“Revolutionary Industrial Unionism” – ISL, Johannesburg, 1917

The International Socialist League puts forward its candidates for the provincial Council Elections not because it thinks that getting Socialists into public office will alone emancipate the workers, but because we believe that the industrial organisation of the workers should be supported by that of the political. On the other hand we wish to emphasize the point that the mere putting of representatives into public office is futile unless backed up by the economic power of that class. Economic organisation is the power of our class, but if we are to emancipate ourselves, we must organise in a different manner and on a different basis. The basis on which we must organise is that of Industrial Unionism.

Revolutionary Industrial Unionism – that is, the proposition that all wage-workers must come together in “organisation according to Industry”; the grouping of the workers, in each of the big divisions of industry as a whole into local, national, and international industrial unions, all to be interlocked, dove-tailed, welded into One Big Union of all wage workers; a big union bent on aggressively forging ahead, and compelling shorter hours, more wages and better conditions in and out of the workshops and as each advaunce [sic] is made, holding on grimly to the fresh gain with the determination to push still forward – gaining strength from each victory and learning by every temporary set-back – until the working class is able to take possession and control of the machinery, premises and materials of production right from the capitalists’ hands, and use that control to distribute the product entirely amongst the workers.

Industrial Unionism is revolutionary – because it is based on the class struggle and aims to bring about a social revolution by shifting the control of production from the capitalists – the non-producers – to the workers – the producers. A small portion of the population controls the means of life and buys labour as cheaply as possible. The vast majority of the population in order to live at all, have to sell their labour – as dearly as possible.

The working class, on the average, only get enough to just live on out of the vast total of what they produce, while the capitalist class revel in luxury, extravagance and waste. There, a struggle – known as the Class Struggle – goes on ceaselessly for the product, a struggle which can only be ended by the workers taking possession. The only way the workers can add to their bare existence which they receive is by combination – by organisation. Ordinary unionism as we know it – Trade Unionism – does not aim at ending the struggle, but tinkers with conditions, barters for bits of the product instead of claiming and struggling for the whole. It therefore perpetuates the wage system with its necessarily ceaseless struggle …

Revolutionary Industrial Unionism embraces every individual, unit, section, branch, and department of industry. It takes every colour, creed and nation. Revolutionary Industrial Unionism is “organised efficiency”. Every worker in every industry; every industry part and parcel of one great whole.

And, in the forging of the weapon we get paid, “not in the sky when we die”, but as we go along; for every fight won, every advance made through efficient organisation can be held by the same means, and will be reflected in better conditions.

Workers of South Africa, become Class Conscious instead of Craft Conscious!


Source: The International, 1 June 1917

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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).