Henry Mayers Hyndman

The Record of an Adventurous Life

Chapter XVII
Socialist Agitation

Why my personal remembrances of Henry George should force themselves upon me here I can scarcely say. Perhaps it is that George himself was in his way a sort of intellectual Anarchist who could not look upon production and still less upon exchange from other than the individual point of view. At any rate, Henry George, whose Progress and Poverty referred to above made a great stir, by this time (1882) had come over to Ireland in order to look into and write upon the land question, and travelling on to London, he and his wife and children, after having paid a visit to Helen Taylor, stayed at our house for a month. I admit that I was anxious to have him and his family with us, not only for his own and their sake, but because I hoped, quite mistakenly as afterwards appeared, to convert him to the truth as it is in Socialist economics. It seemed to me quite incredible that a man who could go so far as he had gone would not traverse with ease the remainder of the distance, and thus obtain a sound conception of the whole subject.

But I did not make sufficient allowance for the seductiveness of error, or perhaps for the natural disinclination of a man who has written a world-stirring book, to admit that he had only captivated his great audience by clever misapprehensions agreeably put. George was in his way as provoking as Kropotkin. He would be forced by sheer weight of argument to a certain point, and then, the moment the pressure was withdrawn, back he would go to his old notions; of William with his plane and Henry with his axe, sharing the advantage derived from the loan of these individually owned and controlled tools by James or John, as the foundation of modern interest and profit. It was useless to be angry with him or to press him too hard; for then he only went off to some of his devoted single-tax worshippers, from whom he returned more single-taxy than ever. However, I believe I may take to myself some of the credit of inducing him to write his Social Problems, a book which, though it never attained anything approaching to the popularity of his early work, showed that he was beginning to understand that, in our complicated modern society, man cannot live by land alone. George was a delightful personality. He had no great depth of mind, and he did not pretend to have it. What he saw he saw clearly, and he held fast to the ideas which had taken hold of him, not he of them. The religious turn of his thought I never fully comprehended until I was debating against him with Mr. Henry Labouchere as Chairman at the old St. James’s Hall. Then his arched bald head rose up like an apse on the other side of the table, and I saw that his bump of reverence was of cathedral proportions.

Humorous, good-natured and fond of discussion, his was not by any means a first-rate intellect. I don’t think my old friend and comrade, Theodore Wright, will ever forget the debate between George and myself, which he was so very kind as to take down in our dining-room for publication in the Nineteenth Century, on George’s second visit. I am quite sure I never shall. His hesitations, his corrections, his incapacity to appreciate what he had said just before gave me a new and by no means a pleasant experience. I am not, I regret to say, blessed with an over-abundance of patience, and what I had was soon exhausted, though, of course, I could not show that to such a good fellow as George really was.

It was this incapacity of his to understand his exact position, or where he wished to go, that landed this honest, sympathetic, well-meaning man in the sad mess he got into afterwards in America. Though he saw the evils of Trusts as clearly as any of us, he could not believe that they were the natural and inevitable outcome of the last stage of competitive capitalism; that they could only be dealt with advantageously on a collective basis; or that if land were taxed up to its highest possible value this would rather accelerate than retard the development of Trusts. Consequently, he fell into capitalist hands and was every way the worse for it. But that he meant well to the working class from whom he sprang I have no doubt whatever.

His indifference to some of our English prejudices was at times rather annoying. On one occasion we were passing the top of Great Portland Street, going home to lunch, when George espied a barrow-load of whelks at the corner being sold by the costermonger who owned them. “I say, Hyndman,” quoth George, “I like the look of those whelks. I guess I’ll take a few of those whelks.” “All right,” said I; “if you like them I’ll have some sent in for you.” “No,” was the answer; “I like them here and now.” Expostulation was useless. So George consumed his whelks from the barrow while I, got up in the high hat and frock-coat of non-whelk-eating-at-the-corner civilisation, stood by and saw him do it. I had not then cleared myself of old class prejudices even to the extent I have to-day, and if George had any grudge against me, either then or later, he certainly paid me out on that occasion. I never see a whelk stall at a street corner to this day but I feel inclined to bolt off in another direction. After all, it is the very small things of life which cause the greatest annoyance. But I always look back with pleasure to my relations with George.

