T. A. Jackson

Socialism and Respectability

Source: Socialist Standard, November 1905.
Transcription: Adam Buick
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Socialism is the political expression of the recognition by the working-class of their suppression and oppression under the present form of society, based as it is upon their exploitation, and politically administered as it is solely with a view to conserving, and, as far as possible perpetuating their exploitation and subjection.

Like every other social ideal in which men expressed their wants and aspirations, Socialism has its history, its stages of growth. The working-class, oppressed from birth, have made manifest their desire for human conditions—for liberty—in stages which correspond with the stages of social development by and through which the working-class have arrived at their present numerical proportion to the rest of the population, their present degree of want and suffering, of interdependence and of knowledge, and their present fast developing determination to have Socialism, and with it liberty, and to have it now. The first vague conception of Socialism was born in the study of the leisured philosopher—a suggestion thrown out by men of culture for the better drilling and re-organisation of the non-cultured, common people. And for long it remained the plaything of Culture.

The working-class struggle for emancipation was at first weak, spasmodic, vague. Here a rick-burning, there a machinery-smashing riot; here a tempestuous revolt, there an abject petitioning of king, kaiser, or local magnate, for pity on the poor. But as the working-class grew with the development of capitalism, they learnt the lessons which are best learnt and longest remembered by those who have eaten the bread of affliction and drunk the waters of bitterness. They had tried individual revolt, and by its failure learnt the necessity of organised collective effort. They had tried by begging to obtain concessions, and had been treated as beggars. They had tried political efforts aimed at reform, had had reforms promised by capitalist politicians, had used their votes and voices to help these capitalist politicians wring the last vestige of political power from the aristocracy—only to find that promises have a proverbial use that the little finger of Rehoboam was thicker than the loins of Solomon. Thus the working-class learned that their emancipation could only be achieved by a collective effort, organised and intelligently aimed at the conquest of the political power and the effecting in the teeth of their oppressors of a Socialist Revolution. The intelligent movement of the working-class towards emancipation reached maturity in the struggle for Socialism and the lessons learnt in their life of struggle and suffering are crystallised in the Principles of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Bearing in mind this process by which Socialism was brought into being, nourished and developed, we have a scientific touchstone by which to discover the real inwardness of any one of the many volumes (professing to expound Socialism) which have been launched upon a suffering public.

And the “latest born and (more or less) loveliest far” of these is “Socialism and Society” by Mr. J. R. MacDonald, a leader of the I.L.P (a body whose ruling delusion is that it is a Socialist Party) and secretary and high priest of the L.R.C., whose “independent” “working-class” Members of Parliament hang loyally on to the tail of the Liberal Party.

The book seems to have been written in order to justify the round-about road to the Liberal rump which these two bodies conjointly think it necessary to follow, but probably few even of his friends will be able to unreservedly congratulate Mr. MacDonald on the result of his efforts, while an entirely unbiased critic may well set to marvelling why he wrote the book at all.

The first obstacle to front him is the Revolutionary ferocity of the angry working-class, and the old, old, scientific lumber is trotted out; the blessed word “evolution” is many times invoked to show that “revolution” is a dark impossibility, and that the class-struggle does not exist and, with much magical muttering of “science” and “Darwin,” that the establishment of the State of Socialism must be the work of a select company of cultured persons, elected by a grateful working-class who will wait patiently while the Elected Persons solemnly proceed to discuss, and perhaps to pass, a series of measures of experimental amelioration—“laboratory experiment, not revolution, is the method of Socialism emerged from its Utopian and pseudo-scientific stages.” (p. 179.) “Public ownership, after all, is Socialism.” (p. 59, footnote.)

In writing a complete explanation of what Socialism is and bringing it to this conclusion, Mr. MacDonald is compelled to fall foul of most of the recognised classics of Socialism. Especially is he dogged at every step by the grim and terrible spectre of Marx. At least a fourth of the book is given up to a detailed attack upon Marx and Engels, but, as usual, the criticism does not betray even a nodding acquaintance with the writings criticised. Mr. MacDonald reads “the emancipation of the working-class must be the work of the working-class itself.” This is enough. It is revolution! It is Utopian! It is not scientific! It is vulgar! It is not “respectable!” Marx, it seems, is not the first of the scientific Socialists: he is the “last of the Utopians.” And the first of the scientific Socialists is Mr. J. R. MacDonald, who has made Socialism respectable!

Mr. MacDonald has put into words the thoughts of the small middle-class. To understand what this class think it is necessary to look at the relative social position they occupy, viz., sandwiched between the working-class on the one hand and the capitalist-class proper on the other. They are threatened with extinction from both sides. Every move forward of capital flings a section of them down into the ranks of the working-class. Every day that brings the working-class closer together and impels them to the grimly inevitable battle for emancipation threatens them with extinction. Hence the small middle-class (the class of small producers, shopkeepers, house-owners, journalists, and professional Respectability generally) is in word the most Insurrectionary, and in deed the most Reactionary of all existing sections. They shriek against capital—because of their imminent bankruptcy—and call upon the workers to help limit its power. They shriek at the working-class for its revolutionary tendency, and call upon capital to help them preserve “Law and Order,” “Property, Religion, and Respectability.”

And the nearer their end the louder their screams.

To this see-saw striving of this class can be traced all the elements of confusion in present day politics:—Single Tax and Land Nationalisation, Free Meals and Farm Colonies, Passive Resistance and Municipalised Milk. And hence also Mr. J. R. MacDonald’s self-contradiction is the clearest proof that his “Socialism” and his “society” are the “Socialism and society” of the Respectable Small Middle-Class. Mr. MacDonald denies that a class-war exists on one page and on another proves its existence:—“Thus we see how machinery which might lighten labour, supplants it when used in the interests of a capitalist class. . . . Thus we see how tools, a dead factor, rule men, the living factor in production, and how a class engaging in production for profits controls the class which takes part in production in order to maintain life. ... A pillar of Sabbatarianism can prove satisfactorily to himself that his works must . . . go seven days in the week. The owner of the land and the means of production is the owner of the lives of the people. He holds society in the hollow of his hand.” (pp. 52-53). And of course there must be no revolution: the working-class must patiently endure while MacDonald & Co. “experiment.”

I should have liked to have gone over Mr. MacDonald’s critique of Marx in detail, but the Editor of T.S.S. says he doesn’t want serials. However, Marx has retorted on MacDonald and his light by prophetic anticipation:

“He wished to be the sympathiser; he is a composite error. He wished to soar as a man above the Bourgeoisie and the proletariat; he is only the petty bourgeois, tossed about continually between capital and labour, between political economy and communism.” The Poverty of Philosophy.

And again:—“A part of the bourgeois is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society. To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working-class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole and corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of Socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.” We may cite Mr. J. R. MacDonald’s “Socialism and Society” as an example of this form. “The Socialistic bourgeoisie want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They desire a bourgeoisie without, a proletariat. . . . Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when and only when it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free Trade: for the benefit of the working-class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working-class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working-class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of Bourgeois Socialism. It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois—for the benefit of the working-class!”—Communist Manifesto.

The ethics of Socialism, says J. R. MacDonald, are provided by Evangelicalism; its politics by Liberalism. We leave the courteous reader to the task of picturing a Holy Trinity compounded of “General” Booth, Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, and Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald!