50 Years Ago: The Limitations of Industrial Action

In August 1911 there was a strike of railwaymen. The Liberal Government, with the support of the Tories called out the troops and there were many casualties when police were used to break up strikers meetings.

Among those hardest hit by the great events of August are the Industrial Unionists. They have witnessed a strike in the industry most able to paralyse society. That it could paralyse society has been amply demonstrated—but then, we have never denied that they could accomplish this. However, events have gone on to prove our claim that, considered as an instrument for ’taking and holding’ the means of life Industrial Unionism, with its most perfect weapon, the General Strike, can accomplish nothing more than general paralysis.

The ’riotous mob ’ of August 1911 were an appalling power for destruction—everybody knew that. Had they been sufficiently desperate, had they felt sufficiently inclined to suicide, they would have been irresistible for ruin. They could have laid London in ashes in a night: they could have made the country an inferno of blood and fire; they could have performed prodigies of destruction in spite of police and military. But when it comes to taking and holding and operating one shillings-worth of the productive wealth of the capitalist class, they are powerless. They can destroy and die, but to hold and operate they must live—and in the difference between these two, Industrialism finds its grave.

The final lesson, and the greatest of all, is to be found in the crushed hopes of the Industrialists, the Syndicalists, the Anarchists. These claim that the means of production must be seized in the teeth of the armed forces; the Socialists hold that the preliminary must be to get control of the armed forces by capturing the machinery of government.

[From the
 Socialist Standard, September 1911]