Though overlaid in the early months by the Irish agitation, the Socialist propaganda of the Democratic Federation went steadily on, and we slowly gathered around us most of the abler young men of the advanced section. The Press thought proper to laugh at all this, and one Tory organ went so far as to write, “The Democratic Federation as Mr. Hyndman will persist in calling himself!” That, of course, with the intention of discouraging the others. But an incident in the early days is worth recalling as proving what a feeble set the Radicals were. There was a contested election in Tyrone, when the feeling against the Liberal Government was very bitter indeed. A Mr. Harold Rylott was chosen as an independent candidate to make a fight against Liberal Coercion and in favour of Home Rule. This raised a tremendous hubbub among the Gladstone-worshipping Liberals who, of course, denounced poor Rylott and his supporters as traitors, reactionists, sinners against the light, etc., and tumbled out the old familiar Liberal lies against them which had done service so often before and have done similar service so often since.

Why is it, by the way, that Liberals are so strongly addicted to “terminological inexactitudes” in politics? Why is it that their special party creed renders it incumbent upon them to play tricks with the truth whenever it suits their purpose? How does it come about that no sane man would think of placing the slightest reliance upon the Liberal Party carrying out when in office the pledges made at the polls in order to obtain a majority? The Tories nowadays represent capitalism as completely as Liberals. They would, at need I do not doubt, be as brutal and unscrupulous in the future as they were in the forgotten past. But it is a very extraordinary thing that for the last fifty years all the shooting down of the people has been done not by them but by the Liberals. The Tories have not undertaken to introduce and carry through important social measures and then abandoned them altogether as inconvenient when in power. We have even obtained from them, purely for their own political ends I at once admit, some of the most important remedial measures, social and political, on the Statute Book. But Liberals act as I state. Why is this? I do not pretend to say: “Sammy.” “Yes, sir.” “Have you dusted the pepper?” “Yes, sir.” “Have you sanded the sugar?” “Yes, sir.” “Then come to prayers.” Do Liberals really carry into the political sphere similar methods to those by which they have piled up fortunes in the industrial field? I cannot say. But this seems to be a probable explanation.

At any rate, our ablest predecessors and forerunners in the championship of the cause of the workers on both sides of the Irish Channel, the noble band of Chartists, whose work, after a full generation of apathy, we Social-Democrats took up, and whose glorious memory we have revived and cherished – Ernest Jones, George Julian Harney, Bronterre O’Brien, Henry Vincent and the rest of them – found, as we have found, that the Whigs and the Liberals are the worst and most treacherous enemies of the people. In no country, so far as my study of history tells me, has any political party ever played such a game successfully for so long a period. The Radicals have throughout been merely the hewers of wood and the drawers of water for the Whigs, the Liberals, and their lawyers. “Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,” said Mr. Bernal Osborne fifty years ago; and when any of their abler men have a subordinate office chucked to them, in order to quiet the restiveness which at long intervals comes upon the party, they prove to be as unscrupulous and as tyrannical as their leaders.

But the Tyrone Election was a temporary revolt against all this wretched Liberal tyranny and repression in Ireland. Any one would have thought that the Radicals would fully sympathise with such action. The Democratic Federation did warmly, and we issued a Manifesto, which I signed.

This pronouncement of the new advanced party was placarded all over Tyrone, and was published in the anti-Coercion and anti-Liberal papers. Thereupon the Radical Clubs of London, and most of the Radicals, forsook us and fled. We all of us regretted this, but it was really the best thing that could have happened, and hastened our development towards clear-cut definite Socialism, a tendency which, I think, was strengthened by a little pamphlet I republished in that year giving Spence’s famous pamphlet on The Nationalisation of the Land in 1792, and adding to it some notes on Nationalisation of the Land in 1882. About this time, too, men and women of great ability joined our body. It is indeed sad to look back and see the number of really capable people who joined us in this year, and then to note that, instead of remaining with us and constituting a great party, so many of them drifted away and formed cliques. In addition to Morris there were with us at this time, Carpenter, Bernard Shaw, Bland and Mrs. Bland, Quelch, Scheu, Olivier, Graham Wallas, and others.

In January 1882 I took the Hall at Westminster Palace Chambers for a series of public discussions on Practical Remedies for Pressing Needs. The “remedies” proposed, the stepping-stones advocated, included, among others, the Feeding of Children in the Board Schools; the Organisation Co-operatively of Unemployed Labour; the Eight Hour Law; the Nationalisation of Railways and Mines; and the Construction and Maintenance of wholesome Homes for the People by public bodies, national and municipal, at public cost. These discussions brought me into contact with many whom I did not know before, and cemented the ties existing between those who were already members.

