1910s >> 1912 >> no-89-january-1912

The Socialist and Trade Unionism – Part 3

Part 3
The anti-trade-union “Socialist” even goes so far as to declare that a Socialist organisation or journal cannot legitimately criticise trade union action — cannot offer comment upon a strike that has failed, and point out mistakes that have been made, and courses it would have been wiser to follow.
The argument used to support this contention is that a strike, and also the object of it, is a sectional concern, and that therefore the Socialist organ that enters upon the subject is guilty of sectional action contrary to the class basis of its principles.
Here again we have the old trouble — the shibboleth; the tyranny of terms and theories. The class idea is only partly understood.
When we speak of the class basis of Socialism we imply its direct and irreconcilable antagonism to capitalism and the capitalist class. Our organisation, our politics, our activities, are based upon the recognition of the class struggle. That is all.
Now the first phase of the class struggle which the workers are up against is the struggle to live in the present. This is quite as real a part of the class struggle as the endeavour for emancipation itself, though some otherwise enlightened wage-slaves whose lot is a comparatively easy one, seem unable to realise this.
The very elements of this struggle to live are “class”. True, a strike is sectional in a certain narrow sense; but it is only a sectional phase of a class effort; it is a part of the struggle of the working class against capitalist aggression.
As a matter of fact, this phase of the class struggle — the fight for wages and conditions — can only assume this sectional aspect. To assume an entirely “class” aspect involves the General Strike in its complete form. That, of course, can never come, because it presupposes organisation so far in advance of itself as to make it reactionary: organisation calling for Socialism, not for improved wages and conditions.
It is not, then, inconsistent with the revolutionary position to render support to trade unions in any action they may take upon sound lines, or to criticise their actions when they are unsound.
From what has been said it is clear that the Socialist Party cannot be antagonistic to the trade unions under present conditions, even though they have not a revolutionary basis. On the contrary, it cannot even wish this base to be changed for the revolutionary one, since the revolutionary material does not exist in sufficient quantity to enable unions restricted to such to perform their necessary functions.
What the Socialist Party must, however, be hostile to, is the misleading by the trade union leaders and the ignorance of the rank and file which make such misleading possible. But we call the manifestation of this hostility by a very good name — propaganda.
As to the future attitude of the Socialist Party toward trade unions, of course, the present penman has no warrant to speak. But to give a strictly personal view, it seems hardly conceivable that the trade unions will fail to adapt themselves to the growth of revolutionary knowledge amongst their memberships. There at present appears to be no reason why they should not. There is nothing fixed about their bases which would preclude the change without the whole structures toppling to the ground, always provided, of course, the one essential condition for their maintenance — a revolutionary rank and file — is at hand.
And even when the time comes when the revolutionary element among the membership could secure a narrow majority in a vote there seems to be no obvious reason for purging the organisations of those who do not hold the revolutionary opinion. Such a course could hardly avoid weakening the unions in their proper sphere of action under capitalist conditions, and would not strengthen them for the revolutionary purpose of the future. In addition, to do so must inevitably be to set up rival trade unions on a reactionary basis, and this would defeat the object of the revolutionaries in taking the step of revolutionising the unions.
For when it becomes a question of the respective strength of revolutionary and non-revolutionary unions, and more particularly as the first increased in strength, economic necessity would force men to hide their political convictions and creep into the organisation which offered them the best prospects immediately, just as it forces revolutionary workers to-day to join economic organisations on a non-revolutionary basis, and dominated by reactionaries and traitors.
To make political convictions the test of membership of organisations which men are forced to join on pain of economic penalty, therefore, is pre-ordained to defeat its own object.
And what good could be expected? The two functions of economic organisation are—immediate, and ultimate. The first is non-revolutionary, the second revolutionary. But though the two are so different they are not antagonistic. The non-revolutionary is not anti-revolutionary. To fight for present life does not delay the overthrow of the present social system. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle.
Moreover, after his conversion his methods on the economic field differ little from those he previously was compelled to follow. His greater knowledge will save him from many blunders in the field, will show him how little he has to hope for from the struggle he is compelled to make. But substantially the efforts of the revolutionary and the non-revolutionary unionist on the economic field are reduced to the same plane; that is, they must endeavour to restrict competition amongst themselves; to organise for collectively withholding their special quality of labour-power.
It is on the political field that the two part company and become antagonistic.
It is not difficult to understand this. The immediate object of economic organisation—the only one which present trade unions have—is non-political. It cannot be fought out on the political field. The arena is the labour market.
On the contrary, that other and future function of economic organisation, which is to take over and administer things when the workers have obtained political supremacy and destroyed the power of the State, that function cannot begin to be active until the workers have fought out the struggle upon the political field.
All fit material, revolutionary or non-revolutionary, for the struggle on the economic field, the resistance to capitalist encroachment, can and must prosecute the fight together. But directly the political is entered upon, one is necessarily working for or against the revolution, and the non-revolutionary worker of the economic field becomes an anti-revolutionist in the arena of politics.
It is just because this is so that it became necessary to organise a separate political party of the workers. It was necessary to leave the workers the instrument of their resistance to capitalist encroachment while the weapon for capitalism’s overthrow was being forged. Had the requirements of the two objects been the same, had the non-revolutionary worker been unnecessary in the present struggle upon the economic field, or had he been of any use in the revolutionary struggle, then the political and the economic organisations might have been one.
This seems to indicate that, as the revolutionary element in trade unions grows stronger, the same difficulty that at present makes it impossible to impose any political restriction upon their membership—that is, that disruption would result—will compel the unions to relegate all political action to political organisations.
Thus with the gradual spread of Socialist views and the consequent change of men’s minds, the unions may gradually become the fit instrument of what final purpose of economic organisation may have, without the purging process.
For it is difficult to see, at the present time, what is to be gained by the expulsion of such members as have not then embraced the revolutionary idea. The strength of the Socialist movement can never be judged by the strength of the economic organisation, whatever the supposed basis, but by the power of the working class political party, hence the presence of un-class-conscious workers in economic organisations avowedly open to such cannot well mislead. And at all events they will be present in such economic organisations as are ostensibly closed to them when those organisations are strong enough to influence their chances of obtaining work.
Of course, if the economic organisation was formed to “take and hold” in the face of the political supremacy of the master class, things would be different—a different material would be required. But economic organisation is not demanded for that purpose, but for carrying on production and distribution when the political party has achieved its purpose. It seems logical to suppose that, since production and distribution will not then be carried on by the revolutionaries alone, even the reactionary labour power may be better organised inside the economic organisations than outside.
However, interesting as these speculations are, they are rather outside the province of the present articles, which concern the attitude to-day of Socialists toward trade unions. This attitude cannot be one of hostility, though it devolves upon Socialists to combat the unsound action of trade unions and trade unionists, as also the ignorance from which these unsound actions spring. But when trade unions take action on sound lines it becomes Socialists to remember their class allegiance and give them support.
A. E. Jacomb