After the decay of the Chartist Movement in 1848 a blight fell upon the whole working class of Great Britain. They lost their vigorous revolutionary impulse entirely. Prayer meetings and Mechanics’ Institutes gave expression to their highest aspirations. They accepted penal servitude for life as the portion of them and theirs for ever; limited by philanthropic enactments, it is true, as the slaves of old time were protected by law from the more outrageous brutality of their masters under Hadrian and the Antoninus. Bemused and benighted by the fallacies of profiteering economics, and the devil-take-the-hindmost individualism of the competitive capitalism which dominated their fortunes, the wealth producers of our island actually indoctrinated themselves with the belief that their duty in life was to strive for the enrichment of their employers, since in this way alone could they benefit themselves and their fellows; unless, indeed, by extraordinary self-denial and miraculous thrift, they might rise out of the ruck of wage-earners and become employers of their less parsimonious and self-denying co-workers in their turn. Nothing could be more depressing. It was an Egyptian darkness of the intelligence which could be felt. I have spoken and written of that deplorable generation as the period of apathy. It was worse, it was a period of servility and of systematic corruption of the working-class mind through the poisoning of the sources of information by the entire Press. I first saw it all very close when I, a Londoner by birth, was reading as a lad with the vicar of St Thomas’, Stockport, and went about the neighbourhood playing cricket in the eleven of Manchester (Old Trafford) Club. I did not, of course, fully appreciate the causes or the effects of the horrors around me. But Stockport itself was at that time a frightful den, and other cities of Lancashire were like unto it. As I grew up, therefore, all these dreadful places, in which the fortunes of the cotton lords were piled up out of the misery of the ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-tended men, women and children, came back upon me and I recognised as I visited the same towns again in later years that large portions of the people are little better off to-day than they were then. How human beings could continue to exist in such surroundings, without rising in open revolt against those who kept them there, was a marvel.
Not until long afterwards did I apprehend that these conditions themselves tend to maintain the masses in subjection, by sheer ignorance and physical depression, until the whole social system is tottering to its fall. This was apparent in the political field when Ernest Jones stood at this same time (1858) for Manchester, the leading city of the whole development, and was well beaten by the two plutocrats, Milner Gibson and John Bright. So hopeless was the entire outlook for the wage-earners that more than forty years later one of the ablest organisers the workers of England ever had explained to me that, though he saw as clearly as I did the monstrous wrongs inflicted by capitalism upon the people, he could not have carried his own cotton operatives with him had he openly proclaimed the opinions which he held. Such was the statement made to me by the late James Maudslay at the great International Trades Union and Socialist Congress held in the Queen’s Hall, London, in 1896. Yet the dry bones of individualism and “self-help” had then been stirred for sixteen years.
Notwithstanding also the ground which the Trade Unions were then gaining, the members whom they returned to Parliament so little understood the inevitable antagonism between the wage-earners they represented and the landlords and employers who constituted the House of Commons, that they actually formed a section of the Capitalist-Liberal party, and could always be relied upon to vote with that party, save and except when questions of Irish peasants, not English factory hands, were concerned. Worse than this, the workers as a whole preferred to be represented by rich men – by the very capitalists, that is to say, who had grown up in their own neighbourhood and had made great wealth out of the labour of the voters who returned these plutocrats to Parliament. The mere fact of being a millionaire was a high recommendation to an industrial constituency. He could afford to find plenty of funds for all sorts of election expenses and to subscribe largely to the local charities. A working man who stood stoutly for the real interests of the workers, and appealed to them as a class to return him to champion their rights, independently of both the capitalist factions, had no chance at all in those days. Not even a candidate pledged to the eight-hour day, or to the abolition of half-time for young children in the factories could get a hearing.
