A Peculiar Policy

From The American Federationist Vol.3-4, pp.93-95

A Peculiar Policy (1896)

John Turner, President of the Society of Shop Assistants of London

At the present time there are two ideas agitating the minds of the workpeople almost all over the civilized world—the idea that ‘the economic emancipation of the workers is the principal aim to which all political movements must be subordinated,’ and the idea that ‘the struggle against class domination and exploitation must be a political one, having the conquest of political power for its end’. The first was born of the workers, in the old [First International], anxious for emancipation; the second was born of professional and middle-class men, in that modern mule, social democracy, hungry for political place and power.

The whole history of the rise and development of the capitalist class has been a series of movements in which it has used the workers for its political purposes, always, however, to fasten still tighter the chains of economic servitude. Every time, when the workpeople had gathered some strength, they came, and by means of their organized political power, got the reins of government in their hands and led it successfully—to ruin. The only movement that has succeeded almost entirely in shutting the door to the political adventurer, as such, and in keeping out of its councils any of the exploiting class, has been the trade union organization. It is, without exception, the only real class organization of the workers.

Again and again efforts have been made by politicians of this, that or the other—especially the ‘other’—party to get at least some control over it. But while there has sometimes been a temporary, partial success, it has always ended in the workers barring the door still tighter against them.

In England, the home of the trade union movement, the workers organized, when to do so meant outlawry and a continuous struggle against the political powers of the day, to better their economic condition. They grasped at least one truth—the one that the workers of the [First International] understood—that the struggle was an economic one; that the origin of their social and political degradation was their subordinate position, on the farm, in the factory, mine and workshop, even as it was the source of all the social and political supremacy of the class that exploited them, and who were enabled to appropriate the results of their labor through the protection afforded them by the government. The recognition of this fact has kept them from wasting all their efforts in the political arena, and they have only considered in their unions those political questions that directly affected them in their trades or occupations, and so were subordinate to the original purpose of their organizations.

On the continent of Europe the working class movement took a different turn–more political–but it is well to remember that, though in France and Germany they have secured manhood suffrage, their economic position is not as good as that in England, where there are still property qualifications which shut out thousands of the workers otherwise eligible, but who, through their “trade unions,” have wrung concessions from their employers by their direct action, which have outstripped by far that gained by their colleagues on the continent who had neglected this important favor in industrial warfare. So much is this being recognized that already, both in France and Germany, efforts are being made to follow in the lines of the English trade union movement and there is a corresponding breaking away from the political leadership of those professors, lawyers, journalists, manufacturers and middle-class men who have up till now been able to dominate the working class movement there.

The party that is responsible for this policy of political action–simple, if not pure–is the Marxist social democratic party, well equipped for political diplomacy by years of international intrigue in the working class movement all over the world. And, yet, Marx himself, while favoring the formation of a political working-class movement, based his philosophy upon the teaching that “all social and political institutions were the outcome of economic conditions.” If that is so, it is, first, economic alteration that is required. The conquest of political power can only result in new political masters–unable to accomplish anything more than to bring political institutions into line with modern industrialism, but leaving the citadel of economic exploitation untouched–and will not bring the relief to the toilers which its advocates profess. Even this, too, seems to have been understood by Marx, for speaking of political power, he said: “Political power, in the exact sense of the word, is the organized power of one class which enables it to oppress another.” And, so, since political institutions are the outcome and result of economic conditions, so long as those conditions remain unchanged, those who wield political power must, whether they wish to or not, oppress the work-people. Almost everywhere, at the present time, faith in political action is losing its hold over the workers. They see in France, as well as in Germany, where they have founded political parties and returned men to represent them, that they are unable to effect any real alteration of their condition. They see them hold fast to old political dogmas and doctrines, in opposition to the altered tactics necessary through the rapidly changing industrial conditions imposed on the work-people by the capitalists. They see them, logically enough from this point of view, trying to deaden all direct attacks of the organized workers for improved conditions, and to divert all possible energy into the political channel for the purpose of returning them to, and keeping them in, political place and power. Yet, when they are returned, they distinguish themselves from other political parties only by making an organized business of the use of socialist and revolutionary phrases from which, however, all the original meaning has long since departed. Like all politicians, they condemn in the actions of members of other parties what they applaud when emanating from theirs. Party stands before principle. The trade union movement contains the men and women who, on the average, are in advance of their fellows. They have become conscious of their economic weakness, and organize to gain strength. They are agreed that there is an industrial struggle, but they are not agreed that it can be ended through political means; and, yet, these believers in politics will insist on trying to force their opinions on the rest, and, when unable to rule, try their hardest to wreck. Politics, like creeds, must always create dissension in the ranks of organized labor if any party tries to impose its shibboleths upon the rest.