It is very sad to recognise, after twenty-nine years of assiduous agitation, that not one of these remedial measures has yet been passed into law, and that the physical, mental and moral degeneration of large masses of our population, which they were specially intended to check, has gone steadily on ever since. The capitalist class and their hangers-on in this country will not accept admittedly beneficial palliatives of their anarchical system, even when its ill-effects on the national health and well-being have been officially acknowledged. In France, and more particularly in Paris, an effort was, however, at once made to deal with the feeding and clothing of necessitous children, whose proper physical development was seen to be the most valuable asset of the entire State.

It has been the fashion to say, until lately, that individual beneficence and public charity are quite sufficient to meet the case of anaemic and half-starved children who, owing to their physical condition, are quite unable to take advantage even of the poor sort of education provided at our common schools. Of the imperative need, not only for feeding but for clothing such children and, from any wide national and citizen view of the problem, the extreme desirability of removing them altogether from their slum quarters in the cities, there can be no doubt whatever on the part of any impartial observer who has looked into the facts as exhibited in the schools. But we still cling to the old ideas that the community is in no sense responsible, and that somehow or another, in this direction as in others, we shall “muddle through.” But that we can succeed without collective effort is quite impossible, and the failure of charity to cope with the problem is now everywhere apparent.

I saw one attempt of the kind very close, and its hopelessness impressed itself upon me from the first. My wife may, I believe, rightly claim to have organised more free meals for children in London during several successive winters than any other person. Each winter she distributed, with the help of Lady Jeune and others, fully 30,000 free meals. It was very hard and distressing work, though the benefit to the children of even one really good meal a day, and this my wife always gave them, was speedily apparent. But there were tenfold and more the number outside unfed, and even those who got the meal in winter were not provided for in summer. So the whole field to be covered was manifestly too extended to be adequately dealt with by individual effort, while the strain on the health and strength of the organiser was too great. Nevertheless the improvement wrought in the children’s physique, even by this pitiful little attempt to build up the coming generation of citizens into something like vigorous humans, showed what fine results could be achieved by adequate administration on a scale commensurate with the enormous numbers to be supplied with food, whose conditions of existence are still getting worse rather than better.

Even more marked was the improvement brought about by taking the children down to the seaside and feeding them well for a few weeks. The parents actually did not know their own offspring, in not a few cases, when they met them at the railway station on their return. Thus in all those instances in which the children have not some constitutional ailment – as unfortunately is the case with quite a large percentage in London and in the manufacturing districts – good food, good air, good surroundings, and careful treatment soon pick them up; though, of course, all the health thus gained quickly disappears again in the atmosphere and environment of the working-class districts. Personally I was amazed at what good food and kindness did in a short time. If, also, the children were taken young enough the improvement in their manners was as remarkable as that in their physique.

Much as I had seen of the poor and their ways, I could not have believed that such ignorance and uncouth misbehaviour could exist, until I saw some of the first of these meals given in very poor localities. The children looked at the white cloth spread on the table, and one of them asked, “What’s that for?” “Oh, that’s a sheet, don’t yer know.” And then one of the mischievous ones pulled the “sheet” with everything on the table clean off, to the great delight of all the rest, everything not broken having to be replaced again. Then when the food was brought up and put on the table they fought for it to begin with, not like young savages, for I never saw savage children of any tribe fight for their food, but like ravenous young animals, after a fashion that was as sad to reflect upon as it was disgusting to witness. How my wife put up with it all I could not understand. However, she did, and, by degrees, the whole attitude of the children to the meals and to one another entirely changed. When they learnt by experience that there was plenty for all; that they could be comfortably seated round a clean cloth, which looked much nicer clean than messed; that if they only waited with reasonable patience, while not keeping too still, they would be quickly served, the children behaved very well indeed. In fact they became quite well-mannered little creatures, ceasing to grab at the bits of meat or bread and taking care not to spill things about. In short, from dirty, disagreeable little animals they developed into decent little human beings.

This taking their meals in common was in itself an education for them in manners. But then the meals were good, wholesome, substantial meals, though cheap per head when provided in large quantities, and the children, being allowed to have as much as they wanted, did not go hungry away. Unfortunately, the continued strain on my wife’s health was so great that she was obliged to give it up, even if she had not been compelled to recognise that what she was doing, good as it was from the point of view of philanthropy in its little way, was merely a drop in the bucket as compared with the needs of the children of London. I do regret, however, even now, more than twenty years later, that no use could have been made of her exceptional knowledge and powers of organisation in this direction to show, on a large scale and under public administration, how such meals should be cooked and served.

