Daniel De Leon, The Burning Question of Trades Unionism
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The Burning Question of Trades Unionism
by Daniel De Leon
An address delivered at
the New Auditorium Hall, Newark, N.J.,
April 21, 1904
Workingmen and Workingwomen of Newark:
That the Trades Union Question is a burning one is obvious from
the space it fills in the public mind, the acrimony of the discussion
and the wide divergence of opinion on the subject.
Obvious also is the conclusion that a subject that can draw
upon itself so much attention, that can produce so much acrimony, and
on which opinion takes so many shades - running from extreme and
unqualified support through all manner of gradations across the gamut,
to extreme and unqualified opposition - cannot choose but be a vital
one, and certainly must have a latent something about it that will not
Finally, it is obvious that such a question deserves attention
- close, serious and sober - and that the solution be grappled with
and found. Nor is the task impossible. Despite the widely
conflicting views, the solution is not only possible but easy - but
possible and easy only by either rising high enough above, or
penetrating deep enough below the squabble to enable the inquirer to
detect the fact that, despite their being seemingly irreconcilable,
the conflicting views have important points of contact. In other
words, the solution of the problem depends upon the perception of the
fact that there is no real conflict; that what there is is a failure
to harmonize views that are supplemental to one another; and that the
failure proceeds from the blindness of each side to perceive the
element of soundness in the others - a perception without which none
can understand the bearings of his own position, and consequently
stands stock-fast, impotent - except for suicide.
Before entering upon the analysis of the subject, there is one
thing I must request of my audience. It is this: To drop, for the
present, all recollections of the corruption and dishonesty in the
Trades Union Movement that surely will obtrude themselves upon your
minds. Need I say that dishonesty plays an important role in the
issue? It does. I shall come to that. But for the present I shall
eliminate that factor. It can only confuse if taken up now. Leave it
out for the present. The actual and important lines of the question
being first established, the corruption element will then fall of
itself into natural grooves and help to elucidate the principles.
Taken now it can only becloud them.
Never forget this - dishonesty in argument is like a creeping
plant that needs support; it would collapse and lie prone but for some
solid truth around which to wind its tendrils for support. Let's
first ascertain the truth.
Nothing so well illustrates the general situation on the fierce
discussion that is going on on Trades Unionism as a certain choice
poem of our genial New York poet, the late lamented John Godfrey Saxe.
Many of you may have heard it, perhaps even learned it by heart on the
school benches. All of you can hear it with profit once more.
THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny that fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
Why? Why were they all in the wrong? Simply because none
could see where the others were right, and, consequently, was unable
to understand even himself.
Leaving general illustrations and stepping into the concrete,
let us take two or three instances on the question itself.
Take this instance - President Eliot of Harvard says: "The
scab is a hero!" President Gompers of the A. F. of L. says: "The
scab is a scamp!" It may need a superhuman effort, but, I pray you
exercise it. Repress the thoughts of dishonesty that the mention of
these two names must inevitably conjure up to your minds. Let us
examine the two utterances, regardless of who made them. They are
made. That is enough for our purpose. They seem wholly
irreconcilable. Are they, in fact? Let us see:
Here is a shop. What with fines, the intensity of the work
demanded, and other impositions, the wages are inhumanly low. On top
of that, a further reduction is inflicted upon the men, and they
rebel. A strike is on. Presently men who are not starving, but who
either occupy other positions in the employer's service and wish to
ingratiate themselves with their masters, or who despise labor, step
into the shop and help him out. Such instances occurred in the
telegraphers' strike and a shoemakers' strike in New York, and
recently when Yale students took the places of striking car drivers in
New Haven. Who will deny that the man who does such a thing is a scab
and a scamp?
But now, look at this other picture. A number of breweries in
this neighborhood and New York had a contract with their employees;
the contract expired and the breweries wanted a new contract less
favorable to the men. In order to accomplish that they needed the
help of the officers of the union. They obtained it. A contract,
that tied the men's hands and left them at the employers' mercy, is
drawn up and jammed through the union partly under false pretenses and
partly by brute force. Members of the rank and file rebel, and their
spokesman, Valentine Wagner, demands an explanation from the officers.
He is fined for "insubordination," and fine is laid upon fine until
the amount has risen to $80; as he still remains "insubordinate," and
as the officers are in league with the brewery bosses, the man is
expelled, thrown out of work as "not being a member of the union," and
left to starve. These facts have all been made public and proved.
Thereupon, to the threat that if he dared work in any brewery lie
would be called a "scab," Valentine Wagner announced that not only
would he dare, but that he would deem it an honor to be called a
"scab"! Who would deny that Valentine Wagner is a hero?
Are the two utterances, "The scab is a scamp," and "The scab is
a hero," utterly irreconcilable? Evidently not. Evidently they
harmonize perfectly. And in perceiving the common ground for both, we
are enlightened on what the "scab" is. The "scab" is he who by his
voluntary conduct helps to lower the standard of the worker. He who
for the pleasure of it, or out of currishness to the master, will help
to break a strike for better conditions is a "scab" and "scamp," and a
"scamp" and "scab" is the union officer who conspires with the master
against the interests of the men. They are both scabs because, by
helping to down the worker, they sap the nation and introduce disease,
death and the pestilence of a degraded people. That is the test of
the "scab." The scab may wear the union label as well as not.
