J. T. Murphy

On Leading the Masses

Source: The Communist Review, Vol. 2 February 1922, No. 4.
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.

WHILST the capitalists of this country are wondering whether they have reached the rock bottom of the trade depression, the revolutionaries are wondering how far off the workers are from the rock bottom of their despondency. Since Black Friday the workers have been beaten time after time, and still they retreat. Only the unemployed, and a few others, have shown fight, and these also have been so heavily defeated that despondency has seized them too. Practically every union in the country is rapidly losing its membership. All have large numbers of unemployed members, and all are swiftly moving towards bankruptcy. The union leaders have made no attempt to stem the tide of retreat. The employers have got them on the run.

This state of affairs is appalling. It is of interest and importance to observe the forms of reaction to these conditions, both among reformists and revolutionaries. The former have turned to Parliamentarism as the only hope. Even the special Conference of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress, called to deal with the urgent question of unemployment, turned out to be nothing more than a vote snatching affair. Mr. MacDonald “reminded the Conference of how the workers had voted in 1918, etc., etc.” For the rest the union leaders have discovered the virtues of democracy in the unions, and are busy referring the defeats to the rank and file.

The revolutionary movement has been affected somewhat differently. It has not yet adjusted itself to the ideas thrown into the forefront by the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. We have accordingly much protesting, a variety of proposals, a variety of slogans, and, therefore, a considerable amount of confusion.

An analysis of the protests will show that these fall into two principal categories, viz.: protests against the leaders of labour and protests against the forms of union organisation. The first is typically expressed by our valiant comrade, T. Mann, in the Daily Herald (December 9th):—“Refuse to allow executives to shape the policy for the rank and file. The membership must decide upon the objective and the policy by which it shall be achieved, and E.C.s and officials must carry out the desires of their members. “This is echoed and re-echoed by many of our industrialist and syndicalist comrades throughout the country, both in the R.T.U.I. and the Workers’ Committee movement.

This form of protest will not do. How can the rank and file shape their policy without leaders? And as to the question of referring the policy back to the rank and file, are we not balloting on our defeats? As a matter of fact, the union leaders are only too anxious in the present state of affairs to refer problems back to the rank and file in order to justify their own cowardice and incapacity. The issue of to-day is not one of referring the policy back to the rank and file on a ballot paper; it should be that of the effective control of leadership. The demand to-day is for leaders to lead: not for them to become errand boys. If they are not prepared to do this, then we must find ways and means of removing them. Leaders we need and leaders we must have. The democracy which the revolutionaries should aim at is the democracy which will enable the workers to do more than merely examine a ballot paper and register a cross. It must enable the workers to quickly remove leaders who will not lead.

It will be argued that there is no disagreement upon the imperative need to remove the reactionary leaders. But even the demand for new leaders may become declamatory and formal. Denunciation is sometimes followed by the cry, “elect new leaders.” Such a form of denunciation cuts little ice, and the cry of “elect new leaders” sounds very much like an echo of the old socialist parties. There is nothing wrong about that so long as it is not merely an echo; the limitations of the slogan are clearly recognised, and the necessary measures indicated to show that we are not as formalistic as the predecessors of the Communist Party. Elect new leaders by all means, but will someone kindly calculate the number of years necessary for the formal ballot box removal of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy? I cannot. It was the futility of this hope that drove revolutionary industrialists into the attempt to build new unions. They did not solve the problem that way, and neither can we. Such a policy suffers from the same limitations as that from which they fled. The struggle of the masses is not formal and mechanical. It is a dynamic struggle, and none of its problems, whether of organisation or leadership, can be satisfactorily met so long as we persist in approaching them either with a yard stick or a book of formulæ. The reactionary leaders will have to go. But they will have to be removed by a struggle directed against them rather than through formal removal via the ballot box.

This does not mean that we should relax for one moment the attack through the union ballot box, any more than we should reject parliamentarism because we do not believe the proletariat will attain power through parliamentarism. Indeed, the ballot box method stands in the same category, in relation to unionism, as Parliamentarism does in relation to the conquest of the state. Both are weapons to be used to the utmost of our power, although their limitations are obvious. In neither case have we control of the elected person. One of the elementary measures we should popularise and bring into practice, wherever immediately possible, in the trade union branch and elsewhere, is the right of having the power to recall the elected person.

