From Forward, May 9, 1914.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Reading of the May Day celebrations of the past week brought back to my mind in a very vivid fashion a realisation of the changes that have taken place in socialist propaganda since the inauguration of Labour Day in these countries.
In the earlier period the question of an eight hour working day was to a large extent a test question on all the May Day Committees, as indeed it also was in the Trade Union Congresses of that time. Those who were old-time trade unionists and adherents of the liberal or tory parties stood out for May Day resolutions, demanding simply an “eight hour working day,” whilst those who were of the newer school and were inclined to socialistic ideas quite as vehemently demanded that the wording of the resolution should call for a “legislative” or “legal eight hour day.” One could indeed tell roughly what proportion the antagonistic school of socialists or non-socialists bore upon any such committee by a study of the wording of the resolution, and tracing the emphasis or lack of emphasis given to the call for legislative action.
The same fight was being fought out in all the Trade Unions, Trade Councils, and Trade Congresses. The question of legislative action to restrict or otherwise regulate the hours of labour divided the sheep from the goats all over the country. Many men, now active propagandists of the socialist cause, were first launched upon that path by finding themselves as supporters of legislative restriction denounced as socialists by the old school of individualist trade unionists, and being thus thrown into the arms of socialists developed a sympathetic attitude towards their general teaching.
The more recent recruits to the socialist ranks can scarcely realise what the position of the movement was at that time when he reads or hears that the passing of a resolution at the British Trade Congress calling for a “legal” eight hours working day was hailed by the socialist propagandists of that period as a great socialist victory. Yet so it was. In the ordinary outdoor and indoor socialist propaganda, the same mental attitude was dominant. If it were now possible to examine the socialist speeches of that period we would find that an inordinately large proportion of time was given up in them to a belittling of industrial action and to what was practically an exaggeration of the ease and facility with which the working class could achieve its rights at the ballot-box.
This belittling of industrial action and denial of its possibilities formed the main theme of the speeches of so many socialist orators that it is more than possible that thousands of good earnest trade unionists were estranged from a friendly examination of the socialist cause by what they felt to be something like insidious attacks upon working-class organisation. The socialist movement at the time was in a nebulous, chaotic state, not only with regard to its organised expression, but also with regard to its growing tactics, and the tendency was for all its speakers to exploit that which for the time being secured the largest audience. Perhaps that is the tendency still. But what I am endeavouring to convey is that consideration of the means towards the end, the tactics to be followed in realising the consummation aimed at formed but a small part of socialist study. Beyond a general affirmation of a belief in ‘common ownership,’ and in political action as the means of realising that common ownership, few speakers dared to venture. In consequence, the demand for political action became the creed of the socialist, and in the endeavour to make the propaganda serve the general purpose of advancing the demand for political action, that demand constantly tended to overshadow the general principle of the socialist movement itself. This stage of socialist propaganda in Great Britain may be said to have reached its highest point in the General Election of 1906, which resulted in the return of a large number of labour members to Parliament, and the partial reversal of the Taff Vale Decision.
With that victory the propaganda seemed to undergo a radical change. Whether it was because the workers had built too high hopes upon the advent of such a limited number of labour men into the House of Commons, or because the men elected were destitute of the courage and initiative necessary for their position, or from both causes combined, or from neither, I do not presume to say; but certain it is that there was for a long period a falling off of enthusiasm for the political side of socialism. Perhaps it would be better to say that there began to dawn a belief that socialism had really another side and that a man’s belief in the efficacy of legislation was not a real test of the sincerity of his socialist convictions. Then there came the industrial upheaval of 1911, with its series of brilliant victories won by labour upon the industrial battlefield, and the growth of an opinion among socialists totally adverse to political action. For a considerable period this antipolitical idea made headway, and we saw its influence making itself felt all over the socialist world. It is the very antithesis of the opinion I have described as being considered formerly as a true standard by which a socialist might be judged yet no one would today argue that because a man held such ideas he could not therefore be rightly classed as a socialist. In the older days we would have at once branded such a man as an anarchist, today we are not so sure of his classification. That in itself is a wonderful change in the attitude of the socialist towards political action.
Because of the slight reverses sustained at a uniform high level of excitement and victory, there is now in many quarters a recrudescence of the older attitude towards industrial battlings.
Leaders in plenty, even some engaged in industrial work, are to be found decrying strikes and deprecating all restlessness and rebellion which does not express itself at the ballot box. In some quarters we can even trace what looks suspiciously like a desire to gloat over industrial defeats and to welcome them as evidences of the futility of industrial action, and the super-excellence of politics.
Now having observed this movement around the clock, and observed it from the standpoint of one caught amongst the wheels, I am inclined to ask all and sundry amongst our comrades if there is any necessity for this presumption of antagonism between the industrialist and the political advocate of socialism. I cannot see any. I believe that such supposed necessity only exists in the minds of the mere theorists or doctrinaires. The practical fighter in the work-a-day world makes no such distinction. He fights, and he votes; he votes and he fights. He may not always, he does not always, vote right; nor yet does he always fight when and as he should. But I do not see that his failure to vote right is to be construed into a reason for advising him not to vote at all; nor yet why a failure to strike properly should be used as a gibe at the strike weapon, and a reason for advising him to place his whole reliance upon votes.
I am glad of the experience of the past few years. I am glad that the extremely doctrinaire political attitude towards strikes received a check, and that that check came straight out of the practical experience of the workers in ship, shore, shop and railway. I am glad that the equally doctrinaire attitude of the anti-political people has failed to sweep the working class off its feet. And I trust that out of this experience will be born wisdom, and that such wisdom will enable us to develop a working class action which will combine the political and industrial activities of the workers on militant and aggressive lines.
The development of the power of the modern state should teach us that the mere right to vote will not protect the workers unless they have a strong economic organisation behind them that the nationalisation or municipalisation of industries but changes the form of the workers’ servitude whilst leaving its essence unimpaired; and that in the long run the class in control of the economic forces of the nation will be able to dominate and direct its political powers.
On the other hand, that very development also teaches us that until the workers have perfected their economic power sufficiently to control the economic forces the class actually in control will most relentlessly and scientifically use their political powers to hamper, penalise and if possible destroy the activities of the workers’ organisation, and thus prevent the creation of a force sufficient for their suppression.
My reading of history tells me that in all great social changes the revolutionary class always fails of success until it is able to do the work of the class it seeks to destroy, and to do it more efficiently. And when it has so perfected itself that it is able to perform this work, neither gods nor men can stop its onward march to victory. In other words, a new social order cannot supplant the old until it has its own organisation ready to take its place. Within the social order of capitalism I can see no possibility of building up a new economic organisation fit for the work of superseding the old on socialist lines, except that new order be built upon the lines of the industries that capitalism itself has perfected. Therefore I am heart and soul an industrial unionist. But because I know that the capitalist class is alert and unscrupulous in its use of power, I do not propose to leave it the uncontested use of the powers of the state. And because I realise that human nature is a wonderful thing, that the soul of man gives expression to strange and complex phenomena, and that no man knows what powers or possibilities for good or evil lie in humanity, I try to preserve my receptivity towards all new ideas, my tolerance towards all manifestations of social activity.
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Last updated on 14.8.2003