Take this other instance - one set of people says: "The union
must be a good thing because the capitalists hate it"; another set
says: "The union is a bad thing because the capitalists love it."
These two utterances seem wholly irreconcilable. Are they, in fact?
Let us see:
Look at what is going on in Colorado. The right of habeas
corpus, the dignity of the courts, the right of free assemblage and
free speech - in short, all the great civic conquests of the past -
are trampled on by the capitalist class in power in that state, and
all for the purpose of smashing the Western Federation of Miners. If
ever there was an instance of hatred this is one. The capitalists
hate that union to the point of endangering even the privileges that
their own class still stands in need of.
But now look at this other picture. Charles Corregan, a member
of the Syracuse, N.Y., local of the International Typographical Union,
speaking on the public stump for the Socialist Labor Party, gave facts
and figures concerning an important factor in the labor movement, to
wit, the manner in which the pure and simple trades union is run by
its officers, and he illustrated the points with the officers of his
own union. He is thereupon tried by these officers, convicted and
fined in his absence without charges being presented to him; and as he
refused to pay a fine imposed under such conditions, a strike was
ordered in the shop against him and he was thrown out of work. The
very fact that a strike could be called against him, that the employer
virtually lined up with the officers, points to the point I am
reaching. Corregan sued the union for reinstatement and damages, the
court threw the case out and, mark you, the capitalist press,
particularly that of New York, announced the decision with flaming and
jubilating headlines as a union victory.
Are the two utterances, "The capitalists hate the union" and
"The capitalists love the union," as irreconcilable as they looked at
What is it that discloses their reconcilability? Why, the
facts, which, taken together, point to the common ground of the
utterances, and thereby clarify both. That common ground tells us
that capitalism justly sees in Socialism, in the Socialist Labor
Party, its unquestioned foe, while with equal accuracy it perceives in
the union an organism of various possibilities - a possibility of
injury to the capitalist class, and also a possibility of safety and
protection; where the possibility of injury takes shape, as in
Colorado, hatred is developed for the union; where the possibility of
safety and protection takes shape, as in Corregan's case, love is
developed for the union.
We are making progress out of the woods. But, before
proceeding further in our march, let us establish a collateral point
hinted at by these facts.
The country has in recent years been twice convulsed by two
economic-political issues that may be called great when we consider
the millions of votes that they shared among them. And both these
issues may yet spring up again. The one is the tariff, the other the
When the tariff was the issue, the Democratic free trader
declared that protection was robbery; on the other hand, the
Republican protectionist pronounced free trade unpatriotic. The free
trader argued that the tariff was like an artificial mountain raised
at the gates of the nation and, thereby, increasing the cost of goods.
"Tear down these mountains," said he, "and prices will decline." That
is all true, but we Socialists know that if the artificial mountains
of the tariff are removed, prices will go down true enough, but seeing
labor is a merchandise under the capitalist system of production, its
own price, wages, must go down along with that of all other
merchandise. The advantage, accordingly, of lower prices is lost to
the working class.
The Republican protectionist argued that it was the duty of
government to promote by protecting and protect by promoting the
interests of the people. "A tariff," said the Republicans, "protects
the country inasmuch as it enables it to differentiate its industries,
unchecked by foreign competition." This also is all true, but we
Socialists know that if government is to be at all justified it is
upon the ground of the protection it affords to the people; and we
also know that, under the capitalist system, the "people" who count
are not the workers, but the capitalist shirkers, and, consequently,
that the advantage to be derived from the theory of protection does
not extend to the workers, to the majority of the people. They are
left out in the cold. The tariffs protect the capitalists against
foreign competition, but not the workers. The largest infloods of
foreign labor have been instigated and taken place under Republican
Accordingly, while both "free trade" and protection have an
element of truth in them, that element is in both cases lost to the
people under capitalist rule. It takes Socialism, the Socialist
Republic, to harmonize the two opposites. Under the dome of the
Socialist Republic the discord between the two principles vanishes,
and only the truth remains. Under Socialism the "mountains" of
tariffs may be safely removed: the decline in prices will not then
drag down labor's earnings because labor will have ceased to be
merchandise and become a human factor - what it now is only in the
speeches of capitalist politicians at election time, and in the
sermons of the political parsons between election and election.
Likewise with regard to protection. The principle of organized mutual
protection through government becomes truthful and effective only
under Socialism where, there being only one class, the working class,
government is truly of, by, and for the people.
It is similarly with the silver question. The free coinagists
denounced the gold standard men as robbers; the gold standard men
denounced the free coinagists as bandits - and each was right and both
were wrong. As to the free coinagists: their theory was that money
is a good thing and that the more there is of a good thing the larger
is the per capita thereof for the people. We know that right as the
premises are, under capitalism the conclusions become wrong.
There are infinitely more hats, shoes, coats and other good
things today than thirty years ago in the land; but everybody knows
that the workingman's per capita of these good things has not
increased. He has remained where he was, if not even below, while the
increase has gone to the Anna Goulds, the Consuelo Vanderbilts, the
international capitalists in short. And we understand the reason why.
Under capitalism, the workingman being a merchandise, his price
(wages) does not depend upon the quantity of good things in existence,
but upon the quantity of him in the labor market. The same as,
regardless of the quantity of money there may be in the money market,
pork chops will fetch a smaller price if the pork chop market is
overstocked, so will the merchandise labor fetch a smaller price,
however much money there may be, if the labor market is overstocked.
