Debate on Industrial Unionism

“Is the Industrial Workers of the World worthy the support of the working class?” was the subject of debate between G. Geis, S.L.P. (affirmative) and J. Fitzgerald, S.P.G.B. (negative) on Peckham Rye on Sunday evening, August 12th. W. Russell, S.P.G.B., acted as. Chairman.

Geis, in opening, corrected a remark by the chairman in which he suggested that the I.W.W. owed its origin to the S.L.P. The I.W.W. was not formed by, nor was it in any way under the control of the S.L.P., or any political organisation whatsoever. With regard to the question in debate, he had first to call attention to the object of the capitalist method of production, which was the extraction of surplus value from the working class. Hence arose the class struggle—on the part of the capitalist class to take from the workers as much as possible of the wealth that was alone produced by labour, and on the part of the working class to resist such exploitation. In the early period of capitalism the organisations formed by the workers were capable of fighting the small and unorganised capitalists with comparative success. Since that time the power of capital had developed enormously ; at the present time the capitalist class was well organised economically and politically, whereas the working class was not well organised in either respect. Indeed, trade unionism, instead of adapting itself to changing conditions, had remained in its babyhood, so to speak. It was now necessary for the workers to organise industrially on the basis of the class struggle. Craft unionism was played out and incapable either of offering resistance to, or advancing against the exploiting class. The outcome of craft unionism was well exemplified in the observations of a recent deputation of German working men to this country—a deputation, it should be noted, by no means revolutionary, but composed of persons eminently respectable, orthodox, and capitalistic. They commented most unfavourably on the uncleanly and unkempt appearance of British working people, and on their social and domestic condition generally. They were especially impressed, however, with the good understanding which existed between employers and employed. This, in their opinion, was an achievement due to the fine diplomatic spirit of the British race. Representatives of each side met, “and the employers got the men’s leaders to understand.” The, function of the labour leader, commented Geis, was similar to that of the lightning-rod. The masters instructed the labour leaders, and the labour leaders instructed the men. The labour leaders, as accessories of the capitalist class, had their reward. The report of’ the delegation referred to was in fact an unintentional indictment of pure and simple trade unionism. The German delegates expressed the view that the big unions were anything but altruistic ; the skilled workers organised themselves in their own selfish interests, without any kind of regard for the welfare of the unskilled, the unorganised, and the unemployed. Geis pointed out that of a working population of 14,000,000 but 2,000,000 were at present organised. The higher wages and better conditions of the organised minority afforded no justification for the exclusiveness of craft unionism, for if the whole working class were organised the condition of all might be improved. As a commodity in the labour market the price of labour-power (wages) was regulated by supply and demand. The formation of a complete trust in the labour market, such as was implied in the form of industrial unionism he advocated, would force the condition of the working class infinitely higher ; the obstacle which prevented such a comprehensive industrial organisation was the job-trust, pure and simple trade unionism now existing. Apart from wresting from the capitalist class an ever increasing share of the product of labour, the mission of industrial unionism was to overthrow the capitalist system altogether, which was the logical and inevitable termination of the class struggle. In America, where the I.W.W. was a growing power, its main object was the overthrow of capitalism, but in the pursuit of that object it would incidentally raise wages and reduce the hours of labour. The purpose of the advocates of Industrial Unionism in this country was to start as soon as practicable a similar new organisation of the working class, for the existing craft unions, with their notions of the mutual relationship of employer and employed, and their exclusiveness and selfishness, were useless and irremediable. Geis then gave a number of examples of craft union action to show how the capitalist class took advantage of the sectional organisation of the working class, and how the sections fought and “scabbed” upon one another to their own detriment, and undoing. There could, he said, be no hope for the working class until it was organised, on the basis of the class struggle, in one vast world-wide organisation, co-extensive with capitalism itself, for the overthrow of the capitalist system. It was the duty of working men to understand the principles laid down by the advocates of Industrial Unionism, and by corresponding action to put an end to the unspeakable conditions under which they, the workers, could not be said to live, but merely existed.

