THE DOGMA OF "DIRECT ACTION"

By the Rt. Hon. J. M. Robertson. Everyman. 14:445-6. August x6, 1919.

Only a "documented" history of Labour movements, such as they now produce in France, will ever tell anything like the whole story of the movement for "direct action" in the area of modern Socialism. All that the outsider can broadly discern is that it is an intelligible reaction, apparently arising in France, from the old Marxist precept of waiting for the coming Socialist majority and then scientifically reshaping society. So far from hinting at "direct action," the original Marxist gospel did not contemplate even a participation in any legislative measures of social reform. The faithful were simply to wait till the inevitable worsening of things under the capitalistic system brought about the "general overturn;" whereupon, having attained their majority, the Socialists would take charge. Perhaps the Old Guard in recent years began to contemplate a consummation without a preface of social collapse; but they were still merely critics of a doomed social system.

In Germany, the double result of that attitude was, on the one hand, a revival of practical trade unionism among workers who wanted some betterment in their lifetime; and, on the other hand, a movement for practical "palliative" action within the Socialist party proper. As a result of that policy, the Social Democrats were obtaining before the war rapidly increasing gains in the elections, many people supporting the Socialist ticket because, for one thing, it included a demand for reduced food duties. But in France, where the "high" Marxian doctrine was never calculated to win great headway; and where the gifted and much beloved Jaurès stood for a policy of graduated progress, as against the Old Guard of Bebel, the impatient type of idealist began to cry, "A plague o' both your houses," and to insist that Labour has at any moment the power in its hands to impose its will on the world if it will but confederate and organise. "No more waiting for the parliamentary majority; no more patient propaganda: instead of trying to set up a Labour Ministry, dictate to the existing Ministry and the existing society the minimum of Labour's demands. If they are refused, resort to the universal strike; that will compel them to surrender." Such is, in outline, the latter-day ideal.

Obviously, the affinities of such a doctrine are with Anarchism rather than with Socialism. Anarchism, of course, had always its two wings, the "idealist" and the "realist," one preaching an incredible but innocent Utopia; the other savagely planning to clear the ground for it. The title of Anarchist thus covered some of the most benign and some of the most ruthless men in the world; the one thing they had in common being a dream of a complete social disintegration, which was simply to be followed by a fresh integration. For a time the group of wreckers, like a wolf at large, sought to terrorise Europe by desperate crimes. But the wolf cannot long hold his own in an organised society, and Anarchism of all sorts gradually ebbed out. It is partly to that old inspiration, however, that we may ascribe the new doctrine of Direct Action, which so resembles Anarchism in respect of determination to impose a revolutionary ideal on an unprepared society, and of total unpreparedness to organise a new society, save by hand-to-hand methods.

We are told, of course, that the party of Direct Action has a programme—a policy, to begin with, of nationalisation of certain industries, such as mines and railways. But that programme is no more advanced in detail than was the Anarchist dream of a new "archism"; and meantime the existing system is to be paralysed by the instrument of the universal strike. To bring a society to a standstill by way of compelling it to organise at once upon new lines, is a policy of Anarchism, in the sense that that must be the result. For those, of course, who see social order and progress in the Bolshevik despotism in Russia, with its Red Guards and Chinese police, and its rapid pauperisation of a vast aggregate of peoples, the new war-cry may be full of promise. But we have only to conceive any committee of British Labourists and Socialists taking charge of a headlong scheme of nationalisation of mines and land and railways, with an eye to speedy nationalisation of everything else—we have only to conceive that experiment in order to realise how anarchy invariably follows on the violent transformation of any social system whatever. For societies subsist progressively only by means of a working agreement among the majority; and the movement of Direct Action is really the scheme of a minority who hope to effect their ends by somehow persuading or seeming to persuade a docile mass of workers to accept their leadership.

Sane Socialists have long ere this seen that their ideal is set at nought by all separatist movements which despise common legislative action. The trouble began when "class war" became a general watchword of Socialist propaganda. Those who could not see the tragic absurdity of preaching a gospel of class hatred in the name of social solidarity were the natural raw material of Syndicalism on the one hand and the movement of Direct Action on the other. A Socialist who could see that Syndicalism (with its ideal of "Every trade for itself") was the negation of Socialism, could hardly fail to see further that Direct Action must mean only social tyranny with a difference. When an organisation of workers passes from the simple ideal of Trade Unionism (under which an industrial group makes its bargains with employers in general, and looks after its legislative interests) to an ideal of collective Trade Unionism, using the general strike as an instrument not merely against the employer, but against the whole social and political system, it is proposing to pass at a stride from a kind of action which is well within the comprehension of its leaders to one that is outside their power of management. Efficient Trade Unionism is the result of generations of constant experiment, involving many ups and downs. The ideal of Direct Action means either an arbitrary combination of Trade Unions to manage a new socio-political system of which there has been no experience, or a chronic convulsion by means of which a scared legislature is to carry out orders for which it has no plans.

