1920s >> 1927 >> no-269-january-1927

The lesson of the coal dispute


The dispute in the coal industry has prompted many writers to indulge in their favourite practice of pointing a lesson. Mr. A. J. Cook, as the chief representative of the miners, tells us in the New Leader, 26.11.1926, what is “The real lesson of the coal war,” “The lesson which the working class must, and will, draw from the greatest industrial upheaval in our history.”

Mr. Cook emphasises again and again the bitter hostility that exists between the Capitalist-class and the working-class. His first reference is to arbitration and conciliation.

“It seems to me that anyone who can suppose that the workers can to-day obtain either a living wage or tolerable conditions in industry by these means must be quite ignorant of the national and international facts of present-day capitalist industry.”

A realization of this fact during the dispute might have saved much time wasted, and dignity lost, searching for a basis of agreement. It should, moreover, be apparent that every attempt to reason concessions out of employers must, in the face of this antagonism be futile. Nothing has ever been won for the workers by conferences between employers and Labour leaders. The deciding factor is always power. If the workers are unable to damage Capitalist interests by withholding their labour-power, the oratory of their leaders cannot save them from defeat. What that defeat means for the working-class Mr. Cook informs us next:

“The growing intensity of our industrial disputes, waged now not to gain new privileges for the workers, but in desperate attempts to preserve old gains, proves conclusively what we, as Socialists, have long been saying. Keir Hardie himself summed up the lesson in his famous phrase, “You must either end capitalism or capitalism will end you.” We are now face to face with the fact that we can only end capitalism by creating and constructing a new social order. That is the historic mission of the working-class movement.”

Mr. Cook then outlines certain facts connected with Capitalist methods .and development which he finds only lead him to the same conclusion : the clash of interests between the Capitalist-class and the working-class. He says :

“If this analysis of the present condition of capitalism is sound, then clearly there can be no identity of interest in present circumstances between the owners of capital and the workers.”

Mr. Cook arrives at this conclusion by means of a quite unnecessary recital of recent Capitalist developments, “overcapitalization, the return to the gold standard, the burden of war debts, the scarcity of markets and etc.” He fails to see that it is not in the development but in the nature of Capitalism that the source of class antagonism lies. Ownership of the means of wealth production by the Capitalist-class, and the merchandise character of human labour-power; the basic principles of Capitalist society, make harmonious relations between the two classes impossible.

A further process of reasoning brings Mr. Cook to the conclusion “that Capitalism can only exist with a permanent unemployed system connected with every industry,” and the further conclusion contained in the following :

“At the same time, every attempt to introduce new methods of production which increase output means that yet another consignment of workers is thrown on the industrial scrap heap. Next, as a result of facing economic facts,”

Mr. Cook says :

“Surely no one can now doubt that the object of the Government and the Capitalist Press— those twin brothers of oppression—is to smash the whole Trade Union and Labour Movement, and that they will be satisfied with nothing less.”

From these facts and conclusions we are asked to learn that :

“The lesson of this struggle is that Socialism is the only hope of the worker, his wife and his child; that we must equip ourselves for the control of industry; that, if we would accomplish our great purpose in our own day, we must start now.”

It will not be out of place here to summarise Mr. Cook’s most important conclusions :

1. The futility of arbitration and conciliation.
2. That there is no identity of interests between Capitalists and workers.
3. That new methods which increase output mean increased unemployment.
4. That the Capitalist Government is determined to smash the workers’ organisations.
5. That Socialism is the only hope of the workers.

These conclusions are now in a convenient form for reference. Mr. Cook in his subsequent remarks forgets that he has written them. We shall see how he throws them overboard in a few sentences.

Nos. 1, 2 and 4 go by the board in a single sentence :

“I appeal not only to workers but to every thinking man and woman in the country, no matter their class, to realise the gravity of the choice that lies before us.”

How is it possible for Mr. Cook to think, at one and the same time, that the Capitalists are determined to smash the workers’ organizations, and yet are capable of being influenced by a statement of the consequences?

If the interests of the two classes are opposed, how can the Capitalists be expected to respond to appeals for unity of thought with the workers?

No. 3 is next discarded in the most shameless manner. Still connecting the two classes as thinking men and women, he says :

“Cannot they realise what the I.L.P. has grasped—that a living wage and reorganised industry must go together, and that these two are the only hope of our country.”

The italics are not ours. Throughout the pages of “The Living Wage” the I.L.P. insists that new machinery, better organization, standardization and mass production are necessary to the “living wage.” Mr. Cook gives them his blessing in the same column in which he declares that such methods mean yet another consignment of workers thrown on the industrial scrap-heap. ”These two—a living wage and reorganised industry—are the only hope of our country,” he says, yet only a few lines above he had written, “Socialism is the only hope of the worker.” In that contradiction No. 5 went by the board; yet so eager was Mr. Cook “to start now” that he ruled Socialism out in the next paragraph to which he asserted its paramount importance :

“We must make every city, town and village ring with our first and most urgent demand— the nationalisation of the mines.”

Nationalisation of the mines is a question for those Capitalists who are dependent on the mineowners for supplies of coal. Neither the miners nor the working-class as a whole would be any nearer Socialism as a consequence, either of its achievement or its advocacy. The first step in that direction is one of knowledge. Not with nationalisation, but with the knowledge of Socialism must “every city, town and village be made to ring” before we can truthfully say we are well on the road to Socialism.

F. F.

(Socialist Standard, January 1927)

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