Richard J. Altenbaugh


Hear me, all ye Fundamentalists, ye Legions and ye Klans

The truth shall go to Labor in defiance of your bans!

In spite of all the Usurers, the Great Ghouls of the earth,

In spite of all the Hirelings their gold has given birth;

The truth shall be full spoken in Science's holy cause!

The youth of Toil shall hear it--the Word that sets me Free­

All-conquering, invincible, through land and air and sea,

Its message shall be cried aloud, or else in whisper blown,

Through all the censored Continents till all the facts are known,

Yea! till Education's halls are freed of all the myths that blight

The flowering of the spirit and the dawning of the light,

And till Truth shall stand triumphant on the dead Lie's shattered laws,

The Word shall be full spoken in Science's holy cause.

"Education Shall be Free"(1)

Covington Ami




A 1923 advertisement for Work People's College appeared in the Industrial Pioneer proclaiming the need for workers' education: "The working class needs to be awakened out of its lethargy and indifference, it needs to be agitated and aroused by new ideas and aspirations." This notice also provided significant insight into the perceived unfolding of the dialectic, neither a tightly prescribed event fitting into a clear set of circumstances nor a randomly spontaneous episode snowballing into a full-blown revolution. It continued: "There is no mechanical and automatic creation of a revolutionary working class in modern production. There is, however, on the part of increasing numbers of workers, a conscious recognition of certain duties to be performed to make a revolutionary working class possible. And these include agitation, education, organization, assisted, of course, primarily by economic conditions.”(2) In short, praxis did not represent blind action.

This study examines the process of cultivating a cadre of labor agitators at Work People's College, a labor college which evolved from a Finnish immigrant folk seminary established in 1903, through a socialist college in 1907, and eventually to a training school for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It will stress a Gramscian framework, briefly scrutinize the cognitive domain of human agency, and then focus on the educational program and pedagogy at the school, relying heavily on the recollections of former teachers and students.




David Montgomery gives us fresh insight into the concept of human agency. Seemingly echoing the statement in the Industrial Pioneer, he asserts that it represents a "deliberate" exercise: "Class consciousness was more than the unmediated product of daily experience. It was also a project" Working-class activists persisted in their efforts to cultivate worker solidarity, despite the marshaling of overwhelming state power against them. They relied upon a rich assortment of educational techniques, including the "spoken and printed word, strikes, meetings, reading circles, military drill, athletic and singing clubs, and cooperative stores." Further, as Montgomery points out, these activists and their efforts have been largely ignored. "Both 'history from the bottom up' and the common fixation on great leaders have obscured the decisive role of those whom twentieth-century syndicalists have called the 'militant minority': the men and women who endeavored to mold their workmates and neighbors into a self-aware and purposeful working class.”(3) Although Montgomery addresses this concern in a brilliant manner, a fundamental question remains: How did this "militant minority" originate?

That question leads us to the centrality of the cognitive dimension in human agency. This serves as a crucial point in Antonio Gramsci's analysis of hegemony and counter hegemony, "a vision of socialism created and continuously recreated by conscious human agency rather than a socialism created and administered by elites.”(4) Thus, Gramsci avoids a deterministic framework to explain social change; for him, the dialectic represents "a doctrine of consciousness." But the practical problem for Gramsci "is to develop critical forms of theoretical consciousness that actually engage with practical activity, develop it and give it a sense of its own historicity, and its ability to change the world.”(5) Hence, the nurturing of class-consciousness serves as the key to understanding the transformation process. As every relationship of hegemony is necessarily an educative one, so it is with counter hegemony. In Gramsci's scheme, all people are intellectuals because they think and hold conceptions of the world.(6) This relates directly to human agency, as Paula Allman argues, since it "necessitates an educational relation in which people are helped to render an already existing activity, viz. thinking, critical and systematic. The working class must develop its own intellectuals who will be capable of introducing a critical class consciousness into sites of economic, political and social practice."(7) Gramsci directed such political education at the adult learner. Workers' education served this political function and therefore represented an integral part of proletarian culture.

Both the Socialist Party and the IWW saw education as an important component in the class struggle. Before 1920 the socialist press devoted considerable attention to educating the masses about socialism and the party's goals. In 1912 the party sponsored 323 daily, weekly, and monthly publications in English and foreign languages, with the total circulation exceeding 2 million.(8) During the early 1900s, across America, but especially in its eastern urban areas, socialists had organized Socialist Sunday Schools for their school-aged children--a formal, weekend education that countered the bourgeois biases dominant in the public schools.(9) The Rand School of Social Science, "the pioneer school of Workers' Education in America"--as Marius Hansome, an occasional lecturer at the school, labeled it-came from similar roots. It opened in 1906 in New York City with the grand hope of becoming the intellectual center of the American socialist movement, serving 6,819 adult students during its first year alone. In 1911 the school introduced the first formal Workers' Training Course in the country.(10) Many Wobblies, likewise, recognized the potential of workers' education for cultivating class consciousness and a revolutionary spirit. The IWW organized propaganda leagues, industrial education clubs, Sunday evening meetings, and open forums;, it also sponsored speakers, printed and distributed pamphlets, and published six newspapers. Numerous IWW halls, as well, contained libraries and reading rooms.

