1920s >> 1922 >> no-216-august-1922
The Problem of the Labour Leader
Working class organisations have always (but especially during and since the war) suffered from acts of treachery committed by leaders in whom confidence had mistakenly been placed. Hardly a strike or lock-out of considerable size occurs but there is some Trade Union official who, from sincere or other motives, deserts, or counsels action useful only to the other side. Each of these defections raises a little storm of protest and much vowing of “never again” among the active rank and filers; but the storm dies away, the incident is soon forgotten, and “Black Friday” of 1921 is followed as a matter of course by the engineers’ “betrayal” of 1922. On such occasions some band of enthusiasts with its own pet theoretical obsession is sure to offer its explanations and warnings, confident that the workers will this time learn by experience, and that the mistake really will be the last.
If the leader is a “politician,” then the anti-political syndicalists will preach about the demoralising influence of the House of Commons, the futility of the ballot, and the necessity for pure and simple unionism of some brand or another. If he is the official of a Trade Union, then reformist political bodies of all shades will point to the narrow, conservative, unidealistic tendencies of union officialdom, and disappointed seekers after his and other jobs will run campaigns to “sack the lot,” and perhaps try to stir up the desired amount of feeling by urging that it is the excessive salaries paid which cause indifference to the interests of the under dog—the member.
If the leader still has the ear of his members, he remains where he is, and the thing dies a natural death. If he falls, a grateful capitalist Government may make a niche for him in some obscure department where no harm can be done by his probable incompetence. His successful rival will then take his place, on making all the old unfailingly attractive but never to be fulfilled promises, until he, too, makes way for a new idol; just like the usual ins and outs of national politics.
Of course, new times bring new types, and the Victorian “ploughboy who has fought his way upwards” a la Samuel Smiles gives way to the product of some Labour College or to the University-trained son of one of the old successfuls; but the result is the same. The losing shepherds continue to lead, and the sheep to follow, to the slaughter prepared by the butchers of the ruling class.
What is to be done about it? The matter is an important one, and it is worth while examining some of the proposals made by would-be guides of the workers.
A good instance of the kind of argument used against back-sliding union officials is contained in a resolution of the Distributive Group of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, reproduced in The Communist (10th June, 1922). It urges among other things, that “the salaries paid to whole-time officials should be made to approximate to the average wage or salary obtaining in the industry in which the officials is engaged.”
At first glance, this sounds both reasonable and very much to be desired, but is, in fact, quite impracticable. It is the product not of thought, but of the feeling of resentment against the individuals supposed to be the cause of failure. Because there does not appear to be any justification for the official in a comparatively secure position receiving many times as much as his members, these enthusiasts suggest equalising the two rates of pay as a remedy. They forget to ask themselves whether it will work; they overlook the fact that they live in a capitalist world.
The question of reasonableness is relatively a minor one, and can soon be disposed of. If it is unreasonable that J. H. Thomas should get £1,000 per annum and his members only £150 or thereabouts, is it any more reasonable that a general secretary of a labourers’ union with membership running into hundreds of thousands should get about 40s. per week, while an official of an organisation of bank employees, for instance, with less arduous work and less responsibility, gets £500 a year or more? The argument is unsound.
Realising that this is the position, one must give up Utopian notions about equal pay, and look elsewhere for a solution of the problem which confronts us. We need not, of course, accept Clynes’s argument in favour of still higher pay, which is that the higher the status of the workers’ representatives the more attention conceded to them by the other side. Mr. Clynes knows well enough that other factors determine the amount of consideration an organisation will get from its opponents; will decide, in fact, whether negotiations shall take place at all. When the devil of necessity compels, the robber aristocracy of allied capital does not refuse the “bloody hand” of the saddler President of Germany or of the Bolsheviks.
Another suggestion to the same end was that “every official should be equipped with a thorough knowledge of Economics and Industrial History from the working class standpoint.” It would obviously be to the good that the servants of the workers should be competent servants, but if thee intended servants are really aiming at being masters, the greater their knowledge the greater their danger. Surely the ambitions of many of the young bloods of the Labour movement, coming barrister Hodges and the products of Fabian training, for instance, are illustrations enough of this.
