From the February 1931 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party and the Trade Unions have a common origin in the class struggle. The former is the organised expression on the political field of the conscious recognition of that struggle by the workers. Its growth is the measure of their determination to end the struggle by converting the means of living into common property, and thus establishing a harmony of interests within society.
The class struggle, however, does not commence with the conscious recognition of it as a fact. “In the beginning is the thing ”; the idea follows in its wake, and is, in fact, its reflection in the human mind.
Long before the origin of the Socialist Party the class struggle was in progress. Strikes and lock-outs, machine-breaking and penal legislation have all testified to the antagonism of interests in modern society for over a century.
With the rise of the factory system, the workers found themselves involved in the struggle in grim earnest. It was no choice of theirs but thrust itself upon them with relentless and increasing force with every step in industrial evolution. At first the workers acted instinctively rather than rationally. The Luddite machine-smashing riots were a type of this phase of the conflict, but with further experience and time for reflection, the need for some form of organisation impressed itself upon the workers. The grouping together of the workers in the factories provided a basis for the organisation. They began to realise that the machines had come to stay; that henceforward they were condemned to lives of toil for the profit of the factory owners, and the former independence which they had enjoyed, while still often working in their own homes under the handicraft system, had gone for ever. Hence the Trade Unions arose, uniting the workers in similar or allied occupations in order to get from the masters the best terms obtainable.
From the first the strike was their most important weapon. Under the handicraft system, in its decay, the workers had to bargain with the merchant capitalists over the price of the goods produced; but the factory system changed all that. The price of the workers' own labour-power became the object of dispute. They sold their energies piecemeal by the hour, day or week, and the system of piece-work, which was retained here and there, only disguised; did not alter that fact. The individual worker had lost all substantial freedom, and his only alternative to working at the terms of the master was starvation. Hence the right to withhold his labour-power in conjunction with his fellows became an essential means of resistance. Without it the workers would have been crushed beyond power of recovery, and would have become, in Marx’s words, quite incapable of “initiating any large movement.” (See the pamphlet, “Value, Price, and Profit.”)
From the outset, however, the Trade Unions found arrayed against them, not only the individual masters or groups with whom they were directly struggling, but the forces of the entire master-class, as represented by the State. For long enough the Unions were subject to legal persecution as unlawful conspiracies and monopolies, and only by dint of considerable perseverance, were those obstacles overcome. The workers, indeed, had their backs to the wall, and only the fact that the Unions were rooted in the new conditions saved them from annihilation.
By degrees, however, the master class saw the unwisdom of trying to destroy the new organisations, and the Unions were granted a legal status. In like manner the teeth of the Chartist’s movement were also drawn by the partial granting of their demands.
In the course of time the masters discovered that respectable labour leaders, whether upon the field of industry or politics, were useful in helping to maintain industrial peace, which was so much needed by the employers.
Judicious flattery, not to speak of more tangible inducements to make terms favourable to the employers, have stimulated the ambitions of numerous leaders whom the workers have all too readily trusted. Underlying this process, however, has been the steady progress of capitalist industry. The constant improvement of machinery, methods of working, and financial organisation on the part of the masters, have placed very strict limits upon the demands of the workers for generations past, because the latter’s power to exact these demands has grown steadily less. Trade Union organisation has failed to keep pace with its capitalist counterpart, if only for the simple reason that competition between the workers grows keener as the army of the unemployed increases and the number of competing capitalist concerns grows less numerous. Under these circumstances, the efficiency of the Unions as fighting forces has been steadily undermined, until it has become recognised as a matter of course among observant workers that even on the rare occasions when market conditions favour the workers they are fobbed off with a meagre concession.
More ominous than any of the factors mentioned above is the part played by the armed forces of the State. As the magnitude of the forces engaged in the struggle on either side increases, so the intervention of the State in industrial disputes is rendered more certain. The necessity of maintaining order under capitalism leaves the Government no alternative, and as the technical efficiency of the forces at its disposal (as exemplified in aeroplanes and poison-gas bombs) has now reached a terrifying pitch, the futility of the strike as an offensive weapon against the State authorities should be obvious to every thinking person.
What, then, is to be the future of the Trade Unions? At present they appear to have become to a large extent merely jumping-off grounds for so-called Labour politicians and to that extent less useful to the workers; but there is no obvious reason why, with the spread of understanding among their members, they should not be once again valuable centres of resistance to capitalist attack.
As we have seen, the Trade Unions arose from the pressure of their immediate needs upon the workers in the early days of capitalism. They necessarily took the form most convenient at the moment, and have adapted themselves to changing circumstances more or less blindly. They have, therefore, invariably over-emphasised the importance of sectional distinctions between the workers. The Socialist Party, organised as it is for the emancipation of the workers as a class, insists upon the necessity of subordinating all such distinctions to class solidarity. On the political field the workers have but one interest, and that involves winning political power, and dispossessing the master-class.
The supreme conflict with that class leaves no room for sectional antagonisms between the workers.
The Socialist Party, therefore, advises Trade Unionists to offer their utmost resistance to the worsening of their conditions, but never fails to point out that under capitalism the pressure upon the workers is inevitable. It is insufficient, therefore, merely to apply the brake. We must change the direction of social development, and for that purpose the establishment of Socialism is essential.