Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - "What Portion Have We In David?"

The ordinary man conceives of a Socialist as a kind of very extreme Liberal or Radical, a man who pushes Radical doctrines further than most Radicals dare push them. Indeed many Socialists conceive so of themselves. Yet it is obvious that, if there is any truth at all in what I have just written, this must be regarded as a complete misconception.

Socialism and Collectivism are names which we give to the extreme development of that tendency in political thought which has proved so fatal to Liberalism, which is indeed a reaction against Liberalism. Karl Marx himself, revolutionary though he was, admitted that the English Factory Acts were the first political expression of Socialism; we have already seen that they were the death warrant of consistent and philosophic Liberalism. Every piece of Socialistic legislation is in its nature anti-Liberal. There is no getting away from the truth of Herbert Spencer's taunt when he called Socialism "The New Toryism." Epigrammatically ex- pressed, that is an excellent and most complimentary description of it. Socialism is an attempt to adapt the old Tory conceptions of national unity, solidarity and order to new conditions. Our case against Toryism is that its economic and political synthesis is no longer possible for us. But we can have no kind of sympathy with Liberalism which is the negation of all synthesis, the proclamation of universal disruption.

It is therefore particularly disheartening to find that "Liberal principles" are apparently as sacrosanct in the eyes of many Socialists as in those of the Liberals themselves. That Socialists also denounce the idea of a State Church, that Socialists also rail at Imperialism and condemn " bloated armaments," that Socialists also proclaim the universal holiness and perfection of Free Trade this is the really extraordinary and disturbing fact.

This, though none seems to see it, is the real root of the difficulties which be- set every attempt to form an independent Socialist or Labour Party. You cannot have an independent party with any real backbone in it without independent thinking. And, omitting pious platitudes about " the socialization of all the means of production, distribution and exchange" there does not seem to me any perceptible difference between the way in which the Independent Labour Party (for example) thinks about current problems and the way in which the Liberals think about them. They may think differently about economic abstractions, but they do not think differently when it comes to practical politics. Consequently when- ever a question divides the Liberals and the Tories, the I.L.P. always dashes into the Liberal camp at the firing of the first shot without apparently waiting to consider for one moment whether perhaps Socialism may not have an answer of its own to give which will in the nature of things be neither the Liberal nor the Tory answer. And then the I.L.P. and their allies of the Labour Representation Committee boast proudly of their "independence" because they are not allowed to speak on Liberal plat- forms. Of what avail is that prohibition if the platform on which they themselves stand is in its essence a Liberal platform. A little while ago the leaders of the I.L.P. were extremely indignant because three L.R.C. representatives were said to have spoken at a by-election in support of Liberal candidates. The defence was that the three leaders in question spoke, not in support of the Liberal candidate, but in opposition to the Licensing Bill and other measures of the Conservative Government. Now it seems to me that this puts the whole question of Socialist and Labour independence in a nutshell. If Socialists and other champions of labour have really nothing to say on the Licensing Bill, Education, Tariff Reform, Chinese Labour and other topics of the hour other than what all the Liberals are saying it seems very difficult to understand why it is so very wicked of them to support Liberal candidates. If on every question which is really before the country they agree with the said Liberal candidates it would seem the obvious thing to do. At any rate I feel quite certain that they will go on doing it, directly or indirectly, in spite of all the waste paper pledges and resolutions in the world, until they get a political philosophy of their own, when they will realize that the Socialist (or if you prefer it the "Labour") view of the licensing question, the fiscal question and the South African labour question is and must be fundamentally different from the Liberal and Radical view.

And indeed for want of such realisation the rush of the Labour men into the Liberal camp becomes more headlong every day. It began with Radical Trade Unionists newly converted to the idea of independent labour re- presentation. But the Socialist wing has not shown itself a whit steadier in its allegiance to the doctrine of real independence. If you doubt this charge, turn to an article contributed by Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald to the Speaker on the subject of the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam. The Speaker if one of the ablest is one of the most thoroughly obscurantist of Liberal papers, holding fast and without shame by the traditions of Cobden and Gladstone. Mr. MacDonald has been in the past one of the most uncompromising of the leaders of the I.L.P. and is at this moment Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee. He seems to claim, in the passage I am going to quote, to speak for his party, and, as far as I am aware, none of the leaders of that party have ventured to repudiate him.

This is what he says: "If, for instance, in the next Liberal Cabinet the Rosebery faction were strongly represented, and if no satis- factory pledges were given upon the Government's intentions regarding Trade Union legislation, the Labour Party would be perfectly justified in supporting a vote of censure or what would amount to that on the first King's Speech; but on the other hand, if the Cabinet were anti- Imperialist, and were sound on Trade Union legislation, the Labour Party would be justified in giving it general support and in protecting it from defeat."

It is hardly necessary to point out that here Mr. MacDonald gives the whole I.L.P. case hopelessly away. None reading the above passage could suppose for a moment that it was written by a Socialist. Observe that the writer does not ask for a single item of socialist or semi-socialist legislation. He is silent about Old Age Pensions, about an Eight Hours Day or a Minimum Wage, about a Graduated Income Tax, about Housing or Factory legislation in a word about everything that could by any possibility be called Socialistic. For what does he ask? Firstly for anti-Imperialism? Now is anti-Imperialism the same as Socialism? Is there any reason for supposing that the anti-Imperialist wing of the Liberal party will do more for labour than the Imperialist wing? Is Sir Henry Camp- bell-Bannerman a Socialist or a Labourite? Is Mr. John Morley, who for years has absolutely blocked the way in regard to social reform, a Socialist or a Labourite? Why should the Labour Party support the hopelessly outmoded rump of Little- England Radicalism without at any rate making a very stringent bargain with them? As to trade union legislation, every Socialist would doubtless support it, but it is not in itself a Socialist measure; it is merely what everyone supposed that the Unions had obtained thirty years ago with the assent of Liberals and Tories alike. It therefore comes to this that Mr. Mac- Donald has declared himself as regards practical issues not a Socialist at all, but an anti-Imperialist Radical who is in favour of improving the legal position of trades unions. Then why, in the name of heaven form an independent party at all? He and those who follow him are clearly in their right place as an insignificant section of the Radical "tail." And that is how both Tories and Radicals will in future regard them.

