The Army of What-tion?

While on break at work the other day, I repeatedly walked by, and briefly chit-chatted, with a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army, in front of the grocery store next door, which prompted the following thoughts. I’ll probly clean it up and post on libcom or something. I realize it’s a bit sprawling and lacking a coherent message, but, that’s okay with me cuz I’m a ramblin’ man.


The Army of What-tion?

The IWW is sometimes described as church-like and its philosophy as a “religion.” I know wobs who like play up the churchyness, emphasizing the union as a “values-laden organization” and invoking moral outrage and moral principles as the stuff of mass movements. A semi-famous example of the IWW comes from a line in the WWII book “From Here to Eternity” by James Jones, in a character monologue by an ex-IWW member called Jack Malloy: “You dont 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.”

The character compliments the IWW’s ingenious use use of “passive resistance” but laments that they never understood it, because they believed in “militant force.” A longer quotation [thank you amazon]:

Jack Malloy had read a tremendous lot. … Born the son of a country sheriff in Montana in 1905, he had been 13 in 1917 when his father started jailing the IWWs in earnest. That’s what started him off: The Wobblies had taught him to read. He started reading in his father’s jail with their books they always carried with them. In his gratitude he offered to help them escape from his dad’s jail. When the Wobblies turned down his offer, he learned the first lesson in what was to become his passion for passive resistance.
“They utilized it … but they didnt use enough of it. They didnt understand the principle. That was their greatest fault, and damn near their only one. But it was enough to make them fail. They believed in militant force. It was written into their covenant. They never fought or killed one-tenth as much as they were accused of, and not one-twentieth as much as their enemies fought and killed them; but the point is they believed in it abstractly, and thats what defeated them: a mistake in abstract logic.”

The monologue goes on to describe their churchyness:

“You dont remember the Wobblies. You were too young. Or else not even born yet. 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 workstiffs and bindlebums like you and me, but they were welded together by a vision we dont possess. It was their vision that made them great. And it was their belief in it that made them powerful. And sing! you never heard anybody sing like those guys sang! Nobody sings like they did unless its for religion!”
The sharpest memory of his youth was of bunches of them, ten or twenty at a time, in out of the harvest fields in the fall for one of their free speech fights, sitting in the barred windows of the second floor of the jail singing their songs Joe Hill had written for them, or Ralph Chaplin’s Solidarity Forever, a singing that swelled through the town until nobody could escape it.

All of this points to some interesting themes.

Union people and labor scholars have written a fair amount about inter-union competition (usually negatively, with some interesting exceptions…). The old IWW, while preaching “one big union,” was accused of “dual unionism” in competition with the IWW. Bill Haywood respond mockingly to this accusation at the founding convention:

It has been said that this convention was to form an organization rival to the American Federation of Labor. That is a mistake. We are here for the purpose of organizing a LABOR ORGANIZATION (laughter and applause); an organization broad enough to take in all of the working class. (Applause). The American Federation of Labor is not that kind of an organization, inasmuch as there is a number of the international bodies affiliated with it that absolutely refuse to take in any more men. When this organization is properly launched there will be a place for every man that has been refused. They may place us on record as being dual, but remember that the United Workers of the Industrial Union will recognize those men as union men.

The AF of L wasn’t the IWW’s only competition. The old IWW frequently competed economically and ideologically with an older organization, founded a few years before the Knights of Labor. That organization was the Salvation Army.

As explained here

The IWW concentrated much of their efforts on organizing the migratory and casual laborers of the lumber and construction camps. In between jobs these migrants would gather in the Skid Rows of Chicago, Portland, Seattle and other cities they used as a “base of operations.” There on the street corners was the inevitable Salvation Army band anxious to save lost Wobbly souls.
But the Wobblies were more interested in filling their stomachs than in saving their souls, and they ridiculed the Salvation Army hymns with biting parodies aimed at what came to be known as “pie in the sky” preaching….
The most successful of these parodies was Joe Hill’s masterpiece, “The Preacher and the Slave,” more widely known as “Pie in the Sky” — a devastating take-off on the hymn “Sweet Bye and Bye.”
Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest, New York, NY, 1973, p. 157.