On the whole, workers' education activities sponsored by both the socialists and the Wobblies remained haphazard, loosely structured, and, at best, part-time experiences. Moreover, support for organized educational efforts among IWW members appeared to be less than unanimous. For some Wobbly leaders, workers learned through participation in class warfare, that is, relying on direct action techniques in the work place. For other Wobblies, the ideal working-class intellectual studied to serve the interests of the working class, to lead the revolution, and to rule the future cooperative commonwealth.(11) A 1923 Work People's College advertisement reflected this latter view, as it brashly declared: "Sensible workingmen no longer entertain, or take seriously, the theory, that mere contact with production makes revolutionists. If that was a fact the working class, as a whole, would not be so subservient to capitalism; but, on the contrary, would be intent on its overthrow.”(12) Educational efforts to raise the consciousness of workers represented the starting point.




The labor colleges sponsored structured, full-time education to workers--hoping to become the "militant conscience" of the labor movement.(13) There were several in the first half of the 20th century: although Brookwood Labor College, located in Katonah, New York received the most notoriety, and Commonwealth College, situated near Mena, Arkansas maintained the most elaborate academic program, Work People's College outstripped either school in longevity, serving Finnish socialists and Wobblies until 1941.(14)

Finnish immigrants formed the pioneer foreign-language socialist federation when they created the Finnish Socialist Federation in 1904 and affiliated with the Socialist Party of America in 1907. Other immigrant groups soon followed the Finnish model. In 1917 the foreign-language federations accounted for 41% of the party's total membership of 80,126, with the Finns maintaining the largest and most powerful association. In 1912 Finnish socialists claimed 255 locals with 11,535 members, 4 newspapers, 76 meeting halls, 80 libraries, a combined organizational income of $184,000, and the Work People's College with 123 students.(15)

The origins of that College can be traced to September IS, 1903, when authorities of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church opened a folk school in Minneapolis. Created to train ministers, it sought to preserve Finnish culture and nationalism by teaching religion and language to adult students. Yet, only eight students enrolled and it closed after twelve days. Undaunted, the clergymen moved the school to Duluth in late 1903, purchased a three-story building, and incorporated as the Finnish People's College and Theological Seminary on January 5, 1904. Liberal clergy invited secularized, radical Finns to participate in the educational venture, and they responded enthusiastically, purchasing blocks of the school's stock at a dollar apiece. That became a typical way for Finns, particularly radical Finns, to subsidize publishing and cooperative enterprises. Socialists also registered at the College and soon comprised the majority of the students. They saw no viable alternative since the only other institution that could teach Finnish immigrants was Suomi College and Theological Seminary. But socialists hardly found themselves welcomed there because the school was seen as elitist and symbolized the repressive old order of Finland.(16)

Conflicts between socialists and clerics over required religious courses and rituals and an anemic enrollment forced the board of directors to consider closing the College. Alex Halonen, a socialist board member, raised additional funds for the school by selling membership certificates, or stock, to Finnish locals. In this manner, socialists not only rescued the College but also acquired a majority of the shares and moved to assert their dominance. As Guss Aakula, a former student and teacher at Work People's College, recalled, their effort was to "organize the school as a peoples' institute. . . to teach the subjects most important to the people, that is the workers.(17)

Socialists consolidated their institutional control in 1907, reshaped its educational and social goals, and renamed it Work People's College. The board of directors hired K. L. Haataja, a socialist, as director and also as an instructor. Leo Laukki, and later Yrjo Sirola, joined the teaching staff as well. Reino Salo, one of the founders of the Finnish Socialist Federation, was elected secretary and business manager. New life had been breathed into the moribund institution. Sixty-four students attended classes that fall semester, nearly all of them socialists.

While many immigrant groups saw education as a means to preserve the past, the Finnish-American left treated education as an essential factor in orienting itself to the future. More than 98% of the Finns arriving in the United States between 1899 and 1907 were literate, in marked contrast to most of their immigrant counterparts. This was due primarily to church mandates in Finland and Finnish immigrants, compulsive in their thirst for knowledge and information, who maintained an extremely high subscription rate for newspapers and periodicals. Finnish socialists were especially active in cultural and propagandistic endeavors, as Douglas Ollila illustrates:

The Finnish Socialist Federation understood itself as an agency for education, and Federation locals sponsored lectures, debating societies, cultural forums, drama and music. Nearly every labor temple boasted of a "discussion room" where the weightier matters of Marxian dialectic and its application to the American scene were endlessly debated. Socialist children attended their own Sunday and summer schools where they memorized A. B. Makela's primer which included a "Socialist Child's Ten Commandments," and didactic narratives about greedy capitalists who exploited the impoverished proletariat.(18)

With this experience, the Finnish radical community hoped to develop its own cadre--including editors, teachers, and agitators--who would serve the cause, and Work People's College was designed specifically to train these functionaries in preparation for the advent of the socialist commonwealth.

