1920s >> 1921 >> no-201-may-1921

Editorial: The Betrayal of the Miners

Often during the last two years we have been informed by those who, without knowledge or thought, have swallowed and repeated phrases from Russia, that the workers here were seething with revolutionary fervour, and only needed “strong ” leadership to bring about their emancipation.

The contradictions involved in such a statement quite escaped these would-be firebrands, for it is evident, even to the elementary student of social evolution, that a movement that depends upon “leaders” shows by that very fact it is not yet ripe for revolution. “Leaders” can only exist where there is a “following”—that is a body or group who will accept without thought, and with but little question, the orders of their “leaders.” When the working class are ready for their emancipation the days of “leaders” will be over, as it is only by growing out of such childish ideas that the working class will reach the necessary understanding to carry through a revolution.

Incidents showing the truth of this contention as to the lack of clearness on the part of the workers are continually occurring, and sometimes on such a scale that all except the purblind swallowers of phrases can see the facts. Such an illustration has just taken place in connection with the coal miners.

Not since the days of 1907, when the officials of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (since transformed into National Union of Railwaymen) signed the. agreement that bound down the Railway Servants for seven years (see Socialist Standard, Dec. 1907) has such a gigantic swindle been perpetrated upon bodies of organised workers as that carried through by the officials of the N.U.R. and the Transport Workers on Friday, 15th April.

It must be admitted that the capitalist Press has been successful in confusing the minds of large numbers of the working class over the question of the coal miners’ dispute. Yet the main points are fairly simple and easily understood.

As is well known, the mines were under Government control during the war, and that control was originally intended to continue till next August. Early this year the Government informed the mine-owners that the control would be withdrawn on the 31st March. At this time the Miners and mine-owners were holding a series of conferences to work out a new basis for wages. Both sides strongly protested against decontrol, urging, among other things, that they should be allowed time to work out their new wages scheme. The Government, under pressure from other “Big Business,” refused to withdraw, and stated to the owners that the pool from which the profits had been paid was empty. Despite this the Government offered to guarantee to pay nine-tenths of the average rate of profits for March, even though prices fell, if the owners would drop their opposition to de-control.

The owners accepted this bribe, or subsidy, from the national funds, as subsidies are only harmful or “uneconomic” when given to the workers, and then announced that as soon as control ceased all the agreements made between the Miners and the Government would be scrapped and wages placed upon an economic basis. They kept their word, and as soon as the De-Control Bill was passed notices were issued terminating all existing agreements, to every section of the Colliery Workers, INCLUDING THE PUMP AND ENGINE MEN.

This notice was to expire on the 31st March, and in the meantime the masters issued a new scale of wages, involving huge reductions in several areas, reaching in some cases as much as £1 15s. per week. From the owners’ point of view everything looked favourable. Thanks to “Making Germany Pay” the French coal market was flooded with German coal and English coal was driven out. In practically every industry there were large numbers of unemployed that would seriously reduce the financial assistance they could give the Miners, while the latter’s own funds had been almost exhausted—except for the amounts necessary to pay the officials—by the strike of last year.

Despite all these advantages the owners were disagreeably surprised to find the Miners were solid in refusing to accept the new terms. So the men were locked out. Then the capitalist Press was set to work to shriek at the wicked pump and engine men, who, being locked out, had the audacity to stay away from work !

Immediately the “leaders” of the Miners’ Federation made two big blunders. The first one was to admit that a reduction of wages was necessary—a statement which was entirely false —and the second was to lay down as a “principle” a National Pooling Scheme.

The first point hardly needs discussing. The workers may be forced to accept reductions of wages under certain conditions, but in no case is such a reduction necessary. Clearly the first call upon any branch of production should be the maintenance of those doing the work. Wages fluctuate around the cost of subsistence, and as there is not a single division of industry where the wages are equal in purchasing power to pre war level, the claim of the masters for a reduction of wages is just a brazen attempt to lower the already poor standard of subsistence. For Trade Unions officials to chatter about a reduction of wages being necessary is to show either a colossal ignorance of the workers’ position as wage slaves or a readiness to betray their members in the masters’ interests.

The second point was a conceited attempt on the part of the Miners’ officials to show their ability to assist the owners out of their difficulties. Obviously it is no part of the business of Trade Unions officials to instruct employers how to manage their business. They are not paid large salaries by the workers for that purpose, and the Miners’ officials were acting falsely to the people who pay them by such actions. It is for the mine-owners to settle their own method of payment, whether by pool or person. The putting forward of the “Pool” scheme has been of great value to the mine-owners and the Government in diverting the attention of both Miners and other workers from the real point at issue—the lowering of the standard of existence.

