The Socialist Party and Trade Unionism

The first day’s Session of the Party meeting on Trade Unionism was held on Saturday, May 12, at 6 p.m. at the Communist Club, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.

Comrade A. J. M. Gray, was elected to the Chair.

It was decided to discuss resolutions to be placed before the meeting in the order in which they appeared on the printed paper supplied to the members.

J. Kent accordingly moved the following resolution :—

“Whereas The Socialist Commonwealth will be established by the conscious act of the revolutionary working class wresting from the master class the ownership and control of the means of wealth production, for which conscious act the working class must prepare by organising industrially and politically, and, whereas existing working-class industrial organisations, being based upon the superstition of the brotherhood of capital and labor, and representing only sectional interests, are stumbling blocks in the revolutionary path, the S.P.G.B. while re-affirming that ‘The first duty of the Socialist Party is the teaching of its principles and the organisation of a political party on a Socialist basis,’
“(1.) Declares war on existing Trade Unions and their leaders.
“(2.) Urges its members, while not neglecting their ‘first duty,’ to advocate the formation of an industrial organisation based upon the irreconcilable antagonism between the capitalist class and the working class, and having as its object the taking over and adminstering of the means of wealth production ; such industrial organisation to be affiliated to or working in complete unison with The Socialist Party, thus ensuring that the class struggle shall be waged as effectively as possible on both the industrial and political fields.”

In moving his resolution, J. Kent said that if the trade unions were stumbling blocks in the revolutionary path, those stumbling blocks had to be removed. He thought that recognising the necessity for political action, the Party should affirm its decision to organise a political party on a Socialist basis. The Party, however, had never laid it down that we should carry on war on the existing trade unions, but had merely opposed the trade union leaders through its press and through its propaganda. The economic organisation should either be affiliated to the political party, or should work in unison with it, or otherwise, it would be as well to abandon political action and simply carry on an economic fight. It would be absolutely necessary for the action of the one on the political field to be supported by the action of the other on the economic field, and the action of the one on the economic field to be supported by the action of the other on the political.

Phillips seconded the resolution.

A. Anderson moved to amend the resolution by inserting “Socialist” before “industrial organisation” in lines 3 and 7 of clause (2), which was accepted by the mover and seconder, and to substitute “and controlled by” for “worworking in complete unison with” in lines 8 and 9.

Anderson said he agreed with Kautsky that the political organisation must dominate the economic. The political must control the economic or the contrary would occur. He did not want to see repeated the farce of the S.L.P. in America and the S.T. and L.A.. or the tragedy of the S.L.P. in England and the I.W.W. Dix seconded the amendment. Barker asked whether it would be possible for men and women to join the political organisation and not belong to the economic and vice-versa.

Anderson replied that in joining the S.P.G.B. members of the working class would join it in both its political and economic aspects. They would pay subscriptions to THE organisation—that organisation comprising both wings.

F. S. Leigh asked whether, in the event of a union being formed, a workman refusing to join the political party would be compelled to become a blackleg.

Anderson : If he did not adhere to the principles of the party he would not be fit to join it. T. A. Jackson said he had always understood that we had to capture political power and then to proceed to the administration of the means and instruments of production. The difficult point was that while present Society existed the wage-workers would be compelled to join permanent or temporary trade unions. Trade unions were a necessity under capitalism.

With regard to the leaders of the trade unions, a trade union leader was what the rank and file allowed him to be. A trade union was the arm which the worker instinctively raised to protect himself. As Marx said in his “Value, Price and Profit,” “if the workers did not struggle to maintain the price of their commodity they would rapidly become degenerated into slaves incapable of revolt.” If the resolution was carried the only logical course open to the Party would be to withdraw all its members from the existing trade unions. What it was necessary to wage war on was the economic ignorance which rendered these trade unions ineffective.

