Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym John Bryan 1919

Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism II

Source: The Call, 12 June 1919, p.4, (1,715 words);
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

(The following is the second and concluding in­stalment of John Bryan’s article. The Editorial-Committee will welcome contributions to this dis­cussion from other comrades.)

We have dwelt at such length on the question of parliamentarism, because it is, in present circumstances, of decisive im­portance, and presents to our agitation a very hopeful line of advance. There is, however, yet another question which is almost of equal importance for the moment, but on which the minds of the masses are still, very largely, in the dark. This is the question of the revolutionary value of the trade unions. One frequently hears even in our own midst the remark that the trade unions — especially in their larger combina­tions such as the present so-called Triple Alliance — may yet play in this country a revolutionary part by constituting themselves an instrument of pressure upon the capitalist classes, which the latter would not be able to resist. In other words, it is thought that in this country we need not necessarily have the open insurrections by the masses, which brought about the revolu­tionary changes in Eastern and Central Europe, but that the trade unions in the chief industries, by a combined employ­ment, or even perhaps only displayed the strike weapon, might bring the capitalist classes to their knees in an as effective a manner as could ever be achieved by copious bloodshed in the streets.

From a theoretical point of view, this argument may be quite sound, and if the result of the agitation of the miners should — in an unexpected, we confess, manner — be the nationalisation of the mines, the argument will probably gain in effectiveness. Yet, in our opinion, such revolutionary expectations from the trade unions are abso­lutely futile. The trade unions, whatever their historical origin may be, have not been built up for revolutionary purposes, that is, for the overthrow of the capitalist system, but derive, on the contrary, their strength and their success from the fact that they are firmly planted with both feet, as it were, on the practical assumption of the durable character of present-day society. The trade unions are sectional organisations but slightly tinged with the notion of common connection as unit-formations of the general working class, and their endeavours are wholly centred on the achievement of de­tailed improvements for their respective groups of wage-earners. These endeavours are thus governed by purely sectional inte­rests without any regard for the common interests of the working class, and any suc­cess for them, therefore, tends merely to consolidate the privileged proposition of what is called the “aristocracy of labour.” It is for these reasons that our trade unions are so exclusive, so addicted to mutual rivalry, and so very slow in taking up any­thing which lies outside their immediate horizon of wages and hours of work. To expect from them revolutionary action for a revolutionary aim is as idle as to expect from a machine, which has been constructed to perform a certain kind of work, work of a different nature. In Russia there were no trade unions worth speaking of under the Tsarist regime, but they sprung up in large numbers after the March Revolution (1917) One might have expected that being born of the Revolution they would have played a revolutionary part in the subsequent developments. But nothing of the kind happened. The Russian trade unions have been conspicuously unimportant as revolu­tionary factors, and what little part they played was rather of a conservative charac­ter. In Germany, where, on the contrary, the trade unions were exceedingly strong before the Revolution and occupied a posi­tion very much like that of the trade unions in our own country — in fact, they were, if anything, even more powerful and success­ful — the result has been the same. They played no part in the Revolution itself, and, whatever influence they have exercised since on the course of events, has been of a reactionary character.

It cannot and will not be otherwise in this country. The very machinery of the trade unions is such as to prevent them from playing any revolutionary role, however agitated the masses themselves may become. The trade union being an orga­nisation for the improvement of the con­ditions of labour in its respective branch of production on the basis of the existing class-relationship, its machinery of com­mittees and permanent officials, ranged more or less in a hierarchical order, is such that any impulse coming from below must neces­sarily lose in strength and freshness, and take a long time before it reaches the apex of the hierarchy where the final decision is taken. It then often has to travel back to the basis before it is translated into action. By that time the impulse has become much feebler, while the enemy has had time to take his measures of repulse, counter­attack, or evasion and this process of, as you might call it, self-attrition is the more extended, and, therefore, more likely to lead to futile results, the larger and the more scientifically organised the trade union or the trade union combination is. In other words, precisely in the case of such an organisation whose blow, if delivered “straight from the shoulder,” would prove most effective, the chance that it would be so delivered are remotest.

Again, the human factor, as personified in the trade union officials, constituting as it does the vital pivot in the machinery, plays a very conservative part. The trade union official must necessarily be a man who has specialised in the technicalities of the given trade, who has a talent for details, and has proved his capacity for administrative work. Such a type is seldom, if ever, of a revolutionary disposition, and the more efficient he is in the work which is demanded of him by the nature of the trade unions, the more chances he has to advance in the hierarchy, irrespective of his political views. This is why, at the very top of the trade union organisations, stand for the most part precisely such men, who possess the highest bureaucratic capacities, and for that very reason lack every other. Even if they ori­ginally possessed some political ability and political temperament, they are bound to lose or deliberately shed them, immersed as they constantly are in their bureaucratic work, and having to concentrate all their attention on details of organisation, ad­ministration, and economic warfare. In addition, and for the same reasons, they necessarily become more or less detached from the rank and file, that is, the masses, in proportion as they ascend the official hierarchical ladder, so that those who are most able in their special work, and reach, therefore, the highest ruings, become the most detached, the most estranged from the masses. They are those who are least in touch with the woe and weal of the rank and file and who are least able to respond to their voice. On the other hand, their work keeps them in more or less close contact with the employers, and as their daily mission is to find compromises with them, they are apt to drop, voluntarily or involuntarily, any angle that may have been left protruding in their attitude towards master class in their career of office. The result is that, being, on the one hand, isolated from the common masses of workers, and, on the other hand, brought into more or less intimate touch with the employers, the leaders of the trade unions — especially those in the higher positions — end by assimilating to a very high degree the masters’ views and succumbing to the influence of the capitalist class. The life-history of many a leader in the trade union movement shows that this influence sometimes assumes very material forms. It is not surprising, there­fore, to find the overwhelming majority of them on the side of opposition to revolu­tion or, at best, very lukewarm in advo­cating or helping it. The ghastly failure of the leaders of the Triple Alliance and the Parliamentary Committee in the recent agi­tation against conscription and intervention in Russia is only one illustration among many of the part invariably played by the, leaders of the trade unions in political movements.

That the rank and file of the workers, in spite of the long traditions of trade union­ism, are gradually becoming aware of the inadequacy of their trade unions in modern class-warfare is clear from the rise and spread of the shop stewards’ and workers’ committees movement. It should be our business to encourage and to foster this movement without antagonising or even attacking the trade unions, which will yet have to play an important role in the task of Socialist reconstruction after the Revolu­tion. We must propagate the idea of the rank and file organisations such as the above-mentioned committees, because they will prove a fit instrument of the Revolu­tion and because they are, in type, much akin to the Soviets which we are advocating on other grounds. We should imagine that in every industrial locality our own organi­sations ought to assist in the formation of workers’ committees consisting of factory stewards and such like delegates straight from the works, with representatives of our own and other Socialist organisations. That would be the nearest approach to the Soviet form of organisation of the working class.

Such, then, seems to be the line of ad­vance in two main directions, political and economic, which the B.S.P. ought to strike out at the present juncture by way of pre­paration for the Revolution. This line does not by any means imply that we must abandon parliamentary warfare, just as it does not mean that we must leave our trade unions. Any opportunity or place for our propaganda is good for us, whether it be an election platform, or the floor of the House of Common4, or the meeting of our trade union branch. What we must bear mind, and what we must propagate, is that the Revolution will not come about through the instrumentality either of Parliament or the trade unions, but by the direct action, political and economic, of the rank and file through their politico-economic organisations of the Soviet type. We sin­cerely hope that our members will reflect upon and adopt the views propounded is these articles.