Rosa Luxemburg on Britain

Submitted by cathy n on 6 March, 2009 - 1:05 Author: Rosa Luxemburg

Before we cast a general glance back the discussion about Bernstein's book in the party press, we still wish to treat individually some questions of detail which were particularly stressed in that discussion. This time, let us turn to the English trade union movement.

The catchphrase of the "economic power" of the "economic organisation" of the working class plays a great role among the supporters of Bernstein. "It is the task of the working class to create economic power for itself" writes Dr Weltmann in issue 93 of the Elberfelde Freie Presse. In the same way E David concludes his series of articles about Bernstein's book with the slogan, "emancipation through economic organisation" (Mainzer Volkszeitung, issue 96).

According to this conception - in line with Bernstein's theory - the trade union movement, allied with consumer associations, is to gradually transform the capitalist mode of production into the socialist mode. We have already pointed out (see the pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution) that such a notion is based on a total failure to recognise the economic nature and economic functions of both the trade unions and the co-operatives. This, however, can also be proven in a less abstract form by way of a tangible example.

Arrests, trials with draconian sentences, mass use of spies, police and the military on workers' demonstrations, class justice, police arbitrariness. In a word - the first half century of the English labour movement offers us all the forms of brutally beating down the rising working class and its most modest demands for social reforms. The same state which already at that time, like today, had no militarism, no bureaucracy, no peasantry, nonetheless found abundant means to meet the working class with violent repression. If we can therefore see other methods of treating the working class in England from the middle of the century onwards, then this is not connected with these peculiarities of its political life, but with other circumstances which had emerged only in the course of time.

Around the fifties two important changes had indeed taken place in England's conditions, and in two respects. Above all, English industry achieved unshared rule in the world market around this time. Until the end of the forties English production very often had to suffer very frequent and violent stagnation; from the fifties onwards there begins a constant and strong upturn. This placed the entire English class of industrialists in the position in which an individual industrialist finds himself when business is flourishing: conflicts with the workers, permanent industrial warfare as had been the case formerly, became extremely inconvenient for them, and the interest in orderly relationships, in stability and "social peace" became a pressing one.

Correspondingly, we see on the side of industrialists an immediate about-turn in their methods of warfare. The conflicts with the workers change from questions of power into matters of negotiations, of agreement, of concessions. The golden era of industry makes the concessions to the workers as necessary in the interest of the undisturbed conduct of business as it renders them materially imperceptible. If in the first epoch the English bourgeoisie was represented by the most brutal quick-buck-merchants a la Stumm, their correct spokesperson in this epoch is that entrepreneur who says in 1860: "In strikes I see both the means of action and also the inevitable result of commercial negotiations about the purchase of labour".

On the other side and doubtlessly closely connected with the above, an important transformation takes place as well in the labour movement itself. In the twenties, thirties and the beginning of the forties we see it enthusiastic about political and social reforms, about comprehensive plans, about socialist ideas. "On the Council they [the workers] are idealists who dream of a new heaven and a new earth, humanitarians, friends of education, socialists, moralists". Under the influence of Owen's doctrines, writes Francis Place, the trade unionists came to believe that it was possible to raise wages and reduce working hours through a general non-political federation of all wage-earners "to such a degree that in the not too distant future the entire products of their labour would belong to them". The class movement in England at that time found palpable expression in the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which proved itself to be a thoroughly clumsy organisation in trades union struggle and also soon collapsed, but expressed the idea of class and its general unity for the common goal. In the Chartist movement we likewise see the English proletariat - here, through political action - strive after socialist goals.

This all changes with the beginning of the fifties. After the failure of Chartism and of the Owenite movement, the workers turn away from socialist goals and towards exclusively everyday demands. The class which was brought together - even if very incompletely - in the Grand Trade Union of Owen crumbles completely into individual trade unions, each of which takes action on its own. In place of the emancipation of the working class there appears as the guiding star the most favourable shaping possible of the "leasing-business", in place of struggle with the existing order, the striving to establish oneself comfortably on the ground of this order, in a word: in place of socialist class struggle, bourgeois struggle for a bourgeois existence.

