Theo Rothstein April 1898

Why is Socialism in England at a Discount?


Source: Social Democrat,Vol. II, No. 4, April, 1898, pp.112-117;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

To grasp the significance of this fact to the full it is necessary to turn for a while to other countries. Taking as one instance France, we find the middle classes there acting for generations as the most faithful allies of the Monarchy, and, when at last driven by economic necessity to espouse the cause of political freedom, assuming towards it an attitude full of reserve, hesitation, and uncertainty. In spite of the thunders of Mirabeau, and the glowing eloquence of the Girondists, they were ever ready to compromise and bargain with the king and aristocracy, not unwilling to renounce some of their most important demands for the sake of peace and friendliness. Were it not for the populace of Paris, which took the destinies of France into its own hands, the Bourbon Monarchy would never have been over­thrown, the power of feudalism never swept away, and the sovereign rights of the people never proclaimed. It was the people at large, the street mob, the man in the blouse and the fisherwoman, who saved France from the storm-cloud of despotic Europe - not the middle classes; it was the sans culottes, with their bloody days of September and the Reign of Terror, who stamped out with red-hot iron, as it were, the aristocratic gangrene in the land - not the bourgeoisie. It was, on the other hand, the latter which, as soon as it had gained the upper hand, abolished universal suffrage and insti­tuted the Directory - that infamous Government which for ever remains an indelible blot on the annals of modern Europe. It was the latter which, seeking refuge from the dangers of the awakening of the proletariat, threw itself into the arms of the little corporal and restored the Monarchy, renewed the aristocracy, and finally recalled the Bourbons. It is a disgusting picture - the events of 1795-1815 - but still more so is the nightmare of 1848. The bourgeoisie dreamt least of all of overthrowing the Throne and estab­lishing a Republic; aiming only at certain concessions, it did not go further than speech-making and pamphlet-writing, and those it stopped at the first wink of Guizot. It was, again, the people of Paris - this time the genuine proletariat - which threw up barricades, fought in the streets, and drove the Monarchy bag and baggage out of the land, whilst the patriotic middle class politicians, with Odillon Barrau, Thiers, and other criers, were hiding themselves in their houses, and even in the provinces. Only after the revolution had been accomplished, and the leaders of the proletariat were possession of the field, did the gallant champions of freedom return to Paris and declare themselves - God knows by what authority and moral right - as the pro­visional Government. Everything from that moment went on with a view to betraying the people's cause; forced to take into the Government Louis Blanc and Albert, to give employment to the workers of Paris, and to proclaim a Republic with universal suffrage, the bourgeoisie soon contrived to elect a National Assembly of their own, to exclude from it every dangerous element, and to close the mock national workshops which it previously established. The, proletariat rose - and a terrible answer was given to its demands in the shape of a ruthless slaughter and torrents of blood during the ever memorable days of June. The middle classes triumphed, and within four years abolished universal suffrage and sold the Republic to the first adventurer. Since then it has had the Republic forced upon it once more, but everyone knows what a distorted shape civil freedom has received at the hands of the French bourgeoisie.

Still worse, perhaps, was the case in Germany. Those whose memories are fresh from reading Marx's trenchant little book, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution," might remember what a pitiful spectacle the German middle classes presented during the struggle of 1848. Here, too, the initiative of the movement belonged to the proletariat of Vienna, Berlin, and other big towns, where, too, the bourgeoisie revealed itself as a set of contemptible cowards, recoiling by all available means from the task thrust upon them. Drunkards and liars, incapacitated in mind and in body, they assembled in Frankfort to draw up a scheme of a Constitution, and spent a whole year in miserable squabbles till they were ignominiously dismissed by the Prussian king. The whole brunt of the fight was borne by the working classes; it was they who expelled Metternich, who shed their blood in Berlin, Baden, and elsewhere, who forced Frederick William IV. to promise a federal government, who extorted the Constitution of '66, and wrung from Bismarck universal suffrage.

It would, greatly exceed the limits of this article were we to attempt to pass under review the history of every European country; suffice it to say that whenever on the Continent we find those civil and personal rights in existence which go by the collective name of Constitutional Liberty we are sure to find at the same time the part played by the middle-classes in gaining them to have been not only of a far less important nature than was the case in England, but even reduced sometimes to zero, if not actually to a minus. This is not due to mere chance, or, as some Britishers might be inclined to imagine, to the inferior stuff of which the Continental middle-classes have been made, but is the direct result of the peculiar historical conditions under which those classes were placed during the process of their growth and development. For, not enjoying the same natural opportunities for trade and industry as their brethren of this country, they have had, over and above it, to surmount enormous difficulties in the shape of endless wars and other commotions which prevented the necessary accumulations of capital, &c., and never were, in consequence of it, so strong and numerous as not to need the protection which the Monarchy, appreciating their value as fiscal elements and allies in the struggle against the arrogant feudal aristocracy, readily afforded them. In fact, it was only through this help that the middle-classes in most of the European countries reached manhood at all, and small wonder if, when demanding political freedom, they have been neither able to put, nor perhaps justified in putting, their interests in the same direct and uncompromising opposition to those of the Monarchy as the middle classes of England did. Hence the half-hearted and very often weak-kneed stand they made against absolutism at the moment of struggle, and the spirit of compromise they so frequently revealed.