Where these qualifications already exist the same difficulties are present also. Even the officials of the Communist Party “want watching.” John Clarke, in The Worker (organ of the R.I.L.U., 10th June, 1922) writes of the possible danger of the “mass” party (C.P.G.B.) becoming merely a means of collecting “flats” for ‘‘the ‘communistic’ amateur Horatio to play with and prey upon.”
More than competency is required.
Then there is the talk about demoralising environment, especially of the House of Commons. This is all nonsense. The House of Commons’ smoking-room, or wherever it is the Labour M.P.s get drunk, is from a political point of view no more demoralising than the average Labour Party or Trade Union branch or the 1917 Club, where Labour’s Hampstead “Highbrows” congregate.
It is based on the assumption that these men rise to eminence because they are revolutionary, and that once arrived their revolutionary outlook gets blurred. The assumption is not correct. Whether or not a few, or all of them, at some time accepted the revolutionary position, they rise because they are smooth-tongued and popular; because they give attractive expression to the momentary discontent of their fellows; because they are quick to note and adapt themselves to coming changes of sentiment, thus gaining a reputation for leadership. It may often be that the successful man is a “rebel,” who gains popularity from the prevailing dissatisfaction “by the vigour of his abuse of the capitalist, or of the reactionary officials; but apart from the fact that one does not become a revolutionary by composing hymns of hate about the F.B.I., it is obvious that if the workers who originally elected Mr. Clynes to the House of Commons did so because he was a revolutionary, they would not tolerate him when he ceased to be one.
Only a Socialist electorate would support a candidate who fought on a straight Socialist programme, and only a convinced revolutionary membership would have a revolutionary policy and revolutionary officials. This is at the bottom of the business, and it is of no use complaining about the man. What, after all, is the position of the Labour M.P.?
He is elected with the indispensable financial and organisational backing of a Trade Union or the Labour Party, on that nebulous thing—the Labour Party’s programme. That is to say, he receives the votes of people who variously think that “Mr. Shortt must go” for not saving Jacoby from hanging and thus condemning him to the worse horror of life-long imprisonment; that Winston Churchill is a blackguard; that the cattle embargo should be raised; that the beer tax should be removed; that prohibition is (or is not) desirable; that interest on Government Loans should (or should not) be reduced; that this country ought to disarm, or ought alternatively to arm more to make work at Woolwich Arsenal, etc., etc. He receives the votes of a number of shades of anti-Liberal and anti-Coalitionist but decidedly anti-Socialist electors. He gets his £400, with probably some other pay from a Union and almost certainly quite considerable extras in the shape of expenses from various sources. He has no doubt a better and more comfortable existence than previously, and naturally he doesn’t relish a return to the insecurity of the mine or the factory. How, then, can he; best achieve security? By exposing the rottenness of Labour representation and the futility of Parliamentary bargaining? By offending the powers that be who can offer honours and other more lucrative posts? Not much !
He knows he cannot fight an election on his own, and he knows he must please his electorate and the Labour Party, which can only be done by pretending to fight for the futile reforms on which he was elected, and by supporting new stunts as they become popular. If he doesn’t, what happens? Where would Clynes be at the next election if he seriously opposed and exposed the capitalist system? What will happen to Col. Malone, elected as Coalition Liberal, and now in the Communist Party? (Not that I accuse him of seriously opposing capitalism.)
Labour M.P.s and T.U. officials play for safety, and the mentality of the average worker being what it is, this means playing the capitalist game.
This, of course, runs counter to the Communist notion of leadership. I should have said notions, because there are two. One is that the workers are really advanced, and willing to fight, but are held back by their timid or treacherous leaders; and the other is that the workers as a whole don’t, and won’t ever, understand their own interests, but that a choice band of gallant Communists will wrest control from the present leaders and inaugurate the revolution in a moment of crisis. These words about the moment of crisis serve the same purpose as the indefiniteness of Old Moore’s prophecies —they save the prophets from being called to account. Whenever they promise but fail to produce the revolution, they can point out that the crisis wasn’t critical enough. That, however, is by the way.
