Syndicalism in England: The attitude of the Socialist Party

The Effect of Treachery
The treachery of “Labour” politicians and the betrayal by pseudo-Socialists in Parliament are very real and potent factors in causing many members of the working class to lose faith in political action.

Taken together with their ignorance of history and their custom of judging by mere appearances, it accounts for the attraction that so-called “direct action” possesses for many members of the working class. Several erstwhile “Labour” politicians, crushed out in the scramble for political jobs, have been booming Syndicalism in England. Ben Tillett, ex-emigration tout and temperance lecturer, and unsuccessful “labour” candidate for Swansea; Leonard Hall, the Labour Party’s defeated candidate at Birmingham; A. A. Purcell, the unappreciated “labour” candidate for Salford, and many others, have been busy lately singing the praises of Syndicalism, and urging the workers to adopt that policy here.

Their leading light is Mr. Tom Mann, and his connection with the movement is sufficient condemnation to those who know his record.

Almost every side-tracking movement during the past twenty years has had Mr. Mann’s support. He left the SDF in order to promote and boom the ILP along with Mr. Maltman Barrie, the Tory agent. When he was out-paced for a job, he turned his attention to the Liberals and Radicals, and a few years back became the secretary of the National Democratic League. He thus helped to decoy the workers into the Liberal camp, and was useful in blinding the workers to their real interests.

Australia next provided a field for Mr. Tom Mann’s job-hunting, and he remained there while the funds of the pseudo-Socialist movement lasted. Having absorbed their money, he came back to the old country, and commenced a campaign in favour of “Industrial Syndicalism”.

The increasing pressure of economic development and capitalist greed had already shaken many of the sheep-like followers of the trade union leaders. Not understanding the real cause of capitalist supremacy, and failing to grasp the prime need for education in Socialism, many were easily influenced by the anti-political bodies’ cry that it was the form of the economic organisation that was wrong. Remedy that and the battle was won!

Follow the Failures of the French
Writing in the first number of the Industrial Syndicalist, Mr. Tom Mann said, speaking of “the impotency of the movement”: “That weakness is to be found simply, if not solely, in the sectional character of the 1,100 unions of the United Kingdom.”

France, especially, was held up as a pattern for the workers. Tom Mann, writing on this, said (“Prepare for Action”):

“Now, without urging a close imitation of the French or any other method, I strongly believe that on the average the French policy is the one that will suit us best”.

Great tales of what Syndicalism had done there were invented – but then came the Paris Postal strikes. The first one was unexpected, and caused some confusion in the service. But the second strike had been prepared for by the Government – they even welcomed it.

Before the strike bombastic speeches and threats were made by the Syndicalist leaders. Assurances of victory followed. Sad to relate, however, the victory was with the master class. Those who relied on Syndicalism’s promises saw the “sympathetic strikes” fizzle out as rapidly as they started. The soldiers helped to run the Postal services, and soon the men went back to work – beaten. Hundreds were dismissed; trade unions were proscribed for civil servants. The hollowness of the Syndicalist leader’s claims was seen.

Beaten by their own Arguments
The French railway strike next taught the lesson that we have ever pointed out. It showed that permanent and strong organisation animated by class interests is essential to success in the daily struggle of our class. The poor organisation of the railwaymen, together with the reliance they placed upon the false promises of support made by the Syndicalists, served to keep them backward. They love melodramatic effects, but never look beyond them. Syndicalism, as represented by the General Confederation of Labour in France, is but fitted for a low state of working-class organisation. Many here are misled by the bombast and bravado of its leaders; by the flourishing start of strikes – that speedily break down.

Syndicalists and all kinds of  “Direct Actionists”, – Anarchists – sneer at English trade unionism, but their methods could not improve it. Their standing indictment against English trade unionism is that it splits 2½ million organised workers into 1,100 trade unions. But look to “the pattern nation”, France. According to the official figures (quoted in the Board of Trade Labour Gazette for February), the 1,029,238 organised workers there are split up into 5,325 unions! So that with less than half the total membership they have nearly five times the number of unions!

Syndicalism brings No Hope
Under the inspiration of Syndicalism they have a mass of small unions with a fleeting existence; members who neglect to pay their dues; who look upon a union numerically and financially strong as a danger. They don’t believe in the plodding, necessary work of building up a strong workers’ organisation. In fact, they scout the idea of a strong union well backed by strike funds. Hence we see that the importation of Syndicalist methods into England brings no hope to the toilers.

At present the workers are being told that salvation lies in the amalgamation of their unions. Just as though federation without a clear grasp of the need for ending the wages system were the “one thing needful”. The General Federation of Trade Unions, Tom Mann tells us, offers the best machinery for Amalgamation.

We want to see Socialist unionism, but before that can come about we must make Socialists. Hence our activity inside and outside trade unions. We depend upon concerted Socialist action, guided, disciplined, and inspired by the Socialist ideal. The “Direct Actionist”, on the other hand, relies upon the stampede of the semi-educated toilers into the Syndicalist camp – at the psychological moment, as one has it – spasmodic action which leads to defeat, apathy, and often to massacre.

The Socialist Party declares that economic action is not sufficient. Its chief function lies in making the best of our daily struggles – though it aids in giving the moral strength of final victory. We therefore organise the toilers to capture the political machine and wrest political supremacy from their masters.

The mass of Syndicalists declare political action anathema. History is a dead letter to them: its lessons are unheeded.

That the master class rely upon political supremacy for their mastery becomes plainer every day. France, as we have said, is the pet example of the Syndicalist. And in that very land the political power of the master class has been used to break strikes with melancholy repetition.

Since M. Casimir Perier massacred men, women and children during the Fourmies strike in 1891 till Briand’s butchery at Draveil in 1908, these episodes have been numerous.

France, with her street-fights of ’48 drowned in blood, with her butchery of the immortal Commune of ’71: does she not prove the lesson that Karl Marx drove home so well, as to the imperative need of political action by an organised working class?

Note well that these massacres by the armed forces of the State have gone on side by side with the Anti-Militarist propaganda of the Syndicalists.

Quick Change Artistes
In their attitude toward the armed forces the Syndicalists have turned a somersault. First they informed us that the army could be rendered powerless by the workers ceasing work. When the Socialists had pointed out, and subsequent events had proved, that the soldiers, by their marvellous weapons of destruction and their command of the means of communication, held the upper  hand, the “Direct Actionists” fell back on Anti-Militarism – the policy of converting the army – thus admitting the Socialist contention that the control of the armed forces was the key to the position.

The Anti-Militarists, in France or elsewhere, in confining their efforts to impressing the soldiers, overlook important facts. We have already shown that Anti-Militarism in France has had little influence – and remember, with a conscript army it had the best material. But a little consideration should show that Socialists will get better results, for some time to come, at any rate, by seeking converts amongst the civil portion of the working class.

Think of what a soldier becomes! He is not easily influenced by Socialist education. He is used to acting entirely under orders. Drilled, disciplined, and instructed by all-powerful regulations, he becomes almost an automaton – a man without initiative, without the ability to take up a revolutionary sociological position. While we hope that some, at least, of our soldier fellows will embrace Socialism, we know that far surer and quicker results can be obtained by carrying on propaganda amongst those outside the army.

The Anti-Militarists devote their attention to the soldier, but forget that the majority of the working class must be made socialist before Socialism is possible.

Syndicalists have looked to Gustave Hervé as a pillar of their cause. Tom Mann himself tells us that Hervé and his paper La Guerre Sociale are among the most noted forces making for “Direct Action” in France. True, M. Hervé has for years ridiculed reliance upon political action and supported many Syndicalist ideas, but writing after the German elections this “Direct Actionist” said:

“Truly I begin to ask myself whether with our big words about insurrection, direct action, sabotage, and tossing capitalists in a blanket, we are not, from a revolutionary view-point, like little children before the German voters” (La Guerre Sociale, 17.1.12.).

This frank admission is prefaced by the statement that the General Confederation of Labour is a body “with ludicrous forces, penniless treasuries, and papers without readers”.

The ideals of Syndicalism and Socialism are as poles apart. The former are stated in The Syndicalist as: “The Mines to the Miners!” “The Railways to the Railwaymen!”

They have imported the whole foolish policy, bag and baggage, from France. There the large number of peasant holders and the prevalence of the Anarchist fever has led to dreams of the revival of petty enterprise. Utopians, with no conception of the law of economic necessity, they wish “time to turn backwards in its flight”!

“The mines to the miners” policy could merely result in a society of conflicting interests. Groups of owners, like the co-operative societies and the corporations, would be engaged in a continual struggle with each other. Instead of the Socialist ideal of the ownership by the whole people in common of the land, railways, factories and so on, the Syndicalists wish to strengthen the property-foundation of society.

We, on the other hand, want to abolish the sectional ownership of the means of life, no matter who compose the sections.

The irony of the Syndicalists’ policy is that the very men who deny the importance of political action are the first to find themselves seized by the forces in the hands of those who hold political power. Liberals prove themselves just as unscrupulous as Tories in using their control of the political forces to suppress those who denounce their bloody rule. And more significant – the friends of an arrested “Direct Actionist” may often be seen in the legislative chambers urging members of Parliament to take action!

From these recent cowardly prosecutions the need for political action is more marked than ever.

(Socialist Standard, April 1912)

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