H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 30
Towards a Co-operative Commonwealth

What are the principles which, expounded under these conditions in this island for just upon forty, years, are at last making way – the principles which form the foundation of a peaceful social revolution? It is most necessary that at this juncture, and probably for a few years to come, these principles, economic and social, should be clearly set forth; since it is certain that attempts to realise them in practice will be met by reactionary resistance, or by positive treachery and violence on the part of the possessing classes. Also, the workers will make endeavours to attain their end by virtually anarchistic methods; for they realise that their position under existing conditions must be permanently precarious, no matter how far they may succeed in raising their wages. In fact we can see both these tendencies at work at the present time. On the one hand, the possessing classes are now refusing to accept the very idea of ownership and management by the State, because their own bureaucratic control of railways, factories, mines, shipping, has been so wasteful and disastrous during the war; on the other hand, the workers are daily demanding that genuine collective agency on behalf of the community should be begun at once, and are declaring with obvious justice that they, as a class, are wholly devoid of responsibility for the blunders of their employers and their nominees. Here, then, are the principles and proposals which have been advocated by Social Democrats in this country since 1880 as a definite social policy. All the collectivists, now active in national and local affairs, owe what knowledge of political economy and social progress they possess to the pioneers of those early days.

Through the long growth of society down the ages there have always been, since the establishment of private property, one or more possessing classes, who own everything and who constitute themselves the dominating minority of the society in each period. Below them are the dominated majority who own little or nothing.

The struggles between sections of the master classes, and the revolts of the disinherited class against their oppressors constitute the record of the progress of civilised mankind.

Slavery, direct chattel slavery, lasted among the more advanced peoples for tens of thousands of years. Here the worker, as well as all he produced by his labour, belonged to the man who owned both the worker, his family, the land and the tools in country and town.

Feudalism, with its attendant serfdom and villeinage, endured in Western Europe for less than a thousand years. Here in most cases it may be said that the feudal chief owned the worker and his family, but not always the land, or even the tools. “We are the lord’s, but the land is ours,” was a common saying of the workers on the soil.

Under capitalism, with its wage slavery, the worker and his family are nominally free; but, as we have seen, the land, the tools and all the product of his labour belong to the employing class. The workers are at liberty to change their individual masters, if they can, that is all.

There is a continuous class war between wage slaves and the capitalist class, with its parasites.

So long as wages are paid by one class to another class, so long will men and women remain slaves to the employing class.

Wage slaves have ceased to be at the mercy of individual employers, but they cannot emancipate themselves from slavery to the employing class, until they themselves cease to compete with one another for wages.

“Free and Independent Workers” sell their labour power, which is the only commodity they possess, to the capitalists who own or control all the means of producing wealth, including the tools, raw material, land and money.

Under the great machine methods of production the workers are controlled by their tools, instead of being in control of them.

Under the capitalist system of production for exchange the producers themselves have no control over their own products.

Commodities, social goods, are produced, not directly for social purposes, but indirectly, in order to create a profit for the capitalists.

If capitalists are unable for any reason to produce goods profitably, the wage-earners cease to be employed, though there may be a vast quantity of useful goods glutting the warehouses on the one hand, and millions of people who are anxious to have them on the other.

Rent, profit and interest are all provided by the workers.

They are, all three, the component parts of the labour value embodied in saleable commodities by the labour power of the workers, over and above the actual wages paid to the toiler, and the cost of raw materials, incidental materials, etc., needed by the capitalist for the conduct of his business.

The wages paid by the employers to their hands represent the customary standard of life of the special grade of skilled or unskilled workers employed.

These wages are, on the average, returned in saleable values to the capitalist in a portion of the working day, or week, for which the worker has sold his labour power to the capitalist.

The goods produced during the rest of the time the wage-earner works for the capitalist are the result of this extra and unpaid labour, furnished by the toiler to the capitalist. It is the modern industrial expression of the corvée, enforced, not by the whip, but by pecuniary necessity and individual hunger. This is the surplus value, out of which all the classes who do not directly produce are paid their share: the majority as parasites, the minority as professional persons.

Production for profit and exchange by wage labour assumes the existence, from historic causes, of large numbers of people who are divorced from the land and possess no property of their own. The only way to solve the growing antagonism between the two great classes of modern society is, by substituting co­operation for competition, in all branches of production and distribution. This involves a social revolution, peaceful or forcible.

Competition proved itself to be anarchical in its essence by the series of financial crises which occurred in the nineteenth century; while at the same time large trade combinations were growing up in every branch of commerce and finance.