Fitzgerald said he was, of course, in entire agreement with his opponent, regarding the necessity of complete economic organisation in the working class. In the capitalist system the workers did not own the wealth their labour produced : it accumulated in the ownership of the numerically small capitalist class ; the relationship of the two classes was, therefore, simply that of robber and robbed. The complete monopoly of the resources of production compelled the workers to sell their labour-power as merchandise to the capitalist class for wages, or in other words, for the bare cost of maintaining and reproducing their productive energies, according to various circumstances and conditions. Hence it became necessary from time to time for the workers to debate with the capitalists the price at which they would sell their labour-power, Necessarily, as the capitalist system developed they found themselves at an increasing disadvantage in their bargaining for subsistence. What Fourier had foreseen—namely, that competition would result in the combination of the competing parties—was surely being realised, and the workers were now confronted with a position in which the capitalist class was becoming smaller and increasingly powerful. For example, during the Engineers’ strike of 1898 eight firms practically dominated the steel industry ; since that time the number had been reduced to about four. Such concentration implied economy of management, especially in the reduction of the number of wage-workers. The promoters of the Milk Trust in America had estimated that when their scheme was in full operation they could dispense with the services of 11,000 “hands.” Again, when Allsopps, Salts, and the Burton Brewery Co. decided to combine, notices were given to a large number of the staff. It had been suggested that the craft form of unionism was responsible for unemployment and the helpless condition of the working class; on the contrary, Fitzgerald contended that no form of unionism—even Socialist unionism—could of itself materially or permanently improve their condition in the capitalist system, under which the application of every new scientific process to industry, or higher organisation, necessarily increased the number of the unemployed. The unions, as at present organised, it was true, by insisting on the payment of high initiation fees and subscriptions in times of crisis, had thereby forced large numbers out of their ranks ; they had unquestionably impaired their own effectiveness by increasing the number of the unorganised, who, driven by the whip of starvation, were used against them in periods of depression. Furthermore, until the workers recognised their class position, and so long as they did not realise the necessity of organising on a Socialist basis to overthrow the capitalist system, sectional differences and internal disorganisation would continue. There were certain delusions prevailing, however, regarding the Socialist basis of trade unions. The mere adoption of a Socialist preamble did not constitute a union a Socialist union. The Gas Workers’ Union and one of the Burnley Weavers’ unions had a Socialist preamble, but owing to the ignorance of the rank and file they had not expressed in action the principles by which they were supposed to be guided. In a Socialist union the members would clearly recognise that the overthrow of the capitalist system was only attainable by the united effort of the working class to wrest political authority from the capitalist class. Revolutionary political action was essential in a real Socialist union.

It had been claimed for the I.W.W. that it was a Socialist union. Like the craft unions just referred to, the I.W.W. did not call itself Socialist, nor did its members exhibit any clearer understanding of Socialist aims than the “pure and simple” unionists they condemned. The I.W.W. was not, in fact, a Socialist union at all. “We must not overlook the fact,” said delegate Klemensic at the first Convention of the I.W.W. at Chicago, “that we are here as working men, and as such we do not recognise the Socialist, the Anarchist, or any other kind of ‘ist.'” This expression of opinion drew no protest from De Leon, nor from any other members of the Socialist Labour Party or Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance who were present. When Keir Hardie, at Darncrook, Newcastle, had stated that the Labour Party was not out for Toryism. Liberalism, or Socialism, but for Labourism, the Socialist Party of Great Britain had not hesitated to condemn his attitude. What distinction could be drawn between the positions taken respectively by Klemensic and Keir Hardie ? Moreover, the Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World contained a remarkable contradiction as follows:

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the workers come together on the political as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labour through an economic organisation of the working class without affiliation with any political party.”

