Syndicalism—The Creed of Force
BY ARTURO M. GIOVANNITTI
“As a revolutionary organization the Industrial Workers of the World, aims to use any and all tactics that will get the results sought with the least expenditure of time and energy. The question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ does not concern us.” To interpret this statement from Andre Tridon’s “The New Unionism” we asked Mr. Giovanitti, as a leader in the I. W. W., to express his personal views on the ethics of industrial unionism. Born in Campobasso, Italy, he has been a coal miner in Canada, a student at Union Theological Seminary, a worker in three Presbyterian Italian missions (in Montreal, Brooklyn and Pittsburgh) and a reporter and editor of Il Proletario of New York. When the woolen workers struck in Lawrence Mr. Giovanitti had become active in the I. W. W., and was summoned to help. An Italian woman was killed in a riot; Giovanitti and Ettor were accused of inflammatory speeches and imprisoned. Both were acquitted of being accessory to murder after waiting trial for ten months. “The Walker” and “The Cage,” fruits of this jail experience, stamp Mr. Giovannitti as a poet and a leading exponent in literature of this revolutionary movement in the world of labor. Editorial comment will be found on another page.—The Editor.
IT is generally admitted that social relations are the resultant of economic conditions and interests and that they vary with them. Therefore, social morality, which regulates these relations, is subject to and dependent on the economic forces and is preserved, modified or completely changed by them. Economic changes have created in succession the family, the gens, the clan and, lately, the nation. Thus we have had accordingly a domestic morality, a tribal morality, civic duty and patriotism. Today the further development of the economic process, by creating the great industry and deepening the lines of demarcation between the operating and the directing forces of society, has created, or rather brought into sharper relief, the classes. Hence a real, up-to-date morality, in the broad social sense, must be looked for, not in relation to humanity (the “neighbor” of the theologian and the “people” of the sociologist), which is only an abstract conception, but in relation to the class, which is a living and acting reality. Humanity as a distinct, homogeneous whole or as a definite economic environment does not yet exist and, therefore, we cannot yet establish any moral relations to it.
So all social morality of today is class morality. We have a capitalist morality, a middle-class morality and a proletarian morality, to speak only of the three greatest sub-divisions of modern society. Capitalist morality has created philanthropy, middle-class morality has created democracy and proletarian morality has created solidarity. The capitalist, to apply philanthropy, must preserve exploitation and profits; the middle class, in order to maintain and solidify democracy, must perpetuate individualism and competition; and the working class, by the very development of solidarity, is bound to establish equality and cooperation and thus to do away with all classes.
The workers, to realize their ethical aspirations, natural results of their material interests, have nothing to conserve which is not exclusively their own—hence their tactics, their action, the whole process of their individual and collective moral integration must necessarily differ from and often collide with the moral standards of the other two classes which have already attained their economic, social and spiritual completion in modern society.
Under this aspect the question of right and wrong does concern us because we believe that everything which tends to preserve the existing economic sytem, based on inequality, is wrong, and whatever works to overthrow and supplant it with a new one based on economic and social equity, is right.
Does this mean, then, that the I. W. W. does not discriminate at all in the selection of the various instruments of attack upon Capitalism, and that it stands for every form of aggressive action?
It does and it does not. Syndicalism, which is the philosophy of the revolutionary labor movement, has no aprioristic scruples or prejudicial propensity either for or against any and all methods and means of attack and defense, but it maintains that each situation will suggest, thru the infallible instinct of the workers themselves, the line of action to pursue and the means to adopt or reject.
It is not true that it is unconditionally opposed to political action in the generally accepted sense of the word, and it is equally false that it is opposed to the use of physical force. As a matter of fact, if Syndicalism does not openly advocate violence, as some anarchists do, it is neither because of a moral predisposition against it, nor on account of fear, but simply because, having a vaster and more complex conception of the class war, it refuses to believe in the myth of any single omnipotent method of action. Violence, moreover, being the extreme outward expression of a moral reaction created by outside situations, is objective and instinctive and not subjective and artificial.
The law of the least effort will unconsciously but firmly induce the workers to refrain from violence, but if impellent needs and the inflexible necessity of getting certain results make it indispensably conditional to the solution of a deadlocked controversy, it will, of course, automatically assert itself, even without an exprest suggestion. In this case, being neither counselled nor premeditated, violence is neither right nor wrong —it is either necessary or unnecessary, effective or useless, as the resulting circumstances alone will determine.
