The trade unions congress
This year’s Trades Union Congress has come and has passed to “that bourne from which no traveller returns.” At Bristol the galaxy of the Trade Union world sat in conference. They sat and hatched nothing.
This year’s gathering was important and historic, in fact, the bitter quality was so impressed upon us by the capitalist Press that one was almost inclined to think, from the point of view of posterity, that it ran a neckband-neck race with the Judgment Day. Leaving on one side that this was the largest congress yet held, no doubt the importance was augmented by the fact that no congress was held last year, owing to the war, and that this year’s gathering was held in time of war. “‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things,'” but the war and the problems arising therefrom, for the most part, occupied the attention of the assembled delegates.
This Bristol “chinwag” can, however, be differentiated, from its predecessors on two distinct grounds. Firstly, there was no mayor of corpulent rotundity to welcome the delegates. This duty devolved upon Widdecombe, chairman of the Bristol Trades Council, and in the course of his introductory remarks he said (I quote from “Justice,” 9.9.15).
“The Trades Council felt that there would be no interest on the part of the Congress in being welcomed by a representative of the class they were incessantly fighting for their rights and their trade unionism.”
Thus another cherished tradition is consigned to the melting-pot, and one is inclined seriously to doubt the truth of Mathew Arnold’s dictum that the age of miracles is past. Secondly, there was no Congress sermon delivered with special reference to labour by one of those who toil not neither do they spin. This, perhaps, can be accounted for when one remembers the sermon delivered at the Manchester meeting of 1913, in in which it was said : “The German, the French, the British workmen have no quarrel with one another.” (Official Report, p. 411) This is so true that it almost seems out of place at a Trades Union Congress, and therefore the possibility of its repetition from an ecclesiastic was dispensed with this year.
The president’s (Mr. J. A. Seddon) address is felicitously described by the “Clarion” (9.9.15) as “an admirably restrained and statesmanlike performance”—a phrase one has heard in other connections from far more avowedly capitalistic sources. He demanded that the Government should lift the veil of secrecy and stated that democracy was on its trial. Yes, “democracy” is on its trial ; and it has been found guilty of wilful negligence of its own interests. But despite his “admirable performance,” which was chiefly notable owing to his unacknowledged quotation from J. R. Lowell, the attention of the “world” was focussed upon two resolutions, the one dealing with conscription, and the other with the war.
The conscription resolution read :
“That we, the delegates to this Congress, representing nearly three million organised workers, reeord our hearty appreciation of the magnificent response made to the call for volunteers to fight against the tyranny of militarism. We emphatically protest against the sinister efforts of a section ol the reactionary Press in formulating newspaper policies for party purposes and attempting to foist on this country conscription, which always proves a burden to the workers, and will divide the nation at a time when absolute unanimity is essential. No reliable evidence has been produced to show that the voluntary system of enlistment is not adequate to meet all the Empire’s requirements. We believe that all the men necessary can, and will, be obtained through a voluntary system properly organised, and we heartily support and will give every aid to the Governnient in their present efforts to secure the men necessary to prosecute the war to a successful issue.” (“The Times,” 8.9.15.)
Of course, this resolution was carried unanimously. In the course of the discussion Mr. Ben Tillett, full of ambition and table d’hote, of “rotters” and music-hall fame, said that “he was not opposed to conscription as a theory. If there were anything in it and if he believed that it would help us to end the war sooner he would vote for it straight away.” (Times, 8.9.15.) One is strongly reminded by this attitude, of that adopted by several other well-meaning folk who are against all war in theory and in favour of all war in practice. He also suggested that “in matters so serious the Governmeiit ought to approach the Parliamentary Committee of the Congress … to have a heart to heart talk.” Now the Cabinet is composed of Cabinet Ministers, and the foregoing suggestion contrasts strangely with his sweeping assertion at previous congresses that “no Cabinet Minister could tell the truth.” (Official Report, 1913, p. 136.)
A large number of critics have regarded the carrying of this resolution as evidence of a wholehearted antagonism toward conscription on the part of the “three million organised workers.” It appears, however, that in consonance with the Liberal Press, their opposition is against “Lord Northcliffe’s conscription,” and that, were it asked for by Lord Kitchener, they would swallow the pill without the bulge of a cheek. In other words, their antagonism is not to conscription per se, but to those who are engineering the present movement.
This view is, to a certain extent, borne out by the passing with but seven dissentients of the war resolution, which reads :
“That this Congress, while expressing its opposition, in accordance with its previously expressed opinion, to all systems of militarism as a danger to human progress, considers the present action of Great Britain and her allies as completely justified, and expresses its horror at the atrocities which have been committed bv the German and Austrian military authorities, and the callous, brutal and unnecessary sacrifice of the lives of non-combatants, including women and children ; and hereby pledges itself to support the Government as far as possible in the successful prosecution of the war.” (“The Times,” 9.9.15.)
Its pledge to assist the Government as far as possible in the successful prosecution of the war does not bode well for the “anti-conscription” resolution in the event of the Government deciding to raise men by conscript means. Sexton (Dockers) moved the resolution, and in the course of his speech stated that this was not a capitalist war and added : “I am convinced that the Trade Unions of this country will have to put up the biggest fight when the war is over that they have ever put up in their history.” (“Star,” 3.9.15.) This is, no doubt, in anticipation of the way in which the capitalists will express their gratitude to the workers, and here Mr. Dooley on Capital and Labour would not be out of place.
