(W)Archives: Terrorism a Century Ago

January 23, 2015

With the terrorist attacks in Paris and suspected terrorist cells in the news every day and with the trial of the accused Boston bomber underway, the face of terrorism in the West looks like Cherif and Said Kouachi and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. These are the terrorists among us.

However, while Islamist terrorism needs to be countered, it is worth remembering that every generation has its own terrorists. In the 1970s and 80s the stereotypical terrorist was a German or Belgian Marxist, a secular Palestinian or an Irish republican. In the 1940s, the terrorist exemplar was a Jewish Zionist. And a century ago, quintessence of terrorism was an anarchist or (to Americans, at least) perhaps a radical member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the “Wobblies.”

The IWW was a radical American labor movement of the early twentieth century that drew inspiration from hardcore European leftists, including the Bolsheviks. The IWW was particularly strong in the western United States, but was active over much of the country. Among the ephemera left behind by the IWW is a pamphlet entitled “Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy & Function.” This pamphlet, first published in 1913 but reprinted in 1917, can be found in an online collection of IWW documents maintained by a gentleman named Jim Crutchfield. It outlines the theory behind industrial sabotage and responds to the arguments of those who oppose it.

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To today’s eyes, the document seems rather quaint. There is none of the devotion to the bomb or the Kalashnikov that characterizes the terrorism of the last few decades. The sabotage discussed here is aimed at harming capitalists financially by breaking or slowing down their industrial machinery, or even just bad-mouthing their products. In fact, the pamphlet is emphatic on the point that:

Sabotage does not seek nor desire to take human life. Neither is it directed against the consumer except where wide publicity has been given to the fact that the sabotaged product is under the ban. A boycotted product is at all times a fit subject for sabotage. The aim is to hit the employer in his vital spot, his heart and soul, in other words, his pocketbook.

However, to its opponents, documents such as this seemed proof positive that the IWW was a dangerous organization. Indeed, it was widely believed at the time by the general population and the U.S. government that the group was unremittingly radical and violent. In fact, however, though the IWW was a radical and thoroughly uncompromising organization, most of its members opposed violence. Nevertheless, during the post-World War I Red Scare, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division devoted a great deal of effort to watching and following the IWW and sometimes even participated in rounding them up. The Office of Naval Intelligence went farther, disseminating an analysis in December 1919 warning of a nationwide terrorist campaign led by anarchists and also involving German and Russian Jews, Mexican bandits, a Japanese intelligence officer, and members of the IWW. Needless to say, no such terrorist campaign ensued.

What do the Wobblies have to teach us today? Two things. First, while real threats exist, they are not always as dire as they seem at the time. This was true with the Wobblies and is almost certainly true today. Second, Islamists do not represent the universal terrorist. There is no such beast. If you think there is, wait another twenty or thirty years and you will probably find that The Terrorist is somebody else.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.