Trade Unionism. S.L.P. versus S.P.G.B.

To prove our proposition in this debate we shall first state the true Socialist position on the trade union question and then proceed to show how the wanderings of the S.P.G.B. away from that position have landed them into great confusion.

In this paper the word “political” will cover all action affecting the state, including the political ballot, the political strike and the political rising. “Economic” will be held to mean “on the field of industry.” The basis of all Socialist tactics is the class struggle, which arises economically and is developed into politics.

Every member of the working class is employed by a member or members of the capitalist class. The antagonism of class interests in the workshop, mine, or factory, arising from the ownership by the capitalist class of the means of production, is expressed by the formula “more wages, less profits ; less wages, more profits,” and is the basic, the original and the most obvious expression of the class struggle. When this is thoroughly grasped by any worker, he will readily proceed further to understand that just as he and his shopmates have a common interest against their employer, so he and his class have a common interest against the employing class as a whole, organised in the state. Therefore from the point of view of making Socialists, revolutionary propaganda in the workshops is by far the most potent means.

The class antagonism in the workshop forces itself more or less clearly on the notice of all the workers and drives them to unite in unions the better to carry on their side of the contest.

Trade unions in this country had their origin in an age when the handicraft industry was only beginning to be supplanted by machine industry, and they therefore took the form of unions of craftsmen. As the development of machinery is rapidly making the craftsman as extinct as the dodo, these craft unions have gradually lost all the usefulness they ever had, to the working class at least; and now by artificially dividing the workers along the lines of supposed craft interests, they obscure their common class interest and so are stumbling blocks in the way of working-class emancipation. These craft unions are constantly quarrelling and blacklegging on each other ; they foster and encourage that mischievous division of the workers into mechanics and labourers, which is such an obstacle to working-class solidarity. Again they have become a great vested interest and have brought into existence a powerful group of permanent officials whose chief interest in life is to keep their jobs intact and who dominate the great mass of the workers on both the industrial and political fields. By truckling to the craft unions and their officials more than one revolutionary movement in this country which started out full of promise, has been finally engulfed in a bog of opportunism and compromise.

Economic organisation then, being necessary and inevitable, must to fulfil its proper functions, be based on class not on craft lines, and must have as its object the real interest of the working class, namely, the overthrow of the parasite capitalist class and the taking over and holding the means of production by arid for the workers themselves. In other words, the economic organisation of the workers must be a revolutionary class union. To be a class union it must unite all wage workers according to industries, in other words according to their actual economic groupings. Thus all the workers in a particular workshop or factory would form one local union which would form part of the Union of the particular industry in question and this again would be a department of the general union which would unite in itself all the industrial organisations. Such an union the A. of I.U. are endeavouring to start in Great Britain, and we claim that, without it, the overthrow of capitalism will be impossible. History teaches very clearly that economic power invariably precedes political. It was only after they had gained complete control of the means of production, that the capitalists attained political power, and so must the working class. The bourgeoisie gained control over the means of production through the possession of property, but the working class who have no property, can only do so through organisation. It is they that carry on every operation of production, and, if organised industrially, they can control every productive process.

The power of the organised workers to carry on or stop production at will is the power that will overthrow capitalism, and usher in the Socialist Republic. Whatever of good there is in electoral action, it is obvious that the master class will never surrender their privileged position to votes alone, unless behind those votes stands the organised might of the workers, ready and able to enforce the mandate of their ballot.

The industrial union is then necessary to the workers under capitalism, and is necessary for the overthrowing of capitalism, and its existence must precede effective political action of any kind. It is therefore the clear duty of every revolutionary Socialist to join us in forming such an union.

And now what is the position of the S.P.G.B. ? Their Manifesto, issued in 1905, states that trade unions should be supported if they act on sound lines, and opposed if they act wrongly—a neutral position, which, when applied to politics, the S.P.G.B. repudiates. Nothing is said in this Manifesto about the necessity of revolutionary economic organisation for overthrowing capitalism. No clear and definite tactics are outlined for the guidance of a party which above all else prides itself on the clearness and definiteness of its position, as witness the phrase—now well-worn even to shabbiness—anent “clear and unmistakable principles interpreted in plain and unequivocal tactics.” On the other hand a facing-both-ways attitude was adopted which leaves every situation, as it arises, open to doubt, discussion and hesitation.

At the first Conference of the S.P.G.B. a motion in favour of a straight and uncompromising position was rejected, and a vague and indefinite resolution adopted instead.

In as much as all articles in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD were first approved by the executive committee, who made a practice of rejecting matter they considered unsound, the appearance of Allen’s article on “Boring from Within” in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD for November, 1905, was hailed by well-wishers of the Party as a sign that they had at last come down from the fence on the union question and had adopted a straight, uncompromising attitude. In this article, we find the following :

“We Socialists want to see industrial unionism, that is, we want to see all the workers in each trade organised, and the various trades in each industry affiliated, thus forming one huge, cohesive organisation of the workers.”

