“Industrial Unionism in South Africa” – IWW, Johannesburg, 1910

The “Industrial Workers’ Union” is an organisation recently formed in South Africa. It is a new link in the international chain that is forming the Industrial Workers of the World. From the “Voice of Labour”, published at Johannesburg, we take the following, signed by “T. Glynn, General Secretary S.A. Industrial Workers’ Union”. It shows that they are getting on the right track down in the Southern Hemisphere.

A speaker at the Market Square last Sunday week, defined what he conceived to be the difference between the socialism of the industrial unionist and other socialists. His explanation was good enough so far as it went, but as it does not altogether cover my views on the matter I should like to give them here.

Industrial unionism is, in my opinion, only another name for constructive socialism. I believe that if every wage earner tomorrow, from the high salaried official to the lowest paid wage slave was converted to a belief in socialist economics the wage labour system would still continue, if the workers were not systematically organised inside of the industries so that order and method would prevail in mode of production and distribution.

And here rests the difference. The ordinary socialist aims solely at making converts to socialism, and there his work ends. Industrial unionism, on the other hand, aims not only at making the working class conscious of their common interests, but also at preparing them and educating them for intelligent co-operation when the time is ripe for the overthrow of the capitalist system. As the preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World truly says: “By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society in the shell of the old”.

But apart from the ultimate goal which all class conscious workers have in view, the industrial unionist believes in accomplishing something for his class here and now. To those socialists who raise the cry of “palliatives”, I would state that economic relief, won by organisation and agitation, can in no sense be described as palliating the present system.

Palliatives I look upon as those political sops from time to time thrown to the working class by bourgeois and parliaments in order to make them believe that the capitalist is the real benefactor, but which, experience has proved, leaves their position no better, if not worse, than before.

In this category may be placed all the “reforms” placed on the statute book with the aid and approval of socalled [sic] labour leaders by the first Transvaal Parliament, including the Industrial Disputes Act and the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The former is a piece of class legislation in the interests of the masters of the very first order; the latter, while it may be viewed with approval by a section of the workers who follow more or less dangerous occupations, does nothing of course to relieve the economic position of the working class as a whole.

Genuine industrial reforms, such as increased wage [sic], better conditions of labour, etc., are the only reforms that directly affect the rent, interest and profit of capitalist society, and as the capitalist class have all the forces of the State at their disposal to protect the sanctity of this trinity, it follows that it is only the by the workers organising as a class that sufficient economic pressure can be brought to bear to make them disgorge.

Appealing to their sense of justice will not make them do so, as the capitalist has no sense of justice where his pocket is concerned; windy labour politicians out for self-advertisement will not do so, as the capitalist class can afford to ignore “oratory”, and also pay for silence; the ballot box, in fact, cannot do so, as, whether the capitalist is in parliament or not he still rules on the economic field, and is therefore the wage slave’s master.

Industrial organisation, I repeat, and that in its strictly literal sense, is the only weapon by which he can be made to stand and deliver, and the working class will find that when properly organised a well meant threat to curtail profits by withholding labour will have the desired effect.

“But”, says the craft unionist, “that means strike; I have had enough of strikes”. Probably too much. But in passing it may be remarked that the average trade unionist when making this statement seems to forget that for very time he has revolted against his masters he has scabbed a dozen times on his class. However, this is a clear case of where the system, not the individual, must be held responsible.

The fault of the trade unions in this respect is that they refuse to recognise that the scab is none the less a scab though he may pay his monthly dues regularly and carry a union ticket in his breast pocket, if he goes to work whilst his fellow workers employed in the same industry or in any industry directly related, are on strike for better conditions of labour.

The strike of the future will be as different from that with which we have been acquainted as cadet manoeuvres are from the battle of Waterloo. The strike of the near future will be the INDUSTRIAL strike, and if found to be ineffective, the national strike will no doubt be called to its aid. As time goes on the international strike will no doubt play a most important part in forging the final links in the golden chain of working class solidarity, and of driving the last nails into the coffin of the capitalist system.


Source: Industrial Solidarity, 1 October 1910

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).