Saturday, June 29, 2019

Gyrations At Glasgie (1919)

From the October 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

Glasgow has the largest population of any city in Scotland, so it was decided that the largest representative gathering of Trade Union officials – called the Trades Union Congress – ever held should take place there this year. Delegates more or less (less rather than more) representing five and a half millions of organised workers, gathered in the St Andrew’s Halls to discuss a lengthy agenda.

It was to be a great tournament. A mighty battle was expected to be fought over the Parliamentary Committee’s refusal to call a Special Congress at the request of the Triple Alliance. Nationalisation of Mines and other Industries was another great topic. But the supreme struggle was expected to centre around the question of Direct Action. Here the giants would – vocally – spread the ground with each other’s gore.

When the Parliamentary Committee’s Report was taken Mr. Brownlie, chairman of the A.S.E. and a member of the I.L.P.; took the opportunity to repeat to the Congress the clap-trap that the capitalist Press had been so busy spreading since the signing of the Armistice. Following their lead he urged the workers to “increase production” to save the world from ruin. There were five years losses to make up, and we must strain every nerve and muscle to lift production up to, and even above, pre-war level.

We have criticised this absurdity before in the columns of the “S.S.,” but the answer will bear repeating. Let us take one or two superficial points first.

If the great need of the moment is “more production,” why are not the large numbers of unemployed set to productive work? Neither Mr. Brownlie nor his supporter, the notorious Havelock Wilson, attempted to meet this point when it was put to them. Why, also, are large numbers of productive workers still kept in the Army and Navy long after their promised period of release has passed? Above all, why call upon thousands, many of them highly skilled, that are at work now to leave that work and join the “Army of To-day?”

The absurdity of the appeal is emphasised by the fact that at the very moment that Mr. Brownlie was speaking wealthy capitalists were shooting grouse over the Grampians and, in addition to the number of men and women retained to look after their personal needs – cooks, butlers, chauffeurs, grooms, maids, etc. – were employing numbers of men, women, boys, and girls, to act as “beaters” to drive the birds to the butts. In some cases school children were paid 6s. a day for this “productive work.”

The essential point, of course, is the fact that the workers have no control or ownership of production. Both the instruments of production and the products are owned by the master class; hence the first result of increased production would be to pile up a large mass of wealth into the possession of the master class. But it should be borne in mind that the bulk of the goods are produced to sell upon the market. The larger the quantity produced in a given time, the sooner will the markets be filled up, with the necessary result that production will be reduced by the masters and unemployment will increase.

Another false statement of Mr. Brownlie’s was that we can only increase wages by increasing production. This stupid lie is so easily disproved by the facts that only the extreme gullibility of the workers can explain its currency.

Wages are not determined by the amount of production, as every student of economics knows. A hundred years ago, the workers received, on the average, a subsistence wage; to-day, while the production per head has increased more than a thousand-fold, the workers’ wages still fluctuate about subsistence level. It is the cost of maintaining the worker – and an average family – in working condition that forms the centre point about which wages fluctuate. The variations that occur are due to the struggle between workers and masters over the price to be paid.

It may be mentioned that Mr. Brownlie was not representing the views of the Engineers in the above speech, and he was opposed by another A.S.E. delegate, Mr. Mills.

A resolution to refer back the paragraph in the Parliamentary Committee’s Report dealing with the refusal of the Committee to call a Special Congress was moved by Mr. Smillie and supported by R. Williams and others, who introduced a good deal of “Direct Action” argument in their remarks. The strongest speech in support of the Parliamentary Committee was undoubtedly that of Mr. Clynes, despite certain fallacies it contained. His most important point was that the rank and file were not united on the questions that were to be submitted to the Special Congress – abolition of Conscription, withdrawal of troops from Russia, release of Conscientious Objectors, etc – and this was shown by the rejection of the majority of the Labour Party candidates at the General Election. None of his opponents attempted to meet this point during the debate, nor, on the other hand, were his fallacies exposed.