Now, if the advocates of Direct Action have any real faith in the principle of government by majorities, they must recognise that if there really exists a majority of workers desiring a new social system, that majority can give effect to its wishes at the polls. In that fashion the new plan, whatever it is, can be canvassed before the whole electorate; and the workers, who constitute the majority of both sexes, can elect the men whose programme satisfies them. To propose Direct Action instead of that method of national propaganda and open Parliamentary action is to reveal a belief that the majority of the workers do not desire the particular measures which the advocates of Direct Action propose. There is only one inference. The "Actionists" (to use a convenient name for them) believe that they can secure majority votes in the trade organisations where they could not secure Parliamentary majorities in the constituencies. That is to say, the vote to be obtained in the trade organisations does not really represent the deliberate choice even of the majority of the workers, to say nothing of the millions whom the Actionists dismiss from consideration as bourgeois. It represents only a manipulation of the workers' votes by a minority who zealously work the "machine" while the majority of the workers let the matter alone. To the end of Direct Action, then, will be a mere Directorate of Labour leaders who for the time being hold power like so many Tammany Bosses, and who can dictate a policy only so long as they are able to combine upon one.

For the mass of the workers there is no more safety or stability in such a policy than there is for the rest of society. Labour solidarity, like the solidarity of any other aggregate, depends on the general conviction that the general interest is being preserved. Any Labour Directorate which might attain either virtual or actual political power as a result of Direct Action would have to satisfy the demands of every Labour section, as manipulated by its special leaders, who would insist that Direct Action must work out to their group interest as they interpreted it. The spirit which revealed itself as Syndicalism is latent in every Labour section which has been led to accept Direct Action as the means of forcing the will of so-called Labour on the nation. And Labour leaders are at least as ready as any other politicians to subordinate their policy to their personal ambitions and their personal antagonisms.

There are men in the rank and file of the Direct Action movement who perfectly realise that their delegates may work more for their personal advancement than for the interest of their supporters; and they meet such criticisms as the foregoing by saying that disloyal delegates can be superseded. But even that optimism recognizes that every attempt at separatist control of the nation's destinies involves endless risks of individual self-assertion, which make possible the ascendancy of the most unscrupulous when they know how to "swing" the opinion of the mass in their favour. It is a strange form of credulity that relies on a perfect operation of good faith and good sense within the covered area of a Labour organisation, while refusing to accept the open electoral system on the score of its being controlled by sinister interests.

True, the open electoral system means the frequent deference of multitudes of electors to policies of self-interest and class-interest to wire-pullers and to clap-trap. But is not that very fact the proof that the mass is still capable of being misled? And does it give any ground for the belief that the device of Direct Action will secure the adoption of only wise policies? There is this saving difference between the Parliamentary system and the ideal of Direct Action, that under the former disputes must be thrashed out in the open among men representing many if not all points of view; and that thus every policy must run the gauntlet of criticism. True, the majority vote against the weight of the evidence. But at least the evidence is published, and in time it carries the day. Under the Parliamentary system it is generally possible for the individual elector to know the merits of a case if he will take the trouble. But under a system of Direct Action the acting Directorate would never know the arguments against their plan until they had forced its acceptance. Thus far, there has been no adequate general criticism of any one of the schemes for which Direct Action is proposed to be taken.

If there is to be any good future for either Labour or the nation (which we are now being taught to regard as different things) it will be by way of loyalty to the system of representative government for which Labour a generation ago strove with its whole heart. The advice to abandon or supersede that system because it has not yet yielded all the well-being that was hoped from it is the advice of men seeking not so much the general well-being as their own advancement, though many doubtless associate the two ends by force of habit. Whatever be their ideals, they are labouring to set up, not the sovereignty of the people, but a State within the State. And what is disloyalty to the principle of democracy will never work out as loyalty to Labour.


What a load of rubbish. Transcribed by the Wrg. Hor. J. D. Crutchfield.

Last updated 21 April 2004