How could they come together on the political field if they were kept apart by non-affiliation ? Naturally enough, a big battle raged over this clause in the Chicago Convention. Delegate Clarence Smith said:

“It seems to me that this paragraph of the Preamble particularly is intended, not to represent the principles and purposes of industrialism, but represents a toadyism to three different factions in this Convention, and I am opposed to this organisation toadying to any man or any faction of men. … It seems to me that this paragraph could not have been more involved or more confusing if it had been written by the platform committee of the Republican or Democratic Party. It seems to me as if the paragraph is intended to be toadying to the man who does not believe in politics at all, the pure and simple trade unionist as we have come to call him ; that it means a toadying to the Socialist, and also to the Anarchist, if you please. It seems to me that this paragraph is intended to be such that the supporter of this movement can point to it when talking to a pure anid simple unionist and say ‘That is just what you want and expresses what you believe in.’ I believe it is intended to be such that a Socialist can be pointed to this platform with the statement that ‘This is Socialism.’ I believe it is intended to be such that an Anarchist can be confronted and told that ‘This means Anarchy as it is written right in this paragraph.’”

Delegate Murtaugh also made a statement which revealed a confusion of political elements in the I.W.W. which similarly characterizes craft unionism:

“It is useless for us here to attempt to disguise the fact that we have every shade of political opinion. We have the Socialists—I happen to be one of them—who believe that action in the political line is absolutely necessary. We have the Socialist, on the other hand, who is so near the Anarchist that he is beginning to think as the Anarchist does—that action along the political line is absolutely harmful instead of being useless.”

Thus within the I.W.W. according to Murtaugh, there were those who were prepared to repeat the old cry of “no politics in the trade unions.” There was a suggestion made at this Conference that no member of the I.W.W. should be allowed to accept nomination for office in a capitalist political party, whereupon Klemensic pointed out that this would conflict with the position of the Western Federation of Miners in Butte, Montana, where they formed part of the Republican party. Mr. Haggerty, the delegate of the Butte district of the Western Federation of Miners, made the following statement:

“It is true that back in the State of Montana we have a peculiar condition of things. Some five or six years ago I attended the convention of the state labour movement in the city of Helena in September, 1899. I went with the delegation from the .organisation that sent me to this convention. It devolved upon that convention to go forth and organise what we knew as a political party. . . . After the party had been organised, capitalist parties commenced to lay plans to seize upon it. We found the Amalgamated Mining Company upon one side, and Senator Clark and F. A. Heinze upon the other, at war. There was an opportunity we could not miss. We seized upon the opportunity. Clark wanted to become a U.S. Senator, and F. A. Heinze wanted something else, and we knew it. I maintain that we did not go to them, but compelled them to come to us; but nevertheless there was a capitalist combination with a labour party, and hence it became capitalistic. We went to the polls and united our movement to theirs. Twelve men went to the legislative body from that county. In the division we got six of the twelve. We got the sheriff of the county, the coroner, and others. I was nominated for the office of county commissioner and was elected.”

Continuing, Fitzgerald pointed out that in Colorado two years ago the Western Federation of Miners had passed through an experience that threw our Featherstone shooting entirely in the shade. Yet at the following election they voted for a capitalist Governor in that state—and this was the organisation that claimed to be “the most radical and revolutionary in America,” and which formed the most important and powerful section of the Industrial Workers of the World. Obviously the elements composing the I.W.W. were indistinguishable from the “pure and simple” unionists represented at our Trade Union Congress ! One of the arguments used against craft unionism by the advocates of Industrial Unionism was that they excluded the unorganised by high initiation fees and subscriptions. But comparison of these charges made by a typical craft union like the Operative Bricklayers’ Society and those made by the I.W.W. was certainly not favourable to the latter. Thus the initiation fee of the I.W.W. was twice as large as that of the O.B.S., while the latter allowed 180 days’ subscriptions in arrear before exclusion, and the I.W.W. only 60, or one-third of that time, as shown by the Constitution and By-laws of the I.W.W. In action, therefore, it was also difficult to distinguish between the I.W.W. and “pure and simple” craft unionism.

[To be continued.]

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