T. A. Jackson
Source: The Communist, April 29, 1922.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.
[This is the fourth article in a series of simple expositions of Communism for those who have not previously studied it. Back numbers containing previous articles can be obtained from the Circulation Manager, 16, King Street, W.C. 21]
WHERE there’s a will, there’s a way.
If there were a general will to establish a state of Communism a way would be found. Is there any likelihood of such a will arising? Are there not forces at work that will, even if they do not dissipate it as fast as it arises, at any rate succeed to postponing indefinitely the day when it becomes general enough to be effective?
The history of the working class gives the answer—the development of Capitalism itself has created in the working class and is rapidly bringing to maturity a will to establish Communism. And doing this even with the very men who either have never heard of Communism or think themselves its enemies.
The working class—the people without property who in order to live must from lack of alternative sell the use of themselves in the labour—market this class appears originally as a despised and miserable mob. To-day they are the vast majority in every country of political and economic importance. Originally a mob of outcasts—discarded feudal retainers, runaway serfs, absconding apprentices, dispossessed peasants, and unfrocked priests—they have become in every land a power and a portent. Every statesman is forced to concern himself with “Labour” questions, every Government includes a Ministry of “Labour,” every politician angles for the “Labour” vote, “Labour” politicians are the guests of Kings, and every newspaper expresses the common, anger and dread of “Labour Unrest.”
By what process has this transformation been achieved? What are the possibilities consequent upon its achievement?
Wherever a wage worker confronts an employer the possibility of strife and conflict is born. The worker lives by selling the use of his body—the employer lives by buying that use. It lies in the nature of things that the buyer should on instinct struggle to buy cheap and the seller to sell dear. Hence it was a foregone conclusion that the history of the relations between Employer and Employed—between “Capital” and “Labour”—should be one of constant enlarging and intensifying conflict between these two interests. A constant battle over the price of the commodity labour-power—over wages, hours, and working conditions—such is the history of the relation of Capital and Labour once Capitalism appears.
At first the conflict will be between individuals—the worker wants more money, the boss refuses, the worker throws up his job and seeks another—in this simple and innocent way is ushered into the world the germ of what is destined to grow until it becomes the World including Class War between the Working and Capitalist Classes.
There are still to be found fools who believe and Boss-paid touts and pimps who assert that the relation between worker and boss is one of equality because “if the worker doesn’t like his job he can throw it up and look for another.” True he can. Nothing is easier than the operation of throwing up a job, and as for “looking” for another nowadays he can look, and look, till his eyes drop out, and still have need for looking. Even in the days when jobs were easy to find the “equality” existed mostly in the imagination of the observer, since the worker, however often he changed his boss, never by that means freed himself from the need to find somebody to Boss him. Rather did he by his single-handed struggles reduce himself to the need of tolerating exactions of which he had never dreamed.
Single-handed the worker is powerless. Only when his private grievance is felt as a general infliction by the mass of his fellows is there any possibility of redress. And then it can be gained only by the concerted action of all concerned.
Early in the history of Capitalism we begin to read of strikes—of “turn outs” of the concerted refusal of a body of craftsmen to tolerate any longer a miserable wage, intolerable working day, or oppressive factory conditions.
At first these struggles were spontaneous and local. They were confined to particular shops or to single towns. They were directed against particular bosses or at most a small group of bosses. And as in laborious and slow—there were neither telephones, telegraphs, motors, steamships or railways, and the roads were vile beyond belief—the spontaneous uprisings were, as often as not, successful.
It is difficult at the best of times for any worker, however gifted, to force his wage much above the average paid to his mates working in the same shop—even though their craft may different, Similarly it is difficult, and in the pre-trade union days was impossible for the workers in one factory to drive their price much above that paid generally in their town.
On the basis of this fact arose the first trade unions—combinations of workers in a given town to maintain and, on occasion, to raise the general wage standard.
With the development of industry, the improvement in technique, in the means of transit, and in mechanism this trades unionism underwent a transformation.
At first it seemed likely that all the local unions would federate into one Grand National Consolidated Union. This, however, broke down because the specialisation of industries had begotten a gradation of workers into skilled and unskilled and each with differing outlooks and placed differently in relation to the labour market. For a time the “skilled” men were relatively scarce. They could therefore enforce demands unattainable by the unskilled mass, and it suited the bosses to give way to them, recovering the cost by an extra squeeze upon the unskilled.
The general Trades’ Union which the local crafts had federated thus broke up and gave place to National Craft Unions, and these grew and extended until they became the wealthy and dignified bodies with which the world had grown familiar by the end of the 19th century.
For all their wealth and notwithstanding their dignity these powerful craft unions by no means had things their own way. Competition among the bosses led to the rise of some firms into large companies and the extinction of others, and economics in management resulted in spells of unemployment for an increasing number of the members of even the wealthiest and most powerful unions. Commercial crises, too, intensified these spells into periods of general distress, and the gains of the union were neutralised by a steady contraction (relatively) of the market for their special craft skill.
