Asked & Answered: Trade Unionism and Reformism

[To the editor.]
Manchester, 28.3.1912.
Dear Sir, —Your article, “Rates and Taxes,” in this month’s issue seems to me to completely undermine your position in regard to your attitude to the activities of other Socialists. With untiring persistency you have pointed out and vehemently denounced those who urge the working class to seek to improve their position through reform, arguing that reform is no reform at all that improves the lot of one set of workers at the expense of others; that to benefit some is to make others smart the more. This argument you have worked to death, waxing angry and indignant at the folly and futility of it all. Nay, more ; you deliberately charge well known Socialists with most malicious motives, and yet in the article above mentioned, you destroy your contention when you say : “The claim of the Free Trader and ‘Labour’ politician that the consumer always pays the tax is seen to be false, for if the owners could simply raise prices they would not spend money in fighting the tax.”
Now if this be true, and the same process of reasoning be applied to the miners’ strike, it shows that considering the coalowners’ determined opposition to the miners’ demands, that the men do stand to gain at the expense of the coalowners.
Hitherto you have ridiculed this as nothing but a fatuous delusion, but now on your own showing a rise in wages would be a clear gain to the workers. And as a strike like the present one involves about a million men and their dependents, even a Socialist might spare a little time and energy, without impairing his Socialistic principles and advocacy of Socialism, in helping some of us to get a little more here and now, and being further justified on the well-established belief that we don’t live for ever.
V. W.


The statement that we have “ridiculed as nothing but a fatuous delusion” the fact that the workers gain by enjoying a real rise in wages is sheer invention, as is also the statement that we have argued that “to benefit some is to make others smart the more.” We have never made such statements, and we challenge V.W. to point out an issue of this paper as evidence of the truth of his assertion. If he had studied our Party Organ and our Manifesto he would know that we do recognise the necessity for trade union action under capitalism, and that we urge the toilers to improve their unions by basing them upon their interests as a class.

V. W., however, confuses the reforms advocated by various politicians and the daily struggle of the trade unionists. The difference is fundamental, and can only be understood by realising their nature and purpose.

Reforms are advocated by politicians in order to catch the votes of the unthinking workers. It makes a show of doing something for them. If the toilers vote for and support these reforms they are brought into the camp of the supporters of capitalism, and the work of making them Socialists still remains to be done.

These reforms leave the material condition of the workers untouched. They ignore the cause of the workers’ sufferings, and thus, even after the Acts instituting the reforms are passed, the cause continues unchecked, and produces the very effects the reforms are supposed to remove.

The reformers spend but a part of their time advocating reforms ; the rest is devoted to allying themselves with the open enemies of the toilers to bring the latter further under the iron heel of the employing class.

What, on the other hand, does trade union action signify ?

The workers have but one thing to sell—their latent energy. It is bought and sold like any other article of merchandise, and its price, therefore, varies with the supply on hand and the demand for it. These ups and downs centre around a certain point, which is formed by the cost (measured in unite of labour time) of the thing sold. The cost of producing the worker’s commodity is the food, clothing, shelter jobs causes fierce competition amongst the workers, and thus drives wages down. The heavy rise in the cost of living (through cheapening of gold) also helps to keep wages below the value of labour power. The attempt to make the wage cover the cost of living (to get the value of their labour-power) involves the toilers in a perpetual struggle. This is simply a commodity struggle at first, but it arouses fierce and often bloody opposition on the part of the masters, as their interests lie in retaining as much as possible of the wealth the workers make.

It is not a question of reform as ordinarily understood. It is simply a question of the working class keeping pace with the rising cost of living and also of making up for past wage reductions. Unless the toilers—Socialist and non-Socialist alike—struggle, they will sink lower in the scale, and become impotent against the inroads of the masters upon the wage bill.

Marx pointed out in 1865 the great difference between the economic struggle of the working class and reform agitation, and his words apply with powerful force to-day.

“In all cases I have considered, and they form ninety nine out of a hundred, you have seen that a struggle for a rise in wages follows only in the track of previous changes, and is the necessary offspring of previous changes in the amount of production, the productive powers of labour, the value of labour, the value of money, the extent of the intensity of labour extracted, the fluctuations of market prices, dependent upon the fluctuations of demand and supply, and consistent with the different phases of the industrial cycle; in one word, as reactions oj labour againtt the previous action of capital. By treating the struggle for a rise of wages independently of all these circumstances, by locking only upon the change of wages and overlooking all the other changes from which they emanate, you proceed from a false premise in order to arrive at false conclusions.” (“Value, Price, and Profit,” Chap. XIII.)

Whilst we point out the need for the daily struggles for increasing wages and resisting decreases, we also point out how powerless they are to change the system, with all the horrors it entails.

A further quotation from the same work will be useful here.

“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, and not with the causes of those effects ; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction ; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the sccial forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work !’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system.'” (“Value, Price, and Profit,” Chap. XIV.)

The essential thing is to convert the toilers to Socialism, for nothing short of it can bring relief to them frcm the crushing burdens that press upon them. A rise in wages to-day brings in its wake more efficient machinery, speeding up, the weeding out of the older and less energetic “hands,” and many other methods to compensate the masters. They fight like grim death against the toilers’ efforts to raise wages, but when the latter win they set about saving expenses in various ways prejudicial to their slaves.

The truth of our view of trade union efforts may be gleaned not only from Socialists, but even from the leading capitalist statistician. Mr. Chiozza Money says in the latest edition of “Riches and Poverty” (1910):

“While since 1900 nominal or money wages have been at a standstill, the cost of living has continued to rise. The retail cost of food rose 9 per cent. in 1900-8. Therefore British real or money wages have fallen heavily since 1900. A London platelayer, when he has the privilege of working 7 days a week, can earn 21s. in 1910 as in 1900. But the real value of 21s. has fallen by about 9 per cent., that is, he earns 1s. lOd. per week less than in 1900.”

He goes on to describe the power of the masters against the workers thus :

“The massing of capital in large units has so considerably strengthened the hand of capital in its dealings with labour that in recent years Trade Unions have comparatively lost much ground. To-day the masters in many of our industries can exercise collective powers much more effectively than Trade Unions. Combination amongst employers in some trades has reached a point at which it has become possible to rule alike the price of product and price of labour.”

This supports the view that on the economic field the toilers have to meet a powerful enemy with huge resources to oppose to the former’s puny pockets. The workers can hope for little from their struggle under these conditions, and must turn their attention to the real revolutionary work of getting political supremacy. Reforms are outpaced by the steady growth of misery among the masses through the increasing pressure of economic development. The working class, then, must cease reform advocacy if they are to attain the power to sweep away the poverty and privation that are ever their lot.


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