“A Whiff of Grape”
If the face of such a predicament as faces our lords and masters at the present moment the so-called labour problem assumes a visage that to the Socialist is both significant and humorous. The “patriotic” masters, in spite of the great need of the State for the good-will of their slaves, at least in the workshops, mines, factories and other and suchlike places where the slaves assume any importance at all, adhere with the tenacity of limpets to their old and natural policy of grinding the faces of those they have on the economic grindstone. However dire the need of the country that really, in substance and in fact, is theirs may be, their leech-like proclivities are only unleech-like in that they cannot gorge themselves to satiety.
The Welsh coal owners provide a typical example. In spite of the fact that, as Mr. Lloyd George says, “coal is everything for ‘us,’ and we want more of it to win victory.” “It bends, it moulds, it fills the weapons of war” ; in spite of the fact that their war fleet depends for its very life upon Welsh coal, the owners of the Welsh mines would not release in the smallest degree their clutch upon the throats of their wage-slaves. They could not realise, it seemed, that the whip which had driven the miners into the pits under the pre-war terms and conditions no longer had the power that it had in those days. The needs of the master class were too great and too urgent to permit of a resort to the old dodge of trying to starve the miners into submission. But the mine owners either were blind to this, or they counted upon the “patriotism” of the men to take the place of the whip of starvation. Anyhow, they drove the miners beyond the limits of patience before they abdicated, only showing their patriotism by placing themselves in the hands of the Government when they had lost the move.
This sort of thing has been going on all over the place. Everywhere the workers, faced with an increase of some fifty per cent. in the cost of living, have had to struggle bitterly to gain an advance of wages equal to but a fraction of the increased cost of living. And when they have been compelled to resort to the final step—the strike, what a howl of astonishment, indignation, and righteous (!) wrath has gone up from our masters’ Press !
Who does not remember what an “indelible stain” besmirched the “patriotism” of the Clyde shipyard men when they were guilty of refusing to let their masters have their labour-power on their own terms ? Who forgets what scoundrels the L.C.C. tramwaymen were for daring to put forward demands and taking the only action that counts for much in the way of supporting those demands ? And now it is the turn of the miners to be upheld as men who broke pledges—pledges which they had not given ; who had disobeyed their leaders—leaders whom the men pay to obey them ; who were murdering their comrades in the trenches—as if it were miners and not the masters who had sent them there.
Of course it could not be expected that the prostitute scribblers of the prostitute Press should remember that there are two sides to a disagreement as well as to an agreement. That the masters had deliberately chosen to sacrifice the efficiency of their own fleet and imperil their own forces in Flanders rather than relax a little the hard terms upon which their slaves could go down into the pits and tussel with Death for coal, was a facet of the position that the capitalist penmen would not be expected to have eyes for. Holders of any other commodity—any of the multitudinous products of labour—were to be permitted to push up the prices of their goods to the highest limit the unique situation gave them the opportunity to, and, no matter how necessary those commodities were, or how much misery their dearness brought upon immense numbers—of the people who don’t count, the working people—no word of stricture fell upon them. In the early days of the war, when it was claimed that only State control of the drink traffic could solve the problem of the shirker, the Government attempted to secure such control, but the brewers and distillers and other gentlemen of The Trade kicked up such a rumpus that the Asquithian courage oozed out and the project fell through—yet of all those newspapers who had shouted from the housetops that drink was lessening the output of munitions and killing the men in the trenches, not one ever applied to the brewers and distillers who refused to permit the drink to be placed beyond the reach of the “drinkers and shirkers” (and not, be it said, out of any love of the liberty of these latter) even the least of the filthy epithets they showered upon the men who had dared to claim a larger share of the wealth which they and they alone produced.
It was the sycophant claim of our masters’ Press that the miners should have continued to work while still negotiating ; but thoee who best know the master class in general and the mine-owners in particular, know very well that had they adopted this course they might have followed it to the end of the war—when the dispute would probably have been settled with the aid of policemen’s truncheons, as in the pre-war days. But as a matter of fact the men had tried this plan of negotiating while continuing to work, like men who were afraid to fight for what they were demanding. They had had a bellyful. Their leaders had played into the masters’ hands and were treacherously advising the men to accept their exploiters’ terms. In any case where procrastination means that the the masters are escaping, even if only for the moment the heart-rending necessity of having to part with a share of their plunder, negotiation is the slowest coach upon the road ; but when the masters have get the men’s leaders on their side, then, indeed, the coach properly breaks down.
Those people who talk so glibly about negotiation seem to base their contention upon the pretention that all the employers want in order to induce them to meet the men’s demands is to have their ears tickled with sweet reasonableness. They know, however, that this is entirely false. They know that the only argument that ever touches the masters as such is the argument of force. There is no other effective appeal either to their reason or to their feeling. So long as they thought that the patriotic fervour of the men or the cajolery of the leaders would avert a strike negotiations brought the men no nearer the satisfaction of their demands. But look at the effect that was produced by the positive action of ceasing to work !
