The Social Democrat 1907

The Socialist International and
the British Trade Unions

Written: by Harry Quelch;
First published: in The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 9 September 15, 1907, pp. 521-528;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, for 2008.

The great International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart was in every way the largest, the most important, and the most successful ever held; and we Social-Democrats of Great Britain have reason to congratulate ourselves on the work we have done to achieve that result.

When, in 1889, the Paris Congress divided into two sectional and separate Congresses the possibility of reconstituting a real international representation of the Socialist movement seemed remote indeed. The old International had played its part and had ceased to be, and the national and sectional differences in the movement threatened to render the creation of a new association of equal influence and power impossible. But in the succeeding years it is precisely the establishment of a new International – not less influential but far more powerful than the old – broad based upon the democratic organisation of the Socialist forces in all countries – that, in spite of persecution and repression without, and misunderstanding, dissension, and treason within, we have accomplished. For many years we had to struggle with the disruptive elements of Anarchism, and, later, with the enervating influences of Revisionism, but, in spite of all, Social-Democracy, nationally and internationally, has grown from strength to strength, and we have succeeded in building up a strong, united International Social-Democratic Party, not only with a common object and common principles, but with a common line of action, a well-organised headquarters, and an International General Staff.

Gradually this international organisation has evolved from the comparative chaos of 1889. The Congress of 1891, at Brussels, was an advance on that of 1889, and in 1893, at Zurich, further progress was evident. There, however, the Social-Democracy had to defend itself and to define its theories and principles against the onslaught of the Anarchists, which reached its culmination at the London Congress in 1896. In 1900, in Paris, in spite of the unhappy divisions between the French sections, due to the sinister influence of Ministerialism and Revisionism, the foundation of the new International organisation was laid, by the establishment of the International Socialist Bureau at Brussels. How that common centre and headquarters of the greatest international movement the world has ever seen has grown and developed, need not be dwelt upon. Its works are its testimony. How all the predictions of the inevitable failure of such a project have been completely falsified is peculiarly gratifying to British Social-Democrats, who initiated it. For the Bureau and its Secretariat is an established fact, and its success is unquestioned. And to no one is greater praise due for the efficiency to which our international organisation has attained than to our present capable, indefatigable, painstaking and unassuming international secretary, Camille Huysmans. And the national organisation for international relations has kept pace with the growth of the International organisation itself. It is impossible to obtain absolute equality, or proportional representation of the various nationalities in the International; but much has been done to give to each nationality its proportionate value in International Congresses, and the worst anomalies have been removed. Much also has been done in the direction of the national unity of Socialist forces; and the difficulties created in past congresses by the intervention of delegates or organisations whose right to representation was questioned have been entirely eliminated by the establishment, on the initiation of British Social-Democrats, of national committees for the verification of mandates and the conduct of international relations generally.

Here, in this country, we have not yet achieved the much-to-be-desired Socialist unity which has crowned the efforts of our comrades in other countries; but we have formed a National Committee, representative of the Socialist bodies, the Labour Party, and several trade unions. This committee has admirably discharged its functions in maintaining our relations with the International, and, so far as international relations are concerned, it does represent the unity of the working-class Socialist movement in this country.

In relation to our connection with this National Committee we are brought to the consideration of one or two of the most important questions decided by the Stuttgart Congress. As our comrade Rothstein has said in his article in “Justice,” the Congress was one on “Socialist action,” and it concerned itself with laying down the general lines of policy on some of the chief questions in which the international proletariat is concerned. These included Militarism and International Conflicts; Colonial Policy; Emigration and Immigration; the Relations between Trade Unions and the political Socialist Parties, and Woman Suffrage. On each of these subjects a comprehensive resolution was adopted by the Congress, which, without dictating the precise tactics to be adopted – which must necessarily be largely governed by circumstances – defines the policy to be pursued by the whole international Social-Democracy. Four of these questions may be said to be of equal immediate importance, but that which most intimately concerned the standing of the British delegation at the Congress, and our connection with the British National Committee, was the question of the relations between the trade unions and the political Socialist Parties.

This question, in so far as it concerned ourselves, was raised in the Congress, prior to the general discussion on the subject, by the proposal of the I.L.P., which was vigorously opposed by the Social-Democrats, to modify the basis of the Congress so as to admit non-Socialist trade unions or combinations of trade unions. Considerable misunderstanding appears to have arisen in consequence of our opposition to this proposal. Our critics have written and spoken as though we Social-Democrats had brought forward a proposal to exclude the trade unions. That was not so. We did not move in the matter at all. Doubtless there are Social-Democrats who would wish to explicitly exclude trade unions, as such, from representation at a Socialist congress. But the Social-Democratic Federation, as a party, has never declared itself in that sense, and, moreover, it is a constituent of the British National Committee, on which trade unions are represented, and to which they contribute their quota. As a party, therefore, we Social-Democrats are quite content that the trade unions should be represented at the Congress so long as the Socialist basis of the Congress is maintained unimpaired, and the unions represented frankly accept that basis and the fundamental principles which the Congress is held to promote. We are not prepared to accept, and shall oppose with all the force and vigour of which we are capable, any proposal to modify the Socialist character of the Congress, or to change the conditions of representation, in order to admit avowedly non-Socialist organisations – trade union or other. It is highly satisfactory that in the resolution adopted by the Congress with reference to the relations between trade unions and the Socialist Parties, our position in this connection was emphatically affirmed. That resolution declares that “The Congress invites all the trade unions that accept the conditions laid down by the Brussels Conference of 1899, ratified by the Paris Congress 1900, to be represented at the International Congresses and to keep themselves in relation with the International Socialist Bureau.” That is perfectly clear and definite; and there should be no question in the future that trade unions or other bodies taking part in our International Congress accept the principle of the class struggle and the abolition of capitalism, through Social-Democracy, as its objective. Equally satisfactory is the further affirmation that “The unions will not fully perform their duty in the struggle for the emancipation of the workers unless a thoroughly Socialist spirit inspires their policy.” And also the expressed opinion of the Congress, in the same resolutions, “that the unions will be able more successfully to carry on their struggle against exploitation and oppression, in proportion as their organisations are more unified, as their benefit system is improved, as the funds necessary for their struggle are better supplied, and as their members gain a clearer conception of economic relations and conditions and are inspired by the Socialist ideal with greater enthusiasm and devotion.”

