The Socialist Party and Trade Unionism

At the adjourned meeting held at the Communist Club, May 26th, with Comrade Gifford in the chair Comrade Fitzgerald moved :

“Under term of reference No. 1

That as under capitalism the workers sell their labour power—inseparable from themselves—as an article of merchandise, and being subject to the same economic laws which prevail in other commodity markets, it is necessary for the workers to debate the fluctuations in price with the employers. Organised action being more advantageous than individual action, be it—

Resolved that the S P G.B. holds that Trade Unionism is a necessity under capitalism, to prevent the workers being continuously driven to sell their labour power below its value.

Under term of reference No. 2

That as the establishment of Socialism will mean ”the administration of things instead of the government of people,” as Engels said, and as the administration of the various detail processes of wealth production can only be carried on effectively by those possessing the requisite technical knowledge being organised for that purpose, be it—

Resolved that the S.P.G.B. holds that Trade Unionism is necessary for the establishment of Socialism.

If term No. 3 be considered

That as the position of the workers in modern Society is one of a propertyless class in opposition to the propertied capitalist class, the form of organisation adopted in the economic field must of necessity be based upon this class position as a first principle, while, for the reasons given under resolution No. 2, the chief detail unit of organisation must be the trade or occupation, be it—

Resolved that the S.P.G.B. holds that the form of organisation must have a class basis as first principle and the trade sub-division as the chief detail of organisation ; other sub-divisions, either geographical or economic, to be arranged as circumstances demand.

Under term of reference No. 4

That as the economic arm is required to act in conjunction with the political arm to establish Socialism, and as the only form of organisation which is in harmony with the political basis of Socialism is the one given above, be it—

Resolved that the S.P.G.B. urges forward the propaganda of the economic position laid down in conjunction with its political propaganda both inside and outside the present unions with the object of establishing the Socialist Trade Union required for this work.”

The mover said it was not necessary to spend much time here discussing the class basis, as we all realised that it was the lack of class-consciousness which kept the workers divided. The chief detail of organisation must be the trade or occupation because only those in a given trade knew the actual conditions, as was shown in the late strike of Daily News compositors. Moreover the other sub-divisions must depend on circumstances. The Leeds Fire Clay Co. in one district employed workers in several distinct industries, such as coal mining, clay working, building and stone quarrying, while the L.C.C. employed building operatives, tramway men, steamboat employees, clerks and draughtsmen. These were instances where the geographical sub-division was necessary, and where the industrial sub-division would be useless. The firm of David Allen & Sons was an example where the industrial sub-division would be suitable, all their employees being in the same industry.

An amendment was moved by Phillips and Kent to delete words from “while” to “occupation,” and all words after “class basis.”

Kent said to enter into detail questions was premature.

Killick said the question of detail was not essential; Fitzgerald should have made that clear.

Leigh said the question of geographical position did not affect industrialism at all. Are not the clay workers divided into various trades ?

T. W. Allen said Fitzgerald’s illustration could be applied to the building industry. The Socialist parties had failed to unite the revolutionary working class. The I.W.W. would unite the various parties. It was common sense to say the workers will recognise the political position when they are in an economic organisation.

Neumann opposed the I.W.W.

The meeting then adjourned.


At the adjourned meeting held at the Communist Club June 9th, T. A.Jackson continued the discussion on Kent’s amendment.

Jackson said the object of the amendment was stated to be that the movers did not think the particulars entered into in the resolution were necessary. Leigh and Allen had urged that the details should remain in, since they favoured an industrial form of organisation. But neither Leigh nor Allen knew what they meant by industrial organisation. With regard to the objection of Phillips and Kent, he (Jackson) thought it was necssary to give the details. We had recognised that an economic organisation would be necessary. The question Fitzgerald had considered was how far an economic organisation could be made to take on its proper function of supplementing the work of the Socialist Party in accomplishing the revolution. Under certain circumstances it might be necessary to organise on geographical lines, under others it would be necessary to federate the organisations, but those questions would have to be decided at the particular time when action was necessary.