When companies obtained command of the railways as com­petitive enterprises, they soon learned that competition was a dangerous form of waste. They established non-competitive rates of transport, and this principle has been followed in an increasing ratio in every branch of business.

Competition has, while endeavouring to reduce false expenses by combination, steadily advanced towards the period when it will find its logical term in monopoly. Capitalism is thus digging its own grave, and preparing the way for the expropriation of its entire system by the community. Money disguises the whole process of the robbery of labour, as well as the truth about the creation of surplus value at home, and the legal conveyance of booty (tributes, payments without commercial return, etc.) from abroad.

Gold, used for many many centuries as a means of facilitating exchange between societies on a much less advanced social level than our own, fulfils now, in money, paper and credit, functions which obscure the economic and social facts underlying financial transactions; and, in some cases, gold acts as a hindrance to continuous production. Thus the necessity which exists for the capitalist to convert his commodities into money, before he can carry on his fresh operations, not infrequently prevents him from proceeding with his business at all, or only on a very restricted scale.

Wage-earners are thus thrown out of employment, not because they are clamouring for impossible wages, still less because they are unwilling to work, but because the employing class itself cannot produce at a loss, and therefore shuts down its factories or only runs them on short time. Wages paid in money seem to workers to come to them from above, instead of being only the value of a portion of the goods they themselves produce, paid to them in the form of money. They owe this blunder to their own condition of servitude.

Workers have advanced their labour power to the capitalist before they are paid their wages for its use. Capitalists, as a class, run no risks whatever; the unfortunate in the competitive struggle for gain are simply wiped out by their competitors, who benefit by their downfall. Shareholders in capitalist companies rarely or never render any service to the company, or the community, as shareholders. In the vast majority of cases they have never visited the enterprises from which they draw their dividends.

In many directions existing capitalism in its developed shape holds back the adoption of great improvements and inventions, since these tend to displace, and render valueless, capital on a large scale already invested in the undertakings which should be improved. The power of man over nature is so great in every branch of human industry, including agriculture, that if all the mechanical appliances, chemical substances, motive forces and general knowledge at the disposal of mankind in the civilisation of to-day were applied co-operatively to the supply of useful goods and social luxuries, with ample margin for collective exchange, “wealth might easily be made as plentiful as water” – in Robert Owen’s admirably true phrase.

Light, enjoyable labour by all members of the community would thus produce plenty for all, and wages and prices would disappear.

The market for commodities being now as wide as the world, the whole population of the globe is drawn into the whirl of capitalist production for profit.

Hence some understanding between the wage-earners of various countries, even at widely different stages of social evolution, is most desirable.

In every case, however, the social problems in separate nations must be solved in accordance with the stage of development which each country has reached, and the historic traditions which it has inherited.

It is impossible to force higher economic forms upon a nation in a lower stage of development.

Thorough education and organisation of the wage-slave class to be emancipated is essential, before a social transformation can be achieved from private to collective production, and then to communal ownership and control, even when the economic forms are fully ready for such transformation.

Certain assumptions are essential to a peaceful and successful social revolution:

In any reorganisation of society upon the lines of co-operation, constituted by or in the interest of the producing class for the advantage of the community, it is imperative to begin with the great social powers which have already reached the form of companies, whether for production or distribution. Great anonymous agencies of this kind are at once ready for socialisation. They can be as easily and better worked co-operatively, with experts employed by the whole people, having common interests in their perfect functioning, than by the shareholders or by the capitalist State bureaucracy, whose corruption and inefficiency are notorious.

Thus, the beginning of the solution of class antagonism, and the adaptation of capitalism and wage slavery to Socialist or Communist production and distribution would be with the railways, which in Great Britain are run entirely against the interest of the people, and constitute a great scheme of protection in favour of the foreigner. These ought never to have been allowed to go into private hands at all, any more than high-roads, bridges, water supply or any other public service. Next, with the mines, which provide the only great and permanent source of power supply in the country; thirdly, with the great shipping industry; fourthly, with factories that have nearly attained the level of national and international trusts; fifthly, with the most important agencies of distribution, such as the great stores which have grown up all over Britain – stores which, associated with the still greater and far more economically important co-operative stores (divorced from their “divi”), would slowly lead the way to the socialisation of the methods of distribution. This would lead to co-operative methods of production, while capitalism still continued its waning domination above.