CONVENTIONAL ETHICS AND WAR
Of course there are certain conventional rules of ethics which are more or less universally accepted, and these rules, provided they do not directly interfere with the inflexible course of economic processes, are equally observed by the German army, the Steel Trust and the I. W. W. For instance, murder, theft, the destruction of useful property are almost universally considered wrong, and the I. W. W. is as much opposed to them from a moral standpoint as the Prohibitionist party and the Theosophical Society. Yet it must not be forgotten that self-defense, social protection and national preservation consider the killing of human beings, in some unavoidable circumstances, justifiable homicide. Every good bourgeois keeps a serviceable pistol at home, and every self-respecting nation a good standing army. The generally accepted notion seems to be that to kill is a great crime, but to be killed is the greatest. Likewise the strategy of war and of the trusts, tho severely condemning sacking and pillage, considers perfectly proper, not to say strictly necessary, the confiscation of the enemy’s supplies and the weakening of his position.
Now the I. W. W. is avowedly levying war on capitalist society, and so its tactics are neither justifiable nor unjustifiable; first, because the only law of war is to inflict the greatest possible harm by the least effort, and second because, as capitalist society comprizes all the social forces of today, except the belligerent proletariat, there is no impartial arbiter to lay down the rules of the game.
FORCE THE ONLY ARBITER
In the ultimate analysis what the I. W. W. wants is the unconditional surrender of the capitalist class, and as this would mean the social and economic demise of all the other classes whose existence is conditioned by the existence of capitalism, it follows that we can never expect anybody outside of the militant working class to agree with such a fierce proposition. We can never expect to prove the justice and righteousness of this aim which will always remain, to the higher strata of society, an immoral, unjust and even a criminal intention to be opposed by every available means. The intention and the finality being wrong,-it follows logically that the means employed to realize it must be equally wrong in relation to the established standards of morality.
The question, therefore, that Syndicalism bravely confronts and lays down for discussion, is not one of right or justice, but one of force, taking the word in its broader meaning.
The revolutionary labor movement can gradually justify its purpose only in relation to its accrued capacity and power to realize it, in the same way as the capitalist class justifies its right to the ownership of the means of production by the sole fact that it possesses them and it has the power to hold and defend them. In other words, to quote the unrefuted axiom of Marx: “Between two irreconcilable conflicting interests [which engender two opposite rights] the only arbiter that can decide is force.”
“THE LAW IS NO CONCERN OF OURS”
No, this problem of abstract morality is too much for our limited brain, unless, of course, we appeal to the law and decide that everything is moral which is legal. But we doubt very much that even bourgeois moralists will restrict the field of ethics to the penal code. However, what is the law but the coercion that a certain class, economically superior, exercizes over another class weaker in wealth, knowledge and power? What is the law but the ideal sanction of a pre-existing state of fact, i. e., the supremacy of a greater force over a lesser one?
Had we not stubbornly and “criminally” persisted in going on strike when the strike was an unlawful act, we should have never had this right recognized, nor should we have free speech in many reactionary cities had we left the matter entirely to the wisdom of a judge or the discretion of a police captain. The boycott is still illegal because Gompers et al. were loath to go to jail for it and the A. F. of L. did not have the courage to keep it up in spite of the law, but when the I. W. W., which fearlessly advocates it, is powerful enough to enforce it, legislators will break their necks in the hurry to legalize it.
Besides, have we not learned lawbreaking from the very class that pretends to worship legality? What difference is there between a corporation which buys a half dozen senators and a labor union which stones a group of overzealous policemen in the course of a strike? The difference, if any, is merely quantitative—both try to thwart the law which interferes with their interests, both interfere with its agents, but the former does so in a mean, sneaky, thieving way in order to loot millions and the latter does it impulsively and at a greater risk, in order to obtain an additional loaf of bread.
Verily, the law, like bourgeois morality, is no concern of ours; as our movement, which is essentially revolutionary and aims at the complete transformation of the economic foundations of society, must necessarily subvert its social, ethical and juridical superstructure also.
“WE CREATE OUR OWN LAWS”
The industrial revolution toward which the I. W. W. is steering the laboring masses is, therefore, not an economic question only, but it implies a complete and radical revaluation of all the spiritual conceptions and forces now operating in capitalist society. In its ultimate end, what it has really in view is the very reconstruction of the human psyche itself by substituting for the inane, powerless and demoralizing Christian spirit (charity), the manly and healthy proletarian solidarity, founded on the harmonious homogeneity of the material and ideal interests of all the toilers of the world.
Thus, while we are not concerned with what the other classes consider right and wrong, on the other hand we create our own laws, our own moral values and the strongest spirit of responsibility and interdependence ever known among men.