The first I really can’t take seriously. The idea of several hundred thousand revolutionary railwaymen, for instance, held in check by J. H. Thomas, only makes me laugh. In the other Communist theory of leadership of the masses we get one of the basic fallacies at the back of the failure of the Labour Movement. Even if it were true that masses of people can be induced to take important action vitally affecting themselves and lasting over a considerable period, merely because they trust certain elected or self-appointed leaders, it still remains to be shown how the Labour Party or the Communists could hope to compete with the older parties, possessing as these do unlimited wealth, long experience, and control of Press and pulpit. Actually, people require sooner or later evidence to convince them that the action they are asked to take is sound for them, although, of course, they may, and often do, for a long while misinterpret the evidence. The extreme foolishness of this case is illustrated by a writer in the Workers’ Republic (Communist Party of Ireland, 3rd June, 1922), who, assuming the possibility of a Socialist revolution in Ireland sometime between the Armistice and now, explains its failure to materialise by the detention of Jim Larkin in America! The idea of a great social movement affecting every detail of the lives of the great majority of the members of society waiting the arrival of one man is absurd, and the situations is made more ironical when we realise that his imprisonment depends on the whim of the Capitalist Government of the United States. The picture of “Saint” James Larkin, Saviour of Ireland, is amusing but no more accurate than that of Lloyd George, winner of the war, or Horatio Bottomley, Empire builder and martyr. Socialism cannot be achieved by leaders. As Trotsky wrote to an American critic, Louis Boudin: “Remember, we are not making the revolution; the revolution is making us.”
As happened in Australia recently, a Labour Government in power could not get even the support of its own employees by promising to resist wage reduction for them and other workers, because of the effectiveness of capitalist Press propaganda in favour of the theory that high wages prevent trade revival. (Melbourne Socialist, 17-2-1922.)
The obstacles presented by the untrustworthiness of leaders arises from the composition of the rank and file. No organisation, industrial or political, can be effective except the members are convinced of the correctness of their aims and the necessity for the policy their organisation has adopted. Only if the members have knowledge can they be immune from betrayal at the hands of self-seeking and unscrupulous leaders.
A further clause in the resolution quoted at the beginning of the article which demands “an enlightened and educated membership” is really, therefore, the one which strikes at the root of the evil. When, by the giving of direct or indirect bribes, the capitalist can secure the co-operation of a Henderson, it is not his brains or ability they want. They were buying his power to dragoon his followers. As Sydney Webb says of the Government positions granted to Labour leaders during the war: “These officials were elected in the main, not on personal grounds, but because they represented the Trade Union Movement.” (“History of Trade Unions,” page 637.) They were the shepherds with fleeces to sell.
When anti-Socialist organisations make such use of Mrs. Snowden’s remark that Socialism is “no solution for the unemployed problem” (Daily Herald, 31st January, 1922), it is her influence and her reputation which makes the incident harmful. Workers understanding Socialism would not be misled by Henderson, and would never have put Mrs. Snowden in a position of eminence, and their defection, if it took place, would harm no one except those who paid and made a bad bargain.
Class conscious workers would elect M.P.s on a Socialist programme and with a Socialist electorate behind him the man could, and would have to, work for Socialism. If he went over to the ruling class he would lose his seat. The strength of Parliamentary representation is in the knowledge and determination of the electors.
There is one Labour candidate who recognises this, and in so doing makes the most effective charge against the Labour Party. Fred Henderson, in his “Labour’s Case,” says : “If the Labour Party is not returned to power with the full strength of a public mandate for the constructive work of bringing in the co-operative Commonwealth, it had better not be returned at all . . . a Labour Government placed in power by any merely reformist impulse of the electors of the country, and therefore without any real power or authority for anything beyond social reformist purposes, would be in a position of hopeless impotence.” (Page 19.)
Only those organisations can effectively wage war on capitalism which are composed of members who recognise the class struggle is fundamental; who realise that Socialism is the only hope of the workers, and who know the lines of their struggle, and the result to be achieved by their activities.