Hyndman. November 1885.

The Radicals and Socialism

Source: Nineteenth Century, November 1885;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

That the coming elections will mean a new departure in English politics is so commonly said that many have come to believe it. But if we look down the list of candidates, we shall see at once that the next House of Commons, whichever faction may happen to predominate, will be very much like the last. No doubt the addition of several hundred thousand voters, all of the poorer class, to the electorate, is a step towards democracy; and if any really revolutionary spirit had been aroused among the mass of the people this might have found expression in the return of members pledged to a complete change, political and social. But so far there is nothing to show that the great body of electors feel their power, or if they do that they know how to use it The next Parliament therefore will be merely one of transition, and those who expect from it any great measures, either of destruction or construction, are, as I venture to think, doomed to be disappointed. The great conflict of the immediate future between the wage-earners and the capitalists and landowners, between the collective and the individual view of human society, is as yet but dimly recognised; while the worn-out party lines are still looked upon as much more than merely imaginary divisions. A Social-Democrat who regards the coming elections with ,almost complete indifference as to the result, so far as it affects any existing Parliamentary party, may at least claim impartiality in any forecast he may make.

To begin with, there is no broad issue before the people. Both sides seem afraid to formulate any definite programme of domestic policy, and for foreign affairs it is safe to say that the people at large care not a jot. It is true that the Radicals are accused by their opponents, as well as by many of their friends, of advocating revolutionary measures. But these measures are hinted at in speeches, or sketched in magazine articles, rather than set forth in plain language as reasons why votes are to be recorded for their candidates. The effect of this policy is that though the Moderate Liberals have been to a large extent frightened, the bulk of the thoroughly advanced men – the men who work gratuitously from enthusiasm, not merely for pay – have not been stirred to exertion. Consequently, the Liberal party as a whole may not improbably suffer the fate of organisations whose leaders resort to hesitating tactics in the face of the enemy.

Social-Democrats cannot of course look forward to having much direct influence on the issue of the elections. Even if they had far more faith in mere political action than they possess, the machinery for such effective action is not yet ready. In order that the working classes, whose cause they specially champion, should have any hope of full and independent representation, Universal Suffrage, Payment of Members and Payment of Election Expenses out of the public funds are essential; and these are not yet adopted as indispensable in any of the canonical caucus-licensed manifestoes. Even with these arrangements in full swing there are the examples of the United States and France, not to speak of other countries, to show that it by no means follows that the producers as a class would have a majority in the popular assembly. Nothing, indeed, is more remarkable at this time of writing than the disinclination of the people in the two great middle-class Republics to return working-men as representatives; though in both, by thorough organisation, the proletariat might, if they were so minded, be absolutely supreme in the voting, and thus throw the odium of unconstitutional resistance upon the dominant minority. This, however, by the way. What is far more to the point is that already Socialism is recognised as a growing power in Great Britain; that it is impossible to read an important political speech, on either side, without finding some reference to a party which but two or three years ago it was confidently affirmed could never gain converts in England; and that the most active leaders of the Radicals have taken up a position whence they must either advance into our camp, or condemn themselves to boneless opportunism for the rest of their lives. Nor is the significance of all this to Socialists much lessened by the fact that the Conservatives are showing some inclination to move from a different side in the same direction. Lord Salisbury’s action on the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Poor showed that he was disposed to meet Democratic by State Socialism in dealing with this particular difficulty; and Lord Randolph Churchill is, of course, prepared to go any length in any direction which will keep himself and his party in office.

For the moment, indeed, the Liberals have the more reactionary proposals before the people. Enfranchisement of leaseholds, for example, which takes nothing but a prospective advantage from the great landlords, and gives them compensation which hereafter they would almost certainly not get, must greatly strengthen the middle class and the capitalists in their resistance to nationalisation of the land – this latter being the demand of all who understand the real interests of the workers in every country. So too with what is foolishly called ‘free land.’ Free land simply means free play for capitalism in regard to land, and certainly cannot benefit the mass of the people in town or country who have neither the money to buy land when it is ‘free,’ nor the capital wherewith to stock it and work it, even if the preliminary difficulty of purchase were got over That ‘free land,’ as it is called, has little or no effect in improving the condition of the mass of the workers may be clearly seen in the United States. There, not only is land free in the fullest sense of Mr. Arthur Arnold’s proposals, but there is more land to be free with than in any other country of equal wealth in the world. Yet not only are the farmers in a most depressed condition, but there are at this time no fewer than 2,000,000 of people out of work. The Liberal demand for small peasant properties is more reactionary still, seeing that recent official reports in France prove beyond the possibility of question that the landholding peasantry are suffering terribly, and that they actually fare worse than our agricultural labourers. Similar truths in respect to small properties have been made manifest by the reports of the Imperial Commissions on the impoverished condition of the small cultivators in Baden-Baden and Alsace-Lorraine. In fact it is quite clear that save under very exceptional circumstances large production with large capital must crush small production with small capital in agriculture as in every other industry, under existing economical conditions. Nor would matters be bettered permanently if land were taken by counties, municipalities, and townships, and let out to small farmers with small capital.

