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Soapbox Rebellion: The Hobo Orator Union and the Free Speech Fights of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1909-1916

Soapbox Rebellion: The Hobo Orator Union and the Free Speech Fights of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1909-1916

by Matthew S. May

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Soapbox Rebellion, a new critical history of the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), illustrates how the lively and colorful soapbox culture of the “Wobblies” generated novel forms of class struggle.
From 1909 to 1916, thousands of IWW members engaged in dozens of fights for freedom of speech throughout


Soapbox Rebellion, a new critical history of the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), illustrates how the lively and colorful soapbox culture of the “Wobblies” generated novel forms of class struggle.
From 1909 to 1916, thousands of IWW members engaged in dozens of fights for freedom of speech throughout the American West. The volatile spread and circulation of hobo agitation during these fights amounted to nothing less than a soapbox rebellion in which public speech became the principal site of the struggle of the few to exploit the many. While the fights were not always successful, they did produce a novel form of fluid union organization that offers historians, labor activists, and social movement scholars a window into an alternative approach to what it means to belong to a union. Matthew May coins the phrase “Hobo Orator Union” to characterize these collectives.
Soapbox Rebellion highlights the methodological obstacles to recovering a workers’ history of public address; closely analyzes the impact of hobo oratorical performances; and discusses the implications of the Wobblies’ free speech fights for understanding grassroots resistance and class struggle today—in an era of the decline of the institutional business union model and workplace contractualism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This book is extremely readable and even inspiring. Although there is a large recent literature in English and other European languages on autonomist Marxism, I am unaware of any work that does this sort of careful synthesis of historical scholarshipwith contemporary theoretical concerns. This is a very fine work, indeed.” — James Arnt Aune, author of Selling the Free Market: The Rhetoric of Economic Correctness, winner of a National Communication Association’s Diamond Anniversary Book Award

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Soapbox Rebellion

The Hobo Orator Union and the Free Speech Fights of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1909â"1916

By Matthew S. May

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8696-2


Nothing in Common

Militant Rhetorical History

I can think of no better way to introduce readers to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) than this statement in the preamble to their constitution: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common." It is a bold statement—perhaps the boldest statement of working class autonomy and struggle in the history of the labor movement in the United States. There can be little doubt that the IWW developed many novel expressions of this statement, in word and deed, throughout the many storied battles they have waged, and continue to wage, against bosses everywhere. In this book, I reconsider how and to what extent the major free speech fights that the IWW undertook in the American West from 1909 to 1916 gave expression to class struggle through public address and the establishment of a lively culture of soapbox oratory among migratory workers. Indeed the volatile spread and circulation of hobo agitation during the free speech fights amounted to nothing less than a soapbox rebellion in which speech and its conditions of possibility were the site and the stake of the struggle of the few to exploit the many. As far as I know, I am the first to characterize the mobile and often ad hoc collectives of soapbox orators and audiences, forged in the fires of these struggles, as a "hobo orator union." It is important to indicate, therefore, that unlike the familiar nickname for members of the IWW, "Wobblies," hobo orator union is a new characterization that is intended to describe the organization of relations of solidarity and the way of being together in the world that is made possible through the material affordances of this particular rhetorical culture. As I hope to demonstrate, this method of reading class struggle into rhetorical history—not through penetrating speech texts to assess levels of consciousness but through attending carefully to how collective assemblages of enunciation confront the regulation of speaking beings and the uses to which the social surplus of communication is put—is also performative, laying out a plane of consistency in which the past is no longer simply before but instead consists of the unrealized potential of the present moment.

A colleague once remarked that the very idea of a hobo orator is oxymoronic, for nothing contrasts more with the romantic image of the orator-statesman than the displaced and downtrodden wandering poor. It might be added that nothing contrasts more to the business union collaborationism of today than the open anticapitalism and solidarity of the Wobblies. Now, at the centennial anniversary of this series of struggles, if we can clear away the foggy hubris of the present long enough so that a fresh look at the hobo agitators of the IWW becomes possible, we may yet gain insight into communication and more specifically oratorical practice, not simply as a vehicle through which class consciousness is conveyed, but itself a direct enactment of class struggle, that is to say, struggle over the conversion of labor power into capital. We may discern in the transformations of the struggle over time the increasing ability to mobilize the state of exception in defense of the threats and potential threats to the interests of capital, if only to arrive at a provisional understanding of how to avoid the unwitting repetition of the ultimate demise of the hobo orator union in bloodshed and protracted legal battles. We may see indeed that it is not we who are returning to the Wobblies but the Wobblies who are returning to us, spots of light on the dark radar of the future, sabots, thought long-forgotten, slowly rusting away the mainframe, enough for hope, anyway.

