1980s >> 1982 >> no-937-september-1982

Why workers must combine

The wealth of society is produced by the class of men and women who neither own nor control the means of wealth production and distribution: this is the great social contradiction of capitalism. Labour is the source of value, but those who labour are destined to relative degrees of poverty, while those in positions of ownership enjoy lives of privilege and luxury and are not compelled to produce anything. To state that capitalism is a system of class exploitation is not to moralise about it, but to define it scientifically.

Wage labour and capital must always be in conflict; the class struggle is inevitable in a society where two classes have directly opposing interests. James the capitalist wants Jack, the worker to work hard, take low wages and be thankful he’s employed. Jack the worker wants to expend as little energy as he can and receive as high a wage as possible. Jack is grateful to James for “giving him a job and a wage” — if he thought about it he would see that he is in fact giving James a free ride in life. Employment is a contract which is only entered into when where is a likelihood that workers will create more than the value of their labour power.

If the working class were half as “selfish” and “greedy” as the propagandists for capitalism claim, there would have been a socialist revolution years ago. Socialists are depending on the self-interest of our fellow workers, for only when they are so inspired will they create a society in which the best things in life are free for all. At the moment, contrary to all the bogus talk about “selfishness”, workers willingly accept inferior lifestyles, die to protect their bosses’ markets and generally regard exploitation as inevitable. The majority support the status quo, not because they are stupid, but because capitalism is well-geared to perpetuate those ideas which defend the position of the capitalist class.

Capitalism’s propaganda may divert workers from the socialist solution (although it will not be able to do so forever), but it cannot shield them from the problems which class society throws up. No amount of clever talk and trickery can deny experience. In the early days of capitalism, workers and animals were treated by the capitalists almost indistinguishably; indeed, the British ruling class have always cared rather more for their pet dogs than for their human wage slaves. Lives were casually lost because of the use of insecure machinery, slacking employees were ruthlessly beaten, the hours of labour were so long as to cause physical harm, children were forced to perform filthy, dangerous tasks and any workers who resisted were sacked and left to starve. All of this was experienced by British workers only five or six generations back, and many of the capitalists living in respectable affluence today owe their positions to such ruthless exploitation. The same horror story is, of course, a permanent social feature of many parts of the industrialising world of today.

Experience of exploitation teaches workers elementary lessons about self-defence, the first usually being the value of combination. Many capitalists would like it if workers were unwilling or unable to combine — if they could be kept atomised so that individual “trouble-makers” could be picked out and excluded from employment. The moment that workers combine for the purpose of looking after their interests the long journey to self-emancipation has begun. Trade unions combine two factors: consciousness and organisation. Firstly, trade unions mark the recognition on the part of workers that they produce the wealth of society, that by striking they can stop production and force the employer to take them seriously, and that there is a common enemy: the boss. Secondly, trade unions provide important training in how to organise in a democratic manner. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx expressed his clear recognition of the importance of industrial combination:

Big industry masses together in a single place a crowd of people unknown to each other. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of their wages, this common interest which they have against their employer, unites them in the same idea of resistance — combination. Thus, combination has always a double end. that of eliminating competition among themselves while enabling them to make a general competition against the capitalist. If the first object of resistance has been merely to maintain wages, in proportion as the capitalists in their turn have combined with the idea of repression, the combinations, at first isolated, have formed in groups, and in face of constantly united capital, the maintenance of the association became more important to them than the maintenance of wages. This is so true that the English economists are all astonished at seeing the workers sacrifice a great part of their wages on behalf of the associations which, in the eyes of these economists, were only established in support of wages. In this struggle — a veritable civil war — are united and developed all the elements necessary for a future battle. Once arrived at that point, association takes a political character. (Kerr edition. p.188.)

If Marx was unduly hopeful in seeing trade unions as ‘training schools for socialism’, he was quite correct in realising that only experience of conscious solidarity can provide workers with the kind of self-awareness necessary to turn them into a revolutionary class. Because they were not mere idealists who painted pictures of socialism in their heads. Marx and Engels did not attack trade unions as non-revolutionary organisations; they realised that only from their experience of self-defence could workers learn to take political action to end exploitation itself.

