1920s >> 1923 >> no-227-july-1923

The Socialist Party and Trade Unions

A considerable amount of confusion exists in the minds of certain of our critics regarding our attitude towards Trade Unions. It is said by some that we are opposed to the Trade Unions, and in fact to any action by the workers on the economic field. Others assert that our position on the question is inconsistent with the general position of a Socialist Party. With regard to those who assert that we are opposed to the workers taking action against the master class on the economic field, we need only refer to our manifesto, in which we outline our position on the question, to show that the critics referred to are unacquainted with the facts. On pages 17 and 18 of the manifesto we state :—

“The workers’ organisation, political and economic, must be upon the basis of their class with the object of ending the capitalist system and establishing the Socialist Commonwealth. Any efforts on their part to resist the encroachments of the master class deserve our sympathy and support. But whilst encouraging this resistence, we should fail in our duty did we not point out to the resisters the limits of their power.”

Again on page 33, after giving a brief sketch of the rise of Trade Unions, we state :—

“The basis of the action of the trade unions must be a clear recognition of the position of the workers under capitalism, and the class struggle necessarily arising therefrom; in other words they must adopt the Socialist position, if they are going to justify their existence at all. Does this mean that the existing unions are to be smashed? That will depend upon the unions themselves. All action of the unions in support of capitalism, or tending to side-track the workers from the only path that can lead to their emancipation should be strongly opposed, but on the other hand, trade unions being a necessity under capitalism, any action on their part upon sound lines should be heartily supported.”

The position embodied in these quotations has been consistently maintained by us since the formation of our organisation. Whenever the workers have taken action on the economic field, either by way of attempting to increase wages, or resist their reduction, we have not hesitated to support their action. True, we have denounced the Trade Union leaders when they, contrary to the wishes and interests of the workers, have entered into compromises with the master class. True, we have exposed the absurd ideas of many of these leaders concerning the so-called identity of interests between capital and labour. It is also true that we have criticised the great bulk of the Trade Unionists, who, whilst they are prepared to strike against their masters, at every election vote their masters or their representatives into political power. But all this in no way alters the fact that whenever the workers have attempted to resist the encroachments of capital, the position of the Socialist Party has been one of supporting them. Now comes the other kind of critic and declares that all this is inconsistent with the true Socialist position. As to how it is inconsistent is a question which brings forth many answers, which are so varied that it is impossible, within the scope of an article, to deal with all the points raised.

It will be sufficient if we deal with the position in general to show that the alleged inconsistency exists only in the imagination of the critics.

Under capitalism the worker enters what is called the labour market to sell his labour power as an article of merchandise The capitalist and the worker face each other in the, market as buyer and seller. To the capitalist the reason why the worker is in the labour market is of no importance; he only regards the labour market as a branch of the general market in which commodities are bought and sold. In such conditions the worker loses the identity of Smith, Jones, or Robinson; he is to the capitalist so much energy which can be set in motion for a profitable purpose. But the reason why the capitalist is there is likewise of no importance to the worker; his concern is to obtain the wherewithal to live, and since he can only obtain this by the sale of his labour power, he must enter into relations with the capitalist concerning the price he is to receive. It goes without saying that the worker will endeavour to obtain the highest price he can get, whilst the capitalist will endeavour to beat down the price as low as possible.

We have said that the price of labour power is subject to the operation of economic laws, but this does not mean that the price of labour power is determined apart from the struggle between the buyers and sellers. On the contrary it is through the struggle that the price corresponding to the value of labour power is ultimately realised. To realise the value of the commodity labour power necessitates the highest resistance between the buyers and sellers. Of course, the dice are loaded in favour of the capitalist, as he is in possession of the means of living, whilst the worker has nothing but his power to labour. Hence the resistance of the worker can only take the form of withholding the supply of his energy, and as in this form of resistance the individual worker is helpless, some form of combination is necessary. The form of combination which meets this requirement to-day is the Trade Union. A Trade Union is as a rule an organisation composed of a number of workers engaged in the same trade or occupation. For instance, there is the National Union of Clerks, the National Union of Railwaymen, the National Furnishing Trades Association, the names of which indicate the fact that the basis of membership in the Trade Union is one of trade or occupation. Therefore the Trade Union is an economic organisation. It is true that many of the unions dabble in politics, but this is merely a side line, as an examination of their political and their economic activities will show. The amount, of money expended by the unions on activities of a purely economic character is far in excess of the amount expended upon political activities, and there is the further point that when the individual worker is called upon to become a member of the union, the question of his political views does not arise at all. Liberal, Tory, Labour, Socialist, or no political view at all, the worker is enrolled as a member of the Trade Union for reasons which are purely economic. The Trade Union, then, is the form of combination by which the workers carry on their resistance against the capitalist, and however one may regret that the activities of the workers are not directed to the establishment of Socialism, the struggle on the economic field must be carried on. For, bad as the condition of the working class is only a fool would deny that it could be far worse. Of course it will be said that the tendency of capitalist development is to drive down the position of the working class. But as Marx puts the position—

“Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistence against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”—(“Value, Price, and Profit.”)

Let there be no mistake about it, from the standpoint of the Socialist the struggle on the economic field to obtain and maintain the best terms the workers can get for the sale of their labour power is necessary. Far from there being any inconsistency on our part on this point, it is quite in line with the position of a Socialist Party. Right up to the time when the workers are ready to take over the control of the means of wealth production and distribution, the struggle of the workers over wages, hours, and the general conditions of employment, will have to be made, even as the workers become Socialists in larger and larger numbers. The duty of the Socialist is to make the non-Socialist worker, inside and outside the Trade Union, acquainted with the actual position of the working class in capitalist society. For the workers to continue their struggle on the economic field, whilst in ignorance of the fact that they are slaves to the capitalist class, is to prolong the system by which they are sufferers. The adverse conditions in which the workers find themselves are inseparable from the capitalist system, and can only be removed when the workers awaken to a recognition of the necessity for the removal of the system, and the establishment of the Socialist form of society. Whether wages be called high or low the general position of the workers is one of a struggle against starvation throughout the whole of their lifetime. Trade Unionism will not alter this, nor, in fact, will any form of economic organisation. The abolition of the wages system and the conditions that are engendered in that system, will only become an accomplished fact when a majority of the workers become acquainted with a knowledge of their slave position, and then organising politically and economically for the overthrow of capitalist society and the establishment of Socialism.


(Socialist Standard, July 1923)

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