Notes on Party History: The Trade Union Question
The Trade Union question was a very thorny one in the early years of the Party. Some of those who founded the Party had a leaning towards industrial unionism, whilst others were inclined to regard the trade unions as only another facet of Capitalism. These conflicting views were reflected in disagreements over policy that were brought to a head in 1906 when a number of meetings were arranged to discuss the Party’s attitude to Trade Unionism..
Before reaching this discussion we will relate some of the events that led up to it.
At the Inaugural Meeting a motion had been carried instructing the E.C. to convene a special meeting of members as soon as possible “to discuss and determine the attitude of the Party towards trade unions.” The E.C. arranged for this special meeting to be held on the 9th July at the Food Reform Restaurant in Furnival Street. Lehane, Anderson and Neumann, were appointed as a sub-committee to draft a resolution on trade unions to be submitted to the meeting.
The sub-committee reported that they were unable to come to agreement. The following resolution and amendment were then submitted to the Executive Committee meeting. We are giving them fully because they became the motions discussed at the special meeting.
Lehane and Jackson moved:
“Whereas the private ownership by the master-class of the means whereby the people live produces in the field of industry, as the inevitable outcome of the very conditions of modern society, an unceasing conflict between the propertied idlers and the propertyless workers, a conflict manifesting itself in the form of strikes, lock-outs and general social disturbance, and
“Whereas the workers in their endeavour to resist the encroachments of the exploiting class, or to secure higher wages, shorter hours, better conditions of labour, have largely organised themselves into Trade Unions, and,
“Whereas, the capitalist class in its desire to wring more profits, rent, and interest out off the labour of the workers, has for years been organised into rings, combines, and trusts with the object of controlling markets, raising prices, limiting production, reducing wages and intensifying labour, and,
“Whereas, the capitalist class through its judges has recently seized Trade Union Funds and shows its intention to further confiscate the property of the Trade Union organisations, thereby forcing members of the latter to turn their attention to political action.
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, in General Meeting assembled, realising that this twofold organisation of the hostile classes in society is preparing the way for the transformation of capitalist property into common ownership by limiting competition among the workers on the one hand and by combining and concentrating capital on the other, recommends its members to join the unions in their respective trades in order that by the spread of socialist enlightenment the members of the working class organised in Trade Unions may be enabled to prosecute the class struggle with the efficiency which results alone from clearly defined class-conscious action and taught to translate the industrial conflict into the field of politics, calls upon the Trade Unionists and all other wage workers in this country to join the Socialist Party in order that they may proceed to the conquest of the powers of Government as the indispensable preliminary to the overthrow and dispossession of the capitalist class and the establishment of a society in which the means and instruments for producing the necessaries, comforts and luxuries of life will be the common and democratically controlled property of the whole people.”
To this resolution Anderson and Neumann moved the following amendment:
“Whereas the Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is one of hostility to all other parties in the political field, and,
“Whereas the Trade Unions have definitely taken up a position other than that of the Socialist in that field.
“The Socialist Party in General Meeting assembled declares that while through other circumstances its members may be compelled to belong to such organisations, such members and any others who may deem it advisable to be in Trade Unions shall simply use their position therein to reiterate the Socialist position, but shall in no case accept any official position where their actions would be controlled by the Trade Unions instead of by Socialist convictions.”
At the Executive Committee the Anderson amendment was carried by six votes to two. It was submitted to the General Meeting and Lebane’s motion was moved as an amendment. After considerable discussion the General Meeting carried Lehane’s amendment by twenty votes to nineteen and it then became the resolution. An amendment to it was proposed, but as it was too late to take it. the meeting adjourned with the request that the Executive Committee arrange another meeting.
The adjourned meeting on Trade Unions was continued on the 7th August. The following amendment to the Lehane’s resolution was moved by Hawkins and Jacobs:
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, recognising that the working class must be organised both politically and economically for the safe-guarding of working class interests and the overthrow of Capitalism, declares nevertheless the ultimate uselessness of any economic organisation not based on the principle of working-class solidarity and recognition of the class-struggle.
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, seeing that the trade unions of this country are sectional in character and unconscious of the historic mission of the working-class, cannot give unreserved support to these organisations, which have been frequently manipulated to suit capitalist interests. Members of the Socialist Party who belong to non-Socialist Trade Unions are therefore required not to accept any political office whatever in their Trade Unions, nor any office or position in the execution of the duties of which they may be required to take political action. They are, further, advised to form Socialist groups inside their unions for the purpose of common counsel and joint action to counteract any abandonment of working-class interests and to educate their fellow members in the principles of the class-struggle.
