The Future of Labour
From Socialism Made Easy, 1908.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
In choosing for the subject of this chapter such a title as The Future of Labour I am aware that I run the risk of arousing expectations that I shall not be able to satisfy. The future of Labour is a subject with which is bound up the future of civilization and therefore a comprehensive treatment of the subject might be interpreted as demanding an analysis of all the forces and factors which will influence humanity in the future, and also their resultant effect.
Needless to say, my theme is a less ambitious one. I propose simply to deal with the problem of Labour in the immediate future, with the marshalling of Labour for the great conflict that confronts us, and with a consideration of the steps to be taken in order that the work of aiding the transition from Industrial Slavery to Industrial Freedom might be, as far as possible, freed from all encumbering and needless obstacles and expense of time, energy and money.
But first, and as an aid to a proper understanding of my position, let me place briefly before you my reading of the history of the past struggles against social subjugation, my reading of the mental development undergone by each revolting class in the different stages of their struggle, from the first period of their bondage to the first dawn of their freedom. As I view it, such struggles had three well-marked mental stages, corresponding to inception, development, and decay of the oppressing powers, and as I intend to attempt to apply this theory to the position of Labour as a subject class today, I hope you will honour me by at least giving me your earnest attention to this conception and aid by your discussions in determining at which period or stages the working class, the subject class of today, has arrived. My reading, then, briefly is this: that in the first period of bondage the eyes of the subject class are always turned towards the past, and all efforts in revolt are directed to the end of destroying the social system in order that it might march backwards and re-establish the social order of ancient times – ‘the good old days’. That the goodness of those days was largely hypothetical seldom enters the imagination of men on whose limbs the fetters of oppression still sit awkwardly.
In the second period the subject class tends more and more to lose sight and recollection of any pre-existent state of society, to believe that the social order in which it finds itself always did exist, and to bend all its energies to obtaining such amelioration of its lot within existent society as will make that lot more bearable. At this stage of society the subject class, as far as its own aspirations are concerned, may be reckoned as a conservative force.
In the third period the subject class becomes revolutionary, recks little of the past for inspiration, but, building itself upon the achievements of the present, confidently addresses itself to the conquest of the future. It does so because the development of the framework of society has revealed to it its relative importance, revealed to it the fact that within its grasp has grown, unconsciously to itself, a power which, if intelligently applied, is sufficient to overcome and master society at large.
As a classic illustration of this conception of the history of the mental development of the revolt against social oppression, we might glance at the many peasant revolts recorded in European history. As we are now aware, common ownership of land was at one time the basis of society all over the world. Our fathers not only owned their land in common, but in many ways practised a common ownership of the things produced. In short, tribal communism was at one time the universally existent order. In such a state there existed a degree of freedom that no succeeding order has been able to parallel, and that none will be able to until the individualistic order of today gives way to the Industrial Commonwealth, the Workers’ Republic of the future. How that ancient order broke up it is no part of my task to tell. What I do wish to draw your attention to is that for hundreds, for a thousand years after the break up of that tribal communism, and the reduction to serfdom of the descendants of the formerly free tribesmen, all the efforts of the revolting serfs were directed to a destruction of the new order of things and to a rehabilitation of the old. Take, as an example, the various peasant wars of Germany, the Jacquerie of France, or the revolt of Wat Tyler and John Ball in England as being the best known; examine their rude literature in such fragments as have been preserved, study their speeches, as they have been recorded even by their enemies, read the translations of their songs, and in all of them you will find a passionate harking back to the past, a morbid idealizing of the status of their fathers, and a continual exhortation to the suffering people to destroy the present in order that, in some vague and undefined manner, they may reconstruct the old.
