A Critical Essay on the International Trade Union Congress, held in London, November 1888

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MIA note : Adolphe Smith was for several years an intermediary between the Possibilist current of the French party and the Social Democratic Federation

THE ever increasing facilities of communication between nations, the international character of capital, its ready investment in whatever part of the world offers a prospect of high dividends, regardless of national or patriotic interests, have impressed all who are concerned in defending the cause of labour. The battle between labour and capital cannot be confined to one country. Labour must organise on an international basis. This necessity has long been acknowledged. The theory is universally accepted; its practical application alone gives rise to difficulties. In 1862, the International Workingmen's Association was first constituted. It is now 15 years since this once celebrated organisation collapsed. So far, no other combination has taken its place, yet the spirit of internationalism was never so strong as at the present moment. Throughout the whole civilised world, there is hardly a single workmen’s trade society that does not wish to see established some form of international alliance for the defence of labour against capital. That this has not been accomplished sooner must be a matter of surprise to all who study these questions. The explanation rests in the fact that labour organisations on the continent have suffered constant persecution, and enjoyed but little liberty of association; while, at home, our trade unions are rarely able to see further than the requirements of the hour. After the suppression of the Commune in 1871, the trade unions of England were the first to take alarm and to withdraw from the International. Since that time they have continued to be the chief obstacle to international association. It is only during the last few years that they have recognised the necessity of making some efforts to bring about an understanding between the Labour Parties of different countries. Their action in convoking an international congress denotes a new departure, and is therefore at once significant and important.

The trade unions of the continent, it was stated, are not organised in the same manner as those of England. Their leaders were represented as impractical politicians, who dream of revolution and barricades rather than steady, legal progress. The foreign workmen did not pay their subscriptions regularly; and the trade unions of the continent possessed hardly any reserve funds. To be allied with such bodies would compromise the reputation of the English trades, and, wherever money was wanted for common action, it would have to come out of English pockets. In answer to these objections it was urged that England could not fairly be compared with the continent. The commercial prosperity and the political freedom enjoyed in England gave the working classes of this country superior opportunities. If the continental workmen are not so well organised, all the greater is the need of assistance from their more fortunate English brothers. If the English trade unions are so rich it is because they are in the main merely benefit societies. Shorn of their benefits, sick allowance, out-of-work allowance, funeral benefits &c., the English trade unions would not be so wealthy, nor would the subscriptions be paid with any great regularity. This is precisely the position of the majority of continental trade societies. Their funds are merely strike funds. Also, though it is true that the Latin races do not pay their subscriptions regularly, this is not the case with respect to the Flemish, Dutch, Scandinavian, and German workmen. As for the impractical character of the workingclass leaders, the wonderful success achieved by the Parisian workmen through the election of their representatives on the Paris Municipal Council and the growing electoral strength of the Social-Democratic Party in Germany show that they know how to avail themselves of legal methods. The talk of revolution and barricades is grossly exaggerated for party purposes; and if the workmen of England were exposed to as much police interference as that which prevails on the continent, the probabilities are that they would not be content with the mere talk of violence.