Socialist Finns also created their own educational programs to accomplish these goals, because, as Arne Halonen notes, they perceived the American system of public education as training children to reject "the enthusiasm and social aims of their socialistic parents.”(19) One unidentified socialist expressed his contempt for the public schools at the 1909 convention of the Finnish Socialist Federation:

We know very well that immigrants, particularly Finnish immigrants, already in the second and third generation, under the influence of environment, become conservatively minded and scorn their own nationality, language, and class. They become Finn-Yanks whose only interests in life are dancing, fine clothes, chewing gum and American street manner.(20)

Radical Finns believed that the public schools taught their children blind conformity and hedonistic materialism, ministering to bourgeois hegemony. Work People's College, in contrast, sought to preserve Finnish culture, promote literacy, and instill socialist ideals, thus serving a counter-­hegemonic function.

The College maintained both theoretical and practical courses of study. The adult students planned the program themselves and selected their classes'. The social sciences included general history, economics, civics, citizenship, sociology, evolutionary biology, labor tactics, and public speaking. In the latter course, Aakula pointed out that "correct manners and speech. . . were regarded as important concerning mass function.”(21) Books for these courses included Kautsky's History of Socialism, The Erfurt Program, and Economic Teachings of Karl Marx, Marx's Capital, Engels' The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, among others. Some students found these readings too difficult and abstract. Since many students balked at what they called "scientific socialism," just as they had previously resisted religion classes forced on them by the clerics, the 1912 stockholders' meeting mandated that all students enroll in at least one course on socialism. "No doubt," Ollila concludes, "the most important learning which took place could be described as 'experiential' in the sense of emotional commitment, comradeship, and a faith that 'the world would soon be ours."(22)

Concerned with more practical matters, the Commercial Department offered double-entry American bookkeeping, commercial arithmetic, law, and correspondence. According to John Wiita, a former student and teacher, these courses were intended to prepare "business managers, bookkeepers, clerks for our [Finnish] newspapers, cooperatives and private businesses."(23) The school also offered geometry, poetry, and other subjects at the students' request.

Throughout its early years--including the ideological transition from socialism to industrial unionism in 1914--Work People's College continued to stress citizenship.(24) Finns continued to dominate the student body; however, some Italian and Hungarian students were admitted. The rudiments of mathematics and the basic rules of Finnish grammar had to be taught to worker-students who, although literate, "came from poor, rural backgrounds in Finland and had no minimal amount of formal schooling.”(25) Fred W. Thompson, the school's director during much of its IWW period, recalled that the institution

was primarily a place to acculturate Finnish immigrants both to the history and language of this country, and to the labor movement. . . . For many, no matter what the course might be called, the main content was the English language--economics, labor history, English, or what. . . . Classes included a couple who had some college [education], and also some who had got [sic] past grade seven or its equivalent in some other country. We managed to make all get something out of it.(26)

That naturalization process did not contradict the College's basic social and educational tenets. As Peter Kivisto points out, "When socialist leaders urged the rank and file to Americanize (i.e., to learn English and apply for citizenship), it was not in order to assimilate the values and role expectations of the dominant culture, but to provide the bases for forging class solidarity.”(27) Since the Socialist Party relied on the ballot box, suffrage represented the obvious purpose of citizenship.

In 1914 Finnish socialists experienced the same internal political upheaval as the American Socialist Party had endured in 1912. The events that precipitated the crisis engulfed Work People's College, of course. Many radical Finns, Arne Halonen insists, realized the meaning of industrial struggle as early as the founding meeting of the Finnish Socialist Federation: "To win political machinery for a social revolution was still a theoretical question, but to win a strike was a practical problem.”(28) Heated debate over political action versus economic action dominated subsequent Finnish Federation conventions and focused on the IWW. Proponents of the union argued that modern industrial conditions demanded an industrial union. Direct economic action, through a general strike, represented the only effective way for workers to solve their problems. Other means, such as Socialist political campaigns or the American Federation of Labor's craft approach, either took too long or were doomed to failure.(29)

Under Leo Laukki's leadership, beginning in 1908, Work People's College moved steadily leftward and concomitantly condemned political action. Many loyal socialist delegates at the 1912 Finnish convention were incensed by teacher and student criticisms of the party's parliamentarian policies. The Finnish Socialist Federation assessed each member fifty cents-and occasionally a dollar-to help subsidize the school, yet, it had the audacity to produce students who opposed socialist goals. One socialist expressed his anger and sense of betrayal: "Yesterday I talked with one former student [who] had attended the college for two years and said that the party platform may go to hell! That's the result of teaching at the college.”(30) Socialists, nonetheless, voted to continue their annual contribution of $11,000 to the school in the hope that its teachings would return to party precepts.

