J. T. Murphy
Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. II, January 1922, No. 1
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
THE crisis in the Trade Union movement of Britain widens and deepens as the employers deliver blow on blow at the wages, the hours of labour and the factory conditions of the workers. The Unions are losing their members by thousands every week. Many are bankrupt and many are on the way to bankruptcy. Despondency is everywhere. Almost all the workers feel the hopelessness of the limitations which restrain their movements within the orbit of any single Union or group of Unions. The old trumpeting of the Union leaders has gone. They are beaten to a frazzle.
The situation is indeed serious. Ever since the memorable Black Friday of April, 1921, Union after Union has been swiftly put hors de combat. The shadow of that fateful day hangs like a pall over the movement. We cannot escape it. Dodge, twist, turn as we may, no sooner do we attempt to think out any ways and means of struggle against the forces of Capitalism than back we come to April’s fiasco. Until that crisis is fully appreciated and its implications thoroughly understood, no apology is necessary for referring back to that period and the discussions arising out of it.
Most of the writers have dealt with the event as with an ordinary Trade Union failure in a strike situation, expounding on the weakness and strength of the respective forces and organisations in the struggle. Black Friday contains more than a lesson in the organisational weaknesses of such bodies as the Triple Alliance. More important than any debate upon whether the railwaymen should ballot before a strike is the lesson conveyed in the psychological shock it administered to the working-class movement of Britain, leaders and rank and file alike, as they were brought face to face with the realities of a new epoch.
They had refused to see the world significance of the Russian Revolution and had never understood the rôle of their own organisations in the struggle of the classes. Born, nurtured and trained in the period of developing and expanding Capitalism, never understanding Capitalism, they drifted into the new era with an outlook totally unfitted for the responsibilities they had and have to face. For the first time the leaders were brought up against the fact that the ordinary issues of Trade Unionism were swiftly precipitating them into revolutionary situations for which they were not prepared. “Wolf” had been cried many times, but here it was upon them. The challenge of the Councils of Action on the occasion of the threatened war on Soviet Russia was looked upon as something exceptional with no special bearing upon ordinary Trade Union problems. This crisis, however, arose out of their own economic problems, and it appalled the leaders. It was a crisis wherein the whole working class were being marshalled into a position which went far beyond pressure upon the employers to a direct challenge to the capitalist State. This was no Parliamentary debate. It was a challenge of class forces and class institutions, the capitalist class and its Parliament versus the working class and its organisations. The failure of the leaders of the workers, entangled in “reasonable settlements” and nervous panic, demoralised the movement and produced a condition in the ranks of organised Labour, which can best be described as a condition of “vertigo,” wherein none knew whither they were going.
From this condition the movement has not yet recovered. The leaders are still pursuing their ordinary round of activities, either anxious and worried because they find themselves so hopelessly beaten by their own limitations, or scheming to save their own skins. The masses, equally bewildered by the savage onslaughts on their standard of life, retreat, having no leaders, complaining, disgusted, and almost without hope.
To miss the central fact which has produced this situation is to miss the greatest lesson the crisis has to convey and to leave the movement blindly drifting to similar disasters. But it has been missed by practically every writer in the British movement. Even Mr. Arnot failed to appreciate that fact in his valuable, article on “A Parliament of Labour” in the October issue of the LABOUR MONTHLY. In that article Mr. Arnot displays the characteristic defects of most of the theorists on Trade Unionism. These defects arise out of the failure to appreciate the real political significance of the growth of the working-class organisations and the kind of crisis latent in every large movement of organised workers. Although Mr. Arnot felt it was an unusual experience from which some special lesson ought to be derived, he falls back upon theories and experiences with which we were familiar long before April, 1921, in order to project his plans for the reorganisation of the Union movement. Of this we would not complain, providing the special lesson of the new experience is not overlooked. But such is not the case.
We have been content to examine Trade Unionism in relation to industry, to regard Trade Unions simply as organisations for the regulation of wages, workshop conditions, etc., and at the most aiming at the control of industry. The political significance has been relegated to pressure upon a Parliamentary Party or supplementary to it. The Industrialists and the Syndicalists spoke of the “exploitation at the point of production,” and cried “Organise at the point of production if you would be free.” They studied the evolution of industry, projected the industrial republic, and determined accordingly what they thought would be the kind of organisation necessary thereto. Then they measured the value of all existing organisations by their degree of approximation to their ideal industrial Union. Their vision was limited to industry.
The ordinary Trade Unionist was somewhat different. He grew up in the spirit of the little shopkeeper who one day hopes to become a Selfridge. His little Union was the Union. His leaders were of the type accustomed to negotiating two sixpences for a shilling and insuring their membership against the workhouse “by small contributions regularly paid through life.” They had no great schemes of organisation, and hated innovations. The organisations grew and modified their form as the varying stages of the struggle flung ever larger masses into the fray. Hence the different types of Unions—craft, occupational, general labour, industrial, etc.