But, however bright the hopes raised by the publication of “Boring from Within,” they were doomed to be dashed to the ground. A further article by Allen on the same lines was in March, 1906, rejected as unsound, and at the annual conference of that year, a motion in favour of revolutionary industrial unionism was defeated and the question referred to a Party meeting.

This was held in four instalments in May—June, 1906. Several resolutions were put on the agenda, including one by the then Bexley branch, which gave expression to the position outlined at the beginning of this paper. All were, however, defeated but two—Kent’s and Fitzgerald’s. Space is too short to recite these in full, but their mutual contradictions may be summarized as follows :

Kent’s resolution

(a) declares war on existing unions,
(b) advocates the formation of a Socialist industrial union. (Though insisting that such union must be controlled by the S.P.G.B.),
(c) adopts as method, therefore, what is known as “boring from without,”

Fitzgerald’s resolution

(a) does not declare war against existing unions,
(b) advocates the formation of a Socialist craft union—”the trade sub-division as the chief detail of organisation,”
(c) adopts as method “boring from within.”

It had been decided by the 1906 Conference that a poll should be taken on any resolutions passed by the Party meeting. This was not done till the beginning of the present year—the S.P.G.B. being left for 6 or 7 months in the extraordinary position of having provisionally adopted at one and the same time two mutually destructive positions.

When at last the poll was taken the party rejected both the resolutions. For this we commend them. But to destroy what is unsound is not enough ; construction is needed. The rescinding of Kent’s and Fitzgerald’s resolutions simply brought the S.P.G. B. back to the nebulosity of the 1905 Manifesto, and there, so far as we can ascertain, they still remain.

The S.P.G.B. in holding a Party meeting last year to define their attitude on the union question, were admitting that up to that time, despite the Manifesto, their attitude on the union question had not been satisfactorily defined. After the best wisdom of the Party had been expended during the four sessions of this meeting in adopting, not one but two positions, the membership has by its action declared both of these to be also unsatisfactory. But instead of at once endeavouring to define a sound policy, they have been satisfied to return to an attitude, which by their action they have already declared to be unsound.

We therefore maintain that on the question of trade unionism, the position of the S.P.G.B. is one of hopeless confusion.




To talk of the S.P.G.B “wandering away” from the true position practically asserts that the S.P.G.B. at one time held the true position—otherwise they could not have wandered away from it—a thing the “Advocates” deny later on.

After a reference to the position of employer and employed, we are told by our critics that “revolutionary propaganda in the workshops is by far the most potent means” though they are curiously silent as to how this is to be done today under the strict supervision that exists in most modern factories and where any attempt to propagate Socialist ideas, or push literature, is usually followed by dismissal.

Paragraph 6 says—

“Economic organisation . . . must be based on class not on craft lines”

and then goes on to say—

“To be a class union it must unite all the wage-workers according to industries (!)”

Perhaps this is a specimen of New Scots humor but the contradiction in talking of forming a “class” union according to “industry” should have been obvious even to the “Advocates.” It is then said—

“Thus all the workers in a particular workshop or factory would form one local union, which would form part of the union of the particular industry in question and this again would be a department of the general union which would unite in itself all the industrial organisations. Such an union the A. of I.U. are endeavouring to form in Great Britain.”

From the above jumble of local unions, departments, industrial organisations, etc., forming finally a general union one can only draw the conclusion that the time thus occupied will be wasted since the General Federation of Trade Unions is in the field to carry on that work.

In paragraph 7 we are told that—

“The power of the organised workers to carry on or stop production at will is the power that will overthrow capitalism and usher in the Socialist Republic,”

This is begging the entire question for it is exactly the question of what power that is in dispute. The Anarchist claims that the strike, particularly the “general” strike, is the method to be followed—an attitude to-day re-christened “direct action.” If the “Advocates” mean the power of the economic organisations on the industrial field they are preaching the same stupid fallacy. The power of the workers to carry on or stop production depends entirely upon their control of the fighting forces, and even if all men were inside their industrial unions they could no more “take and hold” the means of production and distribution by that form of organisation than by the present ones. With the modern weapons of precision and rapid death-dealing, the unarmed and undrilled workers would be easily driven out of the mills and factories, while, with the large stores at their command, the capitalist class could sit down and let starvation complete the work.

Just previously the “Advocates” stated that “the bourgeoisie gained control over the means of production through the possession of property” (as though means of production were not property) while as a matter of historical fact the bourgeoisie laid the foundations of their control by first building up an army under Cromwell and Fairfax to fight the Army of the Feudal Aristocracy.

After what we have stated paragraph 8 is quite gratuitous as not one of the so-called “necessary” things have been shown to be even useful, let alone necessary.

The criticism of the S.P.G.B. position then begins. We are told that this position is “neutral.” This must be another joke, for how a position that opposes one side and supports another can be “neutral” will puzzle the “Advocates” to explain. They state—

“Nothing is said in this Manifesto about the necessity of revolutionary economic organisation for overthrowing capitalism”.

But the Manifesto on p. 10 says:—

“The basis of the actions of the trade unions must be a clear recognition of the position of the workers under capitalism and the class-struggle necessarily resulting therefrom : in other words they must adopt the Socialist position if they are going to justify their existence at all.”

