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Syndicalism or Citizenship

"Is a railway porter a railway porter first and a man afterwards, or is
he a man first and incidentally a railway porter?"

That is the issue between this tawdrification of trade unionism which is
called Syndicalism, and the ideals of that Great State, that great
commonweal, towards which the constructive forces in our civilisation
tend. Are we to drift on to a disastrous intensification of our present
specialisation of labour as labour, or are we to set to work steadfastly
upon a vast social reconstruction which will close this widening breach
and rescue our community from its present dependence upon the reluctant
and presently insurgent toil of a wages-earning proletariat? Regarded as
a project of social development, Syndicalism is ridiculous; regarded as
an illuminating and unintentionally ironical complement to the implicit
theories of our present social order, it is worthy of close attention.
The dream of the Syndicalist is an impossible social fragmentation. The
transport service is to be a democratic republic, the mines are to be a
democratic republic, every great industry is to be a democratic republic
within the State; our community is to become a conflict of inter-woven
governments of workers, incapable of progressive changes of method or of
extension or transmutation of function, the whole being of a man is to
lie within his industrial specialisation, and, upon lines of causation
not made clear, wages are to go on rising and hours of work are to go on
falling.... There the mind halts, blinded by the too dazzling vistas of
an unimaginative millennium And the way to this, one gathers, is by
striking--persistent, destructive striking--until it comes about.

Such is Syndicalism, the cheap Labour Panacea, to which the more
passionate and less intelligent portion of the younger workers,
impatient of the large constructive developments of modern Socialism,
drifts steadily. It is the direct and logical reaction to our present
economic system, which has counted our workers neither as souls nor as
heads, but as hands. They are beginning to accept the suggestions of
that method. It is the culmination in aggression of that, at first,
entirely protective trade unionism which the individual selfishness and
collective short-sightedness and State blindness of our owning and
directing and ruling classes forced upon the working man. At first trade
unionism was essentially defensive; it was the only possible defence of
the workers, who were being steadily pressed over the margin of
subsistence. It was a nearly involuntary resistance to class debasement.
Mr. Vernon Hartshorn has expressed it as that in a recent article. But
his paper, if one read it from beginning to end, displayed, compactly
and completely, the unavoidable psychological development of the
specialised labour case. He began in the mildest tones with those now
respectable words, a "guaranteed minimum" of wages, housing, and so
forth, and ended with a very clear intimation of an all-labour

If anything is certain in this world, it is that the mass of the
community will not rest satisfied with these guaranteed minima. All
those possible legislative increments in the general standard of living
are not going to diminish the labour unrest; they are going to increase
it. A starving man may think he wants nothing in the world but bread,
but when he has eaten you will find he wants all sorts of things beyond.
Mr. Hartshorn assures us that the worker is "not out for a theory." So
much the worse for the worker and all of us when, like the mere hand we
have made him, he shows himself unable to define or even forecast his
ultimate intentions. He will in that case merely clutch. And the obvious
immediate next objective of that clutch directly its imagination passes
beyond the "guaranteed minima" phase is the industry as a whole.

I do not see how anyone who desires the continuing development of
civilisation can regard a trade union as anything but a necessary evil,
a pressure-relieving contrivance an arresting and delaying organisation
begotten by just that class separation of labour which in the commonweal
of the Great State will be altogether destroyed. It leads nowhither; it
is a shelter hut on the road. The wider movement of modern civilisation
is against class organisation and caste feeling. These are forces
antagonistic to progress, continually springing up and endeavouring to
stereotype the transitory organisation, and continually being defeated.

Of all the solemn imbecilities one hears, surely the most foolish is
this, that we are in "an age of specialisation." The comparative
fruitfulness and hopefulness of our social order, in comparison with any
other social system, lies in its flat contradiction of that absurdity.
Our medical and surgical advances, for example, are almost entirely due
to the invasion of medical research by the chemist; our naval
development to the supersession of the sailor by the engineer; we sweep
away the coachman with the railway, beat the suburban line with the
electric tramway, and attack that again with the petrol omnibus, oust
brick and stonework in substantial fabrics by steel frames, replace the
skilled maker of woodcuts by a photographer, and so on through the
whole range of our activities. Change of function, arrest of
specialisation by innovations in method and appliance, progress by the
infringement of professional boundaries and the defiance of rule: these
are the commonplaces of our time. The trained man, the specialised man,
is the most unfortunate of men; the world leaves him behind, and he has
lost his power of overtaking it. Versatility, alert adaptability, these
are our urgent needs. In peace and war alike the unimaginative,
uninventive man is a burthen and a retardation, as he never was before
in the world's history. The modern community, therefore, that succeeds
most rapidly and most completely in converting both its labourers and
its leisure class into a population of active, able, unhurried,
educated, and physically well-developed people will be inevitably the
dominant community in the world. That lies on the face of things about
us; a man who cannot see that must be blind to the traffic in our

Syndicalism is not a plan of social development. It is a spirit of
conflict. That conflict lies ahead of us, the open war of strikes,
or--if the forces of law and order crush that down--then sabotage and
that black revolt of the human spirit into crime which we speak of
nowadays as anarchism, unless we can discover a broad and promising way
from the present condition of things to nothing less than the complete
abolition of the labour class.