Like Haywood’s attitude to the AFL, Wobbly songsters mocked their preacher rivals, portrayed them as hypocrites and compared them unfavorably against the “One Big Industrial Union Grand.” Songwriters like Joe Hill parodied spirituals like “Nearer My God to Thee” with their takes like “Nearer My Job Thee,” and made comical use of cliche religious imagery such as this verse from “Mr. Block” [in “block quote” below, wink]

Poor Block he died one evening, I’m very glad to state,
He climbed the golden ladder up to the pearly gate.
He said, “Oh Mister Peter, one word I’d like to tell,
I’d like to meet the Astorbilts and John D Rockefell.”
Old Pete said, “Is that so?
You’ll meet them down below.”

… or this longer portion from “Casey Jones – The Union Scab

Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blessed spine;
Casey Jones was an Angelino,
He took a trip to heaven on the S. P. line.


When Casey Jones got up to heaven, to the Pearly Gate,
He said: “I’m Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S. P. freight.”
“You’re just the man,” said Peter, “our musicians went on strike;
You can get a job a’scabbing any time you like.”

Casey Jones got up to heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers of the S. P. line.


They got together, and they said it wasn’t fair,
For Casey Jones to go around a’scabbing everywhere.
The Angels’ Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stairs.


Casey Jones went to Hell a’flying;
“Casey Jones,” the Devil said, “Oh fine:
Casey Jones, get busy shovelling sulphur;
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S. P. Line.”

Wobbies would sing their lyrics to the tune of Salvation Army band music, in an interesting example of sabotage (another common theme in IWW song, such as “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay”) or in Jack Malloy’s words, “passive resistance.”

As the old saying goes: “imitation is the sincerest form flattery.”

While it would be easy to read religious mockeries in IWW lyrics as merely disdainful gestures, sarcastic lyrics, cartoons etc. were not only expressions of scorn, they were also powerful recruitment tools. The Wobblies made it a regular point not only to mock proletarian stupidities (in particular, racism and nationalism) but also rival recruiters who were seen as deceiving the working class, using “dumb worker” characters to illustrate the point. Again from “Mr. Block”

Block hiked back to the city, but wasn’t doing well.
He said “I’ll join the union — the great A. F. of L.”
He got a job next morning, got fired in the night,
He said, “I’ll see Sam Gompers and he’ll fix that foreman right.”
Sam Gompers said, “You see,
You’ve got our sympathy.”


Election day he shouted, “A Socialist for Mayor!”
The “comrade” got elected, he happy was for fair,
But after the election he got an awful shock,
A great big socialistic Bull did rap him on the block.
And Comrade Block did sob,
“I helped him to his job.”


The money kings in Cuba blew up the gunboat Maine,
But Block got awful angry and blamed it all on Spain.
He went right in the battle and there he lost his leg.
And now he’s peddling shoestrings and is walking on a peg.
He shouts, “Remember Maine,
Hurrah! To hell with Spain!”

Mr. Block serves as, eh em, a Joe Hillustration [hah] of the opportunist exploiting of gullible workers by, respectively, the AFL union bosses, electioneering Socialists, and the military, for their own agendas, and to the benefit of the capitalists. Religious preachers were, like the AFL bosses and opportunist Socialists, rival recruiters, and they responded much as they did to the AFL, with hostile imitation. Addressing would-be “saved” workers, Hill mocked “holy rollers” in “The Preacher and the Slave”

Holy Rollers and jumpers come out,
They holler, they jump and they shout.
Give your money to Jesus they say,
He will cure all diseases today.


