The Osborne Judgment: Why Socialists do not demand its reversal
Chopping and Changing
Mr. Ramsay MacDonald tells us that the reversal of the Osborne Judgment is to have first and last place in the Labour Party “platform” at the imminent electoral contests. In the by-election at Walthamstow the question is kept well to the front by the labourites, while the party, after its characteristic humbugging manner, has begun a campaign with the object of reawakening working-class and other interest, of raising funds, and advancing of its new programme – its precious “Right to Work” Bill meanwhile taking a back seat.
On the other hand we find a great many workers – and trade unionists to boot – following the lead of the Daily Express and its kind, who protest that they “wouldn’t mind supporting a genuine Labour party but we are not going to pay for Socialists in Parliament”. All this topsy-turvydom is very pitiful, but more provocative of curses than of mirth.
Briefly, the Osborne judgment declares that political action is outside the scope of legitimate trade union activity and that consequently the members may not be levied for such purpose. Further, the edict reads, the pledging of members of Parliament to the service of the bodies that send them there is contrary to public interest and unconstitutional.
As regards the legal aspect of the matter we have no opinion and, at the present juncture, very little interest. But as Socialists and workers, with the Socialist outlook upon politics and working class interests – some of us, perforce, trade unionists – we necessarily have very decided opinions as to the worth – or worthlessness – of the so-called Labour Party and the proposal to reverse the judgement.
Whatever doubts we may have as to the motives behind and the influence brought to bear to secure the change in the labour political situation, we cannot do otherwise than welcome that change. In the first place we find trade unions unsuited from their very nature for the conduct of political activity in the interest of the working class. In the second place we have nought but contempt and hatred for their political manifestation – the party of Shackleton, Hardie, Snowden and Crooks; the party that has, not inaptly, been dubbed the tail of the Liberal dog. Our members who are trade unionists are consequently glad; while there is every reason to believe, from what we know of the rank and file – the boasted one and three-quarter million members of the Labour Party (which we regard as one of the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of Socialism) has been dealt a very severe blow.
The Functions of Trade Unions
Now the trade union is primarily organised to protect and fortify the workers of a trade section, or a group of more or less allied trades. Its methods are economic, not political; the cessation of, or threat to cease, production and distribution, the strike, direct pressure upon or resistance to the employers, are its weapons – their effectiveness is not in question here. The members join for trade purposes – for the regulation of the hours and conditions of employment – for the friendly society features – and a very large number because it is a trade condition: membership is compulsory. But membership for political action is certainly not the rule, even if it ever occurs; and it is clear that the unions could never have arisen had the contrary been the case. The only unity in trade union ranks is and has been on the economic plane. What economic interests have joined together politics tear asunder – for the simple reason that all shades of political opinion meet in the economic organisation.
We are Not for Reversal
Any acquaintance with trade unionists shows the above account of the nature of the movement and membership to be a correct one and also reveals what comparatively little real support the recent political manifestation – the Labour Party – has among them. This being the case, it would be surprising if some did not use their utmost endeavours to stop their political exploitation by the I. L. P. and the gang of place-hunting tricksters who now have fastened their hungry jaws upon the vitals of the Labour movement. We for our part cannot quarrel with them so far. We claim that for a class in the position of the modern working class, who have no hope save in their own growing knowledge of their position in society and their perception of the path they must follow, only that political support actuated by such knowledge can have any value. Indeed, financial or other assistance which is not motivated by the class-conscious conviction is likely to be a source of embarrassment, if not of positive weakness and danger, for the reason that it might lead the workers to rely upon strength they do not possess. Therefore freedom of judgment in matters political is essential to the progress and security of the working-class movement. The logic of this is that those responsible for the Osborne judgment have done no harm to the working class or to Socialism, but rather the contrary; and if by any fortunate chance their action could result in the blotting out from the political field (a thing their Liberal paymasters are already preparing to prevent by means of a measure for the “Payment of Members”) of the “labour” leeches who are leading the cry for reversal, then indeed the good they would have accomplished for the workers would be uncalculable.
