1910s >> 1911 >> no-88-december-1911

The Socialist and Trade Unionism – Part 2

Part 2
We have seen that, in order that the ordinary laws of the competitive market shall find those presupposed conditions in the labour market without which they do not operate, in order, that is to say, that labour-power shall exchange for the cost of its production instead of the cost of its production shaping itself according to the rate of its exchange, combination becomes necessary on the part of the sellers of labour-power.
But the object of this combination, not being revolutionary, does not essentially demand that the combination shall be on a revolutionary basis.
To struggle for higher wages and better conditions is not revolutionary in any sense of the word; and the essential weapons in this struggle are not revolutionary either.
True, the real interest of the working class demands that the basis of every working-class organisation shall be revolutionary—but that is because it demands the revolutionisation of the whole system.
But first of all it demands, not the revolutionising of the basis of working-class organisations, but the revolutionising of the workers themselves.
For how can it be supposed that any mere paper-based revolutionary basis is going to help in the attainment of a revolutionary end if the only force behind it—the members constituting the organisation—have not the revolutionary consciousness?
When the Socialist Party was formed it was formed for a revolutionary purpose. The first thing to be done, therefore, was to put it on a revolutionary basis. This was defined in a declaration of principles. Only those who can accept these principles are admitted to membership, for only such are fit material for the prosecution of the revolutionary purpose.
On the other hand, trade unions are necessary, not to overthrow the present system, but to resist capitalist encroachment under the system. In this case the essential basis is that which will serve for the organisation of the fit material for the purpose in view.
To fix upon a revolutionary basis in this case and under present circumstances must be one of these two things: If it is made a condition of membership it must, because of the smallness of the number of those who have reached the revolutionary stage, render the organisation futile for the purpose which calls it into existence; on the other hand, if the revolutionary basis, having been laid down, is ignored—is not insisted upon as the indispensable condition of admittance to membership, then the organisation is not a revolutionary foundation in the first place, and the revolutionary idea is degraded, and the workers are deluded and confused in the second place.
For the principles of an organisation can only have two virtues. First, as a basis of organisation—a test of membership; secondly as a guide to action. Apart from these, principles are not worth the breath that avows them.
And if the principles are not first made the basis of organisation, if they are not accepted by the membership as pointing the way to their object, they cannot become the guide to action.
Clearly, then, the attitude of the Socialist toward trade unions is well defined. When he says that labour-power has the commodity nature he says that it must express its value through a struggle in the labour market. Both these statements force him to the conclusion that the non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. Therefore he would not either reduce the trade unions to impotence by closing them to non-Socialists, or spread confusion by getting them to avow principles which are not necessary to their object, and which the members do not hold.
He must, therefore, accept trade unions as they are, and, realising that all their grave and undeniable faults are but the reflection of the mental shortcomings of their members, realise that it is in the latter that the revolutionary foundation is necessary, and act accordingly.
It is hardly necessary to say that those so-called Socialists who would close the economic organisation to the non-Socialist would do two other things besides. They would bar the Socialist from the non-Socialist trade union, and they would shut the doors of the Socialist political organisation to all members of such unions.
The logic of this is, first, that the non-revolutionary struggle in the economic field is not necessary, or
That the struggle against capitalist encroachments is revolutionary.
If the struggle is not necessary it is, of course, quite logical for a Socialist party to demand that its members shall have none of it. On the other hand, if the struggle is revolutionary it is perfectly logical for the Socialist to demand that the economic organisations formed to prosecute that struggle be revolutionary also.
The present scribe has never met with one of these gentlemen whose faith he is attacking, who, being asked the plain question: “Is it necessary for the workers to struggle for better wages and conditions for better wages and conditions of labour”, would dare answer no; or who, being asked if such struggle is revolutionary, dare answer yes.
So our non trade-unionist critic, in his mad endeavour to restrict the actions of the class-conscious worker to the purely revolutionary object, gets himself into a most illogical position. He starts by declaring that nothing but Socialism concerns the Socialist. He perceives that this implies that the Socialist must be able to detach himself from the world that is, since it is not a Socialist world. Well, everything must be distorted to fit his pet theories. He professes himself able to so detach himself. He declares that he can view all things “as a Socialist”, which with him means from the standpoint that nothing matters but Socialism. When he is put to the question of his attitude toward trade unions he shuts his eyes and jumps.
Of course, it is a rather awkward situation. To say that the Socialist can view all things from the standpoint that nothing matters but Socialism is an easy matter, but it wants a deal of upholding when the worker has got to view the labour market from the standpoint of the seller of labour-power. Is he, if he understands Socialist economics, and therefore all the better understands the necessity of the struggle against capitalist encroachment, to give up personal participation in the struggle? Is he, directly he becomes armed and equipped for the battle of the future, to be rendered powerless and paralytic in the equally necessary struggle of the present?
