Harry Quelch 1912

Socialism and the Coal Strike

Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 1., No. 3. March, 1912. pp. 97-102;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the time of writing the national coal strike is in full swing, if that term can be properly applied to a cessation of work. The position appears to be one of deadlock. The men have presented their minimum demands, which the masters declare they will not concede, and the Government, which, at the eleventh hour, intervened to effect a settlement, is not prepared to enforce. The outlook at the moment, therefore, is not very hopeful; although there can be little doubt that the men must win if only their leaders maintain the same firmness they have hitherto displayed.

Already, however, there are not wanting those among the professed friends of the miners who are urging them to be moderate, and to submit their schedule of minimum rates to arbitration. They are told that they have gained a great victory in securing a recognition of the “principle” of a minimum wage, and that the actual amount is a mere matter of detail about which they should be prepared to chaffer and haggle, and eventually have it submitted to some court of arbitration.

To this the men reply that their minima represent the rock-bottom prices at which they are disposed to sell their labour, and they are therefore not prepared to argue or chaffer or arbitrate about them. And they are perfectly right. If they stick to that position they will win. If they recede from it they will be tricked and swindled out of their victory, just as the railway-men were. There is no “principle” about a minimum wage in itself, it depends entirely upon its amount. In the present instance the amount errs, not on the side of extravagance, but on that of moderation. The men are asking for too little; not for too much.

But it is urged that seeing how indispensable coal is to our social well-being, to our industries, to our very national existence; seeing the misery, privation, and suffering entailed on the whole people – especially the poorest – by the cessation of the coal supply; the miners should be prepared to waive their demands, or at least suspend them, and go on working pending some adjustment of their claims.

But why should it always be the workers, the actual producers, the wage-slaves, and never the shirkers, the mere profit-receivers, who are called upon to sacrifice themselves for the common good? The life of the miner, even at the best, is one long sacrifice, one long martyrdom; a life of arduous, irksome, disagreeable and dangerous toil, for which no mere money reward could be excessive. Why, as soon as a strike makes people conscious of the value and importance of the work of the miner, should he be called upon to continue to still further sacrifice himself, instead of the exploiting capitalist being called upon to surrender some of his profits?

The answer to this question is perfectly simple. It is because we are living in a capitalist State, a capitalist system, the Government and all the political institutions of which represent, and exist to maintain, capitalist interests. To make profit is the sole object of all production. Mine-owners are not concerned with supplying human or national needs – any more than are ship-owners, mill-owners, railway-owners, landlords, or any other set of monopolists. All they are concerned about is making profit by the exploitation of their monopoly and of the labour employed therein. In so doing, of course, they exploit and batten upon the want and misery of the poor and the needs of the community at large. The restriction of the supply to meet those needs caused by a coal strike affords them still greater opportunities of exploitation. How absurd, therefore, to suggest that they should forego their very reason of existence as mine-owners by surrendering any of their sacred profits. There is no patriotism or humanity in “business.” The coal-owners would quite willingly send every ton of coal out of the country – if it paid them to do so; just as the builders of war-ships and big guns are quite eager to supply ships and guns to a rival Power. It is only the workers who can reasonably be expected to be patriotic or humane.

If the Government really represented the common national interests, instead of those of the capitalist class, the strike would be settled at once. The owners would be compelled to surrender sufficient of their profits to ensure the men at least a “living” wage as a minimum. Representative solely of the capitalist interests, however, the Government, even if it reluctantly coerced the owners into conceding the men’s demands, would compensate them – as in the case of the railway owners – by recognising their right to “take it out” of the public.

In this fact, in the capitalist nature of our Government and all our political institutions, lies the cause of the strike, and from it are to be drawn the lessons the strike teaches. Not that the cause of the strike is political; far from that. It is crudely economic. It is very amusing to find people, who are blind only to the obvious, endeavouring to discover some occult, mysterious, esoteric cause for what is so transparently simple in its origin as the present coal strike. Thus Mr. Ramsay MacDonald finds that cause – the cause of all the recent and present “Labour unrest,” indeed – to be the Osborne Judgment! As if the Osborne Judgment opposed any bar to voluntary political action on the part of those workers who may be inclined to take it! Thus, too, the mineowners, and their fuglemen in the press, like the railway magnates, amazed at any display of discontent on the part of their under-worked and over-paid wage-slaves, discover the cause to be the machinations of those wicked Socialists, or the development of “Syndicalism” in the trade unions.

