Harry Quelch October 1909

Parliamentarism, Anti-Militarism and Direct Action

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIII, No. 10, October, 1909, pp. 434-438, (1,861 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). 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.

It seems a far cry from the revolt in Catalonia to the highly respectable law-abiding British Trades Union Congress at Ipswich. Yet in considering the all-important question of the policy of the working class movement both events have their lessons, and there will be found some relation between them. The Trades Union Congress was, in its way, as striking a manifestation against mere Parliamentarism as were the disturbances in Barcelona; the one by its acquiescence, the other by indignant revolt. The British trade unions, having at last realised the folly of leaving to the master class the monopoly of the Parliamentary machine, are still so dominated by bourgeois ideas that they yet show little inclination to drive that machine in any direction other than that pointed by the master class. The consequence is that the Parliamentary Group of the Labour Party is actively engaged in demonstrating to the working class the futility of Parliamentary action, and the Trades Union Congress, with smug self-sufficiency, emphasises that demonstration by its cordial approbation of the Liberal Government and the Liberal Budget!

Nevertheless the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution of sympathy with the Catalonian insurgents and of condemnation of the atrocities of the reaction there. The Congress also adopted a resolution condemnatory of Haldane’s Territorial Force. That force, in the opinion of the Congress, “is absolutely incompatible with the policy of trade unionists” and one in which they ought not to enlist, as they would be “liable to be called out in times of industrial disputes to quell, an d possibly shoot down, their fellow workers who are struggling for better conditions.” One delegate, indeed, was so carried away by the indignation evoked by the discussion on this subject as to boldly declare that if the Government dared to use the Territorials against workmen on strike, they, the trade unionists, would —immediately call together the Parliamentary Committee, who would convene a special meeting of the Congress! And nobody laughed at this terrible threat! By this, and by its vote on the Citizen Army, in which the proposal for universal military training was defeated by an overwhelming majority, the Congress showed that the leaders of the organised working-class in this country are not yet alive to the fact that all government rests, as a last resort, upon force, and that a working class which is not in a position to meet force with force, at need, is absolutely powerless when conclusions come to be tried between it and the master class.

The revolt in Catalonia teaches the same among other lessons. That outbreak has been variously treated. Some English newspaper correspondents have essayed to write it down, to belittle it, and make it out to be a childish and futile ebullition of rebellious waywardness. The street fighting, they would have us believe, was but child’s play, and the fusillades mere fiction. The ruins of conventual buildings, however, are there as evidence of the reality and vehemence of the popular fury against religious intolerance, and the savage reprisals which have been going on ever since the suppression of the rising serve to show that the cruelty of the Spanish ruling class has lost none of its hideous characteristics.

In some respects the Catalonian rising, crushed as it was by the most brutal despotism—its vanquished now being tortured in the most hideous fashion—is the most remarkable event that has taken place since the Paris Commune. It was not only a revolt of the working class and the intellectuals against civil despotism and religious intolerance and obscurantism, it was a declaration of “war upon war.” International Congresses have repeatedly declared the hostility of the working class of all countries to war; that their interests are bound up in the maintenance of peace. Our Labour Party in its Conferences, and our Trades Union Congresses have over and over again condemned war and militarism and all their works, and our Labour Members in the House of Commons, except those who represent constituencies directly interested in arsenals and dockyards, generally oppose expenditure on armaments. But “when the blast of war sounds in our ears,” all are “patriots” and sink all considerations for the sake of their common country. We know how impossible it was to make any effective stand here in opposition to the popular fury against the Boers, once the infamous gold-bugs’ war had commenced; and even in the Paris Commune, much of the force of that formidable insurrection was due to popular indignation against the authorities for the misconduct of the defence against “les Prussiens.” In Catalonia, however, the outbreak of the war in Morocco was the signal for a popular rising against the war, a formidable, forcible opposition to Spanish soldiers being sent against the Moors. Working men and working women fought energetically, vigorously, fiercely, against their brothers and sons being sent away to fight against the enemies of “their own country.” That is the outstanding fact which gives to the Catalonian rising its special significance and makes it an event of world-wide importance. It was “war against war” in the most literal sense.