Thus all the fine, self-sacrificing work of the Chartists had but ploughed up barren soil, their teaching had fallen by the wayside. Only here and there was to be found an enthusiast who waited patiently for the revival of the old spirit, and lived, and in too many cases, died, without being able to detect even the slightest prospect of a real change. During the entire half-century, from 1848 to 1900, slums were spreading in all the great cities, long periods of unemployment for huge numbers of the people frequently recurred, education for the masses was still deplorably bad, half-time child labour remained the rule in Lancashire, emigration was fervently preached as a remedy for “over-population,” land was going steadily out of cultivation, while agricultural labourers were miserably underpaid, and existence, not to say decent maintenance, for the deserving poor remained as uncertain as ever. It was, in fact, in the very midst of these halcyon days for the rich employers and their hangers-on that a philanthropic shipowner proved, by elaborate statistics, that one-third of the working population received weekly wages insufficient, even in those days of cheap food and cheap clothing and cheap fuel all round, to keep them above the semi-starvation level.
All this is indisputable, and has been often commented upon. If the extreme anarchists had been right when they declared that the intolerable contrast between excessive wealth and grinding poverty must bring about upheaval and social revolution, then Great Britain, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, would have been in one continuous whirlpool of insurrection. Nothing of the kind. The utmost perturbation manifested was in the shape of a succession of agitations on behalf of the unemployed, which led to little improvement in their condition, and were forgotten by the out-of-work men themselves, as soon as bettering trade reabsorbed them into the ranks of ill-paid wagedom. During the whole of this period of apathy, however, not only had the capitalists command over all the inventions and discoveries previously made and adapted to the increased production of social wealth, but the astounding expansion of man’s power over nature, which began in the eighteenth century, progressed with a rapidity quite unprecedented in the history of the human race.
There was a greater transformation in all important departments of human knowledge and human appliances for wealth production and distribution than had been effected in thousands of years before. It requires almost as vigorous an effort of the imagination to live back into the first half of the eighteenth century in Great Britain and enter into the forms of life which then prevailed, even among the most luxurious class, compared with the habits, customs and manners of the same class to-day, as to picture the actual existence of a Japanese feudal Daimio of old time, or the general life of the Egyptian nobles who gathered round a Pharaoh. To appreciate the difference we have to strip off, not only the vast motive powers of steam and electricity and oil used for accelerating machinery, as well as the stupendous improvements of every sort in machinery itself, but most of the small conveniences of everyday domestic life and the details of daily use, like the telegraph, telephone, daily post, etc. Transport and communication have been entirely revolutionised. Even the wage-earners themselves are able to transfer their labour from one country to another for seasonal work, like the Italians, for example, voyaging thousands of miles to North and South America and returning home at short intervals. The world market and the world at large have replaced, in mercantile calculations, all the old local considerations of traffic which dominated little more than a century ago. The globe which, not much earlier than the beginning of the nineteenth century, would have had the bigness in our mental vision of Jonah’s gourd, say, now assumes the size of a tangerine orange.
Throughout the whole of the commencement of these amazing changes Great Britain led the entire development. All the immense improvements went into the hands of her capitalists – without any reference to the wage-earners working below. Their diseases even – engendered by town life, the factory system, and the physical and mental deterioration entailed – passed almost wholly disregarded by the nation at large, so completely had the idea that the health and strength of the people is the greatest national asset faded out of the minds of the class which controlled the national policy solely for its own pecuniary advantage. Cato’s opinion about the uselessness of sick and worn-out slaves became the general basis of the ethic of capitalist wagedom.
Yet there was no revolt whatever of the wage-earners themselves against this sinister morality. Such suggestions as were put forward in the interests of common humanity came, not from the working class, but from members of the bourgeoisie themselves. Even the Trade Unions, though growing in numbers, influence and political power, paid little or no attention to the well-being of the lower grades of labour, which were unorganised, and considered higher wages for themselves the only matter worthy of serious attention. Thus, in the leading capitalist country, there was no conscious revolutionary movement nor any general idea – such as prevailed among the Chartists – of taking possession of the land, the means of communication, the factories and the shipping of the nation for the advantage of the whole people, even among skilled and organised artisans, still less, therefore, among unskilled and casual labourers, for more than fifty years. The conception of an economic and social class war had disappeared from the sphere of workshop discussion as well as from the area of “practical politics.” So lately as 1888 a foreign workman, long resident in England, who persisted in moving for an eight-hour law at successive Trade Union Congresses, was regarded by his English fellow-toilers as a well-meaning but wholly unpractical fanatic. Years passed, and unceasing propaganda had been carried on throughout Great Britain, before any such reduction became in reality a question of the day.
