The Left Wing Socialists: 5. Mass Action

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 4. October 1916. Pages 233-237.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

In the August issue it was stated that the European middle class democracies are passing away, and it was found that in the United States this process had already developed so far, as to eliminate almost entirely the influence of the working class, and also to a great extent that of middle classes, on the Government controlled by Big Capital.

The result is, that as long as the Socialist Party is working on the old lines, it is doomed to inactivity. There, of course, is left the possibility of doing some work of propaganda and education, but we know that without action, the general educational work does not amount to much. Besides, in keeping to the old conception of a growing political democracy, it is logical that the party looks upon the empty form of democratic institutions as upon the most precious treasure, and mistakes governmental jobs, which are acquired by some of the leaders, in co-operation with non-socialist elements, for real power. The result is this most disgusting situation, of electing socialist mayors, sheriffs, aldermen, etc., only to expel them afterwards from the party or else to disrupt what is left of the socialist organization. Is there any wonder that there has been a general feeling of discontent among the rank and file, and that the workers as such do not join the Socialist Party?

As soon, however, as we recognize the fact, that the old democratic form is rapidly losing its significance under the new form of Imperialistic Capitalism, there is some hope of adopting methods in accordance with the new conditions.

Voting for Congress or for political jobs, and in general what we call parliamentary action, pure and simple, loses much of its significance as a proposition to improve the conditions of the working class, and it is simply absurd to expect that we could Vote our ruling class out of power.

But parliamentary action is not the only form of political action.

To understand European literature and to understand the Resolution of the Left Wing mentioned in the May issue, it is necessary to realize what European Left Wing Socialists mean by political action. In this resolution one of the most important forms of future action is indicated by what is called "political strikes," by which are meant strikes that go beyond the purpose of getting higher wages or shorter hours, or any other improvement in the position of the workers on the job. Not only a strike like the one in Belgium to conquer general suffrage is called a political strike, but also strikes for free speech or to protest against reactionary decisions by judges, and in general, those strikes in which the general class interests of the workers conflict with general capitalist class interests. An economic conflict and strike, in which the capitalist class uses its political power of militarism and militia, may broaden into a political strike, because it is no longer a conflict between the worker and his employer, but becomes a conflict between the working class and the capitalist class.

Now, some of you may feel as if this were playing with words, but it always proves an absolute necessity to keep to fundamental definitions, in order to know exactly about what we are talking. And at all events, it is essential for you to know what our European comrades understand by certain expressions, if we want to co-operate with them on an International understanding.

As far as the United States is concerned, it has long been recognized by a great number of our comrades, that the old form of economic action, as represented in the craft unions and the A. F. of L., has been outlived. The highly concentrated monopolistic industries are beyond the reach of unions on craft lines and it has been recognized that the future forms of fighting will have to be along industrial lines. It has been realized also that, in this industrial action, unskilled labor will play a decisive part, and that this action is only possible when the rank and file emancipates itself from the system of all-powerful leaders.

This is most apparent, be it only for the simple practical reason, that it has already become a practice of your ruling class to imprison or to shoot the leaders as soon as an important mass action is at hand.

Now, there is no doubt that, as far as economic action is concerned, the general recognition of the fact, that class power has to concentrate from craft unionism into industrial action, has made more headway in the United States than in Europe, and this is in harmony with your more developed concentration of industrial and financial capital. But on the political field the old methods have been maintained on account of the successful attempts of Capital to fool the workers with the obsolete forms of a sham-democracy. It, however, must be clear to anybody with some sense for reality, that a parallel change in political action is absolutely indispensable.

As soon as we don't stare ourselves blind on parliamentary votes and jobs, it is easy to understand that political influence can only result from power, and that power, now that the laboring class is confined to its own force and has nothing to hope for from the help of middle classes, can only be developed in mass action. So we get to the very logical result, that political action must be developed along the same lines, along which economic action has already started: those of mass action.

Now there can be different forms of political mass action: meetings, street demonstrations, political strikes and revolts, which gives an opportunity to develop gradually into higher forms of mass action. Even voting in an election can be made a mass action, if only there is no compromising and no effort to catch non-socialist votes, but real Socialist propaganda and education. If you don't compromise, there is not much danger of getting jobs, and wherever there should be so much influence of uncompromising Socialists, as to conquer a political position by virtue of their own strength, mass action means that the workers themselves keep control of their nominees, or else have to leave them to their own fate. Mass action, however, is by no means confined to elections, nor is this the most promising field for this form of political action.