And capitalism does that very thing. Privately-owned improved
machinery, and concentration of plants, ruthlessly displace labor and
overstock the labor market.
Thus, capitalism renders absurd the premises above mentioned of
free coinagism. On the other hand, the gold standard men proceeded
from the principle that money is a merchandise and must have value,
from which they concluded that the workingman would be robbed unless
he was paid with what they call a l00-cent dollar. Here again, right
as the premises are, capitalism renders the conclusion false. As
shown above, labor being a merchandise, it matters nothing what the
counter is in which it is paid. Its price depends upon its market
value; and it is all one to it whether it gets paid with one 100-cent
gold dollar for its day's toil, or with two fifty-cent silver dollars.
Accordingly, while both the free coinage and the gold standard
principle have an element of truth in them, under capitalism the truth
is lost to the workers. It takes Socialism to harmonize the two.
Under Socialism, labor no longer being a merchandise, the more good
things it produces, the more it has, and the 100-cent dollar ceases to
be its merchandise badge and, thereby, a fraud upon it.
These two sets of illustrations will suffice. They throw light
upon what otherwise is puzzling in modern society, to wit, that
correct principles work evil. Free trade and protection are both
accompanied with increasing masses of pauperism; gold standard and
silver standard leave nothing to choose between them for the masses.
The sense in each is turned into nonsense by capitalist rule; it is
Socialism that alone can redeem them.
And as the Socialist key alone can unlock the secret of this
conflict of thought, it is the Socialist key alone that can unlock the
secret of the conflict of thought with regard to the burning question
of trades unionism. Equipped with this key, we shall be able to
acquire a full grasp of the question at hand, and see the elephant in
full with all his members coordinate, and not as a jumble of "rope,"
"spear," "snake," "wall," "tree" and what other things the blind men
of the story took the animal to be.
PRO- AND ANTI-UNIONIST ARGUMENTS
Let us take two types on the question - both honest - but one
holding that the trades union pure and simple is all-sufficient and
useful, while the other holds that the trades union is worthless; in
other words, one holding the trunk of the elephant and claiming he is
a snake, the other holding his tail and claiming he is a rope; bring
the two together, and, both being honest, this dialogue will take
place between them:
Anti-unionist -- "Drop your union, it is no good. Smash it!"
Pro-unionist -- "What! my union no good? I am a member of the
Housesmiths' and Bridgemen's Union. I know what I am talking about.
Before we had a union we could barely make two dollars a day. Now
that we have a union I make four and sometimes five dollars. Don't
tell me the union is no good."
Anti-unionist -- "You are hasty in your judgment. You are
judging all the unions by one, and your own union by only one epoch of
its existence. I grant that through your union you are now getting
two dollars more. But that is only a temporary affair. Exceptional
circumstances aided Sam Parks in bringing up your wages. But how long
will that last? Look at the other unions, take the census of the men.
Without exception, earnings are lower. The census itself admits that
wages are now lower than they were ten years ago. What happened to
the older unions will happen to yours. They were not able to raise
earnings of the working class. Already the day is at hand when your
union will be in the same fix. No, it is not true that the union can
raise wages, speaking of the union in general."
Pro-unionist -- "Well, that's so. Speaking with union men of
other trades, they all say how hard it is for them to get along. Yes,
the union cannot raise earnings. But it is a good thing all the same;
it can keep wages from declining."
Anti-unionist -- "You are mistaken again. Look over the field.
Look below the surface. You will find that, despite the union,
earnings go down as a whole. Look at the savage reductions inflicted
upon the steel and iron workers. A numerically strong union. Despite
the union, a savage reduction was made."
Pro-unionist -- "Well, I can't deny that (after a pause), but
you must admit that if we had no union the decline would be swifter.
Will you deny that the union acts as a brake upon the decline? Would
we not be down to the coolie stage today if it were not for the
Anti-unionist -- "You have admitted that the union cannot raise
wages; you have admitted that it cannot keep wages where they are; and
you have admitted that it cannot prevent their reduction. Your last
ditch is that it keeps wages from going down as fast as they would
otherwise go. I'll now drive you out of that ditch. If your theory
means anything it means that the union will last, at least, as a
brake. Now you know that periodically men are laid off by the
thousands, and hundreds of thousands. These laid-off men want to
live; they will offer themselves for a lower price. If your union
strikes it goes to smash, if it does not strike it melts to smash, so
that, even as a brake, the day is at hand when your unions will exist
Pro-unionist -- "You have hit me hard. Perhaps you think you
have knocked me out. But you have not. As sure as a man will raise
his hand by mere instinct, to shield himself against a blow, so surely
will workingmen, instinctively, periodically gather into unions. The
union is the arm that labor instinctively throws up to screen its
Unquestionably both the pure and simple pro-unionist and the
anti-unionist are knocked out. They have knocked out each other.
The pro-unionist's last statement is a knockout blow to the man
who imagines that the union is a smashable thing.
On the other hand, the anti-unionist's argumentation, whereby
he brings out the fact that the union's claims of potential triumph
are false, and that, driven from defeat to defeat, the union can
gather for the next defeat only, knocks out the pro-unionist. That is
to say, the pure and simple pro-unionist.
In their mutual trituration the materials are gathered with
which Socialism can build the four-jointed truth. Let us now take the
"tail" and "trunk" and "legs" and "ears" and "body" of the elephant as
furnished us by these two typical disputants, and construct the
animal. The disputants' positions will be found to be, not inherently
irreconcilable, but fully reconcilable.