Let us assume that capitalism was tending to that stage of monopoly when industry could be divided into thirteen different trusts. Even then it would be difficult to postulate what the form of organisation should be. To those who said the economic organisation should be industrial he would point out that even the I.W.W. made provision for certain governing bodies called district councils—purely geographical divisions. When a strike took place and a portion of the workers went on strike it would depend on the understanding of the workers of the class position as to the action the remainder would take. He did not think it advisable therefore, to adopt any a priori scheme of specialisation. The question of federation could only come upon the agenda when a large number of the workers were sufficiently class conscious to perfect their organisation for the revolution.

The amendment was lost by 9 to 5.

Anderson moved the deletion of all the words after “position” down to and including “occupation.” The amendment was seconded by Pearson.

The amendment was lost by 9 to 3.

Fitzgerald in reply to the resolution said Killick had said he did not think it was well to go too much into details in the matter. But we should lay down the broad lines upon which we intended to travel. On a previous occasion he had read out extracts from the I.W.W. convention which showed the position of that party. But T. W. Allen had said that it was yet to be shown that the I.W.W. was not a sound economic organisation. Therefore he had brought along some more extracts dealing with the subject. What he had said about the W.F. of M. in Colorado supporting capitalistic candidates was still further supported by T. J. Hagerty of Butte, Montana. A resolution was proposed to the Executive that the members should not be allowed to support any capitalist candidate or party. Clemensic pointed out that that would put many of the members of the W.F. of M. in a very funny position, because some of them were members of the Republican Party. Hagerty said :

”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 a convention of the State labour movement in the city of Helena, in September, 1890. . . . After the party had been organised the capitalist parties commenced to lay plans to seize upon it. We found the Amalgamated Mining Company on one side and Senator Clark and F. E. Heinze upon the other, at war. There was an opportunity that we could not miss. We seized upon the opportunity. Clark wanted to become a United States 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 labor 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.” (Report of I.W.W. Convention, Chicago.—Page 272.)

Some said that the W.F. of M., the backbone of the I.W.W., had in it a portion of the Republican Party in Butte, showing how class-unconscious those members were. When the I.W.W. was formed they sent over to what they called the various industrial organisations in France, and Trautmann got a very fine letter from the General Confederation of Labour in France. Here was the reply of the French organisation :

“Our Committee took with pleasure, notice of your Manifesto and call. It is happy at the constitution of your organisation and it hopes that your federative group, which, itself planted upon the field of the class struggle, will have at heart the necessity of conducting the battle upon that field where all equivocation vanishes; upon the economic field.
It is not for us to meddle in your internal organisation : it is for you to constitute yourselves according to the lay of the land where you are called upon to struggle. Nevertheless, allow us to observe that the French economic organisations have had cause only to congratulate themselves for having eliminated from their midst all discussions and questions concerning electoral and governmental parliamentarism. In fact, we hold that the political opinions of a workman are secondary to his class interests. Consequently whatever may be the opinion of a workingman upon that head his interests are ever supreme and, upon the field of interests, in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, all opinions can blend into one.”—E. Pouget, Secretaire adjoint. (Report of I.W.W. Convention, Page 289.)

They did not, however, get that sort of reply from all the organisations on the continent. Another organisation in Denmark made the following reply:

“As to our own opinion on the economic organisation we, here in Denmark, take the absolute and decided stand that the same must be built—as so well expressed in your Manifesto—upon the recognition of the class struggle in Society. But how that can be accomplished if the unions—as you again proclaim in the Manifesto—will abstain from co-operation with any political party, even with that one which indulges solely in the politics of the working class, we cannot understand. We are of the opinion that everywhere, when needed, the economic organisation and the Social Democratic party must work hand in hand, in order to promote the interests of the working class where the interests of the toilers have to be taken care of. We hold that the passage in your Manifesto where it reads “without affiliation with any political party” has only been inserted to manifest the complete neutrality of the union.” —(Page 290-1.)

The I.W.W. started out with the statement that the present trade unions don’t organise the unorganised. Now in the first place we could point to the experience of other organisations to prove that this was all right in theory, but with the exception of the Gasworkers’ Union when Aveling was organising it, not one organisation had yet organised the unorganised. The I.W.W. was devoting all its attention to try and capture the already organised workers. Again E. J. B. Allen himself had only found a platform for the statement of his position inside a trade union, the O.B.S.

