IWA, And Local Connections
By Pete M Reclus
I’m an example of an activist who joined WSA, in large part, because of WSA’s relationship to IWA. I’m very excited about the upcoming IWA History Conference this Saturday and Sunday (October First and Second) In Łódź, Poland, and I’m glad that WSA’s International Committee is organized organizing a WSA “Watch Party” for us; I think the group experience will be an inspiring and bonding event.
I’m volunteering to be one of the WSA members who’ll schedule my sleep to watch in real time, although that will be the middle of the night for US time zones. Then, we’ll have a Watch Party later on, where we all get to watch the recorded livestream of the presentations.
My thoughts about the Conference, and IWA’s Centenary, are that this feels like an historic moment. Of all the tendencies in Anarchism, the IWA—representing the Anarchist-Syndicalist tradition—stands out to us as the oldest continuous anarchist international, having been founded in 1923. It is inspiring to be part of the celebrations as IWA turns one hundred years old!
In WSA, one of our ongoing conversations is about how local pro-IWA activists can plug into IWA work, and how we can build relationships with other pro-IWA folks, both locally and around the world. I think as a group, our bearing witness to the IWA’s one hundredth birthday will be a major impetus toward moving forward on this goal.
History can be a great organizing tool. I know that my co-workers have not been familiar with the IWA, but I’ve been sharing what I know with them. The response has been one of interest, because these co-workers are interested in working class history in general.
In activism, information about current IWA work has helped give a strong sense of global connection on the local level. Again, not that these activist friends are ready to join, but they are genuinely interested as they read. Some for the history of labor, and seeing one of the most visionary traditions in labor union work. Others are some who were first introduced to Leninism, and became disillusioned by the reality of red party dictatorships. They can find, in IWA history, a radical alternative to the Comintern and red bureaucratic class society, as well as a living tradition that is truly “communist”—not just in name, but in group-process and economics, which for us are inseparable.
Others, who are new to ideas of anti-capitalism, can find in IWA history such personalities as Rudolf Rocker and Augustin Souchy, and just out of interest in their great lives, can begin to feel the tradition that we inherit, and relate to the things we are writing about today.
After our WSA Watch Party, we plan to write out reflections on witnessing the Conference. These writings will go into to the hands of our interested co-workers and fellow activists. We hope that it will inspire engagement in the IWA’s future work.
Anarchist Łódź and Our Histories
by Hanna Waldman
Among my most cherished possessions is a box of old photographs, many from before WW2. For someone whose ancestors are Polish and Jewish immigrants, pre-war photographs are quite precious indeed. Among them is a photo of my great-great-grandparents, standing outside their home in Poland, sometime in the early 1930s.
I never met them, of course. Their son—my great-grandfather—was approaching 90 years old when I was born. Growing up, I heard tales of his youth in exile, his family having run afoul of the Tsarist regime for some unknown reason. My great-grandfather was quite fond of tall tales, so nobody looked into the situation much further.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I read more about the history of Łódź, his hometown. I was shocked to find my great-great-grandparents’ names on a list of people arrested in association with a militant anarchist group.
The Łódź they knew was part of the Russian Empire, and many of the city’s workers toiled in Russian-owned factories. Workers faced sixteen-hour workdays, poor wages, no pensions or insurance, punitive lockouts, and other such egregious violations of their rights.
By the spring of 1905, the city had seen a series of large-scale strikes and demonstrations, which had been put down violently by Russian police and military. The workers and students were demanding an eight-hour workday, support for sick and injured workers, and an end to oppressive Russification policies. On the 18th of June, Russian police opened fire on one such demonstration, killing ten workers and injuring many more. The workers’ funerals, attended by more than 50,000 mourners, broke out into spontaneous demonstrations. Most of the protesters were not affiliated with any revolutionary political group, instead acting on what Stanisław Pestkowski referred to as “proletarian instinct.”
Over the following night, in what would become known as the Łódź Uprising, citizens put up over a hundred barricades to prevent the Russian police from entering their streets. Nine Russian military regiments—three on horseback—were brought in to pacify the rebellion. Two days later, at least 160 residents of Łódź were dead, the last barricades had come down, and martial law was declared in the area.
This event was part of the Polish Revolutions of 1905 to 1907, the largest people’s movement in Polish history until the late 1970s. Far from a total defeat, some of the rebels’ demands were met, including a reversal of Russification in the Polish education system. It also resulted in increased political consciousness of the working class, invigorating the movement for years to come.
Despite the extreme risk to those involved, actions in and around Łódź continued until the outbreak of the First World War. A strike involving 500 factories (just about every factory in the city) and over 65,000 workers closed out the year 1906. Revolutionary anarchists drove much of the action, including assassinating corrupt factory owners and Russian military police.
When the Łódź Uprising broke out, my great-great-grandparents were twenty-five year old newlyweds, employed in local factories. I don’t know exactly how they were involved in the drama that unfolded, or when they first became involved. They were arrested in February of 1914, in association with an anarchist group that had been reported on in international newspapers for its subversive activities. They were, as I understand it, lucky to avoid execution, but were sent to separate locations for exile. After being freed, they and their children moved to Radom (75 miles southeast of Łódź). Not long after the May Coup in 1926, which saw the overthrow of a democratically-elected government by Jósef Piłsudski’s authoritarian Sanacja faction, they emigrated to Toronto, Canada, close to a residence Emma Goldman is known to have used. Their eldest son—my great-grandfather—his wife, and their younger children followed in 1938. Almost no one in the family who remained in Poland survived the war, and several of their children and older grandchildren sacrificed their lives in resistance of the country’s occupation. My grandmother, who almost stayed behind in Poland, was taken in by her father’s parents, whom she credited with her survival of the war.
If my grandmother was aware of her beloved grandparents’ past as revolutionaries, she never said so. But the values they raised her with were passed on to me. They continue to be passed along to my young son, who will also know the personal history that accompanies these values.
The history my son will learn in school is the history of the wealthy, powerful, white, and male. It’s the history of “great” men, ignoring the unpleasant facts that they purported to own human beings as chattel or committed terrible atrocities. It is not our history. Ours is the history of the factory worker and farmer, the rebel and revolutionary, the self-taught intellectual and the illiterate worker struggling to survive blow after blow from the mighty fist of inequality and oppression. Our history is the fight against imperialism, the fight for a fair wage and a free press, the fight to speak our own languages, live on our own land, and choose our own path. That history can be painful, and it can be difficult to find, but it’s the history that’s ours. It can be found in our own stories, and in the IWA itself.
The world can look pretty bleak, these days. The pandemic still lingers in our communities. Far-right ideologies are on the rise, having made big strides in the Italian election just last week. The authoritarian government of Russia is, once again, brutally invading a neighboring country, causing civilian suffering on both sides. Income inequality is higher than it was in France before the Revolution, and many people are worried about how they’ll afford to heat their homes this winter. Climate crisis and threats of nuclear war threaten to send us careening toward the brink of annihilation. I could spend all day listing the things that keep me—and maybe you, too—up at night. No one can be blamed for feeling a twinge of despair when considering the future.
But if we look back at history, even just our own working-class families, we see stories of survival and endurance through the darkest of times. We, as humans and as anarchists, are not defeated by the current situation. Łódź, too, was not truly defeated in 1906. Despite Soviet attempts to erase their anarchist past, they are today, courtesy of IWA affiliate group Związek Syndykalistów Polski, the proud hosts of the IWA’s Centenary celebration.
And if we keep fighting for justice and equality regardless of the odds, perhaps our great-great-grandchildren will be celebrating the IWA’s 200th anniversary someday, remembering us. Let’s inspire them, shall we?