That, I know, sounds a vast proposal, but this is a gigantic business
altogether, and we can do nothing with it unless we are prepared to deal
with large ideas. If St. Paul's begins to totter it is no good propping
it up with half a dozen walking-sticks, and small palliatives have no
legitimate place at all in this discussion. Our generation has to take
up this tremendous necessity of a social reconstruction in a great way;
its broad lines have to be thought out by thousands of minds, and it is
for that reason that I have put the stress upon our need of discussion,
of a wide intellectual and moral stimulation of a stirring up in our
schools and pulpits, and upon the modernisation and clarification of
what should be the deliberative assembly of the nation.

It would be presumptuous to anticipate the National Plan that must
emerge from so vast a debate, but certain conclusions I feel in my bones
will stand the test of an exhaustive criticism. The first is that a
distinction will be drawn between what I would call "interesting work"
and what I would call "mere labour." The two things, I admit, pass by
insensible gradations into one another, but while on the one hand such
work as being a master gardener and growing roses, or a master cabinet
maker and making fine pieces, or an artist of almost any sort, or a
story writer, or a consulting physician, or a scientific investigator,
or a keeper of wild animals, or a forester, or a librarian, or a good
printer, or many sorts of engineer, is work that will always find men of
a certain temperament enthusiastically glad to do it, if they can only
do it for comfortable pay--for such work is in itself _living_--there
is, on the other hand, work so irksome and toilsome, such as coal
mining, or being a private soldier during a peace, or attending upon
lunatics, or stoking, or doing over and over again, almost mechanically,
little bits of a modern industrial process, or being a cash desk clerk
in a busy shop, that few people would undertake if they could avoid it.

And the whole strength of our collective intelligence will be directed
first to reducing the amount of such irksome work by labour-saving
machinery, by ingenuity of management, and by the systematic avoidance
of giving trouble as a duty, and then to so distributing the residuum of
it that it will become the whole life of no class whatever in our
population. I have already quoted the idea of Professor William James of
a universal conscription for such irksome labour, and while he would
have instituted that mainly for its immense moral effect upon the
community, I would point out that, combined with a nationalisation of
transport, mining, and so forth, it is also a way to a partial solution
of this difficulty of "mere toil."

And the mention of a compulsory period of labour service for everyone--a
year or so with the pickaxe as well as with the rifle--leads me to
another idea that I believe will stand the test of unlimited criticism,
and that is a total condemnation of all these eight-hour-a-day,
early-closing, guaranteed-weekly-half-holiday notions that are now so
prevalent in Liberal circles. Under existing conditions, in our system
of private enterprise and competition, these restrictions are no doubt
necessary to save a large portion of our population from lives of
continuous toil, but, like trade unionism, they are a necessity of our
present conditions, and not a way to a better social state. If we rescue
ourselves as a community from poverty and discomfort, we must take care
not to fling ourselves into something far more infuriating to a normal
human being--and that is boredom. The prospect of a carefully inspected
sanitary life, tethered to some light, little, uninteresting daily job,
six or eight hours of it, seems to me--and I am sure I write here for
most normal, healthy, active people--more awful than hunger and death.
It is far more in the quality of the human spirit, and still more what
we all in our hearts want the human spirit to be, to fling itself with
its utmost power at a job and do it with passion.

For my own part, if I was sentenced to hew a thousand tons of coal, I
should want to get at it at once and work furiously at it, with the
shortest intervals for rest and refreshment and an occasional night
holiday, until I hewed my way out, and if some interfering person with a
benevolent air wanted to restrict me to hewing five hundredweight, and
no more and no less, each day and every day, I should be strongly
disposed to go for that benevolent person with my pick. That is surely
what every natural man would want to do, and it is only the clumsy
imperfection of our social organisation that will not enable a man to do
his stint of labour in a few vigorous years and then come up into the
sunlight for good and all.

It is along that line that I feel a large part of our labour
reorganisation, over and beyond that conscription, must ultimately go.
The community as a whole would, I believe, get far more out of a man if
he had such a comparatively brief passion of toil than if he worked,
with occasional lapses into unemployment, drearily all his life. But at
present, with our existing system of employment, one cannot arrange so
comprehensive a treatment of a man's life. There is needed some State or
quasi-public organisation which shall stand between the man and the
employer, act as his banker and guarantor, and exact his proper price.
Then, with his toil over, he would have an adequate pension and be free
to do nothing or anything else as he chose. In a Socialistic order of
society, where the State would also be largely the employer, such a
method would be, of course, far more easily contrived.

The more modern statements of Socialism do not contemplate making the
State the sole employer; it is chiefly in transport, mining, fisheries,
forestry, the cultivation of the food staples, and the manufacture of a
few such articles as bricks and steel, and possibly in housing in what
one might call the standardisable industries, that the State is imagined
as the direct owner and employer and it is just in these departments
that the bulk of the irksome toil is to be found. There remain large
regions of more specialised and individualised production that many
Socialists nowadays are quite prepared to leave to the freer initiatives
of private enterprise. Most of these are occupations involving a greater
element of interest, less direction and more co-operation, and it is
just here that the success of co-partnery and a sustained life
participation becomes possible....

This complete civilised system without a specialised, property-less
labour class is not simply a possibility, it is necessary; the whole
social movement of the time, the stars in their courses, war against the
permanence of the present state of affairs. The alternative to this
gigantic effort to rearrange our world is not a continuation of muddling
along, but social war. The Syndicalist and his folly will be the avenger
of lost opportunities. Not a Labour State do we want, nor a Servile
State, but a powerful Leisure State of free men.

H.G. Wells