One was that the trade unions had never used industrial action for political purposes. Yet Mr. Clynes had himself taken part in such an action when the trade unions agreed to abandon their working rules and conditions to assist in a political purpose – the carrying on of the war. Another fallacy was that “Direct Action” was something new! Any school child could have refuted this. Direct Action is as old as trade unionism. Its first great example – and ghastly failure – was the breaking up of machinery in the Luddite riots. Equally futile was the “rattening” of the Sheffield grinders that culminated in the notorious “Broadhead” crimes of the late ’60’s, while the failure of such action by the munition workers during the war is well known to all. Direct Action has been tried for over a hundred years and proved a rotten reed all the time.

The congress not only passed the resolution referring back, but later on further emphasised their view of the matter by passing resolutions calling for Special Conferences if (1) the Government refused to nationalise the coal mines, and (2) to abolish Conscription and withdraw from Russia.

The utter uselessness of Nationalisation to alter the conditions of wage slavery was shown later on in the same Congress when a long resolution “strongly protesting” against the Government’s refusal to administer their own “Fair Wages Resolution” brought forward evidence from Post Office and Admiralty workers’ representatives on the poor conditions and low wages prevailing in those departments.

A special resolution on Direct Action was drawn up in the following terms: “This Congress declares against the principle of industrial action in purely political matters.”

The mover – Mr. Shaw – gave a long tirade against Lenin and the Soviet Government in Russia, but said nothing in support of the resolution. Equally beside the point was the seconder’s speech. Then Mr. Thomas gave a really brilliant exhibition of tight-rope walking. At one moment Direct Action and Political Action was diametrically opposed; at another moment they were complementary. When the end of a fairly long speech was reached he had so nicely balanced his remarks that no one knew on which side he stood.

Mr. Hodges, the Miners’ secretary, tried to combat Mr. Clynes’ speech of the Tuesday referred to above, by stating that the present Parliament had been returned by an ignorant working class. He then made the assertion, without the slightest shred of evidence to support it, that they had now arrived at a political consciousness that will cause them to reverse their previous action. He asserted that the Labour Party had done all that was humanly possible, but their failure to accomplish anything showed the need for industrial action. Suppose the Government decided to embark on another war. Should we refuse to use such power as Direct Action might give? Unfortunately Mr. Hodges quite forgot to explain or show what the “power” was that Direct Action might give while the master class retained control of the political machinery that gave them the domination and direction of the fighting forces.

Then the fight was suddenly side-tracked by the moving of the “Previous Question,” which was carried by 2,255,000 votes for to 2,086,000 against. So the great expectations were disappointed in a shuffle.

The most striking incident of the Congress was the presence and speech of Mr. Wadia, President of the Madras Labour Union. In a simple though eloquent address, delivered in excellent English, he described the conditions and wages of various sections of workers in India. About 18 months ago these workers began to form trade unions and to struggle to raise their wages and to improve working conditions. An interesting illustration was given of how the master class use the same tales to deceive the workers in every clime. When the Indian textile workers demanded a rise in wages they were told by the masters that it was impossible to accede to these demands because of the competition of the Lancashire operatives. On arriving in England Mr. Wadia found the English capitalists telling the Lancashire operatives that they could not raise wages because of the competition of the Indian workers!

As showing the awakening of the Indian workers to the necessity of organisation to fight the masters and the understanding of their common interests in these matters with the workers in other lands the visit of the President of the Madras Labour Union was a distinctly hopeful event.

In the course of a discussion on a resolution relating to Ireland a delegate pointed out that the Government had distributed 5,000 armoured cars throughout England last February for the purpose of fighting the miners and railway men. The cars were moved at night and he had met some who had lost their way and obtained this information from them. This fact may assist in explaining the degree of efficiency of the Government’s system of road transport in the present railway strike.

Despite the unrest and discontent existing among the working class, the Congress gave little evidence of any great awakening on their part. If some of the patriotic claptrap of Messrs. Wilson and Cathray fell dismally flat, the selection of Mr. A. Henderson aroused enthusiasm.

More than ever the need for Socialist education forces itself to the front. The delusion of Direct Action and the snare of “Labour Party” politics have to be strenuously combatted to clear the minds of the workers of such befogging nonsense. Not till these delusions are discarded will the workers unite to fight for the purpose history has placed before them – the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism.
Jack Fitzgerald