H.M. Hyndman

Commercial Crises of the Nineteenth Century

Chapter X

Having thus come to an end of this brief and necessarily very incomplete sketch of the great industrial crises of the nineteenth century covering the entire period, from the time when steam had become the chief engine in modern production and transportation to the date when electricity was manifestly being made ready to take in turn the superior place, certain main features strike us most forcibly.

Industrial crises and the consequent over-population which they create are quite independent –

  1. Of population whether rapidly increasing or stationary, as may be seen from the instances of Great Britain and France.
  2. Of forms of Government, whether they be despotic, constitutional-monarchic, or republican.
  3. Of extent of territory and unoccupied land, as witness the United States, Australia, and the Argentine Republic.
  4. Of restricted or inflated currency; of the gold or silver standard.
  5. Of any special system of banking; the soundest methods doing no more than limit the range of the calamity: the least sound doing no more than extend it.
  6. Of free-trade or protection. Free-trade affords no protection: protection guarantees no free-trade.

Yet we have in these crises manifestly social cataclysms which are caused by the action of man in society, and which man in society can master when he comprehends what is going on around him.

In order to do away with these recurrent crises and collapses of trade, we have to harmonise the two sides of wealth-creation, and to lead the way to the period when production having already become, as it, has become, purely social, appropriation and exchange shall become purely social too.

In order to bring this about, the organised power of the State, of the Municipal Council, of the District Assembly, each acting in concert and co-operation with the other, must step in to reduce to order the existing anarchy, which produces such baneful effects, and to establish an equilibrium between production, consumption, and general distribution for the benefit of all. Whatever name we may call this by, it involves organised co-operation in which every adult member of the community will take an intelligent and active part.

But we have not arrived at the time when the majority of the people can regard land, machinery, raw material, and the useful products which are the result of the application of labour to this land, machinery, and raw material, except from the point of view of private property and profit to the individual.

That is quite true, and that is why, if we wish to put a stop to the present anarchy and solve the present economical, and therefore social and class, antagonism without bloodshed and bitter war, it is necessary to show that the course of human development is at the present time towards this period of social harmony, instead of sticking fast in the existing muddle as some contend. To show, that is, that mankind in all civilised countries is at this very moment proceeding, unconsciously and with much trouble and suffering, to bring about that which, if the community were acting consciously, could be done much more rapidly and without any suffering at all.

Now we have seen how capitalists themselves are all the time turning their individual businesses, whether distributive or productive, into limited companies. But this is distinctly a step towards socialisation, inasmuch that it at once becomes apparent that a body of shareholders, who know nothing whatever about the business of which they are by a legal convention the owners, and who employ a manager to conduct the concern for them, are by no means more capable of carrying it on than are those whom they employ to do the work; seeing that the workers might with equal fitness retain, if necessary, the same manager as has been appointed by the shareholders.

The companies, however, when formed, are now as anxious to restrict competition as formerly they were to intensify it. They have discovered, of course entirely in their own interests, that an unceasing competition to produce cheaper and cheaper means that when the smaller firms are crushed out the bigger firms must ruin one another too. None wishes to risk all on the chance of surviving the whole of his competitors. Hence the tendency, continually growing stronger in spite of failures, for combination to replace competition in the sphere of production, as it leas already done to a great extent in the field of transport and distribution.

This combination, if carried sufficiently far, may, and even now in part does, limit “over-production” and maintain prices in certain trades, but it cannot harmonise the interests of the wage-earners with the interests of the employers; because it must always be to the advantage of employers, whether individuals or companies, to make use of improved machinery in order to maintain the agreed rate of output with a less expenditure of labour. This would necessarily entail a discharge of some of those persons who were previously employed, and one of the worst features of crisis would equally appear as before in a number of people thrown out of work by the very improvement of the means of creating wealth. Moreover, the surplus population thus engendered would be in competition with their fellows in employment and the rate of wages must eventually be reduced. Combination between employers will probably follow to keep up prices. By degrees, in ordinary circumstances, the combination might be broken down as we have seen it was in the instances of copper and salt. But the tendency of large companies to restrict that free competition, which not long ago was the watchword of the capitalist class, is clearly manifested in the United States and in Great Britain, and in some cases, such as the Standard Oil Company of America and the screw trade of Birmingham, a practical monopoly has been successfully maintained for many years.

