Friday, July 11, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - Some Materials and a Possibility

Successive Reform Acts have so widened the basis of the franchise in this country that the working man has now the issue of the great majority of elections in his hands. By the working man I here mean the manual labourer who earns weekly wages; the definition is not scientific, but it is I think effectively descriptive. It is difficult to define a working man, but people know him when they see him, as Mr. Morley said of a Jingo. The manual labourer then is master of the situation; and it becomes a matter of primary importance for any party which wishes for a parliamentary majority to consider what manner of man he is, and what kind of policy is likely to receive his favour.

Now I have no sympathy at all with the contemptuous tone adopted by most Socialists towards the working man. This scorn of the average artisan or labourer may be regarded as the connecting bond between all schools of modern Socialism in this country, the one sentiment common to Mr. Hyndman and to Mr. Bernard Shaw. Were that scorn just, its expression would be imprudent; for John Smith of Oldham, however stupid he may be, is, as Mr. Blatchford has remarked "very numerous," and in a country ruled by the counting of heads it would be good policy to treat him with respect and good humour. But it is not just. As a matter of fact, the working man is by no means the slavish imbecile that some Socialists seem to think him. The fact that he has built up with iron resolution, in the face of stupendous difficulties, and at the cost of terrible sacrifices, the Trade Union system of this country perhaps the noblest monument of the great qualities of the British character that the century has seen might well protect him from the sarcasms of wealthy idealists. If he is not a Socialist, is that altogether his fault? Or is it by any chance partly ours?

The British workman is not, as I have said, by any means a fool. He does not enjoy being sweated; he is not in love with long hours and low wages; he does not clamour for bad housing or dear transit. On the contrary, when sufficiently skilled and educated to be capable of effective organisation, he is a keen trade unionist, ready to stand up promptly and with conspicuous success for the rights and interests of his class; and he has shown himself able and willing to support legislation for his own benefit and that of his fellows. The Socialists have in him excellent raw material of which a most effective fighting force could be made. How do they use him?

The first thing that a Socialist of the old school does, when brought face to face with a working class audience, is deliberately to insult it. I heard of one Socialist orator who began his address to an East End meeting with the sentence "What are you? Dogs!" I suggest that this is not the way to placate the unbeliever or to allay the suspicion with which his conservative instincts lead him to regard a new idea. Moreover it is not true. The working man knows perfectly well that he and his class are not "dogs"; and he rightly concludes that a man so profoundly ignorant of his condition is not the man to improve it. However, having collectively and individually insulted those whom he seeks to convert, the preacher launches joyously into the abysses and whirlpools of German philosophy and economics, calls his hearers "proletarians" (to their intense astonishment), tells them that they are being robbed of "surplus value," discusses abstruse matters concerning the relations between "exchange value" and "labour power," and generally leads them through mazes of foreign scientific jargon from which they eventually emerge gasping for breath. Now I submit that this is an absurd way of going to work. Not so did Cobden and his allies act, when they set out to convert the middle classes to the dogmas of Adam Smith. They had a systematic theory of economics as elaborate as that of the Marxian, but they did not pelt miscellaneous popular gatherings with its technicalities. They crystallised it into one simple, effective and intelligible phrase, "To buy in the cheapest market and to sell in the dearest." I will not disguise my personal conviction that this maxim is of and from the Devil. But (perhaps for that reason) it is lucid and unmistakeable and makes a definite and persuasive appeal to the instincts and prejudices of the commercial classes. I fear I cannot say as much for the crystallizations favoured by Socialist propagandists. "The Abolition of the Wages System" and "Production for Use and not for Profit" convey to the workman, I imagine, no clearer meaning than they convey to me.

I am aware that there has been of late in Socialist circles something of a reaction against this sort of thing, as also against the futile Marxian prophecies to the effect that "economic forces" would produce a "Crisis" which would have the effect of abolishing the capitalist system whether anyone wanted it abolished or no. But the reaction has taken an entirely wrong turn. It has resulted so far in nothing better than an outburst of, sheer sentimentalism as unacceptable to the hard conservative common-sense of the workers as the doctrinaire revolutionism that preceded it. The chief expression of this sentimentalism may be found in the repudiation of the Class War by the leaders of the I.L.P. and the substitution of vague talk about Universal Love and the Brotherhood of Man. Now here the I.L.P. leaders have got hold of quite the wrong end of the stick. The existence of the class war is a fact of common observation. A short walk down any street with your eyes open will show it to you. Indeed it is obvious that there is and must be a permanent antagonism between the buyers and sellers of labour or if our hyper-economic critics prefer it of "labour-power." And moreover this fact of the class war is a fact, which every workman (as also every capitalist) recognises in practice, if not in theory. All trade unionism is built upon his recognition of it; so is the demand for a labour party. The error of the S.D.F. did not lie here.

