In the IWW Organizing Program we tell people: read! Read the news, read about organizing, read theory! We say this because when Joe Hill said “Don’t mourn, organize” he didn’t mean “Don’t think, organize!” Expanding our knowledge of history and theory can be important to help our rank and file organizers become big thinkers, to understand big-picture strategy, and to learn from the past and put new ideas to the test. But what should we read? I decided I would put forward 5 suggestions that I have personally found to be helpful for all these questions, books that I find myself referring to again and again.
- The “Teamster” Series by Farrell Dobbs
Okay, I broke my own set up already. Technically I’m choosing a four book series, but hear me out! Farrell Dobbs was a coal trucker in Minneapolis who became a revolutionary. He was brought into the union struggle with the Teamsters at a time when their local was completely moribund and it took the initiative of a group of socialists to make the local organize. Dobbs was eventually brought into the Trotskyist movement through his experiences with this. In this series he not only talks about that experience, but of the Minneapolis Teamsters in the 30s and 40s who went from 75 member to 3000 within a year, led a general strike, and initiated industrial union organizing across the midwest. And it doesn’t paint it in broad strokes, he tells you exactly what happened in plain language. You can learn a lot from these books, from an analysis of class forces, to the nature of union bureaucracies, to how to organize and develop a strategy. It’s good stuff and I couldn’t put these books down when I finally got my hands on them!
- On War by Carl von Clausewitz
Writings on military theory are some of the best things an organizer can read, because they consider things from all the angles and layout important structures to think from. Ideas like strategic, operational, and tactical levels of attack from this sort of theory and they are immensely important. “War is politics by other means,” says Clausewitz. In other words, it’s the same idea in both: impose your will on the opponent by expending a minimum of effort. Clausewitz doubles in important because he not only teaches “how to think” in terms of strategy and tactics, but he was a Prussian intellectual influenced by the philosopher Hegel. Similarly to Marx’s work, Clausewitz also uses a framework for thinking called “dialectics” that stresses understanding that processes (in this case, war) is always something in motion, put in motion by its context and past actions, and talks about how these contexts and processes change. Marx did the same thing, except for class struggle.
- In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
The best work by Steinbeck, hands down. Steinbeck is a great author for a lot of reasons, one of them being that he was able to really write working class stories. In Dubious Battle is the story of a young idealist joining the Communist Party and learning to organize by jumping head in with his mentor Mac. They head out to an orchard, start working there, and agitate and organize their way to an epic struggle between the bosses and the workers. I have never seen another book that encapsulates the hardship of union struggles so perfectly. It’s honest: organizing is shit work done by people with a lot of resolve. But they’re just people. There’s an old timer in the book who was an IWW back in the day and I love that. There was a not so great movie made recently in which the organizers are actually explicitly IWW members instead of Communist Party.
- Hammer and Hoe by Robin D.G. Kelley
The Reds came to Alabama and set up shop with a handful of people. In just a few short years the Communist Party of Alabama had gone from a couple white organizers to a black-led, multiracial revolutionary party with hundreds of members. Robin D.G. Kelley’s masterwork paints the picture of the hard work the organizers did in the deep south to organize sharecroppers into a union, industrial unions in all sorts of manufacturing, and the legal defense of blacks people’s democratic rights. An inspirational story that we should all look to in our organizing work. There’s a part I love in the introduction where Kelley talks about meeting to interview one of the old CP members. He asked him “how did you do it?” and the old timer pulls out a copy of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? And a box of shotgun shells and says, “Right here. Theory and practice.”
- Capital by Karl Marx
My man Karl puts the capitalist system on blast. Capital, or “the brick” as we call it (well, maybe we don’t), is a big, dense book. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it is the most comprehensive analysis of capitalism and capitalist exploitation that’s been written to date. In this book Marx lays bears capitalism as the brutal system it is: how it categorizes people and forces them into impossible situations, how it breaks peoples bodies like mere tools, how it revels in the dispossession of the poor, and how it cannot be reformed. There is something deeply humanistic in Capital and Marx puts forward a thought experiment that has inspired revolutions around the world: “imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common.” Read this book and you’ll understand exactly what we’re up against.