Letter: Organisation—Industrial or Political?

The Socialist Standard

We have received from an opponent of the S.P.G.B. the letter reproduced below. Our reply to his criticism follows. The opening paragraphs of the letter need a word of explanation. In the columns of the Socialist Standard we publish articles expounding the S.P.G.B. case, written by members. We also publish, and reply to, statements from opponents opposing the S.P.G.B. In order to avoid misunderstanding we insist that the statements opposing our case shall be in the form of letters and not in the form of articles. This seems to us to be a reasonable precaution against needless confusion, but our critic does not agree; though why he wants his statement to appear as an article, not as a letter, we do not know.

Editorial Committee.

The Editorial Committee,

Dear Sirs,

I received your letter of 11th inst., enclosing my article dealing with the present capitalist political crisis. The article is a scientifically constructed statement, pointing unerringly to the inescapable conclusion that there is but one solution, the establishment of a new social order—Socialism.

The reason given for non-publication, that “it is not our practice to publish articles in the Socialist Standard unless written by members,” is not well taken; it is an evasion of criticism, and comes with very bad grace from an organisation claiming Marxism to be the basis of its stand.

The establishment of Socialism demands political and economic organisation. The Marxian observation is: “Only the economic organisation can set on foot a true political party of labour, and thus raise a bulwark against the power of capital.” (Marx, to Hamann, Treasurer of the Metalworkers’ Union, in Hanover, 1869.)

In capitalist countries, such as U.S.A., Great Britain, Germany, etc., the tactics of the proletarian revolution are two-fold, political and industrial. Without the political organisation, the class-conscious economic organisation cannot be forged. Without the class-conscious economic organisation, the socialist political ballot cannot triumph.

Economic unity—the solidarity of the working class—is the only solid fact from which political unity can be reflected, without which there can be no political conquest. Thus the economic organisation is the “lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Marx, “Value, Price and Profit,” last paragraph.)

The revolutionary political ballot proclaims the RIGHT of the working class to own and control the means of wealth production, the class-conscious economic organisation is the MIGHT to enforce that RIGHT.

No pure and simple ballot-box decision, however crushing, can dislodge the usurping capitalist class from ownership of the industrial factors of production. The proletarian revolution must guard against having weak spots in its armour.

The last paragraph of Marx’s “Value, Price and Profit,” quoted above, repudiates the position that the armed forces of the State can be converted into levers of emancipation, and, in reference to the lesson of the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it in its own interests.” (Marx, Preface to Communist Manifesto, 25th June, 1872.)

Yours fraternally,


John Robertson.

The S.P.G.B. holds that power is in the hands of those who control the machinery of government including the armed forces, and that the working class cannot remove capitalist dominance and introduce Socialism until, through socialist political organisation, they have conquered the powers of government for the purpose of introducing Socialism. There are many people who believe that during the past six years the working class have been in control of the machinery of government for the purpose of introducing Socialism. They are quite wrong. The working class are not socialist and the Labour Government was placed in office to administer Capitalism. Its faithful efforts to do so have naturally left unsolved the working-class problems that Capitalism produces, with the consequence that many workers are turning from political action towards industrial action. Having got no benefit from the wrong political action they mistakenly decide that no political action is of much use. A similar change of outlook took place after the earlier Labour Governments, and in 1926 led to the abortive general strike.

We may therefore expect, and are already encountering, revived advocacy of the kind of argument contained in the letter from our opponent. At the risk therefore of restating what should, in the light of working-class experience, be obvious, we again place on record the important proposition that while the working class must in self-defence organise on the industrial field, and use their only weapon there, the strike, there is a definite limit to what strike action can achieve, for in the last resort the capitalist-controlled State forces can, and will, crush strikes, both large and small.

As for the future and the establishment of Socialism, it is obvious that when a majority understand and want Socialism this will express itself in the trade unions as well as politically. Nevertheless the key to the achievement of Socialism will still be in political organisation and action to gain control of the machinery of government.

Now for some details of our correspondent’s argument.

We are first asked to pay attention to what Marx in 1869 is alleged to have told Hamann, a metal worker of Hanover. Our correspondent does not tell us what is his authority for believing that Marx used the words quoted. The point is important for the words were not recorded in a letter but are Hamann’s version of an interview. An English translation of a fairly lengthy passage (which includes the remark quoted by our correspondent) will be found in “Marx and the Trade Unions” by A. Lozovsky (“Martin Lawrence,” 1935, page 153). According to Hamann Marx is alleged to have told him, among other things, that “If the trade unions really want to accomplish their task, they must never associate themselves with any political unions or become dependent upon them in any way and also:

   “The trade unions are schools of Socialism. In the trade unions the workers are trained to become socialists.”

In view of these and other statements that are out of harmony with Marx’s known attitude, we agree with Lozovsky when he claims that it is impossible that Marx can really have made the statements in the version attributed to him by Hamann. And, to save needless argument about something that is now beyond the possibility of direct proof, we would add that if Marx had made these statements to Hamann then he would have been wrong. To take one example: except to a very restricted extent, are the trade unions schools of Socialism? Does concentration on fighting for the day-to-day wage demands of the particular section of workers in each particular union school them to take the all-embracing international and class view that is implicit in accepting the socialist case? In 1869 Marx, with his, at that time, understandably optimistic view of the prospect of international solidarity of trade unionists, could hope that that would happen. Events have proved him wrong; the trade unions have made only small progress, if any, towards that desirable condition. Trade union activity has not broken down the nationalistic and capitalist outlook of the mass of trade unionists; and Marx’s statement in the “Communist Manifesto” 1848, that “national differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing ” has been shown to be exceedingly premature, to say the least.

We are next told that “economic unity . . . is the only solid fact from which political unity can be reflected ”; but our correspondent does not pause to notice that there is in existence no such solid fact of economic unity (i.e., industrial organisation on a class, socialist basis), yet there are in existence political parties of socialists. Ought they then, in his view, to wind up and wait in the hope that class organisation on the industrial field will come into being?


Our correspondent then gives us what he says Marx wrote in the last paragraph of “Value, Price and Profit.” According to this version Marx is alleged to have written that the economic organisation is “the lever” for final emancipation. What Marx actually wrote was that the unions should use their organised forces as “a lever”! Such a small change of words, but such a large distortion of meaning.


Lastly our correspondent resurrects once more the hoary misrepresentation of a passage in Marx’s “Civil War in France.” Marx did indeed write that the working class “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (“ Labour Publishing Co. Edition,” page 28). He was writing about the situation in France in 1871 where the State machine included organs “of standing army, police, bureaucracies, clergy and judicature,” which originated with the absolute monarchy, and he merely pointed out that “while the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.” (Page 32.)


Or, as it is put in our Declaration of Principles, the working class must conquer the powers of govern- men “in order that this machinery, including the armed forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation.”


Editorial Committee.