Not less significant and satisfactory to British Social-Democrats should be the fact that Mr. D.J. Shackleton, one of the Labour Party delegates, was willing and ready to speak in the Congress in support of that resolution. It is hardly possible for Mr. Shackleton to support such a resolution in Stuttgart and oppose Socialism at home. We may, therefore, count on comrade Shackleton’s support as a member of the Labour Party in the House of Commons – for all Socialist measures, and his cordial co-operation in the campaign to be carried on in his own constituency against child labour and in favour of the thoroughly Socialist education programme adopted by the Trade Union Congress.

This frank acceptance of the Socialist position by Mr. Shackleton is all that we ask of any trade union representative. We trust that many others will follow his example, not in their individual capacity, merely, but as representatives of the rank and file of their organisations. That is what we above all desire, to win the organised workers for Socialism. We do not wish to “capture” the trade unions, nor to exploit them for the support of principles in which they do not believe or of men with whom they do not agree. Neither are we afflicted with the insane idea that we should “fight” the unions; or with the equally preposterous and absurd notion that it is our duty to endeavour to organise rival organisations to them in their own special field of action. Such efforts could only be futile, but even if they were successful, they would be but the more mischievous, in still further weakening the power of existing unions. Social-Democrats can have no interest in opposing, antagonising, or disrupting the trade unions. What we have to do is to inspire the rank and file with a consciousness of the reality and magnitude of the class struggle in which, whether they will or no, they are engaged. We have to convert the trade unionists to Socialism. If any say that is impossible, that is equal to saying that Socialism is impossible; because Socialism without the working class is inconceivable; and whatever may be their defects, it must be borne in mind that the members of the trade unions are the elite of the working-class. If we cannot convert them to Socialism there is very little hope of the others. But we are converting them. Year by year and month by month the numbers of conscious and avowed Socialists in the ranks of the trade unions increases, and at no distant date the whole of the organised workers will be enrolled under the Red Flag of Social-Democracy.

For it must not be forgotten that the constitution of British trade unionism has materially changed since the S.D.F. began its campaign against capitalism. There is still too much narrow sectionalism and trade conservatism in the trade unions; but trade unionism is no longer that conservative institution, that aristocracy of labour, which it had become a quarter of a century ago. Trade unionism has become democratised, and now embraces every branch of industry; and there is no reason for any individual worker to be outside its pale. It is true that the “New Trade Unionism” of nineteen years ago was largely a recrudescence of the movement of seventeen years earlier; that it has disappointed some of its most ardent champions in its results; and that it has largely had to adopt and adapt the methods of the old trade unionism in order to maintain its existence. That is but to say that it is only trade unionism after all, and that those whom it has enrolled are not yet inspired by the ideals and ideas of Social-Democracy.

It is our work to inspire them with these ideals, and nowhere, it may be repeated, shall we find a better field for such work. Moreover, while carrying on our propaganda in the unions and insisting upon the necessity of trade unions adopting the Socialist principles and objective, we must not forget our duty to the trade unions, as enjoined by the resolution of the International Congress. That resolution declares that it “is the duty of the Party to help the unions in their work of raising the workers and of ameliorating their social conditions. In its Parliamentary action the Party must vigorously support the demands of the unions.” And, further, that “it is the duty of the Party and of the trade unions to render moral support the one to the other and to make use only of those means which may help forward the emancipation of the proletariat. When divergent opinions arise between the two organisations as to the opportunity of certain tactics they should arrive by discussion at an agreement.” This does no involve anything in the nature of an alliance between Socialist organisations and trade unions which are not yet Socialist, but it does mean united action wherever possible and co-operation in giving effect to all the “means which may help forward the emancipation of the proletariat.” The resolution of the Congress as it affects British Socialists and trade unionists is an exposition of the old appeal to the workers of all countries to unite. In the words of the resolution: “there is an ever-widening domain in the proletarian struggle of the classes in which they can only reap advantages by concerted action and by co-operation between the Party and the trade unions. As a consequence the proletarian struggle will be carried on more successfully and with more important results if the relations between the unions and the Party are strengthened without infringing the necessary unity of the trade unions” – or, it might be added, of the Social-Democratic Party.