Differences between socialist hardliners and industrial unionists had become irreconcilable by 1914. Many branches of the Finnish Socialist Federation were fragmented over the question of tactics. The Federation's convention, held in Chicago, produced a hopeless split between those who favored political action and those for direct action. As a result, the Finnish Socialist Federation began its organizational decline. With 17,316 members in May 1913, membership in the organization never exceeded 11,000 after 1914. According to Arne Halonen, an uncompromising, dogmatic spirit represented the apparent reason for the dissolution: "To keep up Marxian principles in their purity, was more important than unity in an organization which had done more to awaken the Finnish workers to socialistic thought.”(31)

A 1914 pamphlet, "The Controversy Within the Finnish Socialist Organization of [sic] United States, Its Issues and Reasons," served as a polemic against the Wobbly insurrection. In it, angry socialists pointed to the "Workers' College" as the "seat of 'radicalism'" for the IWW movement among the Finns. An investigation of the school by an official delegation for the Finnish Socialist Federation received a cool reception. Laukki "and his Board of Directors," the pamphlet complained, "treated the committee very indifferently and insolently and presented terms and conditions, which made any investigation impossible. Thus, the committee was compelled to return home without having accomplished anything." The outraged socialists promptly withdrew their financial support and smugly predicted that "the persistent insubmission of the will of the majority of the Finnish organization on the part of the Radicals has now jeopardized even the existence of the College, as it is very doubtful, how the College with its heavy debts and mortgages can continue its existence after the withdrawal of a yearly subsidy of more than 6,000 dollars."(32) Their prediction proved a bit faulty.

Despite the loss of socialist backing, the school continued to survive with the support of the IWW and more radical Finns. The union formally acknowledged Work People's College as its official school in 1921, and became the largest single stockholder, controlling 300 shares. Several years even before this, however, Finns sympathetic to the IWW, like their socialist predecessors, had secured a majority of the College's stock and voted to officially adopt the union's doctrine. Furthermore, under the tutelage of Laukki and Sirola, the school continued its leftward political drift. Laukki, at times, echoed union policy and suggested that sabotage was sometimes necessary in order to effect a successful revolution. According to John Wiita, Sirola espoused a less dogmatic position: "While [Sirola] accepted the industrial form of unionism in preference to craft unionism, he never accepted IWW's syndicalist theories or methods, destruction of property or the means of production, or any form of sabotage.”(33)

Wobbly support for educational efforts like Work People's College grew out of the union's experiences with the public schools, which served bourgeois hegemony. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the most notorious Wobblies, recalled the antistrike activities of the Lawrence public schools during the 1912 IWW-led textile strike: "The efforts of the. . . schools were directed to driving a wedge between the school children and their striking parents. Often children in such towns became ashamed of their foreign­ born, foreign-speaking parents, their old-country ways, their accents, their foreign newspapers, and even their strike and mass picketing. . .. Some of the teachers called the strikers lazy, said they should go back to work or 'back where they came from.’”(34) Flynn and William "Big Bill" Haywood attempted to organize "children's meetings" of their own. Haywood also noted that the public schools performed the very same antiunion role during the ill-fated 1913 Paterson silk workers' strike, again led by the IWW. The strikers' children, as Haywood wrote in his autobiography, resorted to "a school strike because the teachers had called the striking silk workers and their organizers 'anarchists and good-for-nothing-foreigners.’”(35) Thus, Haywood purchased stock in Work People's College and proclaimed: "The IWW had much reason to be proud of its school, which has graduated many efficient organizers."(36)

The Announcement of Courses for the 1923-24 academic year delineated the College's revolutionary orientation and adherence to IWW doctrine:

This school recognizes the existence of class struggle in society, and its courses of study have been prepared so that industrially organized workers, both men and women, dissatisfied with conditions under our capitalist system, can more efficiently carryon an organized class struggle for the attainment of industrial demands, and realistically of a new social order.(37)

Work People's College served, first, to create "a revolutionary working class" in order to generate radical social change and, second, to prepare workers to govern the new social order.

