Farrell Dobbs

Farrell Dobbs

Farrell Dobbs, the son of a coal miner, was born in Queen City, Missouri in 1907. After being educated at North High School in Minneapolis he moved to North Dakota in search of work. At this time he held conservative political views and supported the Republican Party and in 1928 voted for Herbert Hoover.

Dobbs worked for the Pittsburgh Coal Company and played an important role in the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike in 1934. Dobbs was radicalized by the strike and soon afterwards joined the Communist League of America, a organization influenced by the ideas of Leon Trotsky.

In 1936 Dobbs became recording secretary of Teamsters Local 574 and by the following year it had 125,000 members. Eventually the president of the Teamsters, Dan Tobin, recruited Dobbs as a national organizer but according to Paul Le Blanc: "In 1935 Dobbs and his comrades fought off attempts by IBT president Dan Tobin to drive the Troskyists out of Local 574. in 1939 he decided to work full-time for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Dobbs travelled to Mexico to meet Leon Trotsky in 1940. Soon after arriving back in the United States he was arrested under the Alien Registration Act. He was detained in Sandstone Prison and was not released until after the end of the Second World War.

After his release Dobbs became editor of The Militant and replaced James Cannon as national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. He held the post of national secretary for the next seventeen years.

Dobbs was the SWP's presidential candidate in 1960 but received only 60,166 votes. He retired as the SWP's national secretary in 1972 and died in California on 31st October, 1983.

Primary Sources

(1) Farrell Dobbs, speech at San Francisco (14th September, 1974)

While still quite young he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, before long becoming part of the organization staff. He worked under Vincent St. John, whom the young militants of that day fondly called the "Saint." In his own way St. John was a man much like Debs. Not the versatile man Debs was, but a solid organizer with revolutionary spirit and know-how in building a movement and in building a team out of dedicated people who want to serve a common cause.

Jim began to learn something about organization, particularly from the Saint. Many times as we talked in later years he spoke about how he hoped one day to write an appreciation of St. John. You remember he wrote one rather extensive pamphlet about Debs-a very valuable work. He wrote another very extensive pamphlet about the IWW that is a valuable contribution. And he wanted also to write one about St. John.

He didn't get around to doing it, except for a short article in the Militant when St. John died in 1929, and we have to take note of the fact that it was a loss to the movement that it wasn't done because now I'm afraid there is going to remain a missing link for future generations about the part played by St. John in the movement. But he contributed a lot to Jim, which Jim later, as he absorbed know-how, particularly in organizing workers, was able to impart to the revolutionary socialist movement later on.

There's a story that Jim was fond of telling about his experience as an organizer in the IWW. He was assigned by St. John to a team of organizers and sent up to the ore docks in Duluth, Minnesota. They were working under the charge of Frank Little. Little was a famous IWW leader who was lynched by vigilantes in Montana during the witch-hunt that grew out of the American involvement in the First World War. This was prior to the war.

The IWW was having a convention in Chicago, and the organizers up in Duluth wanted to get there to attend. The way they worked in the IWW was that the organizers had to get around on their own steam, grab onto a boxcar, or whatever.

So all the younger organizers were to get to Chicago as best they could. But Frank Little was getting on in years and he'd become badly stove-up with arthritis. So the organization made a special dispensation to buy Frank a ticket to ride from Duluth down to Chicago on the cushions.

Well, Jim was young, full of zip, and there was nothing he wanted more than to be respected by Frank. So he made up his mind that on the rods he was going to beat Frank Little to Chicago.

He got down to Minneapolis and got on a night express, which was the real hotshot passenger train between Minneapolis and Chicago at that time. But he had a problem of getting through Milwaukee. Milwaukee had the notoriously meanest railroad bulls that prowled the yards of any railroad terminal out there in the Midwest.

So he tried what was recognized in the knighthood of the road as one of the most dangerous ways to ride. That was to get on the express car right behind the locomotive and on top of it. You lock your arm around the little vent pipe there, and you try not to freeze to death, not to go to sleep, and not to get blinded by the cinders coming out of the locomotive.

He managed to get through Milwaukee. What got him through was that the railroad bulls generally don't bother to look up behind the locomotive. They figured nobody was fool enough to ride there. Jim was. They underestimated him.

He got into Chicago, got all cleaned up, dashed over to the convention headquarters, and sat down. He'd been there about fifteen minutes when in came Frank Little.

Frank walked over to him, grinned, put his hand on Jim's shoulder, and said, "You damned hobo."

Jim said it was one of the greatest accolades that he ever got in his life.

That was one incident in Jim's IWW experience that tells you something about the aggressiveness, the resourcefulness, the courage, the daring of the man. He had the capacity to set a goal and to have the guts to reach for that goal and to take chances to attain that goal.