J. Bruce Glasier

Socialism and Strikes


BUT while admitting the general effectiveness of strikes, and the dispensableness of the Capitalist classes, it may nevertheless be still urged that there is no prospect of the workers being released from the necessity of their position in the present or, maybe, for many generations to come, and that there is nothing for them but to make the best of it. They have to depend upon wages for their livelihood, and it is only by trade union organisation, and by resorting to strikes in extremities that they have improved their conditions in the past, and can hope to retain that improvement or to secure any further advance in the immediate future. Besides, it may be further urged, may not Trade Unions become stronger and accomplish more for the workers than they have yet done?

To take the last question first: What hope, think you, is there of Trade Unions becoming more powerful or more efficacious in the future? Already many of the trades have been as highly organised and equipped as they are ever likely to be, and they have had seasons of opportunity that will never recur again. Take the Lancashire Cotton Spinners, the Boilermakers’ Society, the Amalgamated Engineers, and the Durham and Northumberland Miners’ Association. These are large, rich and imposing unions. They are, or have been, splendidly organised, and have had all the power to yea or nay the terms of their employers that mere Trade Unions ever will have. Yet the members of those unions are still wage slaves, can still be thrust out of their jobs the moment their employers choose; their wages are still but little above the starvation rate paid to unorganised workmen, and their toil is as hard as it ever has been, even if their hours of labour be somewhat less than formerly. They cannot make bad trade good, they cannot, and would not dare if they could, prevent the introduction of wage-saving machinery; and even if it came to it they could not prevent their employers shutting their doors in their face never to open them again.

It may, however, be urged that although separate Trade Unions have failed, it is possible to form a national, and perhaps international, federation of Trade Unions, in the event of which the workers would have power to do as they chose. But do what? Merely regulate the conditions of employment? That would be a mountain in labour to bring forth a mouse, with a vengeance! But the proposition that a national, not to speak of an international, combination of the workers could be accomplished is untenable. It is almost inconceivable that all the workers in employment in every trade could be enrolled, and it certainly is inconceivable that these, even if enrolled, could support and carry with them all the unemployed, for whom there is no work now and never will be so long as the industries of the country are in the possession and worked for the profit of the Capitalist class. The further supposition that it is possible to combine all the workers of the world under existing national and economic conditions will not bear a moment’s thought.

And about the masters. Already they are combining nationally and internationally, far faster than the workers can do or have any hope of doing. Suppose, if you will, that all the workers of this country were embraced in one vast federation of Trade Unions tomorrow, and all the capitalists were combined against them – what then? Truly the position would be as hopeless for the workers as it is in any instance today where it happens that all the men in one workshop go out on strike against one employer. If the workers were not resolved to take possession of the factories and the food supply; if they claimed only to be employed on better terms, then the masters would starve them out, or rather in, by the end of the first week.

If! But that “if” would never be. For did all the workers by any possibility ever come out on strike, and they realised what had really happened, they never would go back again to work for employers. The gigantic folly of such a, course would appal them. All the trappings of privilege with which their superstition had invested their masters would instantly disappear. They would perceive that without their labour the richest idlers in the land would have to betake themselves out of the country, or become wretched vagabonds, grubbing scraps of offal from the streets, and that while the capitalists could not do without them, they could do admirably without the capitalists.

And it is precisely that fact which we as Socialists wish the workers to see now. We wish them to realise beforehand what would happen even if the workers and their masters were pitted against each other in one final nation-wide Trade Union conflict. Surely there is no workman but can form the picture in his mind’s eye, and thus perceive that there would be only two alternatives before the workers in that improbable event. If they did no more than merely cease work they would speedily be in extremest destitution, while the richer capitalists might at a pinch get over to some foreign land, and there live comfortably till the workers begged them to come back and give them employment again! That the workers would be so insane as to starve themselves into submission in that manner is beyond belief. They would assuredly seize possession of the means of production and exchange, and never again allow their rich exploiters to touch a particle of their produce. In other words, they would cease to be mere strikers and become insurrectionists; they would no longer be Trade Unionists willing to work for wages, but Socialists determined to work co-operatively for the commonweal. And if that would be the upshot of a universal strike, could the same end not be achieved much better and more quickly without the disorganisation and disorder of a strike at all? And cannot the workmen living today, to whom the probability of there ever being a unanimous and simultaneous cessation of work must seem remote indeed, begin to act now?

