The IWW, Anti-War Activism, and World War 1

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914 set off a chain of events that would plunge the nations of Europe into four years of brutal war. This war would claim millions of lives, topple empires centuries old, and set the stage for the 20th century. Naturally, with the outbreak of war the nations of Europe called on their citizens to support the war effort and their home country. This presented the labor and socialist groups of Europe with a hard question: should they support a war of imperial competition, abandoning solidarity with the working classes of enemy nations, or should they oppose the war and face the repression of their own governments? Most of these groups chose to support their governments, a decision that led to the dissolution of the Second International, a congress of left-wing parties. Matilda Rabinowitz, a Ukrainian-American and IWW organizer, lamented that the First World War brought about “the destruction of the international socialist movement.”1


In America, however, the war remained a distant concept. The country had a long history of political and military isolation and, despite recent forays into Cuba and the Philippines, the American public remained highly opposed to involvement in any European war. Most Americans shared at least an ambivalence to US involvement, with some of the more outspoken anti-war voices coming from labor and socialist groups. However, as the war dragged on, support for American involvement gradually began to grow, and the American left soon faced the same dilemma their European counterparts had.


The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were one of the largest radical groups in the United States at the time. A union committed to revolutionary class struggle, they voiced support for the anti-war movement but declined to devote resources to anti-war activism. Despite this, IWW members often advanced anti-war causes on their own time, and when war broke out, the IWW were the primary target of government repression. World War 1 proved the undoing of the IWW, as the union could not withstand governmental attacks the war had justified. This exhibit examines the IWW’s experience with WWI, and how members of the IWW, and much of the American left, were affected by the conflict.


1. Mathilda Rabinowitz. 2017. Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century. Ed. by Robbin Henderson. ILR Press: Ithaca. 182


Trent Koch