Starting from the principle, an undeniable one, that the spirit
of union formation is an instinctive one, the question immediately
presents itself: Is there no way by which the instinctive motion of
self-defense can be rendered effective? Does it follow that because
the man who raises his hand to protect his head from the threatened
blow with a crowbar, has both his arm and his skull crushed, that
therefore the instinctive motion of self-defense might as well be
given up? The question suggests the immediate answer. The answer is
no, it does not follow. And the question, furthermore, indicates what
does follow. It follows that the arm which periodically is thrown up
in self-defense, must arm itself with a weapon strong enough to resist
- at least to break the blow.
Naval warfare did not end when guns of stronger power were
contrived. What followed was that stronger armor plate was contrived
for the battleships; nor did naval warfare end there; when battleships
became so impregnable, contact mines were invented which sink these as
if by magic. And so it can be done here.
Pro-unionists always talk about the union being a "natural
condition." But they forget that so are hair and nails. No sensible
man will pull hairs and nails out by the root; but neither would any
sensible man say that because hair and nails are natural they must be
allowed to grow untrimmed and untended. Pro-unionists always talk
about the condition under which the union was born. So are babes born
under puny condition. No sensible man would kill the babe because so
born; but neither will any sensible man propose to keep the babe
forever in the condition under which it was born. That it is a
natural growth is an important fact to recognize, but how to improve
it is equally important, and that can be done by bringing the above
pro- and anti-unionist arguments together.
The last anti-unionist argument condenses in itself all the
previous ones. It correctly points out that the large displacements
of labor render the union futile. It implies unionism in general, but
that is a mistake. It is true if applied to unionism as it is today,
that is to say, in the babe form under which it was born.
My point will be made clear if we suggest to both the
pro-unionist and the anti-unionist that all the members of a trade be
enlisted in the union - those at work, those temporarily displaced,
and those that may be considered permanently displaced. At the bare
thought of such a proposition both the pro-unionist and the
anti-unionist will throw up their hands; and both their gestures of
hand and face indicate that neither of the two has of the union any
but a babe condition notion.
Why will the pro-unionist look dismayed at the proposition? He
will because he knows that his union is there to give jobs to its
members; that none join it but for jobs; and, consequently, that if
the applicants exceed the jobs the union would immediately go to
pieces, if they are all inside. The notion of the anti-unionist is
the exact reverse of the pro-unionist's notion. And both are right
from their standpoint, but their standpoint is wrong; it is as wrong
as that of the blind men at the several limbs of the elephant. The
thought suggested by the pro-unionist's last argument, that the union
is like the instinctive motion of the man who raises his arm to
protect his head when assailed, gives us in hand the method to proceed
Instructed upon the nature of the weapon of assault, man will
strengthen the arm that he throws up in defense of his head. But the
effectiveness of that strengthening depends entirely upon the
correctness of his idea on the nature of the instrument of assault.
In the babe condition under which the union is born naturally,
it has no conception of the nature of the weapon that it instinctively
raises up its arm in self-defense against.
In that natural and original babe condition the union does not
realize that its members are merchandise in the present state of
society; it does not realize the law that governs the value and price
of merchandise; consequently, it does not realize the law that
underlies its own value and price, that is, its wages; it does not
realize the cause of its degraded merchandise status; it does not
realize that its lack of the natural (land) and social (capital)
opportunities keep it down; accordingly, it does not realize there is
no improvement, let alone salvation, for it so long as it labors under
the status of merchandise; finally, and most important of all, and as
a result of all, it does not understand that it cannot improve faster
than the rest of the working class.
In other words, it does not understand the import of the
"solidarity of labor."
It matters not what phrases the pure and simple trades union
may use, the fact that none of them would like today to see all the
members of the trade in the union, the fact that the trades not
directly concerned, aye, even those directly concerned, do not rise in
indignation when such other trades as the railroaders are found
willing to transport militias from one end of the country to the other
in order to break a strike - these facts demonstrate that the meaning
of the word solidarity is a closed book to the pro-unionist.
On the other hand, the anti-unionist is utterly mistaken when
he proceeds from the theory that this closed book is to remain closed;
in other words that the union can never rise above its babe state of
natural birth; in other words, that the union is useless.
Leaving for later on the feature of the remoter utility of the
union, in fact, its real revolutionary and historic mission, let us be
first clear upon the fundamental error that, odd enough to say, both
the pure and simple pro-unionist and the anti-unionist stand.
The honest pro-unionist frankly admits that the best he can
expect of his union is to act as a brake on the decline. In other
words, he admits that the union only serves as a rear guard to a
retreating army. Obviously, from that standpoint the anti-unionist's
position is impregnable when he holds that the rear guard of a
retreating army, which can do nothing but retreat, is a futile thing.
But equally obvious is the fact that the whole strength of the
anti-unionist position lies in the babe original condition that the
union has remained in.
The point need but be made and it will be accepted by every
thinking man that all the reasons which the anti-unionist advances why
the union is bound to go to smash through the displacement of labor
will fall flat the moment the union gets out of its natural, original
babe condition, realizes that it not only endangers the future but
that it also loses the present by turning itself into a jobs-providing
machine. Even if the union cannot grasp its great historic and
revolutionary mission, it certainly must, for the sake of the
immediate present, be supposed to be willing to adapt its methods, not
to the babe, but the adult conditions of capitalism.
