1920s >> 1923 >> no-223-march-1923

Mass Action or Intelligent Organisation

They say that God is on the side of the big battalions. This contains an element of truth, but it is not true merely because the battalions are big. If they happen to be composed of raw recruits who don’t know the business end of a gun; don’t know why they are fighting, and wish they weren’t; and if the battalions are officered by men who not only think, like the Duke of Wellington, that their rank and file are “scum,” but are also hoping to be decorated by the enemy for services rendered, then God will have his work cut out, however big the battalions are.

Of course few people now believe that God has any say in the matter. Lord Devonport was not really disturbed when Ben Tillett invited God to strike him dead. He knew he had the dockers cornered and could starve them into surrender, and Tillett plus God was no more formidable than Tillett alone. Anyway, Ben never meant Devonport any harm.

Again, when during the war Lord Roberts saw that the Allied armies were not delivering the goods, and that the geniuses of the General Staff didn’t know what to do next, the country was placarded, with appeals for prayer signed by that old hypocrite. The prayer was, however, wisely accompanied by a campaign for increasing the output of shells, to strengthen God’s hands in the slaughter of His other children,

The consistent application of the God-Idea would be fatal to any human activity, and what is almost as dangerous in working-class organisations is a notion that they will win because they are big in numbers. This takes a variety of, but its general result is a disregard of the actual facts of the present situation and of the necessity for solid preparatory work before the workers can take effective action.

The outstanding features of that situation are these : That the private ownership of the means of life by the capitalist class is the main cause, direct or indirect, of the reme­diable evils from which the workers suffer, and that as a consequence nothing but the abolition of that private ownership can be a solution. Further, that the capitalists maintain possession by their control of Par­liament and its administrative, judicial, and executive machinery, including the armed forces ; this control being buttressed by pro­paganda in the schools, the Church, and the Press.

Thirdly, that the overwhelming mass of the workers, although discontented with their condition, have not yet traced their suffering to its origin in the social structure itself, and are therefore not only unwilling to attack the capitalist system, but are prepared, as during the war, to fight for it, and, as shown at subsequent, elections, to vote for it. Now, we want Socialism and we want it immediately, but unfortunately the majority of the workers are opposed to us, and while they stand behind the State in defence of the capitalist system we are helpless. While, materially, society has long been ripe for Socialism, we are forced to recognise that we must work and wait until the majority see that fact as we see it.

However, among those who want to abolish capitalism, who call themselves revolutionary, there are many who are not convinced that the relatively slow process outlined above is necessary. It need hardly be said that if there could be found a method of reaching the same result in a shorter time we would be only too pleased to hear of it. There is no question of sentimental attachment to particular means; any means are good enough for us provided they will serve the purpose; I do not propose to discuss in detail whether, and to what extent, the means and the end can be separated, although it will readily be seen that granted the overcoming of preliminary obstacles such as the conquest of power, the attempt at building a new society will be a failure if it makes exacting demands which the people are unable to meet. Socialist society can only be run by Socialists, and it will not be the work of a mentally enslaved people who have merely exchanged the blinkers of the capitalist politician for those of the professional revolutionary.

Let us, however, deal with the question of the moment, the conquest of power.

We have seen that the capitalists (or their agents the politicians), depending immediately on the support of the House of Commons and ultimately on the backing of the mass of the people, are able to decide what shall be done in any problem which arises. The Cabinet decides on policies which, if approved by the House of Commons, become law and are enforced through the Legal machinery. Taxes are levied for the up-keep of the State and its various departments. And all the time the law, the police, the army and navy are at hand to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Although they talked of disarming Germany, it is significant that the allied Governments never prevented their German “enemy” from maintaining the forces without which private ownership by the German capitalists could not have been protected.

It follows that the ruling class do only those things which they think are in their immediate interest or which circumstances force them to do to guard the stability of their system. For an instance of the first kind of action, it is plainly in the interests of the capitalist class to keep down the expenses of the administration, because it is they who have to pay; as instances of the second kind, it is necessary that the capitalists should spend money on the technical education of the workers in order to promote the prosperity of their industries and to enable to compete with foreign rivals; and it is also necessary for the capitalists to spend millions of pounds, as they are now doing, on relief for the unemployed.

If the unemployed received no support at all they would in desperation make organised attacks on private property, and their unrelieved discontent would endanger capitalist candidates at elections. Obviously, to leave men in utter starvation would be to force on them proof that existing society had nothing to offer them and could not reasonably demand their allegiance. That could but lead to rioting and disorder, which would make normal trading and commercial activities impossible. The capitalists give doles because it pays them to do so; it is for them a form of insurance, and a cheap one.

Various impatient people observing this, but failing to appreciate it correctly, have conceived the notion that at certain times of “crisis,” when discontent is rife and feeling runs high, and when the minds of many workers are in a condition of ferment, it should be possible by concentrated propaganda, daring leadership, and inspiring example, for a comparatively few revolutionaries so to leaven the mass as to turn its energies to an attack on the system.