The defeat of the peasantry left the stage clear for the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the most important subject class and for the development of that second period of which I have spoken. Did it develop? Well, in every account we read of the conflict between the nobility and the burghers in their guilds and cities we find that the aggressive part was always taken by the former and that wherever a revolt took place the revolting guild merchants and artisans justified their act by an appeal to past privileges which had been abrogated and the restoration of which formed the basis of their claims, and their only desire if successful in revolt. One of the most curious illustrations of this mental condition is to be found in the History of the Rise of the Dutch Republic by Motley, in which that painstaking historian tells how the Netherlands in their revolt against the Spanish Emperor continued for a generation to base their claims upon the political status of the provinces under a former emperor, made war upon the Empire with troops levied in the name of the Emperor, and led by officers whose commissions were made out by the rebel provinces in the name of the sovereign they were fighting against. This mental condition lasted in England until the great Civil War, which ended by leaving Charles I without a head, and the bourgeoisie, incarnated in Cromwell, firmly fixed in the saddle; in France it lasted until the Revolution. In both countries it was abandoned not because of any a priori reasoning upon its absurdity nor because some great thinker had evolved a better scheme - but because the growth of the industrial system had made the capitalist class realize that they could at any moment stop the flow of its life blood, so to speak, and from so rearming it was but a short mental evolution to frame a theory of political action which proclaimed that the capitalist class was the nation, and all its enemies the enemies of the nation at large. The last period of that social evolution had been reached from feudal ownership to capitalist property.
Now, let me apply this reading of history to the development of the working class under capitalism and find out what lessons it teaches us, of value in our present struggle. Passing by the growth of the working class under nascent capitalism, as it belongs more to the period I have just dealt with than to the present subject, and taking up working-class history from the point marked by the introduction of machinery to supplant hand labour – a perfectly correct standpoint for all practical purposes – we find in the then attitude of the workers an exemplification of the historical fidelity of our conception. Suffering from the miseries attendant on machine labour, the displacement of those supplanted and the scandalous overworking of those retained, the workers rioted and rebelled in a mad effort to abolish machinery and restore the a of hand labour. In a word, they strove to revert to past conditions, and their most popular orators and leaders were they who pictured in most glowing terms the conditions prevalent in the days of their fathers.
They were thus on the same mental plane as those medieval peasants who, in their revolt, were fired by the hope of restoring the primitive commune. And just as in the previously cited case, the inevitable failure of the attempt to reconstruct the past was followed in another generation by movements which accepted the social order of their day as permanent, and looked upon their social status as wage slaves as fixed and immutable in the eternal order of things. To this category belongs the trade union movement in all its history. As the struggles of the serfs and burghers in the middle ages were directed to no high aim than the establishment of better relations between these struggling classes and their feudal overlords, as during those ages the division of society into ruling classes of king, lord and church resting upon a basis of the serfdom of the producers was accepted by all in spite of the perpetual recurrences of civil wars between the various classes, so, in capitalist society, the trade unionist, despite strikes, lock-outs, and black lists, accepted the employing class as part and parcel of a system which was to last through all eternity.
The rise of Industrial Unionism is the first sign that the second stage of the mental evolution of our class is rapidly passing away. And the fact that it had its inception amongst men actually engaged in the work of trade union organization, and found its inspiration in a recognition of the necessities born of the struggles of the workers, and not in the theories of any political party – this fact is the most cheering sign of the legitimacy of its birth and the most hopeful augury of its future. For we must not forget that it is not the theorist who makes history; it is history in its evolution that makes the theorists. And the roots of history are to be be found in the workshops, fields and factories. It has been remarked that Belgium was the cockpit of Europe because within its boundaries have been fought out many of the battles between old dynasties; in like manner we can say that the workshop is the cockpit of civilization because in the workshops has been and will be fought out those battles between the new and the old methods of production, the issues of which change the face and the history of the world.
I have said that the capitalist class became a revolutionary class when it realized that it held control of the economic heart of the nation. I may add when the working class is in the same position it will also as a class become revolutionary, it will also give effective political expression to its economic strength. The capitalist class grew into a political party when it looked around and found itself in control of the things needed for the life of the individual and the State, when it saw that the ships carrying the commerce of the nation were its own, when it saw that the internal traffic of the nation was in the hands of its agents, when it saw that the feeding, clothing, and sheltering of the ruling class depended on the activities of the subject class, when it saw itself applied to furnish finance to equip the armies and fleets of the king and nobles; in short, when the capitalist class found that all the arteries of commerce, all the agencies of production, all the mainsprings of life in fact, passed through their hands as blood flows through the human heart – then and only then did capital raise the banner of political revolt and from a class battling for concession become a class leading its forces to the mastery of society at large.