At once the Government, who shewed a very mild interest in the terms and conditions under which coal came out of the mines so long as it did come out, was galvanised into the most acute interest and vigorous action ; at once the masters, finding themselves, in the absence of an army of blacklegs to fall back upon, utterly licked, retired frcm the contest, left the matter in tie hands of the Government, and expressed a very patriotic willingness to do whatever the Government told them. In a week the men were back at work again, in the enjoyment of the substance of pretty well all they demanded, if not the shadow, instead of the usual reward of negotiation, the capture of the shadow with the merest integument of the substance, or none.
This result was the fullest justification of the action the miners bad taken. This fact, however, did not save them frcm almost universal abuse, amongst which not the least venomous was that of their (so-called) leaders. These men, of course, who had struggled so hard to make them submit to the terms of the mine-owners, found that the victory, gained without their help, against their advice, in opposition, even, to their endeavours, placed them in a peculiar and unenviable position. That they fully appreciated this is amply shown by the utterances of one of their number, Mr. Veruon Hartshorn, as reported in “Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper” for July 25th. According to this report Mr. Hartshorn said :
“I sin guilty of no exaggeration when I say that last week-end the very existence of the federation as a trade union organisation hung in the balance. Public opinion was against it because of the refusal to give the Gcverrment a little more time. It stood abandoned by the whole of the labour movement of the country. The occasion was a unique opportunity for a bold, bloodthirsty reaction.
“Public opinion, rendered nervous, savage, snd ruthless by the present national dangers, would have approved the course taken, and, apart from sentimental resentment, the organised labour movement in the country would, perhaps, have acquiesced. I say emphatically that no leader has a moral right to lead his organisation into such a perilous impasse, and no leader with a proper conception of industrial strategy or of the tremendous powers which can be arrayed against labour when it makes a tactical slip would dream of doing.
“A few more days of restraint would have given the Government the chance to rectify its undoubted errors, and would have immensely strengthened the position of the federation with the public. But the opportunity was not given, and last week-end the sword of destruction, though the men as a body did not knew it, was banging over the federation.
“During those critical days the Government were tempted—there is no doubt about it—to deal with this isolated and sectional problem by the savage and crude old method of a whiff of grape shot, which has in many of the troubled periods of history destroyed the rising hopes o£ democracy and heralded a long reign of reaction and repression.
“What saved us and the country from such a disaster ? It is only fair to acknowledge, without reservation, that we were saved from that disaster not by any strength of our own but by the wisdom, generosity, and restraint, with which the ultimate crisis was dealt with, the Coalition Government.”
These, it is quite easy to see by anyone who has a fair knowledge of the facts of the case, are the words of a man who is under the necessity of rehabilitating himself in the eyes of those with whom it is important that he should stand well. The implication, however, that the fools who rushed in where such angels as Mr. Vernon Hartshorn dared to tread brought the miners so near to such dire perils as indicated is quite without foundation. A whiff of grapeehot, indeed ! The sword of destruction, by gosh ! It would be interesting to have Mr. Hartshorn’s authority for these statements.
The fact is that the whiff of grapeshot and the sword of destruction were quite “outside the range of practical politics,” as the capitalist critics so fondly say of Sccialitm. The mere fact that the mine owners recognired that the game was up and retired behind the Government shows this. If it is ever true that Governments take the line of least resistance, it is true at the moment when they have got more than enough trouble on hand in other directions. The line of least resistance was certainly not the line that might be cleared by whiffs of grapeshot. Mr. Hartshorn, even, had not the courage to state that the organised labour movement in the country “would have acquiesced” in the grapeshot treatment without that saving “perhaps.”
When Mr. Lloyd George took his “silver tongue” to Wales it was to talk a good face on the matter from the Government point of view. A certain prestige had to be maintained if possible. The “organised labour movement in the country” was not to get the idea that it had only to cease working in order to be granted anything that it wanted. The face of labour leaders, who had promised that, in return for being left out of the Munitions Act there should be lamb-like submission in the Welsh minefields, had to be saved as far as possible. So the miners were penalised by being brought under the Act which is absurdly useless as against two or three hundred thousand miners, though, it may suffice to deal with a couple of score of coppersmiths. The “silver tongue” had only the task of persuading the men to swallow this “bitter” pill, of disguising the completeness of the men’s victory, and throwing over the affair just that appearance of “wisdom, generosity and restraint” which their hack, Mr, Hartshorn, attributes to the Coalition Government. But as for whiffs of grape and swords of destruction, they are the mere invention of a discredited labour leader, of a would-be trade union boss who aspires to ambitious heights under the patronage of the workers’ enemies by assuming the role of dictator, and who is mortified in spirit by being flouted by those he would control, and jeopardised in fortune by the success of a course taken in defiance of leaders.
Let the workers understand their own affairs, shake off their “leaders,” and victory is theirs.
A. E. JACOMB