H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XXIII
Beginning Afresh

I ADMIT that when I had heard and read those far too kind and appreciative letters recorded in the last chapter, I thought it was about time I should take a rest, after the long, arduous and harassing period of agitation and controversy, whose events I have partly summarised in this volume. Is there not some impatient doctor, with greedy undertakers in permanent attendance, who proposed not long ago that all mankind should be painlessly wiped out at the age of fifty, as having then reached the years when physical and mental decay must inevitably set in? Yet here are Lord Halsbury, Lord Wemyss and Lord Strathcona displaying marvellous activity even in the lethal Chamber of the House of Lords. Nay, here is an octogenarian, himself a doctor, bent on personal refutation of his brother medico, by performing the duties of Lord Mayor of London, with much satisfaction to himself and others, and the famous Positivists, Edward Beesly and Frederic Harrison, are writing as well as they ever did, having attained to the same epoch of labour and sorrow, but concealing their woe under an aspect of exceeding good spirits. Brain-using humanity, I judged, is now addicted to longevity, the ansesthetical physician to the contrary notwithstanding. I was told by genial flatterers that I was really quite young myself. I certainly felt so. My wife joined in this pleasing conspiracy for my rejuvenation. When, therefore, at their first preliminary Conference, the delegates of the British Socialist Party unanimously insisted that I should take the Chairmanship, in spite of my repeated refusals, I agreed to do so. It was no easy job I entered upon.

I should myself have much preferred to fight on to a finish under the banner of the old Social-Democratic Federation, with its glorious record of more than thirty years of unceasing propaganda and organisation. But the delegates at the Conference at Coventry decided the time had come for a strenuous endeavour to widen our boundaries, and the attempt was successfully made. Successfully so far. But the miserable education of our working classes, their deplorable lack of organisation and discipline in any high sense – I can but reassert my conviction as to this again and again, so strongly do I feel it to be sound – make the constitution of a Socialist Party in Great Britain an extremely difficult task, as compared with what may be achieved by a similar amount of effort in any foreign country. For on the top of all this, upon which I have before enlarged, and the national addiction to compromise, to which I have also referred, there is that curious admixture of semisecular religion with politics which is to be found nowhere else in the world; turning every Nonconformist chapel and schoolroom throughout whole districts into capitalist-Liberal agencies and centres for the propagation of more anti-Socialism than the anti-Socialist League would deliver itself of, unaided, in a hundred years. Two of our ablest and most active foreign comrades, Camille Huysmans and Doche [1], who have lately been in England, and who, before their visit, thought that the conditions in this island were much the same as in other countries, who vainly imagined, also, that the Labour Party was at bottom a Socialist organisation, have been rudely undeceived as the result of their close personal investigation all round. I hope sincerely they will give their impartial judgment to the world as forcibly as they have recently expressed it to me.

One thing impressed them mightily, though by no means favourably – “General” Booth’s funeral. They never would have believed, they said, unless they had seen it with their own eyes, that, quite apart from his own immediate following, such an astounding tribute of respect would have been paid by the people at large to a man who, in their opinion (and mine), was no more than a dexterous old charlatan, who had used religion to beguile people to their economic hurt. I asked my friends whether they did not think this sort of quasi-religionism, used to chloroform the masses, and to force competition to its utmost limit in the name of Christianity and philanthropy, was not even more difficult to cope with, in some ways, than the tremendous organisation of the Catholic Church which they had to encounter? They seemed to think it might be.

Another thing struck them, as it does all foreigners who come here and look about them – the frightful extent of the slum area in all our great centres of population, and the woeful look of the people who inhabit these aggregations of horror. Nothing at all approaching to it, in proportion, is to be seen, they aver, in their own country, or anywhere in Europe. That also is my own opinion. And in this respect of widespread misery and marked physical deterioration, I can but say once more, things are worse, not better, than they were when I was a lad. Sanitation may have improved, but the general physical standard of the population has gone down. This was strongly impressed also upon some Canadian friends of mine, serving in the Canadian militia themselves, when they inspected our “Territorials” in camp. They compared their physique and general appearance naturally enough with those of the men in the Colonial force of which they were members. They spoke as if shocked at what they had seen.

