J. T. Murphy

Book Review

Source: The Communist Review, Vol. 3 June 1922, No. 2.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
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.

Left Wing Trade Unionism in France.
By Pierre Monatte, Theo Argence, and A. Herclet.
127 pages.
Paper cover. 1s.
6d. Labour Publishing Co.

I WANT to recommend the reading of this book. Especially do I want our comrades to read Pierre Monatte’s “Reflections on the Future of French Trade Unionism,” which forms the first half of the book. Reflection—yes, that’s what we need, and how few are the opportunities we have for it. Meetings upon meetings, interminable meetings. Talking, incessant talking, everywhere. We are compelled to it. In fact, talking has got us in its grip to such an extent that if we are not talking nowadays we are almost regarded as slackers in the movement. Pierre Monatte had to get into the trenches, to be dragged away from the meetings, to find his opportunities for reflection. Whatever the means, he got out of the rut, and his reflections come like a gentle healthy breeze whispering of the strength and vision to be gained by just drawing aside for a while and thinking over things.

“Had I not to wait the leisure of the trenches in order to read certain books I had been keeping unread for twenty years?”

Listen. “I had not had time, strength or wisdom enough to read and draw sustenance from them. And yet I was one of those who did the most reading. But ours were diffusive minds; we wasted our attention and strength; almost all of us in various measure suffered from the same malady. In our circles we forgot the joy which serious reading gives and the strength derived from strong concentrated thinking. We had forgotten how to read. We absorbed our daily and weekly papers and that satisfied our individual thirst in those days. But a deep need for learning, and for forming and nourishing our thoughts, we had ceased to feel.”

“Let us begin with personal effort, the bookshelf, serious study, meditation in the peace of our room, and you will see if these hours of self-communing will not make of us different men from the men we were yesterday. We can then go to the club for study, for we shall have something to offer, to exchange, and bring away. But so long as we go there with empty and confused heads, we shall come back with empty hands and sick hearts. Let as make an end of diffusion of effort of rushing from meeting to meeting, of precious time lost, of minds nourished with froth, of enthusiasm which fades before it has flowered.”

If Monatte had said nothing more it was well worth translating into English. And its publication is so opportune. The Trades Union movement of England is very sick. All the political parties of the movement are sick. All the revolutionary movement is sick. These years of war, of revolution, of “peace,” have been such crowded years, years of countless meetings, great activities without great purpose on the part of the multitude, high impetuous hopes, sudden failures, disappointments, retreats. The Labour movement is paying the price of its lack of vision and theoretical training, its refusal to think over its experiences and consciously direct its activities towards its definite revolutionary goal.

The revolutionary section, always the salt of the larger movement, has suffered too, from some of these failings. It has been so busy during these years, facing the brunt of the class struggle during the war, so overwhelmed with the tremendous wave of international activity arising from the Russian revolution, so inundated with demands from every section of the working class movement, that the small revolutionary minority have had to shoulder tasks which would have taxed the powers of a minority ten times as great. It has gone through much experience and many moods. Moods have always their reactions, and if the difficulties of to-day can bring us into the mood for reflection, then Monatte has a lot of good things to say which will appeal to us now.

He asks: “Why do so many people part company with us? For what reasons?” “Yes, I know there were those which arose out of the war. But there were others which arose from the character of our movement, from the feverish spirit which swayed our comments, from our habit of brawling and backbiting, from the lack of trust and comradeship among us, from the lack of serious spirit in our debates which led us to take decisions which we were continually incapable of executing.”

“Is it not easy to understand that at the end of a series of grave disappointments certain of the best abandoned us to our fate? And is it not all the more easy to understand because our ideas had simply touched them on the surface and had not penetrated their reason and hearts?”

“What a revision of our methods of propaganda must we effect forthwith! How much greater the effort we must make for education, and what importance must be attached in all educative work to classes of study for adults!

I am glad to emphasise the class work again. In the rush of many activities and moods our movement seems to me to have suffered in its class work and for wart of class work. Rushing through the movement has been the strong sentiment—to hell with classes, get to the masses and on with the revolution.

The classes have thus missed the revolutionary fervour which could have impelled the classes to relate their studies to the revolutionary tasks of the age and have become cold and formal kind of things drifting to dilletante intellectualism. I may be wrong in my impressions, but I feel there is great need for a re-valuation of our recent methods in our Plebs classes, Labour College classes, general propaganda and revolutionary practice.

It has to be made clear that revolutionary practice and propaganda are not necessarily fire-breathing speeches. It has to become equally clear that education, even in psychology or economics, is not an end in itself, that all these things are of value to the degree to which they equip the working class to conquer power and hold power when they have got it. If there is a justification for independent working class education it lies in the fact that the working class has an independent goal before it. Ought we not therefore to study the ways and means of getting there? After all, those who are attracted to the classes are the best elements, the vanguard of the working class, the leaders of the working class. Don’t mistake me now when I speak of leaders. I do not mean simply the Executive Councils of the Unions or Parties, but also every man and woman who takes an active interest in the branch business of their Union, their club, their party. These are the leaders of the masses whom we must train to lead in a revolutionary manner. We have great means at our disposal—a net work of Labour College classes made up of trade union members, many union committees operating in the same way as the revolutionary trade union committees in France pioneered by Monatte and his colleagues, parties with educational classes, and so on. Cannot these be used to greater advantage? Let us reflect a while. Of those who are impetuous I would ask: Are we laying the foundations well? Are we really harnessing the forces that are drifting towards us every day? Or are they just coining in and passing out because we do not interest them in their own further development and the work they can do within the movement? Let us call a halt for a moment or two and think about it.

Yes, I like Monatte’s “Reflections,” not because I agree with all that is in this book. As a matter of fact I do not agree with him and his colleagues on all matters appertaining to the rôle of the unions in the revolutionary struggle. Their valuation of the Italian uprising which led to the seizure of the factories without the seizure of political power by the proletariat, I think is wrong. They are overestimating the value of concentrating on the workshop and the policy of seizing the factories.

They are of value, certainly. But a movement which fails to reckon with the power of the State will not make very great headway in the direction of factory control. The essays do not deal with the controversy raging in the French revolutionary movement or the relations of the political party to the union. They ignore the rôle of the party, even as they ignore the question of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Without the Proletarian Dictatorship the movement in the direction of workshop control, the seizure of factories have value because they strip from the minds of the masses the old conceptions of formal democracy and submission to the employing class. But they are preliminary struggles leading up to and contributory to the making of the political crisis which determines the dethronement of the capitalist state power by similar means and the establishment of proletarian dictatorship. Italian history which is cited in the book as “the beginning of a new and brilliant chapter in working class history” is proving that.

Nevertheless, I like the book. It calls us to a halt and bids us reflect. A book which does that is worth reading.