To the same end yet another factor of a kindred nature was contributed. Being, as we have just seen, of an impeded and weakly growth, the middle-classes, unlike those of this country, have attained their class-consciousness at a very late date in history, so that their agitation for political rights in a majority of cases coincided with, if not followed, the moment when the economic forces were already producing a cleavage in the social body and the antagonisms between the property-owning and wage-earning classes began already to tell with a more or less marked distinction. Naturally, when compelled at last to enter the field of battle, the Continental bourgeoisie has had to face a dilemma of which the English in their time had no idea, namely, either to do without the co-operation of the proletariat and be sure to lose, or to associate it in the work, but then to allow it an equal share in the spoil, Either prospect was unpleasant, and the bourgeoisie, in its endeavours to reconcile irreconcilables, landed at once in a policy of half-measures, hypocrisy and treachery, such as we have seen in France and in Germany. It is this cardinal difference between the parts played in history by the middle classes of England and of the Continent respectively that accounts for the failure of Socialism in the former and for its success on the latter. For one need not be possessed of a great penetration of mind to understand what a tremendous object-lesson in class-consciousness the working classes must have been taught in those countries where the bourgeoisie not only showed itself devoid of ability and willingness to win for the nation its civil freedom, leaving the task of accomplishing it to theproletariat, but was at every step demonstrating its antagonism to the latter by the care it invariably took of shutting it out from participation in the political rights of the community, and the readiness it often revealed of selling its very liberty in order to achieve this end. The working classes of the Continent were thus enabled early to discern the gulf which separates them from their masters, and to perceive on the field of politics those incompatibilities of their mutual interests which the social forces have not as yet brought out with sufficient clearness on the field of economics. From this there was but a short step to the growth in their midst of a kind of esprit de corps, and then of a sense of class solidarity, on which a few decades later Socialism was easily able to engraft itself.

How very different stands the case with England! The middle classes there having fulfilled their great political mission long before the appearance of the modern proletariat, the latter has never had the opportunity of coming with them into a conflict on that ground on which the inner antagonisms between the two classes receive their first and most palpable expression. It has thus missed a lesson in social practice and theory which enriched so much the experience of the Continental workers, and has been the more unable to understand the real state of things, as the English Constitution, having been worked out at a moment when the middle classes could not have as yet anything to fear from below, contained no trace of class legislation which would open the proletarian's eyes as to the position of his masters in the social and economic world. Besides, being brought up in a spirit of unqualified reverence and esteem which the historical work of the English bourgeoisie could not but command, the proletariat of this country was naturally inclined rather to associate itself with it than to dissociate, and so the gospel of Socialism, preaching class-war, fell upon an entirely unprepared ground, and failed in consequence to strike root.