If you fight hard for children and wife —
Try to get something good in this life —
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight;
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:


You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

The preachers, however, weren’t always as inattentive to the needs of the flesh as is portrayed in Wobbly lyrics. As with the AFL, the mock tone adopted by IWW artists, while succinct and powerful as propaganda, can be historically misleading.

The Salvation Army stood out as churchy rivals of the IWW, because they had a unique zeal and ability to appeal to the lower working class, combining economic aid with the use of popular music to reach their proletarian audience. Founded in 1865 in East End London by William Booth, according to Wikipedia [at least, as of 11/15/2012, until the page is revised]

When William Booth became known as the General, Catherine was known as the “Mother of The Salvation Army”. William preached to the poor, and Catherine spoke to the wealthy, gaining financial support for their work. She also acted as a religious minister, which was unusual at the time; the Foundation Deed of the Christian Mission states that women had the same rights to preach as men. William Booth described the organization’s approach: “The three ‘S’s’ best expressed the way in which the Army administered to the ‘down and outs’: first, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.”

… The Salvation Army’s main converts were at first alcoholics, morphine addicts, prostitutes and other “undesirables” unwelcome in polite Christian society, which helped prompt the Booths to start their own church.

Booth had his own tint of materialist-economism, writing a vaguely socialistic reform scheme called “In Darkest England and the Way Out” in which he explains his motives:

the misery of this class has been an impelling force which has never ceased to make itself felt during forty years of active service in the salvation of men. During this time I am thankful that I have been able, by the good hand of God upon me, to do something in mitigation of the miseries of this class, and to bring not only heavenly hopes and earthly gladness to the hearts of multitudes of these wretched crowds, but also many material blessings, including such commonplace things as food, raiment, home, and work, the parent of so many other temporal benefits. And thus many poor creatures have proved Godliness to be “profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is as well as of that which is to come.”


… And yet all the way through my career I have keenly felt the remedial measures usually enunciated in Christian programmes and ordinarily employed by Christian philanthropy to be lamentably inadequate for any effectual dealing with the despairing miseries of these outcast classes. The rescued are appallingly few—a ghastly minority compared with the multitudes who struggle and sink in the open-mouthed abyss. Alike, therefore, my humanity and my Christianity, if I may speak of them in any way as separate one from the other, have cried out for some more comprehensive method of reaching and saving the perishing crowds.

He goes on to defend his Christian credentials:

I have no intention to depart in the smallest degree from the main principles on which I have acted in the past. My only hope for the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next, is the regeneration or remaking of the individual by the power of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ. But in providing for the relief of temporal misery I reckon that I am only making it easy where it is now difficult, and possible where it is now all but impossible, for men and women to find their way to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Armed with bread and butter and a “vision we dont possess,” the army of salvation marched to the tune of popular folk music with Christian lyrics and set about saving the poor both physically and morally. Aside from their religious rivals in the established churches, they also made violent enemies in the liquor business by preaching temperance to the proletariat, provoking enemies in England to form their own “Skeleton Army.” Again from Wikipedia…

The ‘Bethnal Green Eastern Post’ (November 1882) stated:
A genuine rabble of “roughs” pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… it contained a number shopkeepers’ names… I found that publicans, beer sellers and butchers are subscribing to this imposture… the collector told me that the object of the Skeleton Army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… Amongst the Skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…worthy of the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education and temperance and who, seeing the beginning of the end of their immoral traffic, and prepared for the most desperate enterprise.

Salvationists responded to persecution in various ways, but were mostly known for making pacifistic displays of brother-and-sisterly love toward their attackers.

