H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter I
From 1889 Onwards

IT is, admittedly, a very difficult matter to write satisfactorily the history of a period close to or actually within the writer’s own lifetime. Events are not sufficiently distant to adjust themselves in their proper perspective: the relative importance of this or that political or social crisis is very hard to determine; and personal feelings or prejudices are apt to affect the judgment very seriously. This applies even more forcibly, I think, to an attempt by an individual to give any account of his doings within thirty years or so of his setting down the facts of his own record. An old man may look with a certain amount of detachment, or even of assumed indifference, upon the actions or vagaries of his own personality during the earlier years of its existence or even up to middle age. But when he comes to deal with matters that are still live portions of himself, then the autobiographer is not unlikely to figure as an egotist, a character which it is no easy task to relieve from boredom. The egotism may possibly be pardoned: dullness is an unforgivable sin.

When the International Socialist Congress of the divided skirt, if so I may call it, was held in Paris in 1889, and the Boulanger episode was scaring well-fed French Republicans with its evidence of the antagonism of Parisians and Provincials to their shopkeeper rule, an active rivalry, not to say antagonism, was still going on in Great Britain between the Social-Democratic Federation and the Socialist League similar to that which existed in France between the Marxists and the Possibilists. We all took ourselves very seriously in those days. We were just as confident of success then, when we were still “the feeble band, the few,” as we are today, when we are the coming party in every civilised country. Sometimes I think we were even more so.

It was the principles that counted, not the numbers who embraced them. And our differences seemed only to make us more fanatical. These disputes will arise at the beginning of every great historic movement, often about apparent trifles. The men and women involved in them are so desperately anxious to push ahead, they attach so much importance to matters which are afterwards seen to be of much smaller significance in relation to the general development than appeared to be the case at the time, that personal antagonisms and animosities are sure to arise. It is impossible not to regret the energy wasted and the enthusiasm frittered away by such bootless internecine strife.

I have just been looking through the back volumes of Justice, a journal which, whatever may have been its defects, has the merit of being the one and only organ of the wage-earning proletariat that has ever lasted in this country for more than a quarter of a century. It is quite interesting for those who like to study development or reversion to type, to compare what some of our friends and enemies of yesterday wrote and said then with what they write and say now. Read this, for example:

First of all we must enlarge the stock of ideas of the now active members of the Radical Party. The one idea, till quite recently, of the caucuses throughout the country is the cuckoo-cry of “Home Rule.” Go to any local caucus meeting in London and you will find this still the official topic. I say it is a cuckoo-cry because it is used for the most part absolutely without intelligence ... At present it seems possible that Home Rule might result in the creation of an Irish agricultural proletariat, wage-slaves like the English country labourer, and having not even the apparent interest in the land that the peasant farmer now has. The substitution of the capitalist farmer for the absentee landlord would scarcely be a permanent gain ... Meanwhile the policy of Social-Democrats is clear. It is by keeping our aims distinct, as Socialism, from those of either party that we have made Socialism a force in politics. It is by pursuing the same independent course that we may make clear to all the workers that whoever, be he Liberal or Tory, is content with the capitalist system is repudiated as a reactionary by every voter of the democratic.

Just so. Might not that have been written yesterday? I am writing these lines in July 1912. The above very sound doctrine was, however, propounded in March twenty-three years ago by him who is today the Hon. Sir Sidney Olivier, Governor of Jamaica. It takes good stout lungs and an unimpaired physical and mental constitution to last over the very stiff course which Olivier then staked out for himself and other Fabians. Naturally enough, not a few prefer an easier gradient and a milder climate. Life in the West Indies is very jolly for a good liver. So my forbears found it.

The Socialist declares that we have had enough of the one-sided civilisation which makes the struggle to live all that the majority know of life; that in a sane system of society the price paid for living should not swallow up the whole of human existence, leaving nothing when the purchase money is paid. If each did his or her share of work, each paying the cost of his living in service honestly rendered, if the best means of production were used to make for use and not for profit, there would be enough wealth and to spare for all, with short hours of labour. At any rate, it ought not to be possible, and it will not be possible much longer, for a so-called society to exist in which a man who produces nothing can steal hundreds of thousands a year, and waste in luxury sufficient to keep hundreds of families in comfort. The growing discontent among the workers means a movement which will either change the social order or shatter it, which will either distribute more equally all that makes life worth living or spread desolation on every side. An educated proletariat will not suffer in patience under the shameful exaction for a useless and idle class, as an ignorant proletariat has suffered in the past ... The only society that can endure is that in which every honest man shall have due share of work, due share of leisure, due share of comfort, due share of everything which gladdens and beautifies life.

That is of 1889 and is signed “Annie Besant.”

There are other passages I could quote from her articles which are even more strongly Socialist both in thought and expression. Her influence at that time was very considerable and her work on the London School Board was altogether admirable. Nobody has ever since fully taken her place. For she brought to the Socialist party all the vigour and knowledge which she had displayed on the Secularist platform and in the Secularist press, softened and expanded by the wider scope offered alike to her intelligence and her sympathies by the positive material creed she had embraced. It is doubtful whether any woman of our time has had the oratorical faculty and power of rousing and dominating an audience to the extent which Annie Besant at her best possessed it. Without perhaps exhibiting actual originality she had the power of concentrating what she had acquired and expounding it with so much force and lucidity that the whole sounded quite fresh, and as her manners were as agreeable and her industry as thorough as her eloquence was impressive, we all of us felt that the movement had rarely obtained a more valuable recruit in any country. In council she was as good as she was on the platform and in the committee room; while the fact that she had cleared her mind of the theological and conventional prejudices which stunt the intelligence of so many able women seemed to render it improbable that Annie Besant would give up the cause she had so courageously adopted and adhered to. I know I used to smile when those who had known her in earlier days predicted she would wind up in the Catholic Church.