With arguments such as these the trade unions of this country were persuaded to take part in the International Conference held at Paris in 1883. Here they met representatives of Italy and Spain, as well as those of France. On returning home, the Parliamentary Committee, which every year the Trade Union Congress. elects, and which constitutes the nearest approach existing of a federation or collective representation of all the British Trade Unions, issued a report on the Paris Conference. This document was, certainly not favourable to the foreign workmen. Nevertheless, when in 1886 a larger international congress was convoked in Paris, the pressure of opinion again forced the Parliamentary Committee and different trades to send representatives. Though they abstained from voting on all the important questions the delegates came away with a better impression of the French labour organisations; and it was then suggested that the next congress should be organised by the English themselves and held in London. To the officialism of the British trade unions this seemed a very bold proposition, and a lengthy manifesto was issued by the Parliamentary Committee, which contained any number of arguments and insinuations against the proposal. Nevertheless, the Trade Union Congress, which met in Swansea in 1887, unanimously resolved that the English trade unions should hold an international congress. The leaders, at least in this respect, no longer led, but were thus pushed forward, and reluctantly yielded to the pressure. If they were not able to prevent the congress they were still able to put obstacles in the way. Instead of holding the congress in the summer months, when it would have been easier for foreign delegates to attend, and the press could have devoted more space to the subject, it was summoned for November, just at the time when Parliament re-assembled, when the reports of the Parnell Commission flooded the papers, and workmen, with Christmas and the New Year close at hand, could ill afford to attend a congress. Though the resolution adopted at Swansea, calling upon the Parliamentary Committee to organise an International Congress imposed no conditions, and did not even stipulate that the foreign delegates should be trade unionists, the rules laid down were most strict and exactly the same as those enforced in England. Of course, what is possible and wise with an English congress does not of necessity apply to all Europe. The English trade unionist has no difficulty in conforming to English rules. To the German and Austrian, such rules meant the imprisonment of the delegates and the suppression of the societies they might represent. Still the English adhered to their rule that all delegates must be members of the societies they represent, must be elected by those societies, and have their expenses paid by their constituents—doubtless an excellent rule in a free country. In Germany and Austria workmen’s societies are not allowed to form national federations; still less would they be permitted to hold international communications. The only way Germany could be represented was by the workmen who have been elected as members of the German Parliament. These deputies could have spoken in a general way on behalf of the working classes of their country, but they would not have dared to represent any particular organisation or society, as this would have at once entailed its suppression by the German police.

The representation of these facts did not, however, influence the Parliamentary Committee; nor was any effort made to effect a compromise such as that of inviting one or two German delegates to attend as honoured guests, and give some explanation as to the state of affairs in Germany. The Parliamentary Committee seem to have been labouring under the false impression that by strictly limiting the Congress to trade union lines, they would best be able to exclude Socialists.[1] Three foreign delegates had to be excluded from the Congress on the ground that they were not bona fide trade unionists. Two represented the Christian Fraternity of Lyons weavers, a society composed in part of small masters, who act as sub-contractors or "sweaters.” These men were royalist, Catholics, and opposed to Socialism. The other delegate excluded was M. Viard, an employer of labour living in London whose mandate was not in order, and who represented the Navvies' Society of Paris, a body organised in the interest, it is said, of General Boulanger, and not a trade union in the general acceptation of the word. M. Viard, also, is not a Socialist. He is an Anarchist. Thus the three foreign delegates who failed to conform with the rules laid down by the Parliamentary Committee were not Socialists. Of the 46 foreign delegates admitted only two did not belong to the Socialist party, namely, M. Tortellier, representing the Paris joiners, who is a notorious Anarchist, and M. Keuffer, of the Paris Typographical Society, who is a Positivist. Had the Parliamentary Committee been less strict, in demanding trade union qualifications, it is probable that there would have been a larger proportion of delegates belonging to other than the Socialist party. Such, then, is the first lesson taught by the Congress, i.e., that Socialists are the best organised trade unionists of the continent.

This has been the first—and probably will be the last—international congress held strictly on trade union lines. Purely trade union international congresses are practicable, and indeed desirable, when only one trade or branch of trade is represented. An international congress of weavers and spinners, another of metal workers, another of miners, or of railway servants, &c., &c., would be very useful. The discussion could be confined, in the main, to technicalities; but, when all trades are represented, then it is only the general interests of labour that can be taken into consideration. The basis thus enlarged it is no longer possible to restrict the discussion to mere trade union interests. Even in England, where trade unions are more numerous than in any other country, they represent but one million out of seven million workers; and, if we add women workers and domestic servants, then the trade unionist, it is computed, is but one out of thirteen. It is precisely those workers who are not trade unionists who constitute the main difficulty when dealing with the general labour problem. When such workers have formed associations, the presence of their representatives is most essential and most useful, even though the organisations be not pure trade unions. Thus, on the continent, there are, at least, three distinct classes of labour organisation which deal with the general problem. Firstly, we have the Chambres Syndicales Ouvrières or trade unions; then there is the Cercles d’Etudes Sociales; and, finally, the Socialist productive and distributive cooperative societies. This is in countries where comparative freedom exists, such as Belgium and France, but in Austria and Germany the societies are secret and illegal. Those associations that are not secret would render themselves illegal by participating in a congress. The only possible representation of that marvellous secret organisation which in Germany, in spite of government and police persecution, has brought some 800,000 Social Democrats to the poll, would be the very deputies who were thus elected. They could not attend as trade unionists, but it would be impossible to dispute their right as labour representatives. The same could be said of the elect of the Cercles d’Etudes Sociales. These bodies are composed of workers of all trades who unite to forward their interests as workers in general, and not as members of any special craft. With regard to co-operative societies, it is more difficult to know where to draw the line. It is probable that no co-operative society will be allowed to participate in labour congresses if interest is paid on the capital advanced by members, or if profits are allowed to shareholders. A co-operative society giving interest and profits to its members is only another form of joint-stock company. It may be of benefit to its members, but that is all. It cannot be considered as an association seeking to realise the economical emancipation of the entire working class. In Belgium, however, co-operative societies have been established on the principle of allowing no interest on capital and no profits to individual members or shareholders. The profits are used for the propaganda of Socialism, for the benefit of the working classes at large, and not specially and exclusively for the members of the societies. Thus no vested interests are created, no conservative sentiment engendered. Yet these societies are eminently successful. The “Vooruit,” of Ghent, now daily supplies 20,000 people with bread. It has close on 3,000 members, and this in a town of only 130,000 inhabitants. Messrs. E. Anseele and Van Beveren are the principal organisers of this socialistic co-operative society; but they could not attend the London Congress as its representative; they only gained admission as delegates from their respective and comparatively insignificant trade unions. To exclude the “Vooruit” and such societies from direct representation will certainly be against the spirit of future international congresses.