Capitalism displaces labor; capitalism needs a large army of
idle and reserve labor for the periods of industrial expansion.
By constituting itself a jobs-furnishing institution, the union
turns itself into a pint measure into which it is impossible for the
gallon measure of labor to be received. And thus it is not only the
capitalist, from in front, but labor, from behind, that triturates the
union. In order to be able to contain the gallon measure of labor the
union must expand to gallon size; in order to expand to gallon size it
must drop its idle aspirations as a jobs - furnishing monopoly. And
this can be done only if it rises to the elevation of its political
mission. Then will it understand the solidarity of its class
generally and of the members of its trade in particular.
Even if as many 50,000 out of a trade of 100,000 members cannot
be provided for with jobs, the union could do better by taking them
all in. But this sounds like a purely chimerical idea under the
general babe condition notions that exist. The chimera, however,
becomes possible if the members are all tutored to understand that the
best the union can do for them today is to check the decline and
prevent it from going as fast as it otherwise would.
Not only in the long run, but all along, would such a union
fare at least as well as it fares today, besides being in a condition
to actually fulfill its great revolutionary historic mission that I
have all along been alluding to.
What is that great historic revolutionary mission?
It must be admitted that however philosophic, possibly even
Socialist, the anti-unionist may pronounce himself, he is on this
subject not a bit more enlightened than the pro-unionist.
It is to me surprising to find men who call themselves
Socialists, and who reason socialistically up to a certain point,
suddenly go to pieces when they touch the union question. They take
certain facts into consideration, these facts correctly point to the
eventual destruction of the union, and from these they conclude that
the union might as well be smashed now as later. They fail to
consider all the facts in the case. They are the real utopians of
today who imagine the Socialist Commonwealth can be established like
spring establishes itself through its balmy atmosphere, and without
effort melts away the winter snows. These anti-union utopians only
see the political feature of the labor movement. According to them,
all that a lance would need is its iron head.
On the other hand, the pro-unionists have their noses so close
to - the ground that they fail to see the political aspect of the
trades union movement, and can only see what they call its industrial
aspect. In other words, they virtually hold that all that a lance
would need is its shaft. It goes without saying that neither he who
thinks a lance is all iron head, nor he who thinks that it is all
shaft has a correct idea of what a lance is, or what its uses are.
Each may have a technical, theoretic, more or less practical
knowledge of each particular part of a lance, but a lance neither of
them will have, nor can wield.
I shall show you that unless the political aspect of the labor
movement is grasped, Socialism will never triumph; and that unless its
trades union aspect is grasped the day of its triumph will be the day
of its defeat.
Who of you has not heard some workingman when told that some
fellow workingman of his was nominated for Mayor, or for Governor, or
for Congress, sneeringly say: "What's he? What could he do in
Congress? What does he know about law? Why, he wouldn't know how to
move!" The matter is serious; it is no laughing matter. The
workingman who utters himself in that way is right and he is wrong.
He is absolutely right when he considers that the workingman is not a
fit man to handle the laws of the land; but he is wrong when he
considers that that is a disqualification. In other words, he is
wrong in supposing that the political mission of labor is to dabble
with or tinker upon capitalist laws.
And mark you, his blunder proceeds direct, both from the
pro-unionist industrial mental attitude and from the anti-unionist's
political mental attitude. In this respect is realized into what
errors the political anti-unionist drops in his own domain of
politics, and into what error the industrial pro-unionist drops in his
own industrial domain - due to the circumstance that both fail to
realize that their various domains dovetail into each other.
Open any law book, whatever the subject be - contract, real
estate, aye, even marital relations, husband and wife, father and son,
guardian and ward - you will find that the picture they throw upon the
mind's canvas is that of everyone's hands at everyone's throat.
Capitalist law reflects the material substructure of capitalism. The
theory of that substructure is war, conflict, struggle. It can be no
otherwise. Given the private ownership of natural and social
opportunities, society is turned into a jungle of wild beasts, in
which the "fittest" wild beast terrorizes the less "fit," and these in
turn imitate among themselves the "fit" qualities of the biggest
brute. No nuptial veils of lace or silk can conceal this state of
things on the matrimonial field; no rhetoric can hide it on any other
field. The rawboned struggle is there. It is inevitable. It is a
shadow cast by the angles of fact of the capitalist system.
Now, then, is it the mission of the labor or Socialist movement
to continue or to uproot the material conditions that cast the shadow?
Its mission is to uproot it. Consequently its mission cannot be to
tinker at the laws that capitalism finds it necessary to enact. As
well say that a housekeeper is unfit to clean a neglected house
because she has no technical knowledge of the construction of the
vermin that has been rioting in it, as to say that, because labor has
no knowledge of the technique of the vermin of capitalist laws, it is
unfit to take the broom handle and sweep the vermin into the ash
barrel of oblivion.
Accordingly, the political aspect of the labor movement spells
revolution. It points out exactly the duty of the Socialist or
classconscious workingmen elected to office - no tinkering, no
compromise, unqualified overthrow of existing laws. That means the
dethronement of the capitalist class.