The Marxians were not wrong in saying that there was a class war; there is a class war. They were not wrong in saying that the worker ought to be educated in class-consciousness; they ought to be so educated for their class-consciousness is the best foundation for our propaganda. Where the Marxians were wrong in regard to the class war was in their tacit assumption that "class-consciousness" was identical with Socialism. It is not. Socialists and Trade Unionists are alike in their recognition of the class war, but they differ widely in their attitude to-wards it. The Socialist wishes so to organise society as to bring the Class War to an end; the Trade Unionist wants the war to go on, but he wants his own class to get better chances in it than they get at present. As regards practical matters the path of the two is for the present largely identical. Extended factory legislation, old age pensions, housing, the municipalisation of monopolies are desired by Socialists and Trade Unionists alike, though not entirely for the same reasons. Here and there, on Trade Union Law, on Compulsory Arbitration in industrial disputes, in some instances on Child Labour, the attitude of the two may appear different, but it only requires the better economic education of the unions to bring them into line with the Socialists on these points. Nevertheless, the distinction as well as the relation between the two must be kept constantly in mind, if the attitude of the typical manual worker towards Socialism is to be understood.

I confess that it strikes me as a little absurd that the very wing of the Socialist army which most enthusiastically defends the obviously sensible policy of forming an alliance with the Unions without asking its allies to swallow imposing Socialist formulae, should be the one to throw over the one effective link between Socialism and Trade Unionism, the recognition of the Class War. The result of this repudiation and of the high-sounding humanitarian rhetoric with which it is accompanied has been to hopelessly estrange the I.L.P. from the Trade Union movement, so that it is now hardly more influential in that direction than the S.D.F. itself. The I.L.P. does indeed to some degree enlarge its boundaries, but the type of man it now principally attracts is not the trade unionist or the labourer. The sort of person who finds the I.L.P. creed as mirrored in the utterance of Messrs. Keir Hardie and Bruce Glasier exactly to his taste is the wavering Nonconformist in process of ceasing to believe in God who is looking about for something "undenominational" to believe in. Universal Love, Brotherhood, Righteousness all that sort of thing suits him down to the ground. The phenomenon is no new one in history.

Just the same kind of sentiment underlays the political propaganda of Isaac Butt, of Vergniaud, of Sir Harry Vane. Its track is across history; its name is Girondism, and its end has always been futility and disaster. The pious Girondins were shocked at Danton's declaration "terror is the order of the day," just as the I.L.P. rhetoricians are shocked at the recognition of the Class War, because it contradicted their sentimental assumptions. But Terror was the order of the day, and it was only because Terror was the order of the day that France was saved from foreign conquerors and the Revolution became an accomplished fact.

But, if the worker really does recognise the class war and if the path of Socialism is for the present along the lines of the class war, why does the worker distrust the Socialist? I have hinted at my answer in a previous chapter, but I will take the present opportunity of elaborating it a little. When Socialists of either of the above types leave German dialect and Girondin declamation, which he does not understand and come to practical business which he does, they give the working man very little that he values and much that is profoundly distasteful to him. When for example they touch on war and foreign politics they give him, under a veil of specious rhetoric which does not convince him, the general impression that they want to see England "licked." He does not like this, and he expresses his dislike vehemently and not always very peaceably. Doubtless he often vents his anger on people whose patriotism is as real as his own, and who merely differ from him as to the merits of some particular war or expedition. But on the whole the astonishingly shrewd instincts of the workers do not mislead them. They are right in feeling that there is in the Socialist movement a strong under-current of unmistakeable anti-patriotism, a genuine hatred and contempt for England and her honour. If anyone doubts this, I do not think he has spent so much time in Socialist clubs as I have.

If all this anti-patriotic sentiment, which disgusts and repels the workers so much, were an essential part of Socialism we might have to accept our unpopularity as the inevitable penalty of our convictions and make the best of it. But, if I have not proved that it is nothing of the sort, this book has been written in vain. Anti-patriotism, anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, these are not Socialist doctrines but the faded relics of a particularly debased form of Liberalism. There is nothing in Socialism to prevent us from appealing to the passionate patriotism of the masses; there is much in it to give point to such an appeal.

The workman is a Tory by instinct and tradition. He is a Jingo a much healthier and more reputable Jingo than his brother of the stock-exchange, but still a Jingo in the most emphatic sense. I am moreover convinced that he is at heart a protectionist. He dislikes the idea of a tax on bread, especially as Mr. Chamberlain gives him no really convincing guarantee of better industrial conditions to follow; but I believe, and I note that I have the support of so irreproachable a Liberal and Free Trader as Mr. Brougham Villiers in this belief, that, if at any time during the last quarter of a century the protection of manufactures alone had been offered to the working classes, they would have accepted it with the utmost eagerness. It is noticeable that as soon as the workman goes to the Colonies he becomes an out and out Protectionist. This would hardly happen if he had imbibed the pure milk of Cobdenism with as much relish as the Liberals would have us believe.