All these considerations were not fully brought forward at the London Congress. They were felt rather than expressed. M. Anseele certainly protested in eloquent terms against the class distinctions existing among workingmen themselves. He thought it was scandalous that an artisan should look upon himself as belonging to a superier class merely because he possessed a little more skill or artistic taste than other and fellow wage-earners. Mrs. Annie Besant, who represented the Women Match Makers’ Union, caused considerable sensation by denouncing the tendency of English trade unions to narrow their action to the mere requirements of their craft, and to look upon unskilled labour with contempt. “The aristocracy of labour thus created now treats the unskilled as their fathers were treated by the miiddle-classes.” Of course, these attacks met with many protestations; but, nevertheless, they bore fruit, for the following resolution was unanimously adopted:—

“This Congress deeply regrets the absence from it of any representatives of German, Austrian, or Russian trade unions, and desires to convey to the workers of those countries their profound sympathy with the difficulties against which they have to contend; their earnest hope that, by united action, these difficulties may be removed; and their pledge that the Executive of any future Congress will respect the confidence of all bona fide workmen who may find it possible to attend such Congress anonymously.”

The above resolution must be taken in conjunction with the vote on international organisation and the unanimous approval of the Workmen's International Congress, which will be organised in Paris this year by the French National Committee. This means the creation of another International, not exclusively of trade unions; but of labour organisations, both political and technical. The lesson taught by the failure of the old International Workingmen’s Association seems to have been taken fully to heart. We hear no more mention now of a General Council which is to govern the whole labour world. The resolution on international action lays down the principle that organisation, like charity, should begin at home. The workers of each country are invited to organise themselves in trade unions and groups or societies. These organisations, with or without the assistance of municipalities, are to create Labour Exchanges. Here the trade unions will have their offices. The Labour Exchange of Paris is now the head-quarters of 140 trade unions. Demands for work or for workers are registered at these Labour Exchanges. They form centres for the collection of statistics affecting labour. In fact, the Labour Exchange is the headquarters for all guestions affecting the interests of labour. But, apart from this, the same trade unions and the same workmen’s societies are also to constitute themselves into a distinct political party representing the interests of the producers, of the workers, of those who live on what they earn, as opposed to those who live on the interest of invested money or rent. This is to be the Labour Party of each country, and these Labour Parties are to be absolutely independent of all the ordinary political or middle-class parties, such as the Conservatives, the Liberals, or the Radicals. Practically, these Labour Parties already exist. In some countries, as in France, they are a power in the State; in others, they are but the pioneer of the labour movement. One most important sign of the times is the fact that, though organised by different people and at different dates, all these Labour Parties have spontaneously adopted, almost identically, the same programme. As it was pointed out at the Congress, the programme of the Portuguese Labour Party hardly differs from that of the Labour Party of Poland. So, also, with regard to Central and Western Europe. All aim, according to the words of the resolution submitted to the Congress, at the creation, on “both an economical and political basis, of a distinct class party, in order to facilitate the acquisition of public power by the workers in the commune, the county, or the State.” This, of course, is another way of proposing “the capture of public powers” by the working class as the only pacific means of gradually realising Socialism.