That seemed to me so very improbable after five or six years of devotion to the propagation of a much wider as well as more comprehensible religion. What more could a woman of great ability want in the way of a career under existing conditions than that she should be the leading champion not only in the metropolis but throughout Great Britain, and indeed all over the world, of the physical, intellectual, and moral development of children, by relieving them from the wretched results of competitive profitmongery and anarchical indifference in their own homes through direct social organisation for their benefit; holding as she did at the same time a position in the world of thought and letters, an unchallengeable place in the only growing party of the time? Mrs. Besant had joined us just at the moment when, as years rolled on, she could not have failed to enjoy the full fruition of her plucky efforts; the fact that she was a woman securing to her the certainty of universal recognition and the continuance of usefulness on a high plane which might not fall to the lot of any of the men round her, owing to the personal jealousies aroused and the political arrangements interfered with.

So, I say, I could not believe that Mrs. Besant would find another outlet for her faculties which could by any possibility compensate her for the loss of her Socialist surroundings. But, to invert the French witticism, “Les mères de famille sont capables de tout.” After some six years of valuable service she in some mysterious way heard the “call of the East.” I have heard it myself, and I can understand the fascination which the ancient peoples of our own Aryan stock, with their ancient creeds, ancient traditions, ancient arts, philosophies, architecture and industries, who dwell on the plains and highlands of Hindustan may have for those condemned to dwell under apparently much more prosaic conditions of existence in Western Europe. Mrs. Besant not only heard but hearkened and went off in the prime of her life and vigour into the mystic groves of Hindu philosophy and religion. I hope that at least she has found comfort and solace therein to compensate her for much more important duties she gave up nearer home. For my own part I could not help sympathising deeply with one of the best-known Secularists whom I met by accident some little time after Mrs. Besant had gone to India. He greeted me with apparent excitement in his demeanour and with great rapidity of speech.

”Oh, I say, Mr. Hyndman, have you seen Annie has been walking in a religious procession between two white bulls? – two white bulls!” I had not seen, but I confess the idea did strike me as ludicrous, and we both laughed heartily and unrestrainedly at the picture which rose up before our eyes. The thing had so great an effect upon me that I went home, got the Indian papers which gave a report of the ceremonial, and laughed again and again at what, no doubt, was really a very solemn business. But surely for a Secularist and a Socialist it was exquisitely funny. At any rate, I never forgot it. When indeed, years afterwards, I again met Mrs. Besant one evening at a reception of the Fabian Society, there, in spite of all I could do to clear my vision, those two white bulls, dear things, would persist in poking up their flat, moist noses in front of her, and I had great difficulty in refraining from having yet another good laugh. Annie between two white bulls! I shall see her as priestess of the unknown religion thus fittingly attended to my dying day.

But not long ago I was rejoiced to find that her time had not been wholly wasted out there in Hindustan; though most unfortunately, and to my mind inconceivably, she has opposed the great and growing movement for the complete emancipation of India from our ruinous foreign domination. Not only, however, has Mrs. Besant done some good work in the direction of freeing her own sex and giving them a new outlook upon the future, but I observe that missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, whose expenditure in the East has never been “blessed” with success in proportion to the money fooled away, openly declared that the cost per head of converts to their creed had very materially risen owing to Mrs. Besant’s adherence to and service in the more ancient and possibly more intelligible faith. That at any rate is satisfactory. The sheer impudence of these reverend gentlemen and their subsidisers in England who take back from Jerusalem and London a strange Judæo-Anglican hotch-potch to Indian peoples who had debated all the essentials of their teachings thousands of years ago has always appalled me. The conceit of superstition knows no decency and has no historic sense of the grotesque. That Mrs. Besant should have done something to check this foolish and expensive religious imposition on Hindustan is a set-off against the white-bull business.

Of Mrs. Besant’s propaganda of theosophy I do not speak. For those who like theosophy, that, of course, is the sort of thing they would like. It has no attraction for me whatever, and I cannot believe that Mrs. Besant herself, when coolly reviewing her life’s work, will consider that her recent excursions into the field of the unknown and the unknowable can be regarded as of any value whatever. I understand, however, that her eloquence remains as intelligible as ever it was, and that her audiences are convinced that a Mahatma has come down from a peak of the Himalayas to raise their minds to the unending contemplation of sempiternal uselessness. May their next incarnation be all that they anticipate!

I have spoken of Mrs. Besant’s brilliant and instructive oratory as being on a higher level than that of any woman of her day. That is quite true. And yet we had for a short time the services of another woman who,had she possessed Mrs. Besant’s advantages and been able to devote herself to Socialism, would, in the opinion of all who heard her, have produced an extraordinary effect. Mrs. Besant was handsome, highly educated, well dressed, and of agreeable manners. Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak. I shall never forget what happened at the Foresters’ Hall in Wilderness Row, Clerkenwell, on the occasion of Jessie Craigen’s first appearance indoors before a London audience. We had sent her over to Ireland to gather information about the real condition of the peasantry, having learnt something of her oratorical powers and capacity for studying the details of a case from her speeches in the open air. She was now to give us the results of her investigations.

The hall was packed to suffocation. There were several good speakers on the platform, and I happened to be in the chair. After a few speeches I called upon Miss Jessie Craigen. She was seated on the platform, but prior to this had not been noticed. She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long it was all I could do myself to keep from joining in the general merriment. She paid no attention whatever to this rude greeting. It did not seem to disconcert her in the least. She began quite slowly in a singularly clear and effective voice.