This leads me to the last axiom of which I wish you to grasp the significance. It is this, that the fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought out every day for the power to control industry, and the gauge of the progress of that battle is not to be found in the number of votes making a cross beneath the symbol of a political party, but in the number of these workers who enrol themselves in an industrial organization with the definite purpose of making themselves masters of the industrial equipment of society in general.
That battle will have its political echo, that industrial organization will have its political expression. If we accept the definition of working-class political action as that which brings the workers as a class into direct conflict with the possessing class AS A CLASS, and keeps them there, then we must realize that NOTHING CAN DO THAT SO READILY AS ACTION AT THE BALLOT-BOX. Such action strips the working-class movement of all traces of such sectionalism as may, and indeed must, cling to strikes and lock-outs, and emphasizes the class character« of the Labour Movement. IT IS THEREFORE ABSOLUTELY INDISPENSABLE FOR THE EFFICIENT TRAINING OF THE WORKING CLASS ALONG CORRECT LINES THAT ACTION AT THE BALLOT-BOX SHOULD ACCOMPANY ACTION IN THE WORKSHOP.
I am convinced that this will be the ultimate formation of the fighting hosts of Labour. The workers will be industrially organized on the economic field, and until that organization is perfected, whilst the resultant feeling of class consciousness is permeating the minds of the workers, the Socialist Labour Party will carry on an independent campaign of education and attack upon the political field, and as a consequence will remain the sole representative of the Socialist idea in politics. But as industrial organization grows, feels its strength, and develops the revolutionary instincts of its members, there will grow also the desire for a closer union and identification of the two wings of the army of Labour. Any attempt prematurely to force this identification would only defeat its own purpose, and be fraught with danger alike to the economic and the political wing. Yet it is certain that such attempts will be of continual recurrence and multiply in proportion to the dissatisfaction felt at the waste of energy involved in the division of forces. Statesmanship of the highest kind will be required to see that this union shall take place only under the proper conditions and that at the moment for effective action. Two things must be kept in mind – viz., that a Socialist Political Party not emanating from the ranks of Labour is, as Karl Marx phrased it, simply a Socialist sect, ineffective for the final revolutionary act, but that also the attempt of craft organized unions to create political unity before they have laid the foundation of industrial unity in their own, the economic field, would be an instance of putting the cart before the horse. But when the foundation of the industrial union is finally secured then nothing can prevent the union of the economic and political forces of Labour. I look forward to the time when every economic organization will have its Political Committee, just as it has its Organizational Committee or its Strike Committee, and when it is counted to be as great a crime, as much an act of scabbery, to be against the former as against any of the latter. When that time comes we will be able to count our effective vote before troubling the official ballot-box, simply by counting our membership in the allied organizations; we will be able to estimate our capacity for the revolutionary act of Social Transformation simply by taking stock of the number of industries we control and their importance relative to the whole system, and when we find that we control the strategic industries in society, then society must bend to our will – or break. In our organization we will have Woman Suffrage, whether governments like it or not, we will also have in our organizations a pure and uncorrupted ballot, and if the official ballot of capitalist society does not purify itself of its own accord, its corruption can only serve to blind the eyes of our enemies and not hide our strength from ourselves.