Lastly would come the land, the most difficult problem of all on the road to the new period and the Co-operative Commonwealth, National and International. For, hard as socialisation of land production is in other countries, in this island it is hardest of all. Elsewhere, the bulk of the people are still cultivators, are accustomed to the hardships connected with handling the soil, mostly own their own land, which they dig and plough and watch and tend with unremitting assiduity – not in the company form, and therefore unripe for socialisation, but capable of being brought within the co-operative circle by creameries, elevators, cold-storage buildings and the like. Here, however, there are no peasantry, no metayers, no independent producers. We have only landowners, capitalist farmers, agricultural labourers, mere proletarians of the soil (just as the artisans and casual labourers are proletarians of the cities), and, all taken together, constituting only a small minority of the entire population. Nationalisation and socialisation of the land is indispensable, inevitable, sooner or later; for our nation cannot continue to draw half its entire sustenance and six-sevenths of all its bread from foreign countries, some of them thousands of miles distant from its shores. Will circumstances so order things that we shall be driven, regardless of economic advisability, to attempt to solve this last problem first?

How to popularise these ideas when, owing to their lack of education, it is so desperately difficult to induce the workers, brought up through three generations of capitalism, and prac­tically unable to reason from the wage slavery of production for other men’s profit to production for their own and other people’s use? How to persuade them that only by getting rid of wages, high or low, altogether could they rid themselves and their children of never-ending anxiety, by obtaining through common labour, plenty, enjoyment and leisure for all ? The truth had to be put before them at first in plain language, with common­place illustrations drawn from the facts of their daily life. History, economic theory, Socialist proposals, were introduced afterwards. It was a procession upwards, from the orange-box at the dock gates or factory lane, to the lecture-room and the public hall.

To make the suggestion, even, of their own emancipation from degrading toil to unknown freedom acceptable, stepping-stones to the new period, or palliatives of existing conditions, were bound to be introduced. These were the eight-hour day, free education, gratuitous feeding of children in the elementary schools, work for all, overwork for none, organisation of unemployed labour on useful production, control of municipalities and municipal services, the sweeping away of miserable charity which curses him who gives and him who takes.

Such were the facts and theories, such the minor proposals put before the workers, of Great Britain, with unflagging zeal and unwearying fanaticism, by the pioneers of the Social Democratic Federation for thirty-three full years. Others were working in the same direction in their own way. Their intention was to prepare the ground for a peaceful and beneficial revolution, such as economic evolution rendered certain eventually, by education of the workers in the first place, and of the intellectual portion of the well-to-do class in the second. For propaganda was by no means confined to the street corners or the public halls in the metropolis and the great industrial centres. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge themselves were approached, not to say attacked, in the eighties. Socialistic groups were formed later; and, so far as a policy of permeation of the middle class could be successful in weakening the resistance of the possible enemy, the Fabian Society did its work well in that respect. A reasonable collectivism of a bureaucratic type, though based on political democracy, came gradually to be regarded as quite a possible transition stage by the more intelligent of the professional and literary men.

When the great Trade Unions, combining together, took part in and defrayed the expenses of the imposing International Socialist Congress held at the Queen’s Hall in London, in 1896, it really looked like an important advance towards bringing the aristocracy of labour to make common cause with Social Demo­crats in Great Britain, in a strenuous effort to build up a genuine Socialist party, which would enter into relations with similar working-class parties on the continent of Europe and elsewhere. But the English move slowly. Not until nearly twenty years later did the Trade Unions and their members begin to look upon domestic and foreign working-class industrial interests from the Socialist point of view. Trade Unionists they were, and Trade Unionists they would remain : wages, higher wages, they could understand; shorter hours at the same wages seemed advan­tageous – anything beyond this they still failed to comprehend. But from this narrow basis, and by way of pious resolutions in favour of land nationalisation and secular education, etc., the Trade Unions gathered numbers and influence, until by degrees a demand arose for political action, and the Labour Party was formed, to give expression to this great change of opinion. It was undoubtedly a very great change of opinion, and one which Social Democrats had always striven to bring about. After some years of organisation and agitation, always conducted with a strange sort of friendly deference to the capitalist Liberal party, a relatively small number of genuine Labour men were returned to the House of Commons, at the General Election of 1906. But it was clear how little the real position in regard to class antagonism was even then understood, seeing that the majority of the Labour members were elected by bargaining with the Liberal organisations for votes, and the chairman of the party himself obtained three-fourths of his votes, as a winning Labour candidate, from that source. Nevertheless, this election was generally regarded as a forward move for the political Socialists; and at the celebration of the victory of the Labour members at a great meeting in London, the hall was decorated all over with Socialist flags and mottoes.