In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together. Argument, pathos, humour, eloquence, satire, wit, illustration, invective – nothing was wanting. I have always deeply regretted no verbatim report was taken of this wonderful speech. There was but one opinion among the practised speakers on the platform as to its remarkable merit. One of the most telling touches in it dealt with her bag and its contents. It was of no great size, but it went down upon the table with a thump when she placed it there in front of me. “Would you like to see what I have got in that bag?” she asked. The audience declared emphatically it would. “I have got in that bag,” Miss Craigen went on, “a fine specimen of the soil of the district and the entire furniture of two cottages.” She opened the bag and produced a huge stone, a handful of dry mud, with a broken three-legged stool, and an earthenware pot. The use she made of these articles was a lesson by itself in oratorical effect

Unluckily the SDF could not itself afford to retain Miss Craigen’s services permanently, and I am afraid with Mrs. Gamp’s appearance she contracted another of that worthy lady’s peculiarities. So, to my infinite regret, she went off to speak as a paid lecturer for the temperance fanatics and the contagious diseases people. The well-known story of Abraham Lincoln and General Grant applies so admirably in her case that I dig up the chestnut to plant it afresh here in these pages. Grant, after a long period of reverses to the Federal arms, had succeeded in taking Vicksburg. The victory breathed a new spirit into the despondent ranks of the fighters for the North. At that time the great army of the Potomac was in rather a bad way; it had scarcely recovered from the depression caused by the rout of Bull Run and M‘Clellan’s scientific strategy. Lincoln spoke of appointing the new Ulysses of the West to that all-important command. Remonstrances poured in upon him hot and strong. Lincoln asked what was the matter with the man of his choice. “President,” he was told, “Grant drinks like a fish. He is always drinking.” – “Always drinking, eh? Drinks like a fish, does he? What does he drink?” – “He drinks whisky, President, and a lot of it.” – “Now, just you go and find out for me where he gets his whisky from. I’ll send a cask of it to all my other generals.” If it could have been established beyond a peradventure what was the special tap of strong waters which found favour with Jessie Craigen, it would have paid us well as propagandists to send a keg or so periodically to all our Socialist speakers. I have not seen her or heard of her for many years, but I shall always declare that the finest woman orator – I do not know that I need make any limitation of sex either – whom I ever heard was a none too sober mill-hand from Batley in Yorkshire, whose personal appearance was so grotesque that no audience could help laughing when she got up to speak.

As I look back over those long years of constant, indefatigable propaganda, I wonder not that we have made so much way – though the whole tone of the discussion on social questions has completely changed, in large part owing to our work – but that we have made so little. True, thirty years are nothing in the life of a nation, and a full generation counts for but a short space of time in such a campaign as we have gone out upon. Nevertheless when everything is taken into consideration it is perhaps surprising that we have not got farther.

The principles taught remain exactly the same. The methods have varied according to circumstances. The old devil-take-the-hindmost theories in economics and politics have been largely undermined. There has never at any period been opposition to encounter which could be regarded as at all formidable. But our people are very difficult to deal with. They have neither the dash and go, neither the spirit of revolt nor the fighting idealism of the French; they are destitute of the education, of the basic principles, of the stern patience and voluntary discipline of the Germans; and after five or six generations of capitalism they are so infected with bourgeois conceptions and profitmongering aspirations that they regard revolution as madness and compromise as the noblest working-class weapon. It is much more difficult to make a permanent impression on a feather bed than on an oak door. If you knock it in at one point it juts out at another.

I remember on one occasion my wife, who is a countrywoman by birth, trying her propagandist powers, which are really very good, upon an agricultural labourer. She held forth to him upon his miserable wages, his tumbledown and cramped cottage, his lack of opportunities of enjoyment, the manner in which the common land hard by had been filched from him, the shameful fact that he could not get a nice bit of garden ground at anything at all within hail of the yearly rent paid by the farmers for their acres, the way in which all the old perquisites and easements had been taken away, the long winter in which, now that thrashing was performed by machinery and there was little arable land around, there was little to do and therefore little to get. The man listened attentively and seemed to agree with her, so my wife felt encouraged.

She went on to point out that all this trouble arose from the fact that he had no property; that he owned nothing, not even the cottage he lived in or the agricultural implements he used; that he was bound to take low wages, because if he did not there was no other way by which he could live himself or get food for his wife and children; that there was no union between him and the other men so that they could make common cause against the farmer and the landlord; that the reason why he had to pay so much rent for his cottage was that cottages in the neighbourhood had been pulled down by the landowners in order to reduce rates on their estates years ago; that owing to cheap food and cheap hay and cheap fruit coming in from abroad by low rates of railway freight, things were getting worse, and were likely to be worse still. The countryman listened on, told how he remembered when he could do better than he could today, and grumbled bitterly at his lot. He had a wife and children what would become of them? – he was asked. The “ House” was not a comfortable habitation either for the young or for the old. The good man agreed. He even averred it was a great shame honest folk should be so put upon – that it was.

My wife thought she had got a convert. So she told him what a good garden at a light rent, co-operation in sending his produce to market, joint ownership of the land by himself and his kinsfolk in the towns, would do for him; how he could help them and they him to have all that was needed, with no anxiety at all about the future; how his children would be much better off still when this great change had been brought about. There he sat listening stolidly, with the land about him, which I myself remembered as well-tilled and prosperous, going steadily out of cultivation, and the active village of the last century becoming a deserted Sleepy Hollow of today. When my wife had quite finished – and it took a long time to put all this after a fashion to be understanded of the Sussex mind – he took his clay pipe slowly out of his mouth, and spat and spoke. “Thank you, marm. You thinks so! I thinks otherwise.” Yet he was neither cynic nor philosopher. No easy matter to rouse that sort of human. Joseph Arch’s Union of Agricultural Labourers did not last long. And the English townsman is in the great majority of cases only the ignorant countryman veneered. Emigration can do much to deprive a nation of its most vigorous stock: bad food, bad housing, ignorance, and absence of physical training can do more.

