THIS pamphlet was first published some twenty-five years ago, under the title of On Strikes; it had a large circulation , but has been for many years out of print, and I have been urged to have it reprinted.
This I was at first reluctant to do, as I thought I should have to revise and perhaps re-write a large portion of it in order to bring the statement up to date with the changed circumstances of the industrial and political world. But on reading over the pamphlet after twenty or more years, I am almost startled to find how appropriate for the most part the paragraphs remain to the present situation in the Trade Union and Socialist Movements. Except for an occasional mode of expression and a few topical references, I observe little in its pages that I should change were I to write it afresh today. I am therefore allowing the pamphlet to go forth almost exactly as it was originally written, except that in one or two places I have altered a phrase or substituted fresh references to wage figures and passing events.
The stupendous events of the revolutionary upheavals in Eussia and Central Europe, and the enormously augmented power of mass-action now possessed by Trade Unions in our own country, have not rendered obsolete the main pleas in the pamphlet with respect to the present situation. Eather have they served to demonstrate the wisdom and urgency more than ever of the great political mission which the Socialist movement set forth to accomplish. That mission was avowedly to organise the workers for political action, in order to bring not only the claims of Labour, but all questions affecting the common wellbeing, before the judgment of the whole people.
The extraordinary spectacle which, were it not so appallingly serious and tragic, would be so grotesquely ludicrous, of the workers penalising themselves and the poor everywhere by directing virtually the six million-fold power of Labour to the antediluvian device of seeking to overcome the power of capitalism by an incessant effort to force up wages to meet an incessant rise in prices, justifies the hope that a reaffirmation of the arguments contained in the pamphlet may be of real advantage at the present hour.
No one will, I hope, so misread the pamphlet as to suppose that it countenances for a moment the notion that the workers should relinquish the strike as an industrial or even as a political weapon. I cannot conceive of the workers ever surrendering the right to collectively withhold their labour in industrial bargaining or in certain political eventualities under a Capitalist, and even under a Socialist regime.
What the sort of eventualities are that make justifiable the recourse to strike action will always depend on the nature of the principle at stake and the state of intelligence, discipline and political capacity of the workers concerned. But in a country possessing complete political freedom – and especially where the workers are in such numbers as to be able to make or unmake Governments and laws – the mass strike should be used only as a last resource, when the will of the people is being overborne by unconstitutional action on the part of the Government – by military or police intimidation, or by sectional usurpation of public power. For the mass strike puts the whole community, and chiefly the poor, under penalty, and only in such extreme instances as I have suggested can the workers fairly and in accord with the mutual obligations of human society resort to what is virtually a form of civil war.
Let us not forget that revolutionism and mass-action, strikes and dictatorships are old: many a thousand years older than parliaments and the universal franchise. It was but yesterday that women and the whole adult working class obtained the vote: and as yet the half of them hardly have any notion of the purpose and power of their new-found citizenship.
My argument, then, is frankly an appeal from the strike to the ballot-box, from hunger and fear and terrorism of all kind, to reason, to the true self-interest and the inherent goodwill of the community of the nation. For if there be not enough reason and sense of common well-being and inherent goodwill in the community to bring about Socialism, how can we hope that there will be enough to keep Socialism going after it has been established by terror and force? Terror and force do not breed reason and goodwill. Nay, a Socialism established by terror and intimidation would be no Socialism at all.
Political democracy has not failed: it has never yet been really tried. War, rebellion, and all forms of terrorism, compulsion, repression and punishment, these have been tried from the beginning, and behold, the world we see!
Last updated on 9.11.2007