The earliest records of working class industrial combination stand as clear proof of just how heroically and effectively workers are capable of struggling. At the end of the eighteenth century the British capitalist class was so scared of combination that they passed the notorious Combination Acts, which made it illegal for workers to unite in their own defence. But illegality was no barrier to the dedicated workers who formed underground combinations. They understood that only by uniting could they be strong — just as the workers in Poland did when they defied their state capitalist masters and set up Solidarity. In 1812 the Scottish weavers came out on strike, defying the laws of their masters. In 1816 the South Wales miners came out. . . in 1818 the Scottish miners … in the same year the Lancashire spinners. Many of these men and women were imprisoned or deported, but the combinations survived them. The north-east miners formed an illegal brotherhood and each worker had to swear “a most solemn oath to obey the orders of the brotherhood, under the penalty of being stabbed through the heart or of having their bowels ripped up”. When the Combination Acts were finally repealed in 1825 the workers responded with a wave of well-organised strikes. In 1826 the Lancashire cotton spinners fought a vigorous, but ultimately unsuccessful battle to resist a reduction in wages. In 1831 the marines and cavalry were used to crush a strike by the Durham miners. The ferocity of that assault, and that of the troops in their barbaric attack upon the Welsh ironmasters in the same year, showed that the capitalist state could and would use every violent tactic, including the killing of strikers, in order to protect the power of the parasitic elite. Although state violence secured short-term gains for the capitalists, in the long-term it only contributed to a greater feeling of hatred by trade unionists against the bosses. As Bronterre O’Brien wrote in 1834 :

The great advantage of a strike is that it increases the enmity between labourers and capitalists, and compels workmen to reflect and investigate the causes of their sufferings. . .

Legalised robbery

Many workers over-estimated the importance of trade unions as forces in the class struggle. They did not realise that as long as they confined themselves to struggling over the rate of exploitation — over how much of the values produced by workers shall go to the capitalists and how much shall constitute the price of labour power (wages and salaries) — there could be no way of breaking free from the inherently exploitative nature of the wages system. The economic laws of capitalism demand that workers must be legally robbed of the fruits of their labour in order for the system to run profitably. Trade unions can only provide limited defence against the level of exploitation; they are powerless to eradicate wage labour as such.

Socialists stand for the abolition of the wages system and argue that it is to this end that workers of all lands must combine, politically and democratically. But that does not mean that we arc unaware of the immense importance of industrial combination for the working class. The socialist attitude towards the industrial struggle is necessarily ambivalent; we encourage workers who are organising along sound lines in their own defence; but we recognise at the same time that most trade unionists support capitalism, knowingly or otherwise, and that the trade unionist aim of “fairness” under capitalism is illusory and reformist. Writing in The Labour Standard in 1881. Engels explained the impossibility of establishing “fairness” within the wages system:

But let us inquire out of what fund does Capital pay these ‘“very fair wages”? Out of capital, of course. But capital produces no value. Labour is, besides the earth, the only source of wealth; Capital itself is nothing but the stored-up produce of labour. So that the wages of Labour are paid out of labour, and the working man is paid out of his own produce. According to what we may call common fairness, the wages of the labourer ought to consist in the produce of his labour. But that would not be fair according to political economy. On the contrary, the produce of the workman’s labour goes to the capitalist, and the workman gets out of it no more than the bare necessaries of life. And thus the end of this uncommonly ‘fair’ race of competition is that the produce of the labour of those who do work is unavoidably accumulated in the hands of those who do not work, and becomes in their hands the most powerful means to enslave the very men who produced it. (7 May 1881.) •

As members of the exploited class, socialists join trade unions to defend their living standards. While a majority of workers support the wages system there is no other action which a socialist worker can take; except, of course, to engage in socialist propaganda. As socialists we support the principle of trade unionism. We do so because we understand where workers would be without unions and also because we see them as providing useful experience in the class struggle. In countries where democratic trade unions do not exist we urge workers to form them; and in countries like Britain, where apparently independent unions do exist, we urge workers to ensure that they are run as democratically as possible and to refrain from allowing trade union strength to be sidetracked into support for capitalist political parties. Much as we support trade unionism, as opponents of the wages system we [also] reject the limited, sterile and ultimately conservative position of most trade unions. So, socialists support trade union action and we seek to establish a system of society where industrial combination will no longer exist because exploitation has been ended.

The Socialist Party exists to encourage our fellow workers to acquire an appetite for something more than the crumbs from the cake which we, as a class, have baked. Put an end to pleading for a little more — to demanding the “right” to be exploited — to seeking “fairness” from a system which is based on the legal robbery of the workers as a class. Having learnt to combine for the purpose of negotiating with the master class, let us now unite to abolish their political power.

Steve Coleman