Can the “Advocates” put the position better ? Yet they call this a “facing both-ways attitude.”

The quotation from THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, in paragraph 11, is carefully selected, for the whole of the article with the exception of that sentence is devoted to advocating a Socialist union, and when Allen openly advocated industrial unions in his next article it was rejected.

At the Annual Conference, when the industrial union resolution was moved, it was the “Advocates” who opposed having an open discussion on the matter and wanted it rushed through there and then. Space is too short to give the resolutions in full they say. This must have been fortunate for the “Advocates” as it enables them to make false statements under the cover of want of space.

The resolutions are given in full in the July, 1906 and February, 1907 SOCIALIST STANDARDS, where it will be seen that Kent’s resolution did not state that the union must be controlled by the S.P.G.B., while Fitzgerald’s advocates a Socialist union on a class basis—the rest being matters of detail—and urges propaganda outside as well as inside the trade unions and cannot be called “boring from within” in any sense of that much abused phrase.

The “Advocates,” in commending us for rejecting these resolutions, seem unaware that the reasons given for this rejection were that the position laid down in the Manifesto, coupled with the Declaration of Principles, was a sufficiently clear exposition, of the Socialist position on Trade Unionism.

The next paragraph says:—

“The S.P.G.B. in holding a Party Meeting last year to define their attitude on the trade union question, were admitting that up to that time, despite the Manifesto, their attitude on the union question had not been satisfactorily defined.”

This is a piece of cheap, specious pleading that will deceive few. At every one of our propaganda meetings we invite discussion of the Principles of Socialism. Does this admit that those Principles are not satisfactory ? Certainly not. When a few members had been bitten with the I.W.W. fever and tried to get their views adopted without adequate discussion, then the meetings were called to openly discuss the position and see if these supporters of the I.W.W. could show any flaw in our standpoint. This they entirely failed to do and the vote of the Party resulted as above. In face of these simple facts the rest of the paragraph is sheer nonsense and on the whole question they have completely failed to show that any confusion or unsoundness exists on the side of the S.P.G.B.

But what is the position of the “Advocates” ? Why are they so peculiarly silent on the question of existing industrial unions ? It may be said that none exist as yet in Great Britain. If for the sake of argument we assume this, then whence does Industrial Unionism arise ? The answer is America. When the Industrial Workers of the World Union was formed in Chicago in 1905 certain persons in this country adopted the idea without examination or discussion and tried to form a branch of that organisation here through the Advocates of Industrial Unionism.

At the beginning the I.W.W. was endorsed in full, its literature distributed, and phrases and terms used in America imported here. And one of the chief arguments used by the I.W.W. supporters in America was that the present unions manufactured their own blacklegs by their high initiation fees, dues, etc. which must be paid or the member is excluded.

Any union that excludes members for non-payment of dues—which non-payment is largely due to unemployment—manufactures its own blacklegs, and this is exactly what the I.W.W. does. Its entrance fee and minimum dues are larger than several English unions, while its period for arrears of dues ordering exclusion, is 60 days as against the 180 days allowed by the majority of existing unions.

Tho I.W.W. therefore tends to make its own blacklegs faster even than the ordinary unions mentioned and accentuates the very evil complained of. This point by itself is sufficient to condemn the I.W.W., but it is not all. The organisers and officials of the I.W.W. tell the workers that their “pure and simple” strikes are failures because conducted on “craft” lines but that an I.W.W. strike would be victorious because their position is invincible. Yet every strike they have undertaken has been a failure ! The Buffalo Garment Workers’, the Witchita Bakers’ and the Schenectady Electrical Workers’ strikes—all organised and run by the I.W.W. —were complete victories for the employers. A split has lately taken place and we have the encouraging spectacle of the workers being indivisibly and economically united into two I.W.W’s. Inability to decide which Workers of the World they should endorse is perhaps responsible for the attempt to form a third—and British—Workers of the World here, and curiously enough by the very means so readily condemned in others. Not only are they ready and willing to attend any craft or other union for the purpose of advocating their views, but as in the case of members of the S.L.P., they appear upon the platforms and support men and organisations, (under the cover of it being a meeting for Industrial Unionism) that at other times they condemn as misleaders of the working class. Such actions would not be tolerated for a moment by the S.P.G.B. On this point our position has been clear and consistent. No deliberate support of capitalists or capitalism has been allowed, and in one or two cases where such occurred the members offending were at once put outside. No excuse—trade union or other—has been allowed to cover any voluntary action in support of capitalism, but adherence to the Declaration of Principles insisted on in every case.

The fact that Industrial Unionism is the latest of many attempts that have been made to form a Socialist organisation with non-Socialist material is not only bound to produce failure, but, as is shown in America, also adds another organisation to the long list of those that provide a field for, and give encouragement to, the “Labour Fakir” and misleader. The position of the S.P.G.B., on the contrary, is to carry on Socialist education towards the building up of the Socialist enonomic organisation that will aid the Socialist Party to abolish capitalism.

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