It is a plausible theory and an attractive one for those of us for whom the capitalist present is an intolerable burden in comparison with the possibilities of the Socialist future; but will it stand examination?

Is it true that at these moments of crisis the ruling class lose their grip on the situation? Is it, then, any more difficult for the politicians and the Press to keep the workers in hand as regards fundamentals? And have the revolutionaries greater hope of getting into the saddle than at ordinary times? To go no further back than 1914, were the workers any less ready to accept capitalism at war than to accept capitalism at peace? As Mrs. Asquith states in the second volume of her diary, one Cabinet Minister (apparently Lloyd George) was “intriguing with the pacifists” and would have led an anti-war campaign if he could have found support for it, but he saw that the war-makers had been fully successful and he discreetly decided to go with them (Manchester Guardian Weekly, Nov. 24, 1922).

There were strikes during the war, and the Government was able to depend on the great majority, including the Trade Union officials, when it threatened, and took, drastic measures. There was a railway strike in 1919, and troops were used to run the trains, again without any notable outcry from the workers in general. The Labour leaders called off the threatened “Triple Alliance” strike on “Black Friday,” and not only did the mass actionists fail in their agitation, but J. H. Thomas and others denounced as traitors are now as popular as ever with their members.

Why did the Communists fail to make use of these opportunities when they offered? It was not for lack of will, certainly not for lack of screaming headlines and stunt propaganda. They failed because they could not compete with the capitalist Press and because they never succeeded in getting the workers interested in vital questions outside the scope of the immediate movement: On any such occasion the workers may be induced, or forced, quietly to accept less than they ask, but is there ever any possibility of their standing out for something more?

The railwaymen returned to work after a short strike because they were promised a part of their demands. Could one expect anything else? ‘The workers are always robbed, but not understanding this they will not consciously fight the robbers. Why then, if they are driven to resist a reduction in wages, should they be expected to fight for larger aims against a condition of things they accept as inevitable?

As for the immediate aim, the capitalist class can, if they wish, yield and remove the ground of the dispute. In short, if the workers are only asking for some reform of the present system, the capitalists can always grant it or fight it, as they choose. In neither case do the minority get a chance worth mentioning. During the mining dispute some 60 or 70 Communists were jailed, yet no serious effort was made by the workers to get them out. They did not gain the leadership, and the miners did not get any concession.

If, on the other hand, we have to admit that the workers must want Socialism before they can be induced to fight for it, we are back where we started, considering how we can make the workers understand Socialism. But this is the method the minority revolutionaries have rejected.

During the last two years an old issue has been revived, in the agitation for the better treatment of the unemployed. Attempts have been made to organise the unemployed, and have been fairly successful on the whole, but the old futilities have again been practised. The organisers of the movement had to choose between organising a few revolutionaries for a revolutionary purpose or a mass of non-revolutionaries for a programme of minor reforms in the amount and method of unemployment relief. They took the latter, and have succeeded in winning some points from the Boards of Guardians. But have they achieved anything lasting commensurate with their efforts ? They have added to the difficulties of the authorities, which was all to the good, but to assert, as some people have, that they seriously upset the Government is absurd. A writer in the Worker (20th. Jan., 1923), signing himself “Hobo,” gives an interesting account of unemployed organisation in Liverpool, for instance.

It began in 1921 with a gathering of 20,000 strong, and a committee “comprised for the most part of Communists.” There was a baton charge in September, most of the committee were arrested, and the unemployed turned a picture gallery “into a shambles.” “From then onwards the number declined, due to the fact that a scale of relief had been granted and that the spineless ones had got the wind up and left. We managed to keep a crowd of 10,000.”

They again came into conflict with the police, and

“this gave us another setback in point of numbers, and the people left began to show signs of class consciousness. . . . They began, to flock to the Communist Party. Very few stayed in, but those who left were inoculated with germs of the class struggle. Due to another agitation we were granted the use of another hall. Again, after another couple of months, we got notice to quit. From. then onwards until about April or May, 1922, the apathy became terrible. . .

“‘The Guardians or the rich,’ seeing this, began to get brave by daring to cut the relief down. A few hundred returned and wanted to know what we were going to do . . . try as we would we could not get them. to kick. . . . In September (1922). they returned again; . . . The Guardians had brought in a system of test work. . .The agitation became strong . . . the test work suddenly stopped, so did the demonstrations of our organisation. The immediate wrongs of Henry being satisfied, he drifted away again.. Thus the movement has declined, and hardly exists today outside of a small committee.”

So much for mass action. Are these the big battalions that will strike fear into the hearts of the ruling class? We are often reminded that Socialist propaganda makes but slow progress. True, but that is the nature of things; and is the method illustrated above any quicker? If it produces anything  useful at all, could the same or a greater result not have been achieved by a better direction of the energies that were thus largely wasted?

