T. A. Jackson
Source: The Communist, May 14, 1921.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
Who makes the quartern loaf and Luddites rise?
Who fills the butchers’ shops with large blue flies?
THE Government, we are informed, are considering whether (and how) to “strengthen” the existing laws against “sedition.” The present state of the law, it would seem, allows “agitators inspired, or even paid, by foreign Bolshevik” to conduct a “mischievous” propaganda with impunity. There is a suspicion that the miners’ resistance to a salutary reduction of wages is chiefly if not wholly due to this pernicious propaganda. Something must be done about it, and that speedily. Otherwise we shall have the lower orders and the inferior sort of people wanting something to eat every day of their lives. Persons addicted to Communism in particular must be brought to a proper sense of the beauty, of our Glorious Constitution.
The “law” is very like God—it “moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform.” Thoroughly to understand it requires years and years of arduous intellectual toil and an apparatus of Appeal Courts, Courts of Crown Cases Reserved, the House of Lords as Final Court of Appeal and the judicial Committee of the Privy Council to reverse the judgments of the less expert grades of arduous intellectual toilers on the inferior Benches. In fact, the Law is the Law—and that is why we have a Parliament, to abolish old laws that no arduous intellectual toil will make fit in, and manufacture new ones which look like doing the trick.
Our simple-minded ancestors in the innocence of their dear old hearts provided penalties for quite, a large number of minor naughtinesses. They guarded against robbery; they were prepared for murder; they expected sodomy, and were at no loss when it was a mere matter of fornication. But (to do the Grand Old Beans credit) one thing they did not expect— for one thing they made no provision. Much as they had travelled in the World of Wickedness—deep as had been their researches into secret sin and moral leprosies—they were utterly unable to imagine anything quite so damnable as this quintessential abomination—“Foreign Bolshevism.” For this, therefore, there is no penalty provided—and the arm of the Law hangs palsied!
The law, of course, provides against a lot of things. Not to speak of “coyn and livery,” “barratry,” and such-like, there are the various provisions for penalising a “breach of the peace” as well as sedition, treason, felony and high or grand treason. Being one who has been convicted of sedition—in view of my youth and my blameless life the magistrate saw fit to dismiss me under the “Probationers’ Act”—it may prove useful if I offer a few observations for the restraint and guidance of those of my comrades who are not yet known to the police. This is all the more necessary because I fear that from lack of guidance they may fall into the error of blaming the law, doubting the wisdom of Parliament (which would be shocking bad form, seeing that the Church of England daily prays that our legislators be endowed by a special dispensation of providence with that necessary article), or even failing in admiration for the Constitution.
Let me begin with a “breach of the peace.” The theory of the King is that nobody but the King may levy armies and wage war within the realm. At one time every feudal lord had the right and duty to keep up a small army of retainers, and much storm and stress ensued when these gentlemen agreed to a battle. To abate this practice (among other reasons) the legal doctrine became established that only the King has the right to break the peace, and in consequence of this doctrine any two or more persons (not being married to each other) who indulge in the pastime of flattering faces or doling out “thick ears” are guilty of a “breach of the peace.” Magistrates are “justices of the peace,” and people prosecuted before them generally, find in the summons the mystic words “against the peace of Our Sovereign Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity.”
It is not necessary, nowadays, that you should actually, go to the length of physical violence to a fellow-creature. You can be guilty of a “breach” even if you are for the nonce physically unequal to any such thing (if you are “drunk and incapable,” for instance). Conduct “calculated to lead to a breach” renders one amenable to the discipline of the law and for quite good reasons. Suppose for example, that an elderly colliery proprietor overjoyed at the cancellation of the Triple Alliance strike, were to have drunk the health of the leaders with so much zest that “that tired dealing” overtook him before he could reach home. The news that an elderly gentleman was lying in the gutter “blind to the wide” with a pocketful of “Bradburys” would be (in some localities at any rate) conducive to such a rush of investigators as would almost inevitably provoke conflict, recrimination, and disorder. The law, therefore, in its wisdom, says that it is a “breach” to do anything of the sort.
So much for the minor offences of the commoner sort of the people. A glance at high treason will make the matter clearer by means of a contrast.
In feudal days the barons and earls were all the King’s “men.” They were sworn to come at his call with their quota of knights and men-at-arms to aid him against his enemies. Should he call and they not come they were “traitors”—false to their oath. Should they come, not to obey, but to make war upon the King, to seize his person, constrain his will, deprive him of life or divorce him from his authority, they were guilty not merely of treason,, but of High, Grand, Great or Enormous Treason! If they “tried it on” and it did not “come off” their heads did—with the application of an axe. If they succeeded, why then—the will of God must prevail!—there was a new dynasty;.
Treason doth never prosper!—What’s the reason?
Why if it prosper none dare call it treason!
In the course of time feudalism passed and the barons and earls lost their privilege of maintaining large armed bands. The “gentlemen,” however, retained their right to bear arms to protect their own proper persons from the insults of the commonalty and the commonalty preserved the habit of keeping weapons handy (right or no right) to protect their improper persons from the gentle folk. Under these circumstances it became quite easy to raise a pretty little row between gangs of gentlemen and their servants and mere citizens and their apprentices and journeymen. These rows were “tumults” or “seditions.” They were breaches of the peace on a big scale. They were capable (seeing that big rows can be best raised over matters of religion and politics, which divide the whole nation into parties) of developing into insurrections and treasons.
Thus sedition grew to be a serious matter—all the more so because the old style of high treason had grown impossible from social and military changes. But sedition, too, evolved. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the King ceased to be a Great Personage and became a Constitutional Instrument. What had been treason to the rights of a person could only appear now as an attack upon the privileges of a class. The Monarchy was “syndicated,” and the thing to be feared was the hostility of the non-privileged to the rules imposed by the syndicate. When the French common people rose in revolt, stormed the Bastille, overthrew the Monarchy and “played general hell with an axe”—get details from R. W. Postgate—a great fear overtook the members of the British ruling class, whether aristocratic or plutocratic. If one so much as whispered the words “republic” or “revolution,” within earshot, they felt the walls of the Bank of England rocking and their heads loose upon their shoulders. “Sedition” at this date meant anything said, done, or written calculated to encourage the British common people to attempt to help themselves in the “French” manner. The panic was so incredible that only diligent scholars of the period can form any conception of it. A solicitor was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for having said in a coffee-house conversation, “I am for equality and no King.” This was “sedition” a century ago.
What it is to-day, can be better guessed than described. The theory of the thing still is that sedition constitutes an endeavour (avowed or implied) to raise a tumult under the pretext of changing anything in Church or State. But the importance of the theory lies solely in its application. The text-books agree that “sedition” is (among other things) causing “hatred or ill-will between different sections of His Majesty’s subjects,” and on the occasion above colluded to, in October, 1914, it was held that the prosecution had succeeded in showing that I was guilty of sedition in that my speeches were calculated to cause hatred and ill-will towards a section of H.M.’s subjects, namely and to wit, the capitalist class”—(just as if—!) But it was also decided upon that occasion that I had a perfect right to criticise whatever I had a mind to “provided I took care that what I said was true!”
And here a great light breaks in upon me! Perhaps that is why the law needs to be “strengthened”!
Oh! those naughty Bolsheviks! The truth!—why that is the name of their official newspaper—“Pravda”—the “truth.” Oh! the bloody minded villains! Would you have believed it?