Harry Quelch 1912

Riot and Revolution

Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 1., No. 4. April, 1912. pp. 145-152;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

During the series of strikes which has marked the last twelve months there has been manifested a very general disposition to regard this industrial upheaval, this “labour unrest” as it has been called, as something quite phenomenal and unprecedented.

There is a type of mind, and, indeed, one that is not at all uncommon, which is prone to see in any event, not of everyday occurrence, something strange; mysterious, ominous; a “problem,” the cause of which is occult and fateful, and the solution of which is not less abstruse and difficult to discover. A simple explanation for quite simple phenomena will not suffice, and they find it necessary to grope in outer darkness for the hidden, mysterious cause, the “psychological moment,” of a movement, the real moment of which should be apparent to the most superficial observer.

In these recent strikes it was not at all difficult to comprehend that their direct, immediate cause was a simple economic one – the fact that wages had not increased in proportion to the increased cost of living. That fact, in conjunction with the further facts that trade was booming, work was brisk, and unemployment at a minimum, afforded quite sufficient explanation for the strikes among sailors, dockers, carmen, lightermen, and other transport workers last year. In the case of the railwaymen there were the further contributory causes afforded by the fraudulent “settlement” of which they were the victims in 1907, and the stimulating effect of the comparative success of the other strikes.

In the great national coal strike which has just concluded the same causes undoubtedly were at work, but in this case, the immediate cause was the question of payment for abnormal places. Failing a satisfactory arrangement for such payment, it was generally felt by the miners that the only way out of the difficulty was to fix a minimum wage, below which no one should be paid, whatever the amount of work he might do.

That really was the fount and origin of the colliers’ strike, and in that respect it differed from the preceding strikes; and to that extent it was exceptional. Unlike most other strikes, it was not directly occasioned by a demand on the part of the whole body for an advance of wages, or for a levelling up of wages to meet the increased cost of living. It was a demand of the whole body for comparatively fair treatment for the worst paid and least fortunate among them.

It has been repeatedly stigmatised by the reptile press as a “selfish strike.” It is doubtful if ever there was a strike to which such a term was less applicable. The majority of the men had nothing whatever to gain by it; and were actually sacrificing themselves on behalf of the minority. And this was none the less the fact because members of the majority to-day might be in the minority to-morrow.

All that apart, however, the fact remains that the cause of the colliers’ strike, as that of the strikes of last year, was the simple economic question of wages. Only that and nothing more.

It suited the master class and their henchmen in the press, however, to pretend that such a simple cause was quite inconceivable to them. Lord Claud Hamilton was indignant at the idea that plutocratic railwaymen, earning the princely income of a pound a week, could possibly be discontented with their idyllic lot. They must have been led away, misguided, blinded to their own interests by those wicked, cunning, clever, “brainy” Socialists. Mr. D. A. Thomas expressed the same opinion about the miners. Their occupation, he contended, was healthy and well-paid. It was a mistake to suppose that the strike was a question of wages; it was a revolutionary Socialist movement.

That, of course, was quite obviously the proper card for Hamilton, Thomas and the other capitalists to play. Once convince the general public that behind the apparently just and moderate demands of bodies of workmen there lurked the sinister spectre of revolution, with its menace of red ruin and the breaking up of laws, and their game was won. That card was played by the enemies of the men for all they were worth – and with conspicuous success.

Unfortunately – not for the immediate result, because there it did not make a particle of difference – but unfortunately for the working-class movement generally, there are not wanting those on our own side who have been in entire agreement with the capitalist view as to the cause and origin of the strikes. It is the misfortune of a revolutionary party to be afflicted with two sets of foes in its own household, so to speak, both of whom see the revolution in any sort of violent movement, or unusual stir. On the one side are those who flinch at the mere mention of the word revolution, because they suppose that it necessarily implies violence and disorder; and on the other side are those who welcome any violent outbreak, any sudden movement, any revolt, however ill-conceived; any riotous disorder, however senseless, futile and reactionary, because they fondly suppose that any form of violence is necessarily revolutionary.

The first are careful to explain that they are evolutionary, not revolutionary Socialists – thereby implying their ignorance of the meaning of both evolution and revolution – the others sneer at any condemnation of violence as ultra-Parliamentarism, and estimate any point gained, not by its intrinsic economic or political value, but in direct ratio with the degree of violence by which it has been attained. Thus, for instance, a maximum working day secured to all by legislation – to say nothing of a minimum wage acquired by such means – would be very small potatoes indeed. But let any body of workmen acquire either of these objects by means of a strike – especially if the strike should be attended with riot and disorder and great privation – then that is a gain indeed, even though it may be wrested from them on the very first slump in the market.

So, too, with the Suffragist agitation. Our extremist friends are wont to belittle the vote, as a thing of no importance at all; and the whole international Socialist movement is opposed to the agitation for the extension of the suffrage to certain women only, on a property qualification. When, however, a few well-to-do women mislead others of the working class, and, with their aid, indulge in an orgy of rowdy hooliganism and window-smashing, the vote suddenly becomes possessed of transcendental importance; and its attainment by bourgeois women would be a revolutionary achievement.

These two sets of our friendly enemies play into each others’ hands nicely. The ones by their timidity and depreciation of revolution give excuse for the hostility to political action and the admiration of violent “direct” action which the others express; while the latter, in their turn, by their foolish glorification of violence for its own sake, and their hostility to organised political action, do their worst to strengthen the anti-revolutionary sentiments of the first.

The difficulty, it appears to me, arises from a misunderstanding of terms, and the confusion of the end with the means. An object is not necessarily revolutionary because its attainment is attended by violence; nor is a revolution less a revolution because it has been achieved in a perfectly peaceful fashion.