And what does that, in turn, mean with regard to the subject in
Did you notice, and did you realize, all that there was in the
capitalist threat of closing down the shops and stopping production if
Bryan was elected in 1896? We know that Bryan was a reactionary
capitalist; nevertheless, the fact was brought out in his campaign by
that upper-capitalist threat that the ruling capitalists have it in
their power to create a panic any time the government slips from their
hands. What places that power in their hands? Now watch close, think
close - What places that power in their hands is the pure and simple
trades union: it is the fact that the working class is not organized.
And I have shown you that the pure and simple trades union is unable
to organize the working class; that it keeps the working class
The majority of the voters are workingmen. But even if this
majority were to sweep the political field on a classconscious, that
is, a bona fide labor or Socialist ticket, they would find the
capitalist able to throw the country into the chaos of a panic and to
famine unless they, the workingmen, were so well organized in the
shops that they could laugh at all shut-down orders, and carry on
Such a complete organization is impossible under pure and
simple trades union methods; being impossible on the industrial field,
the seeming unity that swept the political field would be a flash in
Political organization must necessarily partake today of
capitalist conditions; accordingly, the votes cast for a Congressman,
for instance, are not the votes of any one trade, but of a mixture of
scores of trades.
Civilized society will know no such ridiculous thing as
geographic constituencies. It will only know industrial
constituencies. The parliament of civilization in America will
consist, not of Congressmen from geographic districts, but of
representatives of trades throughout the land, and their legislative
work will not be the complicated one which a society of conflicting
interests, such as capitalism, requires but the easy one which can be
summed up in the statistics of the wealth needed, the wealth
producible, and the work required - and that any average set of
workingmen's representatives are fully able to ascertain, infinitely
better than our modern rhetoricians in Congress.
But we are not there yet, nor will we be there the day we shall
have swept the political field. We shall not be there for the simple
reason that in order to get there through that first political victory
we shall have been compelled to travel along the lines of capitalist
political demarcations; and these I have shown you are essentially
non-unionist; that is to say, they ignore industrial bonds and
recognize only geographic ones.
It follows that, today, the very best of political organization
is wholly exclusive of industrial organization, and will have to
continue so until the political victory has been won, and the trades
organizations have been able to continue production in the teeth of
capitalist revolt; until the nation shall have had time to reconstruct
itself upon the labor - that is, the Socialist basis.
Thus we see that the head of the lance of the Socialist
movement is worthless without the shaft. We see that they are not
even parallel, but closely connected affairs; we see that the one
needs the other, that while the head, the political movement, is
essential in its way, the shaft of the lance, the industrial movement,
is requisite to give it steadiness. The labor movement that has not a
well-pointed political lance-head can never rise above the babe
condition in which the union is originally born; on the other hand,
unhappy the political movement of labor that has not the shaft of the
trades union organization to steady it. It will inevitably become a
freak affair. The head of the lance may "get there," but unless it
drags in its wake the strong shaft of the trades union it will have
"got there" to no purpose.
Accordingly, the trades union question is indeed a burning one.
On it is pivoted the success of the Socialist movement. And for the
reason I have indicated, the confusion on the subject is inevitable.
Seeing that a thing called a union may act as a drag upon the
Socialist movement, the temptation is strong upon the part of
anti-unionists to drop it. I have shown you how fatal such dropping
would be. The political and the industrial movement are one; he who
separates them dislocates the Socialist movement.
I should not close without some concreter advice. Should we
join unions? Should we not join them? It seems to me these concrete
questions stand answered by what I have said before. Nevertheless, he
in whose mind such a question still arises is led thereto by the
thought of the corrupt practices that exist in unions. I shall take
up that point summarily. It now can be handled without giving it
undue proportions. It now may even be handled to advantage and help
to clinch previous points.
There is no difference between what is called the corruption in
the unions and what is noticed in shipwrecks when men become
cannibals. I cannot now think of any of the numerous corrupt labor
leaders, whom we all know of, who did not start honest enough. But
coupled to his honesty was ignorance. He knew not the kind of a
weapon that labor instinctively raises its arm to ward off when it
shapes itself into unions. He failed, of course. He then imputed the
failure to inevitableness. The capitalist helped him along. He lost
all hope in the working class. He then decided to feather his own
nest. Friendly relations between him and capitalist thought followed
inevitably, and he became what Mark Hanna so well called him - the
labor lieutenant of the capitalist class.
In that capacity we have seen him engineer strikes in favor of
one competing capitalist' against another. In that capacity we have
seen him act as an agent of the stock exchange, starting strikes to
lower stock, or keeping up strikes to favor competing concerns.
Of course, he could not do this if the rank and file of the
union were enlightened. For this reason it was in his interest, and
in the interest of the class whose lieutenant he is, to keep
enlightenment from the masses.
Frequently, also, his position enables him to compel the
workingmen of his trade to accept his yoke before they can get work.
He who says remedy this evil by any one means holds silly
language. The evil must be attacked by as many means as seem
Shall we then "join unions"? The Socialist Labor Party has
answered the question by endorsing the Socialist Trade and Labor
Alliance, and by waging unflagging war against the Gompers pack; and
the answer that the party gave is justified by the light of the
analysis that I have submitted to you.
That analysis shows you that trades organizations are
essential; they are essential to break the force of the onslaught of
the capitalist, but this advantage is fruitful of good only in the
measure that the organization prepares itself for the day of final
Accordingly, it must be every Socialist's endeavor to organize
his trade. If there is an organization of his trade in existence that
is not in the hand of a labor lieutenant of capital, he should join it
and wheel it into line with the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance.
