J. T. Murphy

After the Retreat, What?

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. III, July 1922, No. 1
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
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.

WITH the defeat of the Engineers, the controversy arising out of the retreat of the unions before the capitalist offensive enters on a new stage. Immediately after the Black Friday fiasco all attention was centred upon the failure and weaknesses of organisations. A call was made at once for some big simple plan of reorganisation. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress entered the arena as Labour’s General Staff and became the centre of attention in the place of the Triple Alliance. Several big plans were forthcoming only for the months to make clear the limitations of every plan of union reorganisation end the immense difficulties to be overcome.

When the Engineers’ lock-out began in March of this year all the of the unions and their leaders were again brazenly paraded before the masses. Black Friday of 1921 was followed by Black Tuesday of 1922. The elementary principles of solidarity were betrayed, even by the engineering unions amongst themselves. The General Council received requests and demands from all directions to take a leading part. The Council crept in between the conferences as a mediator. It retired without honour even amongst its friends. But the idea of a General Staff remains, and to this the old trade union leaders turn as they rise from the confession of their futilities and demand on its behalf greater powers to cope with the future struggles.

It is at this stage that the change in the direction of the controversy takes its most interesting turn. The call for power is answered by the call for a purpose. “What is needed is not simply power, but power for an objective. What is that objective? There can only be one answer to that question. If the central direction of Labour is needed to confront the central direction of capital in the modern State, it can only be for one purpose and that is to defeat it.” Thus the Editor in the May issue of the LABOUR MONTHLY.

It is not often that a call is so quickly answered. It is a simple answer and a bold one. But, does it focus correctly the principal weakness of the movement or the complexity of the problem to be tackled? The implication, nay, more, the premise from which the answer is thundered forth, is that the movement has no objective. Now, it may be that most of the Labour leaders of the day would acclaim the objective as declared by Mr. Dutt, but have different notions concerning the path towards the conquest of power and what is meant by the defeat of capital. Indeed, the same writer went on to show how politics had become confused with parliamentarism, and how this very parliamentarism had become the one hope of the leaders. The fundamental weakness of the movement to-day lies, therefore, not in the fact that it has no aim, but that it is confused about its aim and tied down to specific forms of progress.

It is notorious how the Labour Movement, as if on the horns of a dilemma, has swung backwards and forwards on the issues of parliamentarism and direct action. The apparent practicability of democracy has appealed to many and is the strength of parliamentary labourism. The resentment against political careerism harnessed to economic trades unionism has been the basis of the other, giving rise to industrialism and syndicalism. The one has produced a policy which directs the movement to something external to itself from which to derive its principal strength. The other has concentrated upon industrial organisation and power whilst failing to appreciate the limitations of the industrial organisations in the political struggle which demands a proletarian State in the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The revolutions and upheavals in Europe have shattered the notion that the instruments of political authority are alike for each class as it rises to power. Each class requires the instrument of authority which operates and responds the most readily to its class interests and needs. The struggle of the classes (surely no one in the Labour Movement will deny the class struggle to-day) has produced the organisations most responsive and adaptable to their every-day needs. Most certainly the parliamentary institutions did not arise out of the needs of the labouring masses or we should not have to conquer them. Nor have the unions, co-operatives, and workers’ parties grown out of the interests and needs of the landlords and capitalists. These organisations of Labour are the foundation of Labour’s strength, the instruments responding to and thriving upon the development of the interests of Labour. That they are perfect none will agree. But we do know that as they grow in power, and use it, Labour is on the way to becoming the dominant class. It follows, therefore, that any policy which detracts attention from and weakens the basic organisations of Labour is a policy of reaction strengthening the hands of the enemies of Labour. Is not this the effect of Labour parliamentarism to-day? Has it not made Parliament the aim and measured every crisis and every struggle in terms of their effect upon the voting machine of capitalism?