Organised nationally in the above manner, each country should, of course, have its administrative centre, which, it is proposed, should be called the National Committee. There is not much in a name, though it would simplify matters if every country adopted for its central or federal council the same title. However this may be, each National Committee, if so they are to be called, will have to keep up constant and regular correspondence with the National Committees of all other countries, so as “to establish an undérstanding between the workmen of all nations on all questions which concern them.” Further, each National Committee in- its turn will, if possible, organise an international congress, so that every year the Labour Parties of all countries may meet and come to a mutual understanding. In earnest of this determination the National Committee of the French Labour Party will, according to the resolution adopted at the International Congress of 1886, and reaffirmed by the London International Congress, hold this year, the first of these congresses, in Paris. It will not be, as on former occasions, a Trade Union Congress, but a general congress of the workmen of all nations. The result will be much the same; for, as we have seen, it is the trade unionists who are the most ardent politicians and the leading organisers of the Socialist Parties in every country excepting England. The probabilities are that, for the present, at least, these annual congresses will suffice to keep the Labour Parties of the different countries in touch with one another. It will not be necessary to elect a General Council representing the various nationalities, such as that which governed and destroyed the old International. By following this line of conduct each nation will be left free to select its own leaders, and adopt tactics most in keeping with its customs, laws, and local idiosyncracies. The attempt to impose leaders and measures from abroad was one of the most fruitful causes of internal dispute and disruptions which led to the collapse of the first International. In a word, the future International will be based on Home Rule principles; and this is a very natural reaction after the failure of centralisation as attempted by the principal chiefs of the old International.

When the English delegates were called upon to adopt the lengthy resolution that set forth these principles and mode of national and international organisation, they were considerably perplexed. Their doubts were further increased by the very clumsy, almost unintelligible, translation of the resolution into English. It was never clearly ascertained who was responsible for the translation of the resolutions as they appeared on the agenda paper. This seems to have been done at night by the printers. Ignoring, for the most part, what has taken place on the Continent, these proposals, worded well enough in the French and thoroughly familiar to every foreign delegate, were quite new to the majority of the British trade unionists. The greater number, therefore, concluded that it was best to vote against what they could not fully understand. Also the talk of political action alarmed a good many who still prefer to look on trade unions as mere technical bodies that should remain neutral in politics. Consequently thirty English delegates voted against the resolution, And only twelve in its favour. One Frenchman, the Anarchist delegate, also voted against. Otherwise the foreigners were unanimous in their approval. There were therefore 12 English, 14 French, 10 Belgium, 9 Dutch, 2 Danish, and 1 Italian vote in its favour. The resolution was thus carried by five nationalities against one, and by 48 votes against 31; there being, it is necessary to repeat, only one foreign vote, and that the vote of an Anarchist, in the minority. The full meaning and importance of this resolution has now been explained, so it is not necessary to give the actual text. Suffice to say that it was divided into six clauses; the first invited the workers of all nations to organise; the second to form Labour Exchanges; the third to form a distinct Labour Party; the fourth to select a National Committee; the fifth to hold International Annual Congresses; the sixth to discuss the details of organisation at the next Congress. The resolution selecting Paris as the next place of meeting was put separately, and towards the end of the Congress; and this was carried unanimously, not only by all the foreign delegates, but by the English as well. Thus the English delegates are pledged to support the Congress which will meet in Paris during the centenary celebrations of the first great French Revolution.