I cannot here refrain from saying a few words as to the short-sighted incompetence of our governing classes, under the profit-mongering dispensation of the modern bourgeoisie, in all that relates to the welfare of the children of the community. I have lived among what are called “savage” tribes, and though I have often noted their, to us, cruel method of treatment of the worn-out aged or bouches inutiles, I have never met a set of barbarians who permitted the children of the tribe to be neglected – never. They are regarded as of the highest importance, as being those who have to carry on the work of the whole community in the next generation. No such conceptions of the communal ethic have until lately been accepted by English civilisation. The whole problem is looked at from the individual, or separate family, point of view. It is the duty of parents to secure enough under the competitive arrangements of our day, to snatch enough, that is to say, out of the proletarian scramble for existence, to enable them to feed, clothe, and house adequately the children they beget. If not, so much the worse for the children! They must suffer for the sins – or social disadvantages, which mean in practice the same thing – of their fathers and mothers, who should have kept their sexual desires ungratified or the children from being brought into the world.

And yet the very same people who talk and write in this way are the first to cry out against any falling-off in the increase of population, and to rush to support schemes of charity for arresting the spread of tuberculosis and other poverty-engendered diseases. That it would be infinitely more to the advantage of the community, and would help even to maintain our army in a higher state of efficiency, to prevent the coming in of such maladies by reasonable attention to the children in their early years, through collective attention and support, is an idea which has only just begun to make way among the highly-educated classes, so blighted has their intellectual development been by a false semi-theological view of the duty of society to its members. To myself who have watched the deplorable physical decay of millions of our population for nearly two full generations, owing to the lack of any rational conception of what ought to be done, the whole thing seems perhaps the most astounding case of social and political imbecility the world has ever beheld. Even the working class of Great Britain has scarcely understood, up to to-day, the importance on every ground of our claim that, if only as a matter of economy, children should be fed and clothed free, in order to enable them to take advantage of the free teaching now at their disposal.

But to return to the experiment in Paris. The French Socialists on the Paris Municipal Council took up this suggestion of feeding and clothing all the needy children who attended the public free schools. School kitchens, it was proposed, should be established, from which good meals would be supplied at a cheap rate. Those children who could afford to pay should be called upon to pay; those who could not should receive their food and, if necessary, their clothing free of charge without pauperisation, and without the fact being known that what they got was gratuitously provided. There are eighty-one members of the Municipal Council of Paris, of whom but nine at this time were Socialists. But the arguments of this small minority, headed by my friend the distinguished Dr. Paul Brousse, afterwards President of the Council for two years in succession, carried all before them, and the famous Cantines Scolaires, supported half by subvention from the Municipality and half from the voluntary subscription of the Charitable Societies, were set on foot. No difference whatever being made between those who paid for their meals and those who did not, by degrees, naturally enough, the proportion of the latter has greatly increased.

But this gratuitous feeding and supply of good clothes to children who need them has produced an extraordinary effect upon the appearance and general health of the little ones in the poorer quarters of Paris. Compare children coming out of poor schools in the French Metropolis with those coming out of our schools in poverty-stricken districts in London, and I declare that that observer must be a bigot indeed who fails to note the terrible contrast to our disadvantage. So marked is the change for the better that, though several attempts have been made in Paris to go back to the old system, they have utterly failed; and M. Sorget, the great Paris builder and contractor, one of our chief opponents at the start, was so convinced by what he saw of the good that had been done that he became a strong upholder of the scheme.

Nearly ten years after the establishment of this plan of feeding and clothing poor children in Paris, I headed a deputation to Mr. Acland, then at the head of our Department of Education, to beg him to help in the setting on foot of a similar or a better system in England. Mr. Acland in his reply admitted that he had seen the very good results of what had been done in Paris, and evidently wished to aid us. But nothing was done. This was in 1892. Nineteen years more have gone by, and the utmost we have extracted from the reactionary capitalist-ridden House of Commons is a permissive Act, allowing the Municipalities to impose a halfpenny rate to go towards feeding necessitous children. In the overwhelming majority of cases, our precious Bumbles of the Municipalities have, of course, declined to adopt the measure at all.

Last updated on 30.7.2006