Now, it is quite obvious that this national problem of the decay of our national life – for it is nothing less – cannot be dealt with by charity, individual effort, or private benevolence. All that has been tried and found wanting in every direction. Nor can what is euphemistically called “State Socialism,” which means only the enthronement of a capitalist bureaucracy, with its vast possibilities, it may be said certainties, of corruption, effect a complete resuscitation of vitality and strength. Even in Germany, where bureaucratic interference is carried almost to the full extent that is possible, and some of the attempts to arrest degeneracy are well-meant and well-applied, where also the population has only just begun to suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism and the great industry in the towns – even in Germany the inevitable deterioration which follows upon the excessive strain of competitive industry in great cities, upon bad housing, bad food, and insufficient leisure, is beginning to manifest itself, and not all the militarist methods of drill and the like will suffice to prevent this decay from spreading farther under the conditions of today.

Those who imagine, also, that Trade Unionism, which even now means only the organisation of a small minority of the working population, can effectively handle these questions, do not take account of what is going on. Trade Unionism, the marshalling of what is still in effect no more than an “aristocracy of labour,” is, in my opinion, virtually played out as a powerful economic and social agency, if indeed it has ever been played in.

The Trade Union Congress of this very year, 1912, has been a most depressing affair. There was a sort of mechanical jubilation alike at the access of numbers to the different Unions, and at the larger forces represented as a whole compared with last year. But, as I pointed out when I went down and spoke to a great meeting at Newport, where the Congress was held, there were barely as many Trade Unionists represented, in proportion to the increase of the population, as there were at the first Congress I ever attended in 1872, forty years back. Still three-fourths or four-fifths of the wage-earners remain wholly unorganised outside. That is Trade Union progress! So dull and ineffective also have their discussions become that I did not myself think it worth my while to remain twelve hours in the town in order to go and listen to them.

Though Thorne, himself an old Social-Democrat, delivered a very sound opening address as Chairman of the Congress, the general tone of the debates and resolutions was actually reactionary. It seemed to me quite inconceivable, for instance, that a body of working delegates should decide, after having adopted the principle of secular education in public schools year after year, to drop that demand altogether. This fatuous decision will, I have little doubt, be reversed in the near future; but what is to be thought of a rising class that thus wobbles about in regard to the duties of the State, which they claim they should control and transform into a democratic Commonwealth? What feeling can any man of sense have for such imbecile floundering but contempt? We have indeed still to “educate our masters” in a sense which Mr. “Bob” Lowe scarcely understood in 1866.

In other directions the tone of the Congress was equally unsatisfactory. Those of the delegates present whom I met seemed to be thoroughly ashamed of the whole miserable business. I do not wonder at it. No Socialist, conscious of the great historic destiny which the workers of this country are called upon to fulfil, could feel otherwise than discouraged at the low plane of intrigue, petty squabbling, and lack of high ideal on which the Congress, as a whole, ranged itself. In any other country in the world, outside China, where Trade Unionists were gathered together, Socialism pure and undefiled would be in the midst of them and would preside over their deliberations. Here they are all so “practical” that, merely as Trade Unionists, they mark time with much display of movement, and the Leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons comes down to the Congress specially to apologise for the incapacity of the group to do anything really beneficial for the people in Parliament! Imagine Bebel or Jaurès on a similar errand! These able men are ready to accept any advantage from the faction in power; but they remain absolutely independent Socialists, not mere intriguing political dodgers, all the time.

But if the capitalist House of Commons is unable to face the collapse of the competitive system, to recognise that wagedom, like slavedom and serfdom, is coming to an end, or to make the sacrifices necessary to prevent the existing class war from drifting into actual civil war – and there is civil war even today, when police and military are used to baton and shoot down revolting wage-earners into subjection, although all the killed and wounded are on one side; if capitalist bureaucracy only intensifies, as it does, the class hatred, and makes the burdens of the people more grievous to be borne; if Trade Unionism likewise is in manifest decay in every direction, a breakdown hastened on by the Labour Exchanges, the Insurance Act, and other measures; if, further, the workers of Great Britain will persist in putting the whole of the armed forces of the country at the sole disposal of the dominant class – then the outlook here, but for the growth of revolutionary Socialism, would be bad indeed. Social-Democrats have quite clearly defined their position. I, for one, have never ceased to proclaim from one end of the country to the other that in the great class war of our time, the last class war of human history, there are three weapons, and three only, at the disposal of the wage-earners:

  1. The use of politics under a thoroughly democratised system of voting by a class-conscious organised people, in order peacefully to obtain final ownership and control of all the great means of creating and distributing social wealth for the benefit of the whole community on co-operative lines.
  2. A thoroughly trained citizen army, under the control of the people, no soldier being at any time deprived of his full rights as a citizen. This citizen army, so far as home affairs are concerned, to be of such a character as to render it impossible for the minority at present holding mastery to withstand by force the will of the majority as declared in Parliament.
  3. A General Strike, carefully prepared, with adequate storage of food beforehand, which should be so thoroughly carried out as to compel the surrender of the classes in possession to the overwhelming majority of the nation.