If, when a worker attains to class-consciousness, he ceases to require food, clothing and shelter, ceases to be a vendor of labour-power, ceases to be under the necessity which all commodity owners are under—of fighting for the realisation of the value of his commodity, in this case labour-power; if, in short, he ceases to be anything but a pure abstraction in whom even the charitable raven could find no want to minister to, no lodgement for a beakful of material sustenance, then it might be logical to say that no Socialist can belong to a trade union.
But if the class-conscious worker still must live by the sweat of his brow, or rather by the sale of his potential energy, then he must resort to the instrument which make the conditions of a sale, as distinct from the conditions which environ the chattel slave’s dole.
Among these instruments, for a certain number, are, under present conditions, trade unions on a non-revolutionary base. And as far as the Socialist thinks them necessary to his personal economic welfare, as far, that is, as economic pressure forces him to, he is right and justified in using them.
And when I speak of economic pressure I do not mean merely the degree of it which marks the border-line of semi-starvation. Economic pressure, it is too often forgotten, commences with the first atomic offering of economic advantage, and the degree where the individual is sensible of it and consciously influenced by it, is here or there as circumstances decide.
The critic who would “determinedly and consciously” fight the trade unions “out of existence” provides no alternative instrument for carrying on the struggle against capitalist encroachment now. When he offers us economic organisation upon a revolutionary base he tells us that the resistance on the economic field has to cease until he has made his revolutionaries! Even the advocates of “Industrial Unionism” were not so blind as this, for they, recognising that not only the revolutionaries were necessary to the present “bargaining or higgling for better conditions”, belied the “revolutionary” foundation of their organisation by leaving it open for non-revolutionaries.
The only shred of argument the anti-trade-unionist can find in support of his attitude is the plea that the trade unions are political organisations. But here again he is bereft of reason. A political organisation is an organisation composed of those who organise for the political purpose. There is no such trade union in the whole wide country. Trade unionists organise for economic reasons, not political—not even to attain economic ends by political means. If the wirepullers lead them into taking political action they do not make them political organisations, but, in the storm of dissension and disruption they arouse, prove their essentially non-political character. It takes more than a few political tricksters, battening upon the ignorance and apathy of the membership, to constitute a trade union a political organisation, just as it required more than a few reactionaries in the Socialist Party to constitute that organisation a reactionary body.
But the whole purpose of economic organisation is a mystery to the particular type of opponent whom the present writer is combating. They say that it is impossible “at the present stage of capitalist development, for trade unions to take only economic action”. How they arrive at this conclusion appears when they declare that the Socialist position “insists upon the political and economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”.
If economic organisation is a means to the capture of political power, then it may be argued, with some show of reason, that trade unions are political organisations and therefore can take only political action.
But it is ridiculous to talk of economic organisation for the capture of political power. Such an object at once makes the organisation political, not economic. If men organise for the purpose of “bargaining and higgling for better conditions” by combined action on the industrial field, then their organisation is an economic one. If they organise to attain the same end by political means, then it is a political organisation as well as an economic one.
But the case of our anti-trade-unionist opponent does not come within the limits of either of these descriptions. He tells us that the “bargaining or higgling for better conditions in itself is no concern of Socialism”,—though he puts it that way to obscure the fact that he means that they are no concern of Socialists.
If he does not mean this there is no sense in his remark, for Socialism has no senses, and so can have no concerns.
As the economic struggle is no concern of the Socialist, and all the members of the economic organisation are to be Socialists, the economic organisation cannot be concerned with the economic struggle, it cannot be an economic organisation.
As the economic organisation that isn’t economic has for its purpose the capture of political power, it is a political organisation. A pretty picture our opponent’s tangle makes when it is straightened out.
But stay, there is one frail thread’s end not yet taken up. It will be claimed, perhaps, that the organisation exists to use economic means to capture political power, and is economic. This is the only argument left.
But then what are these means? There are but two possible replies. One is the reply of the Anarchist—the General Strike. The other is the reply of the Industrial Unionist; it is that they must “SEIZE AND HOLD THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION, in defiance of the armed forces”, in defiance, necessarily, of the political power they desire to capture.
The Socialist position does not “insist upon the political and economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”.
The Socialist position is that the capture of political power must be the work of a political party, the fruit of political action. The capture of political power is necessary to enable the economic action of taking over the means of production to be proceeded with. Therefore it is madness to say the Socialist position “insists upon the . . . economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”.
The Socialist position is adequately laid down in the Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party thus: “The working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government”. That was true when it was adopted. Let all beware of adding or taking away a word.
A. E. Jacomb
(To be continued here.)