If, however, the organization is entirely in the hands of such
a labor lieutenant of capital; if its membership is grown so fast to
him and he to them, that the one cannot be shaken from the other; if,
accordingly, the organization, obedient to the spirit of capitalism,
insists upon dividing the working class by barriers more or less high
and chicanery against the admission of all the members of the trade
who apply for admission; if his grip of mental corruption upon it is
such as to cause a majority of its members to applaud and second his
endeavors to keep that majority at work at the sacrifice of the
minority within and of the large majority of the trade without - in
that and in all such cases, such an organization is not a limb of the
labor movement, it is a limb of capitalism; it is a guild; it is a
degeneration back to the old starting point of the bourgeois or
capitalist class; and though it decks itself with the name of "labor"
it is but a caricature, because a belated reproduction, of the old
Such a bizarre resuscitation of pristine bourgeois
organizations may mask itself all it likes with the mask of "labor,"
but it does so only to the injury of the working class, of the
proletariat, and it deserves no quarter at the Socialist's hands.
Such an organization is no more a labor organization than is
the army of the czar of Russia, which, though composed wholly of
workingmen, is officered by the exploiting class. In such a case the
Socialist must endeavor to set up a bona fide labor trades union and
to do what he can to smash the fraud. The labor cannon that one day
will surely decimate the czar's army, and defeat it, will bring
redemption even to the workingmen in that army, although many of them
may be killed by it.
Let me sum up, starting with where I closed.
In the first place, the trades union has a supreme mission.
That mission is nothing short of organizing by uniting, and uniting by
organizing, the whole working class industrially - not merely those
for whom there are jobs, accordingly, not only those who can pay dues.
This unification or organization is essential in order to save the
eventual and possible victory from bankruptcy, by enabling the working
class to assume and conduct production the moment the guns of the
public powers fall into its hands - or before, if need be, if
capitalist political chicanery pollutes the ballot box. The mission
is important also in that the industrial organization forecasts the
future constituencies of the parliaments of the Socialist Republic.
In the second place, the trades union has an immediate mission.
The supreme mission of trades unionism is ultimate. That day is not
yet. The road thither may be long or short, but it is arduous. At
any rate, we are not yet there.
Steps in the right direction, so-called "immediate demands,"
are among the most precarious. They are precarious because they are
subject and prone to the lure of the "sop" or the "palliative" that
the foes of labor's redemption are ever ready to dangle before the
eyes of the working class, and at which, aided by the labor
lieutenants of the capitalist class, the unwary are apt to snap - and
But there is a test by which the bait can be distinguished from
the sound step, by which the trap can be detected and avoided, and yet
the right step forward taken. That test is this: Does the
contemplated step square with the ultimate aim? If it does, then the
step is sound and safe; if it does not, then the step is a trap and
The "immediate step" that acts like a brake on the decline of
wages belongs to the former category, provided only the nature of the
brake is not such that it inevitably invites a future decline, that
requires a further brake and which brake only invites some later
decline, and so on, towards a catastrophe or towards final cooliedom.
We have seen that the pure and simple trades union belongs to
the latter category, the category of "traps," and we have seen the
reason why - it is merely a jobs-securing machine; consequently, it
inevitably rends the working class in twain and, on the whole, has the
love and affection of the capitalist exploiter.
In the third place, and finally, the union formation, with its
possibility for good, being a natural, an instinctive move, is bound
to appear, and reappear, and keep on reappearing, forever offering to
the intelligent, serious and honest men in the labor or Socialist
movement the opportunity to utilize that instinctive move by equipping
it with the proper knowledge, the proper weapon, that shall save it
from switching off into the pure and simple quagmire so beloved, and
develop into the new trades union so hated of capitalism.
This is the theoretical part of the burning question of trades
unionism. Its practical part implies struggle, dauntless struggle
against, and war to the knife with that combination of ignoramuses,
ripened into reprobates - the labor faker who seeks to coin the
helplessness of the proletariat into cash for himself, and the
"intellectual" (God save the mark!) who has so superficial a knowledge
of things that the mission of unionism is a closed book to him; who
believes the union will "fritter out of existence"; who, consequently,
is actually against the union, all his pretenses of love for it
notwithstanding; and who meantime imagines he can promote Socialism by
howling with pure and simple wolves that keep the working class
divided and, consequently, bar the path for the triumph of Socialism,
or, as the capitalist _Wall Street Journal_ well expressed it,
"constitute the bulwark of modern society against Socialism."
The trades union question is, accordingly, not only a burning
one, it presents the most trying aspect of the Socialist movement. It
brings home to us the fact that not theory only is needed but manly
fortitude --that fortitude which the Socialist Labor Party gathers,
builds and tests, and without which the Socialist or labor movement
becomes ridiculous or infamous.
I desire to ask the speaker whether he considers it wise for a
political party to identify itself with a trades union organization if
such identification causes the political party to be kept back?
This question is a begging of the question. It proceeds from
assuming as settled the very premises that are under discussion. It
proceeds from the assumption which I denied, that a party of Socialism
can ignore the trades union. I shall nevertheless answer it. It
enables me to take up the question by entering through another gate.
Some eight months ago, when I last delivered an address here in
Newark, a gentleman who is now associated with the questioner in
setting up here in Newark a so-called Essex County Independent
Socialist Club, Mr. Harry Carless, spoke after me and said in
substance - the gentleman who just asked the question was present, he
will admit that I quote my critic of that day correctly. My critic
said: "The Socialist Labor Party should have nothing to do with the
trades unions. Affiliation with trades unions keeps the party back.
