Hyndman October 1910

Trade Union Unrest and the Class War

Source: English Review, vi, Oct. 1910, pp. 539-53;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The present generation has become so accustomed to regard the Trade Unions of the skilled artisans in Great Britain as part of the recognised institutions of this country that it is difficult to realise that not so very long ago they were looked upon from a very different point of view. Although the right of combination was conceded to the working class in 1824 – a right which I have always held would have been much less readily granted after the middle-class Reform Bill of 1832 – Trade Unions and Trade Unionists were persecuted for fully fifty years afterwards, and every action they took to assert their claims to higher wages, or better conditions of labour, was denounced as little short of criminal. No effort indeed was spared to make the life of a really active member of a Trade Union a burden to him; while organised attempts were set on foot by the masters to exhaust the collective funds subscribed by the men for defence and mutual advantage by expensive prosecutions, in which all the resources of wealthy manufacturers and employers were brought to bear against the poor but obnoxious organisations of the working people. This bitter antagonism, manifesting itself frequently by violence on one side and unscrupulous repression on the other, went on throughout the first half of e last century. Even so late as 1866-70 the view of the educated classes, as reflected in nearly the whole of the Newspaper press, was that Trade Unions were lawless and tyrannical secret societies which shrank from no outrage in order to enforce their despotic authority, and were quite as capable of terrorising the masters by incendiarism and personal attack as they were of intimidating the minority of their own fellow craftsmen, or competitors from outside, by maiming or murder. Nor can it be denied that many things were done m the course of the struggle of the skilled artisans for partial emancipation which put arguments for interference into the mouths of those who would gladly have suppressed Trade Unions altogether.

Men of the upper class, such as the Positivists, who boldly took the side of the Unions in stirring times, were denounced as traitors and sympathisers with crime, and at least one of these stalwart champions of fair play and free combination, Professor Beesly, was threatened with a motion for expulsion from the leading Liberal Club for upholding the right of Trade Unionists to withstand their employers and to strike against reductions of wages, or excessive enforcement of discipline by fines and discharge, whenever they thought proper to do so. Every incident which could tell against the men was paraded and exaggerated; the high-handed acts of the employing class, supported as they were at critical moments by the police and the army, being condoned and even approved. During the whole of this period, therefore, the Trade Unionists appeared to the world as carrying on a class war against the monopolists of the means of production, and, however ineffective or improper the weapons they used might be, nobody thought of proclaiming that the interests of the wage-earners and wage-reducers were identical.

It is noteworthy, nevertheless, that the leaders of the physical force Chartists, with the remarkable foresight which they showed in many directions, warned the workers of Great Britain that if the skilled artisans formed an aristocracy of labour divorced from, and even in some respects opposed to, the mass of the wage-earners; if also they held aloof from the political arena and confined themselves solely to the safeguarding of their immediate interests; they would become, sooner or later, a hindrance to the social advance of the whole people. So long as the Trade Unions of the skilled men were engaged in directly fighting the employers, and strikes were frequently resorted to by the Unions as their principal and indeed their only means of attack under such conditions, the truth of their predictions was not recognised. The Trade Unions were considered by themselves, and were certainly regarded upon the Continent of Europe as the best-organised, most capable and most persistent fighters in the world on the side of the people against capitalism and the capitalists. When, however, it was perceived that strikes were wasteful and dangerous, and that the combinations of employers were becoming more formidable than these combinations of men; when, simultaneously, the old school of Trade Union leaders became active members of one of the great political parties, and even took office as official representatives of that party, the workers at large, or a considerable proportion of them, awakened to the fact that what Ernest Jones, George Julian Harney, Henry Vincent, and Bronterre O’Brien foretold had come about, and that, unknown to themselves, the champions of the Trade Unions had become the buffers of the capitalist class.

In their friendly discussions with the owners of the machinery and raw material on which their fellow men exerted their labour-power, in order to make profit for these industrial overlords, the permanence of what the old Chartists challenged as the “wage-slave system” was tacitly admitted, and the interests of the workers and the “organisers of labour” were taken as identical under this assumption. Without actually quoting Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies, the representatives of the aristocracy of labour were more and more inclined to accept the views of that sophistical Frenchman in their dealings with the dominant class of our day. Consequently they were congratulated all round upon their statesmanlike attitude; they were held up as an example to the world of all that judicious spokesmen of the working class should be, and it was almost taken for granted that the rule of the profit-maker would be the last word in the history of human industrial development, in Great Britain at any rate. This view of the matter, I say, was taken by the moderate leaders of the Trade Unions up to quite a recent date, and all who protested against it were held to be lightheaded and lightpursed superficialists, whose views were as of little account as their numbers were contemptible. Even the late James Maudslay, probably the ablest and best-equipped organiser of this school of Trade Unionists, said to me at the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress of London, in 1896, when I taunted him in a friendly way with being a Tory: “I am no more a Tory at heart than you are, Mr. Hyndman; but I see no hope whatever of rousing the English working classes to the right conception of their own power in my day. I hate the Liberals with all my heart, as the most treacherous and unscrupulous enemies of the people. I am therefore a Tory because I can see no chance for your lot, and I cannot stand the Liberals.”

Yet at the very moment when this energetic representative of the Lancashire cotton people was uttering these despondent sentences the change had already begun. On the one hand, the Trade Unionists were getting weary of defeat and surrender within; on the other hand, Socialism was steadily permeating their minds from without.

I do not think I exaggerate the importance of matters in which I myself have taken an active part, when I say that the establishment of the Democratic Federation, and the revival therewith of the ideas and propaganda of the class-war Chartists combined with the scientific Socialism of the school of Marx, did usher in, as I wrote in the Nineteenth Century for January 1881, “The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch.” At any rate, from that date onwards for just thirty years, Socialism has been preached continuously and vigorously to the workers of this island, and no pains have been spared to indoctrinate the Trade Unionists, alike nationally and locally, with collectivist conceptions, the propaganda inside being carried on by the ablest of the skilled artisans themselves. At the same time the agitation on behalf of the unemployed, and the organisation of certain branches of unskilled labour, such as the gas-workers and general labourers and the dockers, into Unions of their own, having a Socialist basis, which were undertaken and carried on almost exclusively by Social Democrats, convinced the working class, as a whole, that Socialists were strongly on their side, long before other organisations arose to spread similar teaching in a less definite shape. Independent political action also was entered upon at the General Election more than a quarter of a century ago, when Trade Unionists of definite Socialist views, among them Mr. John Burns, were put forward by the Social Democratic party, to fight the candidates of both the capitalist factions. But in spite of all the energy and activity displayed, not only in expounding theories, but in pushing to the front all the palliatives which have now entered the sphere of practical politics, Socialism, as an organised political force, made way very slowly, much more slowly than most of those anticipated who began the work. As the causes for this slow growth still exist, it may be well to enumerate some of them.

Most important of all, in my opinion, is the continuous stream of emigration of the more vigorous, capable and discontented of the working class to the United States and the Colonies for two whole generations. The less vigorous and capable have been left behind to reproduce their species in Great Britain. Then the miserable inferiority of our education, and the depressing effect of our shabby religionism have tended to enfeeble the intelligence of our people. The dexterity of the dominant class, which always gives way on unimportant issues and exercises no continuous pressure upon advanced opinion, striving rather to use it so as to consolidate the political power of the well-to-do, tells in the same direction. The maintenance of a political system, which is at least a hundred and twenty years behind our economic development, and is based upon pecuniary qualifications and payments which the mass of the people cannot command, is another serious hindrance. As a result, also, the mass of the toilers have accepted the teaching of their pastors and masters, until, as M. Clemenceau said to me four or five years ago, “La classe ouvrière en Angleterre est une classe bourgeoise.” Their conceptions of improvement are middle-class conceptions, and their co-operative societies, instead of being used as in Belgium to uplift the status of the workers, are merely “divy-hunting” institutions, which pander to the meaner side of their members and cannot, sad to say, be regarded as good employers of their servants and assistants. Nor is this all. The downfall of English agriculture, the consequent growth of hopeless slumdom, the increase and the permanence of unemployment in all departments depleting the Trade Union funds, rendered the situation a most difficult one for the organisations of skilled men to face, even if the position of the master class had remained what it was before.

But this, of course, is not so. In every branch of industry competition is finding, as Fourier foresaw and predicted it would in 1825, its logical term in monopoly. Federations of employers have become the rule in all our great branches of trade. Differences have been sunk in one common interest. This is apparent in the iron industry, in the cotton industry, in the wool industry, in the mining industry, as well as in the railways and other transport industries. While the workers still maintain their old distinctions of grades of labour, and the skilled engineer treats “his” labourers as inferior persons, the skilled bricklayer behaving in like manner to “his” assistants, the masters have exhibited far more sagacity by acting together as a class instead of dealing separately either as companies or as individuals. Moreover, the growth of pools, cartels, trusts and combines has been almost as marked in Great Britain under Free Trade, as in America or Germany under Protection, though this is often overlooked or forgotten. Yet the great International Cotton-Thread Trust, which now extends its ramifications all over the Continent as well as in America, is only one evidence of the fact that methods of taxation do not interfere with an inevitable economic development. All this tells against the power of British Trade Unions in the matter of revolt against conditions imposed by the capitalists, renders strikes more and more ineffective as a class weapon, and gives the employers, in many instances, opportunities for boycotting exceptionally active leaders of the men to such an extent as not infrequently to result in driving these strike leaders out of that branch of trade altogether. I have myself witnessed very hard cases of this sort.

Strikes then being recognised, win or lose, as increasingly futile and harmful to the workers, unless organised upon so great a scale as practically to be a first step towards a complete social revolution, there naturally arose a disposition to accept Conciliation Boards and lengthy terms of agreement with the employers as avoiding dislocations of trade leading to great hardship to the men and their families. This was virtually a surrender by the men of anything in the shape of a demand for the collective control of their own labour and an acceptance of the permanent domination of the owners of the means of production.

Hence, Trade Unionists who had imbibed some of the Socialist teaching in regard to the foolishness of abandoning the whole field of politics to the master class were compelled at last to admit that however honest and capable men like Messrs. Broadhurst, Burt, Fenwick, and others might be, they could not, as members of the Liberal party, adequately represent the mass of the skilled workers, when active leaders of that very party, like active leaders of the Tory party, were appearing as vigorous champions of the masters and able managers of huge lock-outs. The absolute necessity for independent labour representation on the floor of the House of Commons made itself felt, therefore, from many quarters at once. In fact it was the only possible course to be taken. The English workers, skilled or unskilled, are quite insufficiently organised at present to undertake a general strike, and thus impose on the whole nation an industrial interdict. To commence such a huge revolt with any hope of success, calls not only for laying in beforehand at least three weeks of food-supply, but a well-thought-out plan for action in the event of victory, and for some sort of retreat should the result be defeat. Those who talk glibly of a general strike under present conditions have never thought out anything. Similarly, with respect to actual warfare. On the Continent, where the whole population is trained to the use of arms, it is allowable to talk as if at a period of crisis a resort to military methods might not involve wholesale slaughter of the people. But in Great Britain, where the entire army is at the disposal of the possessing classes, and can be used at any moment against a threatening of violence by the wage-earners, who themselves have no weapons and no military training, it seems absurd to discuss street fighting, which could only end in one way. Consequently, direct action, as it is called, being ruled out for all practical purposes, and partial strikes having proved unavailing, independent political organisations became the only possible means of bringing pressure to bear. And the Trade Unions, though they constitute but a small minority of the entire working class of Great Britain, were alone sufficiently disciplined or had enough funds at command to enter upon the political struggle.