The IWW stood alone in the early years of the twentieth century as the only union to coordinate a serious and sustained attempt to organize the millions of unorganized (waged and unwaged) migratory workers circulating throughout the American West. They were founded in Chicago in 1905 with the fundamental objective of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a more democratic system, modeled after workplace democracy and industrial organization. The founders, including such notable figures as William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, Daniel DeLeon, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Thomas "Father" Haggerty, and many other important left-wing socialists and industrial unionists, envisioned the IWW as the vehicle through which all workers could be organized, industry by industry, into One Big Union, commonly known as the OBU. Through this model of organization, adapted to the circumstances of modern industrial production, the working class could build the capacity to alter the balance of power between themselves and the employing class and carry on production when capitalism is overthrown. It is crucial to note the difference between the IWW and forms of unionism that are underwritten by an identity of interest between workers and capitalists. While the American Federation of Labor (AFL), known by the IWW as the "A F of Hell" or the "American Separation of Labor," believed in "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work," the Wobblies declared that there would be no peace until the workers of the world enjoyed the full product of their toil, "the goods." The Wobblies opposed any compromise or contract except to gain a tactical or strategic advantage in the class struggle. They rejected artificial divisions of the working class by craft, nationality, race, or sex, and even, in the case of the hobos, employment status. Furthermore, the Wobblies were a revolutionary "organizing" union but not in the contemporary sense of developing mass membership campaigns; instead they put into practice Marx's dictum that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself" and organized so as to develop and nurture the collective capacities of the class for self-organization and direct action.

I should mention that this book only constitutes a slice of colorful Wobbly history, and a partial one at that. When possible, I have attempted to include the many breathtaking moments in the story of the free speech fights: hundreds and even thousands of hobos riding above or below boxcars to stand on a box and say a few words in spite of imminent threats of beatings and arrests, organizing pitched battles against hired thugs around pots of beans in the jungle camps outside of town, taking flight to Mexico to liberate Tijuana and establish the Baja Commune, and, of course, steaming into Everett, Washington, on the ill-fated voyage of the Verona, only to be massacred at the city docks by the local sheriff, to name only a few examples. I have tried to permit the eventfulness of this cycle of struggles to be affirmed in the writing of their history. To the extent that this sort of endeavor is possible it is informed by the idea, proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that events do not release their full potential in their historical actualization—that there persists unspent potential in an event that can not so much be signified but rather affirmed in the concrete act of repetition and difference (in this case, through writing). The approach does not involve reading symbols for the secrets of history or hidden ideological agendas. It does not seek to cure its object through any method of therapeutic reading. It seeks neither to correct its object nor to speak on its behalf. As it happens, to paraphrase Baruch Spinoza, it is not we who affirm the event but rather the event that affirms something of itself in us. John Durham Peters has shown that in the Gospel of John, the "'ontological dative' is a form that makes it possible to speak of one person's being 'in' another, as God is in Christ, or Christ is in his disciples." If in the Christian tradition the ontological dative relates to sharing a spiritual consubstantiality and thus partakes in the kind of ontological dualism that is at the heart of the idealist philosophical project, my concern is writing as material extension of the subjective transformation that was effected during this cycle of struggles and doing so in the hope of unleashing residual potential for theorizing the conditions of possibility of class struggle—after all, nobody knows what the body can do, as Spinoza has said. In short, this is a book that does not imagine itself as separate from the compositional ontology of which it and its subject are both a part.

With these objectives in mind, I now turn to review a sample of the existing literature on the free speech fights and to further outline some of the theoretical principles that govern my approach to writing militant rhetorical history. On the one hand, in Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years, a book that to its credit provides the only extensive scholarly investigation of the free speech fights, David Rabban argues that the free speech fights suggest an emerging vernacular rights consciousness that stood in contrast to the long-held conservative views of the prewar Supreme Court. Indeed, the regular violence and bloodshed committed by the deputized thugs of western militias against Wobblies generated some popular sympathy for the cause of free speech, paving a discursive context for the liberalization of national attitudes. Despite the profound importance of this work, the focus on the evolution of constitutional issues in public discourse shifts the focus from the recomposition of the productive forces within capital that these struggles effected. On the other hand, the most common interpretation among sympathetic labor historians and postwar Wobblies is that fighting for free speech distracted workers from their proper task of organizing workers at the point of production. Too much time, argues Fred Thompson, was spent "fighting for free speech on its own account." Greg Hall's recent and acclaimed book, Harvest Wobblies, argues that it was a mistake to consider "a public, street appeal for union membership an actual organizing strategy." He further argues that such appeals could not "lead to substantive organizing" but rather to mere publicity for free speech. The iconoclastic hobo, riding the rails, singing the praises of bumming and sabotage was perhaps too unruly, even for the later IWW, in their attempt to coordinate the universal organization of workers, industry by industry. In either case, the dislocation of the orators from the context of migratory production within which they circulated may have the unfortunate effect of casting the hobos as mere bums, or worse, as mere free speech activists.

