Frank Cain, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1993. pp.viii + 300

Shane Ostenfeld

Frank Cain sets out to tell the story of the Wobblies in very simple terms, and succeeds admirably.

In opening his account, Cain formulates the development of industrial unionism in the United States in terms of the consciousness of the Wobblies to class struggle in contradistinction to the divisions amongst working people promoted by the American Federation of Labor. Although only a cursory exposition of the history of the US labour movement is possible, relying solely on secondary references, here Cain sets the scene well for a more detailed history of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia. Moreover, Cain builds on this introduction through repeatedly bringing the reader back to the American context of the IWW and the influence of developments in the States to the history of the IWW in Australia.

Cain traces the beginnings of the IWW in Australia to 1907 and initial sponsorship by the Socialist Labor Party. These early years were characterised by the influence of American socialist thinkers, particularly Daniel De Leon, the propagation of IWW ideas through the journal of the SLP, People, and the establishment of IWW clubs in Sydney, Newcastle, Cobar and Herberton. The activities of the IWW in critiquing the labour movement in Australia from the left corresponded with a rise in electoral popularity for the Labor Party and, in Cain’s understated exposition: “… the rising electoral popularity of the ALP forced it to distance itself from the IWW. The party was having to face for the first time the problem that was to recur several times in the succeeding decades – how to disown radical bodies on the left of the labour movement which were supported by some of its own members and its trade unionists” (p.46).

It was the anti-militarist stance of the IWW which was to lead to its suppression during the Great War. It is in tracing the establishment of the IWW Locals and the development of IWW policies of sabotage and direct action that Cain first indulges the reader in his accounts of the colourful characters at the centre of IWW activity. This is continued in detailed expositions of the policies and ideology of the IWW in Australia, and the activities of the IWW in its major centres of operation (Chapters 4-7). This is the major part of Cain’s work and it is here that his original scholarship shines. Cain concludes his account with two chapters on the banning and suppression of the IWW, then rounds out the work with a brief chapter highlighting again the connections between the IWW in Australia and in America.

Cain’s conclusion takes us back to where he started: simplicity in approach and execution. Cain seems wistful and romantic in downplaying the significance of the IWW in Australia. It remains to another party to work the case study of the Wobblies into a thorough and challenging piece of academic writing that is more detached from the subject matter and more tuned in to contemporary discourses in social theory. As it is, Cain’s work is ideal for the high school reader of a ‘boys own’ mould.