The trade unions have achieved their success in two ways: through direct struggle with the industrialists and through pressure on the legislature. In both cases, however, they owe their success to the very bourgeois ground upon which they had placed themselves. As far as the struggle with the industrialists was concerned, already in 1845 "a new method of trade union activity - the politics of mediation and arbitration" had been proclaimed by the general conference of the trade unions. But mediation and arbitration are only possible if a common ground exists in advance. And such common ground soon found palpable expression in the very widespread system of the sliding scale of wages [meaning here wages being scaled to the price which the employer gets for the product, rather than scaled to the workers' cost of living], which, for its part, is economically based on the harmony of interests between the industrialist and the worker. Only because industrialists and workers alike stood on this common ground was it possible for there to occur the great extension of collective agreements, of conciliation offices, of arbitration tribunals, which we see until into the eighties. Thereby, however, the clashes and friction between labour and capital changed from class struggle into arguments between buyers and sellers, as occur with any commodity. If on the one hand the industrialists had come to the point of view that strikes were "inevitable in commercial negotiations about the purchase of labour", then on the other hand labour resigned itself to regarding itself as a mere object of "commercial negotiations". The trade unions accepted as the basis of the entire trade union struggle the doctrine of bourgeois economy of supply and demand being the only regulator of wages, and "it seemed a natural conclusion that the only means lying in their power to secure or improve their conditions was that of reducing the supply".

Correspondingly, we see at that time as means of struggle of the trade unions the abolition of overtime, the limitation of the number of apprentices, and emigration (in industrial branches until into the eighties). That is to say, with the exception of the first point, purely guild methods.

The political side of the trade union adopted the same character. Two points of view in particular are characteristic of this. Above all, the English trade unionists' own attitude: until the middle of the eighties they were - and still are so today - by and large thoroughgoing petty bourgeois, liberal or conservative in outlook. Furthermore, however, the methods and the means which they applied in their struggle for protective labour legislation were guildist. There was not anything like popular agitation, as was the case in Germany and other countries on the continent, but a completely peculiar and complicated system of working upon and influencing bourgeois parliamentarians without distinction of party affiliations, of horse-trading, of corridor conversations and back-room deals, completely lacking any principled or class character and which reached its fullest development in the case of the cotton spinners and weavers. The trade unions owe their greatest legislative successes to these very means. On the other hand, how much of an obstacle a more class-conscious behaviour was for practical successes is shown by the difficulties with which the Miners' Federation had to fight.

In connection with the thus directed activity we see the structure and the entire character of the English trade unions change in the second half of this century. The leadership of the movement passes from the "irresponsible enthusiasts and agitators" to "a class of permanent, paid officials", who were even employed on occasion on the basis of a proper school-examination. From being a school of class solidarity and socialist morality the trade union movement becomes a business, the trade union becomes an extremely complicated work of art, a residence comfortably furnished for lasting existence, and in the entire world of labour of that epoch there reigns "a spirit of careful, even if somewhat limited diplomacy".

Part Two

As we saw in the first article, economically, politically and also morally the workers and the bourgeoisie had been standing on the same ground in England since the fifties. "They [the leaders of the trade unions] accepted in totally good faith the economic individualism of their bourgeois opponents and claimed only that freedom of combining which the enlightened members of the latter class were ready to grant them... Their understanding for the mode of thought of the bourgeoisie and their appreciation of the actual difficulties of the situation protected them from being mere demagogues... The possession of good manners, although it may appear a minor triviality, was not the least of their merits. With an accomplished self-esteem and integrity they joined correctness of expression, completely irreproachable behaviour in private life, and a remarkable absence of everything which recalls the public bar".

It is only a logical consequence of these statesman-like, individualistic politics that just like the purely economic struggle, so too the struggle of the trade unions for protective labour legislation was not conducted in a unified manner through the totality of the trade unions and to the benefit of the working class, as was the case in Germany, in France and everywhere else, but in fragmented groups, by every trade union on their own, and sometimes in direct contradiction to one another (compare the conduct of the Durham and Northumberland representatives in Parliament against the efforts of the Miners' Federation). The lack of common economic and political ground, of the class point-of-view, the contradictions between great and small, skilled and unskilled, old and new trade unions, also condemned to fruitlessness and decay their common action, their general congresses and their Parliamentary Committee. (Evidence of this from recent times is the method of voting introduced at the Cardiff Trades Union Congress, which "quite clearly amounts to placing all power into the hands of the officials, and furthermore the officials of the few old and large trade unions."). Those who are of this opinion see only one side of the effect of public opinion on the workers: the material support provided by it. But they overlook the other side: the moral pressure exercised on the workers by it. English public opinion is not benevolent towards the labour movement in general, but towards the particular given labour movement which has taken shape in England: the movement which both economically and politically stands on the ground of bourgeois society. It does not support class struggle, for example; on the contrary, it pre-empts it. As is well known, during strikes and wage conflicts, public opinion imperiously presses for arbitration tribunals and mediation procedures, it does not allow the struggle to become a test of strength, even if it would be advantageous precisely to the workers, and woe to the workers should they not wish to bow to the voice of the public. The English worker who is supported by English bourgeois society in the struggle with his employer is supported in his capacity as a member of bourgeois society, as a bourgeois politician, as a bourgeois voter and the support also makes him for his part into a more loyal member of this society.

The reasonable industrialist and the equally reasonable trade unionist, the correct capitalist and the correct worker, the generous bourgeois who is friendly to the workers and the narrow-minded proletarian who wears bourgeois blinkers, have each other as their precondition, are merely correlates of one and the same relationship, the common ground of which was formed by the peculiar economic position of England since the middle of the century - the stability and the undivided rule of English industry in the world market.

The previously outlined conditions in England until into the eighties. Since then, however, a far-reaching transformation has been occurring in all relationships, and furthermore in the basis of trade union development hitherto above all. The position of England in the world market was fundamentally shaken by the capitalist development of Russia, Germany and the United States. The rapid decline of England expresses itself not only in the loss of one market after another, but also in a very characteristic and important symptom of capitalist development: the decline of its methods of production and trade. The latter in particular always show the rise or decline of a capitalist industry earlier and more certainly than the export and import statistics themselves. Just as the capitalist class of a rising country is above all characterised by versatility and flexibility in techniques of production and trade (see England until into the sixties and seventies, and Germany at present), so too in an industrially declining country, backwardness and crudity in production and trade always emerge as the first unmistakable symptom.

The latter is now the case in England and for some years complaints in British consular reports about the apathy and rigidity of English traders have been a constant theme. As far as the methods of production are concerned, England is now forced - until recently an unheard-of fact - by foreign competition and for the protection of its own native market to introduce modern production techniques. See, for example, the current transformation underway in the English tin-plate industry under the pressure of North American competition.

The shaky ground, the variability of the commercial situation, and the often bad state of business lead for their part to a change of fronts in both the behaviour of the English bourgeoisie and also of the English workers. The general depression in English industry is temporarily still compensated for and concealed by the demand for shipbuilding created by international militarism and trade, which in turn supports a series of important branches, such as the metal industry. But in this too the competition of Germany soon threatens England.

If, in times of prosperity, the concessions to the workers were at no great cost for capital, now it is currently becoming ever more sensitive and touchy. The conciliation process becomes a source of discomfort for it, and it uses the arbitration of the conciliation tribunals for the purpose of "rejecting the higher demands of the workers", whereas at other times it makes "use of its strategic position in order to force workers to accept more unfavourable conditions than they are due according to the arbitration of the conciliation tribunals". On the other hand, the system of sliding scales of wages, which previously ensured for workers a share of the industrial boom, now, with the decline of business affairs [and a fall in prices], results more and more frequently only in one body blow after another for them. The trade unions decisively turn away from this wages system. With the dismissal of the sliding system of wages on the part of the workers, and with the systematic breaking of arbitration on the part of the industrialists, the basis disappears for the entire conciliation and arbitration procedure which accompanied the heyday of English trade unionism, and with it - the "social peace". This transformation was officially recognised some years ago by the abolition of the laws of 1867 and 1872, according to which all conflicts between capital and labour were to be settled by a process of conciliation.

At the same time as the constantly prospering business affairs and the stability in the situation of the worker disappeared, so too did the possibility of so ingeniously constructing the trade unions and of so regularly and smoothly making their complicated mechanism function as had been the case previously. This ingenious mechanism and specialised bureaucratism of the trade unions also becomes largely pointless with the collapse of the sliding scales of wages and the standing conciliation procedure.