Unfortunately, the policy of trimming and moderation which had been adopted in the constituencies was followed in Parliament. It would have been impossible, with only thirty members, to have carried Socialist measures. But at least the foundation of an independent nucleus for future purposes might have been laid. This, however, was not done. Only on matters of direct Trade Union interest, in which the ordinary legal proceedings of Trade Unions had been interfered with by hostile class judgments in the courts, or on measures of a purely philanthropic character of no real economic significance, such as the small and very limited Old Age Pensions Bill, did the Labour Party show any vigour, and then still in hearty co-operation with the Liberals who, on all important social issues, were their most dangerous, because most insidious, enemies. It is this miserable addiction to compromise, which surrenders all principles and looks only to petty immediate gains of no real value, that has been the curse of the English working class for many a long year.

This was accompanied, until quite lately, with a marked susceptibility to the social influence of the manners and tone of the highly educated class, together with a singular deference to those “forms of the House” which have been specially instituted and are maintained for the benefit of well-to-do representatives. To show how completely the workers are in the toils of the old traditions and old prejudices of the classes over against them, it is enough to cite the fact that the Game Laws, inherited from William the Conqueror and William Rufus, still remain on the Statute Book, though it is notorious that they are not only monstrous in themselves, but by encouraging non-cultivation of land and by damaging crops are economically most injurious. Yet even now, in the year 1920, no attempt has been made in the House of Commons to obtain their abrogation by Act of Parliament! Members of the Labour Party who have hesitated to attack a flagrant social abuse, which has been denounced even by Radicals for obviously have no abiding sense of their own duties and responsibilities.

The same statements and criticisms apply to the reinforced Labour Party, which returned more than forty members at the elections of 1910. Superficially, they were committed to nationalisation in more than one direction, but their fatal connection with Liberalism still hampered anything approaching to independent Socialist action. At the same time the vehement opposition of the majority of the whole party, as represented in the House of Commons, to any reasonable preparations for resistance to the manifestly aggressive policy of the German Government, weakened their influence throughout the country. Not only so, but the obvious pro-Germanism of several of the leaders reduced almost to nothing the power of the party to stop hostilities, by convincing German statesmen that, no matter what military steps Germany took, the Liberals would not dare to declare war, and that, even if they did, they would be swept out of office by an indignant nation of traders and pacifists.

It was a desperate blunder on the part of Germany, but a scarcely less fatal mistake on the part of Labourists. For they lost the opportunity of bargaining with the Government for the support of the workers, when the war began, in return for far-reaching social changes; and they were swept along, with the tide of general national feeling, first into the great rush of volunteering and then into conscription, to meet the terrific drain of men necessary for a world war. All that thirty-three years of assiduous Socialist propaganda had been able to effect in our strangely stolid England had been to make ready for a flabby Labour Party, which could not even take advantage of such a magnificent chance as came their way in August 1914. Once more it seemed as if, ripe though the economic conditions for collective and Socialist co-ordination were, the ignorance of the wage-earners themselves was impervious to any social enlightenment. A Socialist atmosphere had been created above and below, but no clear thought, or definite action, had been brought to bear on the problems of the time.

At this date, August 1914, when Great Britain had been first the most important, and then, always in a relatively descending scale, one of the three leading industrial powers of the world, the social conditions were abominably bad, so bad that it again seemed marvellous that no organised effort, either political and peaceful, or forcible and anarchic, had been made to overthrow them. For with London the centre of the financial world, with England’s supremacy in shipping still maintained, with the wealth derived from India pouring into her lap, and the productions of her colonies largely at her command, this was in brief the social condition of the population:

Why, then, was it worth the while of her wage-earners to fight against Germany in defence of such a state of things, when Germany, in spite of her tyrannous militarism and Junkerdom, took more care of the physical and educational condition of her people than the governing classes of Great Britain did of their wage-earners and dependents? Because, as the English saw at once, capitalism dominated by Junkerdom would be worse than capitalism under a political and social system which would soon enable the last form of human domination to be overthrown. This, partly conscious, partly unconscious, was the motive which took the wage-earners of Great Britain on to the battlefield, where the parasitical and expropriating class were, as a class, with some exceptions, fighting for ’the maintenance of their own supremacy.

For fully twenty years before the war it was clear to all who knew Germany, and read easily the German papers and reviews, that preparations were being made for a struggle to the death against France and Great Britain by land and by sea. Our workers were deceived into the belief that this was impossible, because our great employers, bankers, and the rich generally, were willing to run the risk so long as they gained more wealth. They therefore risked the issue. The workers, left unprepared and untrained by the political representatives of capital, fought and won the war; and, but for the politicians, would have won it at least two years before. This would have saved themselves and their families countless sacrifices.