“At Chris’mas time Capital gathered his happy fam’ly round him an’ in th’ prisince iv th’ ladies iv th’neighbourhood give them a short oration. “Me brave la-ads,” said he, “we’ve had a good year (cheers). I have made a million dollars (sinsation). I atthribute this to me supeerior skill, aided by ve’r arnest efforts at th’bench an’ at th’ forge (sobs). We have done so well that we won’t need so maiiny iv ye as we did (long and continyous cheerin’). Those iv us who can do two men’s wurruk will remain, an’ if possible do four. Our faithfnl servants,” he says, “can come back in th’ spring,” he says, “if alive,” he says. An’ the bold artysans tossed their paper caps in th’ air an’ give three cheers for Capital. They wurruked till ol’ age crept on thim, an’ thin retired to live on th’ wish bones an’ kind wurruds they had accumylated.”
Tillett had his say characteristically : “This was not a fight of the capitalists. . . . Instead of yapping like terriers, we should join hands in this great conflict.” He then proceeded to yap. There are some men in this world who are loud in shouting their willingness to give their last drop of blood for their country, but who are always careful not to risk shedding the first drop. Tillett has been to the trenches–on a conducted tour.
Roberts, M.P., regretted the backwardness of Russia, but, he added, she had found her own soul. No such resolution as following was on this year’s agenda ; it is found in the Official Report for the 1912 Congress, p. 204.
“That this Trades Union Congress in Newport expreses its sympathy with the severe struggle of their comrades in Russia, and protests against the brutal means by which the Russian Government tries to crush the increasing solidarity of the workers, as shown in their organisations, and expresses the hope that at the forthcoming elections for the Fourth Duma the forces of reaction may be defeated, and a strong Labour representation returned to work for the overthrow of capitalism and autocracy.”
The Russian autocracy, whose name was formerly synonymous with rape and rapine and ruthless repression, has now joined the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Small Nations, which prevention, it might be added, does not, like charity, begin at home. So criticism of Russia is tantamount to treason.
The Trade unionists, as befits their political complexion, still regard the world and its affairs through the capitalist spectacles with which their masters have so kindly provided them.
The “Daily News and Leader” should rejoice at the passing of this war resolution, for in its issue of September 6th (before the discussion) it said:
“It may be well that Labour should affirm its support of the Government in the conduct of the War. But everyone not willibgly blind to the fact knows that unless Labour supported the war, the war would be over in a fortnight.”
This powerful organ thereby recognises the truth of our claim that in the ultimate it is the working-class upon whom the successful prosecution or, indeed, any prosecution, of the war depends. The workers are patted on their backs now, because they are needed : when the war is over it will be their heads that will be punched.
The discussion of the war resolution brought forth an attack on the Government’s promise to limit profits. This, in its turn, resulted, we are led to believe in a visit from Mr. Lloyd George, with halo intact. (No doubt the visit was arranged before, but anything will do for the workers.) This prophet of the promised land frankly recognised the dependence on Labour when he said “With you victory is assured; without you our cause is lost. . . The Government can lose the war without you ; they cannot win it without you.” In a carefully phrased speech he sought to show that the Government had kept its “fair, straight forward, businesslike” bargain, whereas the workers had not. The workers’ representatives handed their men over to the Munitions Minister, and he sought to speed up the working class by flogging them with words. He villified the working class much on the same lines as during his Spring campaign, when it was alleged (but, of course, not proved) that England was waging a righteous war with a “drink-sodden democracy” at home. As Mr. Lloyd George proceeded to unfold his tale of woe, one can imagine. Mr. William Thorne, M.P., mumbling beneath his breath in characteristic Canning Town phraseology, “Blimey ! ain’t ‘e ot!”
Although the war occupied the greater part of the attention of the Congress, it was not allowed to crowd out everything else. The old stager regarding the free access of cabs to Hyde Park appeared on the Agenda and “the delegates to a Postal Workers’ resolution expressing the opinion that the nationalisation of the public services—such as the Post Office—is not necessarily advantageous to employees unless accompanied by steadily increasing democratic control and pledging the congress to work to develop public opinion on this point.” This can be taken us an unsolicited testimonial on the truth of our position.
According to the “Daily News and Leader” Mr. J. Robertson (Lanarkshire Miners) stated :
“Official figures showed that during the fifteen years that have passed since the South African War, 20,000 men have been, killed in the mines of the country, while no fewer than 4,500,000 have been seriously injured.”
Verily, Peace hath her horrors much more profound than war.
The foregoing is not intended even as a brief resume of the Trades Union Congress, but merely as a few comments. One fact stands out clearly (even if it were not discernible from other evidence) : that the workers are apparently almost unanimous for the war, “the war to end war,” as it has been felicitously termed. As the “Clarion” (10.!).15) put it in a very tuneless note, “The workers, as a body, are all right.” And this cannot be wondered at when one considers the multitudinous agencies all working more or less in the direction of keeping the workers “right” and from their rights. Unmistakably, the bulk of the workers think in capitalist channels and the discussion of the Trades Union Congress was nothing more nor less than the opinions of a heterogeneous collection of economists and politicians who know not whither they are going and never get there.
Presently, in “the future that yet shall be,” they will shake off their lethargy and the hynotic influence of capitalism and then they will see the war against war; a death-struggle between two classes ranged respectively under the banner of Socialism, symbolical of freedom, and the black flag of Capitalism, standing for death and destruction. In that war no quarter is asked, no mercy is given and no cry for peace is entertained or can be entertained until the smoke of battle has cleared away and the din has subsided ; until society has emerged from slavery for the first time in its history since primitive communism, wielding its power for its own wellbeing.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
L. R. C.