But there is one Socialist sect in England from which we might at least expect freedom from Liberal tradition. The Social Democratic Federation is never tired of boasting of its independence, its "class-consciousness," its stern Marxian inflexibility of purpose. Yet, when it comes to practice, it is only a trifle less enslaved by Liberal ideas than the I.L.P. itself. During the South African War the S.D.F. went one better than the Liberals in its narrow pro-Boerism. Its members rallied to the support of the late Mr. Kruger (surely the strangest leader that Social Democracy ever boasted!) and backed up the Radical Krugerites without apparently asking any questions as to their policy on labour matters. Later, on the education question, they again rallied to the Radical standard (the standard of 1870!) and, like so many Liberal Nonconformists, broke into ecstatic worship of the "ad hoc" principle, denouncing as "undemocratic" the socialistic policy of municipalized education which the Tory government had borrowed from the Fabian Society. Moreover, glancing at the S.D.F. programme I find among the "palliatives" disestablishment of the church and abolition of hereditary monarchy. How the economic condition of the people is going to be "palliated" by these measures I do not profess to know; I will only remark that the " palliation " does not seem very visible in the United States at the present time. But what I want to insist upon is the utter futility of playing thus into the hands of the champions of capitalism by helping to impress workmen with the idea that their misfortunes are wholly or in part due to those purely constitutional causes concerning which Radicals and Conservatives are at war, while all the time we at least know that they are due to the economic structure of society which Radicals and Conservatives alike support.

I agree with the S.D.F. in thinking that a Labour party must have some sort of doctrinal basis. An old party can live for a long while on catchwords and prejudices, but you cannot build a new party up without some definite political ideas. But these doctrines and ideas must not be a mere re-hash of exploded Liberal doctrines and ideas plus a theoretic belief in "the socialization of all the means, etc." The new party need not call itself Socialist, perhaps had better not do so, but its attitude to- wards practical matters must be effectively socialistic. It must stand for the rights of the community as emphatically as the older Liberalism stood for the rights of the individual. It must work for the state control and regulation of industry as Liberalism worked for its liberation from state interference. In a word, it must be Protectionist in a more far-reaching sense than that in which the word is applicable to Mr. Chamberlain or Mr. Chaplin. So that its political philosophy will be emphatically anti- Liberal and may sometimes (though but accidentally) have to be pro-Tory.

Moreover, even if a Labour party could be a Labour party and nothing more, there would always be a tactical as well as a philosophic reason for clearing our movement of all complicity with the ideas of Liberalism. During the first half of the nineteenth century it was always supposed that the working classes of this country were generally, if not exclusively Radical. Possibly at that time they were, but since their enfranchisement in 1867 they have proved themselves overwhelmingly and unrepentantly Tory. The history of the decades which have intervened since then has been the history of the gradual capture by the Tories of all the great industrial districts where the working-class vote is most powerful. Politicians of the 'forties spoke of the "Conservative Working Man" as incredulously as men would speak of a white negro. Yet events have proved not only that such a person exists, but that he can by his vote control the politics of nearly every great manufacturing town in England.

Now the Conservative working man has no fundamental objection to Socialism. The word no doubt displeases him, partly because of its foreign origin partly from its vaguely revolutionary associations, but on the practical application of Socialism he looks with very decided favour. In fact it is not im- probable that the conversion of the labouring classes to Toryism was in part at least due to the fact that during the sixties and seventies the Tories had for a leader Mr. Disraeli, whose quick Hebraic imagination and insight made him perceive the significance of the social problem, while the Liberals were led by Mr. Gladstone, who regarded all social reform from the first with supreme indifference which in his later days deepened into a hostility so intense and deep-rooted that he was ready to shatter his party and his own career over Home Rule, if by so doing he could stave off economic questions. But to return to the Tory workman. I have said he has no objection to applied Socialism. It would be a comparatively easy matter to secure his support for a programme of advanced industrial re- form, were he not required to swallow first a number of Liberal doctrines which have no relation to his class interests and to which he really has a strong objection anti-Imperialism, the reduction of armaments, doctrinaire republicanism and Irish Home Rule. Once cut the Labour party free from these things and the increase of its electoral power will be enormous.

Before proceeding to a more detailed examination of the Liberal attitude towards current problems and its relation to the genuinely progressive attitude, let me sum up the conclusions already reached.

There is no philosophic ground for identifying Socialism with extreme Liberalism or Radicalism. The philosophies of Liberalism and Socialism are not merely different but directly antagonistic.

There is no historical ground for regarding the Liberal party as the friend of the working classes. The Liberal party is historically an essentially capitalist party; as a matter of fact the Tory party has carried more drastic and valuable social reforms than its rival.

There is no tactical advantage to be gained by committing the new-born Labour party to the specific doctrines of Liberalism. The working classes of this country have no enthusiasm forany of these doctrines and have a marked dislike for some of them.

Therefore the Labour party or Socialist party or whatever the new movement cares to call itself must if it is to succeed fling all its Liberal lumber overboard and start afresh. It is not enough that it should be independent of Liberal money and Liberal organisation. All this matters little. What is essential is that it should be independent of Liberal ideas.

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