But how did the nation win the war? By throwing aside the capitalism and competition which had exploited the community in peace, and by taking control of the resources of the Empire by the whole community for the purposes of war. That was a complete reversal of all previous policy. Not to go back to the long and exhausting twenty years’ struggle against Napoleon, nothing of the sort was done in the Crimean or in the South African War. In both of these cases, outside of the great State workshops at Portsmouth, Chatham, Woolwich, etc., established and maintained by the Government for long periods beforehand, the rest of the necessary work was done by capitalist firms independent of any official control. Although, also, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the Bank of England suspended cash payments, there was no direct Government aid to the private banks. Of course the economic conditions were very different, but the contrast in method is nevertheless remarkable.

More remarkable still, no protest was raised against the course adopted immediately on the outbreak of war. The Government was, in fact, driven to prompt State action, in order to prevent capitalist finance and capitalist production, as well as distribution, from breaking down altogether. The Administration was compelled to use State credit, State control and State capital in order to pursue its contradictory policy of “keeping the present system” – the capitalist-competitive system, that is to say – “in being.” This they officially declared to be their object. If State control and partial State ownership were undertaken by Mr Asquith’s Liberal, laissez-faire administration, it was, therefore, because this was the only way to meet the temporary emergency, whilst carefully preparing for a return to the old system “after the war.”

Thus it came about that, in 1914, when all English politicians believed, or pretended to believe, that the conflict with the Central Powers would be a short war, the Ministry in office began to use State powers on a scale quite unprecedented. First it gave way to a shriek for help from the great Joint-Stock Banks of the Clearing-House. The directors all saw that, if they were left entirely to their own resources, they would either have to call up forthwith the unpaid margin on the subscribed shares held by their shareholders, get State aid in some shape, or go bankrupt. Why they should not have been left to take the first course, which was the proper, businesslike way of proceeding, has never been explained. But, in fact, what occurred needs no explanation. Private finance, as represented by the shareholders, had to be propitiated. So the Government at once granted a moratorium against the public and in favour of the banks. The legislature, that is to say, rushed in to protect, or save from bankruptcy, institutions which had been, and still were, paying heavy dividends on shares, a great part of whose nominal amount consisted in uncalled capital. So enormous is the influence of these great banking institutions that the Government policy in favour of their shareholders was accepted almost without demur. Few saw what a strong argument would be placed at the disposal of the mass of the community, in the near future, in support of a demand for the nationalisation of the vast establishments, now almost a monopoly, and the constitution of a State Bank covering their whole field of financial operations. Simultaneously with the banks the railways had to be dealt with. Here it was at once manifest that, if the various companies were left without any attempt at co-ordination, the war transport could not be carried on effectively. So the Government took control, guaranteeing to the debenture and shareholders, during the term of the war, all the dividends and profits they had previously earned! This was an exceedingly good arrangement for the shareholders, whose property would certainly have been commandeered on much more advantageous terms, had the question of their remuneration come before an independent arbitrator. But, whether the arrangement was good or bad, it was so contrived as to hand over to the State the actual administration of the railways, in concert with the shareholders, and without conceding to the people any future [?] property in the indispensable means of transport represented by the railroads.

One serious effect of thus accepting the principle of State control without applying it to details, and generally fusing companies, was seen in the chaotic waste involved by not pooling the wagons belonging to the different companies, but leaving them and the private wagons to be hauled empty, hither and thither, for no useful purpose whatever. All this muddle arose from the Government’s disinclination to apply fully, in practice, the nationalisation of railways which they had been forced to adopt partially in actual work, and wholly in principle. The result of this, on the return of peace, has been the reduction to ^lieer [?] anarchy of our entire system of transport; and has strongly fortified the contention of those who maintain that nothing short of complete socialisation will solve the problem. Obviously the railwaymcn and workers generally, who are now demanding this step towards thorough national organisation, in the interests of themselves and the community at large, have had nothing whatever to do with the mismanagement that followed the inefficient State control. Yet, somehow, the work necessary during the war was done.

Shipping naturally followed upon railways. Transport, under national management, of men and war material by sea was as essential as transport of men and war material by land. That was at once admitted and acted upon. The rights of the community were recognised as overriding the rights of shipowners. But here again our rulers, while giving way upon the principle of private arrangements, could not at first perceive that temporising is always a mistaken policy in stirring times. The Government commandeered only 1500 of the largest ships for State purposes. The result of this was that rates of freight ran up to unheard-of figures, for vessels left under private management. As commandeering extended, this became more and more apparent. But, even as it was, national control, by which vessels were run on the public account, proved an immense saving to the public, as against the wholesale confiscation by excessive rates of freight to which they would otherwise have had to submit from the shipowners and their companies. National control and temporary ownership were proved to be not only indispensable but generally beneficial. The deductions which are being drawn from this fact, in regard to further steps in the same direction, necessarily follow.