While approving in the main what has been said, there are many who will exclaim:

“But have strikes done no good? What would be the use of Trade Union combination at all unless strikes were resorted to on critical occasions? and, Have not Trade Unions raised wages and benefited the workers generally? Look at those industries in which there have been no Trade Unions and no strikes; compare the status of the disorganised with that of the organised workers!”

I am far from saying that nothing has been or that nothing can be done by strikes. Strikes have slightly increased wages, slightly reduced the hours, and slightly improved the general condition of the toilers, and may continue to do so in the future, but almost certainly to a lesser extent than formerly. Without the Trade Unions the workers would be a mere rabble of broken spirited and utterly degraded helots, and there would be little hope of their redemption. But what I wish to make very clear and convincing is, that by no strikes in the past have the workers dealt any effective blow at the system that persistently crushes them down; and that by no striking merely for wages or reduced hours can they in the future emancipate themselves.

If the workers do not wish to emancipate themselves, if they are content to remain mere raw material for the rentgrinding and profit-extracting processes of the rich, then strikes may perhaps compel their masters to adopt more refined methods of treatment; but if they wish to be no longer mere clay for the extraction of gold, but living men, rejoicing in the freedom of their lives and the fruits of their labour; then they must strike with their supremest strength, so as to splinter into fragments and dust the whole mechanism of the system that makes fragments and dust of themselves.

In the past the workers were ignorant, without combination, without political power. Trade Unions did almost magical work in giving them solidarity, strength, and political effectiveness. But they did not know – they could not know, for they were ignorant – nay, not they alone, but their masters also were ignorant, of the meaning of the struggle in which they found themselves involved. The Church had poured the poison of “original sin” and God’s decrees into their minds, and they believed that everything was as it must be and only could be. All, therefore, that the Trade Unions hoped to be able to do was to lessen, if possible, the brutality of the power of the masters; and wherever Trade Unions have had a fair chance ’they have succeeded in their object. But today, the knowledge of the meaning of riches and poverty; the knowledge of the causes of the enslavement of the workers and the iniquity of the idleness and extravagance of the rich; the knowledge of the possibility of a new and nobler social and industrial life, has burst upon us with all the brightness and vivifying power of the summer sun; and are we now going to shut our eyes to the light, and grope about blindly in torment and fear as we did when in darkness? Shall we not rather see the error of our ways, the insufficiency of our deeds, and let our hearts, our thoughts, and our hands respond swiftly to the revelation that has come upon us?

When there were no highways in the land, travellers could not help losing their way sometimes, and even their lives. But what would you say of even the poor tramp who nowadays would refuse to see or avail himself of the great broad public paths, and preferred to wander up and down and round and round about in woods, bogs, and ditches, always coming back to the same place bruised, torn, and dripping with mud, under the impression that he was making great tracks ahead? What would you say of the man who would refuse to read books or newspapers, use the post-office or the steamboats or trains, who knew nothing about anything that was going on in the world except what he heard people talk of, and never went to see his sweetheart fifty miles up in the country, except when he had a week’s holiday and could walk there? It is precisely the same with workmen who go out in the old-fashioned way on strike when they are a little more hard pressed than usual, and return to work when their bellies get empty, and never think of using the knowledge concerning their position and the political power of getting out of it, which is available at every hand. That workmen, until they have effectively used their knowledge and power, must still hold fast to their Trade Unions and come out as often, and stay out as long as possible, is of course obvious, just as it is obvious that where there is no highway across the country travellers must still find a path through woods and bogs and streams, and just as people must still accept information by word of mouth when they cannot get it otherwise, and tramp long distances on foot when they cannot obtain or pay for a train, or a steamboat, or a bicycle.

It is not the going out on strike when expedient that I am objecting to. It is to the fact that going out on strike should be expedient at all at this time of day; and that workmen, who ought to perceive the hopelessness of that means of progress, do absolutely nothing towards the plain, effective method of abolishing the conditions that render such a makeshift necessary.

