Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - National Penrhynism

As I have already suggested the subservience of Socialists and Labourites to the traditions of Liberalism, so far from showing any signs of abating gets worse every day. It has been getting markedly worse since the beginning of the new century. It was the South African War more than anything else which captured the English Socialists and swept them into the most reactionary wing of the broken forces of Liberalism. Since then the Radicals have always been able by raising the cry of "No Imperialism!" to bend the Socialists to their will. Hence Mr. MacDonald's amazing indiscretion quoted in my last chapter.

I think it was Mr. Ben Tillet who alluded to the owner of the Bethesda Slate Quarries as "Kruger-Penrhyn."

I am not sure that Mr. Tillet or indeed anyone else realised the full accuracy of this description. For not only was there a very striking resemblance between the virtues and faults of Mr. Kruger and those of Lord Penrhyn but there was an even more remarkable analogy between the claims which the two men put forward and the arguments by which those claims were attacked and upheld.

The friends of the Welsh quarrymen said in effect to Lord Penrhyn: "You are conducting your business improperly; your narrow obstinacy is dangerous to the community and an obstacle to progress; your conduct towards your employees is unfair and oppressive. We demand that you either mend your ways or go." Similarly the British government said in effect to Mr. Kruger "You are conducting the government of your country badly; your narrow obstinacy is an obstacle to progress and is creating a situation dangerous to the peace of the world; your conduct towards your subjects is unfair and oppressive. We demand that you either mend your ways or go."

And the answer is in each case the same "Shall I not do what I will with my own?" "Are not the quarries mine?" asks Lord Penrhyn: "Is not the Transvaal ours?" demanded Mr. Kruger. "If my workmen do not like my management they can leave" said Lord Penrhyn; "If the Outlanders do not like my government they need not come," said Mr. Kruger.

Now, granting the premises of these two eminent men their conclusions certainly follow. Indeed the popular case against both was clearly untenable. From the Liberal point of view Lord Penrhyn was as right as Mr. Kruger ; from the Conservative point of view Mr. Kruger was as right as Lord Penrhyn. It is only by assailing the fundamental assumptions of both that we can make out any fair case against either. The only possible answer to the positions stated above is the Socialist answer: "No; the quarries do not really belong to Lord Penrhyn; the Transvaal does not really belong to Mr. Kruger or to the Boers. Their title depends on the use they make of them. Private property, whether of individuals or of nations is subject ultimately to the claims of public necessity."

I have dwelt on this point at some length because, as I have already said, it was unquestionably the South African War which more than anything else rivetted on our Socialist and Labour parties the chains of Liberalism. It is perfectly natural that Liberals should champion the " rights of nationalities,' since they are the chosen champions of the rights of property. But what have Socialists to do with either except to challenge them whenever they conflict with the general well-being? How can Socialists accept the claim of a handful of settlers to set up a ring-fence round a certain portion of the earth's surface and declare it their property any more than the claim of a landlord to enclose commons?

Note that I am not by any means saying that no Socialist could consistently oppose the South African War. There are many plausible grounds upon which he could oppose it. He could oppose it for example on the ground that the two Republics would in course of time have been peaceably absorbed into the Empire, and that the attempt to hurry the process by war was in every way a disastrous blunder. Or again he could take the ground that the war dangerously strengthened the already too powerful financial interests of the Rand and paved the way for such reactionary measures as the introduction of Chinese labour. I will not discuss here whether such arguments are sound or unsound. I only say that the particular ground of debate chosen, the inalienable "right" of a people to do what it likes with its own, is one that no Socialist can take without self-stultification.

The manner in which the leaders of the English Labour movement with a few exceptions flung themselves recklessly into the most unintelligent sort of pro-Krugerism is one example and one very disastrous in its consequences of the extent to which they have allowed themselves to be saturated with the Liberal theory of wholly irresponsible Nationalism. But it is by no means the only one. The parallel case of Ireland is in many ways even more curious.

In considering the eternal Irish question from a Socialist standpoint there are four dominant facts to be kept always in mind. The first is that Nationalism in the Irish sense is not a Socialist ideal in any sense, but is merely a kind of very narrow parochial Jingoism, The second that the Irish Nationalist party is preeminently a Parti bourgeois drawing its main strength from the middle orders small tradesmen, tenant farmers and publicans, and that its political and economic ideas are those generally characteristic of that class rigid individualism, peasant proprietorship and the like. The third that it is a clericalist Party, representing not the enlightened Catholicism of the Continent but the narrowest kind of political Ultramonanism* The fourth that Mr. Gladstone's adoption of the Home Rule cause was a deliberate move on his part intended to stave off economic reforms in this country.