Skeleton riots continued elsewhere until 1892 when they faded out. In 1889 at least 669 Salvation Army members were assaulted, including 251 women. On one occasion, while defending themselves 86 Salvation Army members were arrested and imprisoned on disorderly conduct charges. When a new Salvation Army Corps was opened in Potton in Bedfordshire on 1 June 1890, large contingents of the Skeleton Army made fun of the local Salvationists. The War Cry reported:
“… the skeletons did all the shouting and we had only the opportunity of blessing them by showing unruffled love in answer to the disturbance in our proceedings”….”The skeleton flag was out with its coffin, skull and cross-bones as well as the whole Skeleton force, uniformed, beating a drum, playing flutes, whirling rattles and screaming through trumpets. One of their chosen leaders was carried shoulder high, ringing a bell and attired in an untrimmed coal-scuttle bonnet. I noticed that the publicans looked pleased to see this array and several waved their hats. But we were good friends of the skeletons, twelve of whom sat at our tea table… Their leaders were very courteous and sincerely desirous of keeping their somewhat rabble followers within bounds. Almost implicit obedience was given them. Their skeleton War Cry was freely sold, but doesn’t quite beat the original”.

While keenly aware of and sympathetic to the plight of the poor, and despite its quasi-military organization, the Army was not a militant working class movement, but rather at best an idiosyncratic brand of progressive “Social Gospel” with an emphasis on charity. The Army didn’t seek class warfare, but rather social tranquility via economic alleviation and moral reform, appealing successfully to the middle and upper classes for funding and personnel to carry on its mission.

The Army’s special blend of quasi-military organizing, social gospel and economic pragmatism, are portrayed in the George Bernard Shaw play “Major Barbara” which was later successfully adapted to film. I’ve seen the movie, but haven’t read the play. The film is worth watching if you like old movies from the ’30s-’40s period, it’s funny, well-written and from my highly limited research, seems to accurately protray the missionary style, beliefs and methods of the Salvation Army from that period. The play was written in 1905 and published in 1907, when the IWW was still in its infancy, making for interesting comparison with IWW references and parodies.

The story follows an “officer,” Major Barbara Undershaft, the idealistic daughter of a capitalist arms-manufacturer who works in the slums and insists on refusing money from evil capitalists like her father or from liquor merchants, insisting “the Army will not be bought.” The interesting part of the film is the first half, which features a kind of three-way ideological battle between Major Barbara, her father who declares that will “buy” the Army and prove her wrong, and an unbelieving slum proletarian and drinker named Bill, who she attempts to win over after he assaults Barbara’s charity workers. You can find a series of movie clips of Bill, on Youtube [at least until it’s taken down by the capitalist pigs] at Bill is cynical and unmoved by Barbara’s preaching, but shamed of his initial violent behavior, and attempts in his own way to pay for it, only to be repeatedly refused, with Barbara insisting “we want all you!” The ending is lame, although it could be spun around to say something about how the idealistic prodigal children of the bourgeoisie eventually return to accept their bourgeois inheritance, but that’s not the play’s or the film’s intention. The road there is entertaining though and develops some interesting themes. The real climax of the film is when Barbara’s superiors show up and eagerly accept her father’s money, leaving her disillusioned and beaten, while Bill asks her triumphantly, “What price salvation now?” After that the film slowly goes downhill, culminating in an asinine “happy ending,” but again the road there is entertaining enough to be worth it. Bernard Shaw clearly saw himself as a pragmatist and favorably quotes a salvationist officer saying “they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God’s” [if I remember right that quote is used in the movie, but I can’t find the part on Youtube].

The Army of What Now?

The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. …

The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The IWW and the Salvation Army both loosely drew on militaristic language and imagery in addition to their shared use of folk songs. While in the Salvation Army’s case, this is clearly metaphorical (especially given their pacifist inclinations), it had a far more literal meaning for many Wobblies. The IWW preamble calls for “abolition of the wage system” and made comparisons with the abolition of slavery, describing workers as “wage slaves” and capitalism as “wage slavery,” and quoting Abe Lincoln in the founding convention speeches. The radical labor movement was seen as a kind of sequel to the Civil War. And as with Joe Hill’s spiritual parodies, Ralph Chaplin wrote the union’s anthem “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

At the same time, IWWs generally opposed the military and wars of the capitalist state, and employed the same propaganda techniques against military recruiters that it similarly used against religious preachers and the labor bosses of the AFL. Joe Hill wrote the song “Should I Ever Be a Soldier” as an anti-militarist song.

