The Strike and the Vote
Although Socialists do not exaggerate the importance of a General Election, much amusement and instruction may be derived from a consideration of the antics of the various parties involved. At the time of writing the Conservative leaders are endeavouring to insinuate into the minds of the workers that their position would have been much more favourable had several millions of them not participated in the so-called general strike of 1926.
That Strike was directly responsible for the loss of trade and consequent failure of the unemployed to evaporate; the Labour leaders were responsible for the Strike, and have thus contributed to the sufferings of the workers.
Thus argue the Tories.
Of course, the leaders of the Labour Party resent this attack upon their respectability.
Us responsible for the Strike? Perish the thought! It was the wicked Tory Government which provoked it by refusing to continue negotiations.
The argument never goes beneath the surface. It would not suit the interests of either party that it should do so. The strike was a fiasco from the workers’ viewpoint. It certainly did leave their position worse than before; but neither Tories nor Labour leaders are concerned with pointing out why the fiasco occurred.
Each party disclaims responsibility, in order to retain the confidence of their electoral supporters, the majority of whom are members of the working class; and ignores the fact that this very confidence was a contributory factor to the overwhelming defeat which the workers sustained. The rank and file trusted their leaders on the General Council, and the Council trusted Baldwin.
The strike arose, as most strikes do, out of the antagonistic interests of the workers and their exploiters. It was the belated reply to a prolonged process of wage reductions which, in turn, followed upon the collapse of the demand for war materials, and the flooding of the labour market with discharged soliders, munition workers, etc. The argument that the strike is the cause of the aggravated misery of the workers is thus a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.
That the workers failed to accomplish their objects in striking (which were modest enough) was due to the superior organisation of the master class, the better understanding that class has of its material interests, and its grip of the political power of the State. These factors were clearly in evidence throughout the episode.
The workers are not yet organised on the basis of their class; they have a very imperfect knowledge of their position, and their political activity is restricted to supporting different groups of leaders. The steady deterioration of their conditions of life is ample evidence of the futility of this policy, and clear proof of the need for Socialist knowledge, organisation and action.
The open champions of the master class can afford to indulge in gloating over the helplessness of their victims, because they have taken the measure of their pretended opponents. The attitude of the Labour leaders during the war, their readiness to take office in 1924, their grovelling dependence upon negotiations prior to the strike, all testify to the weakness in the workers’ ranks.
The Socialist Party exists for the purpose of replacing that weakness with strength; it seeks to substitute knowledge for ignorance, organisation for chaos, a steady class advance for sectional rout. Of what value are the strike and the vote in this process?
Historically, the strike preceded the vote as a weapon of the workers. In the early days of capitalism it was the only means they possessed of placing any limit to their oppression by their capitalist masters. By jointly withholding their commodity, i.e., their power to labour, they managed to obtain its value in the shape of a subsistence wage. They showed their employers that it was as easy to play for nothing as to work for nothing. In doing this, however, they exhausted the value of the strike.
They could not stop the onward march of the machine. Where, here and there, they eliminated competition between themselves, and secured a higher subsistence level, there stepped in the mechanical force which rendered many of them superfluous, and brought wages down again to a point consistent with normal profit-making.
True, so long as the wages and profits system lasts no section of the workers can afford to abandon the strike, but it is equally true that the strike holds out no possibility of solving the problem of working-class servitude. Many of our political and industrial opponents claim that the “day-to-day struggle,” i.e., the succession of strikes and lock-outs, leads of itself to the workers’ emancipation, and they point to the widening of the circle of the strike as evidence.
The fiasco of the “general” strike refutes the argument. Then, if ever, it should have been proved sound; but instead of an advance, we witnessed a demoralising retreat; not even an orderly one, with the enemy held at any point, but wholesale rout.
So long as the workers in the main regard their affairs from the so-called “immediate” standpoint, a continuance of the rout is inevitable. The nationalisation of industry under the control of the financiers, knocks the last nail in the coffin of orthodox trades unionism as a fighting force; and “minority” trades unionism is in no better case.
The “immediate” interests of the workers are invariably special or sectional interests. A given rate of wages or set of hours has a different value in different industries and areas. Even the Communists have at last awakened to this fact sufficiently to “demand” a six-hours day for miners, as distinct from seven for other trades; but it is clear that no general programme of immediate demands can take into account the total variations in the workers’ conditions. To have any real use the demands of any section of the workers for modifications of their conditions under capitalism must be framed by the section itself.
The political party of the workers can only express the general interests; the interests the workers have in common, irrespective of local or industrial variations;, in other words, the interests of their class as a whole. As such it stands for solidarity between the different sections and the rendering of mutual support wherever possible in the defensive warfare waged by means of strikes. Its special function,, however, is to point out the limited value of this warfare, and to emphasize the fact that the fight carried on along these lines only is a losing one.
So long as the workers are content to struggle for a subsistence wage only, that is the most they will obtain, with their security growing ever less. The Socialist Party summons them to struggle for possession of the means of life. Instead of voting sectionally every now and again for a cessation of work, we counsel the workers to vote as a class for the abolition of the system whereby they are compelled to work for the profit of a few, the present owners of the means of life.
Instead of voting first for this party and then for that in the effort to secure the improvement which strikes have failed to achieve, we call upon them to organise to obtain control of the political machinery, which has served their masters so effectively.
In Queensland (Australia) the workers have recently turned out a “Labour” Government merely in order to put a “Nationalist” Party in its place, thus exploding the fallacy recently held in Communist circles that the return of a Labour Party to power was the essential preliminary to the success of the Communists. The pursuit of red-herrings merely leads to apathy, re-action and despair.
Socialist education is the only solvent of working-class difficulties. When the workers realise that, in spite of all the differences in their respective conditions, they are one as slaves, then only will they feel the need and possibility of emancipation, and act accordingly.