But these, of course, are only means by which to achieve a definite end – that end being to render the acquisition and distribution of everything that goes to make life useful and enjoyable accessible to all, socially and communally, in return for light, pleasurable, and effective labour, contributed by every healthy adult. The methods are to be preferred in the order in which they are placed.

It is childish to denounce politics merely because the first attempts to make Parliamentary representation directly effective have not been immediately successful. Socialists are endeavouring not to “make” a revolution – no man and no body of men can do that – but to give as peaceful an outlet as possible to the revolution already forcing its way through the incrustations deposited by the previous social periods. The final climax to the struggle may be cataclysmal or gradual as in other natural processes. Just in proportion as the development is understood by a greater or a smaller number of the population is the prospect of resistance or acceptance the more probable. Just in so far as the object in view is comprehended and its method of application becomes a matter of common knowledge, is the likelihood reduced of a period of anarchy followed by an interval of dictatorship before the desired goal is attained.

Meanwhile, in this country at any rate, all sorts of unsound and dishonest proposals will be forced to the front by the plutocrats and their trustified press, with the hope of postponing the decisive struggle for another generation at least. One example of this we have before us already. A crew of wealthy Radical resurrectionists have disinterred Henry George’s Single Tax nostrum, which I confess I thought had been buried for good and all thirty years ago. But no, the “capitalists’ last ditch,” as Marx called it, has not been filled up finally with the remains of this bootless burden-shifting panacea for all economic ills. Baron de Forest, Joseph Fels, Josiah Wedgwood, Hemmerde, Outhwaite and Co. are hard at the galvanisation of their exhumed mummy, and George the Second is waiting close by to see whether their charlatanry can imitate vitality to a sufficient extent to capture the votes of the people and justify his appearance on the stage as the true mantle-bearer of the well-meaning but ignorant prophet of the San Francisco Sand Lots.

Needless to say that, as wages are in nowise regulated by the amount of rent, if the landlords were taxed on their holdings to the extent of twenty shillings in the pound, and the money thence obtained were devoted to the reduction of National taxation or the defraying of rates, the only people who would benefit by this confiscation would not be the wage-earners but the capitalists themselves, who would be relieved of their burdens to that precise amount. This I established conclusively in my verbal and written debates with Henry George himself more than a quarter of a century ago. And that no change in the situation has or can have occurred since is evidenced, surely, by the fact that plutocrats are ready to devote large sums of money to the propaganda of the demand for taxation of unearned increment of land value. As well tax unearned profit and unearned interest. All these appropriations from the unpaid labour of workers stand on the same basis.

But this single-tax nonsense is injurious because it diverts public attention from the real difficulties of the land question. Justus Liebig, speaking of agriculture from the farming and chemical point of view, said it was an encyclopaedic business. So, properly regarded, it is. But the whole land problem from the sociological point of view is also an encyclopaedic business. Not least so in this country. Land, strange as it may seem, will be the last of the great forms of production to be really socialised. Transport and machinery and manure must all be socialised before the land can become collective property in any beneficial sense.

“Back to the land,” therefore, may be a fine political cry, but it will give forth precious little economic wool. In fact, as I told my audience at Newport the other day, “Back to the Land. Back to the Land – the Land of your Fathers! – back to the Land indeed. If you go on as you are going, you will be back to the land long years before you own a foot of it.” They then understood that, as Americans say, this was “their funeral.” Other forms of taxation may be more just or more advantageous than this Single Tax proposal; but no amount of burden-shifting or improved and dexterous fiscal arrangements can help to solve any great social problem under the conditions of today.

So long, therefore, as we allow ourselves to be bemused by the formulas of money and exchange the real phenomena of the production of wealth for use elude our minds, and we are still tramping round in the vicious circle of profit for all. When we have grasped firmly the conception of the creation of wealth without profit for the general advantage of all members of the community, we begin to be able to understand what the next steps in the progress of humanity upwards must be. And Socialism alone can teach us how best to take those steps.


1. Camille Huysmans is a Deputy in the Belgian National Assembly, as well as permanent Secretary of the International Socialist Bureau. Doche is a member of the Brussels Municipal Council.

Last updated on 1.11.2007