In 1909, as now, right-wing politicians in the USA were pushing new voter-suppression laws; and at that time vast voter suppression was already routine, against African-Americans in the Southern states. The Socialist Party was still weak (2.8% of the poll in the 1908 presidential election), as was the US union movement, but the SP discussed the threatened block to political advance by electoral means as did the much stronger German Social Democratic Party at the same time. This was the contribution (International Socialist Review, October 1909) by James Connolly, active in the USA between 1903 and 1910, and the foremost leader of Irish socialism 1896-1903 and 1910-1916.
Not the least of the services our comrade Victor Berger has rendered to the socialist cause must be accounted the writing and publishing of that now famous article in which he draws the attention of his readers to the possibility that the ballot will yet be stricken from the hands of the socialist party, and raises the question of the action our party must take in such an emergency.
It must be confessed, however, that the question has not been faced at all squarely by the majority of the critics who have unburdened themselves upon the matter. We have had much astonishment expressed, a great deal of deprecation of the introduction of the question at the present time, and not a little sly fun poked at our comrade. But one would have thought that a question of such a character brought up for discussion by a comrade noted for his moderation – a moderation by some thought to be akin to compromise – would have induced in socialists a desire to seriously consider the elements of fact and probability behind and inspiring the question. What are these facts?
Briefly stated, the facts as they are known to us all are that all over the United States the capitalist class is even now busily devising ways and means by which the working class can be disfranchised. In California it is being done by exacting an enormous sum for the right to place a ticket upon the ballot; in Minnesota the same end is sought by a new primary law; in the south by an educational (?) test to be imposed only upon those who possess no property; in some States by imposing a property qualification upon candidates; and all over by wholesale counting out of socialist ballots, and wholesale counting in of fraudulent votes. In addition to this we have had in Colorado and elsewhere many cases where the hired thugs of the capitalists forcibly occupied the polling booths, drove away the real voters and themselves voted in the name of every citizen on the list.
These are a few of the facts. Now what are the probabilities? One is that the capitalist class will not wait until we get a majority at the ballot box, but will precipitate a fight upon some fake issue whilst the mass of the workers are still undecided as to the claims of capitalism and socialism.
Another is that even if the capitalist class were law-abiding enough, or had miscalculated public opinion enough, to wait until the socialists had got a majority at the ballot box in some presidential election, they would then refuse to vacate their offices, or to recognise the election, and with the Senate and the military in their hands would calmly proceed to seat those candidates for President, etc., who had received the highest votes from the capitalistic electorate. As to the first of these probabilities, the issue upon which a socialist success at the ballot box can be averted from the capitalist class is already here, and I expect at any time to see it quietly but effectually materialise. It is this: we have often seen the capitalist class invoke the aid of the Supreme Court in order to save it some petty annoyance by declaring unconstitutional some so-called labour or other legislation. Now I can conceive of no reason why this same Supreme Court cannot be invoked to declare unconstitutional any or all electoral victories of the socialist party. Some may consider this farfetched. I do not consider it nearly as far-fetched as the decision which applied the antitrust laws solely to trade unions, or used the Inter-State Commerce Acts to prevent strikes upon railways.
I consider that if the capitalist class appealed to the Supreme Court and interrogated it to declare whether a political party which aimed at overthrowing the constitution of the United States could legally operate to that end within the constitution of the United States the answer in the negative which that Court would undoubtedly give would not only be entirely logical, but would also be extremely likely to satisfy every shallow thinker and fanatical ancestor-worshipper in the country.
And if such an eventuality arose, and the ballot was, in comrade Berger’s words, stricken out of our hands, it would be too late then to propound the query which our comrade propounds now, and ask our friends and supporters: what are you going to do about it?