It would be scarcely too much to say that so far from disorder, riot and violence being the essential accompaniments to revolution, the greatest revolutions would have been peaceful enough but for the riot and violence invoked by the counter-revolution.

Riot, violence, disorder, so far from being appealed to, are always to be deprecated and condemned by the revolutionists, We Social-Democrats have always deprecated strikes, not because they are necessarily attended by riot and disorder, but because they entail loss and privation and want upon the strikers, and very real sacrifice, for, at best, a dubious gain. Generally they are futile, but even at the best they achieve no more than could be gained at far less cost and with greater certainty by other methods. In a strike, naturally, we always support the workers, but we do not the less regret that they should not make use of more efficient weapons, and weapons less dangerous to themselves.

But if we deprecate strikes, how much the more must we deprecate violence which is not only futile, but plays directly into the hands of the enemy. We have over and over again appealed to soldiers not to allow themselves to be made use of against strikers and not to fire on their fellow-workers. But such appeals are ridiculous if at the same time we are going to encourage riot and disorder on the part of the strikers. Our whole case in that respect rests on the assumption that the provocation comes, as, indeed, it generally does, from the side of the masters and the authorities. In such case we may excuse, but we cannot advocate violence. Violence, disorder, riot are in themselves evils only to be resorted to in self-defence. The workers have no interest, indeed, even in attacks on property. They made the property, and should own it. How foolish, then, to destroy what they should own.

Moreover, riot, violence, disorder are, in existing circumstances, so futile. A la guerre, comme a la guerre; and in the class war in which we are engaged I admit that we are not called upon to be too squeamish as to the means or weapons to which we may have recourse. I myself have said, and have no hesitation in repeating, that the Social-Democrat should be prepared to use any means that would achieve our object – “any means, from the ballot box to the bomb.” I say that here, as I have said it before, in all seriousness and a complete sense of the full significance and implications of the expression. But, the point is that we have to adopt means to the end; we have to make sure that they are means; that they are at least not disproportionate to the end in view, and that they will hasten, not retard its attainment. We can have no respect for the established order of things, knowing its utter ruthlessness, its disregard of human life, its utter indifference to human suffering and misery, its rapacity, its bloodthirsty ferocity. No consideration for the moral turpitude of any act of violence against this brutal blood-cemented capitalist system need, therefore, deter us from committing it. We can even palliate the crimes of the felon, created a criminal by society, and extenuate and excuse the destructive frenzy of the dynamiter, the “saboteur,” or the regicide, moved by tyranny to the “wild justice of revenge.” But we know that the crimes and violence of such enemies of society only serve to strengthen and arm society against them, and that they are not revolutionary but reactionary in their effects. But our intransigeants, who affect to admire the bomb, shudder at the ballot box.

Revolution to be successful must be the effort of the ordered, organised movement of the masses. It cannot be accomplished by any sudden outbreak of undisciplined violence, or by a coup de main. I have heard it said more than once during the course of this “labour unrest” that the governing class are so scared and feel so insecure that “if only the revolutionary party were sufficiently well organised they might easily be masters of the situation.” Exactly. If only they were organised. I have witnessed a similar situation more than once before. But it is precisely the organisation that has been, and is, lacking. If we had had the organisation the ruling class might have been deposed long ago. To organise steadily, soberly, quietly, orderly, to depose the master class – that is really revolutionary. To merely kick up a row, to smash windows, wreck shops, stone soldiers or policemen, is simply the display of impotent rage of the small boy who throws stones and runs away.

All Governments rest on force; but it is idle for the people to appeal to force while all the arms are in the hands of their enemies, the ruling class. It may well be that the Revolution will not be achieved without violence; but we should be fools to provoke the fighting when we should have to fight at a disadvantage, and when all the resources of civilisation are held by the master class, and all we have to oppose to them is brickbats and broken bottles.

In such circumstances, any appeal to force, quite obviously, plays into the enemies’ hands; every riot, every outrage, every attack on property, gives them an excellent excuse to indulge in reprisals. I never believed that the brothers Macnamara were guilty of the Los Angeles outrage; and, if anything, I believed it still less when they confessed to it. Such an outrage, justifiable as it may have been, was so obviously to the advantage of the master class, and to the detriment of the working-class movement, that it is impossible to conceive any “Labour leaders,” who were not stark, staring mad, being guilty of such criminal folly.

And that is almost invariably true in all such cases, The “saboteur,” the “rattener,” the violent “propagandist of deed,” is usually either a fool or a knave; either carried away by sheer lunacy, or actuated by some sinister motive of personal gain or revenge.

While he may, therefore, in certain circumstances, excuse or even justify acts of violence and riot, the revolutionist, so far from advocating them, sets his face as flint against them. His is the far harder, if less showy work, of organising for the revolution through the conquest of political power. He has no illusions as to the value of the vote. He can therefore afford to smile imperturbably at those who sneer at Parliamentarism, and jeer at the little accomplished by our German comrades, with their four and a-quarter million of votes. He knows that those votes are but the outward and visible sign of an inward invisible class-consciousness; the expression of a working-class revolutionary organisation, ever growing and ever marching forward, resistlessly, slowly, without haste and without rest, to the inevitable goal. He knows that nothing would please the German ruling class better than to goad those organised Social-Democrats into premature “revolutionary” violence. He knows that this formidable, orderly organisation offers a far more formidable menace to the existing order than any number of such outbreaks as that in the Moabit quarter of Berlin. He knows, moreover, that when the British working class are really revolutionary they will show equal voting strength, equal discipline, equal sturdy determination, with their German comrades. He knows, in a word, that when they really want the revolution, and are prepared to strike or to fight for it, they will at any rate have the sense to vote for instead of against it. In the meantime, he can only smile sceptically at the frothy talk of the inner revolutionary meaning of foolish outbursts of impotent violence.