Assuredly there is nothing to scare anybody but those who understand the relentless action of economical forces in these short-sighted proposals. It is only when we read the hints of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, Mr. Henry Labouchere, and Lord Rosebery, that the Socialists feel that the way is being made plain before their face, and that the capitalist, the man of the world and the Scotch earl, have taken counsel together how best they may prepare the minds of the people for the Socialist gospel that shall come after. It is true that none of them have as yet contributed of their abundance to the ever-empty coffers of the Socialist treasury; but there is no reason why they shouldn’t begin now, and we are at least thankful for the telling manner in which they have shown that all their logical followers must of necessity adopt the Social-Democratic creed.

Do I overstate the case? Not at all. It is not necessary. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, in particular, has done so well for us that we know that it only rests with us to say when, if we think it worth our while, we shall gather him into the fold of the true social and political faith. Beginning with his speech at the dinner of the Eighty Club, the leader of the Radical party has done the Socialists excellent service whenever and wherever he possibly could. By his constant and flattering references to Socialism as beneficial, as in point of fact underlying most of the legislation which has been advantageous to the working classes and so forth, Mr. Chamberlain has made our revolutionary doctrines almost ‘respectable,’ and has undoubtedly induced hundreds of thousands of the middle-class to consider the matter, whom we ourselves could never have reached. When an ex-Cabinet Minister and, as his friends say, the next Prime Minister, is continually pointing in the most vehement language to the contrast between the poverty of the workers and the wealth of the idlers of the community, arguing the while that there must be something altogether wrong in a system of society which thus piles up riches for the few at the cost of overwork, misery, and uncertainty for the many, when he declares in so many words that a less faulty distribution of wealth is absolutely necessary in the near future if we wish to avoid a terrible domestic cataclysm – when a great capitalist of Birmingham dwells upon these points, I say, in his capacity of ex-Cabinet Minister and leader of a growing party, it makes very little difference as to the effect produced that he specially attacks only that form of property – land – of which he himself possesses but some ninety acres. The very phraseology, even the wording, of his speeches is taken from Socialist writings and addresses, an he is himself far too clever a man not to know that the very arguements which he uses against the landowners will be turned against himself as a capitalist and the class to which he belongs. But the most satisfactory feature of the business is that just in so far as Mr. Chamberlain has advocated Socialism and spoken openly of the necessity for Social-Democratic measures, just to that extent has he roused the genuine enthusiasm of the audiences he has addressed and made himself indispensable to his party for the time being.

And here it is not out of place to quote a portion of the most vigorous of the Radical speeches of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, though the passage has often been extracted before:

If you will go back (says Mr. Chamberlain) to the earlier history of our social system, you will find that when our social arrangements first began to shape themselves, every man was born into the world with natural rights, with a right to a share in the great inheritance of the community, with a right to a part of the land of his birth; but all these rights have passed away. The common rights of ownership have disappeared; some of these have been sold; some of them have been given away by people who had no right to dispose of them; some of them have been lost through apathy and ignorance; some have been destroyed by fraud; some have been acquired by violence .... But then I ask what ransom will society pay for the security which it enjoys? What substitute will it find for the natural rights which have ceased to be recognised? Society is banded together in order to protect itself against the instinct of those of its members who would make very short work of private ownership if they were left alone. That is all very well; but I maintain that society owes to these men something more than toleration in return for the restriction which it places upon their liberty of action.

Now that passage, leaving its ‘natural rights’ and bastard Rousseauism aside, suits us excellently well. Socialists would – no one not even our bitterest enemies, dispute that – ‘make very short work of private ownership if they were left alone.’ So Mr. Chamberlain asks the owners how much they will pay to be left alone? His friend and, on the whole, his most consistent supporter, Mr. Henry Labouchere, answers the question for him in the Fortnightly Review in a manner which needs only a little amplification to make it perfectly satisfactory to us. Fifty per cent. of income to begin with is what the classes who live upon the labour of others are to pay as this ransom. Very well. The Social-Democrats are accused of wishing to divide up property. The accusation is groundless. We have always desired to collect it, and are quite ready to begin on the lines of Messrs. Chamberlain and Labouchere. What is more, we will take very good care in the near future that they mean exactly what they say. For as I have before briefly urged it is quite impossible to deal with the land, either in cities or in the country, in any different manner from that applied to other property. Land is now bound up with the whole system of production for profit, and purely pecuniary relations between men, which dominate our present bourgeois society. Rent, whether urban or rural, is but a portion of the proceeds of labour previously taken, paid for the purpose of profit-making or for luxury. A farm is an agricultural factory, as much under the domain of capitalism as a cotton mill: ground rents in cities are the result of competition and are under the same control. If a man makes a fortune in trade, that fortune is as manifestly due to the labour of others as any great accumulations made by hoarding rents. What ransom, then, will the capitalists pay? Radicals say fifty per cent. The difference between us is merely one of time and opportunity. Both Social-Democrats and Socialistic Radicals look for a complete change of system sooner or later, and a thorough reconstruction of our existing society in the interest of the workers. If the Radicals think they can take as much Socialism as they like and leave the rest, they have reckoned without the working-men, who in such matters are far more logical than they.