It was our purpose to wage war upon their faults and the source of their faults—their economic ignorance. It was necessary that the political party should dominate the economic. When the workers had been educated by the political party they themselves would see to it that their trade unions were no longer ineffective. Neumann said he was opposed to Kent’s resolution. When war was declared on the unions war would be declared on the leaders. But he did not agree that the declaration of war on existing trade unions was an anti-trade union declaration. There was no reason that these existing trade unions should not be Socialist trade unions. If war was declared on the unions, however, it would be impossible for the members of the S.P.G.B. to remain inside the existing trade unions. This attitude was impracticable at the present time, because it was a question of their daily bread that members of the Party should be members of the trade unions. He would not support the resolution because it was unsound.

Cole asked had Jackson ever been in a strike or conducted one. The trade unions were not organised to fight the capitalist class, but to protect the capitalist system and support it. He supported Kent’s resolution.

Fitzgerald said that the S.P.G.B. was the first party which had at its inception held meetings on the trade union question. If we declared war on the existing trade unions we should be waging war upon them in every shape and form. Certain members of the Party had to remain in trade unions. The question was how could war be best waged on the wrong basis on which the trade unions were organised. If men were engaged in a works at 30/- a week, and 5/- per week reduction was threatened, they would naturally come out to resist that reduction, then what would be our position ? At present we could do no more than propagate the right idea inside and outside the trade unions in favour of the proper method of organisation. He was opposed to the resolution.

Fairbrother said that if men were on strike our position was to support them, yet all the time to point out how they were wrongly organised. The unions should be based on the class struggle. The economic organisation was more important than the political. The political was but the reflex of the economic. The L.R.C., for instance, had got their position on the back of the existing trade unions, not by any fight on the political field. If the workers were organised on the class struggle on the economic field he could not conceive their action on the political field being anything but that of Socialists. The majority of the working class were outside the trade unions, and the trade unions could not permanently improve their conditions as long as the condition of the unorganised mass outside was not improved.

A. W. Pearson asked whether Fairbrother wanted the Party members to be allowed to join an economic organisation not affiliated to the Party. If members and non-members of our Party were to be admitted to an economic organisation they too would soon find themselves in the House of Commons as political mountebanks. The union advocated by Fairbrother would allow members of other parties to come into it and so dominate it on the political field. If the Party was to form an industrial union it must be formed to act in unison with the Party. Barker wanted to know what was to be done with members of the Party inside the existing trade unions in view of the proposed war on the unions. He was opposed to the position laid down by the resolution.

T. W. Allen said he proposed a revolutionary economic organisation which would soon know how to deal with those who wanted to “wangle” who came into that organisation. The organisation should not be affiliated to the political party until the class consciousness of the workers would bring about unity on the political field. That the working class were ignorant was the effect of certain causes. The labour leaders wilfully betrayed the interests of the workers to the capitalist class. The present trade unions were based upon the idea of the finality of the capitalist system. Under the present unions one section of the workers went into the fight with the capitalist class whilst another section black-legged upon them. When a sturdy, sound, economic, revolutionary organisation had been formed, then the political would come as the reflex of the economic.

A. Anderson replied that the trade unions were shams and frauds and delusions. Just as long as you had a separate organisation from the political party the movement would be sidetracked whether it was called the I.W.W. or any other combination of initials. Since the trade unions were stumbling blocks in the revolutionary path, they must be fought. It did riot follow that if it was decided to oppose the unions that the members of the S.P.G.B. should be immediately called out of the existing trade unions. As the political party controlled the members of the political party so also would they control the members of the economic organisation.

J. Kent replied that the resolution urged that the members should advocate an economic organisation, not immediately proceed to organise it. The time had arrived when we should go beyond the words of the manifesto, and advocate the formation of a Socialist industrial organisation. The trades unions, as Marx said, failed because of the guerilla warfare they were carrying on. Had we not said in the columns of the Party paper that the proper organisation of the working class was their organisation as a class. Further, no organisation would be effective that was not affiliated with or working in complete unison with the political party. If you were going to form an organisation apart from the political party, then in that way lay danger.

The amendment was carried by 30 votes to 20.

The amendment having thus become a substantive resolution, the vote was taken and the resolution was carried by 30 votes to 26.

(To be continued.)

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