Theo Rothstein March 1898

Why is Socialism in England at a Discount?

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. II, No. 3, March, 1898, pp.69-74;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the present juncture, when the failure of the engineers' strike, coupled with the disgusting incidents of the York election, have produced a certain feeling of discouragement throughout the rank and file of the Socialist movement in this country, an old question naturally forces itself on our mind - a question that has often been raised, but has never yet, to my know­ledge, been satisfactorily answered: How is it that Socialism has made up till now so very little progress in these islands? Seeing that it is essentially a recognition on the part of the proletariat of the antagonisms which exist between it and the property owning class, one might have supposed that the country where the early and unimpeded growth of capitalism has brought out those antagonisms to their fullest, would have proved a far more favourable ground for its rise and progress than others of a less developed industrial structure. Instead of this, as we all know, the case is quite the reverse. Whilst in Germany, in France, in Belgium, in Austria, in Italy, in Holland - in countries where capitalism, being of a posterior date, has not been successful, even so far as to drive away forms of property and methods of production belonging properly to the Middle Ages, and the proletariat accordingly still carries about in many cases the egg shell of its small bourgeois origin in the shape of peasant ideals and sympathies - whilst, I say, in those countries the ideas of Socialism are making headway every day, in England, the home of modern industry, the classic land of capitalist pro­duction, where there is scarcely a vestige left, either in the field of economic life or in the minds of the people, of former industrial stages, they are scarcely able to obtain a hearing, let alone a footing. The phenomenon is certainly striking, and, on account of its import, both theoretical and as a guidance in practical politics, it has been, and still is, the subject of ample discussion on the part of students and Socialists. It is manifest, however, that the theories usually advanced by way of explaining it, such as, for instance, the comparative well-being of the English working classes or the "inherent" conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race, are utterly inadequate. For, as regards the first, experience has taught us by now that, far from presenting the best possible soil for assimilation of Socialist ideas, it is exactly the lower strata of the working classes - the men sunk in sloth, misery and drink, who through want of skill and employment, have lost every sense of their human dignity - that are the least accessible to noble appeals, the least capable to grasp a new idea, the least prepared for a conscious effort and unremittent struggle. Poverty and hunger have stunted their intellect, blunted their moral sense, and emaciated their physique, and, tossed to and fro by their unarticulated instincts, they join popular movements only to plunder, to rape, and to kill. It is the better paid artisan, the skilled labourer, the earnest trade unionist, who is decently clad and fed, who enjoys a home and a friendly circle, who knows how to respect himself and be respected by others, who constitutes the really progressive element in every community; conscious of his rights and duties, used to organised life and action, possessing a mind cultivated by reading and social intercourse, he is the chief actor on the stage of politics and revolutions - the easiest convert to new doctrines and parties. And what is true of different sections of one community is true of whole countries, for it is not the impoverished Italian who leads the Socialist movement, but the comparatively well-off German; not the down-trodden Spaniard, but the highly-skilled and educated Frenchman; not the poor Austrian, but the well-paid Belgian, To say, therefore, that it is the high standard of living which insures the British working men against the Socialist virus is incorrect; whatever the causes of England's backwardness in Socialism may be, this certainly is not one amongst them. Nor is another the conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race. That the English people throughout their career have shown a curious attachment to antiquated traditions and ways, a certain well-pronounced predilection for old and even obsolete forms of life and thought, no one will dispute. The whole course of their history is strewn with fossil remains of institutions, laws, and customs, which have some time served their purpose, but afterwards are long retained and cherished with an exemplary tenderness and veneration. But to assume, on the strength of this, that the English have at any time recoiled from striking out a new line of policy and action, from giving expression to, or assimilating a new idea and doctrine from moulding the old in conformity with new needs, or dismissing it altogether, would evidently be to go too far; it would leave unexplained the elementary fact of the enormous progress made by the nation during the centuries of its existence, as well as its present high position as a "culture-bearer," to use a German phrase, among the communities of Europe. Least of all can it be said that these conservative proclivities have produced in the English people a spirit of tameness and submissiveness. The men who, to mention but a few instances, sent to the scaffold one of their kings, and chased another from the country, who were the first in modern times to make an experiment in republican self-government on a large scale, and gave to the world popular movements, such as the Owenite and the Chartist, and revolutionary methods and organisations such as trade unionism, can scarcely be accused of a lack of courage and independence in the domain of politics and political thought. Conservatism with the English has never spelt reaction, and, consequently, cannot be made responsible for the failure of Socialism in their country. The real cause must be looked for elsewhere, and to this we will now turn.