Needless to say, therefore, that the desperate struggle of the Commune of Paris, already dealt with, failed to rouse any active sympathy on the English side of the Channel. A small knot of old Chartists, combined with a very few Trade Unionists who had been influenced by the teachings of International Socialists, issued a Manifesto, and called a meeting in Hyde Park, in support of the Parisian workers against M. Thiers and the reactionary army of the bourgeoisie. But this effort to rouse British workers fell flat. No aid was forthcoming from British Trade Unionists either before or after the fall of the Commune. It was even left to the band of highly educated Positivists, belonging to the well-to-do class, who assuredly had no sympathy with Socialism as an economic or social policy, to obtain some sort of consideration and employment for the refugees who reached London after the terrible butcheries at Satory. Possessed of no ideal or high aspiration for the future of their class themselves; having, as already said, no end in life but to improve somewhat the wage-slave system, which condemned them to perpetual labour for the benefit of others, the toilers of Great Britain could not in the least comprehend, far less admire or sympathise with, such a hopeless attempt against hopeless odds to gain an impossible victory for the sake of “human solidarity.” It was not, however, the certainty of failure, as matters then stood, and the foolishness of risking many thousands of human lives on a ruinous venture, that left them careless of the result and indifferent, or nearly so, to the fate of the defeated, but sheer incapacity, as a class, to enter into the motives of the men and women who deliberately sacrificed themselves in such a struggle. Here is another most convincing proof of the truth that the stage of economic development by no means invariably reflects itself in the thoughts and actions of human beings engaged in the forms of production then dominant. England and London were then economically far in advance of France and Paris. England herself, at a previous period, when her industrial forms had not attained anything approaching to the level of those of 1871, showed through her working class, a clearer appreciation of the real meaning and tendency of capitalist production for profit and wagedom than France; yet the French workers were at this time ahead of their English brethren in appreciating the desperate social conditions inevitable for the toilers of all nations so long as capitalism should endure. These contrasts are inexplicable, unless we take account of other than purely material influences in their crude sense. Nor does this apply to England and France alone. Germany, which, up to the early eighties of the last century, was certainly behind England in economic growth, had a far more active and better organised working-class movement in spite of this. So had Belgium, Denmark and Finland, which likewise were less economically advanced.
Thus we have the fact that the workers of Great Britain, ho led Europe in organised proletarian resistance to capitalism during the first half of the nineteenth century, actually fell behind in the latter half, as capitalism gained strength, and were passed, in the display of working-class vigour and intelligence, by populations at that time on a lower economic level. To argue that this was due to inferior education is only to enhance the value of that psychological factor on the one side; while, on the other, none can doubt that the English wage-earners, who were such stalwart opponents of capitalism and all its works in the Chartist days, had still less education to boast of than their successors, from 1848 onwards. Obviously, such examples show the danger of laying down any hard and fast line as to the direct influence of forms of production upon revolutionary movements. Other elements must be taken into account. This has already been seen over a wide area; here it manifests itself within a much narrower sphere. That, however, taking civilisation as a whole, the expansion of capitalism is increasingly accompanied by the revolt of the wage-earners, and the development of Socialism, even a superficial survey is sufficient to disclose.
From the end of the great twenty years’ war against Napoleon in 1815, therefore, no Socialism in any shape took root in Great Britain except for the short time when the Chartists were agitating. And English Trade Unionists, after 1848, were content to act in economic and social matters as if the wage-earning system doomed them to permanent subjection. They divorced their activities entirely from politics. English Trade Unionists, as Trade Unionists, had, therefore, no political influence, and were regarded by foreign Socialists as little better than the “yellow” unions of the Continent, set on foot by Catholics and other reactionary elements. England, in fact, was the principal conservative element; and there seemed little prospect, even forty years ago, that the Chartist view of the inevitable class antagonism and class war between the wage-earners and the capitalist employers, with its only possible solution in the nationalisation and socialisation of all the great means of producing and distributing wealth, would again make way in Great Britain. Socialism had come to be regarded as a foreign importation solely, and Communism, which, of course, connotes precisely the same thing, was considered quite unfit for staid and sober English workers. This, in spite of the fact that in 1864 the International Working Men’s Association was founded in London mainly by and with the enthusiastic support of English Trade Unionists, and an English Positivist, Professor E.S. Beesley, took the chair at its first public meeting. The association, after a struggle with Mazzini and his friends, fell under the influence of Marx and Engels, then both resident in London, whose remarkable Communist Manifesto of 1847 has already been referred to.
