E. Belfort Bax

Fossil Remains

(28 February 1903)

Fossil Remains, Justice, 28th February 1903, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Among the productions of the book-market of 1902, on social and labour questions, one of the most interesting is the record of Mr. George Howell’s experiences as labour-politician, leader, and agitator, during well-nigh the last half of the nineteenth century. That Mr. Howell is a veteran who has worked hard throughout his life on labour questions, we all know; but no one who reads his Labour Legislation, Labour Movements, Labour Leaders in spite of the tone of easy optimism that pervades it, can fail to regard it otherwise than as a record of failure, in the light of the present position of labour politics, and the labour question generally, albeit a failure presaged by the treacherous appearance of temporary success. Mr. George Howell, and, we may add, his friend, Mr. Robert Applegarth, to whom the book is dedicated, are excellent types of the labour leader, old style.

Mr. Howell, with whom we are immediately concerned, with all his honesty, energy and narrowness of conviction, is the true embodiment of the British Liberal labour man of the ’sixties and ’seventies, the period when British industry was doing its “leaps and bounds.” The Chartist agitation, with the social movements connected with it, was dead. The conditions and prospects of labour questions were being determined in their main trend by the fact of Great Britain’s supremacy in the world’s market, and by the consequent chances of fairly regular employment at comparatively good wages, as against those of a generation previously. The more far-seeing of the employing class, as of the educated bourgeoisie generally, recognised it to their interest, on the whole, to abandon the old policy of coercing and harrying the workman in the exercise of his plain rights as a citizen, by means of vexatious penal laws more vexatiously administered; in other words, of bullying him into subjection to the demands of the capitalist to whom he was compelled to sell his labour, however unblushingly tyrannical these might be – in favour of what was, on the face of it, a more logical carrying out of the doctrine of Free Trade as applied to the labour market. The coercion, the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist was thus left to be accomplished in a more unostentatious manner by the unobtrusive operation of the economic class-conditions respectively of the two parties to the “free” contract – the workman and the capitalist.

The British labour leader of the ’sixties like Mr. George Howell – strong in his sound common-sense, and in his contempt for what he regarded as foreign notions and schemes, and, in fact, for all problems not capable of being compressed into an Act of Parliament which might conceivably be passed in the next Session – did not see things in this light. For him the class struggle as a factor of historic evolution did not obtain. The existence of a possessing class and a non-possessing class in its nineteenth century garb of a capitalist and a labouring class, was a permanent factor of human society. Such evils as had been hitherto incidental to this were to be got rid of, or at least reduced to a minimum, by freedom of combination, just laws, and general benevolence on both sides, without attacking the economical foundation of the existing society itself. We think Mr. George Howell would hardly deny the above to fairly express big point of view.

How strongly-coloured are Mr. Howell’s opinions with the traditions of the ’fifties and ’sixties is apparent from such statements as that, for example, on p.5, according to which the idea that “the rich are growing richer, and the poor poorer,” is a doctrine “as untrue as it is repugnant to our sense of justice.” This in the teeth of the current developments of financial capitalism here and across the Atlantic. The same order of ideas, the heritage of British Liberalism at its zenith, comes out in some incidental remarks on p.497, when Mr. Howell is speaking of the Lords’ decision anent trade union funds, where he condemns the advice to adopt a policy of evading the law, given in some quarters. Now, we agree with Mr. Howell here as to this policy being a bad one, simply because we are convinced it would result in failure: judges administering law in class interests, having once put their hands to the plough, are not likely to allow their interpretation of the law to be circumvented by dodges of this kind. Such, however, is not Mr. Howell’s reason, or at least not his principal reason, for rejecting the advice. He regards it as “dangerous” because, forsooth, “too many of the British workmen, I have already a scant regard for law, and it is not desirable to increase the number.” He thinks it is not wise “to encourage a disrespect for the law,” and so on. Now the insinuation that that law-abiding sheep, the British workman, has a constitutional tendency to kick over the traces, will, we fancy, strike most members of the SDF as rather funny. On the following page we find the Manchester school statement that employer and workman are “on the same plane,” and that until this important fact is duly recognised it will go badly with trade unions. The utter absence of the bare conception of the material inequality, from an economic point of view, of the two contracting parties in the labour market, is crucially brought cut in this and many another passage of like purport. Mr. Howell’s unswerving belief in the adamantine moral integrity of all bourgeois statesmen, is amusing and scarcely credible. After describing at length the scoundrelly tricks of some class-interested politician, to defeat the very moderate instalment of justice which the author himself was straining every sinew to obtain, we find some such phrase as: “We do not say Mr. —’s intentions were bad, but his policy was bad.” In some of these cases only a conscientious objection to capital punishment can curb the wish that arises within one to have been in the position to place the halter round the necks of these well-intentioned Christian gentlemen.