One of the arguments used by the I.W.W. was that the present trade unions built a Chinese Wall round the union. He (Fitzgerald) belonged to what was called a pure and simple organisation. Now the initiation fee of the I.W.W. was two-thirds greater than that of his organisation. Again, in the O.B.S. he could run six months without paying dues, but the l.W.W. members could only run 60 days. Again the l.W.W. made no provision for seeing to its members when they were out of work. Leigh seemed quite lost as to the base given by the speaker as to the formation of the organisation. He had given the case of the Leeds Fire Clay Co. with various industries working together. True those workers were split up into industries, but the point was that there were all these workers working together in one geographical division, under one roof, so to speak. T. W. Allen said it was a credit to the I.W.W. to discuss for two-and-a-half days the meaning of the industrial sub-division. But the Committee had said at the very beginning that they had laid what they had called the industrial principle, and it was no use discussing it any longer because it was going to be railroaded through. As regards the credit due to discussion, the men who favoured the I.W.W. position had laid it down when they first met that “academic discussion would not be allowed.”

A man who refused to recognise political action was not a true revolutionary. Now if he did not declare himself how could it be known that he was a member of the revolutionary working class? So much for the I.W.W. uniting various “Socialist” parties. We did not attempt to reconcile irreconcilable interests, but attempted to form a sound organisation of the working class.

Again, merely being in an economic organisation would not make the workers recognise their position any quicker. Marx pointed out we could learn lessons from countries more advanced, and one of the lessons we could learn was to profit by their mistakes. We take lessons wherever we can get them, but don’t think that what took place in countries more advanced was necessarily right. It often happened that when a strike took place there appeared to be worse conditions when they went back, whereas really they had a slightly better position.

The resolution was carried by 13 to 3.

Fitzgerald, in moving his fourth clause, said for the time being we could do nothing more than be propagandists. How were we going to build up that Socialist economic organisation required ? We should act as Socialist propagandists at every place and time. Seeing that we were at present unable to form an economic organisation we should carry on our propaganda and point out the importance of the political organisation to capture that which would determine the real battle, while pointing out the necessity of the economic and political organisations working together. In this country no real, solid, attempt had been made to convert men inside trade unions. Writing in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD not long ago, E. J. B. Allen said the question of carrying on propaganda inside the trade unions had hardly been attempted, yet in a letter to the Peckham Branch he said that long and bitter experience had proved the futility of trying to change the trade unions. He (Fitzgerald) thought it would be easier to get the trade unions to throw off their old form than to get men to come out and form any new body.

Jackson seconded the resolution and said all we could do was to endeavour to create that class consciousness without which a sound economic organisation could not exist. He would like to point out that this position made it clear that we were to propagate this principle, and point out to the workers that they had got to understand their economic organisation could proceed to use the means of production whilst they were controlled and after they had been taken by the political party. De Leon had said in the address on Preamble of the I.W.W., “It is not a political organisation as the Preamble indicates and I shall prove—that can ‘take and hold’ the land and the capital and the fulness thereof. That—as the Preamble proclaims and I shall prove —is the function reserved for the economic organisation of the working class.”

Anderson said he disagreed with the importance that even in this resolution was being given to the economic side of the question. If we viewed the international concentration of capital all this organisation was proved not only futile but dangerous. We must go on propagating our Socialist principles. We could only teach one great point that the overthrow of capitalism must be the work of the class-conscious workers themselves. If we were going to say we should change the trade unions in the meantime, we must defend those organisations at present—if not we should be pledging ourselves to change in the future an organisation that might disappear in the interim. Why not point out that all economic organisation was futile against the attacks of international capital. Let us carry on our propaganda, and when we have a class-conscious working class we can decide on the most expedient way of establishing the Socialist Republic.

Neumann said Anderson knew full well that those who had been the founders of scientific Socialism had not written in the strain he had spoken in. They had pointed out that the workers should use every means in their power to at least resist the encroachments of the capitalist class. The full teaching of Socialism was not only to teach the working class to go for the transformation of Society, but to form a class-conscious organisation to resist the encroachment of the capitalist class inch by inch. We could not for one moment say that economic organisation under present Society was not just as necessary as political. The resolution showed that we were in favour of economic organisation, but that that organisation should be on Socialist lines.