When in 1914 the Miners joined up with the Railwaymen and the Transport Workers in a loose federation called the Triple Alliance, for the purpose of defence against just such action as that now being taken by the mine owners, it was hailed by all the “Direct Actionists” and “economic power” phrasers as the greatest step forward the workers had ever taken. Although each of the constituent bodies forming the Alliance have, at different times, been engaged in hard fights with the masters, some excuse has always been forthcoming to explain why the Alliance should not use its power to assist such body. Now it was going to show this power.

After several meetings it was decided on 8th April that unless negotiations were re-opened between the Miners and the mine-owners the Railway and Transport workers would be called out at midnight of the 12th April. Having reached this decision Messrs. Thomas, Cramp, Abraham, Bevin, Gosling, Sexton, and R. Williams were formed into a deputation to carry on negotiations between the Government and the Miners’ Executive.

Late on Saturday night, April 9th, the latter agreed to issue a notice calling upon their members not to interfere with volunteers working the pumps and engines, and upon this condition a meeting between the Miners and owners was fixed for the Monday morning. On this arrangement the strike dated for Tuesday night was called off.

The meeting was a failure. No agreement was reached and the Miners, faced with essentially the same situation as before, left the Conference. Then the Executives of the Triple Alliance called another strike for Friday, 15th April, at 10 p.m.

This was to be “the thing.” No more dallying, nor more shuffling or wasting of time, but a strong and determined blow against aggression.

The blow came all right, but to the utter amazement and confusion of the rank and file it was a blow by the Executives of the N.U.R. and the Transport workers against the Miners. They had decided to CANCEL THE STRIKE.

Seldom has such treachery been exposed in the industrial field. It was a complete betrayal of the Miners by their own associates—so much so that officials of the N.U.R. and the Transport workers dared not meet their own rank and file and abandoned scores of meetings that had been called for Friday night by skulking out of the way.

From every side arose demands for “explanations,” and when those “explanations” that were published are examined the sinister aspect of the situation shows clearly through the veil of confusion with which the officials try to cover up the truth.

All through the negotiations the Miners—quite wrongly, as we have shown above—had held rigidly to the “principle” of a National Pool being accepted before discussing details. The Triple Alliance officials were, of course, not only well aware of this, but had supported the Miner’s claim for this “principle.”

On Thursday night (14th April) Mr. F. Hodges, Secretary of the Miners’ Federation, announced to a more or less private meeting of members of Parliament, in the House of Commons, that the Miners would be prepared to discuss details of wages reduction and defer the question of the National Pool. Lloyd George at once made arrangements for a meeting of Miners and mine-owners on the Friday morning. But on Friday morning the Miners’ Executive repudiated Mr. Hodges’ offer, and declined to go to the meeting. When the officials of the N.U.R. and the Transport Workers were informed of this decision they passed the resolution cancelling the strike.

The defence put forward by these officials for this decision—that the Miners should have accepted the offer to meet the owners—is simply idiotic as an argument. As stated above, they knew and approved of the Miners’ attitude on the “pool” all through the dispute, and their puerile excuse but exposes the more clearly the sinister character of their action.

It would be an insult to the intelligence of any normal person, and still more so to that of Mr. Hodges, to suggest, as does the “Daily Herald” (16th April), that Hodges “made a tactical mistake.” This cool and cunning Labour “leader” knows the views of the Miners and the case he has been handling far too well for such an hypothesis to bear a moment’s examination. The “Labour Leader” and the official organ of the several times united Communist Party join in putting the bulk of the blame upon J. H. Thomas, but this condemnation proceeds from a desire to make him a scapegoat for the actions of members of the I.L.P. like Sexton and of the Communist Party like R. Williams, who are not one whit less guilty than Thomas.

The only explanation that fits the facts of the case we have given above is that the whole business has been arranged among the wire-pulling clique of Labour leaders who had the matter in hand, and it is merely misleading the workers to pretend that any one of the clique is more guilty in any material sense than the others. Nor can the Executive of the Miners’ Federation escape from their share in the foul business. When they met on Friday morning to consider Hodges’ offer of the previous night they decided by a majority of two (“Observer,” 17.4.1921.) to repudiate that offer. But this majority contains the pets of the Communist Party, the “extremists” like G. Barker. Had they the slightest grasp of essentials they would have at once called for Mr. Hodges’ dismissal. Not only did the “extremists” fail to take such action, but they voted for the resolution asking Hodges to retain office ! (See Mr. Hodges’ letter in the “Observer,” 17.4.1921.) The whole evidence supports, the contention that the meeting in the House of Commons had been carefully arranged to allow the Triple Alliance to crawl out of the situation the strike threat had created.

