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#Kropotkin: The Trade Union Congress

Peter Kropotkin about the Trade Union Congress and the social democrats.

Originally published by Freedom in October 1896.

The last Trade Union Congress, which was held during the month past, at Edinburgh, offers a new departure, to which it is essential to draw the attention of all thinking Socialists.

In its routine business, the Congress has not departed much from its predecessors. It has entrusted its Parliamentary Committee to force through Parliament laws relative to the supervision of mines and factories. It has admonished the Government for giving its orders to such firms as do not pay Trade Union wages, and urged that that scandal should cease. But it has refused admission to the Congress to the representatives of three papers which do not pay Trade-union wages. (why are not these papers named?).

The discussion of different technical points of different industries was in all respects highly instructive. Thus, to mention one point only, we learn that out of the 300,000, or so, men and children employed in the mines – not only one thousand, and more, are killed every year, but that also considerably more than a hundred thousand are wounded every year by various accidents. The accuracy of this authoritative statement evidently cannot be doubted, and it goes far to show the greediness of the capitalists.

The same misunderstandings as last year took place concerning the so-called Socialist resolution. It is well known that although most trade-unionists do not extend their demands farther than a demand for “fair wages,” there is amongst them a growing feeling to the effect that the control of the whole of every industrial concern ought to be in the hands of the workers themselves. And there is a steadily growing majority of workers in Britain who are more and more in touch with Socialist ideas, and who simply and plainly wish that the mines and the factories should be socialised, in one way or another, and be managed and owned by the workers. Socialism makes its way in the Trade Unions as everywhere, and although the majority of the workers do not yet rely upon the possibility of such socialisation, very few among them would be opposed to it on principle.

But as Socialism has always been advocated among them in its State’s centralised form, and as all past history of the Unions brings them to distrust the State – it is evident that the unionists hesitate to commit themselves to such resolutions, in which Social Democrats embody, or mean to embody, their ideal of “armies of workers” under State management. The hackneyed example of the State’s arrangement of the Post Office does not appear to their sound minds as an ideal of industrial organisation.

Consequently, the so-called Socialist resolution is always met with a certain opposition, and accepted half-heartedly, as an imperfect expression of the Unionists’ aspirations. So it was also at the last Congress, at which more than three-fourths of the delegates voted some sort of Socialist resolution, but one-fourth opposed it.

And now comes the two points in which the Congress departed from its previous routine.

Owing to the presence of two American and one German delegates, the Edinburgh Congress made a first step towards assuming an international character.

Two delegates of the American Federation of Labour were received with the heartiest greetings; and although they limited themselves to reading at the Congress reports on the general conditions of labour in the States, it is evident that the questions of the International Federation of Labour Unions and of international strikes must have been discussed between the American and the British Unionists.

We heartily greet the appearance of other unionists than British at the British Congress. The last International Labour and Socialist Congress has proved now little interest in their economic affairs and economic struggles the workers can expect to find at Congresses at which Social Democrats are numerous. All the hard struggles by means of which the Trade Unions of this country have constituted their power, ameliorated the conditions of labour (so far as they could be ameliorated without expropriation), and conquered liberties for their unions and strikes – all these struggles do not interest the Social Democrats so long as they do not win seats in Parliaments. In fact, the French deputy, Jaurès, treated the English Unions as Westminster antiquities, and it is now evident that the intention of one section, at least, of the French Social Democracy was to substitute for the Labour Congresses, Congresses of the Social Democratic parliamentary representatives of all nations. At any rate, such movements as those which are now going on amongst the workers of the United States, England, Belgium and Germany, to constitute a Federation of all workers engaged in the shipping trade, or of all miners, and, we hope soon, of the textile trades as well, and the general strike which is brewing out of these movements, do not interest the French and German Social Democrats, who are inclined to look at such movements on the contrary, anything but friendly. Instance, the reception given to the General Strike resolution at the London Congress.

It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that the elements for new Labour Congresses, convoked by the Labour Organisations themselves, and not falling under the domination of political parties – Socialist or not – should be worked out. Most probably, not further than two years hence an International Labour Congress will have to be convoked, instead of the International Socialist and Labour Congress whose seat in 1899 is to be Germany, while everyone knows –the recent expulsion of Tom Mann only too well proves it – that no International Congress can be held in Germany. We greet, therefore, that first step towards the internationalisation of Trade Union Congresses which was made at Edinburgh.

Perhaps, we must mention also the presence of a German unionist delegate at the Edinburgh Congress. But this delegate only came to say that his unions were the true ones, while there are other labour unions in Germany which are not the true ones – probably because they keep apart from Social Democracy and do not contribute to the Social Democratic elections. Labour unions ought to beware of such delegates, who already divide the young labour movement in Germany into two parts – the orthodox and the unorthodox – not because the latter would not be serious enough in their struggle against capitalism, but because they do not join the Parliamentary Social Democratic movement.

An international union of labour organisations ought not to know such divisions. Capital is its enemy. Direct warfare against it – its weapons. Let others use other weapons, if they like; but do not prevent the labour unions from using their own. And don’t measure the orthodoxy of labour unions by their willingness to use other weapons than those of their own choice.

As to the second new venture of the Edinburgh Congress, it is, perhaps, of even still greater importance. For the first time Trade Unionists have joined hands with Co-operators.

It hardly need be said that the shameless behaviour of bosses in Glasgow and Edinburgh, some of whom boycotted the co-operators and even the sisters of those who were employed by the co-operators, was the last drop to bring about the alliance between the Unionist and the Co-operator; but that that alliance was preparing long since is self-evident.

The fact that the Manchester Wholesale Co-operative subscribed £3,000 to the Yorkshire miners strike fund, and opened a considerable credit to the local co-operative stores in the strike region, was a quite new move in the right direction in the history of the Co-operative movement.

True, that in the productive co-operative workshop. labour continues to be exploited for the benefit of the shareholders; and the small share of profits which it allotted to the workers is nothing but what every reasonable capitalist could do to consolidate his monopoly. True, that in some co-operative workshops even the trade union wages were not strictly adhered to. But the Socialist ideas penetrate into the co-operative movement as well. The great bulk of the buyers at co-operative stores, especially in the North, are workers; and, as such, they are forcibly brought to be members of their respective unions, which again must be brought more and more to understand the necessity of taking possession of the necessities for production. The Socialist ideal is thus bound to permeate both the unions and the co-operative organisations.

But if these two movements come to join hands (as was the ideal of Robert Owen and all the earliest Socialists), a new invincible force will be created.

And – what is still more important – that now so much asked for form of economic organisation of Society without Capital and State will be indicated by that union. While the State Socialist knows nothing to advocate but State property, State capitalism, and State management of industries, after the land, the mines, the factories, the railways, and so on, have been socialised, and sees in the Post Office and the railway the ideal of the future society – Life indicates another, far more reasonable and practical solution outside the State, by means of a direct agreement between the consumer and the producer.

That this union cannot be strong, and still less general, so long as the present monopoly in land, factories and capital continues to exist, is self-evident. That co-operation and unionism cannot shake off the yoke of monopoly merely by obtaining fair wages and making economies in the cost of living, is again self-evident.

But their union points out in which direction we must look for the economical organisation of Society when monopoly has been destroyed by the Social Revolution.

One word more. The resolutions of their Congresses are mere suggestions to the body of the workers. Are they less important for that?


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