Th. Rothstein 1920

Labour’s Impotence and Its Strength

Source: Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym John Bryan, “Labour’s Impotence and Its Strength” The Call, 4 March 1920, p.1, (1,161 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.

I take up the newspapers, and note the following facts: The Government, having rejected point-blank the miners’ demand for nationalisation, introduced a “Coal Mines Emergency Bill.” The Labour Party, including the miners’ representatives, opposed it as utterly inadequate, and even dangerous; yet it passed the second reading, and is pre­sumably to be imposed upon Labour against its wishes.

Side by side with this, I read an announce­ment that the Miners’ Executive was going to meet on that day the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress to deli­berate upon the action to be taken “to com­pel the Government to accept the majority report of the Coal Commission.” As I read this piece of news I recall the history of this question of nationalisation — how the miners were about to declare a general strike on the subject; how at the eleventh hour they agreed to stay their hands and to accept a public inquiry into their contentions, how that public inquiry bore these contentions out, how the majority partaking in it decided in favour of nationalisation, how the Government refused to accept its view, preferring that of the mineowners’ minority, how, instead of taking up again the weapon which they had temporarily laid aside, the miners relegated the whole question to the general body of trade unions, how the special con­gress, of the latter was summoned, and charged its Parliamentary Committee to in­terview the Government, how, on the receipt of an unfavourable reply, the congress, de­cided eventually, to take action “to compel” nationalisation, how, instead of immediately acting upon the decision, the miners’ leaders started upon a campaign of agitation in order to educate the “public,” how, having done this, they moved the nationalisation amendment to the Address, and were beaten, and how, immediately afterwards, a section of them came to the conclusion it would be better to drop the subject, altogether, and, pending the decision by the “electorate” at the next general election, to formulate a demand for an increase of wages. There being every likelihood that the special Trade union Congress which was “to compel” the Government to agree to nationalisation will adopt this view, the miners and the entire labour movement seem to be on the eve of the greatest defeat they have ever suffered in the course of their history.

On the front page of the “Daily Herald” I read about “dream houses” which the Government continues to build and about the new rise of prices by the Tobacco Combine, which “has been making enormous profits for a number of years”, (over £8,000,000 in 1919), the advance of the retail price of a reel of cotton from 7½d. to 10d., and the probability of a “considerable rise” in postal rates in the near future.

Again, the same and other papers announce, the speedy and successful termina­tion of a “little”, war in Somaliland only an­nounced, a day or two previously, as to which the, “Daily News,” in its leading column, takes note of the fact that “these operations have been undertaken, carried through, and finished, not merely without a word on the subject being uttered in Parliament, but without a suspicion of the facts escaping to the public from the Colonial Office.” The same applies to the rumoured preparations in Poland of an attack upon Soviet Russia and France’s plans on the Rhine, as to which the “public” — more especially, Labour — is completely in the dark.

A few examples taken at random from the news columns of the papers of one date — also taken at random — ought to suffice to show how impotent Labour is in the present conditions of so called Democracy. Rings prevent the building of houses; combines keep on raising the prices of necessities and common “luxuries” of life; “little” wars are carried on, which cost money and lives and inflict misery and death on far off races; still bigger wars are planned against a great coubtry anxious to live at peace with all the world – in all of these Labour has no say. And when Labour does get in a word in a matter which directly affects it and cannot be concealed from its gaze, it meets with the uncompromising hostility of the rulers and the ruling classes, finds itself out-manoeuvred and out-marshalled. At every step, gives in here, withdraws there, grants delays to the enemy, shilly-shallies, and finally succumbs to the superior courage of its enemies and to its own lack of will.

To all who have reflected on the situation an the light of the great Russian revolution there can be no doubt that this impotence of Labour is only too natural under present day Democracy, with its formal equality of rights, vitiated fundamentally, as it is, by the power of the capitalist class over the school, the Press, the platform, the pulpit, and the thousand and one other educational influences, over the professional and gene­rally educated classes, over the institutions of the State — the Crown, Parliament, and the Bench — in short, over all the sources of life, opinion, and action in modern society. So long as this power subsists, Labour, if formally enthroned in the seats of Government (as some hope to see it shortly) will be able to do nothing. The school, the Press, the pulpit, the bench, the Crown, the bureaucracy, the army (that is, its leaders), the professions (especially the talking profession, that is, the bar), will combine in a tacit ring to frustrate its designs, to hamper its actions, to combat its measures, and, if needs be, to bring about its downfall by a universal boycott, or, if things go too far, by an open insurrection, What can and will the Labour leaders, whose mental and moral calibre we have learnt to know by this time only too well, oppose to this powerful combination of material and intellectual forces? If they have allowed themselves to be checkmated on such a compara­tively easy problem as nationalisation of the mints, when they had all the pawns in their hands, what will happen to them when they are confronted by much larger and more complicated issues?

Labour will not cease to be impotent so long as it allows the universal power of the capitalist class to subsist. That power must be broken, and to this end Labour must establish its own undivided rule, even though it means civil war, and reconstruct all political and social institutions in accordance with its own needs. And for that, again, Labour must cease to delegate its power to so-called leaders, but must act itself, in a direct way, through all-embracing organisations — call them by whatever name you will — embodying its will at any given moment and giving expression to it, with the utmost promptitude and precision. Only through a social revolution will Labour shed its impotence, and become what it is entitled to be, the master of its destinies.