For the Union makes us strong.”
The union movement has proven itself to be a powerful instrument of a defensive character and as a force that poses the possibility of a transformation from wage labour to a free association of workers and common ownership. The labour movement has won through battles on the picket lines but has often been lost, due, to counter attacks by the representatives of the employers as a class in control of parliament, and the state in its totality. The employers, through their agents in control of parliament and the entire state apparatus, have erected a whole network of laws and regulations designed to hamstring the labour movement. Organised labour is weak in relation to the power of the ruling class. Large numbers of workers, poorly paid and helpless before the onslaughts and insecurities that are products of capitalist society, have fallen prey to the capitalist- inspired propaganda that the union movement is a narrow, a sectional power bloc, insensitive to their needs and concerned only with its own welfare. Wage increases, hard fought wage increases to meet the rising cost of living, are being wiped out time and again. Big Business attempts to narrow the area of collective bargaining, the trade union militants must fight to widen it and to open up the entire process of capitalist production and distribution to their scrutiny. The workers have the right to know the secrets of a factory, of the multi-national corporations, of an entire industry, of the whole economy, built by their labor. For the workers, independent labour political action is the beginning of their intervention into affairs that determine every single aspect of their lives and the future of their children.
It is easy to criticise parliamentarism and to criticise it justly, but criticism does not prevent it from existing. Those who strive to keep the working people out of the field of political action do not suspect that they are thus playing the game of the ruling class. By shouting, “No politics!” they are merely echoing the rallying cry that the capitalists has always given to the working-class. The property qualification for the suffrage and the absence of remuneration for office-holders, such as members of the Parliament, were nothing but means to keep workers out of politics. Even though that failed, we now have those “socialists” eager to accomplish what the ruling class could not.
Some socialists suggest the political struggle is insufficient and in its stead propose the “general strike.” We must be clear, we are not talking about strikes that are the inevitable product of a class struggle based on antagonistic interests. Even if it wish to, socialists cannot disarm the working class of the strike weapon. It is the workers only means of defense or attack which it has for the protection of its immediate material interests, the strike is a right which the working people are right in jealously guarding. But while socialists should fully support this right for for all the workers, it is not their business to incite them to make use of it. It is not for them to urge or discourage strikes. It is for those immediately interested, those who will have to endure the consequences of their decision, to decide, without pressure of any kind from the non-interested. When those workers whose interests are at stake have decided upon a strike, we ought to aid them to gain every possible advantage from the situation in which they have placed themselves. That is, generally speaking, what is and what should be the conduct of socialists so far as concerns strikes. We acknowledge the strike as a weapon, but recognise its effectiveness should not to be exaggerated, it possesses limited power. Under the favourable circumstances it may compel some employers to yield to union demands but it has never been able to produce any radical change in the capitalist system. Here or there, there have been obtained some ameliorations but they have not been incompatible with the increasing prosperity of capital.
Many left militants think that a general strike of the most important trades would be enough to bring on the social revolution, that is, the fall of the whole capitalist system and the establishment of socialism. Those militants who still cherish illusions and laud strikes as a panacea should understand that on the economic battle-field, the struggle is too unequal for the working-class despite tremendous strikes carried out with enormous resources and prepared with an incomparable talent of organisers and regardless of the great sacrifices, the self-denial and energy of strikers, they lose the battle more often than win it, and when there is victory, the advantages that it reaps do not alter the fact that the gains proved very expensive and remain precarious.
Yet still a faction wishes to generalise the strike – a weapon good, at the most, only in particular cases – and to make the general strike the goal for the working class. It is time for such activists to take a reality check. On the political ground the working-class are more numerous than the employing class so it enjoys a real advantage and only a mere matter of propaganda and time for the socialist to convince his or her fellow workers to use their ballot in the right manner. Instead the militants rather confront the military power of the state, facing the provocations and arrests by the police, and risking the genuine threat of a massacre of the workers. But even if all these dangers and difficulties were avoided or overcome, the labour movement would inevitably be overwhelmed for success must be at the first attempt. A conquered strike would result in an impotent, emasculate union movement. A defeat at the election polls is one thing, but the failure of a general strike is one of real sufferings and discouraged and disconsolate, defeated strikers withdraws from the movement into passivity and apathy. A general strike is “All or nothing!” Workers should think twice about supporting such a gamble.
The political expropriation of the capitalist class today, is its economic expropriation tomorrow. The state in the hands of the working class the instrument of its liberation and transformation. Whether or not a revolutionary situation is destined to arise, the duty of socialists consists in educating his or her fellow workers, in rendering them conscious of their condition, their task and their responsibility, of organising them in readiness for the day when the political power shall fall into their hands. To win for socialism the greatest possible number of partisans, that is the task to which socialist parties must consecrate their efforts. What is necessary is to make socialists, to make the masses conscious of the economic movement in progress, to bring their wills into harmony with that movement, and thus to lead to the election of more and more socialists to our various elective assemblies. In ordinary times, such as those in which we live today, any sort of action, except peaceful and legal action with a view to the instruction and organization of the masses, is sure, whether so intended or not, to have a deterrent and reactionary influence, and to interfere with the spread of socialist ideas. But this depends, not upon opinions, but on actual situations and circumstances. What is the use of talking of anything but socialism and to waste time talking about a contingent event that circumstances may force upon us in the future, but the time or character of which no man can define or describe to-day?
Instead of allowing ourselves to be led astray by romantic notions of the general strike, let us examine the facts and see what conclusions they impose upon us. Socialism flows from the facts, it follows them and does not precede them. Socialism means the socialization of the means of labour and the abolition of classes. Its means, the transference to the political battlefield of the class struggle. Socialists are not worshippers of violence. Above all do we try to guard against the sporadic, meaningless and inevitably self-defeating violence that suffering and resentment are so likely to prompt.