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16 November 2021

From the NS archive: Our backs to the wall

16 April 1921: Industrial action has some of the characteristics of warfare.

By New Statesman

Since 1914, the Triple Alliance – a syndicalist organisation consisting of the Miners’ Federation, the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation – had been considered by many as the main defence for the protection of workers’ rights. During the First World War, the ceasing of trade union activity meant the industries represented by the Triple Alliance were temporarily nationalised. However, when this agreement expired and the mining industry was privatised on 1 April 1921, the Miners’ Federation planned for a coordinated strike on 15 April. When its allies in the Triple Alliance decided not to join it, this was seen as a defeat for the Triple Alliance and a betrayal of trade unionism. In this article for the New Statesman, the anonymous author draws comparisons between the labour disagreements, sport and reflections on the war to describe how when people feel they have become desperate, they are “not going to admit defeat” even if it is “no doubt against all the rules”.

It was the custom in duelling, we believe, for the man who was challenged to have the right to choose the weapons. That may have helped to put duelling out of fashion. If one wishes to fight a man at all, one naturally wishes to fight him with one’s own weapons. Fighting did not originate as a sport. It is a question if it can ever, except for a small and select circle, be transformed into a sport. We do well to hang on as tenaciously as we can to the illusion that it is a sport, as this often enables us to behave like gentlemen in a crisis, and probably does not impair our efficiency as fighters.

But the object of fighting is not amusement but victory, and there are few, if any, rules of the game that the average man would not sacrifice if victory depended on his doing so. There are no rules even in civilised war comparable in rigidity to the rules of cricket or football. In cricket or football, to transgress the law is to come immediately under a penalty, and in defying the rules of the game; one would not be sure of the support even of one’s own side. Spectators who have laid heavy bets may support a foul player against the referee or umpire in remote country places, but the players on both sides agree that, if the game is to be played at all, it must be played according to the rules, and penalties are acquiesced in as matters of course.

If cricket matches were played in the spirit of war, however, men would be much too serious to abide by the strict letter of the game. If the very lives of the inhabitants of Surrey and their children depended on the result of the match with Middlesex, be sure the Surrey bowler would feel justified in throwing instead of bowling, and if he could put the Middlesex batsman out of action by hurling the ball at the bridge of his nose or into the pit of his stomach, he would excuse himself to his conscience with the reflection that he was at least serving his own people. In such circumstances the umpire would give his decision in vain. Each side would support its own players through thick and thin, and the lives of the umpires – especially if they were just umpires – would hardly be safe from either.

The game, indeed, would degenerate on both sides into what sportsmen would call foul play. No batsman would admit that he was out “leg before wicket,” though he stood guarding the wicket with both knees. Wicket-keepers would resort to all sorts of crooked shifts and would claim to have stumped the batsman twice or thrice in every over. Bat, ball and wicket would probably all be used as weapons before the game was over, and the field would become the scene, not of a game, but of a shindy. That is the difference between a game and a war. A game is practically an end in itself, so that it is fairly easy to keep the rules. A war is only a means to an end – which is the real imposition of one’s will on one’s opponents – and so the rules are thrown overboard rather than that the end should be imperilled.

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We do not, we may say, suggest that wars are of necessity waged with entire moral unscrupulousness. There have been few great wars that have not been distinguished by many acts of chivalry and humanity. Ideal rules of behaviour exist, and the finest type of soldier would almost rather lose a battle than offend against them. Great soldiers have in many instances acted as though they were the trustees of the tradition of chivalry as well as of their country’s safety. When the British Admiralty rejected Cochrane’s invention of poison gas, they did so in the belief that considerations of humanity had to be taken into account as well as considerations of victory.

The history of war owes much of its romantic interest to the fact that so many soldiers have believed it possible to be “clean” as well as victorious fighters. At the same time, there are not many examples of nations fighting for their lives who have deliberately given their enemies an advantage through chivalry. The so-called humanising of war – which has been greatly exaggerated in the interests of that large mass of human beings who are at once sentimental and bellicose – probably had its origin in a desire for mutual advantage. The sparing of prisoners’ lives, the prohibition of dum-dum bullets, and such things, are the result of a bargain, which remains effective only so long as both sides stick to it. Our ancestors probably thought they had invented a permanent code of honour for fighting men.

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But most of their code has been swept away by the necessity of victory. They were shocked by the notion of night-surprises, by the notion of field-artillery, by the notion of taking cover. They despised even the idea that a soldier could wish to hide himself from his enemy by dressing in khaki instead of scarlet. They wished not only to win but to win in style. As soon, however, as it became clear that adherence to the old ways would merely result in our losing in style, we altered our code and sought not honour but victory. Similarly, in the last war, we stood out as long as we could against the unrestricted use of the aeroplane and the submarine and against the use of poison gas. But before the war was over, it had become an aeroplane-submarine-and-poison-gas war, and everybody was engaged in doing the things for which we had denounced the Germans as fiends a few months before. As a matter of fact, it may be doubted whether any power, situated as Germany was, would have refrained from using the weapons that Germany used. We do not mean that Germany’s ruthless use of new weapons was ultimately effective, but it was such as statesmen in almost any country would expect to be effective. Germany’s ruthlessness probably helped to lose the war for her, by intensifying the opposition to her in her enemies.