All trade unions founded in the last decade and a half are distinguished from the older unions by a great simplicity of their organisation and functioning, and are thereby comparable to the trade unions of the continent. But as the amicable arbitration procedure becomes ever more ineffective, the conflicts between capital and labour become ever more questions of power, as we witnessed in the engineers' strike and the Welsh miners' strike. In England too the "social peace" falls back before the social war - the class struggle. The trade unions gradually change from being organisations for ensuring social peace into organisations of struggle in the pattern of the German, French and Austrian trade unions.

Two important symptoms from the recent period show that both the English bourgeoisie and the English proletariat are conscious of the change and arming for serious conflict. In the case of the industrialists this is the league for combatting the parliamentary action of the trade unions, in the case of the workers, the re-emergence of the idea of a general workers' league, which is equally hated by the capitalists and trade unionists of the old school, the supporters of the "social peace", but which clearly betrays amongst the masses of the English proletariat the need for banding together, the awakening of class consciousness in the true sense of the word.

For the arguments with Bernstein and his supporters, three kinds of conclusions can be drawn from the history of English trade unionism which we have outlined in its general features.

Above all, the idea of the direct importance of the trade unions for socialism appears as completely wrong. It is exactly the English trade union movement, to which one turns for support for this argument, which largely owes the successes it has achieved in the past to its purely bourgeois character and its opposition to socialist "utopianism". The historians of trade unionism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, themselves repeatedly and explicitly affirm that the trade union movement in England failed every time to the extent that it was permeated with socialist ideas, and, vice versa, achieved successes to the extent it narrowed its horizons, became shallow, and freed itself of socialism.

It is exactly English trade unionism, the representative of which appears as the sated, correct, narrow-minded and blinkered worker-gentleman who thinks and feels like a bourgeois, which therefore proves that the trade union movement in and of itself is still nothing at all socialist, indeed that under certain circumstances it can be a direct obstacle to the spread of socialist consciousness, just as, vice versa, under certain circumstances socialist consciousness can be an obstacle to purely trade union successes.

In Germany, as on the continent as a whole, trade unions arose from the outset on the ground of class struggle, and, furthermore, of socialist struggle, often directly as a creation, a child of social democracy (see Belgium and Austria). Here they are subordinate to the socialist movement in advance and can reckon on success - completely the opposite to England - only to the extent that they base themselves on the socialist class struggle and are sheltered by it (see the current social-democratic action in Germany to protect the right of coalition). The trade unions of Germany (and of the continent in general) are, from this standpoint, from the standpoint of the emancipatory strivings of the proletariat, more progressive than the English ones, in spite of their weakness and partly in connection with this weakness. To point to the English example is tantamount to advising the German trade unions to leave the ground of socialist class struggle and to place themselves on bourgeois ground. In order to serve the cause of socialism, it is not the German trade unions who must follow in the footsteps of the English, but on the contrary, the English in the footsteps of the German trade unions. "English spectacles", therefore, do not fit Germany, not because the English conditions are more progressive but because from the standpoint of class struggle they are more backward than the German ones.

Moreover, when we turn away from the importance of the trade unions for socialism, from their effect on class consciousness, to the "economic power" which the opportunist theory claims they place into the hands of the workers and with which they are to break the power of capital, then this too turns out to be a fairy tale, and, what is more, "a fairy tale from olden times". In England itself the unshakeable economic power of the trade unions, quite apart from noting with what it was bought, largely belongs to the past. As we have seen, it is connected with a quite definite and indeed exceptional period of English capitalism, with its undivided rule in the world market. This period, which only through its stability and prosperity formed the basis of trade unionism in its actual heyday, will not repeat itself, however, either in England or in any other country.

Even if the German labour movement, following the advice of the opportunists, could and would desire to drop the "Fresslegende" [literarily: eating-up legend] i.e. its socialist character, for the sake of "economic power", and follow in the footsteps of English trade unionism, it would never be able to achieve the latter's former economic power. For one simple reason: because the economic basis of the old trade unionism cannot be artificially conjured up by any opportunism.

Taking everything together, what then do the "English spectacles" of Bernstein turn out to be? A concave mirror of his mode of perception in which all phenomena are turned on their heads. What he takes for the most powerful means of socialist struggle was, in truth, a straightforward obstacle to socialism, and what he regards as the future of German social-democracy is the constantly shrinking past of the English movement in the course of its development on the road to social democracy.

First published in two parts in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Part 1, in No. 105, 9 May 1899; Part 2 in No. 106, 10 May 1899. Translated by Stan Crooke.

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