It does not follow that Labour ought not to penetrate or capture the capitalist institutions. But it does follow that the rôle of Labour within these institutions is not to perpetuate them at the expense of Labour’s organisations. It must be to strengthen the latter at the expense of the former. When once parliamentarism has become synonymous with politics, and the political goal of the working class has become a parliamentary goal, social pacificism is the natural philosophy of the leaders. Strikes are deplored. Lockouts are brutal and indecent. Mass action becomes mob action to be avoided at all costs. Upon the premise of reformist parliamentarism is founded the mechanical, formal, respectable means of progress and a sentimental idealism which ignores the realities of the daily struggles of the masses. In practice it perverts the rôle of the workers in the capitalist Parliament and stifles the elemental movements of the masses upon which the working class depends for its conquest of capitalism. It is because life has repeatedly contradicted this unreal idealism that the Labour Movement has continuously been involved in strikes and lockouts in spite of the will of the leaders of Labour, and thus made possible the growth of the opposition policy.

Whatever the defects of the industrialists and the syndicalists they had faith in the masses and the unions. Their defects were not errors of faith, but of vision. They failed to see the political implications of the fight for the control of industry. Concentrating upon industry they thought in terms of industry, and missed the fact that in the war to wrest industry from the present owners we have to deal with forces other than industrial headed by an authority which can only be answered by the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised by a State of Labour’s own creation. Never has this fact been made so clear as in the uprising of the Italian workers, who seized the factories and ignored the State. Neither State nor factories are theirs to-day. Nor even the conditions agreed upon in the final compromise. Ignoring the task of conquering the Capitalist State power in the hour of open conflict, the State waited and defeated them.

The failure to recognise this limitation of their programme has had its effect upon even their positive contributions to the movement. They have believed in mass action and persistently developed the industrial organisations. But in the process they have set limitations to the movement and developed an industrial Utopia, which has played a similar rôle to its antithesis—parliamentary Labourism. When not making the errors of the Italian unions, they have been developing formal schemes of perfect industrial organisation which when completed would squeeze out capitalism and become the industrial administrative machinery of society. These in turn have given rise to the competitive policies of amalgamation versus the building of new unions. Again life has defeated the formalists of both extremes. The revolutionary experiences and upheavals in Europe, and indeed the struggles within this country, have demonstrated that the revolutionary challenge for power becomes a fact of life long before any of their formal schemes can possibly come to fruition.

Plans and schemes of general Labour organisation play a rôle both in the development of Labour organisation and the movements of the masses. But that rôle is not a formal one mechanically ushering in the perfect organisation before action. The character of the every-day struggle of the workers, their general lack of political training, the increasing rapidity of the economic and political changes which characterise modern capitalism, prohibit such a possibility. Their value lies in the degree to which they assist in the marshalling of ever larger forces for action; the breaking down of the narrow sectional prejudices, the giving of confidence to the masses, and the simplification of the problems of leadership. Their danger lies mainly in their misdirection. Once they are looked upon as ends in themselves or are allowed to fetter the movements of the workers, the source of their strength becomes the ally of their enemies.

The working-class movement needs the aim already indicated. But it needs also a policy freed from the fetters of formalism, a policy based upon a profound faith in the masses and their capacity to use their own organisations, not to produce an equilibrium or balance of power between their organisations and the institutions of capitalism, but to supplant the institutions by those of their own creation. Only a movement freed from the mechanical formula of industrialists and parliamentarians alike can hope to be capable of developing a leadership and a capacity to respond readily to the demands of the life-and-death struggle between Capital and Labour.

It is one thing, however, to clarify the aim and define what we think should be the character of the policy to be pursued. It is another to say how these things shall be. The aim is a political aim, and we have to face the fact that the Labour unions are not built upon a political programme although they are compelled to play an ever-increasing part in the political struggle of the workers for power. They are broad based upon the economic conditions of a class and unlimited in the variety of the political views which may exist within them. Liberals, Tories, Labourists, Communists, have equal rights as trade unionists. A candidate for office is not asked as to his political views. Deeper still in these organisations are large numbers of workers who are not even politically conscious. It is true that all these elements move into action from time to time under given conditions. But this fact does not clear the way or simplify the problem of electing new leaders. It only serves to show more clearly the obligations of leadership, in contrast to the inevitably confused leadership which such heterogeneous elements are bound to throw up without some effort is made to alter the character of the elections within the unions.

Every one of these mass movements which arise are of political importance, and if they are handled by people who neither understand their significance nor desire to use them, what wonder can there be that solidarity is so slow in developing or that Labour’s subjective condition is so far behind the objective demands of history. These are the occasions when the will of the masses is harnessed to an idea and the confusion of opinions is subordinated in the mass. These are the occasions when much depends upon the leadership as to whether they become the means of developing political consciousness and purpose or are demoralised by failure to ring true to the inherent demands of the struggle. These hours of crisis, however, are not the hours of election to office. The leaders are elected during the times of “normalcy” when inertia and the political confusion of the workers are uppermost in the unions.