It had taken a long time to bring this home to the Trade Unionists, and when at last they accepted the truth they did so, as usual in this country, without having any real principle, to work upon, and were therefore ready to compromise on the slightest excuse being given for the application of that favourite English device to obscure surrender. The Labour party, which owed its existence to the constant propaganda of out-and-out Socialists, refused when once constituted to adopt Socialism in any shape as its basis, owing to the opposing vote of one of the two large National. Socialist bodies, and then, when the prospect of having a number of members of the House of Commons developed into realisation, declined to pledge itself to any programme whatsoever. Nevertheless, when thirty Members of Parliament, bound by no ties to either of the great political parties, were seen taking their seats, their election expenses having been paid and their remuneration assured from funds provided by the workers themselves, an immense effect was produced on the whole community, and the least optimist felt that there was now a very great opportunity for action that would greatly benefit the mass of the people. Even Social Democrats, who dislike the idea of mere sectional representation of particular trades, and much prefer payment of members and election expenses out of national funds for national services to levies upon the ill-paid Trade Unionists for such work, were hopeful that, when once they appreciated the dignity and importance of their position, the Labour M.P.s would rise to the level of their great mission. So the results of the General Election of 1906 were received with acclamation, not only by the working classes in Great Britain but by their fellow toilers over Europe.

At last it was said England, the most economically, developed country, was beginning again to take the lead as it did from 1839 to 1849, in what old Dr. Rudolph Meyer designated in his exhaustive work, The Fight for Freedom of the Fourth Estate. But we had all underrated the enervating effect of the House of Commons atmosphere on men brought up and trained in a very different climate, as well as miscalculated the dexterity of the political leaders. When once the Taff Vale judgment, which interfered with the liberties of Trade Unionists, had been practically reversed, and the Old Age Pensions had been secured, the Labour party seemed to lose all its initiative and vigour, bowed down to the old rules of debate, specially formulated to crush out independent parties and capable men, caught “the tone of the House” – for them a dangerous disease – and with the best possible intentions became little better than a portion of the Liberal party. This tendency, of course, became more pronounced as the General Election drew near, seeing that most of the members owed their seats to Liberal votes, and the cleverest wire-puller of the party, himself not a working man, owed at least three-fourths of the votes polled for him to that source. It was the increasing closeness of this connection which led to the indifference to the fate of the men discharged from the Government works at Woolwich, and the apathy displayed in relation to the unemployed. Though, of course, it would be unreasonable to contend that the Government is bound to keep on producing munitions of war for which there is no need, it would at least appear to be the duty of a Labour party to demand that men and women so discharged should receive higher consideration than being just chucked out on the street, or to fall back, such of them as were Trade Unionists, upon Trade Union funds. Similarly, in regard to the unemployed generally. The Government might not be able at once to organise the labour of the out-of-works on co-operative principles, as was suggested by the Social Democrat party eight and twenty years ago; but they need not have grudged even a beggarly £100,000 for starting a better system of relief works, and then, with the tacit assent of the Labour party, spend £250,000 a year on establishing Labour Exchanges, managed by highly paid political persons who had served the Liberals before and during elections. These Labour Exchanges, turned practically into official State-supported “blackleg” agencies, have created far more serious disaffection with both Liberalism and Labourism than has yet appeared of the surface.

Taken as a whole, the Labour party has been a great disappointment to those who were at first its most active supporters, and its almost complete failure has tended to throw discredit upon all political methods, and to drive the discontented once more back upon that “direct action,” for which, as already said, I consider neither the Trade Unionists nor the workers at large are yet prepared. This discouragement with the results of the endeavour to create a really independent working-class party is very regrettable. Many and great as may be the drawbacks of politics it is in this direction alone that a peaceful outlet for working-class aspirations can be found, and I do not hesitate to say that the Labour leaders, by destroying the confidence of the workers in their ability to make head as an independent force against the vast economic and political forces over against them, have been largely responsible for the growing disaffection. For the Labour party to be absorbed or neutralised by the Liberal party with its Furnesses, Monds, Cadburys, and Weetman Pearsons is just as bad as for it to he neutralised or absorbed by the Tory party with its similar array of industrial millionaires and heads of trade combinations. The Trade Union leaders of the Labour party have not led: they have followed. And this was not what they were sent to the House of Commons, at vast expense to the rank and file of Trade Unionists, to do. Mr. Lloyd George’s Budget may have been the thin end of the wedge for the landlords in the future, but it was the thick end of the wedge for the workers in the present. This the Trade Union leaders of the Labour party refused to see, as they shut their eyes to the petty tyranny of bigoted teetotalers. These mistakes, I repeat, shook the confidence of the workers in their leaders all over the country, and account for a good deal of the restiveness which is now manifesting itself in every direction.