It has been the singular good fortune of England to have possessed, almost from the very beginning of her national existence, a middle class sufficiently strong and organised to become a serious factor in the political life of the country. The unique geographical position of these islands, eminently calculated to promote a spirit of commerce and maritime enter­prise, in conjunction with the absence of any such tendency for centralisation as had been left by Rome to the rest of her late provinces, were instrumental in bringing forth a rich burgherdom that was enabled, not only to preserve the rudiments of self-government handed over from previous ages, but also to develop them further by means of charters obtained from their lords and kings. At the time of the Norman Conquest there were already several burghs, towns, and cities in existence which enjoyed a sort of autonomy in fiscal and juridical matters, having bought, on payment of fixed dues, the right of self-assessment of taxes and exemption from the manor and other courts. It was a very shrewd and business-like set of folk - these early precursors of the modern bourgeoisie - always mindful of their property, always jealous of their privileges, they were never tired of defending them against the arbitrariness of their temporal and spiritual lords, or, as was far more frequently the case, the greed and rapaciousness of the kings. They understood their interests with a clearness that would reflect credit even on the modern British working man, and early made a common cause with the barons in the struggle for civic, personal, and property rights. We know that the very foundation of English liberties - the Magna Charta - ­was laid only after burgherdom had lent its helping hand; it was the revolt of the Londoners which turned the scale in favour of the aristocracy, and compelled the unlucky John, now bereft of his last hope, to sign the famous articles. And so the fight went on during the rest of this and the whole of the following century. Everywhere, it is true, we find at the head of the movement the barons; it was their landed interests that were primarily at stake; but we seldom, if ever, miss the important element of burgher­dom backing up with all its might the demands for the privileges of self-taxation, of trial by one's peers, &c. This co-operation was so conspicuous and valuable that the aristocracy were soon obliged to acknowledge it, and the Earl of Montfort thought it prudent to invite to his Parliament along with two knights from each shire, also two citizens from each city, and two burgesses, from each burgh. It would be too long and tedious to trace here the struggle against monarchy step by step; those who have studied their Stubbs or Hallam know what a tremendous amount of energy, patience, tenacity courage, and shrewdness were needed to accustom the kings of England to respect their subjects' rights, to have them taught the elementary lessons in constitutional law and procedure. Every now and then the Edwards and the Henrys were ready to trample upon the charters they had themselves granted; every now and then they broke out in arbitrary demands for tolls, dues, and levies; but each time, after an obstinate fight, they were obliged to issue confirmations of the charters, to grant additional privileges, and make declarations, like the famous de tallagio non concedendo of 1279. And at every turning of this arduous, uphill struggle, we find by the side of the gallant baron and knight the sturdy merchant and member of the guild defending their woollen and silken wares with one hand and laying the other on the prerogatives of the crown. But the really momentous and brilliant activity of the middle classes begins with the seventeenth century. As is well known, the period between the fourteenth and the end of the fifteenth century was one continuous process of reaction in the direction of absolutism: through the Black Death, which largely deprived the fields of their tillers, as well as through the Wars of the Roses, which decimated the ranks of the feudal lords, landed property greatly fell in value - and with it the social and political importance and power of the aristocracy. The back of the constitutional opposition was thus broken, and the English kings, especially the Tudors, were enabled to gather up the loosened strings of monarchy and to retrieve their well-nigh lost position. A series of vigorous efforts were now made to assert the prerogatives of the Crown as against the rights of Parliament, and a process kindred to that started in France by Louis XI. and accomplished by Louis XIV., might now be observed in England. But all through these dark times, in the stillness of the counting-houses and warehouses as much as in the bustle of the workshops and merchant ships, grew steadily the class of burgherdom, now the rising masters of the world's commerce. A whole chain of events, each more or less connected with the other, con­tributed to this effect: the discovery of America, the fall of the Italian republics, the influx of precious metals, the immigration from France and the low countries, the break-down of the sea power and colonial might of Spain, &c. - till about the reign of Elizabeth the middle classes became strong enough to take the place of the former aristocracy - now itself merging more and more into the bourgeoisie - as the leaders in the struggle for political freedom. They did not commence hostilities just at that time; old Bess was more than a match for them, besides being to some extent their bene­factress; but as soon as she passed away the fire that lay smouldering for two centuries broke out into a blaze. The new king, James I., was a staunch believer in monarchy by the grace of God, ready to do anything to uphold his views, whilst the Parliament, which he convened early in 1603, showed by the unusually large attendance, which marked its sittings from the beginning, that it, too, was in a fighting mood, not likely to give way before the enemy. A conflict thus became inevitable. In the address to the king the Parliament gently reminded him of the existence in the land of con­stitutional law, and a little later issued a remarkable vindication of its various prerogatives "to be delivered to His Majesty in a form of apology and satisfaction." This was the beginning of a fight which raged for twenty-two years with unabated force; either side showed an equal stubborness - the king in dissolving his Parliament, in imprisoning its members, in levying