1920s >> 1921 >> no-204-august-1921
Oughts and Crosses
We often hear Parliamentary election derided as a “game of oughts and crosses,” and indeed Parliamentary action does not find much favour among the so-called working-class movement at the present time. Very few of those who espouse the cause of Direct Action know that there are fashions in theories of tactics, and that they are but victims of the latest craze.
The history of the modern working-class movement is the history of the alternation of opinion and feeling—especially the latter—between Direct Action and Parliamentary Action. After the repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824 trade unions sprang up like mushrooms. The high hopes raised among the working class by the Reform Bill agitation were dashed to the ground on that Bill becoming law. The disappointment and discontent arising from the failure of the benefits promised by the Reform Party to materialise found expression in trade union organisation and a series of strikes. “The legislature was too slow for the people. The adults in factories must by unions among themselves make a Short Time Bill for themselves.” (Craik: Short History of the Modern Working Class Movement. p. 29.) A number of unsuccessful strikes and successful lock-outs caused the collapse of the “Grand National Union;” and so brought to a close a period of Direct Action.
Direct Action having failed, the way was prepared for the political movement known as Chartism, which came to an end with the great array of military force massed against it on 10th April 1848. Then followed the period in which the principal trade unions were formed. The A.S.E. in 1851; the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ union in 1860; the Miners in 1863, etc.
The Taff Vale judgement, which decided that a trade union could be sued in its collective capacity for the act of a member or official, gave a fillip to the movement for labour representation in the House of Commons, and extravagant hopes were raised by the relative success of the Labour Party in 1906.
The present wave of Direct Actionism is the result of disappointment with the Labour Party. The writer is of opinion that the decline of the prevailing “fashion” will date from the Black Friday fiasco.
One of the illusions on which the master class depend for their retention of power is that the Government is an independent, neutral body mediating impartially between the different sections of society. Had the strike taken place conflicts on a larger scale than any hitherto were certain to have happened. When the Government is compelled to use the armed forces it reveals its true nature as the executive committee of the capitalist class. The more it shows its teeth, the more extensive the scale upon which the armed forces are used, the clearer becomes this fact. Therefore the capitalist class, as represented in the House of Commons, were prepared to sacrifice the immediate interests of the coalowners in order to safeguard the interests of their class as a whole. Another lesson to be drawn is that to the extent that the working class shows a united front the capitalist class tends to disunity. Although a Triple Alliance strike could have been suppressed quite easily, as soon as one was threatened the capitalist class was divided into those who were in favour of the vigorous use of the armed forces and those who feared its ultimate consequences. If this was the effect of a mere strike over wages on the capitalist class, what would be the effect on them of the return to Parliament of an increasing number of real working-class delegates, returned by Socialist votes?
According to a Communist speaker who I heard, the capitalist class have a very simple expedient to prevent the return of a Socialist majority. In the event of the growth in Parliament of such a strong Socialist minority as to make the return at a general election of a Socialist majority probable, the capitalist government would carry a resolution extending the life of Parliament, as was done during the war. This certainly appears very simple. The assumption is that things would run just as smoothly after the act as before. But would they?
No. The international system of capitalist production is dependent for its smooth working upon credit and confidence, and those upon social stability. The indicator of the stability of social relations is Parliament. As soon as Parliament removes itself from contact with the electorate confidence and credit go, and all the symptoms of an acute trade crisis manifest themselves. Cash payment is demanded, stocks and shares fall, and large numbers of the smaller capitalists are precipitated into the ranks of the proletariat. The capitalist class itself is rent asunder and the loudest demand for a general election comes from its own ranks.
In a recent issue of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, an article appeared on “Communist Consistency,” wherein was given glaring examples of inconsistency on the part of the Communists. Not the least of their inconsistencies is that on the one hand they depreciate the power of the capitalist class to the extent of claiming that they can be expropriated by a minority taking advantage of a big strike and a wave of discontent, and on the other hand elevate it into a powerful organisation capable of resisting the expressed will of the majority of the people.
The capitalist class are neither all-powerful nor such fools as to be caught napping by minorities. Our weakness is their strength. While but a small proportion of the working-class understand their slave position in society, and are organised for the purpose of ending it, the capitalist class are strong. But when the working class wake up to the fact that their masters live in riotous luxury on the proceeds of their, the workers’, exploitation, and manifest a determination to end the system, the vaunted power of the capitalist class will melt and vanish like margarine in the July sun.