It is very exasperating to note the fitful and off-hand manner in which the governing classes endeavour to remedy the evils arising out of system. The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Poor was held in 1880, the chairman being Sir Charles Dilke, and the late King a member. It was a most elaborate farce conducted in the most solemn manner. The sympathy for the unfortunate people who were pigged together in the frightful way described by witness after witness was intense. It was universally agreed in the Commission and outside that this frightful state of things, so ruinous alike to the physical wellbeing, intellectual development, and moral character of millions of our nation, must not be allowed to continue. It was decided with equal unanimity that something must be done immediately. Monarch and subjects held absolutely identical views on this serious subject, and the whole press from Dan even unto Beersheba, from the Times to the Star, and from the Quarterly Review to the Sporting Times, were in one continuous flow of sympathetic articles to the same effect. Both Houses of Parliament brought up the rear in this national procession of dust and ashes to adjure the powers of – but what is the use of writing on? Huge Blue Books were printed, a tremendous Report was compiled, and – as was intended from the first – nothing whatever was done.

Not a man sat on that Commission but was well aware that any really vigorous attempt to give the poor of our people decent homes to live in would bring the whole fabric of our competitive civilisation crashing to the ground. As it was in 1880, so it is now, and so it ever shall be until the entire social system undergoes its long deferred but inevitable transformation from competition to cooperation, from capitalism to Socialism. Yet when we Social-Democrats pointed this out quite plainly a generation ago, and predicted clearly what must inevitably occur, Royal Commission or no Royal Commission, we were denounced as irreconcilable subversionists and dour sel-fadvertisers of the disloyal, envious, and baser sort. Royal Commissions are, of course, an organised fraud. Their special object is to push off any immediate decision and to gain time – to follow, in fact, that policy of calculating procrastination so charmingly set forth by Lady Dorothy Nevill, as noted in my previous volume. The Prince of Wales has become King Edward VII and is dead since then; Sir Charles Dilke is dead; nearly all the other Commissioners are dead or in their dotage. Nothing accomplished, nothing done, they’ve earned a long repose!

And yet in spite of my accurate knowledge of the real meaning of these futile and wearisome investigations, I was foolish enough to offer myself as a witness before the Royal Commission on Labour in 1892, of which the Duke of Devonshire was the Chairman and Mr. Geoffrey Drage the Secretary. What is more, I took a great deal of trouble to get up my evidence, or rather, I ought perhaps to say others, especially in the matter of railway freights, took a great deal of trouble to get it up gratuitously for me. I believe I was the last witness examined.

The late Sir Robert Giffen’s reputation for sagacity and dexterous figur -handling was then at its height among the employing and administrating class. GifFen had always placed his great industry and not inferior pliability entirely at their disposal, and he was enjoying his rewards. Needless to say, he being a Scotchman, that these took the shape of a very considerable income paid quarterly, with a knighthood thrown in just to register the completion of the contract. I knew Giffen well. He immediately preceded me in giving evidence, and long overpassed the time at which I was supposed to have been called. I told him afterwards I believed he did this on purpose, in order to prevent me from knocking a hole in the bottom of his pro-capitalist calculations. He laughed, and so did I. Of course, being really a very clever fellow, he knew as well as I did that the whole thing was humbug from end to end, and that we Socialists were as sound in our economics and statistics as we were in our criticisms of the general social effects of the profitmongering system of production. But it did not suit him to say so, and he played the game well on the side he had chosen. At last he finished, and I recommend any one who wants to understand how to make the superficial pass muster as the profound to glance through Giffen’s evidence that day.

It was a blazing hot day in August, I remember, when my turn came, and I went forward to give my views. The Duke seemed bored to death, and I did not wonder at it. Of course he always was bored to death in politics, and in most other things too. Boredom was born with him, and was part of his being. The only time I ever saw him quite half-awake to the actualities of life was one day when my wife and myself were out on a picnic on the Thames with some well-known society people, men and women who had discarded pomp and circumstance for the nonce, and were rowing their own boat and making ready to prepare their own provender; a very jolly party indeed. As we went joyously along, we came upon a man and a woman in a boat as broad as it was long, the man rowing, the woman steering. The man was the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Hartington; the woman was the Duchess of Manchester. He was taking his passenger upstream right vigorously. The beauty of it was that more than one or two in our craft knew both parties to this tête-à-tête well. But we passed solemnly and sedately by in silence, until, having got some distance away, a few smiled rather loudly at the meeting, and the less prudent expressed surprise that a man of the Duke’s position and knowledge of the world could not discover a more attractive person of the other sex with whom to exercise his rowing muscles on such a delightful day. Still greater surprise found utterance later when the lady of the stern on that occasion became mistress of Devonshire House, Chatsworth, etc. However, there was no rowing of a lady to be done at a Royal Commission sitting, and the Duke, as I say, looked as if he wished the whole thing at the devil, as I have not the slightest doubt he did.

I sat down, and the first important incident was that the Chairman could not find his spectacles. He had doubtless been dozing. He groped for them among his papers, lifted up his desk, felt in his pockets, and went through all the fussy movements natural to any one who had mislaid his artificial eyes and chanced to want them in a hurry. I saw all the time where they were well enough, seated as I was directly opposite to him. He had pushed them up from his nose right into his hair, and there they stuck, glaring at me from that bad eminence. At last one of his fellow Royal Commissioners espied them too, called the Duke’s attention to their situation, and my examination began.

