Harry Quelch May 1910

Socialist Politics and Trade Unionism

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 5 May, 1910, pp. 194-199, (2,020 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.

While we have seen that there is a tendency to belittle and deride Parliamentary action on the part of some advanced Socialists, we are witnessing on the part of others efforts to form Socialist Representation Committees, or even a National Socialist Representation Committee, on the lines of the Labour Party.

The latter is a tendency to go to one extreme, just as the former leads to the opposite. It would be a mistake to say that joint committees of the nature suggested can never serve any useful purpose; but they are chiefly useful in banding together, for some specific common object, bodies of very divergent views. The Labour Representation Committee, for instance, had good reason for its existence when it was a question simply of promoting “Labour Representation”—i.e., the Parliamentary representation of the various sections of the working class, grouped together in various organisations with widely different objects; holding sometimes entirely opposite views, and based upon conflicting principles, but all agreed on the importance of Parliamentary representation. The object of such a committee was to get rid of the friction which frequently arose between these sections in pursuing that immediate object; friction which not only became a scandal and caused the enemy to blaspheme, but too often resulted in defeating the object in view.

With Socialist bodies, however, the case is different. They are all agreed on fundamental principles and ultimate aim. It is only in the immediate steps to be taken; the means to be employed; the methods to be adopted, that they differ. Moreover, while all are agreed upon Parliamentary action—an agreement which has been held by the International Congresses for many years to differentiate Socialists from Anarchists, so far as practical immediate action is concerned—some regard it as of more, others of less, importance, and none, it may be assumed, regard it as the only possible means to be ever resorted to.

That being so, it would seem that the formation of Socialist Representation Committees would be to attach undue importance to Parliamentary action, making it, as it were, the chief objective of Socialist activity, to the subordination of the principles and the aim of Socialism, which latter should be the real ground and basis of unity among Socialist bodies.

Socialist organisations, therefore, should be capable of entering into closer unity than that implied by co-operation in a Representation Committee for electoral purposes only. It may well be, however, that local combinations among such bodies for the promotion of representation on local authorities and in Parliament would do much to bring about that closer unity so much to be desired. On the other hand, there should be no difficulty in forming such combinations with working-class organisations which are not avowedly Socialist, so long as the object is solely to promote representation, and the organisations and their representatives are left free, independent and autonomous in other respects.

In seeking this object, however, we are confronted by the first tendency referred to, that in the direction of a revolt against Parliamentary action, and a return to the old methods of proletarian warfare. While we see this tendency manifesting itself in every country, and while it would be idle to ignore it, it would also be a great mistake to attach to it too much importance. This tendency appears to be most fully developed in the Latin countries, and is in many cases nothing more nor less than Anarchism. In France, however, where it is most formidable and coherent, as represented by Syndicalism and Hervéism, and where it was specially directed in the recent election to preventing working-class electors from voting—and especially from voting for Socialists—its futility has been demonstrated by the extraordinary increase in the Socialist vote.

The bet is that the tendency is much more theoretical than practical; much more manifested by the theorising and speculation of “intellectuals” than by the practical action of any considerable section of the working class themselves.

The theory, of which this tendency is the outcome, is that Parliamentarism is essentially bourgeois; that it is played out, and a useless weapon for the proletariat in its struggle for emancipation. As if any weapon is not just as effective on one side as on the other! We have heard something of “the psychology of the gun;” but a rifle, a machine gun, or a “Four point Seven,” is neither moral nor immoral—it is non-moral, and is no more a respecter of persons than is the Deity. It would be just as effective used against a duke as against a dustman. It depends, not upon the weapon, but upon the “man behind the gun.” So with Parliament and Parliamentary action, once it is understood that these are only means to an end, and not the end itself.

In England and America the tendency in question is based on the theory not only that Parliamentary action is obsolete, but that so also is the present form of industrial organisation. It appears to be assumed that the workers are in a state of latent revolt, “cribbed, cabined and confined” by old, narrow, restrictive forms of organisation, and that it only needs the break-up of these old, obsolete forms, and the construction of some brand-new organisation out of their ruins, in order to see this seething latent revolt break out in overwhelming force, and for the workers to march forward, united, determined, exultant, irresistible, to the conquest of economic liberty and complete social freedom.

It is a fine theory. How one wishes it were true! Yet how foolish it is to imagine that if the workers really were impatient of present conditions and eager to revolt against them, any corrupt, timid, or reactionary “leader,” or any mere forms of organisation, would keep them quiescent! The truth, of course, is quite to the contrary. It is only a minority, and a small minority at that, of the working class which is ordinarily sufficiently discontented with existing conditions to do anything, or make the slightest sacrifice, in order to materially change them. We have only to look at the present position of the Labour Party for evidence of that.

