Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Labour Unrest. (1919)

From the March 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

The most striking feature of the wave of unrest sweeping the working class to-day is the chaotic, and even contradictory, character of the claims put forward. The Clyde engineers struck—"unofficially," it is true—for a 40-hour week; the Belfast workers for 44 hours. The Engineering and Shipbuilding trades in general having accepted a 47 hour week with the following as a condition:
The unions will take all possible steps to ensure that in the critical state through which the country has to pass the greatest possible output will be secured and maintained.
were surprised to find the employers at once endeavouring to obtain as large, or even larger, an output in the 47 hours as under the 54, by speeding up, and cutting time for refreshment and so on.

Meanwhile the railway men had obtained recognition of the "principle" of the 8 hour day. Then the motor men on the London Tubes suddenly found that the half hour for meals allowed under the previous system was knocked off. Failing to get satisfaction through their officials they struck. Then ensued one of those situations that on the theatre stage would have caused roars of laughter, but which in real life is almost tragic. The main body of railway workers (apart from the clerks, etc.) are grouped in two unions—the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and the National Union of Railwaymen. As usual where two unions recruit from one body of workers, considerable jealousy exists between the officials. At first both unions refused to recognise the motormen's strike. Then, seeing a chance to score off the N.U.R., the A.S.L.E.F. declared the strike "legal." Following this they signed an agreement with the Railway Executive that left the situation practically as it was before the strike. Now the officials of the N.U.R. saw their chance. They repudiated this agreement and declared their men as "officially" on strike. In the course of a few days this farcical situation was ended by the N.U.R. officials signing an agreement similar in all respects to that signed by their rivals, except that this empty phrase was added:
The companies are to offer reasonable facilities to meet the ordinary physical needs of the men.
The Shipbuilders and Repairers of the Thames are on strike for a 15s increase, while the Miners are balloting as to whether they shall strike to enforce their claims of a 6 hour day, 30 per cent. on wages, and nationalisation of the mines.

It is a favourite dodge of the capitalist hacks to lay the cause of these actions of the workers on "Bolshevik agitators." But one simple fact put this nonsense out of court. If the unrest were due to any organised agitation, clearly it would have one object or set of objects and follow a co-ordinated policy to obtain them. It is true that a few Anarchist agitators, some of whom call themselves Bolsheviks, are taking advantage of the struggles to shout themselves into a brief notoriety, but they are no more the cause of the trouble than a cork bobbing in a stream is the cause of the water's flow. A couple of incidents proved completely how small was the influence of these people.

The Government decided to break the strike on the Clyde. Well informed as to internal matters of the men's organisation, they determined to deprive the strikers of their leaders, believing that this would collapse the strike.

A deputation had been appointed to interview the Mayor of Glasgow to try to persuade him to use his influence to obtain the intervention of the Government. A mass meeting of the strikers was to be held outside the Town Hall to hear the result. Instead of following the procedure usual when peaceful demonstrations are taking place of ordering vehicular traffic to suit its movements to the demonstration, the police first allowed a motor to drive into the crowd, injuring two persons, and then tried to force some trams through the meeting. Upon protest being made against this the police charged the crowd with batons. The men's leaders rushed out and two of them were struck down by the police. After being taken inside the Town Hall and having their wounds dressed, they were allowed to speak to the meeting, and told the men to peaceably disperse and avoid all rioting. These leaders were then locked up and charged with inciting to riot!

Such a farcical charge exposes the police plot in its entirety. But this was not enough. Pretending that they feared an extension of the "riots," the Government cynically sent Scots soldiers, provided with machine guns, bombs and wire netting, and later some Tanks, to protect the property of the master class. The plot succeeded and the strike collapsed.

Meanwhile a meeting of Electrical Workers in London decided to cease work and cut off all electrical power there to force the Government to introduce a 40 hour week throughout the country. The Government replied by issuing a new regulation under D.O.R.A. making it an offence to leave work on any electrical power plant supplying electricity to public and other services. The Electricians took the hint and nothing occurred.

These collapses show how small was the influence of these "agitators." Still more clearly they show the overwhelming importance of the control of political power.

A calm examination of the situation will reveal that the main factors behind the great unrest are, the high cosy of living and, of greater importance, the dread of increase in the large amount of unemployment already existing with the further demobilisation of soldiers and closing down of various Government department. These are the great common causes manifesting themselves in the different and unco-ordinated efforts of the workers in various parts of the country. They are trying to fight, more or less blindly, some of the effects of a system, while solidly supporting that system as a whole. Even in its immediate details they fail to see the absurdity of the terms they accept. Thus a child could understand that if production is maintained at the old level when hours are reduced, not a single extra worker will be employed. Yet the Engineering trades accept the condition that "the greatest possible output  will be secured and maintained," and thus do their best to prevent the absorption of of such of the unemployed as might have found work under the reduction of hours.