At the same time, had we been in Germany’s place, it is easy to conceive how longingly we might have looked to unrestricted submarine warfare as a speedy way out of our difficulties. Germany, threatened with one sort of blockade, had no alternative but to attempt the forbidden sort of blockade on her side. She could not meet the Allies on the surface of the sea, and so she dreamed of defeating them under the sea. She had not their naval weapon, but she had a weapon of her own that she thought might be an effective counterpart to it. She had her back to the wall, anyhow, and she was not going to admit defeat until she had made trial of her submarine blockade. No doubt it was against all the rules. It was a defiance both of Christianity and of custom. As it turned out, it was exceedingly unwise to make use of this weapon, and it ultimately brought America on the scene with a pair of handcuffs. But the temptation to use the weapon must to any nation so circumstanced have been all but irresistible. Those who have their backs to the wall seldom have much respect for the rules.

That is why we hold that the employers were exceedingly foolish to force the miners to fight with their backs to the wall. Industrial warfare is not warfare in the ordinary sense, but it has some of the characteristics of warfare, and one of these is that men who engage in it will have recourse to what their opponents regard as illegitimate weapons rather than submit to defeat. The mine-owners claimed the right not only to challenge the miners but to choose the weapons – or, rather, they suggested a fight in which all the effective weapons were in their own hands, and in which the miners were all but defenceless. It was the very defencelessness of the miners that led to the withdrawal of the safety-men from the pumps. It must have seemed to them that there was no other argument that would even gain the attention of the mine-owners. No doubt it was a perilous weapon to use – perilous to the nation as a whole, and perilous to the future livelihood of the men themselves. The mine-owners, however, had claimed that the mines were the affair, not of the nation or of the miners, but of a few capitalists, and the men’s reply in effect was: “Look after the mines yourselves, then.” It may not be a particularly noble or knightly attitude, but it is not difficult to understand it. People without a weapon will make use of what they can as a weapon, like the Irish postmistress the other day who fought armed raiders by throwing letter-weights at them.

In the same way the householder of the comic paper will use the poker or the tongs in fighting a burglar, though, in a round of fisticuffs with a friend, he may be exceedingly particular about the Queensberry rules. He does not fight the burglar for sport, however but in order to defeat his dubious purposes. We have no wish to indulge in the partisan rhetoric that represents capitalists as burglars; such analogies are for the street-corners and have no relation to realities. At the same time, there are occasions on which the worker feels that he is guarding his home against a threat as immoral as and more devastating than, that of burglary. He sees that his wife and children are to be sacrificed in order that other men may travel first-class and sit in the stalls at the theatre. He, who was promised a world fit for heroes to live in, is invited to go back down the ladder up which he had been climbing so hopefully. He is offered despair instead of hope indeed. And he is expected to acquiesce without a protest. It is not wise to drive human beings to despair. It would not, of course, matter if they were mere criminals and one had no further need of them. The despair of the Sidney Street anarchists, for instance, was of no jury to the State except in so far as it helped to advertise Mr Churchill. But even the masters do not wish to crush the miners as the Sidney Street anarchists were crushed. They have a further use for them. Hence the folly of all that reactionary sort of talk one hears on trains and in hotels – such as “Let’s get it over once for all.”

To imagine that Trade Unionists are a sort of foreign enemy, who can be brought permanently to their senses by a dictated peace, is to indulge in vain delusions. There are probably no workers in the world more ready to confer and to compromise than the English workers, but it is not safe on this account to make them fight with their backs to the wall. Revolutionists may welcome a policy of exasperation on the ground that it educates the workers in extremism. Those of us, however, who believe that society progresses most satisfactorily by a series of compromises, and that the Socialist State itself would be bound to be a compromise, have no wish to see Trade Unionists entering the terrible school of despair. In the past few weeks we have seen a powerful attack launched against their standard of living, with all the resources for a long war in the hands of their enemies, and with the resources of the Government ultimately at their enemies’ disposal. That was what led the strikers to make use of a more perilous weapon than has been used in industrial warfare for many years. Anyone who knows anything of human nature might have foretold that this would happen. And, had it not been for the rally of the Triple Alliance to their support and the partial climb-down of the Government, it would have gone on happening.

Governments, however, should beware of challenging their subjects and forcing them to fight with their backs to the wall. It is a policy that has already created horror in Ireland. Its results in England would be at least as disastrous. For a Government, disguised as a democratic Government, to make war on the community is to invite the ruin of the State.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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