The whole incident, with its huge fraud and slimy crawling on the part of the officials of the unions concerned, throws a flood of light on the present mental condition of the organised workers. It shows the fallacy of the Anarchist and Industrial Unionist argument that political action is no good because it corrupts the representatives of the workers. They will be puzzled to find an equal in politics to this act of corruption —one among thousands—on the industrial field. It shows once again the stupidity of allowing “leaders” to decide agreements and actions.

Above all it shows how few of the working class here have even a glimmering of an understanding of their slave position when they allow themselves to be used as pawns in the intrigues and corrupt practices of their officials.

All along the line the employers are making a powerful and systematic attempt to lower the standard of existence of the working class. Engineers, shipbuilders, transport workers, miners, house builders, seamen, are all being attacked, and in each case the officials are urging the workers to accept the masters’ terms, though to save their faces—and their jobs—they usually introduce some small modification as a point to argue about. Had the rank and file of the Triple Alliance understood even their ordinary Trade Union interests they would have stood together and fought to the fullest extent of their power against this attempt to worsen their conditions. A short time ago the Building Trades Federation urged joint action on the part of all organised workers against the plot of the employers, but the mandarins of the Triple Alliance evaded the question by referring it to the Cremation Company known as the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Unions Congress.

This ignorance extends to some who pretend that they understand Socialism because they can shout loudly. Thus in the “Communist” of 2nd April appears the following :

  Only by taking the offensive, only by a well-calculated, well-organised and capably developed campaign for the nationalisation of the mines with real and complete workers’ control can the miners ever score any real victory over their exploiters.

Even the beginner in the study of Socialism is aware that Nationalisation is merely capitalist control through the agency of the Government instead of an individual or group. To expect the capitalists to allow the workers “real and complete” control under nationalisation is idiotic. The sapient guides are therefore urging the Miners to organise a campaign for —more centralised capitalist control !

These people also howl against the present Trade Union “leaders.” Not because the existence of “leaders” proves how unripe the workers are for Socialism, but merely because they are “bad” leaders. Thus in their issue of 9th April one reads:

  Out of the hands of the reformists must power be taken and into the hands o£ those who see straight and clearly must power go.

Into the hands of those who “see straight” like R. Williams, we suppose.

To follow “leaders,” no matter who they are, or whether on the industrial field or the political, is to give those “leaders” something to sell—their influence over the members. Evidently there is competition for these leaderships and the crime appears to be that Bevin, Thomas, Clynes, Hodges, and so on, hold these jobs instead of those who “see straight,” like the Communists. Such teaching is just as misleading as that of the present office holders.

The working class are slaves because all the means of production and distribution— land, mines, minerals, railways, canals, factories, motors, engines, machinery, docks, warehouses and the like—are owned by a small section in society—the capitalist or master class. The workers cannot operate these means of production and distribution without the masters’ permission, in other words the workers only live by permission of the masters. This is the first great fact the workers have to learn. The second is how do the masters retain their control ?

The present struggle once more repeated the thousand times told tale. Leaving their “economic power” to look after itself, the capitalists had the Army reserves called up, Naval ratings sent to work the pumps, a white guard formed called a “Defence Force,” and set the new D.O.R.A. into operation.

“Oh!” we shall be told, “but that was the work of the Government.” Exactly, and who are the Government ? Perhaps the answer may not come quite so readily. A little thought will show that the Government is merely the Executive Committee of Parliament, and it can be pulled up, reprimanded, or changed whenever the majority decide to do any of these things. That majority to day consists of capitalists and capitalists’ agents. Thus the Government is in reality the Executive Committee of the capitalist class—which explains a large number of things if one thinks over it. An inquisitive person may ask : “Who sends that majority to Parliament ?” and if he happened to be a person ignorant of the workings of capitalism, he would be staggered to receive the reply—”The workers—miners, transport workers, railwaymen engineers, builders, labourers, clerks, in short, all those who do the useful work of society.”

There stands the bald fact. It is the workers themselves, in their ignorance, who place the power into the hands of the master class whereby the latter enslave the former. While the workers continue to vote the masters into control of the political machinery their slavery will continue and their conditions grow worse.

Out of this situation the road stands clear. Not by wild grimaces or hysterical shrieks, not by rushing unarmed against machine guns and high explosive shells, not by stupidly imagining they can “lock-out” the master class by economic organisation, but by first studying their position in society to-day, and when they have discovered how they are enslaved, organising seize control of political power, through the franchise they possess. When they have attained possession of the political power, and not till then, they will be able to take over the means of life and end strikes, lock-outs, and the treachery of officials by establishing Socialism as the form of society fitting the development of the means of production.