The Eight Hours’ Day was the next and the only other important controversial question which the Congress was able to discuss and decide. It is doubtful if ever a Workmen's Congress has sat for so long, and yet adopted so small a number of resolutions. This was due, in part, to the time occupied by the receiving and reading of reports on the condition of labour and the laws affecting labour in the countries represented. Some of these reports were very carefully and elaborately drawn up, notably those of Holland and Belgium. No one can say that the authors of those reports were impractical or unbusinesslike. Then also the fact that all the speeches had to be translated from French into English, or from English into French, took up a considerable amount of time. Nevertheless a great deal more business might have been accomplished but for the unavoidable sentiment of distrust that existed between the English and the foreign delegates. This feeling was naturally greatly accentuated among the English when it became evident that the few English Socialists present were working hand in hand with the foreigners. Nor did the Parliamentary Committee do anything whatsoever to disarm the suspicions, which, on the other hand, the foreigners entertained. At all previous congresses, the organisers have resigned their powers and left the congress master of its own destinies, when once it had assembled. The Parliamentary Committee thought, on the contrary, that because the Congress had met in England, they had a right to enforce English rules and English customs. Though this is contrary to all precedent, no great objection would have been raised if full confidence had been felt in the English. But abroad strong opinions are entertained that the leaders of the English trade unions had wasted the best opportunities the working classes have ever possessed. Nowhere are the working class organisations so free and so strong as in England; nowhere have they achieved so little; nowhere are the workmen, in theory and in practice, so far removed from any definite solution of the labour problems. When by the side of this, it is seen that the English working class leaders, instead of being imprisoned and prosecuted, are, on the contrary, in the receipt of all manner of favours at the hands of the middle-class and capitalist governments, the foreign workman, fresh from police prosecution and from prison, concludes that the English leaders cannot be leading in such a manner as to menace and endanger the position of their adversaries.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that they loudly resented the proposal to impose upon them an English president for the whole week. This resentment was still further accentuated when it was suggested that the Organising or Standing Orders’ Committee should consist of a majority of Englishmen. They had not come all the way to England to have their congress managed by persons whom they did not know, and whom they did not completely trust. A day and a half was lost in disputing over these points. By 6o to 56 votes it was decided to elect a permanent English president, and an assistant foreign president. This narrow majority may be looked upon as a moral defeat, particularly as the two delegates from the Christian Fraternity of Lyons Weavers, who were afterwards excluded from the Congress, voted with the majority. On the election of the Standing Orders’ Committee, however, five foreigners to four English were appointed; and, as this committee had to verify the credentials, they were able to accept delegates which the Parliamentary Committee had refused. In this respect, an important victory in the matter of principle was gained. M. Lavy’s credentials had been refused and returned by the Parliamentary Committee; on the ground that, as delegate of the Paris School Teachers’ Trade Union, he did not represent working men. The Standing Orders’ Committee unanimously accepted these credentials on the ground, presumably, that school teachers are workers and wage-earnere, and that the labour cause could only gain by enroling in its ranks the higher and more educated sections of the community, who, equally with labourers and artisans, have to work for their living. Thus the Congress enlarged the meaning of the word worker or workman, and accepted and encouraged the idea of middle class trade unions. M. Andre-Gély, also, was the delegate of the trade union, one of the most active and prosperous in Paris, formed by clerks and others employed in commerce, and known as the Chambre Syndicale des Employés. It will be seen, therefore, that the day and a half spent in this preliminary wrangle was not altogether fruitless. It proved that for International Congresses there must be international rules, and that English methods cannot be enforced, even in England.

The great question of the limitation of the hours of labour by the State was discussed at some length. It would take too much space to analyse the arguments for and against. It is a subject for itself. For the present it will suffice to see how it was decided by the Congress, though but for the great self control and discipline of the foreign delegates the question would not have been decided at all. This was the resolution proposed:—

“This Congress is of opinion that, owing to the concentration of capital, and the relative weakness of trade unions in proportion to the number of workers, it is impossible to further reduce the hours of labour without the aid of the State, and that in every case eight hours should be the maximum number of hours worked.”

It was not before the Friday afternoon that this resolution could be brought forward. Several speeches were delivered in favour of the motion; and so that the arguments on both sides ‘might be fully heard, a proposal was made that the Congress should meet an hour earlier on the morrow. The English president, however, finding that it was just five o'clock, suddenly adjourned the proceedings without taking the vote, and without consulting his colleague and co-president, M. Christensen. This gave great offence, and, had the morrow not been the last day ot the Congress, a vote of censure would have been proposed. But, so as not to lose time, this was abandoned, and also it was decided that no further speeches in favour of the Eight Hours’ Bill should be delivered. It is a noticeable fact that, though they had thus an open field before them, the opponents of the measure failed to make any telling speeches, and all the most influential and best speakers remained absolutely silent. Not a member of the Parliamentary Committee uttered a word for or against. Mr. Mawdsley, a member of the Parliamentary Committee, moved the previous question, on the ground that a plebiscite, taken within the ranks of the trade unions, had resulted in vague uncertain replies; but he did not say anything for or against the principle involved. This motion was defeated. Then an amendment was proposed to the effect that an Eight Hours’ Day should be enforced by law, but only for State and Municipal contracts. Had this been carried it would have shelved the resolution before the Congress, and therefore the foreign delegates, while approving of the amendment so far as it went, voted against it. The English delegates adopted the amendment by 23 votes to 12. but it was lost by five nationalities to one. Nevertheless the fact remains that the whole of the foreign delegates, even including the Anarchist, and the great majority of the English delegates, agree that for all work done for the State or the Municipalities the duration of the day’s work should be limited by law to eight hours. Then came on another amendment brought in by M. Tortellier, the Anarchist, declaring that it was childish to expect legislators (who, to maintain their privileges were interested in crushing the working classes) to pass beneficial laws reducing the hours of labour. The workers could only “rely on their own strength” to realise their emancipation. Had M. Tortellier meant the strength of organisations or of trade unions he would have said so. But for several years it has been notorious that this Anarchist believes only in the strength of insurrection, aided by the chemical resources of civilisation. This resolution, which really proclaimed as plainly as in common prudence it was possible to proclaim, that revolution—violent, physical force revolution—alone could solve the problems before the Congress, was cordially endorsed by the English delegates! Amid shouts of laughter from the foreign delegates, 32 English trade unionists voted in favour of Tortellier's amendment, and only nine against it. So anxious were the English to avoid Socialism that they fell into the arms of the dynamite party. That very week some of Torteller’s personal friends and political associates had been arrested for blowing up houses in Paris with dynamite. Nor could the English plead ignorance of Tortellier’s opinions. In the Congress itself he had eloquently denounced organisation and trade unionism as useless, and insisted that by fighting only would the workers succeed. Also, in Paris, at the Congress of 1883, in reply to Mr. John Burnett’s assertion that the less the government had to do with the workman the better for the workman, M. Tortellier congratulated the English delegate on his anarchical principles, and exclaimed :— “You are right; nothing can be obtained from the State; all that we can do is to put the knife to the bourgeois’ throat.” Yet it was for the resolution proposed by this Anarchist and revolutionist that the timid and reactionary English majority voted. Trusting only to the bare and clumsy wording of the resolution, without taking into consideration its spirit or the object for which it was brought forward, and forgetting that to openly propose violence is illegal, and that therefore the meaning of such resolutions must be read between the lines, the English blindly voted with the Anarchist. Of course, there was only the Italian delegate, who is also somewhat of an Anarchist, willing to follow their example, and Tortellier's amendment was lost by four nationalities against two and by 46 votes against 34. Then came the voting on the original resolution quoted above. This was carried by four nationalities against two. Thirty-one English delegates voted against, and only eleven in favour. The Italian delegate also voted against, though it is doubtful whether he was justified in following this course. By far the most numerous and active labour organisations of Italy would approve an Eight Hours’ Bill. Even Tortellier himself did not vote against the resolution. The countries remaining were unanimously in favour; and as there were 17 French, 10 Belgians, 9 Dutch, 2 Danes, and 11 English, this made four nationalities and 49 votes in favour of the Eight Hours’ Bill; two nationalities and 32 votes against. A resolution advocating international arbritration, instead of war, was then carried unanimously, by acclamation and without discussion; the proposal to hold the next Congress in Paris accepted, and, after this, the president wished all the delegates a pleasant, safe journey home.

Such were the main results achieved by the London International Trade Union Congress, and they will undoubtedly constitute a landmark in the history of labour. They may be summarised as having promoted the constitution in each country of a Labour Party, admitting within its ranks middle-class workers, seeking, by legal means, to acquire political power, so as to initiate socialistic legislature, and acting, therefore, against both Conservative and Revolutionary Anarchism. As the first socialistic measure proposed, we find the majority endorsing the principle of an international law, limiting the day's work in all trades to eight hours. With regard to the means of action to bring about these ends, organisation on federal principles, as opposed to centralisation, meets with most favour; and in the constitution of Labour Parties the narrow trade union restrictions are abandoned. The upshot is undoubtedly socialistic, and this Congress will strengthen the Socialist Party in England. Putting aside the utterances of the opponents of Socialism, such as the Anarchists, Tortellier and the Italian delegate, Lazzari, an analysis of the speeches demonstrates that the Congress endorsed, not the Socialism of the barricade, but the Socialism of the ballot box.

PERSONAL.[edit source]

The Parliamentary Committee have recently issued a brief circular or report on the London International Congress. As in previous and similar documents they do not frankly disapprove of efforts to secure international organisation, but yet the general tone is distinctly to the effect that but “little substantial advantage” can be gained.

In this circular, allusion is made to a letter I had sent to a French workmen's paper, and I am accused by the Parliamentary Committee of using “language in respect to the British trades unionists calculated to lessen their influence in the Congress, and to hold them up in a disparaging, if not an odious, light to their fellow-delegates from the Continent. Mr. Smith was questioned by us with regard to his conduct, and made what we considered to be a very unsatisfactory reply.”

As a matter of fact, I was unexpectedly questioned on the subject the day before the Congress met, amid the confusion of the preparations, and while a large number of foreign delegates who had already arrived were impatiently waiting for me to help them. I had not the article in question with me, nor could I remember exactly what I had written, but I was at least able to assert that the translation in the hands of the Parliamentary Committee was incorrect in one or two important particulars. Under such circumstances the Parliamentary Committee, before rushing into print, might have invited me to meet them on some other occasion, when the matter could more calmly and carefully have been discussed. Under such circustances I cannot help thinking that it is not so much my reply as the time and method of investigation that is unsatisfactory.

The Parliamentary Committee seemed to think that because they had engaged me to translate the speeches at the Congress, I was in some way in honour bound to defend their general policy. I thought, on the contrary, that I was only bound to translate the speeches as accurately as possible, and to the best of my ability. All who were present will, I think, acknowledge I did my best in this respect, and the Parliamentary Committee themselves admit, in their circular, that “less confusion was felt than might have been expected,” in consequence of the different languages. Beyond this, on principle, I refuse to go. I have, I maintain, a perfect right to express any opinion I believe to be correct about English trade unionism, or any other institution. Far from defending throughout the policy of the Parliamentary Committee, I have always maintained that they were too slow to move, too much attached to the middle-class political economy of the laisser-faire and laisser-passer school, and have done my best to encourage internationalism as a means of introducing new and progressive ideas. But I deny that I have ever sought to hold up trade unionism, whether British or foreign, in an odious light. On the contrary, at considerable risk and outlay, and in different countries, I have striven for many years to promote trade unionism. By speaking and by writing I have consistently and constantly urged the working classes to organise themselves into trade societies. A sentence or two in a circular, even if it emanates from the Parliamentary Committee, will not, I trust, efface the record of many long years of hard and disinterested work.

Perhaps, however, the best answer I can make is simply to submit, to all who are interested in the subject, a careful translation of the article in question, giving, at the same time, the original French of the more important words. This I do, not in the expectation that everyone will agree with the opinions expressed, but in the belief that they will acknowledge that the article is purely theoretical, is devoid of personalities, and does not in anywise hold up trade unionism in an odious light. After describing the number and nationalities of the delegates likely to attend the Congress, the article goes on to say :—

“One of the first questions the French delegates will have to raise is the refusal of the Parliamentary Committee to accept the credentials of the delegate of the Secular Teachers’ Society. The English do not understand our middle-class (bourgeois) trades unions. They look upon it as a workman’s (labourer or artisan’s) question, rather than as a question effecting the entire proletariat, The Socialists, on the contrary, maintain with reason, that a man is a workman when he works, and that he is not a workman when he receives des rentes, income on invested capital. If anyone is to be excluded, assuredly it should be the person who possesses capital, and who with this money exploits the labour of others. If this principle were admitted, several delegates of the English trade unions would be excluded, for they, more than school masters, are false (not genuine) proletarians.

“There are delegates of the trade unions, who by their economies or by other means, have amassed sufficient money to become proprietors of several cottages, which they sublet; or else they are shareholders in companies which are not always very tender towards their workmen. These delegates have some personal interests which carry them towards capitalism, They have, therefore, no right to place difficulties in the way of associations composed of good proletarians, even if these proletarians are drawn from the middle classes. On the other hand it would not be just to be too severe towards the members of the Parliamentary Committee. They have only adhered to the rules actually in force at the English Trades’ Congresses. It will suffice to insist that international congresses intend having international and not English rules. I trust that, with the vote taken by nationality, and with the question brought forward in this manner, the school teachers delegate will be accepted by the Congress. It will be a good principle for the International Congress to have established.

“In this, as in all other questions, the foreign delegates should remember that with the English trade unionists they have to do with workmen who have ideas and an experience very different to their own. It is facts and figures rather than oratorical declamation that produce a real impression. Also the position which the British workman trade unionist holds in England is often an altogether priviledged position. His influence in political elections causes him to be courted by the middle-class parties. Sometimes he is appointed a Justice of the Peace, sometimes a Inspector of Factories, sometimes even a Member of Parliament. Thus spoilt (gâté), it is difficult to make him understand that there is no salvation possible with the bourgeois political parties, and that he must make a class party, a purely proletarian party. But the Englishman will understand this doctrine, particularly when he shall be enlightened by the example of the Labour Parties on the Continent.”

What seemed to give special offence to the Parliamentary Committee was the introduction, in the translation before them, of the word “contaminated." This is nowhere to be found in the original French; the nearest approach being the word gâté in the above sentence. The French say un enfant gâté, just as we say “a spoilt child,” and when I used this word gâté, the idea doubtless floated in my mind that the Parliamentary Committee were the spoilt children of the universal labour movement. A spoilt child does not mean a wicked or a contaminated child; it suggests, rather, too many sugar plums, and too easy a time of it generally. This, in any case, is what I meant; and, when compared to the foreigners, the definition fits the Parliamentary Committee admirably. Take the French National Committee. Not a single member has received any favours at the hands of the middle classes and the middle-class governments; but most of them have been in prison or exile. Allemane, for instance, of the Typographical Trade Union, was eight years in the penal settlements of New Caledonia, with a cannon ball rivetted to his ankle so that he could not escape. Edward Anseele, who at the London Congress presided for the Belgians, was six months in prison because he urged the Belgian soldiers not to fire on the Belgian miners during a strike. Croll, the Dutch translator, was imprisoned for helping the weavers on strike at Trente, and the Dutch President, Van Asdunk, shared the same penalty and honour. I had not time to enquire about Signor Lazzari’s past experiences, but Andrea Costa, who, at the previous Congress represented Italy, has suffered five year’s imprisonment, and this list of foreign leaders who have had the honour of suffering for the cause of labour might be prolonged indefinitely.

When writing the article just translated my real object was to smooth over difficulties. There is nothing said or intended unfavourable to trade unionism, and what may be considered unfavourable to individual trade unionists is only brought forward as an abstract principle, without the slightest allusion to any person. The general facts also were well known before, and had been in part the subject of violent and injudicious denunciation during the International Trade Union Congress held at Paris in 1886. The article concludes by wishing a welcome to the delegates, hoping that the French would assist in the work of propaganda by preaching their good doctrine of solidarity.

Such is the sum total of my offence. I must confess that I do not feel very penitent. I have loyally devoted myself to the cause of labour in its broadest and international sense. I owe no special allegiance to the Parliamentary Committee, who only represent a small, and some may think, stagnating section of a great and universal struggle to reach a better, a purer, a more equalitarian future. I hold myself now, as in the past, at the disposal of the Parliamentary Committee, to assist them to the best of my ability whenever they are ready to take any forward step, and I trust that difference of opinion on abstract questions brought forward, on my part at least, in courteous ana considerate language, will not prevent the renewal of cordial co-operation whenever this may tend to the elevation of suffering humanity.

  1. A party grossly misrepresented and misunderstood in England, so much so, that the word Socialism is often used as a political scarecrow, as if Socialism necessarily meant disorder, violence, murder, and rapine; and as if we had not already a great deal of Socialism in our sanitary, factory, and poor laws; our post office, our municipalised gas and water works, &c., &c. The election by workmen of fellow workmen to extend all scope of State and municipal enterprise does not, perforce, imply that whole towns are to be given over to pillage.