The problem, therefore, is not simply that of converting the General Council, if that were possible. The central organ of the movement must have behind it the will and purpose of the masses, and that will and purpose is divided in a thousand ways. Recollect for a moment the cross-currents which operate even on such a question as the amalgamation of the unions. It is a popular demand in the engineering industry to-day, but immediately the lockout is over it will need a long and persistent struggle in the unions to effect amalgamation. The returns sent in to the General Council in response to their request for greater powers show how great are the obstacles to even a more elementary proposal than that of amalgamation. The three leading organisations affiliated to the Trades Union Congress—the M.F.G.B., the Transport Federation, and the N.U.R.—holding the strategic positions in the Labour struggle against capitalism, either do not reply or refuse. Still, more vividly are the difficulties brought home to us by the lockout of engineering and shipbuilding workers. Here on the simple question of the solidarity of the workers in a single industry when every union, within it was subject to the onslaught of the Employers’ Federation, the confusion and discord is amazing. Mr. Bell, speaking on behalf of the General Workers, could not see why his organisation should be brought into the trouble at all. His members were quite happy prior to the intrusion and would be glad to resume normal relations. Other leaders speaking on behalf of their particular unions echoed these sentiments. Yet whilst they were speaking the rank and file of these organisations in various important centres were attempting to create a greater solidarity in spite of their leaders. But even those who agree on the aim set before us do not act unitedly. They are pursuing an individualistic striving for a revolutionary social idea, and are lost amidst the welter of confusion.

To throw our aim into the midst of this confusion as a new idea to be casually considered would simply add one more to the many whirling around the movement to-day. All the circumstances we have traversed emphatically demand that the idea must be organised; and that this organisation must harness the will of the masses to achieve its purpose. To organise on the basis of a political idea and policy is to create a political party. That is the need of the day. A party which shall organise all those in the working-class movement, with its variety of organisations, who are prepared to pursue a common policy within and through these organisations for the conquest of power by whatever means life may offer. Without it any definite advance on the chaos of to-day is an impossibility.

But again let me call a halt. We want a party of a totally different character to any which have yet figured in the history of this country. Every party, from the Labour Party to the most revolutionary, has suffered, and suffers to-day, from the same deadening formal features which have characterised the unions. True it may be that they have had apolitical objective before them which has distinguished them from the unions. But they have the same formal membership, the same formal voting, the same bureaucratic obsessions. They have not been organs of struggle. They have simply been registers of opinion and propaganda associations either deploring the actions of the masses or preaching revolt without the means to determine the actions of a single union. The greatest moments of their existence when their influence was enormous were thrust upon them and not achieved through their living contact and conscious leadership of the workers’ organisations in their daily struggles. When the Labour Party found itself at the head of a mighty movement at the time of the threatened war on Soviet Russia it threw into silhouette the power of organised Labour and its challenge to the institutions of capitalism. That was an accident of history for the Labour Party, not to be repeated, disclosing for all time the futilities of their formalism. But for the party of revolution it was a peremptory warning and foreshadowing of the crises yet to come in the struggles of the classes, crises which show that struggle for political power to be not merely a registration but a war of living forces in which every organisation counts. The party we need, therefore, is a party of struggle, a party without sleeping members, a party participating in the every-day struggles of the masses because it recognises that it is the accumulation of the forces operating in these everyday affairs which produces the crises which determine the future of the workers for long years ahead. It must be a party functioning in the everyday life and work of the unions, not as a mediator between the employers and the workers, but as a warrior helping the workers to conquer.

That this will mean sharply raising political issues in the unions is true. It cannot be escaped. And every attempt to escape is disastrous, encouraging political ignorance, smothering the real issues, and handing the workers over to the forces of reaction. It has become hackneyed to say that it is impossible to state where the industrial ends and the political begins. What then becomes of the objection to politics playing a decisive rôle in the election of leaders? Economic unionism is dead. Political confusion reigns. Only by putting issues more clearly and sharply before the masses in every phase of their activities is it possible for them to emerge from political darkness to light and produce the leadership necessary for the tasks before the workers of to-day.