As soon as there is a general (or political) class issue, for instance, reactionary measures in Congress or Senate, an attack on free speech or free press, a reactionary decision of the Supreme Court, an attack from the police or the militia, etc., the working class should get into the habit of showing their sentiment and indignation by protesting in meetings, on the streets, in temporary strikes of protest, etc. And the more reactionary our present-day, Imperialistic capitalism becomes, the stronger will be the feeling of protest and the more the mass actions will develop, and will gain in power. Of course, we cannot "make" a powerful mass action, but the more we make the workers see that the present methods are insufficient and that the only possible result is in mass action, the sooner we may expect that the general discontent and oppression will give birth to an organized mass action, which will lead to a new and effective form of political action.

It must be clear, that this mass action as a political method, at the same time solves the problem of democracy. The old democratic system of voting the power into the hands of leaders and leaving it to those leaders to make the best of it, has utterly failed. The German Socialist party certainly is the best and unmistakable example. There evidently is no other alternative to the old "democracy" than a permanent and effective influence and control by the masses. We have so long worshipped the old forms of democracy that we can hardly imagine how to do without a complicated system of more or less independent leaders, but we must understand that the spirit and capacities necessary to have democratic mass control will develop gradually, together with the development of mass action itself. It is already much to see the direction in which the only solution of this important problem is to be found and it is encouraging that this is the same solution that has already been recognized on the economic field.

This leads us to another important feature of this form of political action. It solves the antagonism between political and economic action. Present day parliamentary action does not appeal to the industrial wageworkers. There really is not much to gain for an industrial wage slave in joining the Socialist Party, and every now and then they lose a good comrade, who becomes a "politician," gets a job and ends by being a traitor to his class. This proves to be almost a natural process, which only strong personalities can resist. No wonder that this sort of outgrown parliamentarism is condemned, nor that at the same time, to the disadvantage of the working class, political action as such sometimes is condemned with it.

On the other hand, some among those workers who realize, what cannot be denied anyhow, that the political power of the capitalists is a strong weapon in their class struggle, advocate a kind of political action by direct influence of the industrial organizations. This opinion, for example, dominated in some of the older preambles of the I.W.W., and also among those of many of the European Syndicalists.

Practical fighting methods, however, have increasingly developed a feeling among industrial unionists, that there is a great strength in self-restraint, and it is the prevailing opinion that the industrial organization should confine itself to the industrial field, in order to broaden its membership and to concentrate its efforts.

Some may have a conception for the future, to develop this industrial action into a general or political action, but they see this more as an ideal than as a practical working proposition for the present day class struggle.

Those who admit that it is possible to organize political Socialist parties on the principles of mass action and what we might also call a more direct action of the workers, will greet every effort in this direction with sympathy. And although it may often be difficult to decide where industrial action ends and political action begins, this is no disadvantage, provided both are real class action. On the contrary, whenever there proves to be a field, covered by both actions, there can be co-operation, and this co-operation will again broaden the mass action until both industrial and political action become practically one strong class action, which means the realization of the ideal of the Socialists, as well as of the Industrialists.

Many of you will perhaps admit that this sounds well, that it is almost too attractive, and they will ask, whether this is more than a scheme, and whether we may expect that the working class will be able and willing to fight in this way, which no doubt will involve great sacrifices.

I answer:

First. Old political "democracy" is doomed by the Imperialistic development, under the iron heel of Big Capital.

Second. On the industrial field, the new form of mass action has already developed, and few doubt that the future belongs to the more concentrated form of industrial action.

Third. Industrial Unionism, under present conditions, cannot cover the whole field. It is, as such, powerless against the most powerful modern manifestations of capitalism: Imperialism, militarism, judges, and last, but not least, the crippling of the minds in public schools and educational institutions.

Fourth. Political instruments of Capitalism in its Imperialistic form, with police, judges and militarism, will strongly and brutally interfere with industrial action and will compel the working class to put its general class-power against the general class-power of capitalism.

Fifth. Therefore, political mass action in the new and only possible form is bound to grow out of the very fact of aggressive capitalism and the only problem is to realize in time what will be the most efficient form of political class action, so as to lose no time and restrict the sacrifices in misery and life to the smallest possible amount.

Sixth. As soon as conditions will be ripe for it, industrial action and the political action will both emerge into the unit of one fighting organization on democratic mass action lines, in accordance both with the ideals of social democrats and industrialists.

There is another feature in this conception of political mass action which is not less important to us. It solves the dualism in the conception of the "Revolution." In reading some of the excellent articles in your REVIEW, I often found that, up to a certain point, there was a climax, leading to a final peroration about the Revolution. Almost without exception however, there was an absolute lack of sense for reality, as to how this revolution could be expected.