What the Brigands Fear
That the astute Ramsay MacDonald and the rest realise how unreliable a support they have in the average trade unionist is manifest from their very insistence upon reversal. Reversal of the judgment, of course, means restitution to the governing bodies of the unions of the power to levy their members for the maintenance of the Labour Group – the power to collect moneys from unwilling members. But it means more than this. The maintenance of the Labour Group might be assured by the projected measure for the payment of members and election expenses; but maintenance is not the only thing that worries the tricksters. Nor is it the matter of principle, for if they were elevating coercion to the dignity of a principle it would be the first principle that MacDonald, Hardie, Snowden, Thorne & Co. ever yet fought for – as history shows.
No, what these men fear is the growing consciousness of the working class, as manifested in the increasing power of the S. P. G. B. They know that they have built up their position on the ignorance of the working class, by obscuring the fundamental nature of the antagonism of interests between the workers and their masters, and by denying the existence of the class struggle. Upon this foundation of deception, fraud and ignorance they have been able to lift themselves to pelf and place, coercing those who understood the situation, as also those who opposed them without understanding, into contributing to their support. But so soon as the financial barrier to contesting elections is swept away by payment of members and election expenses, the Labour ghouls lose the monopoly which their control of the trade union funds has hitherto given them. They may find opposition, then, even in their own camp, and seats given them by working class ignorance with the Liberal squint may be wrested from them by working-class ignorance with the Tory squint. And more even than this, they dread the day when their position shall be challenged by the candidates of the Socialist Party, taking their stand upon the class struggle – a day which will undoubtedly be brought nearer, firstly by the Osborne judgment, and secondly by the measure which is to follow it. Those who scheme to run with the hare of Labour and hunt with the hounds of capital have a pretty lively foreboding that they will catch it in the neck when the issue is clearly put before the workers – for or against the abolition of the master class.
Choosing their Masters
So Payment of Members – so long one of the Labour planks – is rejected with scorn now that it is about to materialise, and strenuous efforts are to be made to get Parliament to legalise the levies. At Walthamstow, where there is a bye-election pending, the local I. L. P. and Labourite crowd threatened that if Sir J. Simon, the Liberal candidate, will not promise to support this measure, pledge the Government to reversal, or otherwise satisfy them, they will vote for the Tory! Well, whichever they vote for they will do equal execution – in the ranks of the working class. They will once again have helped the rich to retain their grasp of the political machinery, and, thereby, their monopoly of the means of life and consequent mastership over their slaves.
Now the object of Socialists and of Socialist politics is the emancipation of the workers from the industrial enslavement to the capitalist class that is inseparable from private ownership or capitalist class-control. LIBERAL AND TORY ALIKE ARE AGREED TO MAINTAIN THIS PROPERTY BASIS OF INDUSTRY, and therefore also agree to perpetuate the enslavement of the workers that arises from it. They fight emancipation; they fight Socialism. Is it possible, then, that Socialists can help put Liberal or Tory into office? Clearly the answer is NO. When an individual or a party perpetrates such crime against Socialism, against emancipation, against the working class, they become slavers’ henchmen, dupes or mercenaries, no matter what they call themselves.
Know ye not, then, fellow workers, that this fraud called a Labour Party has arisen, and, for the purpose of its wirepullers, succeeded, directly through such betrayal? The 40 “Labour” M. P.s are such to-day only through arrangement with the Liberal Party. Their whole history proves it. The March ’06 and March ’10 issues of this journal, reporting the last two General Elections, prove it. From Henderson to Thorne they have all bought their places with the flesh and blood of the working class.
Are these, then, who call upon you to place your industrial masters in political office, still Socialists because some of them say they are such?
So then our worthy shopmates, who daily suck wisdom at the founts of Pearson and Harmsworth, may rest content that so far as the Socialists are concerned, they do but hope that the appealed-for “tanners” will be withheld and the Osborne judgment remain in force.
To those who support the Labour Party we would appeal to reconsider their position. What does its boasted achievements amount to after all? The Liberals have been helped to pass the Old Age Pensions Bill, Workmen’s Compensation, the Trades Disputes Bill and the Budget. But the workers are as poor, as enslaved, as precariously placed as ever. The struggle for an ignominious existence is as intense as ever and worst of all, the enslaved toilers are, thanks to Labourite and humbugging I. L. P. and S. D. P. pseudo Socialism, practically as ignorant of their position and nearly as far from Socialism as ever they were. We would ask sincere men and women who still give the Labour Party their support in the hope that they are doing something for the workers, whether it is not time they made a serious study of the Socialist position – the revolutionary position – as alone consistently taught by the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
(Socialist Standard, November 1910)