With the turn of the century this tendency was intensified into a rapid movement by the wholesale application of science to industry in one form and another, which begetting an entirely new organization of the work-process accompanied by the introduction of innumerable “labour saving” devices, rendered one craft skill after another either obsolete or of vanishing importance.
At the beginning the working class was a general unskilled mob, this became differentiated into a number of special crafts, these in turn were developed more and more into a general class of machine and process operators.
In the first stage sprang up local unions; in the second national craft unions; in the third stage unions of all the workers in an industry irrespective of craft and then a demand which every day grows louder and more insistent for One Big Union for the whole working class irrespective of craft, industry, race or nationality.
The moral of all is obvious. As capitalism grows and the boss class draws together into closer and closer union so grows the workers’ need to struggle against the ever magnifying power of the Boss. And with the need grows the wish and finally the Will.
But—it may be said—the will to struggle to keep wages at a decent level is one thing: the will to establish Communism quite another. That the workers have learned to act together for industrial object by no means proves that they can or will act together for a political one.
Here again the answer is to be found in the history of the working class struggle. Broadly speaking, as Marx notes, we can distinguish three periods in the development of that struggle. At first the workers, newly cast down from a position of tolerable comfort into one of dejection and misery, struggle frantically to win back the position they have lost. Then, accepting the inevitable after drastic punishment they set to work to make the best of things as they are. Then finally, learning from bitter experience that the boes that Capitalism has to offer to the worker is not worth having, they turn their thoughts, their hopes, and their habit of straggle to the task of bringing in a state of things more to their liking. At first they fight to bring back the past; failing in that they strive to make the utmost of the present, that failing them they turn their hopes to the future.
In the first stage the workers are violent allies of every reactionary attempt to thwart the growing capitalism in the interest of the obsolete feudal order, in the second stage they make their peace with capitalism, accept it as inevitable, take up its mottoes and its watchwords, emulate its “respectabilities,” and applaud its political partisan. In the third stage they cast off these illusions one by one until they stand up consciously to do battle for a system of society that will supersede Capitalism as it had superseded Feudalism.
The type of trade union official with which one was familiar 30 years ago was the type produced in the second or conservative phase. He had lost the savage truculence of the older period and had acquired a knowledge of politics and economics which those his predecessors had lacked. But with them he had picked up all the favourite illusions of the bourgeois epoch. The Trade Union was no longer a conspiracy of desperate men driven by necessity to strike terror into the heart of a greedy mill owner or a cowardly scab. It was a recognised institution serving its purpose of regulating the price of labour-power and offering to the employing class a means for minimising friction and facilitating the settlement of all but the greatest disputes. They were (these Trade Unionists of the third quarter of the 19th century) keenly concerned about a “fair day’s wage,” and they were as keenly concerned to give a “fair day’s work.” Outside of their craft they thought and reasoned as did the normal prosperous individual in the “lower-middle class”—and the political creed of Liberal Individualism fitted them like a glove.
That notwithstanding, they were compelled to concern themselves with politics to as ever-growing extent. The old legislation which in its first period had penalised trade union as “seditious conspiracies” had been repealed in such an ambiguous fashion as to create a constant need for watchfulness lest his status should be lost. The Factory Acts, the Inspection of Mines Act, the Truck Acts (forbidding the payment of wages in “truck” or goods)—on all these points the unions were compelled to take steps to force their point of view upon the legislators. While only a few of the workers had votes this could be done only by terrifying or cajoling the elected members of the wealthier classes. Thus the Trade Union official grew to spend more and more of his time in the Lobby of the House of Commons and the rank and file of the Union to learn progressively how important for his status was the monopoly of legislation in the hands of the upper classes.
Gradually the vote was extended to the workers and still more gradually there appeared “Labour” members on the floor of the House of Commons.
At first they were (as in the case of Thomas Burt, who died last week) men primarily concerned with one industry—(in his case mining). On anything concerning his craft Burt would put up a fairenough sort of fight for his fellow-workers; on any other question he relapsed into the ordinary orthodox middle-class Liberalism.
At a later stage attempts by the employing class to use the legal machinery to penalise trades unions in damages for a strike roused a general concern among British Trade Unionists, and the result was the formation of a distinct “Labour Party,” whose function was intended to be that of representing the interest of the Working Class in opposition to that of the Capitalism and Landlord
Whether the Labour Party in the House of Commons has or has not lived up to that ideal its existence was made possible by the consciousness of the need for an Independent Working Class Political Party—and its failure must be attributed to the fact that its spokesmen and the theoreticians are men who belong to the middle or conservative and note to the third or reactionary period in the development of the British Working Class.
Industrially and politically the workers have been transformed in the course of a century of conflict from a demoralised and brutalised mob of outcasts into a coherent whole that grows every day more conscious of its strength and of its antagonism to the interests of the Boss Class and its State machinery.
Every industrial dispute nowadays bring the State into play as part of the machinery for keeping the workers in subjection to capitalist exploitation. And every such happening brings nearer the day when the workers will be driven to make themselves masters of the State as the only conceivable means of securing to themselves anything like the lives of men
Capitalism itself is endangering in the workers the will to its overthrow—and by its onslaughts is driving the workers to make the attempt.