Mobilizing themselves through public oratorical practices provided hobos with a technology for self-organization through which they could partake in a common resistance to the attempts of capital in collusion with employment agents to capture hobo labor power in the process of "small scale circulations." Drawing on Marx, I use the term small-scale circulation to refer to the process through which wages paid for time in production are exchanged for subsistence and the means of reproducing the workers capacity to work. Since labor power (that is, the capacity to work) by structural necessity can never exchange itself, the payment of a wage for time in production represents only the exchange of labor power in an objectified form. As Antonio Negri explains, "This means that the capitalist relation, exchange and exploitation do not annul the independence of the proletarian subject." In an important sense, the objectification and exchange of labor power (that is, the conversion of labor power into capital), involves a constant struggle over time. As Marx writes, "The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor power he has bought from him." The worker is paid a wage and given time outside of the immediate point of production in order to reproduce his or her capacity to resume anew the objectification and consumption of labor power as a commodity each day. Adrian Wilding argues that, by this logic, the fragments of qualitative time spent in "projects which neither valorize capital (through work or consumption) nor simply reproduce labor power" not only rob the capitalist but also constitute the possibility of communism "in the here and now." Negri describes the materialization of the actuality of communism through "a resistance that does not consist of simply a point of immobility, but rather is itself a cycle, a movement, a growth," as self-valorization.

Class struggle, formulated as a movement of self-valorization, should not be confused with appeals to the dignity of labor, which can still be heard in the most recent battles of the labor aristocracy (for example, in the losing battle against Scott Walker's antiunion legislation in Wisconsin), because these are appeals to labor power in its objectified form, that is, as capital, or at least insofar as it can be converted into capital; and this is precisely what the concept of self-valorization is meant to combat. Moreover, the idea of communism as the time of the jetzeit (here and now) presents an important corrective to the teleological version of historical materialism that posits communism in some future and subsequently bypasses the short circuit between the hobo orators of the IWW and the black bloc insurrectos marching against global financial institutions and smashing the windows of a multi-national corporation. The human microphones of Occupy Wall Street. The liberators of the Baja Commune. Joe Hill. Chuck D. Free Speech in Spokane. The Battle of Seattle. The Massacre at Everett. Bloody Genoa. The battle at Frankenhausen. Hobo Jungles. Zuccotti Park. Mic check: One Big Union. Omnia Sunt Communia. What holds these seemingly disparate historical actors together, their virtual plane of consistency, is the sense in which they partake in a constitutive movement of history, a performative enactment in which the potential of a new world becomes imaginable in the ashes of the old. A world beyond capitalism.

Through a critical engagement with and analysis of the historical sources at hand, I will show that the free speech fights represent a form of struggle—not within the shop, but within the circuits of circulation through which the social relations that produce and reproduce capital take shape (i.e., small-scale circulation). In this regard, while they take place technically outside the immediate point of production, and therefore they challenge the long-standing assumption that labor time in production is the only ground upon which class politics can be erected, they reflect the possibility (i.e., the tendency) of a form of class struggle in a moment of historical development in which circulation and production are collapsed in an immanent network, what has been called a "social factory":

The social factory is a term developed within the operaismo tradition of Marxism in Italy. There is an ambivalence in the term, between a conceptual optic and a narrative of historical periodization. The social factory as a conceptual optic argues that the techniques and practices of power deployed within the factory also impact life outside the factory, and vice versa. In other words, the walls of the factory are a semi-permeable membrane across which passages take place and across which lines of force operate. The basic point of the concept is that value production and resistance to value production do not occur only in determinate and recognized workplaces and in activity by waged workers. This concept of the social factory has a polemical force against the factory-ist political and organizational model that centers on workplaces and waged work.

I would add that the concept of the social factory also lends itself to demystifying the prevalent "ideology of dissent"—a social movement understanding of resistance that envisions its protagonists as struggling over issues and concerns that are independent of the capitalist mode of production. It moreover problematizes the relativistic belief that oppression is structured according to a logic of equivalence. Nick Dyer-Witheford writes that according to this view, "the extraction of surplus value is simply included within a range of dominations and oppressions (sexism, racism, homophobia, industrialism) none of which can be accorded any priority over the other." Yet in contrast to the belief "that different kinds of domination politely arrange themselves in a nonhierarchical, pluralistic way," capitalism "is a system based on the imposition of universal commodification, including, centrally, the buying and selling of human life time. Its tendency is to subordinate all activity to the law of value—the socially imposed law of exchange. It relates a monological master narrative in which only money talks." The social factory is understood as an optic for focusing on how capital operates through a process of abstraction that reduces all of the productive energies of human activity to its value as a commodity.


Excerpted from Soapbox Rebellion by Matthew S. May. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Matthew S. May is an assistant professor of Rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at North Carolina State University. His articles have appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and the Journal of Communication Inquiry.

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