He wished to either have added to the resolution, or if the mover was not willing to accept the addition to move the following addition :

“And as all organisations, economic as well as political, on a basis other than laid down by the Declaration of Principles of the S.P.G.B., are unsound from the standpoint of our Party ;
Be it further resolved that the S.P.G.B. is compelled to oppose the formation of any organisation of the workers the membership of which is open to non-Socialists.”

We wanted to show that the Socialist trade union should not only be Socialist in name but Socialist in character.

Fitzgerald not accepting the addition, Neumann moved it as an amendment.

The amendment not being seconded, fell through.

W. G. Killick said as the workers became politically revolutionary so they would alter the form of their economic organisations.

Barker said it was just a question of what was the best method of making the workers class-conscious. He believed the best method was by a political organisation. As soon as they became class-conscious they would understand their position perfectly well. Recognising that even trade unions were useful to keep the workers from being driven on the down grade, we could not prevent our members belonging to trade unions.

J. Crump said Anderson seemed to have misconstrued the purport of the resolution. When we had made the workers Socialists the existing trade unions would also become Socialist trade unions. We were not out for the establishment of Socialist trade unions in particular, but for the propagation of Socialist principles.

Pearson said we were told to go inside our unions and prepare to transform them. To do this he thought was absolutely useless.

Neumann moved the deletion of the words “both inside and outside the present trade unions.”

The amendment not being seconded fell through.

Fitzgerald in reply said that at one of the previous meetings it was urged that economic organisation was more important than political, and it had been said that Engels supported that view. Here was what Engels, in his “Socialism Utopian and Scientific,” said:

“Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialised, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.

He used the word “state” there, but there was no ambiguity or lack of clearness, for he went on to say with reference to the word “state” :

“But in doing this, it abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organisation of the particular class which was pro tempore the exploiting class, an organisation for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production, and therefore, especially for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour). The State was the official representative of Society as a whole ; the gathering of it together into a visible embodiment. But it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, Society as a whole ; in ancient times, the State of slave-owing citizens ; in the middle ages the feudal lords; in our own time, the bourgeoisie.”

The phrase ” the political . . . state property ” was italicised. Anderson said the capitalists were organised internationally in such a way as to render economic organisation unnecessary. Marx pointed out in “Value, Price and Profit” that if the workers were not prepared to debate the price of their labour day by day in the labour market, they would not be fit material for a future revolution. Economic organisation would have its place all the while under capitalism. With regard to the “capturing” of the trade unionists, that was the old theory of the I.L.P. playing to the rank and file and patting them on the back. We were going to carry on the work of propaganda for Socialism in the trade unions in an open and above-board manner. Boring from within by the S.D.F. had been very erratic. In the main it had consisted of going in and mentioning Socialism only when there was no danger. It was not a question of capturing the trade unions but of educating the workers inside as well as outside. So long as a member of a union had the evidence for every statement he made and fought openly there would be little danger of his being thrown out.

The resolution was carried by 19 to 4.

Motion by Neumann and Carter to rescind Kent’s resolution passed at previous meeting.

Neumann said his reason for re-moving the rescindment was that it was not declaring war on the unions so long as we allowed our members to remain in the trade unions. Again how could a Socialist organisation permit itself to be controlled by another organisation ? We should be as one body.

Carter concurred.

The resolution for the rescindmeut was lost by 14 to 12.

Anderson moved the following resolution :

“That only by political organisation can the workers emancipate themselves.”

Anderson said ever since any one of us became Socialist the question had been, not whether or not we were fighting the trade unions, but how we were to fight them. Trade unionism was concerned with palliating capitalism.

Betts seconded the resolution.

Neumann opposed the resolution, saying that it said something contrary to fact, viz., that the working class could fight the capitalist class without fighting them on the economic field.

The adjournment was moved and defeated.

Anderson, in reply, said just as we told the workers in the trade unions they may fight against a reduction but nevertheless they would ultimately have to suffer reductions, we could point out to them that by political action they could overthrow the capitalist system.

The resolution was lost by 15 to 5.


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