Both these men, admirable as they were in their exposition and analysis of economic history and sociological tendencies, were not only very bad judges of character, but they were – especially Engels – exceedingly dictatorial and much addicted to intrigue. It is difficult to imagine people less qualified to inspire ordinary English workers with their ideas. As a consequence, both before and after the publication of the first volumes of Marx’s colossal work, Das Kapital, in 1867, not translated into English as a whole until many years later, this association, generally called the “First International,” made very little way in Great Britain. English influence on the International, in fact, became a negligible quantity. The Trade Unionists gradually withdrew. Admiring Marx and his great abilities, they were unable to accept his theories, which were the doctrines of the Chartists put in a logical form, and provided with a scientific basis, as a trustworthy guide in practical life. The events of 1871 confirmed them in this opinion.
Not until 1880-1881 was an organised effort begun to revive among the people of Great Britain their early opposition to the tyranny of capital. This movement was cast in a shape suited to the new period and designed to connect a genuine English Socialist party, based upon scientific economics and sociology, with English political traditions. The pioneers of this party, which held its first conference on 8th June 1881, were the members of the Democratic – soon afterwards known as the Social-Democratic – Federation. It was an uphill task. Beginning at the end of 1880, with the announcement of a very advanced political programme, advantage was taken of the form thus adopted to spread the ideas of Socialism among the Radical clubs of London. But this did not last long. A book distributed at the Conference showed clearly what was the real object n view, and thereupon most of the Radicals and a few national-- rs of rent were alarmed and left. [???] Yet, from this time may be dated the commencement of the agitation for the collectivisation and communisation of property in Great Britain, an agitation which the establishment of Justice in January 1884 greatly helped. That journal has been published weekly now for over thirty-six years without a single break. It has never ceased to champion the cause of Social Democracy, and no contributor has ever received payment for his contributions – a record quite unparalleled in the annals of journalism in any country.
The Fabian Society, the Socialist League and, eleven years later, the Independent Labour Party followed in the wake of the Social-Democratic Federation. But the first of these organisations refused to admit that a class war exists between wage-earners and the bourgeoisie, and devoted itself chiefly to permeating the middle class with collectivist notions; the second eschewed political action altogether; and the third, formed in order to constitute a moderate half-way house for the entertainment of weak brethren, has developed into an organisation which, by its strong anti-nationalism, has lately done much to retard the spread of Socialism of any shade among the mass of Englishmen and Englishwomen.
It is worth notice, as showing the difficulties which had to be overcome in the propaganda of clear-cut Social Democracy, that not only were the pioneers and their opinions by no means welcome, at first, even among the mass of advanced working men, but, though they were endeavouring to spread Marxian economics and sociology, they were bitterly denounced, on the continent of Europe and in America, by the strict advocates of Marxist theories themselves, including Marx and his friends.
The latter forgot, in their zeal for their own special views that even the most accurate historic and economic surveys of general development must be adapted to the social conditions and traditions of various nations, as well as to the stage of economic growth which each nation has attained. This is perhaps more true of England than any other country, seeing that the English have had a century-long development of their own, unlike that in Continental nations; that religious prejudices have much greater influence in England than elsewhere; that the people are divorced from the soil, constituting a genuine proletariat; that they are essentially political in their methods, to an extent which foreigners are rarely able to understand or appreciate. They are also, as already observed, singularly deficient in idealism, and frequently destitute of foresight where their own dearest interests are concerned. Add to all this that their education is exceptionally deficient, and that the numbers and influence of the purely parasitical classes and their hangers-on are greater in England than anywhere else in the world, and it is easy to understand that, however noble and inspiring a material creed of social human development may be, appeals to reason are less effective in Great Britain than among any other highly civilised people of the West.
Last updated on 7.7.2006