The formal curriculum reflected little fundamental ideological change after the school's official affiliation with the IWW. The College required only one course, entitled the Essentials of the Labor Movement, which exposed students to the basics of economics, sociology, and labor history. The Scientific Department included history, sociology, economics, geography, biology, and arithmetic. The school offered a History of the Labor Movement in the United States with, among other texts, Commons' History of Labor in the United States and an IWW publication, Historical Catechism of American Unionism. The reading list for the Materialistic Conception of  History recommended that students read Engels' Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State and Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, Civil War in France, and Revolution and Counter Revolution. A course on the Motives of Social Activity used Lester Ward's Dynamic Sociology. Industrial geography equipped "revolutionists with a knowledge of the physical basis of industry, and the strategic points for attack on the capitalist system.”(38) Economics texts consisted of Economic Interpretation of the Job, an IWW publication; Student's Marx by Aveling; Capital by Marx; Theoretical Systems of Karl Marx by Boudin; and U.S. documents, census reports, trade journals, and market reports.

While the Scientific Department emphasized theoretical issues, the Department of Labor Propaganda and Organization taught practical skills. Public speaking, debating, reporting and editing, delegates' work, bookkeeping, and a class on IWW Structure, Methods, Present Policies and Position fell into this category. The description for the public speaking course clearly illustrated its utilitarian nature: "Students to prepare lectures on subjects of propaganda value. Lecture to be given to class as if an audience of workers [emphasis added]. Class and instructor will criticize the material, arrangement and delivery."(39) The best articles written in the reporting and editing class often found their way into IWW publications. Delegates' work taught students the finer points of union bureaucracy, while bookkeeping courses covered practical financial skills. The English Department maintained a militant demeanor by demanding that students read "radical literature." Finally, the program maintained a short course on the questions required for naturalization.

The school experienced many enrollment fluctuations. It accommodated as few as 8 adult students its first year, gradually climbing to an annual average of 133 between 1910 and 1915; most were male. For example, during the 1910-11 academic year, the College claimed 112 students, with 15 females. Because of the rupture between Finnish socialists and industrial unionists, attendance fell to about 38 in 1915-16. By the 1920s enrollment ranged from 40 to 70 students a year, but in the 1930s this dipped until only 30 students were left in 1940-41, the school's last year. Student occupations covered the agricultural and industrial spectrum, including sheepherders, cowboys, sailors, cooks, and mine workers. Some came great distances; one student, unable to afford railway fare, rode most of the trip from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Duluth on the outside of a boxcar, exposed to icy blasts of wind. "Such is the thirst," declared Clifford Ellis, one of the school's teachers, "for education among workers."(40)




Throughout its history, Work People's College rejected authoritarian pedagogy, that is, rote learning characterized by the instructor lecturing and then testing to measure student retention. Teacher-student relationships in the classroom reflected a political microcosm. The more completely the students accepted the passive and subservient role imposed on them in a traditional classroom, the more they would adapt to a stratified, bourgeois society instead of functioning as active agents for social change. Traditional pedagogy, therefore, served as a form of oppression. Timed exams, competitive grades, and perfunctory diplomas only reinforced a hierarchical approach to schooling and, in turn, reproduced the division of labor that Work People's College sought to combat. Rather, the school exposed students to classroom situations that encouraged them to articulate their experiences, to raise their level of social consciousness, and to give them practice in speaking before groups.(41)

The school facilitated this process. Small classes certainly contributed to it. Students and teachers appeared to be highly motivated as well. Although students possessed extensive work experience, they usually lacked formal schooling. Instructors adapted their teaching methods to their students' backgrounds by painstakingly reviewing the lessons and devoting time to students to ensure that they comprehended the material. Wiita remembered his experiences as a student in Sirola's classroom, just prior to the College's transition from socialism to industrial unionism:

Sirola's lectures were well prepared and well thought out. His delivery was [easy] to absorb and digest. Sirola also systematically held question periods in conjunction with his lectures, to make his students think and in order to find out what they had absorbed from his lecture. He also made them think accurately. When he asked questions, he was not satisfied with haphazard answers. He demanded, "let's answer the question exactly," when a student had given an indefinite answer. He was trying to make the students think independently, not just listen to the lectures.(42)

This process continued after the transition to industrial unionism. In 1926            Clifford Ellis captured the intense, yet cooperative, spirit of the classroom:

We opened with reading in class of Mary E. Marcy's "Shop Talks on Economics." Its words are simple. Its lessons are direct. They reflect the daily experience of the workers. The students read back a paragraph at a time. From the blackboard the instructor followed step by step, turning now and then to the board to illustrate in graphic outline some cogent lesson of the text. The students were earnest and attentive. They did not laugh when some reader stumbled over an unfamiliar word. They were there to help, not to ridicule.(43)

Fred Thompson, the school's principal, gives us an even clearer picture of the pedagogy. Students were not to be passive learners; teachers were to dictate neither the learning process nor content. He recalled:

The overall purpose was to get people doing things that led them to hunt up information; have people put on skits, have them practice soap-boxing. I tried to get it so they were doing and I was the instigator, rather than the lecturer. I found that one of the best ways to get people actually to use their noodle and find something else was to get them into teams for a debate. We would debate all kinds of subjects. Topics would come up, somebody would say, "Let's debate this thing." In general, while we had classes that were named various subjects, I would say as far as I was concerned, the whole thrust of the thing was to get people interested in finding something else and then getting on their hind legs and talking about it. I'll admit that every once in a while I would find that it was degrading into lectures, because the easiest way [is] you tell it to them and put some things on the blackboard. But I found that was the poorest way that you could devise to transmit information, a very poor way.(44)

Students and teachers faced a hectic and demanding schedule; classes began at 8:00 a.m. and ended in the evening. Students usually attended classes 20 hours a week, with evenings occupied by debates or lectures. Eli Hill, a student, humorously portrayed his daily experiences in a poem that parodied "The Night Before Christmas":


'Twas the minute before seven, when all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

When all of a sudden the cow-bell would clang,

The students would get up with a clatter and bang.


When the breakfast bell rings, the bunch would stampede,

Right through the snow drifts at breath-taking speed;

A few stragglers would come after others had ate,

For they nursed the bad habit of getting up late.


At nine o'clock sharp the class bell would crash,

To classroom B they'd go in a dash;

The room would be full of hoots and cat-calls,

But the noise was abated by Fellow Worker Hall.


Next is the period of Charlie Marx,

This is a class where they all have bad marks;

Thompson calls Marx a volume of jokes,

But I think he's screwy, its nothing but a hoax.


Some would go back to wrestle with Marx,

While others would be torturing their saxophones and harps;

Industrial Unionism is neither tabooed,

For its ambitiously studied in room twenty-two.


With all this commotion being forced to endure,

No wonder my marks in Economics were poor;

When all this racket would slowly subside,

I'd flop into my bed at my room-mate's side.(45)


"In the future," T. Kekkonen wrote in a 1924 advertisement for the school, "working-class education is more important in view of the necessary revolutionary change that is expected to take place in the control of the means of production and distribution." Therefore, Work People's College did not educate workers "to rise out of" their social class, but trained them "to become a more powerful factor in the class struggle."(46) The College's social and educational goals rejected bourgeois ideology propagated by the formal school system. By teaching English to Finnish adult working-class immigrants and imbuing them with socialist and latter IWW doctrine, the founders and proponents of the school hoped that its students, as labor activists, would contribute, in a Gramscian sense, to the political aspirations of the labor movement.

Although the school trained an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 such labor agitators, their roles have remained ambiguous. On the one hand, Fred Thompson expressed some disappointment because "it did not give the IWW a flock of well-trained effective organizers." On the other hand, he admitted that the school supplied numerous managers for the cooperative movement while others organized workers for the IWW in the Iron Range and in Cleveland. Still others worked for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As Thompson recalled, "the students provided leaven for the labor movement through their work in the CIO organizing campaigns.”(47)




The maintenance of hegemony assumes different strategies and forms, and is a never-ending process. George Upsitz puts this experience in cruder, but clearer, terms:

. . . it is almost as if the ideological dogcatchers have to be sent out every morning to round up the ideological strays, only to be confronted by a new group of loose mutts the next day. Under these conditions, dominant groups can ill afford to assume their own society is wholly pacified, although of course it is in their interest to have others think all opposition has been successfully precluded or contained.(48)

The bourgeoisie ensures its position by any means. It can persuade workers that the maintenance of the status quo is in their own best interests. The ruling class can also accommodate alternative and counter-hegemonic cultural forces by neutralizing, changing, or actually incorporating them. None of this precludes the use of force, "the apparatus of State coercion, which 'legally' ensures the discipline of those groups which do not 'consent' either actively or passively.”(49)

Work People's College eventually closed in 1941. While the school withstood the financial hardships of the Great Depression, it fell victim to bourgeois hegemony and ideological sectarianism. Acculturation created serious problems for the College. By 1930 almost 90% of all Finnish immigrants ten years of age or older could speak English. Second generation, English-speaking Finns avoided Work People's College not only because, like virtually all children of immigrants, they wanted to escape Old World influences and to be "real" Americans, but also because they appeared to be deeply ashamed of their immigrant parents' radicalism.(50) The hegemony that their parents and grandparents had tried desperately to counteract proved to be too powerful and pervasive.