A political party wants to take in as many people as possible. It
wants to be as large as possible. A union does not. I am a member of
a union, the Silver Polishers', and I am also a Socialist. My union
had a meeting this afternoon; all that they want is to get higher
wages and to keep all others of the trade out. They adopted a
resolution along this line, and I voted with them in the interest of
the organization. Now, their position, like that of all unions, is
purely selfish. What has the Socialist Labor Party to do with such
things? It should keep its hands off. If it does not it will
My answer was this: "The gentleman furnishes me with the very
facts that overthrow him. He is a member of a trades union that
wishes to keep out applicants. What would be his fix in a Socialist
party? Say his Socialist organization is in session in the evening,
and the men whom he, along with the other members of his trades union,
refused admission in the afternoon, knock at the door applying for
membership. What will he do? He correctly stated that a political
party needs numbers. He will have to admit them into his Socialist
party organization. And what will happen when those men come in and
hear him making a grandiloquent speech on the 'solidarity of labor,'
on the 'necessity of workingmen to unite,' on the 'brotherhood of the
wage slave,' and on all those things that a Socialist, a good
Socialist, as the gentleman says he is, is bound to emphasize? What
do you think will happen, when the men whom he has just voted to keep
out of his union hear him thus glibly declaiming? Why, they'll say he
is a hypocrite; they'll denounce him roundly for preaching one thing
and practicing another. They will even bring charges against him.
And, if his organization is really a Socialist organization, he will
be expelled and justly so. But even if it does not come so far, he
will have discovered that a Socialist party cannot play ostrich on the
economic or trades union question. If it is a party of Socialism, it
is a party of labor. In a party of Socialism the trades union is
latent. It cannot be ignored. It will not ignore you."
"But suppose," I went on to say, "that, feeling a presentiment
of what is in store for him if he votes to admit them into his party
organization, he votes to keep them out. What will he have done then?
He will have impressed upon his political organization, which wants
large numbers, the characteristics of the backward pure and simple
union with which he blandly floats along - another evidence that the
trades union question is bound to assert itself."
Was not that the answer I gave your friend? With what face can
you, then, come here tonight and ask the question that you did?
There is no such thing as a political party of labor "having
nothing to do with the unions." It must have. It must either inspire
the union with the broad, political purpose, and thus dominate it by
warring on the labor faker and on the old guild notions that hamstring
the labor movement, or it is itself dragged down to the selfish trade
interests of the economic movement, and finally drawn down into the
latter's subservience to the capitalist interests that ever fasten
themselves to the selfish trade interests on which the labor faker, or
labor lieutenant of the capitalist class, thrives.
The notion implied in the words of our friend who asked the
question, the notion that numbers is the important thing and not
soundness, often leads to bizarre results. A recent instance is
At the late annual convention of Gompers' A. F. of L., Max
Hayes, of the said so-called Socialist party, introduced a Socialist
resolution. The resolution was snowed under by a veritable avalanche
of something like 11,000 votes. About a month later, the Socialist
Trade and Labor Alliance held its annual convention. The S.T. and
L.A. is a trades union built strictly upon the Socialist lines of
the resolution which Max Hayes introduced in Boston. But the S.T.
and L.A. is a very much smaller body. At its annual convention it
numbered barely twenty delegates. Now, then, what do we find Mr. Max
Hayes saying about the S.T. and L.A. convention? He ridiculed
it on account of its numbers. He, who had just been flattened out
like a pancake by a huge anti-Socialist convention, seemed proud of
having been in a big crowd, and peeping from under the numerous heels
that trampled upon him, had jeers only for the smallness of the body
that nevertheless upheld the principles which, in his hand, lay
flattened out beside him, flattened out by a numerous body.
Such are the fruits, the mental somersaults, of a chase after
numbers. It is nothing short of idiocy. The head of the lance that
rushes forward shaftless, rushes forward uselessly. It should move no
faster than its shaft.
The "Socialist" party that dances to the fiddle of
labor-dividing pure and simpledom, may for a while get more votes than
the Socialist Labor Party; but it never will "get there"; a miss is as
good as a mile on the "get there" run.
Moreover, the slowlier going S.L.P., that is not a flypaper
concern, and never sacrifices sense for votes, is a real educator.
When the time for votes shall have ripened, that party will have them
- will have the votes, plus the requisite knowledge - while the S. P.
will have melted away, seeing it only had votes, and could not
possibly, in view of its contradictory and flypaper conduct, have men
back of its vote.
JOHN J. KINNEALLY:
We see what is going on in Colorado today. Pure and simple
unionism is said to have over 2,000,000 members. I wish to ask the
speaker if he thinks such outrages would be possible if those
2,000,000 were in the S.T. and L.A.?
Two millions of S.T. and L. A. men would mean 2,000,000 men
swayed by S.L.P. sense, vigor, manliness and determination. It
would mean 2,000,000 men moving, because they felt as one man, and,
consequently, feeling and moving right. Large masses cannot feel and
move as one if they are in error. Error is manifold; it scatters.
Truth only is onefold, it alone unites. Such a number as 2,000,000
S.L.P. men in the land would produce such a sentiment and
resulting actions that capitalism would melt like wax. The thing,
then, is to build up S.L.P. men. Let that be all serious men's