But if it is to the interest of the capitalist class to change their tactics, whereby they have gained supremacy, in order to keep up a rate of profits threatened by the very keenness of their own competition; if also the large capitals are beating the small, and companies and co-operative stores are absorbing or crushing individual producers and distributors as we see they are; it cannot be but to the advantage of the whole community that some steps should be taken to control or to handle the increasing powers which are thus growing up under the protection of the law.

For on the other side, as likewise the history of this century shows us, the workers themselves are beginning to understand better than ever the essential truths of that antagonism between social production and individual or company appropriation of which we have spoken. They, too, are more anxious than ever they were to lessen the competition which reduces their wages, and to remove the causes of those ups and downs of trade which occasion their excessive work at overtime in one year, only to be followed by worklessness and low wages in the next. Nor are their combinations any longer confined to the skilled trades or to one country. In the same way that capitalists gather together in international banks, international promoting agencies, and international industrial enterprises, regardless of that patriotism which is frequently appealed to; in like manner the workers also are banding themselves together as a class internationally against the controllers of the system of production which, being based upon profit only, is worked entirely contrary to their interest. They thus give expression in the shape of long strikes, and vigorous protests wherever they can get a hearing, to that economic antagonism which they feel themselves to be the victims of. Machines are now no longer broken nor are factories burnt down. The workers’ object now is to preserve, in order to take possession of and control, the growing forces of production which are being used against them.

It is this class antagonism, developed on a larger scale than ever before in every civilised country, which has rendered the social question the one important question of the time; which gave rise to the Berlin Labour Conference, and which has set on foot the Royal Commission on Labour. To say that it ought not to exist is intelligible: to state that it does not exist is absurd.

That the necessity for a solution is being recognised in Great Britain cannot be disputed. The capitalists themselves are shaken in their confidence of being able to handle their own machinery. The long slow drag prior to the last period of inflation and then the Baring crash opened the eyes of many of the manufacturers, while the existing uncertainty is influencing many more. The literary class and professional men, who are not directly interested in the manipulation of profits, are already even better prepared to accept the Social-Democratic or Collectivist solution which is inevitable than are the workers themselves.

Now the influence of the State, as the organised force of the community, has all the while been extending, and, so strong is the pressure of the current of events upon politicians and the House of Commons, that almost every measure proposed by either political party is avowedly or unavowedly founded upon Collectivist as opposed to Individualist theories.

The problem is to reduce the existing anarchy to order, in face of the development of international crises and the growing international solidarity of the capitalist class. This is manifestly no easy matter to solve even in Great Britain, the country which, owing to its economical development, its commercial and financial position, its preponderance of great cities, and its geographical situation, must inevitably take the lead in any important social transformation. For England, more than any other nation, is dependent upon foreign countries so largely, and in some cases so exclusively, for her supplies of food and the raw materials of her manufactures, that nothing can be done without touching exterior interests at some point.

Nevertheless, any attempt at regulation and reorganisation must begin in one nation first, and England, which took the lead in the development of the capitalist system, seems destined to take the lead also in its transformation. Thus the needs of the home market within certain limits could easily be ascertained, and would be easily ascertained now if our statistical departments were not so miserably behind-hand. The State, for example, in addition to being the greatest employer of labour in the country by far, is also directly and indirectly the greatest consumer.

Leaving aside the temporary advantage which would result by the absorption of unemployed labour from the enactment by law of an Eight Hours’ Day and the suppression of overtime for all State workers, together with the consequently increased demand for goods, it is obvious that an average of the requirements of all employees might easily be arrived at, in so far as the necessaries of life are concerned, even as matters stand to-day. The enactment of a minimum wage of say 30s. or 35s. a week would only mean that the standard of life in the lower grades of labour would be raised, and, therefore, the demand for such necessaries would again increase.

But if we add to the numbers who are directly employed by the State the persons who are indirectly employed, such as those who supply clothes, boots, and food to the Government servants, including, of course, the army, navy, and militia; to these add the colliers who supply coal, the ironworkers who supply iron, and others who in turn supply them; if again we consider the men and women employed by our various municipalities and other local authorities, and the workers who supply them; and if we further add to the numbers of the State and municipal functionaries and servants the tens of thousands of men who are engaged on railways and other monopolies – if we calculate all these producers and distributors as a portion of the recognised or unrecognised public service, we arrive at very large figures indeed. So far as they are concerned there need be no ups and downs of trade; for the object here at least must be – assuming for the moment the elimination of the middleman and the capitalist, in the same way as he is eliminated in a Government establishment – to bring consumers and producers together without profit, to the common gain. Instead of this even State contracts have, until lately, been conducted on the sweating system, and all labour employed by the State has been beaten down to the lowest competitive wage. Worse still, in the Government arsenals and factories excessive overtime is worked at some periods, though outside thousands are unemployed; and at other periods men are discharged for lack of work to give them.