Only two points do I consider it worth my while to recall here. First, I proved by figures that it was quite impossible for a man, his wife, and two children to live, healthily and reasonably, in London upon a wage of thirty shillings a week, rents being what they were, and that the great majority of London workers received considerably less than this, and would continue to do so as long as competition for mere subsistence ruled in the labour market. Under these circumstances physical degeneration was inevitable. I then suggested some of the well-known Social-Democratic palliatives, formulated as stepping-stones to a more hopeful period ten years before, as not unworthy of the attention of the Commission. Of course the Commissioners smiled supercilious smiles, and some of them asked supercilious questions. They had come there not to recommend measures to ameliorate the conditions of the working people who kept them in luxury, but in order to discover super-excellent and scientific reasons for leaving things as they were. The dominant classes are no fools. They know perfectly well that if sweating were abolished and unemployment ceased to be, the whole capitalist system would be doomed. They do not want to remedy, but they greatly sympathise. They are eager to help the workers in their poverty but not out of it. I never had all this borne in upon me so forcibly as when I sat there listening to those foolish questions on that broiling summer day. They were wise questions for the maintenance of the men in possession. What did the rottenness of the nation’s manhood, womanhood, and childhood matter so long as Cavendishes and Chamberlains, Cecils and Balfours, ruled the roost? It was all so obvious.

The only other point worth noting related to our railway system. I dealt with this because it was and is the fashion to declare that all Socialists who are not envious madmen are mere doctrinaire theorists. It was no affair of mine to tell the assembled Commissioners that I really did know as much, to say the least of it, as any of them did about railway finance, though I take it I could not by any possibility have acted frequently for the late Austin Corbin on this side of the Atlantic if I had not.

What I was concerned to establish was that our terribly heavy English freight charges and the habit of British railways of giving specially favourable rates to goods from outside this island acted as the most onerous form of protection in favour of the foreigner. These drawbacks to our whole railway communications as a national agency for transport, in so far as concerned freight, led me to look closely into the causes of such a preposterous state of things. Reckoned by freight, or the cost of transport per ton of goods conveyed, Argentina, India, Australia, America, Canada are within the thirty-mile radius of London. The actual cost of conveying a ton of goods on a well-managed American railway east of Pittsburg one mile and with equal break of bulk – a matter which is often put up against railway reformers by reactionary English railway engineers – is from one-fourth to as low as one-sixth of the charge in Great Britain. This is chiefly, if not almost entirely, due to the greater lightness of the wagons or cars used for freight haulage. American railway managers keep their eyes steadily fixed upon the tare or non-paying freight they have to haul and the proportion it bears to the paying freight. A reduction of even 10 per cent in tare with equal durability will cause an American railway to “scrap” hundreds and even thousands of cars of an older pattern, which themselves were more modern in type than any we have on this side of the Atlantic.

Although my facts and figures on this most important subject had been specially compiled for me by the ablest railway statist on either side of the Atlantic, and their bearing upon the labour question was quite obvious, seeing that the American companies pay fully twice the rates of wages to their employees English companies do, and that the improvement in agriculture and manufacture, other things remaining the same, would be not only enormous but very rapid, when once this heavy incubus of excessive charge for transport was removed – in spite of all this the matter did not interest the Commission. It was too practical for them.

Nevertheless the Duke of Devonshire himself, not as Chairman of the Royal Commission, but as the excellent man of business which as a Cavendish he undoubtedly was, had in use, at that very moment, on his own private railway, light American cars in place of the heavy trucks which English managers persist in hauling to the detriment of the entire industry of the country. Some changes for the better have been made since 1892 in this direction, but in the main reaction still dominates. Passenger carriages are improved each year. Yet if a whole train-load of travellers were uncomfortable, or even were smashed up, the country at large would suffer comparatively trifling loss. Whereas the constant imposition of unnecessarily heavy rates upon every ton of agricultural produce, raw material, ores, or manufactured goods transported, is a permanent and sometimes a prohibitive tax on the nation. Our British railways are a curse to the country: a flagitious monopoly as utterly regardless of the well-being of the community as they are of the lives and the limbs of their workers. I was once in favour of their nationalisation and socialisation with compensation. I am of opinion now that confiscation is the only remedy; though it should, of course, be carried out as part of a great scheme of reorganisation.

A little more attention was given to the question of differential rates in favour of foreign imports because it was the question of the moment. It did seem preposterous even to Royal Commissioners that home meat from Cheshire should cost twice as much to send to Sheffield as foreign meat from Birkenhead in the same county; that it should cost just one-third the freight to ship ores and manufactured iron between Essen and port as it did between Sheffield, the English Essen, and port; that fruit and other agricultural produce should lie rotting in English orchards and fields because the freight to London was prohibitive, while inferior foreign eatables of the same description were passing up every night and every day to Covent Garden at a fraction of the rates charged to our own countrymen. This seemed preposterous, I say, but nothing was done then, and nothing is being done now, to remedy such acknowledged and ruinous injustice and folly.

After the decay of the Roman roads in Great Britain and the destruction of the monasteries, which performed the function of road-building and maintenance in this island during the Middle Ages, transport by land in our country became so costly and so insecure that traders and merchants were driven to water-carriage and seaborne commerce. This indeed was one of the great causes of the relatively vast expansion of English foreign trade and external brigandage that was the glory of the reign of Elizabeth and her immediate successors. Undoubtedly, the English railways of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have contributed largely to that destruction of agriculture and hampering of inland manufacture which is not infrequently attributed to the malefic influence of one-sided free trade. But it is hopeless to expect that any serious improvement will be made, as I pointed out at the date of this Labour Commission, so long as there are some hundred and thirty railway directors in the House of Commons who sit there in order privately and dexterously to subserve the supposed interests of the monopolist companies. They deliberately uphold the right of their companies to maim and murder their employees, because this is cheaper than to supply automatic couplings to the cars and trucks they use, and they befool the whole of the business world of Great Britain by pointing to the moderate rates of interest paid on their debentures and stocks.

I got just a little fun out of this dull and useless and costly Royal Labour Commission in a few of the definitions of words and phrases and statements in my evidence which I supplied at the Secretary’s request. But the proceedings as a whole were as contemptible as the result of it all was valueless to the community. Of course, no practical measures whatever were or have been adopted to improve the position of the labourers or to develop internal trade. But there are the Blue-books, which some day, perhaps, will have a dry-as-dust antiquarian interest for the investigators of the fossil remains of our buy-cheap-and-sell-dear system.

