Mesaba Range struggles were but battles over wages. The I. W. W. pulled out 75,000 lumberjacks in 1917 by howling against the system of carrying blankets.

Wherever the I. W. W. has grown it has grown by tabooing the talk of revolution. Wherever the I. W. W. has gained members they have done so by methods which the A. F. of L. itself might have used. But wherever the I. W. W. has attempted to advocate a programme of a new society, there its very roots have been exterminated by the hostility of the workers whom they seek to organize.

I. W. W. Drifts Into Opportunism

And so the recruits to the I. W. W. are, in the main, conservative workers. Some of them become impregnated with I. W. W. principles. But very few. For the most part they come in solely to build up a labor union, and they turn indifferently from the talk of revolution. And they, in turn, gradually leaven the I. W. W. toward attitudes yet more conservative. To gain these members in the first place the I. W. W. must assume a conservative pose. And to hold these members, after they have been gained, the pose must be kept up.

More and more then, as it thrives, the I. W. W. drifts into opportunism and fails in its original ideal. More and more these policies react upon the I. W. W. leaders themselves and palsy their dreams.

It was the realization of this impossibleism in the I. W. W. programme which destroyed my original faith. For years I had stormed up and down the platforms of the country, calling the workers to revolutionary unionism. And yet, only when I talked of immediate demands did the workers seem to answer.

The average I. W. W. advocate has become a victim of extreme self-deception. He believes what he wants to believe. He thinks the workers are shouting for revolution when they are only cheering for "porkchops." He watches for straws, and every discontent of labor is distorted into the first rumble of revolution.

And so for seven years I fancied that I was forming a fateful revolutionary union. For seven years I felt revolutionary vibrations which had their source nowhere but in myself. For seven years all my mornings were revolutionary "dawns," but their sun has always set in disillusioning capitalist nights. I wallowed in my emotions until my reason rescued me. And now that I have come to realize the temper of the American workingman I know that the I. W. W. cannot win him. All the stage spectacularities of the I. W. W. but beg the I. W. W. goal. As a revolutionary body the I. W. W. has been a ludicrous, epochal failure.

What the I. W. W. really has done has been to organize several thousand workers in each of four industries—lumber, coppermining, agriculture and camp construction. It hasn't gained job control in any of them. It has been too revolutionary to be a success as a union; it has been too conservative to be a success as a revolution. The A. F. of L., even, could have organized these industries much better.

And to gain this pitiful result fifteen years of fighting, of self-immolation, of lavish personal sacrifices that are almost unparalleled in labor history have been the price. The I. W. W. has poured into its battles the lives, the vitality and the infinite idealism of thousands of nameless young devotees, who come on always, in tragic waves, to fill the ranks of this fated cause. And the result of it all is—four minor unions! It is superb—but it is silly.

When I began to see these truths I saw the fallacy that lies behind all revolutionary movements. Not alone is the I. W. W. attempting the impossible; the I. W. W. is but a startling example of the impossibleism of all revolutionary attempts. The failure of the I. W. W. may have been stark, but it only emphasizes the stronger the utter hopelessness of social revolution as a method of progress. Where the I. W. W. falls, there the Socialist will fall, the Communist will fall, the Bolshevik will crumble, for their tactics are unsound and Utopian.

The trouble with the revolutionary thinker is that he has no historical sense. In his impetuous, fanatic ardor to realize an ideal he does not attempt to understand the institutions of today. He does not glimpse the agony of the ages which have brought us up to our present system. He blinds his eyes to the awful gulf which lies waiting to swallow us if our delicate artificial system should crumble.

The system which we revolutionists have called capitalist is regnant today because it has shown itself practical, workable and human. It was not invented by any one. It was not blue printed by theorists. It did not come to us, brain-blown, from the studies of economists.

Instead, it was a growth. What we call capitalism is an accumulation of social institutions which have slowly developed through the ages. Some of them have origins which antedate written history. All of them are plastic, altering with our needs, forming and re-forming themselves in the shape of the changing world. They are played upon eternally by the tests of necessity and the urge of experiment. And these institutions—linked together into a system—are the pillars and piles upon which we have reared our comfortable security of life.

Only a few generations separate us from the howling fears of beasts and the awful scourge of hunger and cold. The struggle for existence has led us to capitalism. And under the leadership of capitalism humanity has been marshalled and mobilized into a war with cold and hunger which has placed us in the secure social luxury of the present.

It is natural for us to look into a yet more glorious tomorrow. Society has not stopped growing. But when the I. W. W. and the Bolsheviki assail capitalism today they are assailing the very corner-stone which supports civilization. They are loosening the cement of social life. They are weakening the foundations upon which the very possibility of their own collectivist dream is resting. Pull down capitalism and the Socialist programme is but a hollow scaffolding.

The Real Hope of the Future

The young men who follow their emotions into revolutionary movements, as I did, blink at these stern truths. And so they build I. W. W. 's which shake with fallacy. They cry for revolution when the very morale of our industrial order is trembling in life struggles. They are sappers, undermining the labor of those who are truly building the humble increments of progress. They are so anxious to gain a Utopia that they would obliterate a civilization.

Social progress does not come by revolution it comes by work. It comes by the tireless labor of millions of men and women, contributing their mites to a great social prosperity. It is not the fruit of the demagogue; it comes from the unhonored laborings of the inventor, the artisan and the wilderness pioneer. It does not come suddenly, as the I. W. W. would bring it; it grows slowly and tortuously, but every growth is eternal.

The hope of the future lies in the unifying of men's energies into a greater and saner capitalism; it does not come from those who preach division and who demoralize our unit in class hatred. Such is the new belief which I have at last attained. If my reason has led me far from the I. W. W. I can only the more fully sense the gap which has led the I. W. W. away from reason. If the I. W. W. calls me an apostate I can only answer that, for seven years, I was an apostate in the I. W. W. from the truths which I had buried and suppressed.

I cannot share the bitterness of the general public opinion against the I. W. W. Perhaps I still stand too close to them to believe that they are ogres of iniquity. I prefer to remember them as I knew them—a sincere band of heroic, perverted men. Some of them I shall always love. All of them I shall always understand.

But now I know one thing. Years ago, when it all began, Bill Haywood was right. "I didn't fit in." I tried to be an I. W. W.; I gave them everything I had to give but one thing only—MY RIGHT TO REASON. And that one thing, which I refuse to sacrifice, was the thing which has at last led me away. Revolutions must have not merely the bodies of their leaders, the revolutionist must also give his free, rich mind. He who keeps his mind above the emotions and their fatal flood will surely return to capitalism. Such has been my story.

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Transcribed by J. D. Crutchfield

Last updated 19 August 2004