Already the inability to stop short has been shown in more than one quarter. Lord Rosebery has admitted the principle of an eight hours’ working day fixed by law in all trades. This, of course, entirely throws overboard Free Trade in labour, which was one of the principal doctrines of the old Liberal creed. It admits that the collective interest of the community should be considered in the first place; and secondly, it would be easy to show that indirectly it must lead to the enaction of a minimum wage, and in the long run the State and Municipal organisation of unemployed labour – proposals which have hitherto been considered conservative rather than socialistic. The cry for free education, again, has naturally been followed by the demand for free meals in Board Schools. This is accepted by several active Radicals, and it is clear that here we have a long step towards distinct communism where the children are concerned. True, these are not of themselves party questions, and might just as well be accepted by Conservatives as by Radicals, if it were once admitted that they were beneficial to the people. But the Radicals who follow Mr. Chamberlain are, as we have seen, thoroughly committed to propositions which lead inevitably to Socialism, and what is more only stir enthusiasm among the people as far as they are Socialistic, and are acknowledged to be so. The Conservatives, even those who follow Lord Randolph Churchill, have not advanced nearly so far on the road to State Socialism as the Radicals have towards Democratic Socialism.

Thus, then, looking to the coming elections as unlikely in themselves to decide any important question or to open up a new epoch for the people, the Socialists use them simply as an opportunity for pushing on the Collectivist Social-Democratic propaganda, and for pressing upon the electorate those bed-rock social problems which are becoming more and more the questions of the day, to the exclusion of purely political party squabbles. It is a great deal to be able to get even our temporary proposals placed fairly before the mass of the working-class population. Within the next few weeks thousands will learn that there is an organised party of the people which advocates a labour-day of not more than eight hours in all trades and businesses; which calls for the compulsory erection of artisans’ and agricultural labourers’ healthy dwellings by the State, Municipalities, and Counties, such dwellings to be let at rents to cover the cost of construction and maintenance alone; which champions free, secular industrial education, compulsory upon all classes, together with at least one free meal a day, in all Board Schools; and which, besides, sets forth proposals for the immediate organisation of unemployed labour, that have stood for two years the most stringent criticism that can be brought against them. These are not in themselves Socialist proposals, but they are accompanied by the distinct declaration that railways, shipping, factories, mines, and the land – all the means and instruments of production in a word – should be placed under the control of the working classes, which should also comprise the entire community. Of course many call out against our views as Utopian. But the point is, are the workers getting to think them practical? If they are, then they will assuredly have a trial. For all the time the universal depression, which Social Democrats contend that they alone satisfactorily explain, and the natural effect of economical causes, are working on our side. People see that the great economical and social machinery is independent of Tory, Whig, Liberal, or Radical, and remains uncontrolled by any party nostrums. The candidature of John Burns as an uncompromising revolutionary Social-Democrat has roused the whole of the Midlands. That a young working engineer, without money or much external support of any kind, should have been able to make head against both the organised political parties in by no means the most favourable division of Nottingham for a working-class candidate, shows what may be done when the electoral system is thoroughly democratised. In this direction alone lies the possibility of a peaceful revolution.

In conclusion, I think I may say that Social-Democrats, though they wish for many reasons to see full Legislative Independence granted to Ireland, are otherwise indifferent as to the result of the coming elections. If the Conservatives should command a majority, with the help of the Irish, the extreme Radicals will soon find that the adoption of Social-Democracy is essential to rouse the enthusiasm of the working class, and will therefore come our way. If the Liberals win, the elements of disruption can only be quieted down for a time, and the same result will follow. The old party politics are really played out; and in the great Social conflict of the near future, which will be brought yet nearer by this indecisive election, Social-Democrats feel confident that the victory will be with them. ‘The Emancipation of the Wage-Earners’ can already be heard above the din of party recrimination, as the rallying cry of the workers not only in Great Britain, but throughout the civilised world.