arbitrary taxes and duties, and the representatives of the nation, or rather of the middle class, in asserting their legislative and fiscal rights, and in pro­testing against the infringement of personal liberty. James's death put for a time a stop to the struggle, but the accession of Charles I. rekindled it again. Driven to despair, the Parliament now assumed a thoroughly revolutionary attitude. Not content with merely verbal declarations of its rights, it refused to vote the civil list for more than one year, demanded the impeachment of Buckingham and his friends, and insisted upon the immediate release of two of its members arbitrarily thrown into the Tower. Close upon this, in 1628, the Parliament issued the remarkable Petition of Rights - a complete statement of principles of English citizen­ship - and the king, being in need of money, was obliged to sign it. In 1629, however, the Parliament came to an abrupt end, but the whole of the subsequent eleven years' personal rule, with its Star Chamber, Writ of Ship-money, and the rest, was powerless to subdue the opposition of the middle classes. On the contrary, it rose and gathered strength at every step, till in April, 1640, when the Short Parliament met, it broke forth in a point blank refusal to graft any money till some glaring abuses wore redressed. Again it was dissolved, but only to be convened in a few months - this time to exist for thirty-nine years. That was the famous Long Parliament, which broke the back of English monarchy for ever, and lived to see the rise and fall of the Commonwealth. Under the leadership of Pym and Hampden - two of the greatest men the middle classes of England have ever had - it resumed the great fight as soon as assembled, and in the, short space of one year overturned the whole fabric of despotism so carefully reared up by the Tudors and Stuarts. It impeached and executed the Earl of Strafford, threw into prison Archbishop Laud, with several others of the king's party, abolished the Star Chamber and the Ship-money, deprived the clergy of temporal jurisdiction, and passed a Bill to the effect that the Par­liament cannot be dissolved without its own consent, and must be convened at least every third year. In 1641 it published the Grand Remonstrance - that audacious Act of which Cromwell said that, were it not passed, he, together with many others, would have left England on the following day. It proclaimed liberty of conscience, and declared the Ministers of the Crown to be responsible to Parliament. This was, perhaps, by far the most daring attempt ever made since the days of the Great Charter at the prerogatives of monarchy, and Charles replied to it by impeaching Pym, Hampden, and other leaders of the House, and by appearing there with a military-force. That was the beginning of the final act in the great drama, and what followed needs no narrating. King Charles was executed, the House of Lords abolished, the. Commonwealth proclaimed, and the country ruled first by the "Rump House," conjointly with a Council of State, and then by Oliver Cromwell. That was the dictatorship of the Radical Left of the bourgeoisie, somewhat similar to the Reign of Terror in France in 1793-1794. It had, just like the other, a very short life, the moderate sections gaining ascendancy and restoring the monarchy. But what a monarchy! It was a mere shadow of the former, leaving practically the whole business of ruling in the hands of the Parliament. In 1665 was passed the Appropriation Act; in 1679, the Habeas Corpus Act, the second of the great Charters of English liberties; and in the same year the long Parliament dispersed, having brilliantly accomplished its task. From that time the course of political and civil liberty in this country has stood firm, weathering every storm and steadily gaining ground. James II. made attempts to resist the tide, but was deposed and expelled, and in his stead was invited the Orange dynasty, in the persons of William and Mary. The first act of the new monarchy - the bourgeois monarchy - was the famous Bill of Rights of 1689. This was the third of the great Charters which crowned the superb edifice of the English Constitution, and the numerous subsequent Statutes and Bills passed by Parliament were nothing but so many improve­ments on and particularisation of its clauses. In 1695 were abolished the Licensing Laws, which weighed so heavily on the freedom of speech and press; in 1716 were constituted septennial Parliaments, in the reign of George III. fell the royal veto, in 1816 passed the second Habeas Corpus Act, in 1829 was proclaimed the Emancipation of the Catholics, and in 1832 was passed the great Reform Bill. The long struggle for liberty has ended and the nation attained complete rights in all domains - citizenship.

Such is the great drama of which England has been the stage. It may now well be asked, what was the purpose in writing all the above? The SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT, not being an historical review, and the present writer being the last person in the world to pretend to a profound knowledge of English history, it may look as if the foregoing pages were out of place in an article headed as above. But there is a method even in madness, as Hamlet says, and the lesson in history propounded here, has its object, too. It is none other than to remind the English and other Socialists of one important fact which they too often seem to lose sight of, namely, that political and civil freedom, the greatest treasure England possesses as compared with other nations, has been won entirely by the boundless efforts and self-sacrifice of the governing classes of the country. Long before the present social antagonisms had been evolved out of the womb of Time, long before the ever active process of history had worked out the modern proletariat and raised on the horizon of material and spiritual life new forms and ideals, the bourgeoisie of England, first in co-operation with the aristocracy, and then by itself, succeeded in smashing into fragments the stronghold of despotism, and in gaining for the people the rights of self-government, of free speech and conscience, of complete security of person and chattels. It was men like De Montfort, Pym, Hampden, Knox, Cromwell, and, for aught we know, Francis Place, who built up the English democracy of to-day, and the echo of their deeds is still vibrating through the air with a force unknown from the very days of ancient Greece and Rome.


(To be continued.)