It seemed to drop from the air, rather than to result from some previous developments.

Most of us understand that there cannot be such a thing as a sudden revolution, resulting from some accident with a stone or a gun, and that the working class cannot seize and hold the power, unless it has developed forms of organization and democratic institutions of its own. To the old style Socialists this was easy enough and most of us will remember that there was a time when the general conception was as follows: The influence of the workers on the political institutions of the bourgeoisie was considered growing. One industry after another was to be converted into State or municipal ownership. It was admitted that this was not yet Socialism, but with a growing democracy, some day or another we would get to have the majority in parliament and State owned industries could be changed into socially owned and managed ones, while at the same time the working class would have acquired the necessary qualities as to organization and government, in the practice of increasing democratic institutions.

This idyllic conception has been destroyed, but at the same time the Revolution has become for many of us such a vague, unreal ideal that it seems to be no practical issue in our expectations. As soon, however, as we understand that the only possible form of democracy is in mass action, we must realize that this new form of democracy is able to develop gradually the qualities which the workers need to organize and maintain a new social commonwealth.

Those qualities, as well as the necessary power, will develop in the fighting itself, which at the same time is bound to disorganize the existing instruments of class power of our dominating class.

It is beyond the scope of a series of articles like this, to even attempt going into details of what action is required at present, altho a few remarks may prove of advantage.

Mass action means meetings, street demonstrations, political strikes, and can be developed from our present methods. It is, however, essential that a spirit of readiness must develop in the minds of the workers, which makes them rise to protest at important issues, without it being necessary that orders be issued from headquarters.

While the necessity of paid officers to serve organized labor cannot be denied, there must be effective control by the rank and file. To break down the so-called party machinery is one of the most important issues at hand. If this cannot be done in the present organization, it is worth while breaking down this organization and building a new one. It is far more important to develop the rank and file, so as to make future mass actions possible, than to sustain a most complete system of rules and order, which may have the admiration of judges and school-masters, but which requires, even, for them, years of practice to use it efficiently to control conventions, and to kill whatever fighting spirit there may develop in the workers of the rank and file.

Together with the development of an organization on democratic mass control lines, our meetings and street demonstrations will have to grow and will meet with the resistance of the capitalist political instruments: police, law and judges.

Protests against these brutal forces will call for stronger means and there will be a logical development into strikes of protest. Here we touch the industrial field. But the issues at hand will be such as free speech, the right to organize and to hold meetings, or such as the shooting of Joe Hill and others. And no industrial organization on class lines will have any objection to supporting such action. Political strikes, moreover, have the advantage that their character in the first place will be that of protest, and therefore, they often can be short ones. There may be not even a direct demand which could be granted at once, and the principal effect often will be that of disorganizing the capitalist instrument of class power. This is not only a conception in the air, but we have had a practical illustration in Russia after the Japanese-Russian war. Under those enormously difficult circumstances, labor there has gained most remarkable results. It even secured an eight-hour day in most of the leading industries. In this movement, economic and political demands were often mixed, and an actual "leadership" was utterly impossible, on account of Russian conditions. As soon as a labor strike was pressed too hard by the instruments of the capitalist state, the strike was dissolved, only to spring up in several other places and to be renewed as soon as pressure was released. In this way wholesale slaughter was prevented and the action resulted in such a degree of disorganization of the Government that European Socialists eagerly watched conditions in Russia; many of us expecting that this action would, at that time, spread over the rest of Europe. In fact, there was a beginning of mass action even in Germany, as shown in that remarkable successful demonstration in Berlin contrary to the most positive instruction of the almighty chief of the Berlin police. Continuation of this action was strongly advocated by Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others, but the party machine, with the assistance of Karl Kautsky, advocated a policy of defense, rather than aggression, and helped to kill a beginning mass action which might have prevented the present European war.

The Russian movement could not maintain itself against a new strengthening of the Government, inaugurating a new reactionary period. Russian industry being only in its infancy, the working class proved to be too weak even to maintain the results, without the response from the older and stronger labor organizations in other European countries. But the glorious achievements of the Russian proletariat will stand as an example of what can be accomplished under difficult circumstances by mass action.

And it is hardly possible to imagine what could be achieved along similar lines in a country industrially developed like the United States.

Left Wing Socialists in Europe realize that the only hope in the coming reactionary period, under Imperialism, lies in mass action, internationally organized. Will our American comrades fail to join hands, or may we expect a brilliant example, which would do more to help the present European situation, than a dozen peace resolutions and as many congresses for peace and Internationalism?