War against war, in the pacific sense, has been preached many years by the various peace societies; but their preaching has counted for little. On every hand armaments are growing. Europe is an armed camp; the building of war vessels and the forging of implements of war are the only industries which show no signs of flagging in the midst of almost universal. industrial depression, and the chief interest in the discoveries of science centres in the question of their adaptability to the art of war. Hervé and his followers, in other countries as well as in France, have vigorously advocated war against war in a more literal and practical fashion than by the mere preaching of peace. They openly advocate the use of arms by the people against their own Government in the event of the latter declaring war. “Turn your arms against your own officers, your own generals, your own rulers—these are your real enemies—not the foreign workmen against whom they would drive you”! That has been the cry; but our own experience in time of war made us here sceptical of the possibility of any such action once hostilities had broken out. In Catalonia, however, the thing has been done. There the people have actually risen in revolt, and have actually fought against a foreign war.

It is true that the revolt has been crushed; that of its leaders some have been shot or tortured to death, and that others are being subjected to similar inhuman tortures. The fact remains that there in Catalonia war has actually been waged against war. And it is the first step that costs. What has been done once can be done again; and failure is but the precursor to success.

The lesson of the present temporary defeat is that afforded by other defeats of the working class elsewhere. It is the lesson that force can only be vanquished by force, and that those only have rights who are strong enough to maintain them. Like the revolution in Turkey; the revolution in Persia; the counter- revolution in Russia; the failure of the most successful strike to conquer anything, and the failure of mere Parliamentarism everywhere, the defeat of the Catalonian insurrection is an argument for the Armed Nation. A whole working-class may strike, as in Sweden, but it cannot carry the fortress of the enemy without arms. It may vote itself into power, only to be robbed by force of its victory.

The present growing antipathy to Parliamentarism arises from the fact that both Parliamentarians and anti-Parliamentarians have attached too much importance to it. The former have forgotten that Parliamentarism is, or should be, only one factor in a revolutionary movement, and have constituted themselves legislators instead of rebels.

“Direct action,” which really means nothing more nor less than the strike, grandiloquent as the phrase sounds, can never be really aggressive. It can only be defensive, or passive. To strike is not to do anything; it is to refuse to do; it is passivity carried to the extent of reducing everything to a standstill until certain conditions are conceded. A strike may be undertaken for a political or an economic end; to support an agitation for the franchise, or to secure higher wages, shorter hours of labour or the improvement of any other conditions of employment. But, however successful a strike may be in attaining any of these objects, it leaves the capitalist basis of society untouched. It does not expropriate the expropriators, and the dominance of the propertied class remains unimpaired. The expropriation of the capitalist class can only be accomplished by force, latent or applied. In any case the force must be there; and a general strike having this for its object would need, in order to be successful, such perfection of organisation and discipline as would enable the workers to take possession without any strike at all. Even then this perfectly organised and disciplined “direct action” would need to be accompanied by Parliamentary action to ratify and consolidate its achievement.

On the other hand, political Parliamentary action would be futile unless supported by organised force. It is scarcely likely that the decrees of a Socialist Parliamentary majority would be respected by the propertied class whom it proposed to expropriate if the latter still had control of the organised armed force of the nation. “Ulster would fight, and Ulster would be right,” was the threat of Irish landlordism in answer to proposed Home Rule. But if a dominant class would fight against a political principle which would in all probability leave their proprietorial rights untouched, how much more forcibly would they resist an avowed attempt to divest them of those rights and privileges?

The lesson, therefore, to be learned by the proletariat from all this is that all means are necessary that may be found available in the work of emancipation, and that none is to be despised: Direct action, Parliamentarism, armed force. It will be time enough for the workers to discard anyone of these when the master class does so. When the capitalists contemn Parliamentary action, and refuse to spend tens of thousands of pounds, and to strain every effort in maintaining their control of the political machine, it will be time enough for the workers to abandon political action as useless; when the capitalists cease to resort to “direct action” in the form of the lock-out and the black-list, it will be time enough for the workers to surrender the right to strike; and when the capitalists disband the Army, melt down their artillery into statues of Peace, and beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, it will be time enough to abjure all idea of a resort to force and to cease to agitate for the armed nation. In the meantime, and so long as all means are resorted to against the workers, it behoves them to be prepared as necessity arises to use any means that will serve their end.