But even while admitting, nay, urging all this on behalf of the pertinency of our comrade’s query, it does not follow that I therefore endorse or recommend his alternative. The rifle is, of course, a useful weapon under certain circumstances, but these circumstances are little likely to occur. This is an age of complicated machinery in war as in industry, and confronted with machine guns, and artillery which kill at seven miles distance, rifles are not likely to be of much material value in assisting in the solution of the labour question in a proletarian manner. It would do comrade Berger good to read a little of the conquests of his countryman, Count Zeppelin, over the domain of the air, and thus think of the futility of opposing even an armed working class to such a power as the airship. Americans have been so enamoured of the achievements of the Wright brothers that too little attention has been paid to the development of the balloon by Zeppelin. Yet in his hands it has evolved into the most perfect and formidable fighting machine ever dreamt of. The words ‘dirigible balloon’ seem scarcely applicable to his creation. It is a balloon, and more. It is a floating ship, divided into a large number of separate compartments, so that the piercing of one even by a shell leaves the others intact and the machine still floating. Nothing less than fire can menace it with immediate destruction. It can carry seventeen tons and with that weight on board can be guided at will, perform all sorts of figures and evolutions, rise or descend, travel fast or remain stationary. It has already been equipped with a quick-firing Krupp gun and shells made for its own special use, and at the tests of the German army has proven itself capable of keeping up a rapid and sustained fire without interfering with its floating or manoeuvring powers. No army on earth, even of highly trained and disciplined men, could withstand an attack from ten of those monsters for as many minutes. It is more than probable that the development of these machines will eventuate in an armed truce from military conquest by the international capitalist class, the consecration of the flying machine to the cold task of holding in check the working class, and the making safe and profitable all sorts of attacks upon social and political rights. In facing such a weapon in the hands of our remorseless and unscrupulous masters the gun of comrade Victor Berger will be as ineffective as the paper ballot in the hands of a reformer.
Is the outlook, then, hopeless? No! We still have the opportunity to forge a weapon capable of winning the fight for us against political usurpation and all the military powers of earth, sea or air. That weapon is to be forged in the furnace of the struggle in the workshop, mine, factory or railroad, and its name is industrial unionism.
A working class organised on the lines on which the capitalist class has built its industrial plants today, regarding every such plant as the true unit of organisation and society as a whole as the sum total of those units, and ever patiently indoctrinated with the idea that the mission of unionism is to take hold of the industrial equipment of society, and erect itself into the real holding and administrative force of the world; such a revolutionary working class would have a power at its command greater than all the achievements of science can put in the hands of the master class. An injunction forbidding the workers of an industrial union to do a certain thing in the interest of labour would be followed by every member of the union doing that thing until jails became eagerly sought as places of honour, and the fact of having been in one would be as proudly vaunted as is now service on the field of Gettysburg; a Supreme Court decision declaring invalid a socialist victory in a certain district could be met by a general strike of all the workers in that district, supported by the organisation all over the country, and by a relentless boycott extending into the private life of all who supported the fraudulently elected officials. Such a union would revive and apply to the class war of the workers the methods and principles so successfully applied by the peasants of Germany in the Vehmgericht, and by those of the Land League in the land war in Ireland in the eighties.
And eventually, in case of a Supreme Court decision rendering illegal the political activities of the socialist party, or instructing the capitalist officials to refuse to vacate their offices after a national victory by that party, the industrially organised workers would give the usurping government a Roland for its Oliver by refusing to recognise its officers, to transport or feed its troops, to transmit its messages, to print its notices, or to chronicle its doings by working in any newspaper which upheld it. Finally, after having thus demonstrated the helplessness of capitalist officialdom in the face of united action by the producers (by attacking said officialdom with economic paralysis instead of rifle bullets) the industrially organised working class could proceed to take possession of the industries of the country after informing the military and other coercive forces of capitalism that they could procure the necessaries of life by surrendering themselves to the lawfully elected government and renouncing the usurpers at Washington. Otherwise they would have to try and feed and maintain themselves. In the face of such organisation the airships would be as helpless as pirates without a port of call, and military power a broken reed.
The discipline of the military forces before which comrade Berger’s rifles would break like glass would dissolve, and the authority of officers would be non-effectual if the soldiery were required to turn into uniformed banditti scouring the country for provisions.
Ireland during the Land League, Paris during the strike of the postmen and telegraphers, the south of France during the strike of the wine growers, the strike of the peasants at Parma, Italy, all were miniature demonstrations of the effectiveness of this method of warfare, all were so many rehearsals in part for this great drama of social revolution, all were object lessons teaching the workers how to extract the virtue from the guns of the political masters.