I have given perhaps a little too much attention to this matter of the Labour Commission; but I felt then, and I feel now, that while the upper classes of this country jeer at Socialism and decry those who propagate its teachings, they are themselves quite unable or unwilling to rectify the obvious shortcomings, from the point of view even of practical business, of the anarchical competitive capitalism, which is in full swing all round them.

But in this same year I was given the opportunity of spreading our theories in a manner which has given me the greatest satisfaction ever since. Though I had been hard at work as a Socialist writer and agitator for more than ten years, and was already well known throughout the British Empire and on the Continent of Europe as a thorough -going propagandist of revolutionary Socialism, I had not had, with one exception, a fair chance of making my views on the Marxist theories known to the educated class in the United States. It was therefore with great gratification I received a letter from Professor Hadley – then Professor of Political Economy at the University of Yale and now President of that great institution – as editor of the Economic Section, inviting me to write the article on Socialism in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia, the cheapest and most widely circulated of the literary short-cuts to cosmic information published in the United States. What pleased me even more than the invitation itself was the statement Professor Hadley kindly made in his letter to the effect that the invitation that I should write this important article was unanimously approved by the whole of the thirty-five editors who were at the head of the different departments of the Cyclopaedia, as well as by the editor-in-chief, Professor Adams. This possibly may not seem anything remarkable today; but at that time, when we were all engaged in a desperate uphill struggle here at home, and when the general view about myself was that I was simply throwing away my chances of being useful and wasting my energies in ploughing the sands, or even in turning up miasma-bearing soils to the general detriment, this proposal so made was most encouraging. I need scarcely say that I did my best to send to the Cyclopaedia a conspectus of Socialism as an economic, historic, and scientific view of modern sociology which should serve the students of the United States as a brief summary of the opinions held by the only growing party of international politico-religionists in the world. The opening passage of my long article was as follows:

Socialism is a conscious endeavour to substitute organised co-operation for existence in place of the present anarchical competition for existence; or the system of social organisation calculated to bring this about. This definition, though it gives, perhaps, adequate expression to the active and practical side of Socialism, leaves out of account altogether its theoretical basis. From this point of view Socialism is an attempt to lay the foundation of a real science of sociology which shall enable mankind, by thoroughly understanding their past and present, to comprehend, and thus, within limits, to control the movement and development of their own society in the near future. Consequently Socialism, in its wide sense, is not, as is still commonly thought, merely an aspiration for a better state of society, still less only a series of proposals to mitigate the evils arising from the present social arrangements. Modern scientific Socialism essays to give an intelligible explanation of the growth of human to Society, and to show that as each step in the long course of development from the institution of private property, through chattel slavery, serfdom, and wagedom, was inevitable, so the next step from capitalism to Socialism is also inevitable. The object which Socialists have in view in their propaganda is that this the final transformation should be made consciously by an organised, educated, and intelligent people, instead of unconsciously and therefore tempestuously by groups of discontented, embittered, and ignorant workers. Agitation against the injustice of the present system of production, therefore, is only valuable in so far as it educates men and women to appreciate the tendency of the time, and in this way leads them to organise for the attainment of the definite end which the evolution of economic forms has made ready. Whether the great change will be brought about peacefully or forcibly has no bearing upon Socialism in itself, but depends upon the stage of development which has been reached in each civilised country and the attitude which the dominant class may adopt in relation to the demands that the economic situation impels the producing class to make.

That, of course, is a purely abstract statement upon which I proceeded to marshal the historic and economic facts that have led up to our existing anarchical order. But when I found many years later that this very article had become a sort of little textbook in America for Socialist lecturers to develop their own teachings upon; when I learnt also that the Fabian Society (!) of California had completely thrown over Jevons with his “Final Futility” and had distributed the passage quoted above as a very well printed leaflet all over the Pacific Slope, I rejoiced to know that I had not laboured in vain. Still more pleased was I when, only a few months ago, the able and well-known American author and publicist, Allan L. Benson, who has done so very much to spread the knowledge of scientific as opposed to hand-to-mouth Socialism throughout the great Republic, was kind enough to write and tell me that an accidental perusal of the whole of this article of mine had, with the study that followed thereupon, converted him completely to Socialism. These are the pleasing episodes in the life of a steady and an uncompromising propagandist, and, in company with very many disappointments, I have had my full share of these much more agreeable incidents. What is, however, exceedingly strange to me is the fact that with Socialism thus making way all over the world, and capturing not only the workers but men and women of the highest education and culture, the dominant class here as a whole should still be so deplorably ignorant, and that both factions should still persist in sticking to the old ways, encumbered as they are with the mud of at least five generations.

When Home Rule broke up the Liberal Party in 1886, and the Conservatives with the Unionists entered upon virtually twenty years of government – for the slight break occasioned by Lord Roseberry’s transitory Ministry was of no importance from any point of view – they had the greatest opportunity for peacefully reorganising the affairs of Great Britain and the Empire generally that has ever occurred in our history. I have always been of opinion that in this country an ordered and generally accepted transformation, political and social, can only come from the Conservative side. But it is mere optimism to hope that it will ever so come. Reaction andprivilege have too many charms for the dominant elass to permit it. At the critical period they not only refuse to make the necessary sacrifices, but hunt around for some specious means of postponing the conflict which they know is sooner or later inevitable And they have, of course, never failed to find men to play the tune of procrastination to the full extent of what is possible.