But there are, of course, other more immediate causes, too, for the breaking away from the guidance of the salaried officials. These men are quite honest, and it is the greatest mistake in the world to suppose that they are ever in favour of strikes for striking’s sake. Far from it. Their tendency is quite in the other direction. They are almost too anxious for peace and a quiet life. This is only natural. In ordinary times Trade Union secretaries have plenty to do and fully earn what they are paid by the men. But when strikes come they have two or three times the amount of work to get through, they incur every day and almost every hour responsibility of the most serious kind, and they run the risk, as Mr. George Barnes did when he opposed what he believed to be an unjustifiable strike of a section of the engineers, of losing the confidence of their fellows, and being displaced in consequence. It is quite absurd therefore to say – and I know what I am writing about – that the Trade Union leaders ever foment a strike. I have never known an instance, and I have watched the Trade Union movement for a great many years. No, the truth is that of late the Trade Union leaders have been almost too anxious to secure permanent peace between the wage-earners and their employers, and have been apt to forget that under existing conditions the capitalists always have the whip-hand of the labourers, skilled and unskilled. Quite unintentionally therefore, nay, with the very best intentions, they have put it in the power of managers and directors to make out that the men have broken agreements, when really they are only resenting and revolting against aggravating and unjust interpretations of arrangements that should never have been entered into at all.

Take the case of the railway men. Mr. Bell committed them to an agreement with the directors because, rightly or wrongly, he believed that, owing to the attitude of the older men, a strike was hopeless. But what has happened since? The railways, one and all, have been curtailing competition and reorganising their affairs in every direction. Quite right as a matter of business. There was, and is, an immense amount of waste and useless haulage on English railways, as any one who has any knowledge of American railway management is well aware. But the result of these changes has scarcely been satisfactory to the men, however advantageous they may be to the shareholders. Granting that the Directors are bound to do, their best for their companies, the employees cannot be expected to look at the matter from their point of view. When also, as I am assured is the case, advantage has been taken of the settlement to try to force the men by petty annoyances into ill-advised action, we cannot be surprised that patience has its limits even though the men themselves admit that the strike is no remedy. The same reasoning applies to the Welsh pitmen. These invaluable and hard-worked public servants – for such they are just as much as the railway men, or the post office employees, or the workers in the dockyards and arsenals – engaged in dangerous and ungrateful toil, are face to face with a huge coal combination or federation which differs little, if at all, from a Coal Trust, handled by capitalists who certainly cannot be accused of having any excessive amount of sympathy with their men. Yet the Trade Union leaders have pledged the rank and file, regardless of changing economic conditions, to a five years’ agreement with the coal-owners. And these colliers, thus turned over for that period to what they call five years’ penal servitude, have learned that there is no compelling necessity for them to be slave-driven as they are; but that by combination and co-operation on their side, and the control of the forces of nature and society by the producers, all might enjoy a happy, useful, contented life. Is it surprising then that even the most moderate are joining in the growing revolt? The same remarks apply with little modification to the cases of the boiler-makers and cotton-workers. They are bestirring themselves because they feel that they have been sacrificed to the yearning of their leaders for peace. One thing is quite certain: no great organisation of the workers will ever accept a long term agreement again. They did not understand what was being accepted in their name, and even if they had understood, conditions have changed.

Conditions have changed. The steady rise in the money value of the articles which go to make up the standard of life of our working class is a very serious matter indeed for them. What the precise percentage of reduction may be in the purchasing power of their wages, which are estimated on a gold basis, I do not pretend to says but it is very considerable, and equally certain is it that this great modification, to the disadvantage of the wage-earners, was not contemplated when the long-term arrangements were entered into. The wages even of the bulk of the skilled workers are at all times far too near to the mere subsistence level; but when this level is suddenly brought down some 10 or 15 per cent., at least, all round, owing to the depreciation of the value of gold by greater production at decreased cost, and the workers are inhibited under agreement from taking any steps to adjust their remuneration for their sole commodity labour-power to the increased cost of its maintenance in effective working order – why then “unrest” of a very serious character indeed is likely to follow. And, in my opinion, this decrease in the purchasing power of wages estimated on a gold basis is certain to continue, and accounts for the clamour not only in this country but all over the world against the enhanced cost of living.

