March 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
A friend recently brought to my attention the history of the turmoil that took place in GB following WWI when the principal unions had apparently coalesced for unified action and apparently got cold feet when confronted with the situation of the potential power of their organized resistance to capitalist exploitation. The dilemma was expressed in the statement made by the Prime Minister to the Triple Alliance accordingly:
"Gentlemen, you have fashioned in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon... If you carry out your threat to strike, then you will defeat us... If you do so, have you weighed the consequences... if a force arises in the State which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the State. Gentlemen, have you conferred and if you have, are you ready?" (David Lloyd George to Union Leaders in 1919) This seems to have taken the wind out of their sails.
If this statement and the history surrounding is accurate, it would suggest that tactically the idea of a parallel class conscious unified union organization to that of a political party is desirable and indeed, essential in order to use its power to back up the mandate of a socialist ballot plurality. That the Triple Alliance didn't have the mettle to act does not invalidate the potential tactical necessity of unified working class action. During the formation of the IWW Daniel De Leon wrote a series of responses to those who argued that either political or economic action alone were sufficient to create a socialist transformation ("As To Politics") demonstrating with decisive logic that both were essential.
Your Party has apparently steadfastly resisted the dual necessity of working class action, vague allusions notwithstanding, and has given the impression of pure and simple political action as being the sole necessity to transform society into the cooperative commonwealth. Yet David Lloyd George's comment seems to suggest the latent power of working class economic action is a decisive factor.
Perhaps you can enlighten me on the historical significance of what happened way back in 1919 and your reaction to those events and your subsequent applications of lessons learned.
Bernard Bortnick, Dallas, Texas
The words you quote are taken from, In Place of Fear (1952) by the Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, and published many years after the events in question. Bevan recounts that, the miners’ leader Robert Smillie, (who died in 1940) told him - and this must have been some years after 1919 - that this is what Lloyd George had said. So this is a third-hand report - not that Lloyd George would not have said something like this but it can be doubted that these were his exact words.
If correct and Lloyd George wasn't just windbagging, this would illustrate precisely why a political party is essential - the unions had no programme to seize the power that supposedly lay at their feet and backed down. Contrary to what you keep on asserting, the Socialist Party doesn't reject industrial organisation as a key plank of a revolutionary strategy. We are dissimilar to Industrial Unionists and the like in refusing to cut one of our legs off before running the race. We are for the working class using all the resources at its disposal, both political and economic, and chasing the rulers into every centre of their power, wresting that power from them.
For the record, here is what the Socialist Standard of the time (April 1919) said (note the rather different approach taken by Bonar Law, who was the leader of the Conservative party and a Minister in Lloyd George‘s coalition government):
“It was when the Reports of the Commission were given to the Government that the great lesson for the workers emerged. In announcing that the Government had accepted and would act upon the Report of the Chairman's section of the Commission and referring to the possibility of a strike, Mr. Bonar Law said
‘If such a strike comes the Government—and no Government could do otherwise—will use all the resources of the State without the smallest hesitation.’
If such a strike came, the mine-owners, if they decided to fight it out, could win by simply pitting their immense resources of wealth, an indication of which is given by the figures above, against the few pounds the miners could gather together. On the economic field the masters are in a far stronger position than the workers and can beat them any time they decide to fight to a finish. Yet in this, as in so many other cases, they threaten to use the overwhelming power of the State for their purpose because it is so much more speedy and decisive.
But how comes it that they can use the State for this purpose? Because on 14th December, 1918, the miners, in conjunction with the large majority of the other workers, placed the State in the hands of the masters when they voted the latter into possession of political power.
While the workers accept the poisonous nonsense that ‘capital should have a fair profit,’ while they swallow the lies and humbug of the labour leaders like Thomas, Brace, Williams, and so on, that the interests of the master class are the interests of the ‘community,’ or ‘society,’ they will be easily led to vote their masters into possession of the power to rule society.
When the working class rids itself of this stupidity, and realises its weakness in the economic field against the power of the employers, then it will turn to the facts of its situation for a solution and find that the way to salvation lies through organisation for control of the political power. Not until that is assured can the workers own the means of life and operate them for their own benefit. When that lesson is learnt the day of Socialism will be dawning.”