Mr Arthur Balfour from his very beginnings as Premier I regarded as the Calonne of the English Revolution, and, different as are the circumstances, the similarity of mind and conduct to the career of the brilliant French indifferentist statesman is surely very marked. Clever, cynical, courteous, agreeable, well read, and cultivated, looking upon human affairs as merely an amusing episode in a well-nurtured existence, and regarding poltical business as of no more importance than an interesting game of golf, or a well performed symphony, Mr Balfour, like Calonne is a born procrastinator. His duty, as he saw it, was not to lead but to give the impression of leading, not to originate or reform but to make it clear that he saw the futility of everything that could be proposed before any policy was formulated. In this he succeeded admirably. His intelligence was so far ahead of that of the majority of his party that he could treat them all with contempt without them knowing it, and his mere debating speeches had so much literary charm that men forgot there was nothing whatever in them. Without, probably, any deliberate intention of deferring the consideration of all important questions until he himself was beyond the reach of any question at all, he nevertheless, again like his French prototype, was so pleasant to everybody, and so obviously satisfied with things as they were, that marking time became quite an interesting manœuvre, and elegant phrase-making was taken as high statesmanship. So, education utterly neglected, social business left to drift, political obstructions carefully maintained, class antagonisms disregarded such was Mr. Balfour’s idea of dexterous management. Sufficient for the morrow the evil thereof. And all the comfortable Tories said, “Amen.”

But by his side was a man of very different kidney. I haveonly met Mr. Joseph Chamberlain three times in my life; but, leaving aside personal impressions, I have never been able to understand how the champion of ransom and thoroughgoing social reform and popular education one year was transformed into the equally thoroughgoing reactionist the next; still less how he was able to carry with him not only his own immediate following and his personal friends, but practically the whole city of Birmingham. It is no doubt very important, and the almost certain road to success that a politician should believe intensely in himself, and that quality Mr. Joseph Chamberlain possessed and cultivated to its highest development. I should have thought, however, that he had some of that indescribable personal magnetism which is akle to attach people to an individual even when they consider the course he is pursuing to he mistaken or wrong. My judgment was unsound in his case at any rate. There is no personal magnetism about Mr. Joseph Chamberlain. Having, however, given up any attempt to better the lot of his countrymen either by holding the landlords to ransom in the country, or by constructive measures in the towns, he went off into the wilderness of belated Toryism, and took up with Protection under the name of Tariff Reform, with which he coupled a so-called Imperialism of the Colonies that led him farther to fare worse.

The propaganda of Tariff Reform, as Mr. Chamberlain advocated it, was interesting to me, because I followed him on his tour throughout the country and had very nearly if not quite as good meetings as he had in opposition to his views. I thought at the time his agitation would have proved more successful than it has up to the present moment. I expressed this opinion strongly in Paris when I lectured to the students, with Jaures in the chair. But Mr. Chamberlain did not make the best of his case. Not only did he altogether omit to take account of the heavy taxation levied by the railways, practically in favour of the foreigner; to suggest any means whereby all the advantages supposed to be reaped from Protection could be prevented from going to the landlord and capitalist under the wages system which rules supreme; to point out wherein the competition of Canada or Australia would be less harassing to the English farmer than that of the United States or Argentina; or to explain in any way how India was to come in to his great Imperial scheme; but he also failed to set forth any consecutive policy of Tariff Reform for these islands themselves. The whole thing was nebulous, incoherent, and chaotic. That in fact has been the difficulty with the entire agitation. The most prominent advocates of Protection have never seriously faced the problems they have to deal with.

I went to hear one of Mr. Chamberlain’s orations myself, and I was struck with that fact. Lack of grasp is sometimes more clearly exhibited in the hearing than in the reading of a speech. Obviously Protection cannot be the curse which Free Traders represent it to be, or Germany, France, and the United States, as well as Canada and our other Colonies, could not flourish as they do under it. Quite as obviously a country which deliberately permits its agriculture to be ruined in the interest not of the workers but of the manufacturers is cutting at the roots of national well-being. Moreover, the contention of a great thinker of the seventeenth century, that “our Colonies being ours should be us,” applies still more forcibly today than it did in that comparatively early period of development. But Mr. Chamberlain left such wide gaps in his reasoning, and so completely failed to weld his contentions into a sound and harmonious policy that I was not at all surprised that he was less successful than I myself, who was opposing him as vigorously as I possibly could, imagined he would be. He could not carry his own party with him, nor could he induce the workers to throw aside the sophisms of Bright and Fox and Cobden, or to forget the big-loaf fallacy during the whole course of his agitation. The truth is that Mr. Chamberlain, like other capitalist advocates of Protection, fought with one arm in a sling and one lobe of the brain paralysed. Neither he nor any other Free Trade orator dare handle the social question from the anti-capitalist side. For him there is no fundamental class antagonism, and history was never his strong point. Clear, sharp, incisive in attack, he floundered hopelessly in exposition, and the lessons of two generations of Free Trade and Capitalist industrialism remained untaught, because he and his followers were and are afraid to follow out their own teachings to their logical conclusion.

Social-Democrats did their best to make use of Mr. Chamberlain’s work to push to the front their own theories. I went so far as to sketch out an alternative policy which I claimed would greatly improve the lot of the mass of the people even under capitalism. Free Transport, Co-operative Organisation of Unemployed Labour on the Land and in the Factory, Free Maintenance of Children, Construction of Healthy Dwellings for the People, the slums being swept away – these and other measures palliative of competitive anarchy would, so we contended, do far more to arrest degeneration, develop profitable industry, and build up a wholesome system for the coming generation than all the burden-shifting that ever was advocated. Of course nothing positive came of our counter-agitation.

Though the time was ripe for dealing with the situation even from the landlord and capitalist point of view, and such a policy as I propounded – in particular, free transport of goods and the systematic feeding, clothing, training, education, and general individual uplifting of the children as free and capable citizens of a free and organised nation, – would have removed the carapace of economic repression which was crushing out the life of our country, neither the dominant classes nor the people were prepared to embrace the opportunity. Consequently, in spite of crowded and enthusiastic meetings and a steady growth of Socialist opinion, nothing effective was done. Mr. Chamberlain’s Protection propaganda, of course, remained as useless as his Ransom rhetoric.

