J. T. Murphy

Trade Union Blacklegs

The Critics Answered

Source: The Communist, September 30, 1922
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.

COMRADE Marsden appears to me to have done little more than to repeat Comrade Brodsky, whilst Comrade Carney misses the critical point of the argument in order to advocate the development of minority movements in the unions.

With such a policy we are in entire agreement and to advocate such movements as a lesson arising from immediate failures is quite all right. But again I repeat, we were not striving to derive lessons from failures. We were trying to get action with the material at our disposal.

Reconstruct the situation as it was at the time my article was written. 600,000 miners were on strike in America. They had worn down the strength of the employing class in America, in spite of the activities of non-union labour. The employers turned to other countries and began to import coal, especially from Britain. This meant that the British miners, dockers, sailors, railwaymen and transport workers in general were being called upon to play the same role as the non-union and scab labour in America. There was no organised minority movement in a single one of the unions involved, to which we could appeal. We were left therefore, with only two ways of appeal, which we utilized—one to the leaders who have control over the organisations; the other a direct appeal to the rank-and-file.

But Comrades Brodsky and Marsden object to our appeals on several grounds. First, because of the poverty, thus:—“How do you expect starving men to strike for a principle, etc.” . . . “We, who have three sound meals a day, can strike like Hell.”

Let us examine the position a little. Is it only a principle at stake? Smash the American miners and see what happens to the British coal trade. The defeat of the American miners inevitably leads to demands, for further reductions of British miners’ wages. Then, if they resist because it is “concrete,” etc., etc. the American miners will be justified in blacklegging because they are hungry, etc. So when the poverty and misery are handed out all round, nobody will be justified in appealing for a strike because all the workers are so poor. The absurdity of the argument is clear. By it the workers are condemned to permanent slavery. For when will the workers get their three meals a day which will enable them to strike like Hell? In the employers’ own good time? Can you not see that you are arguing the bosses’ case and reviewing strikes and wage demands from the point of view of the permanency of capitalism? To us, a demand for a rise in wages, or resistance to wage-cuts, or a strike, is not an end in itself, but a means of developing the struggle until it sharpens to the struggle for power (the only way out for the workers). Comrades, you have applied to this question not the vision of Communists but the pettybourgeois psychology of a trade union official who measures success and failure in terms of wage negotiations.

A second objection is raised because we have appealed to the leaders. Comrade Marsden asks “Who do the things? The leaders or the rank-and-file?”—and answers it as follows—“The rank-and-file.” So, Comrade Marsden, a leader has no role in a fight of masses. You know you are talking clap-trap. There has never been a successful mass fight without successful mass leadership, and the difficulties we are up against lie in the fact that the leaders of the mass organisations are what they are and “the masses elect J. H. Thomas and Co.” Very well, we will face this problem also. But first don’t misrepresent the Communist Party. You know quite well you don’t speak the truth when you write as follows:—“and the only policy of the C.P. seems to be ‘Change your leaders!’”

The very article you criticise concluded as follows: “We appeal direct to the rank-and-file as well as to their elected leaders. Refuse to be used as blacklegs.”

Now, as to the masses and the leaders, Comrade Marsden says: “The fact is Thomas and Co. represent the views of the rank-and-file in the trade unions. Hence the C.P. must address itself to the masses, and expect nothing from the leaders.” Why discriminate if you please, if the views of the rank-and-file and the leaders are the same? Are six million Johnny Thomases easier to convert than one or have you some grudge against a particular Jimmy Thomas that you wish one of them to be ignored?

Comrade Marsden argues exactly as Mr. McDonald argues, with this difference: he evidently dislikes the trade union leaders and takes his dislike to be the guarantee of his revolutionary policy. But it won’t wash. The problems arising out of the relationship of leaders and masses cannot be solved in terms of “views” and votes. These are only a part of the problem, otherwise how is it that although time and again a hundred per cent. of a union will strike under the leadership of union officials, whilst it is questionable whether there is a single leader, in the whole trade union movement who holds office on a 20 per cent. vote, and the average is much below that. Again, as to views, everyone knows who has given five minutes’ observation to trade union elections, that the political views, and programme of candidates for office have played a minor role. It has depended mainly on the part played and the associations created in dealing with every day issues, that gives confidence and popularity, leading to election. To get the every-day, results from wage negotiations, etc., in an era of expanding capitalism (the era in which the trade unions made their greatest progress) became an art in which Mr. Thomas excels. It was in this era that practically all the trade union leaders of to-day came to power at the head of powerful organisations, with strong vested interests binding the membership.

Revolutionary leadership under these conditions could only be the exception and not the rule. Only when the general economic situation changes and forces the masses and the leaders into revolutionary situations and policy can there be a general revolutionary change in leadership. Such changes are rapidly taking place today and producing all the forces making for change of leadership. The capitalists can no longer make the old concessions and the fate of the unions and the masses is now at stake. Under these circumstances it is useless and wrong to regard the union leadership as a static unchangeable monument. It is subject to changing circumstances as is everything else. Nor can we assert that the changes will come along a single track. They will operate in many ways. In some cases the union leaders will feel their fate is bound up with the fate of their union and will fight even in a revolutionary fight. In others, new elections will throw up new leaders through the normal operation of the union apparatus, and still again, changes may be made through the organised pressure and activity of minority movements.

To direct attention, therefore, to the central leadership of the unions is of paramount importance, whatever its personnel may be. First, because it is a centre of authority controlling the masses; second, because it immediately focuses the character of the lead which is emanating from that centre, strengthening it if it is revolutionary, exposing it if it is not. And that is why the Communist Party directs attention to the leadership of the unions and makes its appeals to the leaders as well as to the masses.

If our comrades realised the dynamic character of the struggle, its varied and manifold expressions, they would realise that to bank all their money on one phase is fatal. Comrade Carney is right in his insistence upon organising the influence in the unions which can compel action. And, the C.P. supports that policy. But he is wrong when he judges our policy by what he assumes our expectations to be. Nor is it a question of who accepts the “spiritual” guidance of Amsterdam. Even the Amsterdam International has grown out of the experiences of the working class and it is involved in the struggles of the working class. In our criticisms of the weapons of struggle and those who have these weapons in their hands, we must not forget the struggle. In that struggle we must be prepared to mobilise and involve every available force, even the Amsterdam International, against the capitalist class.

That in my judgment is the way to wage the revolutionary struggle and win the masses to the leadership of the Communist Party. Comrade Marsden’s conception of organising for revolution is absurd. “Just as an army can organise without (and before) going into the firing line, so the workers.” The working class is not an army going into a future battle. It is a class actually in battle every hour of its existence and has to forge its weapons of struggle in the furnace of a many phased conflict. Need I say more?

Just one pointed question to Comrades Brodsky and Marsden: If you could not discover the policy of the Party when inside, how do you expect to find it outside? Even our enemies give us credit for knowing what we are after and discuss our methods—but our “friends”?

[We have received a complaint from P. Marsden of the title “Trade Union Blacklegs”—we use it because it was that of the original article which gave rise to this discussion.—ED. COMMUNIST]