Here then is your Tory Jingo Protectionist working man. What are you going to do with him? It is easy enough to abuse him, but he is your only possible electoral material, he is the man by whose vote you have got to establish Socialism if it is to be established at all. There are much fewer Liberals than Tories among the workers and such as there are will much less readily join you, for they represent generally the un- compromising individualist Radicalism which spread from the middle orders down through the upper ranks of the artizans during the dark days of Manchester ascendancy. It is from the Tory much more than from the Liberal worker that the Labour party gets its votes,* even now, while its still burdened with a dead weight of senseless Liberal traditions. How much greater would its expansive force become if once this burden was removed.

What deduction must we draw from these things? Surely this; that we must appeal to the working classes on a double programme of practical and immediate industrial reform at home and at the same time of imperial federation, a spirited foreign policy and adequate provision for national defence. I believe this experiment would succeed, at any rate it has never yet been effectively tried. When Mr. Bernard Shaw taunts the workers with their steady Tory voting, one feels disposed to ask him what he expects. Surely he would not have them vote Liberal? And if he replies that they should vote Socialist, one may throw down this direct challenge Would Mr. Shaw himself (the most brilliant, the most acute and the most sincere of English Socialists) vote for a good many of the Socialist and "Labour" candidates who have from time to time presented themselves before the British electorate? Would he not himself often prefer a Tory? But is there any reason to suppose that if a leader came to us with the specific talent and temperament of the demagogue (the value of which to a politician Mr. Shaw knows as well and regards as highly as I do) and made his appeal on the Fabian programme plus a vigorous and intelligent Imperialism, the people of England would refuse to return him? I think not.

If the Labour party could only be persuaded to make such an appeal it might yet redeem its mistakes and become a dominant force in politics. If not, if we go on as we have been going on in the past, if the S.D.F. goes on pelting the "class-conscious proletariat" with multi-syllabled German metaphysics, if the I.L.P. continues to give altruistic and humanitarian commonplaces to those who ask for bread, if some of the brilliant intellectuels, of middle class Socialism continue to treat the working classes as if they did not matter and could be trapped into Socialism against their will, if in a word we go on insulting and bewildering those whom we wish to convert, addressing them in all the unintelligible tongues of Babel and forcing down their throats doctrines which they detest, then we shall never lead the workers. And if we do not lead them someone else will. Yes someday we shall be faced in this country by the appearance of a man who understands the working classes and can make them follow him. All parties will look at him askance the Labour party most of all. He will be called "Jingo," "Reactionist," "Taker of Tory Gold," But he will have the people of England behind him, because he will comprehend them and believe in them, desire what they desire, feel as they feel. And if he does what such a man did once in this country, when the "Girondin" Vanes and Sydneys were babbling about "democratic ideals" as we are babbling now, if he drives our talkative and incompetent Commons from their House and establishes a popular Caesarism on the ruins of our polity, the blame will not be his. The blame will be ours. It will be ours because we, whose mission it was to lead the people could only find time to despise the people, because we could not and would not understand!

*A good illustration of this may be obtained by comparing the two by-elections which have taken place since the present parliament was elected, in North-East Lanarkshire. In both cases a typical orthodox Unionist and a typical orthodox Labourite were in the field. But the Liberal candidates were of a very different type in the two cases. In September 1901 (while the South African War was still in progress) the Liberal candidate was Mr. Cecil Harmsworth, of the "Daily Mail," an Imperialist of so pronounced a kind that all the organs of the Anti- Imperialist press and many of the Leaders of Anti-Imperialist Liberalism advised the electors to vote for the Labour candidate. This year on the other hand the Liberal candidate was a strictly orthodox Liberal who succeeded in uniting all sections of the party. I give the figures for both elections.

By-election 26/9/01.

Sir W. Rattigan (U) 5673

Mr. C. Harmsworth (L) 4769

Mr. R. Smillie (Lab) 2900

By-election 10/5/04.

Mr. Finlay (L) 5619

Mr. Touch (U) 4677

Mr. Robertson (Lab) 39&4

The noticeable thing about these figures is the enormous increase in the Labour poll. It may reasonably be supposed that the fulminations of a large section of representative Liberal opinion against Mr. Harmsworth produced some effect on the voting, and one may therefore take it that a fair number of electors, who voted for Mr. Smillie in 1901, voted for Mr. Finlay in 1904. Yet Mr. Robertson's gain is far greater than Mr. Finlay's. This can only mean that a large number of working men. who, in time of war voted for the Tory Imperialist candidate, voted for the Labour candidate in time of peace.

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