If, however, capitalist banking, capitalist railways and capitalist shipping demanded national co-ordination, even to preserve the owners themselves from destruction, mines come into the same category; and the more so since 300,000 coal miners actually volunteered to train and to go to the front long before conscription was enacted. Coal, therefore, was put under national control also, being essential in Great Britain to the working of all industries and distributive agencies. The effect of this upon the miners, as of partial nationalisation upon the railway workers, will be seen later. With mines and coal, nevertheless, as with other matters, even the most resolute anti-collectivists were forced to concede that the affairs of the nation took precedence, in war, of all private or company rights.

But the change did not end here by any means. It is doubtful, indeed, whether the dominant class of our day apprehended the extraordinary effect which the next step in the direction of State management and collectivism had upon the mind of the entire working population of Great Britain. This effect, though great, was not so promptly seen as in the previous cases. There can be no doubt, however, that the action of the Government in taking control of great factories, and still more in commandeering, extending and fitting up with the best and newest machinery other buildings, for necessary public work, made a deep impression. “If,” men and women of intelligence asked themselves, “all this transformation can be brought about by the national administration in order to kill or maim men in war, why should not the same national machinery be used, under our own control, to maintain the whole community in peace?” That thought has been passing through an ever-increasing number of minds, since the war came to an end, when these great engines of production were handed back to the employing class, instead of being kept in national hands for the provision of useful goods for all.

The alteration in dealing with the land did not go anything like so far as in other directions. Indeed very little has been done. Although, at one point in the submarine campaign, Great Britain was within three weeks of starvation, the Government, in which Conservative influences prevailed, preferred to run the risk of famine for the many rather than face the opposition of the 30,000 landlords who own the island, the capitalist farmers who cultivate the soil by the help of landless agricultural labourers, and the shipowners whose interests are bound up in conveying large imports from abroad, by encouraging cultivation of the soil at home. Some small improvements were made, and more land, about 2,000,000 acres, were brought under tillage to meet the threatening danger. But the old Game Laws, which had led to less and less cultivation, were still upheld, and little attention was paid to the fact that rats consumed the enormous quantity of wheat and grain represented by the sum of £20,000,000 yearly [1] – this loss rendering the population more dependent upon wheat brought in from without. The power of the farmers, who, although singularly deficient in agricultural skill, showed remarkable aptitude in taking heavy toll of the population over milk, meat and wheat, was increased rather than lessened. Hence the most difficult problem of all, in the coming transition period, remains practically untouched.

At the same time that these various experiments in collective administration – much of it corrupt, wasteful and inefficient – were perforce being made, the distribution of food took quite a new shape. A Ministry of Food was established, at first under the control of a multiple shopowner, not directly interested in making the new department a success. Unquestionably he made it far other than a success. But, when the threatening attitude of the people compelled the adoption of a reasonable policy, another type of Minister was appointed; and the principle was established that, in time of war, at least, the producers of the country were entitled to their full share of all the food that was to be had, and that they and their wives and children should be considered as far as was possible under such a society as still exists. Efforts were made to control prices by cost of production; and the general opinion steadily grew that profiteers who gained to an unprecedented extent by the war were little better than pirates. All this did much to shake the foundations of the whole school of economics created in the interest of those same capitalists and profiteers.

Unfortunately, in this direction likewise, the middle-class administrators refused to adopt a definite policy which might lead to a peaceful reconstruction. Though the Co-operative Wholesale Stores, who conduct their business on non-profit-making lines, supply more than a quarter of the entire population, and consist of workers having direct control of their own affairs, the Government twice refused to accept their offer to put the whole of this fine machinery at the disposal of the nation, for expansion on the same principles to serve the people at large. How very far this would have led towards a general co-operative instead of competitive system of distribution, and how easy and beneficial it would have been to extend during the war into production on a large scale, is obvious. But the influences of other classes were too powerful to allow the statesmanlike policy of the working-class co-operators to be accepted.

Certain it is that all the successive advances previously mentioned, and the consequent general opinion of the time, helped on by the economic development, have done more to awaken the people to a sense of what collective and co-operative agencies may do for their benefit, under the control of the community, than many years of further Socialist and Labour propaganda would have been able to effect. The question now, even among reactionaries, is, how the persistent cry from the masses for better conditions of existence should be conveniently met, not how it should be suppressed altogether.