Having for very many years taken a deep interest in the affairs of the East, it was natural that I should do my best to understand what was likely to be the outcome of the differences between Russia and Japan. It seemed at first incredible that with all the internal troubles she had to encounter and the question of China’s future staring her in the face, the Russian Government should be drawn into hostilities with the other coming power on the East Pacific Ocean. But just as the greedy persistence and dexterous corruption of the gang of international exploiters in the Transvaal dragged Great Britain into the war in South Africa, so the wholesale robbery and piracy of the Grand Dukes and their international financiers brought about the campaign between Russia and Japan. That the destinies of great nations should still be thus mishandled and their peoples injured by hostilities and over-taxed by costs of war in the interest of a small minority, is one of the wonders of our time. In this case also it is certain that the Czar of Russia was just as much opposed to the war as had been Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. In both cases greedy money-getters and incompetent Ministers brought about the campaign in spite of the opinions and wishes of their nominal chiefs.

At that time I hoped and believed that if Russia were thoroughly beaten the reactionary war cloud, to use Stepniak’s expression, would be lifted off Eastern Europe and that Russia herself might, in consequence of such defeat, be relieved from the terrible despotism which oppressed her. I formed also a much higher opinion of Japan and its government than has since been justified. But in regard to the immediate issue of the war I learned all there was to be learned from men who had lived in Japan for many years, from military officers who had been with the Japanese contingent at work in China, and from naval authorities who had seen practically all there was to see of the Japanese fleet, both in the war with China before Japan had created a really powerful navy and more recently when she had. All were agreed that under the circumstances Japan could not fail to win unless Russia displayed altogether unexpected powers of endurance at the end of a long and unsatisfactory line of communications. Japan was quite ready. Russia was not. Of that I was convinced.

It was in relation to this that I had a strange experience of the abiding disinclination even of highly educated Frenchmen holding important positions to accept truths which they do not want to know. The tale of Colonel Stoffel’s reports with reference to the German army prior to the Fran coGerman War of 1870 was very nearly retold in 1903, happily not with such disastrous results for France. I have good reason to think, that is to say, that France was perfectly well served by her own agents and that her Government was warned by her military and naval attaches in the Far East as to what was likely to occur. But in spite of this the universal opinion in Paris was that Japan would certainly get the worst of it.

So it chanced that when the great war between Russia and Japan began my wife and I went out to dinner with some old friends in the Boulevard Haussmann. It was a charming party, as such domestic parties in my experience in France always are. There were present some very capable men and women; among the former two military officers of distinction. Said my wife to me as we went up in the lift, “Now, mind, you mustn’t say a word about Russia and Japan.” Not a wholly unnecessary caution, as I was full of the subject and this was the 30th April 1903. I was as good as gold. Not a syllable did I breathe on the question during dinner, nor when coffee and cigars occupied our attention. I thought I had escaped. My wife looked quite pleased at my unusual reticence, not to say prudence. Then all of a sudden I was plunged right into the forbidden subject. One of the officers, “after compliments,” as the Indian despatches to native rulers read, asked me point-blank what I thought about the prospects of the war. I said that I really had not studied the matter closely, and that I was not capable of giving a sound opinion. Again I thought I had got out of it handsomely, knowing quite well what view my fellow-guests took of the whole affair. Unluckily for me, a lady present had read an article of mine somewhere, in which I had done my best to set out the facts on both sides, and at the end drew a conclusion. Then I was in for it. I was literally forced to argue the issue out. In spite of all I could do to hold back, they insisted on being given my opinion. And at last I told them what I could not doubt would be the result. Then the whole party was very polite but at bottom very angry: the more angry that they all had a shrewd suspicion I was right. And yet, as they knew very well, I was a vigorous Francophil and, opposed as I might be to Russia, desired nothing which could be harmful to France. When we wished one another good-night and left, our parting was exceedingly cold, and even our host and his family could scarcely disguise their chagrin that I should have told them gently what I held to be the plain truth. That very night the Japanese crossed the Yalu river, and won the first serious engagement of the campaign. It was one succession of victories for Japan and defeats for France’s ally all through.

When in the heat of the campaign Katayama, the Japanese, and Plechanoff, the Russian, shook hands amid tremendous applause at the Socialist Congress of Amsterdam, this dinner party and its concluding incidents recurred to my mind. Sad to say, though Russia did, in consequence of her disasters, take a step forwards towards political emancipation and better social conditions, the improvement was very short-lived. Reaction now again rules supreme, and the Duma exists only on sufferance and with the mere simulacrum of power or authority. Victory for Japan likewise has not benefited her people or raised her to a higher plane of civilisation – far from it.

The interior condition of Japan is much worse today than it was before the war. Sweating of infants of the most hideous character, similar to what went on in this country before the Factory Acts or to that which now obtains in the Southern States of the great American Republic, is the rule. Socialists are arrested, imprisoned, and even executed for exposing these infamies. The annexation of Korea has been carried out with an amount of ruthless cruelty scarcely surpassed by the French in Morocco, by the Germans at Kiaou-Chiaou, by the Belgians in the Congo, or by ourselves towards the aborigines of Australia or the inhabitants of the Soudan. Some of us hoped that Japan having leaped from Feudalism into Capitalism within a period of forty years would learn by the experience of Western Europe, and would avert from her people the horrors of the wage-earning form of human slavery. It has not been so. The Japanese Government so far has only adopted from Europe the most improved methods of slaughter on the field and of exploitation in the factory; while the contrast between the commercial methods of our Eastern ally and those of the high-toned merchants and traders of China is the talk of the world. Of the two countries, in fact, Russia the defeated is better off than Japan the victorious.

Last updated on 1.11.2007