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Myth of Industrial Unionism

The Socialist Party attitude towards any specific political or economic organisation is determined by its basic position that there can be no social change as great, as far reaching and as demanding as the creation of Socialist society, without the conscious co-operation of the majority of the working-class. Until we reach that stage, until the wage-labour and capital relationships are abolished, there remains the vital need to safeguard working class living standards and conditions of work, and this safeguarding is rightly the task of Trade Unions. As long as a union remains a defence organisation the Socialists supports its sound actions and hits out at actions which conflict with the general interests of the workers, and as long as Socialists are few in number this is the only sound action possible. But the moment that any union claims that it is a revolutionary organisation then it must be judged from a revolutionary standpoint and the allowance made for the actions taken by non-Socialist unions are clearly out of the question.

Holding to this logical approach to the problem the Socialist Party very carefully examined the claims made for Industrial Unionism when American workers set on foot the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. The claims were that here was an organisation placed upon a class basis, free from conflict between skilled and unskilled workers, free from craft divisions, with such a resultant unity that the antagonism between boss and wage-slave could be seen clearly and met in the most effective manner. These “new style’’ unions, it was said, organised the workers “economic power" in such a way that it fitted them to take and hold the means of living when the time arose. These unions would then form the framework of socialist society and become its permanent administration. The Socialist Party was able to counter these claims by showing that no structural changes in union organisation could turn non-socialists into their opposites.

The Industrial Unions were open to all who took out membership cards; as a result their organisations housed Republicans, Democrats, Anarchists, etc., men of every brand of political persuasion. “It is useless for us here to attempt to disguise the fact that we have every shade of political opinion”, declared Delegate Murtaugh at the I.W.W. first Annual Conference. Yet the advocates of Industrial Unionism insisted that the I.W.W. was a "Socialist" organisation, one composed of "38,000 class-conscious workers" (Socialist Jan. 1908).

The I.W.W. was presented as an uncompromising force for unity, but in truth it was held together by shabby compromises and as a result it split, split and split again into warring factions. The split between the De Leonist elements and the “Bummery" section led to the existence of two rival I.W.W.’s (Detroit and Chicago) and during the active life of these rivals each side claimed that the other had blacklegged in industrial disputes. The De Leonist I.W.W. (later W.I.I.U.), though backed by the Socialist Labor Party of America, was organised on the same lines as the original I.W.W. and was thus open to all; as S.L.P. speaker, W. W. Cox confessed in the Weekly People (30 Dec. 1916) “The Workers International Industrial Union recognises no political party and it has a Republican, Democratic, Progressive Prohibitionist and Socialist Party as well as S.L.P. membership”.

The S.L.P. of A. while continually calling for clarity in political thinking at the same time approved and organised political confusion on the industrial field. As long as the politically confused were organised into the W.I.I.U. the S.L.P. was happy. In some magical way it was imagined that when the industrial unions grew strong enough they would themselves generate political clarity. The S.L.P. continued to urge the workers to “Organise industrially on the principles of the W.I.I.U.” until 1924 when, since the so-called “Socialist W.I.l.U.” had become an embarrassment, it was allowed to die.

In rejecting the fallacies of the Industrial Unionists the Socialist Party never asserted that Socialist Society would result from the actions of parliamentary delegates alone. It is completely illogical to imagine that Socialist understanding could grow to the point of political victory without simultaneously resulting in a growth of understanding and hence organisation to prepare for the taking over of industry. The Socialist Party in fact knows well that organisation is necessary for the running of industry in the new-born Socialist society. It holds also that a sizeable spread of political clear-sightedness will lead to the growth of such organisations, for when many workers want Socialism they will begin to organise and plan for the rebuilding of society prior to the capture of political power. We in fact stand for the principled, democratic organisation of class-conscious workers in contrast to the Industrial Unionist concept of industrial bodies built up upon the “open-house” principle.

For the present, however, Socialists have to act and co-operate with a majority of non-socialist fellow unionists. Socialist unionists will certainly oppose unsound actions and theories wherever these are found in the unions but we do not support the view that if the present unions were smashed then “genuine working class unions would arise in their place”—yet another industrial myth. The faults of the present-day unions result from the lack of understanding of their members and until their experiences lead them to realise the limitations of the day-to-day struggle, until they realise that within the framework of capitalism they cannot rise above their basic status as victims of the caprices of the world market these faults remain.

Melvin Harris