Meanwhile, however, working-class combinations in Great Britain are growing more rapidly, and are becoming more formidable than anywhere else. Agitations and strikes for higher wages went on, as prices rose steadily during the war. Serious difficulties were only avoided by surrender on the part of the Government to the claims of Trade Unions, by appeals to the patriotism of the workers, and by taking leading Trade Unionists [?] into a Coalition Administration. This policy, however, neither checked the growth of working-class organisations, nor damped down that rising demand for nationalisation and socialisation of monopolies which had so long been advocated by Socialists. Now upwards of 6,500,000 Trade Unionists, embracing no longer only the skilled artisans who form the aristocracy of labour, but a large portion of the agricultural labourers and unski workers of all kinds, voice at their Congress the aspirations in this direction of above half of the population of the island. Since the Armistice this powerful agglomeration of the fr [?] of the proletariat has gained confidence in its own strength. [?] Nor has the comparative failure of the Labour Party in the political field lessened the feeling that, sooner or later, the future is to the workers of this country.

Nothing has aided their conviction more than the closer connection recently established with the Co-operative Movement. Taken together, the two organisations represent much more than half the population of Great Britain, and the idea at present is that they should work harmoniously with one another, in much the same way that the Co-operators and Socialists of Belgium make common cause on all occasions when the class struggle becomes acute. The significance of this consolidation of interests can only be disregarded by those who are determined not to recognise the conditions which surround them. The fact that the conservative co-operators have entered the political arena, standing for elections with what is to all intents and purposes a Socialist programme, is another incident which shows the tendency of the time.

The inclination of the great majority of wage-earners of Great Britain has been to use political action in the interest of their class, with the object, in the long run, of obtaining direct control over the industrial forces of the nation. This is true to-day. But the failure of the Labour Party to secure the number of seats to which it was unquestionably entitled in the House of Commons, if the House is to be regarded as truly representative of the people, has lent force to the contentions of another section which made way in the workshops, and generally among the more active and discontented wage-earners during the war. It has gained more ground still since the peace, owing to the poor show made by the political element at the last General Election, and the lack of vigour and initiative displayed by the Labour members who were sent to Westminster.

The policy which is favoured by these so-called extremists is that of “direct action.” This means that, wherever the wage-earning class is sufficiently organised and disciplined, they should use the dangerous weapon of the general strike, no longer merely to obtain higher wages, but to gain possession of all the great industrial forces of the nation; thus bringing about a definite social revolution at one blow, whether the bulk of the people, or even the Trade Unionists themselves, who are the only really well-organised section, are thoroughly prepared for such a complete transformation or not. This is undoubtedly a policy.

As formulated by its chief advocates, it aims at the entire emancipation of the workers, and all other classes, from the mastery of the capitalist system, and the substitution of Syndicalism, the control of each trade by the combined workers in that trade – a scheme that has never been even partially thought out – or “guild” Socialism, for existing social arrangements. Since direct action, by the cessation of work in all the most important branches of production and distribution, has fervent propagandists and supporters in every civilised country, it is well to survey briefly the disadvantages attaching to this plan of campaign, from the point of view of the workers themselves, as opposed to the slower, but apparently more effective, and certainly less provocative means of political combination and the educated use of the vote. It may be assumed that, in both cases, the object is the same: not the enactment of palliative reforms under capitalism, nor the obtaining of higher wages under existing circumstances, but the immediate establishment of a Co-operative Commonwealth or Communist Republic. That is, in fact, the emancipation of the whole wage-slave class.

It must be noted that every general strike yet attempted in Belgium, France and Sweden has completely failed. This would be by no means a conclusive argument against it if it were the only objection. The United Kingdom differs from all these nations, and from every other nation, as has already been pointed out, in one very important particular. The whole of the working classes of England, Scotland and Wales are divorced from the soil. There is no conservative peasant population as there is everywhere else. Consequently, the economic antagonism of the country to the town appears only in the landlords and farmers, who together constitute a very small proportion of the whole population. The agricultural labourers sympathise with, and are impelled by the same motives as the wage-earners in the towns. If a general strike were called, therefore, for the purpose of bringing about nationalisation of the land, among other things, there is no reason why these labourers should not side with the others.