The school's unswerving loyalty to the IWW had alienated it from the broader Finnish radical community. The College had disavowed any connections with the Socialist Party and Finnish socialists by 1914. Although the school trained managers for the vital Finnish cooperative movement of the 1920s and 1930s, it never formally aligned with it. Communism too was anathema to the Finnish Wobblies during the 19205; indeed, this reflected the stand of most IWWers, as Melvyn Dubofsky summarizes:

Still dedicated to syndicalism and to nonviolent direct action, they found repugnant a movement based upon control of the state and the violent seizure of power. Committed to the concept of industrial democracy, they found alien the Bolshevik principles of dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic centralism. Opposed to all forms of coercion and bureaucracy, they looked upon the Soviet system with deep suspicion.(51)

The IWW and the Work People's College likewise rejected the New Deal legislation of the 1930s and refused to endorse the CIO movement. Wobblies criticized both Section 7a of the NIRA and the 1935 Wagner Act for placing government precisely where it did not belong, in labor-management relations. As a result, the IWW was left behind in the successful campaign for industrial unionism-albeit minus radical-social change.

Finally, the state had long before emasculated the IWW. The 1919 nationwide government purge of the union included the arrest of Leo Laukki of Work People's College. While out on bail, he fled to the Soviet Union, leaving the school without ideological leadership. And, as Kivisto points out, troops from Minnesota's National Guard, which had recently returned from the Mexican campaign against Pancho Villa, attacked numerous Finnish socialist halls and demolished the IWW offices in Duluth. He further hints that a mysterious fire that destroyed the newly constructed building, as well as damaged the main building, on the school's campus may be attributable to the soldiers' patriotic fervor.(52) Anti-red hysteria found expression too in the form of the Lusk Committee, created by the New York State Legislature in May 1919, to investigate Bolshevism in that state. It never set out to scrutinize either the Finns or Work People's College in Duluth; but it did, accusing the "Finnish Working People's College" as the "mainstay of Finnish radicalism in this country."(53)

Therefore, bourgeois hegemony asserted itself. Whatever form it assumed, whether through the acculturation of the Finns, the legitimation of apolitical industrial unionism, or suppression of the radical labor movement, hegemony eventually won.




I appreciate the valuable comments and criticisms of Bruce Nelson and Peter Hanrahan on earlier drafts of this paper.

1. Industrial Pioneer 3 (August 1925): 27. Covington Ami represented a pseudonym for Covington Hall, an old "poet-warrior" for the IWW. He taught both at Commonwealth College and Work People's College. See Covington Hall, Dreams and Dynamite: Selected Poems, ed. David Roediger (Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1985).

2. "The Need of Workers' Education," Industrial Pioneer 1 (October 1923): 37-38.


3. David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 2.


4. Paula Allman, "Gramsci, Freire and Illich: Their Contributions to Education for Socialism," in Radical Approaches to Adult Education: A Reader, ed. Tom Lovett (London: Routledge, 1988), 93.


5. Antonio Gramsci, The Modem Prince and Other Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 77, 99; Antonio Gramsci: Letters from Prison, ed. Lynne Lawner (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); Richard Johnson, "Three Problematics: Elements of a Theory of Working-Class Culture," in Working-Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory, eds. John Clarke, Charles Critcher, and Richard Johnson (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 201-37.


6. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds. Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971); Martin Carnoy, "Education, Economy and the State," in Cultural and Economic Reproduction in Education: Essays on Class, Ideology and the State, ed. Michael W. Apple (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 79-126.


7. Allman, "Gramsci, Freire and Illich," 101; Harold Entwistle, Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).


8. James Weinstein, The Decline of American Socialism in America, 1912-­1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), 84-5; Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 246-47; George Cotkin, "The Socialist Popularization of Science in America, 1901 to the First World War," History of Education Quarterly 24 (Summer 1986): 201-14.


9. William J. Reese and Kenneth N. Teitelbaum, "American Socialist Pedagogy and Experimentation in the Progressive Era: The Socialist Sunday School," History of Education Quarterly 23 (1983): 429-54; Kenneth N. Teitelbaum, "Schooling for 'Good Rebels': Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1985).


10. Marius Hansome, World Workers' Educational Movements: Their Social Significance (1931 report, New York: AMS Press, 1968), 299-311; Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 257; David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party in America: A History (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 9.

11. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1973), 147-51; Joseph Conlin, Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974), 80.

12. Industrial Pioneer 1 (October 1923): 39.

13. Dagmar Schultz, "The Changing Political Nature of Workers' Education: A Case Study of the Wisconsin School for Workers" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1972), 53; Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers' Education for Women, 1914-1984, eds. Joyce L. Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984); Joyce L. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).


14. Richard J. Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle: The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and the 1930s (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Jonathan D. Bloom, "Brookwood Labor College, 1921-1933: Training Ground for Union Organizers" (Master's thesis, Rutgers University, 1978); Charles F. Howlett, "Brookwood Labor College and Worker Commitment to Social Reform," Mid-America 61 (1979): 47-66; Raymond and Charlotte Koch, Educational Commune: The Story of Commonwealth College (New York: Schocken Books, 1972); William H. Cobb, "Commonwealth College: A History" (Master's thesis, University of Arkansas, 1960).