*Note for example the action of the Irish Members in securing the exclusion of Convent Laundries from the operation of the Factory Acts action of which every enlightened Roman Catholic, to whom I have spoken of it, has expressed strong disapproval.

Now in these circumstances it would seem almost incredible that Socialists should feel any kind of sympathy with Irish Nationalism. Yet apparently they do feel such sympathy. Mr. Gladstone indeed builded better than he knew. He doubtless believed that by espousing Home Rule he could "dish" Mr. Chamberlain and draw the attention of young Liberals and Radicals away from social questions in which they were beginning to take a languid interest; but he could hardly have expected to effect this in the case of the Socialists and Labour leaders themselves. Yet to a great extent his policy has achieved this, and we actually find Socialists clamouring for the retention of Home Rule in the Liberal programme, though they must know perfectly well that its retention means the indefinite postponement of industrial matters.

There is no kind of excuse for the Nationalist partialities of Socialists because they know or ought to know that the theory that England oppresses Ireland is a radically false and untenable one. That Ireland is oppressed one need not deny; but it is not England that oppresses her. It is capitalism and landlordism that oppress Ireland as they oppress England. If the S.D.F. means anything at all by its "recognition of the Class War" it ought to recognise this. And recognising it, it ought to set its face like flint against a policy of disunion and racial antagonism and teach the proletarians of Ireland and England to "unite" (that is to be Unionists) according to the old Socialist formula instead of encouraging the proletarians of Ireland to regard those of England as aliens and tyrants.

To say the truth I am a little tired of the wrongs of Ireland. I am quite willing to admit that she is an "oppressed nationality" with the proviso that this phrase is equally applicable to England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. But one is tempted to point out that concessions have been made to the Irish peasantry such as no one dreams of making to the workers of Great Britain. How much "fixity of tenure" has the English labourer in the wretched hole which his masters provide for him? Do we sign away millions of British money and British credit to save him from the oppression of his landlord? Not at all. But then he does not shoot from behind hedges; nor has he as yet had even the wisdom to organize a strong and independent political party whose support is to be obtained for value received.

In a word I contend that the association of English Socialism and Labourism with the aspirations of Irish Chauvinists is theoretically meaningless and practically suicidal. It is our business to meet the old Gladstonian cry that everything else must wait because "Ireland blocks the way" with a counter-cry, "It is Ireland's turn to wait; Labour blocks the way."

All this does not of course mean that no kind of devolution is practicable or desirable. There is a sense in which I am myself a convinced "Home Ruler." I believe that a number of causes (quite independent of Irish Jingoism) are combining to make a vast extension of our system of local government imperative. Mr. H. G. Wells has shown that the administrative areas of our local authorities are at present much too small, and the authorities themselves are quickly rinding this out from practical experience. Parliament is overwhelmed with business which intelligent local bodies could transact much better. Imperial Federation, when it comes, will of necessity entail a large measure of local autonomy. Altogether some scheme of provincial councils seems less fantastic to-day than it did when Mr. Chamberlain outlined it in the 'eighties. But there is no earthly reason for conceding to the least trustworthy and most militantly provincial part of the United Kingdom anything more than you give to the rest. Ireland should get such autonomy as we might give to the north of England and no more. Ireland is no more a Nation than Yorkshire, but there is every reason why both Ireland and Yorkshire should be taught to manage their purely internal affairs to the best of their ability.

But, if exclusive Nationalism is essentially unsocialistic, what are we to say of Imperialism? The answer is that there is nothing wrong with Imperialism except the name which suggests Louis Bonaparte and the dragooning of subject peoples. With the thing, in its British sense, Socialists have no kind of quarrel. Indeed if Socialists would only give up their vague invectives against " Empire," which lead in the long run to nothing more than the unmeaning backing of the effete anti-imperialist, anti-socialist, anti- Church-and-State Radicalism current fifty years ago, and seriously face the problems raised by British expansion from an unswervingly Socialist stand- point, we might get on a good deal faster. The problem of Imperialism (" Federationism " would be a better word) may be briefly stated thus : How can we consolidate the widely scattered and variegated dominions which fly the British flag into one vast Commonwealth of practically inter- national extent ? Have Socialists any answer to this question? Or are they to be content with the old Radical answer that this cannot or should not be done?

