Harry Quelch April 1910
Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 4, April 15, 1910, pp. 145-49, (1,674 words);
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
The principles of Social-Democracy are fixed and immutable; the means to be adopted to give practical effect to those principles change with time, and place, and circumstances. The object aimed at, the end to be attained, remains ever the same; the policy to be followed to attain that end requires to be frequently revised, and sometimes modified, as circumstances change.
All Socialists are agreed upon their object, that object being social and economic freedom and equality for all, and the realisation of the highest individual development and liberty conceivable for all, through the social ownership and control of all the material means of production and existence. They must all agree upon this in order to be Socialists. We are told sometimes that “we are all Socialists now,” but only those who believe in the object as here defined can be properly so described. Those who so believe are Socialists, and those who do not so believe are not Socialists, whatever they may say to the contrary notwithstanding.
General agreement on the object, however, by no means presupposes universal agreement on policy, and it is no reproach to Socialists that in this respect there are wide differences between them. On the other hand, these differences ought not to be carried so far as to induce inaction, or to impede progress. They are, however, matters to discuss, to argue out, to confer about, and, so far as the practical work of the moment goes, to come to an agreement upon.
It is for such purposes that our own party holds its annual conferences. 1t is much to be regretted that those conferences do not include representatives of all Socialists in the Kingdom; that other Socialist bodies should find themselves precluded, by alliances with non-Socialist organisations, from conferring together and coming to a common agreement as to Socialist policy and action in the present and immediate future. In quite a number of localities this is done in relation to local affairs—without any entangling alliances and with mutual benefit. There is no reason, beyond these alliances, why what is done locally should not be done nationally.
During the past year or two there has been manifested in every European country a tendency in the Socialist movement to revolt against the growing influence and claims of Parliamentarism. Unquestionably this tendency has been justified by the undue importance which has latterly been attached to mere political action since the Socialist parties in the different countries have been able to gain seats in their respective Parliaments. On both sides Parliaments have been taken too seriously. The growing number of anti-Parliamentarians have been disappointed with the meagre results of Parliamentary action; while the Parliamentarians have magnified these and at the same time glorified themselves; as though Parliament, important as it is, were the only means to be used; the economic development and the social revolution were going to quietly keep pace with bourgeois legislation; and the functions of a Socialist Party were simply to elect members to Parliament to act as “statesmen,” not as rebels, and to co-operate with bourgeois politicians in carrying small pettifogging measures of reform, through centuries of which, perhaps, Socialism might at last be realised; but the real object of which is to put off that realisation as long as possible.
It is through this assumption of the Parliamentarians, this audacity of the elected persons, that the tendency to revolt referred to has manifested itself. We have dealt with it at some length in previous issues of the “Social-Democrat.” It is only referred to now in order to point out how mistaken it all is. All means are justifiable that can be bent to our ends; all means are necessary.
Political action is not to be despised, nor is any other that will help to break down the domination of the master class and hasten the emancipation of the proletariat. It will be time enough to forswear political action when the master class no longer strive to retain their mastery of the political machine; it will be time enough to dissolve our trade unions and declare that “never again” will we strike when the employers cease to combine and no longer resort to the lock-out; it will be time enough to abandon our demand for universal military training when all professional armies are disbanded, swords are beaten into plough-shares and spears into pruning-hooks, and big guns are melted down into statues of Peace.
The tendency referred to, however, takes, at the present moment, the direction of a reversion to the older methods of proletarian warfare, and expresses itself in the suggestion that political organisation should be abandoned for purely industrial organisation, and political action for the general strike. Our answer to that is that as Social-Democrats we are in favour of both. Our primary function, however, is to organise a political party, independent, class-conscious, proletarian and Social-Democratic. The function of industrial organisation lies with the trade unions. These two functions are not absolutely distinct and separate, they are co-ordinate, and to some extent interdependent. Yet they are not identical. The trade unions can help us, we can help them. As a matter of fact, we have helped them far more than they have ever helped us.
We Social-Democrats have been reproached in recent years because we left the Labour Party rather than subordinate our Socialism to mere “Labourism.” In that combination we were urged by our fellow Socialists—even more than by the trade unionists themselves—to drop our Socialism for the sake of unity! But in a combination between Socialists and trade unionists for political purposes, it is political Socialism which should lead. It is as unreasonable to suggest that in such a combination the Socialist should be the subordinate partner as it would be to suggest that any Socialist body, in supporting a strike, should claim to dictate the policy of the trade union in conducting the strike, or should expect the union to abandon the immediate objects and demands of the strike simply in order to make Socialist propaganda.
The object of a Social-Democratic Party is the realisation of Socialism; and incidentally to assist in the organisation of the working-class and the amelioration of its conditions in existing society. The object of a trade union is to make the best of existing conditions; to make the best terms for its members in competitive society, and, incidentally, to help on the emancipation of the working-class. The co-relation between the two, as well as the difference of function, is thus clearly established. Yet we Social-Democrats are frequently charged with being hostile to trade unions, because we refuse to subordinate the one function to the other.
So far from being hostile to the trade unions, there is no political party in this country which has done so much as the S.D.P. to support the claims, aid the efforts, and further the development of trade unions.
And we have done this with so much success that we have seen a complete transformation in the character of the trade union movement. Originally a narrow, superior, exclusive “aristocracy of labour,” trade unionism has become democratised and is now representative of every section of the working-class. If the trade unions even now only include a minority of the working class within their ranks, that is due to various causes, and is no longer the result of their exclusiveness. As it is, however, the numbers of working people organised in trade unions, in spite of all difficulties, have increased by leaps and bounds. There was a quite phenomenal increase in the years 1889-90-91, owing to the inception of the “New Unionism.” But although, with the waning enthusiasm, many of the new unions—“twopenny strike clubs,” as an “old” trade unionist contemptuously called them -have ceased to exist, and although in others the numbers enrolled have considerably diminished, the total number of trade unionists has steadily increased. According to the latest return issued by the Labour Department of the Board of Trade, the total membership of trade unions at the end of 1898 was 1,688,531. This had increased by the end of 1907 to 2,406,746, an increase of just on eight hundred thousand, or nearly fifty per cent., in the ten years.
What is not less important than the growth of numbers is the development of the trade unions in the direction of class solidarity as opposed to sectional exclusiveness and antagonism. It would be idle to contend that sectional differences and antagonisms have disappeared. On the contrary, they are still among the worst difficulties with which the active trade unionist has to contend. But they are being narrowed down and subordinated to the greater interests. The growth of federation between all trade unions, as well as between those engaged in a given trade, is a hopeful sign of the times. Another is the growing feeling in favour of complete amalgamation in those unions where no difference in occupation or conditions of labour justify separate organisations. It is true that neither federation nor amalgamation has gone nearly far enough yet. But it will need another article to deal fully with this part of the subject. Suffice it to say here that the trade union movement is on right lines, that we can see in its growth and development the result of some of the work put in more than twenty years ago by comrades of the S.D.F.—by Burrows, Williams, Hobart, Thorne, Pearson, Mann, Tillett and many another—as well as encouragement to persist in that work and that policy as defined by the resolution of our recent Annual Conference, as follows:—
“That this Conference requests all members of the S.D.P., who are eligible for membership of existing trade unions, to join the unions of their respective callings, and, having joined, to carryon a vigorous campaign on behalf of Socialist principles, and also in favour of the ultimate amalgamation of all unions on the basis of class and not craft.”