15. Shannon, The Socialist Party, 44; John I. Kolehmainen, "The Inimitable Marxists: The Finnish Immigrant Socialists," Michigan History 36 (1952): 395-405; Richard J. Altenbaugh and Rolland Paulston, "Work People's College: A Finnish Folk High School in the American Labor College Movement," Paedagogica Historica 18 (1978): 237-56.

16. Douglas J. Ollila, Jr., "The Work People's College: Immigrant Education for Adjustment and Solidarity," in For the Common Good: Finnish Immigrants and the Radical Response to Industrial America, eds. Michael G. Karni, et al. (Superior, Wise.: Tyomies Society, 1977), 99-122; Peter Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists in the United States: The Case of Finns and the Left (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984), 107-9.

17. Guss Aakula, "Short Sketches of the Features of Tyovaen Opisto, Work People's College, Duluth, Minnesota," n.p., unpub. and undated ms., trans. Eva Lahonen and ed. Unda Hoshal, Duluth Public Ubrary; Articles of Incorporation and By-laws of the Work People's College (Duluth: 1929), the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), University of Minnesota, St. Paul.

18. Ollila, "The Work People's College," 87-88, 101; Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists, 107, 154.


19. Arne Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans in the Political Labor Movement" (Master's thesis, University of Minnesota, 1945), 65; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 102, 106; John Wiita, "Tyovaen Opisto--Working People's College," n.p., unpub. and undated ms., IHRC, St. Paul. Wiita, like Aakula, was a former student, instructor, and board member at the school.


20. Quoted in Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans," 65.


21. Aakula, "Short Sketches," 2; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 101; Hans R. Wasastjerna, History of the Finns in Minnesota (New York Mills, Minn.: Northwestern Publishing Co., 1957), 228.

22. Ollila, "The Work People's College," 106; Wiita, "Tyovaen Opisto," 2-3; George Sirola, "The Finnish Working People's College," International Socialist Review 14 (August 1913): 102-4.

23. Wiita, "Tyovaen Opisto," 4; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 102.

24. Wasastjerna, History of the Finns, 230; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 105.


25. Letter from John Olli to Richard J. Altenbaugh, 30 December 1978; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 107.


26. Letter from Fred Thompson to Altenbaugh, 4 February 1983.


27. Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists, 151-52.


28. Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans," 54.


29. Douglas O. Ollila, "From Socialism to Industrial Unionism (IWW): Social Factors in the Emergence of the Left-Labor Radicalism Among Finnish Workers on the Mesabi, 1911-1919," in The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives, eds. Michael G. Karni, et al. (Turku, Finland: Institute for Migration, 1975), 55-88.


30. Quoted in Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans," 69.


31. Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans," 71-73; Ollila, "From Socialism to Industrial Unionism (IWW)," 163-64.


32. The Controversy Within the Finnish Socialist Organization of United States, Its Issues and Reasons (Superior, Wisc.: Middle District Committee of the National Finnish Socialist Organization of the United States, 1914), n.p.

33. Wiita, "Tyovaen Opisto," 8-9; Industrial Workers of the World Collection, box 137, folder 1, Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University (WSU), Detroit; Ollila, "The Work People's College," 103; Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists, 139-41.

34. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1973), 135-36.

35. William D. Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 264.

36. Ibid., 282; Work People's College Collection, folder 26, stock register, alphabetical list, IHRC, St. Paul.


37. Work People's College Announcement of Courses, 1923-24 (Duluth: Work People's College, 1923), 2. (Available at IHRC.)


38. Ibid., 3-5.


39. Ibid., 6; Articles of Incorporation, 9-10. Letter to Altenbaugh from Sulo Peltola, 9 April 1983. He was a former student at the college.

40. Clifford B. Ellis, "What Life Means to a Worker," Industrial Pioneer 4 (May 1926): 14-18.

41. For theoretical and practical discussions of radical pedagogy, see Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1970); and Studies in Socialist Pedagogy, eds. Theodore Mills Norton and Bertell Ollman (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978).


42. Wiita, "Tyovaen Opisto," 7.


43. Ellis, "What Life Means," 15.


44. Personal interview with Fred W. Thompson, 20 October 1984.

45. Industrial Workers of the World Collection, box 137, folders 13, 29, WSU, Detroit.


46. T. Kekkonen, "Education as a Social and Mass Problem," Industrial Pioneer 2 (November 1924): 42.


47. Thompson interview.


48. "A Round Table: Labor, Historical Pessimism, and Hegemony," Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 115-62.


49. Gramsci, The Modern Prince, 124.


50. Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle, chap. 7, "The End of the Labor Colleges."

51. Melvyn Dubofksy, We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW (New York: Quadrangle, 1969), 462-63, 477-78.

52. Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists, 156.


53. "Says 300,000 Finns in U.S. Are 'Reds,'" New York Times, 28 Dec. 1919, sec. I, p. 7, col. 1.




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