Walking in the old ruts

At no period in its history has the British Labour Movement given rise to so much speculation, and for quite obvious reasons. Born out of the conflict of class antagonisms, it has survived a century before it has been brought face to face with the incontestable argument of the Anarchists, that the emancipation of labour from the wages system is an economic problem, and that to make an assault on the House of Commons through the medium of a political Labour party to achieve its salvation is as fatal as practising nudism at the poles.

Despite the position with which it is confronted, there is as yet no sound evidence that any lesson has been learned. The only activity of any particular note that has resulted from the debacle of the past twelve months is afforded by the breakaway of the I.L.P. from the leading strings of the Labour Party. But even the I.L.P., in spite of the unquestioned qualities of its leaders, appears to be still putting the cart before the horse, for in the plans arising from the specially convened Bradford Conference one finds a surveying of constituencies ‘with a view to nominating Parliamentary candidates’ taking precedence over the attention directed towards the industrial movement.

Even more unfortunate still is the passive attitude of the Trade Union movement. Here, over a long period, active work in the Trade Union has been regarded as a stepping stone to Parliamentary honours; and when one tries to discover what gains the workers have derived through the incentive of political-minded Trade Union leadership one is immediately reminded of the sabotage of the general strike in 1926 by men whose careers had been launched down the slips of Trade Unionism.

It is not surprising, therefore, that at a moment when the Labour movement is divided amongst itself, the powers that be, confronted with a steady but persistent decline in world trade, should be launching fresh attacks on the already impoverished standards of the workers. Never, from the point of view of the employers, was there a more opportune moment for such an onslaught, and the offensive which began in the coalfields has now burst out anew upon the cotton workers of Lancashire. Cotton, however, like coal, has its explosive qualities, and signs are not lacking that the challenge thrown down to the workers may be thrown back at the masters. Either the weavers will have to weave their own shroud or that of the cotton barons, an issue which can never be in doubt if Labour will mobilise its forces with sound understanding. But it is exactly at this point that serious misgivings present themselves. A clear understanding of what is to be aimed at and how to achieve it is obscured by erroneous theories. One finds, for instance, the same type of careerists advocating compromise, and urging the workers to prepare themselves for the struggle at the next election, whilst others assert that with the collapse of private enterprise in industry the State must take over the control of all derelict enterprises and democratise them, whatever that may mean. And then one finds that revolutionary type who look upon the present collapse of capitalism as a stage in a malignant disease, and who are advocating the workers to prepare to run industry as soon as opportunity presents itself for them to seize power. Socialism to them is an inevitable phase in economic development, and must necessarily follow the capitalistic era. The fervour of this type is magnificent and it is easy to be aroused by their enthusiasm, but enthusiasm cuts no ice unless it is properly harnessed. Bad as things are, there is as yet nothing to indicate that the masses have lost faith in the institution of government. Astute enough to see this fact, and possessing all the cunning of a Machiavelli, the rulers of this country will carry the day. Let necessity prove the need for the nationalising of this, or the State ownership of that, and the rulers will bring it to pass; but let not the workers think this will mean workers’ control. Let circumstances point to the advantages of abolishing unemployment, and the rulers will bring it to pass; but let not the workers imagine this will bring economic liberty.

Economic Liberty; Free Communism; Anarchism; these, it is alleged, are dreams, and until the workers are aroused out of their coma, dreams they will remain. Poverty, with all its trail of misery and want, stalks the land. To offer sympathy without help is a crime, but to offer hope without understanding would be treachery of the vilest degree. The emancipation of the workers from the bonds of wage-slavery is a difficult task but not an impossible one. Just as the totems of a bygone age have been relegated to the museums, so must the fetishes of to-day be brushed aside. All the needs of the workers lie within their own power to supply, and nothing will withstand them when they engage in that task, for, as Goethe has written:

Only engage, and then the mind grows heated – 
Begin it, and the work will be completed!’


Freedom Bulletin no.15 (December 1932)