Nor, surely, need I say that if strikes are wretched expedients, conciliation boards, sliding scales, and arbitrations are unspeakably worse. Folly, surely, could hardly go further than these. It is bad enough that workmen, because of their apathy and superstition, should have to submit to be robbed by the rich; but that they should form a joint tribunal, or make an agreeable arrangement with those who rob them, whereby the rate of robbery shall be mutually agreed upon, so that the rich shall be surer of their plunder and obtain it as pleasantly as possible, is a proposition that passes right out of the range of all rational contemplation. Let the rich, if they will, take like freebooters of old what they can, so long as they have the power, but make their taking as arduous and uncertain as possible. The easier and more agreeable their nefarious calling is made, the more tenaciously will they cling to it, and the more leisure they and their political hirelings will have to devote themselves to the recreation of obstructing the progress and corrupting the cause of the workers. The notion that although a man may give his master a day’s labour of equal quantity and quality from week to week, yet the master may pay him a price that varies from week to week, may be admirably in accordance with the instincts of commerce, but hardly with those of good feeling and fair dealing. When a miner hews and draws three tons of coal today, he performs what is, presumably, a needful service to the community; if not, it is hardly his fault. When he does so three months hence his labour is presumably equally needful. And if his labour is equally needful then as now, why should he be paid a lower rate for it? No reason at all, save that his labour goes into a thieves’ market. Certain it is that however the labour of a workman may vary from time to time in selling value, his own and his family’s need for adequate sustenance and healthful conditions remains sufficiently constant and imperative.

Moreover, what has been said against strikes as a means of permanently uplifting the conditions of the working class applies with equal force against all remedial and palliative measures that do not make for the extinction of the present system of competitive capitalistic production. So long as the land and all the chief means of production are withheld from the workers, there is no hope either of any substantial or permanent improvement in the wages of the workers as a whole, or of any considerable section of them. For the only thing that a workman possesses, by which he can obtain the means of living, is his labour. Having no land and no material to labour upon, and no factories or machinery to assist him in his labour, and no means at his disposal for exchanging what he may produce by his labour, he is forced to sell his labour to those who possess these things, and who will only buy his labour at the lowest figure for which it can be had in the market. His labour, therefore, is merely a commodity – that is, a thing like cotton, iron, or bacon, the price of which today depends upon supply and demand. If there is much labour or much bacon wanted, and little to be had, the price goes up; if contrariwise, there is little demand for it and much to be had, the price goes down. It will thus be seen that the question of how far wages are likely to rise or fall in the market is very similar to that of how far the price of bacon is likely to rise or fall. If, therefore, we wish to ascertain what prospects there are of the workers being able to improve their position, either by strikes or any other expedient that still leaves them at the mercy of the market, we have simply to put the two following questions to ourselves:

To both of these questions a negative answer must be given ven in face of the great shortages temporarily produced by the war – unless, as I have already said, some direct legislative interference with competition and existing property rights takes place. Only a few of the reasons which justify this reply can be stated here, and necessarily very briefly. With respect to the first statement – that the demand for labour is not likely to increase, the following facts, which are persistent, may be cited:

  1. The increasing use of machinery and improved processes of manufacture which enable manufacturers to dispense with the labour, especially of the skilled labour, of workmen.
  2. The sub-division of the various branches of workmanship which likewise enables employers who manufacture on a large scale to do with less workmen, and here again especially of the skilled artisan class. Complementary to this may be included the extension of technical education, which by increasing the general efficiency of workmen’s labour lessens the number of workmen required.
  3. The loss of our foreign markets. Every day that passes brings other lands nearer an equality with our own in productive capacity. At one time Britain manufactured so largely for foreign lands that it gained the appellation of the “workshop of the world.” But now the world is fast becoming its own workshop; and the colonies and foreign nations are not only beginning to manufacture most things for themselves, but to compete with us in our own and other markets. Hopes have been entertained that there may at least be a temporary increase in production owing to the opening up of new markets in Africa and other “virgin” lands. The prospects of this occurring are, however, diminishing daily; and even if it did occur it would be of small importance to the wage-earners.
  4. The formation of trusts, syndicates, and other combinations amongst capitalists, and co operative stores amongst working people, by means of which the waste of goods and labour of every description involved in competition is largely diminished, and thus also the need for workmen.