To the other factors causing unemployment may be added the shortage of materials.

The problem thus becomes intensified, and the expedient of shortening hours, good as far as it goes, cannot do more than act as a temporary check, while private ownership of the means of life continues. Not until the working class own and control the means of production and distribution will they be able to adjust the hours of labour to the requirements of society and the number able to work. To do this they must first understand and accept the principles of Socialism, then set to work to establish it by organising to take control of political power for the purpose of wresting the means of life from the hands of the master class. Only then will the "unrest" disappear—through its cause being abolished.
Jack Fitzgerald

Marxism in the USA (1968)

Book Review from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marxian Socialism in the United States, by Daniel Bell, Princeton University Press. 17s. 6d.

This book, written over fifteen years ago, has been re-issued with a new introduction by the author. It is a history of the Socialist Party of America and the Communist Party, with a few asides on De Leon's Socialist Labour Party and on the trotskyists.

Marxist and social-democratic ideas in America grew out of the previous populist and labour union movements in the 1870's. In 1876 was formed the Workingmen's Party which next year became the Socialist Labour Party. Its ideas, partly from Marx and partly from Lassalle, were provided by refugees from Germany. Twenty years later under the influence of De Leon the SLP took a more intransigent standpoint, though even today (apart from its syndicalism) there are traces of pre-Marxist ideas like labour-time vouchers and the phrase "the full product of his labour". De Leon introduced a new—and important—suggestion into socialist discussion. He argued that a socialist party should not have a programme of "immediate demands". He also held that the ballot was the way to political power. These ideas had considerable support among that section of the Social Democratic Federation in Britain that in 1904 was to set up the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

At the founding of the Socialist Party of America in 1900 there was a group dubbed "impossiblist" because they were against a reform programme. Although there was always before the first world war a minority in the SPA who took this view the party itself never did. There was a considerable exchange of views between uncompromising socialists in America, Britain and Canada. Bell finds one of their arguments strange. He says that a new member of the SPA would, among other things, "be assaulted by 'impossiblists' who told him that a fight on taxes as a political issue was meaningless because the workers did not pay taxes". We cannot go into this here except to say that the view that taxes are not a burden on the workers was held by Ricardo as well as by Marx and Engels.

The SLP, under De Leon, had always been wrong on the union question. In 1896 they had set up "socialist" unions in opposition to the pure and simple unions of Samuel Gompers but they did give the working class movement such expressive phrases as "labour fakir (or faker)" and "labour lieutenants of the capitalist class".

The peak year for the SPA was 1912 when Debs polled six per cent of the presidential vote and one member was elected to Congress. Thereafter it was decline all the way. Many of the writers and others who had supported the party deserted to Woodrow Wilson especially when America entered the war. The SPA and the IWW, to their credit, opposed the war and were ruthlessly hounded by the government. Many of their members, including Debs, were thrown into jail. The party was by now composed largely of migrants from east Europe who in 1917 were swept off their feet by the Russian revolution. But it was 1919 before all the pro-Bolsheviks had left the SPA.

After Debs' death in 1926 the leadership of the party fell to Morris Hillquit and Norman Thomas. Thomas, a Christian pacifist and moralist, came to symbolise the SPA though there remained many like Hillquit who still claimed to be Marxists. From now on the SPA reminds you of the ILP in Britain: completely confused on every issue, suffering attacks of infiltration from communists and trotskyists, taking an equivocal position on the war, growing smaller and smaller and seeing its top-ranking trade unionists leave for other larger parties.

The Communist Party was a pathetic but at the same time a vicious mob whose anti-working class antics are well summed up by two phrases coined by the SLP (who saw through them if not through Russia): Burlesque Bolsheviki and William Zig-Zag Foster. In the thirties it attracted many famous names, though most of them could not swallow the Moscow Trials. During a patriotic phase before the war the CP tried to show it was a good old American party by praising such bourgeois heroes as Jefferson and Lincoln. After 1941 it enthusiastically supported the war, so much so that in 1944 on Stalin's orders it dissolved itself! This was later reversed and poor Earl Browder was forced to walk the plank. Towards the end of the forties the CP was persecuted and eventually driven underground. Only recently has it re-emerged to be found firmly backing the Democratic Party.

Bell's book is interesting but it should be read in conjunction with the issue of the Western Socialist (No. 4, 1966) marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our companion party, the World Socialist Party of the United States, for a socialist analysis.
Adam Buick