That any Socialist should return such answer is to me I confess astounding. To say that such a practically international commonwealth is impossible is to say that a fortiori the international commonwealth of which Marx and Lassalles dreamed is impossible. If the proletarians of England and Ireland, Australia and South Africa, India and Canada cannot unite, what hope is there that those of France and Germany, Russia and Japan will do so. Surely it is a curious way of showing your enthusiasm for the Federation of the World to break up all existing federations into smaller and smaller divisions The practical Socialist policy in relation to the Empire is clearly not to destroy it, but to socialize it that is to prevent its exploitation by capitalist cliques and financial conspiracies, to organise it in the interests of its inhabitants as a whole, and to use its power to check the evil force and cunning of cosmopolitan finance.

For indeed the dark of deeds such finance can only, as we Socialists believe, be checked by the political force of the community. And in order to check it at all effectively the community must be operative on a scale as large as its own. That is why the older Socialists were internationalists; that is why so many of the more thoughtful of modern Socialists are imperialists. Mr. Wells has pointed out at what a serious disadvantage municipalities find themselves in dealing with private monopolies since the latter can operate over any area that is convenient to them, while the operations of the former are confined within the narrow and arbitrary frontiers drawn by Acts of Parliament. Exactly the same is true in international affairs. Mr. Beit and Mr. Eckstein can safely snap their fingers at small nationalities, however progressive. Against a Socialistic British Empire they would be utterly powerless.

And as the organization of the Empire can be made the most powerful of Socialist weapons if we can once get control of it, so the popular sentiment of Imperialism can be used for the purposes of Socialist propaganda if we know how to turn it to account. For we Socialists alone possess the key to the problem the key for which non- socialist Imperialists are looking. It is to be noted that as soon as the ordinary Imperialist gets anywhere near the solution of an imperial question he gets unconsciously on to the Socialist track, as for instance in the growing demand for the imperialisation of our great carrying lines. Even Mr. Chamberlain's propaganda, though Socialists can- not think it sufficient, is a sort of groping after the socialist solution, an admission of the necessity of intervention by the united British Commonwealth to check and regulate the disintegrating anarchy of commercial competition. In fact our word to the stupid and thoughtless Imperialism of the streets is in reality the word of St. Paul to the Athenians: "What ye ignorantly worship that declare we unto you!"

The same general line of thought has its application to the problems of foreign policy. The old Cobdenite doctrine of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations had its origin in Cobden's general view of diplomacy as existing only to promote the interests of trade by which of course he meant the interests of the merchant, manufacturer and capitalist. That cannot possibly be our view. For Socialists to accept the Liberal doctrine of non-intervention would amount to a denial of that human solidarity of which they have always considered themselves the especial champions. In point of fact Palmerston is a much better model for Socialists in regard to continental affairs than Cobden or Bright or even Gladstone. For, though Gladstone was certainly not a non-interventionist, his anti-Turkish monomania made him blind to the evil power of Russia, whose existence is a standing menace to liberty and progress, and whose power and vast resources make her a more formidable enemy of all that we value than Turkey could ever be if she tried. Socialists should press not merely for the protection of our "proletarian" fishermen against the freaks of tipsy or panic-stricken Russian admirals, but for a steady policy of opposition to Russia all over the world and the support of any or every nation, Japs, Finns, Poles, Afghans and even the "unspeakable" Turk against her. During the perilous days through which we have recently passed, it must have occurred to many that our position would have been much stronger if we could have counted on the support of Turkey, as we could have done had we never abandoned, in deference to Mr. Gladstone's theological animosities, the policy of Palmerston and Lord Stratford de Redcliffe the policy of first reforming Turkish rule and then guaranteeing it against Muscovite aggression. The only difference between our policy and Palmerston's should be this, that while Palmerston confined himself to the encouragement of political liberty, we ought to aim at the promotion of economic liberty also. We should in fact try to put England at the head of the Labour interest throughout the world as Cromwell put her at the head of the Protestant interest, and Palmerston of the Liberal interest. And in doing this we should be prepared to make full use of those weapons which neither Cromwell nor Palmerston would ever have hesitated to employ.

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