The second statement: That there is little likelihood of the supply of Labour diminishing, is confirmed by the following and many other circumstances:

  1. The rapid increase of the population, especially of the wage-earning class, which no probable current of emigration, or the adoption of artificial or prudential restriction of the birthrate, is likely to materially lessen. With reference to the former, it may be noted that the advantage of starting in new lands is becoming less every day, and that the influx of immigrants from other countries into Britain is about as likely to augment the number of impoverished workers as the efflux of better-class artisans is to diminish it. Concerning the restriction of the birthrate, it need only be observed that in France, where the population does not increase at all, poverty is almost as accentuated as at home.
  2. The drifting of the rural population into the towns and manufacturing districts, a direct result of the present system of land monopoly.
  3. The increasing opportunity for the employment of women and child labour through the introduction of machinery, new processes and sub-division of branches of manufacture, by which the need of strong and specially trained workmen is done away with.
  4. The probable success of temperance legislation, which, if the hopes of its promoters are realised, will greatly increase the number of sober and industrious among existing competitors for work. To this may be added the proposed reduction or abolition of standing armies, and all other progressive measures likely to swell the ranks of the workers, or add to the efficiency of those already in the market.

Even, however, were it probable, notwithstanding all these apparently opposing circumstances, that labour would, from some cause or another, become “appreciated” in value, and wages rise somewhat, it is by no means certain that a rise in wages would be of any real advantage to the workers. For, paradoxical as it may sound, it is very doubtful if under the existing system of capitalistic production an increase in the nominal amount of wages enables the working class to obtain a corresponding increase in their share of the world’s goods. For, mark you, the monopoly of land and capital is antecedent to competition, and capitalists only compete with a view to profit-making. When competition brings down the price of goods towards the point where profits vanish, competition automatically diminishes or ceases altogether. Usually when employers in a given trade are compelled to increase wages, they recoup themselves by increasing the price of what they sell, or by contriving to do with less wage-paid labour.

The advance in wages comes, therefore, not out of the pockets of the employers, but chiefly out of the pockets of the general community of workers. Even were wages increased all round the price of commodities would probably be increased all round also, and the seeming advantage to the workers prove illusory. If, for example, the average wage were raised from 20/– to 25/– the workers would find that they could purchase little if anything more with 25/– than they formerly did with 20/–. The accuracy of this statement is borne out by a comparison of the wages paid in various lands. Roughly speaking, the nominal rate of artisans’ wages in America is twice as high as in Britain, and in Britain twice as high as in Germany. Nobody, however, who is acquainted with the condition of the working class in these countries, would affirm that workmen in America are twice better off than workmen in Britain, and four times better off than workmen in Germany. The cost of living in America and England is higher than in Germany proportionately, or nearly so, to the higher wages. As a matter of fact the average economic conditions of the artisan class, if accurately investigated, are much the same in all capitalist countries, irrespective of what the rate of wages may be. [1]

This unfavourable forecast of the future of Labour, proceeds, I must again repeat, on the assumption that the present unrestrained “free sale” of labour in the market shall not be interfered with by protective legislation, or by State or Municipal undertakings conducted on Socialist principles without regard to profit-making. In other words, it proceeds upon the supposition that the fight between the owners of the instruments of production and the workers shall be fought on the old field of “freedom of contract” with the old Trade Union weapons, and with no force of the State to back up the workers in their contest. Such a supposition is, you will readily perceive, a very unwarranted one. Already the State has interfered with the so-called rights of property and the liberty of employers to deal exactly as they choose with their wage-slaves, and at the present moment are there not demands on all hands for further intervention on behalf of the workers? Yes, but pray observe what that admission signifies. It implies, and that most accurately too, that the workers have been unable to sustain themselves in their struggle with the capitalist classes, and have already had to appeal for help to the common conscience of the community. It implies that Trade Unions, with all their weapons of offence and defence, have failed in the contest, and that the State, in its capacity as the preserver (however inadequately) of the commonweal, has had to take up the workers’ cause. It implies that the people as a community cannot allow its well-being to be jeopardised, or the fate of its members decided by an unseemly and continual squabble between starving workmen and rich employers, and that whenever a peace bargain is made that is obviously detrimental to the prosperity of the people it must be set aside.

Thus it seems clearly proven that not only have Trade Union conflicts been unsuccessful in destroying the oppression and preventing the exploitation of labour in the past, but that in the future they are not likely, unaided, even to maintain what little ground of vantage they have gained. On the other hand, it is equally evident that whatever substantial and permanent modification of the merciless power of capitalism has taken place has been accomplished by the sentiment and action of the community as such, and that to this community or State effort we must look for all desirable and attainable improvement in the lot of the working class in the future.


1. The soundness of this reasoning has been proved so clearly by the after-war relations between wages and prices, or “the cost of living,” that even the dullest thinker will today admit its truth.


Last updated on 9.11.2007