But, manifestly, if the Government under the control of the profit-making classes is compelled to keep up State arsenals and dockyards, State post-office and parcel post, State banks and factories; and at the same time municipalities are taking control of their gasworks, and water-works, and tramways, and road-making, and in some degree of public building; there can be no insuperable difficulty in extending the operations of the State and municipalities to the various productive enterprises which supply these State and municipal bodies with what they need.

Unfortunately, all our leading statesmen and officials, all our principal economists and publicists, have been brought up in a school which disenables them from looking at the production and distribution of wealth as a public, collective business. Their anxiety for the welfare of the individual is so great that they crush individuality by competition: they so love order that they foster industrial anarchy: they so dread the State that they favour the growth of practically irresponsible and uncontrolled monopolies such as we see all around us.

But workers are increasingly anxious to use the collective power for the advantage of the community, and to master through the State and municipal organisations the great productive and distributive agencies alike of the Government and of private companies, so as to attain that end. When once we admit that the increased power to produce wealth should be thus used for the benefit of the many and not for the profit of the few, no long time will elapse thereafter before steps are taken, by collective organisation of industry and exchange, to prevent the periodical dislocation of trade by great crises, which are as wasteful as they are in a sense absurd.

There is no possibility of reducing the existing anarchy in production and distribution to order by anything short of this collective ownership of the great means and instruments of production and distribution. This inevitably involves the overthrow of private property or company ownership of those great means and instruments of creating and distributing wealth. And this again carries with it the disappearance of the class State, and the establishment of an organised communism in which private ownership will be confined within the narrowest possible limits.

Those who talk of “Municipal Socialism” as if it were possible to segregate mankind into petty little units with no power to regulate the general production, first nationally and then internationally, overlook the most striking features of the economic development which is going on around them. In like manner, the proposal to ameliorate existing conditions by taxation of rent, disregards the truth that modern rents presuppose the existence of competition and take for granted that capitalist supremacy, which such taxation, even were it possible to carry it into effect, would leave untouched.

Mere palliatives, such as those which have been advocated for years by the Social-Democratic Federation, and are now being adopted in some shape by both the existing capitalist political factions, are, after all, but palliatives; although the men who have been most active in championing them, have carried on this “practical” propaganda with the direct object of preparing the way to a complete and, if possible, peaceful transformation. But wage-slaves under better conditions remain wage-slaves still; and the causes of the economic and class antagonism remain untouched by any half-measures. No improvements of the capitalist system of production can change or seriously modify the bitter struggle which must go on so long as that system endures in any shape.

The time is coming when the expropriators will be themselves expropriated, and it is for the rising generation of Englishmen to decide whether in this country the substitution of organised co-operation for anarchical competition shall be brought about consciously and peacefully, or unconsciously and forcibly. The next commercial crisis, which all careful observers can easily detect is approaching, will, by reason of the tremendous scale on which production is now carried on in every civilised country, be worse than any yet experienced. The issue of one pound notes in such circumstances is, indeed, to administer a pill to an earthquake. Such an issue can no more prevent a commercial crisis in the nineties than a similar issue did in the twenties; and Mr. Goschen’s proposal will probably be referred to in time to come as a remarkable instance of the incapacity of our ablest financiers to reason outside of the limited and vicious circle of capitalist finance.

Nine recognised commercial crises in this nineteenth century, all deeply affecting the welfare of Great Britain and other civilised countries, and each in succession having a more enduring influence for evil than its forerunner, must surely prove to every one who is not blinded by his own supposed interests that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, and must be replaced by another and higher form of industrial and social organisation. After such terrible warnings, to refuse to examine into facts, and to proceed farther on the happy-go-lucky principle of awaiting “pressure from without,” is only to court that disaster which pessimists declare is inevitable, do what we may.


Last updated on 29.7.2007