It cannot be doubted, however, that if direct action took so wide a sweep as is contemplated, implying the cessation of work in the mines, on the railways, at the docks, wharves and elsewhere, this would almost inevitably lead to civil war. There may easily then arise differences between the strikers themselves; for it is by no means certain that men who are too slow and careless to vote for their own class champions would develop a whole-souled eagerness to fight for themselves and their class. Starvation is apt to turn even enthusiasts for overthrow into partisans of a military dictatorship. No Government, also, would, or could surrender at once to such an organised arrest of the functions of the whole national life, without a desperate effort, in which all the resources of civilisation would be used. Is it advisable even to threaten to resort to such desperate tactics, when the alternative of political action is still open? Is it well to risk a defeat, which might throw back, for a whole generation, that steady advance towards the greatest economic and social revolution the world has ever seen, a revolution which the intending strikers are convinced is now inevitable within a calculable period? Moreover, if success were assured, it is more difficult to keep than to conquer, as the Egyptian priest told Alexander the Great, unless a sound programme of reorganisation and administration is formulated and circulated beforehand. The reaction upon failure after victory would be terrible.

With political action, for which our forbears fought so stoutly, and for which at last we have secured the effective means, there is far less danger of armed conflict. Every year that passes, as events move to-day, tells more and more decisively in favour of the economic and social freedom of the workers. Every year there is less and less danger of reaction, if the workers are only true to themselves and compel their leaders to lead. All the time, too, the people are learning how to conduct our national and municipal and local affairs. In this their consolidation with the co-operators will greatly help. If, too, when the workers commanded a majority of the intelligent votes of the whole population, and had control over the political machinery, the minority attempted to maintain their outworn domination by force, then their chance of holding on to an untenable position would be small indeed.

In short, direct action, though it may be useful in argument as a possibili Political action is a continuous education and training for administration of affairs.

Both call for the best possible organisation of the workers, as a class consciously striving for its own emancipation from economic, social and individual servitude.

There can be no clearer evidence of the enormous advance made in the opinions of the workers of Great Britain, within the last five years, than the discussion of this crucial issue at the present time all over the country. The great Railway Strike itself (undertaken for a rise of wages for the lower-grade workers) – Whether justified by the behaviour of the Government, as the railway workers thought, or unreasonable as a sudden attempt to starve the whole community on an issue for which it had no responsibility – showed, as the public opinion of the majority of the wage-earners themselves proclaimed, what perfect organisation and discipline the Trade Union had attained. Well that it ended as it did. A few weeks later the voters of London captured the Borough Councils with their votes; and are finding, even after this remarkable and peaceful victory, the great difficulty of developing a satisfactory municipal administration under present circumstances.

It is one of the features of a really revolutionary period, such as we have manifestly entered upon in all advanced civilised countries, that events follow one another so fast that it is difficult to keep pace with them. Thus in Great Britain, where up to within the last six years the development had apparently been slower than in some other nations, the change in the Government policy itself has been more rapid than elsewhere. Administrative action is trying to catch up economic growth and labour conceptions. Even in peace, for example, purchase and control of food and its distribution, national and international, has remained largely under ministerial management. The League of Nations, inchoate and nebulous as it was and is, set to work at once to introduce an international code of restrictions upon the exploitation of labour by the capitalist class, which [?] not long ago, would have been universally denounced by the possessing minority all over the world as subversive Socialism. Yet scarcely a voice has been raised in favour of the old individualist competitive laissez-faire policy. This is very significant.

In Great Britain itself, notwithstanding a temporary reaction, the general forward movement towards Collectivism and Socialism has found expression in official circles to such a degree that further developments in this direction cannot be greatly delayed. Nationalisation of mines recommended by a special Government Commission; nationalisation of railways publicly proclaimed as inevitable by a Cabinet Minister; nationalisation of milk production and distribution virtually accepted by official committee after committee; national effort to provide houses for the people sanctioned by the House of Commons; nationalisation of public health authority and organisation – all these proposals, though set back, evaded, or openly repudiated by a capitalist Government, amount to the recognition, over a very wide area, that the problems of the present and the immediate future cannot be solved save upon national – that is to say, Collectivist and Socialist – lines. The fetishism of money and the worship of individualism are dying down inevitably, even among the political agents of the rich. That in itself is a material and mental evolution.

Nor will it be possible to evade the consequences of this great change. The pressure from below cannot be withstood permanently, either by chicane, or by force. To guess precisely what form the transformation will take is beyond the scope of the most far-seeing intelligence. But the fact that all the organised workers of Great Britain are day by day coming closer together, with the massed Trade Unions and Co-operators in active concert for social and political ends, proves conclusively, to all who are not blinded by hatred, or bemused by greed, that here, that which but yesterday was denounced as Utopian is now the only practical polity for the nation; unless the possessing minority, seized with madness, should decide to force on a civil war. Nothing is a more hopeful sign that this misfortune may be averted than the general admission that a Labour Administration, pledged to nationalisation and socialisation, is virtually a certainty in the not remote future.


1. They consumed more than twice that value in 1919.

Last updated on 7.7.2006