Compare the political action of such a body with that of any party we know. Political parties are composed of men and women who meet together to formulate a policy and programme to vote upon. They set up a political ticket in the hope of getting people, most of whom they do not know, to vote for them, and when the vote is at last cast, it is cast by men whom they have not organized, do not know, and cannot rely on to use in their own defence. We have proven that such a body can make propaganda, for Socialist principles, but it can never function as the weapon of an industrially organized working class. To it such a party will always be an outside body, a body not under its direct control, but the political weapon of the Industrial Organized Working Class win be a weapon of its own forging and wielded by its own hand. I believe it to be incumbent upon organized Labour to meet the capitalist class upon every field where it can operate to our disadvantage. Therefore I favour direct attacks upon the control of governmental powers through the ballot-box, but I wish to see these attacks supported by economic organization. In short, I believe that there is no function performed by a separate political party that the economic organization cannot help it perform much better and with greater safety to working-class interests. Let us be clear as to the function of Industrial Unionism. That function is to build up an industrial republic inside the shell of the political State, in order that when the industrial republic is fully organized it may crack the shell of the political State and step into its place in the scheme of the universe. But in the process of upbuilding, during the period of maturing, the mechanism of the political State can be utilized to assist in the formation of the embryo Industrial Republic. Or, to change the analogy, we might liken the position of the Industrial Republic in its formative period towards political Society to the position of the younger generation towards the generations passing away. The younger accepts the achievements of the old, but gradually acquires strength to usurp its functions until the new generation is able to abandon the paternal household and erect its own. While doing so it utilizes to the fullest all the principles of its position. So the Industrial Unionist will function in a double capacity in a capitalist society. In his position as a citizen in a given geographical area he will use his political voting power in attacks upon the political system of capitalism, and in his position as a member of the Industrial Union he will help in creating the economic power which in the fullness of time will overthrow that political system and replace it by the Industrial Republic.
My contentions along these lines do not imply by any means that I regard immediate action at the ballot-box by the economic organization as essential, although I may regard it as advisable. As I have already indicated, the proletarian revolution will in that respect most likely follow the lines of the capitalist revolution in the past.
In Cromwellian England, in Colonial America, in Revolutionary France, the real political battle did not begin until after the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, had become the dominant class in the nation. Then they sought to conquer political power in order to allow their economic power to function freely. It was no mere coincidence, but a circumstance born of the very nature of things, woven so to speak in the warp and woof of fate, that in the three countries the signal for the revolution was given by the ruling class touching the bourgeoisie in the one part that was calculated to arouse them as a class, and at the same time demonstrate their strength. That one sensitive part was their finance, their ownership of the sinews of war. In England it was over the question of taxes, of ship money, that Hampden raised the standard of revolt, whose last blow was struck at Whitehall when the king's head rolled in the gutter. In America it was over the question of taxes, and again the capitalist class were united, until a new nation was born to give them power. In France it was the failure of the king to raise taxes that led to the convocation of the States General, which assembly first revealed to the French capitalists their power as a class and set their feet on the revolutionary path. In all three countries the political rebellion was but the expression of the will of a class already in possession of economic power. This is in conformity with the law of human evolution, that the new system can never overthrow the old until it itself is fully matured and able to assume all the useful functions of the one they seek to dethrone.
In the light of such facts, and judging by such reasoning, we need not exercise our souls over the question of the date of the appearance of the Industrial Organization of Labour upon the electoral field. Whether we believe, as I believe, that the electoral field offers its opportunities it would be criminal to ignore, or believe, as some do, that electoral action on the part of the economic organization is at present premature, one thing we can be agreed upon, if we accept the outline of history I have just sketched – viz. that it is necessary to remember that at the present stage of development all actions of our class at the ballot-box are in the nature of preliminary skirmishes, or educational campaigns, and that the conquest of political power by the working class waits upon the conquest of economic power and must function through the economic organization.
Hence, reader, if you belong to the working class your duty is clear. Your union must be perfected until it embraces everyone who toils in the service of your employer or as a unit in your industry. The fact that your employers find it necessary to secure the services of any individual or worker is or ought to be that individual's highest and best title to be a member of your union. If the boss needs him you need him more. You need open union and the closed shop if you ever intend to control the means and conditions of life. And, as the champion of your class upon the political field, as the ever active propagandist of the idea of the working class, as the representative and embodiment of the social principle of the future, you need the Socialist Labour Party. The future of Labour is bound up with the harmonious development of those twin expressions of the forces of progress; the freedom of Labour will be born of their happily consummated nation.
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Last updated on 8.8.2003