Of Mr. Howell’s occasional obiter dicta concerning Socialism, scattered here and there throughout the book, the less said the better. They represent, we are bound to say, such complete want of knowledge of the subject as is getting rarer nowadays, even among hostile critics. It would be unfair to quote them against Mr. Howell, as they do no credit to his intelligence, while there is so much in his work otherwise which does credit, not only to his shrewd observation of men and things, but to his powers as a first-hand historian of events and movements in which he was an actor. The book is a mine of information of all kinds concerning the history and struggles of trade unionism in this country during the nineteenth century. Documents are given at length, and all facts bearing upon the subject are fully set down, the points at issue being stated with exemplary clearness. It cannot be denied that the motto of the book, “To nothing extenuate and set down nought in malice,” is well maintained throughout; in fact, as already hinted, the dread of violating the latter portion of it, especially as concerns adverse politicians, is, perhaps, too conspicuous. The value, of the work the author has accomplished in bringing together in one volume this mass of material, can hardly be over-estimated, and his point of view, even for Socialists, makes very little difference to its worth as a statement of history.

I may here take this opportunity of criticising an attitude not uncommon among our Socialist comrades, as regards men belonging to the same period of the labour movement as Mr. Howell, and adopting his position towards the political and social problem. There is commonly a suggestion – and sometimes more than a suggestion – of want of good faith on the part of these men, especially when, as was with many the case, they had taken part in the old “International.” The process of thought by which this result is reached is easy to understand, and appears to be somewhat as follows:– These politicians and labour leaders were members of the old “International,” and hence had, come under the influence of its president Marx; ergo, they must have known all about Socialism and have been themselves at that time more or less adherents of its principles. Now, their subsequent career has shown them in the light of mere Liberal and Radical politicians, who are prepared, if necessary, to oppose Socialists in favour of Radical candidatures. Hence they must be regarded as renegades, and renegades in the face of better knowledge. Now this way of looking at the matter, I venture to say, is totally fallacious. There is no moral obliquity whatever, no political bad faith, to be necessarily imputed to the men of whom, as we have said, Mr. George Howell may be regarded as an excellent type. From the fact that they were members of the “International,” and hence came into contact with Marx, it does not by any means follow that they had even a bowing acquaintance with Marxian principles, or for that matter with Socialism in any form. The “International,” as originally constituted, was less overtly Socialist or Social-Democratic than the Democratic Federation in 1882. It was a part of Marx’s policy, as chairman of the Central Council, to keep Socialism very much in the background. So much was this the case as to enable Mr. Howell to make the astounding assertion (p.151) that “the doctrines connected with his (Marx’s) name were not then known to his colleagues,” adding that “he is not sure that they had at that date been even propounded.” The charge of renegacy, still more of bad faith, on the part of the men in question, therefore falls to the ground completely so far as this is concerned. They never were, and never professed to be Socialists, but were, from the first, what they have remained – political Radicals advocating the political measures which then formed the programme of the “International.” I repeat, there is no reason to assume anything morally wrong about any of these men; at least on general grounds. They are simply fossilised survivals imbedded in the strata of an earlier phase of the labour movement. They are survivals of the Tertiary period while we of the present day are in the Quaternary.

But though convinced of Mr. Howell’s moral integrity, as man and even as politician (which, unfortunately, is not always the same thing), as regards wider issues, I cannot absolve him of a breach of the literary moralities in penning even the few perfunctory remarks on our movement the book has to show, without a knowledge of the existence of such an elementary document connected with the evolution of Modern Socialism, as the Communist Manifesto of 1847. That Mr. Howell, as the historian of political movements of recent times, should never have heard of one of the, in importance, most far-reaching pamphlets of the whole nineteenth century, is simply astounding. But had he even heard of it, Mr. Howell could hardly have penned the doubt above quoted as to Marx’s principles having been formulated at the time of which he writes. With the best goodwill, I say, one cannot quite absolve him of culpable negligence in his researches here!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004