W. Hannington, Organising Secretary of the National Unemployed Movement, admits the actual impotence of that organisation outside of a strictly limited sphere, when he says in reply to a question as to the possibility of disturbances this winter : “The Government is straining the patience of these men, and they must not be surprised if there are outbreaks and disorders.” (Manchester Guardian Weekly,12th Jan.) I suggest that the Government won’t be surprised. The people who will be surprised are the unemployed when they learn how amazingly easy it is for a few police, or if need be, soldiers, to deal effectively with large masses of ill-disciplined and unarmed men. They will get cracked heads for their pains, some of them will possibly, in the words of “Hobo,” be infected with “germs of class consciousness.” But when it is all done, are we any nearer Socialism? When the long delayed trade recovery arrives, short though it may be, will anything be left to show for all the time spent on organising the unemployed? Might these efforts not have been more fruitfully devoted to giving them a real understanding of their class position?

It is true the Socialist Party has not succeeded in organising large numbers, but have the actionists done any better? We have at least assisted materially in giving a correct understanding of Socialism to a by no means insignificant body of workers, and we are still awaiting from our numerous critics information as to the means whereby men who have been brought together to “demand the use of the Town Hall” or for any other fiddling question of the moment, can be induced to fight for Socialism without understanding it. If they could show that they had succeeded or were likely to succeed, something might be said for the idea; but according to a Communist Committee’s report, a copy of which fell into the hands of the Morning Post and was :quoted by the Star (2nd Jan., 1923) the Party during the two years of its existence “has made no real progress, either numerically or in terms of influence. . . We are still only scattered individuals straggling up and down the country without a responsible hold on the working class movement.” (I must apologise for quoting from the Morning Post, but I, like the members of the Communist Party, have no other means of learning what new piece of buffoonery has been devised from time to time by the Communist dictators to disguise from their members the Party’s futility.)

Again, the Communists who have been responsible for misleading the workers by the blind-alley policy of the unemployed organisations now confess, after the harm has been done, that it was all a waste of effort.

“The unemployed have done all they can, and the Government know it. They have tramped through the rain in endless processions. They have gone in mass deputations to the Guardians. They have attended innumerable meetings and have been told to be ‘solid’ They have marched to London, enduring terrible hardships. . . All this has led nowhere. None of the marchers believe that seeing Bonar Law in the flesh will make any difference. Willing for any sacrifice, there seems no outlet, no next step. In weariness and bitter disillusionment the unemployed movement is turning in upon itself. There is sporadic action, local rioting, but not central direction. The Government has signified its exact appreciation of the confusion by arresting Hannington.

“The plain truth is that the unemployed can only be organised for agitation, not for action. Effective action is the job of the working-class as a whole. The Government is not afraid of starving men so long as the mass of the workers look on and keep the ring. —(Workers’ Weekly, C.P.G.B., 10th February, 1923.)

Brought up against one plain truth at home the Communists turn to agitation about another side-tracking question abroad with similar failure.

While they and the other mass actionists, the Labour Parties, are both opposing the French invasion of the Ruhr and issuing clarion calls to the workers to occupy themselves in the purely Capitalists’ dispute over the ownership of that territory, they both admit their inability to interfere effectively to stop it.

“Edo Fimmen, Secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, in a speech to the old Confederation of Labour Congress in Paris . . . confessed . . . the impotence of the international working class in regard to the Ruhr invasion. It must be recognised that we have not been able to do what we said we would do.” —(Daily Herald, 3rd February, 1923.)

“The duty of the Communists is proportionately heavier. We are the minority of the working class. Alone we shall perhaps not be able to prevent war. But we must do everything in our power, so that when the masses are dragged into the war, they will have a rallying centre in the Communist Party . . . ” —(R. Fuchs, International Press Correspondence, 1st February, 1923, an official Communist publication.)

There is another aspect, too. These people always end by calling the workers apathetic. It is pertinent to ask who have done more to make them so than those, whether right-wing privy councillors, or left wing mass actionists, who make the accusation. They bring members into an organisation under false pretences, add nothing to their knowledge, take their contributions, and then abuse them because they leave in disgust when they find that their leaders cannot fulfil the promises which were the bait dangled to catch them.

It is not that the leaders necessarily intend to harm their victims. Usually, at the outset at least, they are sincerely of the opinion that the end having been achieved the means will be thereby justified. Our reply is that the end never is achieved. A little knowledge of the history of the workers’ movement might save many such mistakes, it might also save some enthusiasts from wasting valuable energies trying “to get Socialism quickly” by this method. They should remember that the S.D.F., the Clarion Scouts, the I.L.P., the B.S.P. have each in turn beaten this particular big drum with varying degrees of failure before their present counterparts took it up.

They might also remember that apathy for the rank and file mean apathy for the leaders, and that with the passing of the conditions which temporarily gave the illusion of rapid progress the men who used to bellow blood and fire from the platforms of those organisations recovered from their intoxication. They became cynical and quite a number can now be found talking with their tongues in their cheeks, for the Conservative Party.


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