Iconography: From a Rank-and-File Wobbly

Continuing with my series on the iconography and visual culture of workers’ education, I turn now to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) monthly journal, Industrial Pioneer.  The journal was the successor to One Big Union Monthly, and was published from 1921-1926. The Industrial Pioneer had little in the way of news (this was handled by the union’s weekly press in English and a number of other languages).  It’s pages were filled with educational articles, commentary on contemporary culture and politics, book reviews, and original cartoons, plays, short stories, and poems.  This “educational matter” and “proletarian art,” the editor announced in the first issue would “spread the doctrines of Revolutionary Industrial Unionism.” Reflecting its participatory approach to organizing, IWW newspapers and magazines routinely published member-created reports from the field, and carried over the member-generated cartoons, songs and fiction.  As Franklin Rosemont notes in his “A Short Treatise on Wobbly Cartoons,” in the 1988 edition of Joyce Kornbluh’s Rebel Voices collection, not all all of the IWW’s cartoonists were amateurs.  Well-known leftist cartoonists like Art Young and Robert Minor at times drew for the Wobblies, and apparently a few professional illustrators working in “the capitalist press” donated their work under pen-names. But the identity of one “Van Dilman” remains a mystery.  He appears to have been a rank-and-file reader of the Industrial Pioneer who submitted his work in support of the cause.

And the First Great Step is EducationLike Kennedy’s “Upward and Into the Light,” Van Dilman’s cartoon (dated 1925 and published in 1926) features an allegorical female figure and the directional metaphor of climbing. For both, education is a path toward freedom, however, Dilman’s cartoon places Lady Liberty atop a pedestal and distant from the shirtless, male figure grasping the educational step and calling out “Let’s get up fellow workers.” Education is just “the first great step” followed by Organization and Emancipation (the three-part motto of the IWW). Why education is such a big step is evident from the other figures in the foreground. On the right, a female figure, with bare midriff and feet, taunts the rebel worker saying “Above lies illusion. Joys of the flesh are close to the ground.” On the far left of the image, a male figure with arms akimbo and hat pulled over his face asks, “Why don’t the damn fool be satisfied with what he has? He knows the law won’t let him climb!” In the middle foreground a policeman with a billy club, a soldier with rifle, and a hooded Klansman with pistol drawn advance on the would be working class intellectual.

Darker and less hopeful than most cartoons about education, Dilman’s drawing was accompanied by explanatory text that seems at odds with its visual message.

Living in the midst of the disgusting debaucheries of the capitalistic hogs who wallow in the products of modern industry, and continually menaced by the persecutions of their filthy gunmen, thugs, and murderers, the working class is still on the whole, untainted and uncowed. It continually strives towards the three things the I.W.W. takes as its motto: Education, Organization, Emancipation.” It not only tries in individual cases to mount this staircase toward the stars, but it is socially minded, and each member calls on his fellow to rise along with him.

Despite these protestations, the working class presented by the cartoon seems quite at war with itself, and subject to doubts about all three of the great steps. As rank-and-file Wobblies would have known, these temptations and doubts were very real. Just as the beast “Hunger” in Kennedy’s drawing suggests his personal experience as a child laborer, Dilman likely knew what he was drawing. The first challenges facing self-taught working people would have been close at hand—neighbors, friends and family doubtful that education would do any good, and the temptations of the “joys of the flesh” only a paycheck away. Notably absent from the image are those who might reach down to help the worker up, either real or allegorical. Although the fact that the artist sent this image to the editors of the Industrial Pioneer suggests he looked to the magazine for education and inspiration, in the image no one is leading the way. If anything, Dilman’s drawing suggests that 1925 was a lonely year to be a Wobbly autodidact.

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