Beside these important economic and social matters the Osborne judgment, as it is called, is a small issue. And yet, as often happens, it is creating, perhaps, more stir than anything else, and has finally shaken the confidence of the mass of the workers in the fairness of our judges where class questions are involved. It is taken as a blow at majority rule in Trade Union organisations, which are, and always have been, governed by such majority rule. If such trying and important issues as strike or no strike, levy or no levy for foreign workers are decided by the vote of the majority, no matter how active and able the minority may be, surely it is preposterous to argue that no Trade Union has the right to apply its funds to political purposes for the benefit, real or supposed, of all the members and even for the whole working class.

I have not often the advantage of agreeing with Mr. Sidney Webb, but on this point he and I are absolutely at one. The judgment is disgraceful and ought to be cancelled by Parliament at once. But that does not in the least alter the fact that if the M.P.s of the Labour party had been worthy of the position to which they were elected and had fulfilled, even partially, the anticipations of their followers, they could have afforded to laugh heartily at this class-made judicial decision. At Copenhagen the Labour members of the House of Commons claimed that they represented, and spoke for no fewer than, 1,500,000 enthusiastic supporters. Very well. Why then should they be so desperately chagrined at losing the right of compulsion by majority? The pitiful sum of 4d. per head would give the Labour party £25,000 a year, and that ought to be enough to keep forty members and leave a fair margin for election expenses. And I say this in no carping spirit, seeing that I have agitated for thirty years past, and am agitating still, for payment of members and all reasonable election expenses out of the National. Exchequer: a reform which the Labour party itself could have forced from the Liberal party had it taken the matter up in earnest and pushed it to the front from 1906 onwards.

But whatever may be the causes of the general discontent and ill-feeling which now prevail, there can be no doubt of their existence. They are not confined to Trade Unionists, nor are they immediately the outcome of Socialist propaganda. That, of course, has had a widespread effect, but it has not brought about this wave of unrest by itself. Other minor, but more direct, influences have been at work. Yet that Socialism will gain ground in consequence of this more or less spasmodic and unorganised revolt is unquestionable. Socialists alone have told the working class, in season and out of season, that, even if all the palliatives which they themselves have so long advocated were carried into effect, no permanent good could result to the proletariat as a whole until the power of one class to employ and pay wages to another class should be finally put an end to. Having exhausted all the possibilities of error they are now coming to the conclusion that we are right, and the course of events is helping forward the realisation of collectivism and communism much more rapidly than seemed probable even a little time ago.

It is not too much to say that were the wage-earners of Great Britain as well educated as those of some of our Colonies, the greatest transformation of all the centuries from competition to co-operation would not long be delayed. The economic forms are ready: the intelligence to use them is lacking. Yet from all foreigners who come to England and thoroughly understand our language, I hear but one story, and that is that there is more floating Socialism in this country than in any other. Nowhere, they say, is Socialism so universally discussed and so generally admitted to be the next stage in the onward and upward progress of humanity. Though still a comparatively small minority among the mass of the people, the spread of our ideas cannot be at all measured by the numbers of our avowed adherents. Misrepresentation and opposition only strengthen our position, and any stir is better than apathy. If we are all ignorant, as some aver, how is it we steadily make way among the educated classes? If our object is to destroy and not to construct, how comes it that all our palliative suggestions are now well within the range of practical politics? What we all have most to fear is not the increasing acceptance of the truths, as we hold them to be, of scientific sociology, but that some shock from without should plunge us suddenly into the period of reconstruction before the possessing classes have realised that such reconstruction is inevitable, and before the disinherited classes have learned that in order to terminate the class war they must first discipline themselves. That the present Labour crisis will have an important influence on the workers in this direction is, I think, certain. Never, for more than a generation, were the issues so clear as they are to-day.