Then we should consider larger measures of organised action whereby the masses will thrust aside the reactionaries as the struggle widens and deepens. In this task we are also behindhand. For example, the immediate situation demands resistance to wage reductions, resistance to the demand for the lengthening of the working day, counter proposals for the raising of wages, shortening of hours, work or full maintenance for the unemployed, etc. On these matters there is general agreement. The trouble arises when we consider ways and means. One section cries out for One Union for One Industry, another for One Big Union, and some for Workers’ Committees. The inherent weakness in these demands does not lie in its theoretical unsoundness, from the standpoint of organisation in keeping with the integration of industry, but in the fact that it does not meet the demands of the immediate situation. These people, with their different cries, do not get action on the issues I have mentioned. They side-track the masses on to a formal debate concerning forms of organisation, when everyone is wanting to know what we can do now with the immediate material at our disposal. If the immediate task before the workers was the Control of Industry, then the demand for One Union for One Industry would be urgent and pressing. But that is not the immediate problem. It may become so; and even then, in view of the cumbersome machinery of the unions, an improvisation would have to be made in the form of Workers’ Committees. At the moment it is well nigh impossible to get either. The swiftly changing phases of the struggle have swept away the conditions which made the Shop Stewards and the Workers’ Committees the natural mass expression of the requirements of the moment. These can best thrive when organisation is relatively strong or when the employers are deprived of a glutted “unemployment market.” Neither condition obtains to-day. The multiplicity of divisions in the ranks of unionism, with no central controlling authority over them, leaves the union movement in a disorganised and consequently weak position. Even the unemployed organisations, flung up by the new conditions, have become largely sectional bodies struggling against isolation. How hopeless is the cry for Workers’ Committees or Industrial Unions as a means for immediate action! Desirable? Yes. So is the social revolution. They are better forms of organisation, undoubtedly. So is Communism better than capitalism. But the immediate situation does not permit of these desirable things.

Not for one moment am I throwing cold water on Industrial Unionism, as a theory of organisation, or combating the idea that the union movement tends in that direction, or that the propaganda on its behalf should cease. That would be ridiculous in the face of the facts of trade union history. But I am anxious to emphasise the limitations of this line of approach to the immediate and pressing problems before us, and to insist that even this problem becomes solved through the struggle and conflict with capitalism. This has been the case throughout their history. The forms of organisation extant show quite clearly that the unions have not evolved simply and directly according to the form of industry. Rather have they followed the forms of the struggle as successive strata of the proletariat have become capable of organisation. The artisans formed their craft unions. Later followed the occupational unions and the general labour union as the integration of industry divided the crafts and roused the “unskilled” to organizational activity. Then their organisations were spread over all industries and not concentrated in terms of a single industry. Then later came the women’s organisations, which again embraced workers in a number of industries. The more individual industries have asserted themselves as the determining factors of the struggle the more the unions have been impelled in the direction of the industrial form. Even the general labour unions have had to adapt themselves to this pressure, and to-day it is a problem of unionism as to how the unions, which ought to broaden their basis to the industrial form, can overcome the difficulty of the general labour unions. The broadening of the one means the cutting up of the others. Again the struggle will solve the problem. It is not now this industry and now that, or now this section of workers and now that, which is coming into action. All industries and all sections of the proletariat are in deep distress and all the unions are having their illusions and their limitations hammered out of them by bitter experience. All forces are converging rapidly on to the class issue and the struggle for power, long before the electoral transformation of the leadership and long before the unions are transformed into industrial unions. We need, therefore, much more than our efforts to get new leaders elected through the ballot box. We need much more than the propaganda for industrial unionism. We need plans of immediate organised action, definitely related to the existing organisational forces of the proletariat, the application of which will force them into action. For it is by action that situations are produced which offer the opportunities necessary for the revolutionary change of leadership.

Two outstanding crises within the last two years will indicate the force of this contention. The first was that of the threatened war on Soviet Russia. The crisis threw up the Councils of Action. The Central Council was dominated by leaders who were more concerned about conciliating the British Government than achieving peace with Russia, and most certainly did not reflect the will of the local councils. The Central Council, however, retained its hold upon the situation. This was not the result of brilliant measures on their part, but simply because no effort was prepared which would lead to their removal as the crisis developed. Had a vigorous criticism of their policy been maintained, had the idea of new leadership representing the local councils of action been steadily fostered, the possibility of securing new leadership would have been advanced enormously, and its minimum effect would have been to force the Central authority to a more vigorous policy.

The second crisis found the revolutionary movement equally unprepared. We gave vigorous criticism of the leaders of the union movement in the crisis leading to Black Friday. We exposed them. We warned the masses to “Watch their Leaders.” We fostered the idea that the Triple Alliance would fail. But when it did fail the revolutionary movement was almost as demoralised as the union movement in general. We had not, to any great extent, considered or advised the masses what they could do in such an eventuality. Yet everything cried out for the preparation of a new centre of leadership in the organisations involved, to which the masses could gravitate as the leaders mined towards failure.

The lesson is obvious and exceedingly important. Immediately there are the least signs of action developing in any organisation the revolutionary movement, and especially the Communist Party, ought to immediately take the measure of all the forces operating, the potentialities of the situation, the limitations of the organisations involved, and how the organisations can be used to drive the leaders along the revolutionary path or out of the way. Where there is no action, then we must look for means of action. Other crises will develop. They may not come along the same route as these I have mentioned, but they will come. If we do not prepare ourselves to do more than work for change of leadership through the ballot box, the next crisis will find us unprepared in a situation akin to its predecessors. The leaders will continue to serenely manœuvre “reasonable settlements” and retain their control of the masses irrespective of the treachery they may perform.

The call of the Communist International for us to “Go Back to the Masses,” therefore, will have little effect unless we take “the goods” along with us, which will enable them to immediately use the means at their disposal, their present leaders, their present organisations to get action. By this kind of leadership the revolutionary movement will demonstrate to the working class the correctness of its claims. Such a policy will lead the masses into the revolutionary struggle, and through the struggle, to new leadership and to power.