From the January 1909 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Eternal Question of Tactics
The Rocks and the Shallows
There exists to-day, so many factions claiming each to lay down the course necessary to be taken by the working class towards its emancipation, that the discussion of this subject may not be out of place. Not that the position of the S.P.G.B. is in any way indefinite, or that it has altered, but simply as an extra application of Socialist principles to current working-class thought and action. That thought and action is being divided, apart from ourselves, into two opposing, but equally fallacious, directions. On the one side its absorption into what is called the “Labour” movement – really a movement for the return of members of the working-class to represent the constituencies in parliament, and on the local boards of administration; and on the other side the attempt to direct the workers from political and Parliamentary methods altogether by an endeavour to achieve working emancipation by economic and direct action alone. With the first we have repeatedly dealt, and it is here only necessary to repeat that “Labour” representation, except as denoting the representation of labour’s consciousness of its class position and a recognition of the remedy, is utterly futile to effect any change in that position. This is being proved with increasing obviousness by the political bankruptcy of the Labour Party. With regard to the second, however, we have hitherto not considered it necessary to awaken the echoes of a discussion which raged in the early stages of the development of the Socialist idea, but which at this period are supposed to be the exclusive possession of the dreamers and the idealists hopelessly out of touch with the real factors in the struggle.
The Gun v. the Fist
The anarchist, by whatever new name he may choose to be known, by the present advocacy of shunning the political side of the struggle, is endeavouring to blind the working class to the most effective weapon it has in the prosecution of the class struggle. To pretend to make a more drastic assault on the position of the capitalist class by ignoring politics and adopting a policy of action in the workshop to directly take possession of the means of production is farcical. The capitalist class retain their economic power by their political power, by means of which they will always be able to beat the working class. Nor is it more definitely revolutionary to repudiate the “indirect” method of political action. It can easily be, and in fact is, reactionary. The potential force to achieve working-class emancipation lies principally in the political field for the reason that the capitalists are compelled to obtain the vote of the working class in order to continue its political control. To receive that working-class sanction of capitalist society, our masters are reduced to numerous shifts to blind the workers to the fact that they are in no real sense interested in the maintenance of capitalism; in a word, to prevent the workers from becoming class conscious.
Now assume the workers to be class conscious. Is it conceivable that they will continue to sanction the retention of capitalism by the return of capitalist politicians? Emphatically not. They will inevitably express their class-consciousness by voting Socialism at the ballot box. And when that is done we are met with numerous queries. One of them arose out of the article on the “Class Struggle”, which appeared in the October S.S. “What would be the action of the S.P.G.B. if the capitalist class, in view of the possibility of an adverse vote, disfranchise the workers?” Our reply was that in such an event we would be faced with a new problem; the whole aspect has changed; constitutional methods are closed to us; and we are forced to adopt methods of secret organisation and physical violence. And that is the only course left open if the workers disfranchise themselves by baulking at any of the formulae imposed by the capitalist government to hinder the political return of their social and economic opponents in the class struggle. But there is little likelihood of the master class being so blind to the sociological aspect of the ballot as to attempt to rudely interfere with it. The vote is not a gift to the masses from the Government out of the beneficence of its heart: it is a social growth. As such it is a matter of very grave responsibility to deliberately court murder and bloodshed by acting their part towards the class they will always want to conciliate for economic reasons in too ruthless a manner.
Not that the master class will hesitate at bloodshed if they deem it necessary to the maintenance of capitalist privilege: they have not hesitated to incur bloodshed and murder to maintain their full pound of flesh at Featherstone and elsewhere; but disfranchising the workers would involve disfranchising the pro-capitalist workman as well as the anti-capitalist workman, and would mean the entire subversion of the evolution to be in form, though, for economic reasons, not in essence, more and more democratic.
Actually the problem of the methods to be adopted must be determined by the circumstances of the time. Our first move is the development of the desire for Socialism among the working class and the preparation of the political party to give expression to that desire. The move of our opponents against the successful action of that political party must determine our subsequent actions. If the fight is kept to the political field within constitutional limits, the rulers taking the defeat when it comes in a spirit of contrition and resignation – well and good. If they choose not to accept the verdict of the nation when given through the medium of their own institutions, but contest that verdict by physical force, the workers must be depended upon to repeat their verdict upon that field, and if the capitalist class follows its predecessors into the limbo of the forgotten past through an exit of blood and carnage, its blood must be on its own head.
The important thing is for the workers to gain control of the political machinery, because the political machine is the real centre of social control – not made so by capitalist rulers but developed and evolved into being the brain of the social organism in conformity with the evolution of that organism. To control that organism in the interest of their own class the workers must gain possession of the instrument of control. Against the frontal attack of the capitalist class, and the flank movements of its friends, the emasculated “labourism” of the Labour Party on the one side, and the suicidal “direct action” on the other, the working class must keep its ranks well closed and its head clear. They must not believe the armies approaching on the flanks are reinforcements just because they say they are. The capitalist class itself says it is on the side of labour, but only the greenest believe it, for all that. It may be that those holding views in any direction dissimilar to ours believe those views to be correct ones, but except that we must recognise how far their material interests are served by their attitude towards us, we may of course, still oppose them on the ground of that dissimilarity. In those cases where the political attitude is one obviously dictated by the desire for the loaves and fishes it is better to frankly state the impossibility of intellectual reasons outweighing economic ones. The most that could happen as an outcome of the permeation of the Socialist idea among members of the capitalist ranks would be for them to act as a break on the rest of their class. This factor, little as it may be in importance, only increases the dubiousness of their action in resorting to such measures as the disfranchisement of the workers, such measures requiring a more than usual unanimity in their ranks.
The Socialist Attitude
Given, then, the Socialist idea firmly set in the mind of the working class, any action taken by the masters to prevent the realisation of that idea would be checked by the workers if solidly organised into the Socialist Party; while a final appeal to physical force hastened by the destruction of constitutional means would leave the victory with the workers, who, “vastly outnumber their tyrants in war”. In view of all the facts, the Socialist Party of Great Britain enters the field of political action determined to wage war etc, etc.