“The Socialist Party recognises that the Trade Unions are essentially economic organisations and that when based upon and informed by correct principles they are capable of fulfilling their function as such. It demands from the Trade Unions a similar recognition that the political action of the working-class must be revolutionary, and the function of, and can only be taken by, the Socialist Party.
“The political and economic organisations of the working-class should work together, in harmonious cooperation, and the Socialist Party desires, to this end, the affiliation of such unions as shall recognise the necessity for ending the wage-system and establishing the Socialist Republic.”
This amendment was lost by twenty-five votes to ten.
Auger and Fitzgerald then moved that the following addendum be incorporated with the Lehane resolution:—
“That this meeting is of opinion that the only solution of the Trade Union problem will be found by forming within each union, in which we have members, groups which shall consider such unions constituencies for propaganda and electoral purposes and be under the full control of the Executive Committee of the Party, and resolves that the Rules of the Party shall incorporate this principle.”
This addendum was carried by seventeen votes to nine, and was followed by a further amendment moved. by Hawkins and Anderson:—
“That the Socialist Party of Great Britain, recognising that the Trade Union movement as at present constituted is organised on an unsound basis, declines to take part in its action until such time as these organisations shall be brought into line with the Socialist principle. In the meantime, members are permitted to join Trade Unions where compelled by economic circumstances, pending the organisation of Socialist Trade Unions.”
The amendment was lost by nineteen votes to sixteen.
The meeting had now reached closing time without it being possible to put the Resolution on account of the many amendments. It was obvious that the disagreements were too sharp to enable a useful conclusion being reached. The meeting adjourned after passing the following curious resolution, which is some reflection of the nature of the discussion:—
“That this meeting adjourn until a decision is arrived at as to whether Trade Unions are political organisations and therefore if our relations thereto are covered by our Declaration of Principles.”
The E.C. appointed a sub-committee to report on this resolution. The sub-committee submitted a statement which they suggested should be recommended as a preamble to the Lehane resolution. This statement pointed out that organisations of workers in various trades being primarily formed for economic action were not covered by that section of our Declaration of Principles which declares hostility to all other political parties. The suggestion was carried by six votes to five.
At the September General Meeting Lehane’s resolution was replaced by an amendment which was carried and then carried as the substantive Resolution with only a few dissentients. This resolution, moved by Hawkins and McNicol, was as follows:
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain declares that Trade Unionism is a necessary form of working-class organisation, but also declares that unless such unions are based upon the class-struggle they become useless and reactionary. Therefore members of the Socialist Party, as Trade Unionists, must work for the conversion of their trade organisations to the sound economic position which alone fits the Trade Union to co-operate with the Socialist Party for the overthrow of capitalism.
“As a matter of tactics the Party considers it advisable that Socialists should not hold office in non-Socialist trade societies where such office involves political action, and in all cases members of the Party must resign office whenever continuance’ therein would require deviation from the political action or policy of the Socialist Party.”
It is worth noticing that this resolution was put and carried after the members had been discussing the question for seven or eight hours and most of them must have been too weary to realize the full import of what they were voting on.
At the following E.C. meeting a resolution, moved by Anderson and Crump, was carried, which stated that as the resolution on trade unions carried at the General Meeting was in conflict with the Declaration of Principles it be held in abeyance until the whole party has been consulted on the question.
On September 25th a Special General Meeting was held to discuss the Trade Union question. At this meeting the resolution at the previous General Meeting, by Hawkins and McNicol,, was rescinded. After some motions had been put forward and rejected the meeting finally adjourned without coming to any decision.
At the General Meeting on 3rd December a resolution was carried that our Declaration of Principles is sufficiently clear to be a guide to members of the Party under any possible contingency and therefore no resolutions explanatory of our principles are necessary.
No further progress was made on the Trade Union question until the Annual Conference on the 20th April, 1905. At the Conference the following resolution by Watts and Harris was carried:—
“Whereas the Trade Unions, while being essentially economic organisations are nevertheless in many instances taking political action either to safeguard their economic existence or for other purposes, and
“Whereas any basis of working class political action other than that laid down in the Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain must lead the workers into the bog of confusion and disappointment, be it therefore
“Resolved that this Conference of the Socialist Party of Great Britain recommends that all members of the Party within Trade Unions be instructed to actively oppose all action of the Unions that is not based on the principles of this Party.”
There the discussion ended for the time being. It was brought up again as a result of a controversy over the action of the Bexley Heath Branch of the Party and a series of discussions were held from May, 1906, onwards, which were fully reported in the Socialist Standard at the time. Before considering these discussions we will explain the Bexley Heath controversy as it had a bearing on the discussions.