The causes which have operated in the past are still, to a great extent, operating at the present moment. Whilst in England the progress which Democracy undoubtedly makes every day is mainly due to the initiative and leadership of the middle classes, so that even such distinctly working class legislation as the Factory Acts, the abolition of the combination laws, and the legalisation of the status of the trade unions has been secured by their efforts rather than by those of the proletariat, it is the latter which in the rest of Europe appears as the chief champion of the civil and personal rights of the people. The Continental bourgeoisie, in its fear for its property, has long since thrown overboard what little progressive ballast it had possessed in the first half of the present century, and the democratic ideals have been left to the care of the working classes, to whom the question of constitutional liberty is of vital importance, comprising, as it does, the rights of combination, free speech, and others, without which their position is even worse than slavery. No wonder that this has made the proletariat the object of sympathy on the part of every honest man not directly interested in its exploitation, and that Socialism, which makes the conquest and maintenance of political freedom one of the chief planks of its programme, gains adherents every day from every section of the community. One need only carefully consider the state of things in France, where the bourgeoisie tramples under foot the elementary rights of citizenship, and is prepared to sell the country to any general possessed of a "black charger"; or in Germany, where the bulk of the middle classes, in their zeal for the favour of monarchy and its Pomeranian Junkerdom, scarcely hesitates to mortgage the budget rights of the Parliament to pass exceptional laws against different sections of the community, and even to abolish universal suffrage; or in Italy, where wanton corruption and glaring abuses of adminis­trative power are allowed to pass without heeding for the sole reason of certain "high" personages standing at their source; or in Russia, where the Liberal sections of the middle classes have demonstrated their incapacity and cowardice over and over again, and the rest are mere slaves, ready at any time to lick the boot of their master - one needs only consider this to understand what a tremendous and attractive force Socialism must possess in these countries, being, as it is, the most, if not the only, implacable enemy of despotism, and the greatest vindicator of civil liberty human societies ever had. It is this circumstance which makes the ranks of Continental Socialists swell at every turning of history - no man can remain honest but he enters the political army of the proletariat; and it is the very absence of this which constitutes the chief barrier to the advent of Socialism in this country. The antagonism between the property-owning and the wage earning classes may well be greater in England than elsewhere, but so long as they remain hidden under the common solidarity of interest in democratic progress, and do not appeal to the direct class sense of the proletariat by way of political opposition, the hope for the success of Socialism on these islands must remain meagre. True to its historical traditions, the English bourgeoisie still figures as a progressive element - politically speaking, of course - of the community, and, far from having spent its vital force, and being uneasy about its social position, still moves in the direction of Democracy, allowing the working classes an equal share in the civil life of the country. What wonder is it, then, that the latter do not perceive the contradictions inherent in the social system of the day, but repudiate Socialism as a phantastic conception, fit and proper, perhaps, for the Continent, but wholly unapplicable to this country?

It would be erroneous on the part of the reader to infer from the above that since Socialism on the Continent is largely dependent for its success on political causes, the Socialist movement there is, to a great extent, composed of merely Radical elements, and is bound to come to an end as soon as political freedom becomes the normal basis a national life. As regards the first, one must remember that what drives many an earnest and thinking man towards embracing Socialism is not so much the mere absence of political rights in the country - for that matter they could have formed parties of their own - as the contemptible part played by the bourgeoisie in civic life, siding, as it always does, with reaction as against the claims of Democracy. This opens the eyes of those men as to the real position of the bourgeoisie in the social world, and having thus caught a glimpse of the class antagonisms on the field of politics, they soon, when once in the Socialist ranks, find out the economic antagonisms as well, and turn from bourgeois Radicals into avowed Socialists. As regards the other of these inferences, it is easy to see that the Continental middle-classes being what they are, political liberty in Continental countries can be firmly established only when the proletariat takes possession of the political machinery of the land; but this means not only a political, but also a social revolution - that is, the realisation of those objects for the attainment of which Socialism fights. It is therefore true that the advent of a genuine and permanent Democracy in France, England and elsewhere will spell the end of the Socialist movement in this country, but not because it will be discredited, but for the reason of that Democracy being at the same time Social-Democracy.

Thus we see that that very circumstance - the early development of industry and of the bourgeoisie - which in the opinion of most of our Socialists ought to have been the cause of a rapid and vigorous growth of Socialism constitutes the chief reason for its failure; it is exactly because the middle classes of England entered the social and political arena at an early date that the proletariat is now unable to see the true nature of the relations which exist between them. Were it otherwise, had the middle classes attained their full growth at a later period of history, so that in their battle for political freedom they would have had to fight on two fronts, the proletariat of this country would have received their lesson in class solidarity and class-consciousness at a very early date, and Socialism would have flourished here the same as on the Continent.[1]

Such is the proper answer to be given to the question put at the head of this article, and what may be its bearing on the future destinies of this country will be explained on some other occasion.



[1] In a recent number of JUSTICE I find "Tattler" mentioning the case of an Austrian comrade who, on arriving in this country and becoming acquainted with its institutions, exclaimed: "Were we to enjoy such, political opportunities as the working classes of England, we should have the Social Revolution within twenty-four hours." This exclamation is very characteristic of the confused state of opinions most Socialists have on the conditions of the success or failure of Socialism; they, or, as in the case at hand, the Austrian comrade, seem not to grasp the fact that the political institutions in his country are such as they are because the middle classes there have played a very miserable part in the past and are still playing it at the present. Had this part been more brilliant, political liberty would certainly have enjoyed a better prestige in Austria than it does, but then the proletariat, would not have met with the same experience as it meets to-day, and met still more in the past, and Socialism would not have made such enormous strides as it did. Both facts - an important political structure and the popularity of Socialism - are thus two correlative results of the work of one and the same factor, and to dissociate them one from the other is just as reasonable as to dissociate light and heat coming from the same source - the sun.