What the I. W. W. considers right and wrong from a proletarian point of view, in modern industrial warfare, is hard to tell, for the reason that we have no list of war implements to draw. Besides, it is not good policy to reveal our state of mind to the enemy. There is one thing, however, that every class-conscious workingman considers inexpressibly abominable, and this is “scabbery.” Outside of that, any and all means are right and permissible on the sole condition that they bring results disastrous to the master class and advantageous to the proletariat. However shocking this may sound to pious, God-fearing souls, it nevertheless reflects the entire attitude of the Syndicalist movement in connection with the class struggle. If the attitude is indefensible on moral grounds, so much the better. We never intended to defend it, anyway— we only endeavor to elucidate it.
CONCESSION A TACTICAL ERROR
A revolutionary organization, which purports to overthrow a whole state of society and claims to carry in itself the germ of a new civilization, such as the I. W. W. boasts of, derives all its power exclusively from its own militancy and aggressiveness. The more flippant, defiant, unconventional and disrespectful it is toward the existing standards of ethics, good manners, law and order, the more effective it becomes in its work of demolition, which is the most essential task of any revolution. The more it disregards the opinions of outsiders, the more unmindful it is of their approval or condemnation, the more it will fall back on its own power—on which alone it must exclusively rely—build its own individual character, forge its own weapons of attack and defense and hold its own entrenched position against the embattled forces of reaction.
Any concession to the opposed opinions, theories and principles of the other classes is equivalent to a recognition of their raison d’etre and of their possibility of regulating or influencing our attitude and demeanor toward whatever is extraneous, and therefore antagonistic to the proximate and ulterior motives and interests of the proletariat.
Indeed, their interest being to preserve all the existing moral, juridical and intellectual notions (the substrata on which stands the edifice of their privilege and the target of all our broadsides, i. e., the exploitation of labor) their mentality must of necessity be at war with ours, whose interest is to destroy. Therefore, we are never going to be explanatory or apologetic, for then we should take a defensive attitude which could only amount to a deteriorating and demoralizing recognition of weakness.
THE ETHICS OF POWER
In conclusion, all the moral code of the Syndicalist movement may be summed up in these words: “We are going to do what we need and intend to do, simply because we have the power to do it.”
If you have the power to prevent us, why it is your privilege, your right, your duty as a class to do so. And you are doing it. You tore to pieces the constitution in order to prevent us from assembling and voicing our grievances and our protest. You battered our skulls with your policemen’s clubs. You stabbed us to death with your soldier’s bayonet. You hired your private thug to’ insult, assault and murder us. You instructed your private judge to sentence us to the penitentiary or to the scaffold for crimes which had been committed by your hirelings. You ordered your private priest to curse us and damn us to hell. You sweated us, starved us, bled us, dispossessed us, reviled us in your subsidized press—and we bore it all sullenly and doggedly and said nothing.
Was it right? Well, you will perhaps blush hypocritically and say that it was wrong, now that you have done it and fear the consequences of the example you have set, but we say that it was right. It was perfectly right simply because you were defending your interests and privileges, because you had the power to do it, because you were the stronger and because it is the law of the jungle, from which neither you nor we have yet graduated. But whether it is right or not, we are going to do the same because you have taught us that these tactics are the only ones which bring results.
You will call this a fearsome creed, a sinister philosophy of force. So it is. Our ethics are the ethics of power, those of the absolute social and economic dictatorship of the proletariat, exactly as yours are those of the supreme mastery of plutocracy, or of the exclusive dominion of middleclass cowardice and imbecility.
No, we do not believe in killing or bearing false testimony against you, our neighbor, nor do we want your ass, your ox or your wife, but we do want your land, your machinery, your mill, your mine, your railroad and your beloved thirty-six per cent —and we are going to take them back, as surely as you have stolen them from us.
We have nothing in common with you, we do not recognize the “public,” the “people,” the “nation,” Christendom or humanity—we know only the working class, and rigidly maintain that outside of the working class there is not, nor shall there ever be any hope of salvation in the great social hereafter.
To a certain extent our principles are those of the beloved church of your heart, the Catholic Church, which holds that outside of its folds there is no heaven, and affirms its absolute, infallible right to rule and regulate, by the direct mandate of God, all our social activities and relations. Thus the I. W. W.
With the sole difference, forsooth, that we expect a wholesale conversion of all the heretics of the parasitic ilk the day when we shall make our excommunication more effective than the priestly anathema—not by damning the sinners to Gehenna, but by barring them from the dinner table, if they are not born again and baptized in honest sweat in the name of the last and everlasting god, creator of all life and beauty and happiness—LABOR!
New York City
Arturo M. Giovannitti, “Syndicalism—The Creed of Force,” The Independent 76 no. 3387 (October 30, 1913): 209-211.