Whatever may be said of the policy or conduct of the Parliamentary group of the Labour Party, or of the defects or weaknesses of the party as a whole, it must be admitted that the combination was the outcome of the expressed wishes and desires of the active members of the trade unions which are affiliated thereto. It was not the work of the leaders—many of whom would have preferred to remain outside—but of the rank and file. Yet how do we see the rank and file supporting an institution of their own creation? The contribution to the Labour Party is twopence per head per annum. Not an extravagant sum, surely! Yet the members of the party in Parliament are striving to upset the Osborne judgment, which prohibits contributions to the Labour Party from union funds, or compulsory levies for that purpose, because they know perfectly well that they cannot rely upon the voluntary contributions of their members! There are, roughly, some eight millions of adult male workers in this country; in the ranks of the unions affiliated to the Labour Party there are but a million and a-half of these; and yet even this small minority cannot be relied upon to pay twopence a year each for Parliamentary Representation! Those only can be relied upon to do so who voluntarily pay for their own politics already by becoming financial members of Socialist bodies, and these do not number a hundred thousand, all told—a hundred thousand out of eight millions!

The truth is that, while the majority of the working class are convinced of the truth and soundness of the fundamental principles of Socialism, they are too intent on securing the half-loaf to care to do anything to give practical application to those principles. A majority of the workers will not yet even vote for them, muchless pay. How absurd, then, to suppose that they are in a state of incipient revolt, or would fight, or even strike, for principles for which they—while believing in them—will not even vote!

Nor is it less absurd to suggest that the indifference of the workers, their apathy and their reluctance to move, or do anything for their emancipation, would all be removed simply by disbanding their existing organsations—political and economic—and forming others with new names. A thing is not changed simply by giving it a new name. We do not transform a turnip into a watch by calling it one. Existing trade unions are the outcome of existing economic conditions; they have survived because they have been the fittest to survive, the organisations best adapted to their surroundings. If they were all disbanded and a brand new organisation were set on foot in their place, with the high-sounding title of the United International Federated Amalgamated Toilers and Moilers of the Universe, all the old features of the disbanded bodies would be preserved, or the new combination would go to pieces—because there would only be the same material to work with, and nothing but the same conditions to work in.

That is the lesson of all past experience. Federations of All Trades and Industries; New Trade Unionism, in all its expressions, all have gone to pieces except where they have adopted the very methods of the old unions which they began by denouncing. “Merely benefit societies,” the New Trade Unionists called the older bodies. “Twopenny Strike Clubs” was the contemptuous retort. Well, some of the “Twopenny Strike Clubs” have managed to exist, and have helped to democratise and strengthen trade unionism. But they have only done so by ceasing to be merely “Twopenny Strike Clubs,” and by adapting themselves to their environment as the older bodies had done.

The reason for that lies in the economic conditions “Festina lente” must be the motto in working-class organisation—industrial and political. As was pointed out in the last number of the “Social-Democrat,” trade unionism in this country is steadily progressing; its numbers are increasing, and the development in the direction of amalgamation and federation makes for the ultimate realisation of that complete industrial organisation of the working-class foreshadowed in the resolution of the S.D.P. Conference.

The progress is slow; and impatience can easily be understood, and excused. Nevertheless, there is progress. We have won the trade unions to the recognition of the need for political action and of the inadequacy of their old weapon, the strike. Do not let us fall into the error, through impatience at the slowness of progress, of inducing them to cast aside the new weapon and to rely, once more, solely upon the old. Above all, it is essential that a party aiming to give political expression to the working-class movement should do nothing to antagonise or alienate the organised members of that class. We can set the pace—that is our duty—but we must not be too harsh with the laggards. The trade unions have their defects, undoubtedly, and it would be wrong to ignore them or not to try to remedy them; but the trade unionists—now that trade unionism is no longer an aristocracy, but a democracy of labour—are the flower of the working class. They may be reactionary, apathetic, difficult, but if they cannot be won for Socialism then Socialism itself is impossible. That is out of the question. Steadily, if slowly, the organised workers are coming to our side. It is for us to do all in our power to win them; to place no obstacles in their way; to sympathise with and support them even in the pettiest struggles in which the class war involves them; until they recognise that their work is futile unless its object is emancipation, and that the crown and culmination of trade union organisation and effort is Social-Democracy.