That this policy is inspired by political motives of the basest kind should be apparent to all. Do they expect to register at the polls a public opinion that has not yet been formed? Or, do they intend to practice deception with the workmen, and try to get their votes in one character and, when returned, come out in another?

It is not, however, the emancipation of labor they are striving for; it is the building up of a political party, with the conquest of political power as its end. “To the victors belong the spoils,” should be their motto. Sure, there are side streets of politics, but we would have the workers avoid them. They are blind alleys from which even those who are fooled into them will have to retrace their steps.

The workers, though, are not likely to follow this futile policy to any extent. Wherever it has been tried, they are already sick of the funeral pomp of mere political battles, whilst all around they see vast bodies of their fellows uneducated in economic matters and unorganized.

In England, some years ago, somewhat similar attacks were made upon the trade unions but they came out triumphant; in fact, the agitation spent itself in the new trade union movement of 1889-90, which soon settled down, squeezed out the political adventurer, assimilated itself with the older movement, and left the middle-class men, who had led the attack, with but few adherents. These, it is true, set to work to build up afresh a political party, but experience had taught them the wisdom of leaving the wrecking of the trade unions alone; and, if they now approach them at all, it is with respect, and with a view of courting their help in some political undertaking which they think they will be interested in. But the efficacy of labor legislation, without there is organization to see it carried out, is but little relied on. There are still some work-people who think that the state is going to look after their interests. These belong to a bygone time. Led by an instinct, surviving from a lower form of life, they continue to cherish an institution, though it daily frustrates every object for which it is believed to be founded.

It is slowly dawning on the workers that, unless they are ready to enforce them, the very laws passed ostensibly in their interests remain dead letters upon the statute books. Only this May, the Hebrew bakers of New York were agitating to put in force the ten-hour day, which was made a law of the state last year, but of which no notice had been taken. Instances enough to fill a book could be given of the same character; and still there are some who advise reliance on political action.

Even the politicians have to fall back upon the methods taught them by the trade unions. Already there is some talk of a general strike to get the eight hour day in England. Ken Hardie discusses it favorably in his Labor Leader of May 2nd issue. They are finding out that the workers are tired of waiting on the heels of politics; that the old, despised methods of direct action are the only ones after all which win the adhesion of the whole forces of labor.

The cry of “drive away the political fakirs from your trade unions,” raised by politicians, is like the cry of “stop thief,” raised by the pickpocket getting away with his plunder, to distract attention from himself. By all means drive away the political fakirs and see to it that no fresh ones take their places. Close the door of the trade unions with a bang against any professional or middle-class men who are preparing to become public functionaries of one sort or another by shoving the working-class movement into political channels. Not that we need refuse the help of any one, if it is genuinely offered, but to allow them to enter our councils, much less dominate our organizations, is to deliver ourselves over to the enemy.

As trade unionists we are always willing to examine new ideas, especially economic ones, but when men come forward, and not workingmen at that, pretending to be anxious for our welfare, at the same time trying to control our action and direct out policy into a political struggle against, and in spite of, the expressed wishes of our members, we have good ground for suspicion, both of the motive and the policy. Experience has proved again and again that the methods of trade unionism are the only ones that can win for the workers a somewhat better standard of comfort under existing capitalistic domination of industry. But it does not stop there! Finality in trade unionism is as impossible as everything else. Slowly, but surely, the organized workers are learning that very domination is the cause of the labor struggle, and while they refuse to “swap horses in the middle of the stream,” change their policy while engaged in the struggle, we know as well and see as clearly as anyone that, sooner or later, the control of industry must pass into the hands of the organized workers.

But, before that can happen, the workers must understand the necessity of united action for attack, and there is no agency in existence that unites them upon an economic, industrial basis so well as trade unionism. Politics create parties and lead to rivalries between the workers. Personalities come to the front and obscure the common aim. In the desire of each party for political supremacy, all are reduced to impotence in the labor struggle. It is the apple of discord in an otherwise united movement.

It is for the workers to decide which policy they will pursue. There is no hesitation in trusting to their judgment! Shall it be a policy directed and guided by politicians for their own ends in the conquest of political power, or will they press on for economic emancipation, and subordinate all political movements to this end? History proves the baseness and impotence of the former. All experience is in favor of the latter.