In the realm of policy the one produced a hatred of Parliamentarism and a powerful prejudice in favour of “direct action,” culminating in the general strike and the abolition of the State. A goodly proportion of the other, well adapted to Capitalism ideologically, leaned to the other extreme of Parliamentarism. The slogans of the movement were, accordingly, Direct Action and Industrial Unionism, Parliamentary Action and Industrial Peace. Both sides of the movement were at one in relegating the Unions to what was called the “industrial field.”
The pendulum swung backwards and forwards between the two policies at Congress after Congress. But both sections of the movement missed or ignored the revolutionary political significance of the power accumulating in the growth of their organisation. They missed the fact that sooner or later antagonistic institutions challenge the existence of each other, that the institutions of the working class are as revolutionary in their implication as the working class itself. The crises of the last three years have delivered smashing blows at all our old conceptions of the struggle, and relegated the old slogans to subordinate rank. Who can say now: This is an industrial issue and that is a political issue? Who can say that “by the organisation of the workers industrially to control industry we shall squeeze out the capitalists step by step,” when the employers have pushed two millions of workers on to the streets and made organisation in the factories almost impossible? Who can say that the way lies only through Parliamentarism after two outstanding crises within comparatively a few months of each other have challenged the very existence of Parliament, at a time when the Parliamentary Labour Party numbers only about sixty members?
No longer can there be any dubiety about the situation. The antagonistic concentration of forces which produced the Councils of Action and the Black Friday fiasco are clearly shown to be not peculiar and abnormal, but the natural development of the class struggle. The capitalist class challenged the workers through its own institutions, its own State power. The working class met that challenge with its own organisations, its Trade Unions, its political parties, etc. They had no alternative. They could not even wait for a General Election. Whatever was won by the Councils of Action can be attributed to the willingness to meet that challenge for power. Whatever was lost on the day of “reasonable settlement” can unhesitatingly be attributed to the refusal to face that challenge.
We cannot escape this issue. The more the economic crisis of Capitalism deepens the more all the organisations of the working class assume a political rôle and are compelled to mass themselves together to avoid extinction. The working class of to-day has either consciously to mass its organisations together in common defence and fearlessly face the fight for power or see its organisations disintegrate and its life crushed to ever lower standards.
Immediately these things are recognised as fundamental to the future of the movement we have new standards of judgment for our actions and the means for the transvaluation of our values. Every scrap of organisation, whether a small branch meeting or a congress of Unions, an unemployed workers’ committee, or a conference of political parties, or a co-operative store, assumes an importance hitherto unrecognised. Strikes, Parliamentary action, organisation of the factories, the growth of the co-operative movement, the development of the Unions no longer appear unrelated or antagonistic, but phases of the one political struggle of the classes converging on the proletarian conquest of power. The Unions can no longer be judged as good or bad according to their form. By their deeds we shall know them.
Reverting to the crises already mentioned and testing the leadership and the movement generally by its deeds in relation to the fundamental tasks we have indicated, the outstanding weaknesses are amazingly clear. On both occasions the leadership was deplorable. On the first occasion it steered the mass movement into a Parliamentary debate. On the second, it flung the masses into economic disaster. In neither case were the masses alive to any means of removing the leaders who had failed them, and even to-day the formal constitutional procedure holds them in office in spite of their continued failure. The importance of leadership can hardly be overestimated. The greatest weakness of the organised Labour movement lies not so much in the multiplicity of organisations as in its lack of control over the elected person. Content with the formal democracy of the ballot-box, the rank and file have lost control over those who determine what shall come to the ballot-box. Better far to abolish the ballot-box in the Unions and institute means for the rapid removal of leaders who fail, than allow leaders to fasten themselves in office for years and register a cross on issues already defeated.
Equally alarming is the number of leaders who will not lead. We are needing, as never before, a central authority that can command the respect and attention of the whole movement. True, we have all the leaders of the Union movement nominally united in the Trades Union Congress and a central authority in the General Council. But actually there is no unity in the Congress or authority in the General Council. Each constituent part feels itself bound by its own particular constitution. So much is this the case that it is no exaggeration to say that the Trades Union Congress is only a reflex of the muddle of the Union bureaucracy and not a live determining body holding the individual organisations subordinate to itself. Yet a Congress we must have, and a General Council we must have which shall function as a general staff. There is no Union which can fight a winning battle on its own to-day. The massing of the Unions and submission to a central lead is essential. This can be obtained by investing the Trades Union Congress and the General Council with Executive Power over all Unions.
But more is needed if we are to avoid the failures we have emphasised. We need, as Mr. Arnot has already pointed out, the introduction into the Congress of delegates representing more than individual Unions and also the innovation of the power of recall by the rank and file of the organisations represented. The first can be met by the re-introduction of delegates from the Trades Councils; the second by changing the method of election. The delegates from the Unions should be elected by representative conferences of delegates drawn from the local units of organisation of the Unions and responsible to such conferences. All Unions have some means of calling such conferences, and some Unions have such conferences as a feature of their constitution. The delegates from the Trades Councils should be elected by their delegate meetings and responsible to them. The General Council should be elected by the Congress and responsible to the Congress. In each case the larger body should have the power to remove unsatisfactory leaders at its sessions. Thus would be established a means for the effective control by the masses of the leaders as well as the ballot-papers.
