William Morris. Commonweal 1886

The Paris Trades’ Union Congress

Source: “The Paris Trades’ Union Congress” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 35, 11 September 1886, p.187;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Mr Burnett has written an article to the Pall Mall Gazette in which he has given his views of the International Trades’ Union Conference recently held in Paris. Considering Mr Burnett’s position and that of the English trades unions at present, this is a document of some importance, and it would be well to understand what the drift of it is. He writes as a trades’ unionist, and clearly is anxious to establish the superiority of the English workman over the French, who from his point of view is more backward as being less of an unionist, and also as being worse paid than his English brother. As to the latter point I need say nothing, save that Mr Burnett’s figures help to confirm the Socialist view of the general industrial depression all over the world. For the rest, he speaks of the French trades’ unionists as belonging to the Possibilist section of the Socialists, who, I must remind our readers, are the most backward section of the party, being sorely tainted with opportunism, and aiming at mere State Socialism; so that I must assume that the French trades’ unionists, though they may go further in a Socialist direction than the English do, are nevertheless not amongst the most advanced of French workmen. As for the resolutions for which the English delegates refused to vote, it is true, as Mr Burnett states, that some of the measures they indicate have been in force in England for some time but the two most important of them are the claims for an international minimum of wages and for a maximum of eight hours for the day’s work, which of course have not been touched here. However, Mr Burnett states that the English delegates would have affirmed their assent to them, ‘but for the first clause, which required the workmen of the different countries represented to urge their respective governments to open negotiations for the purpose of concluding international conventions and treaties concerning the conditions of labour’. Now the neutrality of the English delegates on these terms does seem, as the Cri du Peuple calls it, ‘grotesque’, because these resolutions imply the continuance of the present state of things otherwise, and can only be carried into effect by the existing machinery of government; so that to a plain man the meaning of the neutrality seemed to be, ‘Yes, we agree to these measures, but we do not want to have them carried out’.

Of course to us Revolutionary Socialists the resolutions seem to approach to a solution of the labour question; and to try to carry them as an instalment of our claims seems a more than doubtful step, as it is possible that after a long agitation they might be yielded to by the masters, who, though they would then be in a worse position perhaps, would still be the masters; labour would not be emancipated, while the workmen would be ‘contented’ by the concession — ie., put off from the real issue.

But, also of course, the neutrality of the delegates was not based on this objection: they were not afraid of State Socialism, but of Socialism. Nor, indeed, can we pretend to be surprised that they were not prepared to vote on this point with the other delegates, who were all avowed Socialists of some shade or other. Mr Burnett’s phrase of ‘the English unions depending for their advancement upon themselves’ is a mere phrase, and really means the reverse of what it seems to mean. It means that the English unions are not prepared to accept the responsibilities of freedom, that they are still contented with their position as a check on the masters — a check whose tendency is to ensure the existence of the employing class. But it is clear from Mr Burnett’s article that they are shaken somewhat, as the following quotation from it shows decidedly: ‘It was felt that with so strong a Socialistic feeling now manifesting itself in England, it was not possible to stand on the high ground of three years ago, as if no such feeling existed’. There is a certain weight in these words, coming from Mr Burnett, whether we look upon him as ‘Chief Correspondent to the Labour Bureau of the Board of Trade’, or as a trades’ union delegate: in both capacities is bound to be very cautious. We may fairly hope that three years from this time the trades’ unions will not be sitting on the fence but will be in the lists, and on the right side there.