We’re spending billions every year
For guns and ammunition.
“Our Army” and “our Navy” dear,
To keep in good condition;
While millions live in misery
And millions died before us,
Don’t sing “My Country ’tis of thee,”
But sing this little chorus.


Should I ever be a soldier,
‘Neath the Red Flag I would fight;
Should the gun I ever shoulder,
It’s to crush the tyrant’s might.
Join the army of the toilers,
Men and women fall in line,
Wage slave of the world! Arouse!
Do your duty for the cause,
For Land and Liberty.

Again here Hill is not just dissing the army, but attempting to recruit would-be soldiers to fight instead for the union. The “Mr. Block” lyrics quoted earlier also mock patriotic workers in the same vein as Hill’s similar sarcastic jabs at preachers and Sam Gompers. 

It’s worth pointing out that religion, folk music and militarism were all shared outstanding features of the then still recent memory of the American Civil War. The Civil War was a kind of “folk war” with both armies steeped not only in the usual patriotic and militaristic rhetoric of wartime, but also with widespread musical traditions drawing on pre-war religious hymns, minstrel songs, etc., converted to military usage. The music of the war would probably be worth a documentary in itself. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was actually based on a song called “John Brown’s Body” co-written by Union soldiers as a humorous marching song during the early days of the war, and that in turn was based on an older spiritual tune called “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us.”

The “Battle Hymn” in particular was a fitting choice of anthem to adopt for the IWW, due to the abolitionist associations of the song and of “John Brown’s Body.”


A couple more anti-war songs…

“Stung Right” –

“Don’t Take My Papa Away From Me” –


And some anti-preacher lyrics…

From “The Tramp” –

Tramp, tramp, tramp, keep on a-tramping,
Nothing doing here for you;
If I catch you ’round again,
You will wear the ball and chain,
Keep on tramping, that’s the best thing you can do.


‘Cross the street a sign he read,
“Work for Jesus,” so it said,
And he said, “Here is my chance, I’ll surely try,”
And he kneeled upon the floor,
‘Till his knees got rather sore,
But at eating-time he heard the preacher cry:


Finally came that happy day
When his life did pass away,
He was sure he’d go to heaven when he died,
When he reached the pearly gate,
Santa Peter, mean old skate,
Slammed the gate right in his face and loudly cried:


In despair he went to Hell,
With the Devil for to dwell,
For the reason he’d no other place to go.
And he said, “I’m full of sin,
So for Christ’s sake, let me in!”
But the Devil said, “Oh, beat it! You’re a ‘bo!”

From “We Will Sing One Song” –

We will sing one song of the preacher, fat and sleek,
He tells you of homes in the sky.
He says, “Be generous, be lowly, and be meek,
If you don’t you’ll sure get roasted when you die.”
Then we sing one song of the poor and ragged tramp,
He carries his home on his back;
Too old to work, he’s not wanted ’round the camp,
So he wanders without aim along the track.

And lastly another “dumb worker” song with some religious parody, similar to “Mr. Block”…

“Scissor Bill” –

Don’t try to talk your union dope to Scissor Bill,
He says he never organized and never will.
He always will be satisfied until he’s dead,
With coffee and a doughnut and a lousy old bed.
And Bill, he says he gets rewarded thousand fold,
When he gets up to Heaven on the streets of gold.
But I don’t care who knows it, and right here I’ll tell,
If Scissor Bill is goin’ to Heaven, I’ll go to Hell.
Scissor Bill, he wouldn’t join the union,
Scissor Bill, he says, “Not me, by Heck!”
Scissor Bill, gets his reward in Heaven,
Oh! sure. He’ll get it, but he’ll get it in the neck.


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