The proposal for direct representation from the factories is impracticable in the present state of affairs. Where is the factory organisation tingling with life and vitality which will set the molecules in the Unions astir? The proposal arises out of a study of organisations built upon conditions that are now non-existent, and not out of the study of the realities of to-day. The struggle is a dynamic struggle changing the direction of our efforts from day to day. The conditions which made possible the rapid development of the factory committees are gone. To get such organisations we require a sense of power and a degree of stability in the position of the workers, derived either from strength of organisation or the abolition of unemployment, as in the war period. To-day everyone is conscious of weakness in the face of bad organisation and terrible unemployment. The immediate effectiveness of the modern Union movement does not depend upon whether the unit of organisation is geographical or industrial. The miners and the railwaymen, with their close approximation to the industrial form, are in as deep trouble as the engineers or general labourers. It is one of the ironies of the day that we have to appeal to the Unions irrespective of their form to mass themselves together as a means of reviving the organisation in the factories. Our effectiveness now depends upon the magnitude of the forces we can mobilise for action under a single leadership at any given moment, and the degree to which such organisation and leadership is flexible enough to respond to the dynamics of the struggle.
There is something radically wrong with the working-class organisation and its leaders when the live issues of the day, such as unemployment, are so inadequately met that the separate organisations which spring up out of the situation are left to drift away from the general body of Labour and are compelled to fight for recognition of their claims, even in the Labour movement. How long unemployment will continue at its present dimensions no one can say. But so long as it is a vital question and the unemployed are organising, the central organisation of the working class cannot afford to ignore such organisations or such issues. The Congress nationally and the Trades Councils locally should be immediately reinforced with delegates from the unemployed committees and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress ought to have within its ranks a direct representative of the National Administrative Committee of the Unemployed. We cannot allow a movement thriving on bitter experiences to create a cleavage in the working class when a united mass movement is within easy reach the moment we are prepared to demonstrate in deeds that we mean business on this question. Such a move is as sound in principle as, in tactics. Massing the organisations is a source of strength. Unity of action is essential in policy. By these means we regain strength to initiate once again an organisational drive into the factories.
The political implications of every measure of immediate action and the political rôle of the avowedly industrial organisations forbid the isolation of the political parties by the Unions. Fortunately the British movement has been saved from the experience of the French movement and its bogy of the Amiens Charter by the growth of the British Labour Party out of the Unions, and there is little likelihood at this date of a “no politics” controversy. Indeed, the struggle has already drawn the Unions and the Labour Party together both nationally and locally, until it is no revolutionary measure to urge the necessity for joint meetings of the Executive of the Labour Party and the General Council and joint conferences of the parties of the working class and the Unions. In many places the Trades Councils and the Labour Party are one and the same organisation.
That the Labour Party is a perfect organisation not even its most enthusiastic supporters will claim. It suffers from many of the defects of the Trades Union Congress, and the remedies we have ventured to recommend for that body, especially with regard to the control of leaders, ought to be applied to the Labour Party also. Its policy in relation to other working-class parties is rendering a bad service to the movement as a whole and doing harm to itself. Its real rôle is to keep together the working-class movement, with its strong political currents, so that, whatever the differences may be, they will be differences within the organised working class and not differences which segregate it. It should be flexible enough to embrace all the workers’ parties just as the Trades Union Congress embraces the Unions irrespective of their form and programme. It should function as a Congress of working-class parties working in accord with the Congress of the Unions. If it continues to attempt to impose the rigid discipline of a single unified political party it ceases to be a unifying movement, changing with the transformation of the outlook of the workers, and becomes a competitor for the support of the masses. The alternative allows for the definite clear-cut policies and programmes of the parties to win their way among the masses for the majorities they seek, whilst the working class as a whole loses nothing in organisational strength.
It is equally important that the Co-operative movement should be in complete accord with the rest of the working-class movement. It is no new proposal to suggest a working agreement between the Unions and the Co-operatives. To-day there is greater need than ever for such an alliance. Why not turn this oft-spoken aspiration into a reality? Let the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, as the supreme authority in the Union movement, initiate a working alliance with the central organs of the Co-operative movement and the local Co-operative societies make a working alliance with the Trade Councils. Such an alliance should be at once a financial alliance, a propaganda alliance, a trading alliance, a real combination of forces for struggle and triumph over Capitalism.
Such a threefold combination of forces, such a massing of organisations for effective resistance to the onslaughts that are being made on every section of the workers, such provision for the working class to shed itself of encumbrances and bring its new leaders to the front would pave the way for the conquest of power and facilitate en route the adaptation of the industrial organisations to its future tasks.