Syndicalism, as a matter of fact, notwithstanding all the talk there has been about it of late, has no existence in this country. There is not one in ten thousand of British trade unionists who knows anything at all about it, or understands what it means, and it is entirely foreign to the spirit and methods of British trade unionism. On the other hand, we Socialists have never advocated strikes. We have always maintained that the working class should jealously guard the right and the power to strike; that they should refuse to be shackled by any sort of compulsory arbitration, or any other restriction on their right to withhold their labour; and we have always given every possible support to any body of workers who have been on strike. But we recognise that the power to strike is generally more efficacious than the strike itself; and that the latter is, at best, but a cumbrous and a two-edged weapon.

The present strike is neither political nor revolutionary in character or in inspiration. It is not caused by disgust at the slow operation of political methods, nor inspired by a determination to abolish the class ownership of the mines and the mineral wealth of the country, The cause of the strike is purely a matter of wages, It is due, as were the strikes of last year, to the fact that wages have not risen proportionately to the increased cost of living, aggravated, in the case of the miners, by the stoppage of the customary supplementary pay for work in “abnormal places.” In coal mining, as in all other industries, the tendency has been to screw up and intensify labour, and thus, even where there has been a rise in wages, to get more work done for less wages.

That, really, is the sole cause of the trouble; the reason for the demand for a minimum wage. And in pressing this demand, the miners have not been precipitate or hasty. They allowed the ten-months’ strike in South Wales – due to precisely the same cause – to peter out, without resorting to a general strike. They have tried every conceivable means to arrive at a settlement without having to resort to a strike. Even when a ballot was reluctantly taken, and an overwhelming majority of the men declared in favour of a strike, there was the absurdly protracted notice of six weeks in which an arrangement might have been arrived at, and during which masters and middle-men were reaping hugely-enhanced profits.

Months ago, had the Government of this country been other than a capitalist Government, effective steps would have been taken to avert the strike. And that is why, although the strike is in no sense political, its cause is to be found in the class character of our Government and our political institutions.

And from that fact also we may draw the most important lessons of the strike. Were our Government representative of the nation as a whole instead of being a capitalist Government, the strike would have been settled ere this. But then there would never have been any occasion or menace of a strike. In other words, had the workers generally used such political power as they have possessed since the last great coal strike in 1893 to capture the political machine, instead of steadily voting their masters into control, the present strike and those of last year would have been absolutely unnecessary. That is the all-important lesson which this series of strikes should have taught the workers – industrial organisation, by all means; industrial action, certainly, in order to defend what you may have, or to win some better conditions – but let your political organisation and political action keep pace with and reflect your industrial organisation and action; for without that the latter must be largely ineffectual and futile. There is no essential antagonism between industrial action and political. But a strike costs much in sacrifice and privation, whereas it costs nothing at all to vote. And if one is prepared to strike against the masters, one should, at least, be prepared to vote against them.

There is no doubt, moreover, that the present strike and all its lamentable consequences will considerably strengthen the demand for the nationalisation of the mines. It is absurd, truly, that a mere handful of plutocrats should be masters and owners of the mineral wealth of the country; of the coal which is the very foundation of our national life. Without coal our industries are idle; our navy is helpless; our food supplies are cut off, and we are stricken with national paralysis. Therefore nationalise the mines. Surprise is sometimes expressed that the miners, although they have repeatedly passed resolutions in favour of nationalisation, have yet not shown any great enthusiasm therefor. Why should they? The experience of other servants of the State is not encouraging nor will be while it remains a capitalist State. It is necessary not only to nationalise the mines, but to nationalise the State; to democratise, de-capitalise it. The socialisation – not the capitalisation; either by the State, or by joint syndicates of masters and workmen – of the mines, the railways, the factories and the land is the only way out of the present difficulty, the only solution for the present “labour unrest.” And the way thereto is by the capture and transformation of the present class State.