Th. Rothstein 1908

The Debate on Unemployment

Source: Justice, 08 February 1908, p. 6;
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

A whole sitting devoted to the consideration of the unemployed problem is in our days of slow social progress undoubtedly something to be thankful for. It is quite true that, to judge by the sparse attendance in the House, the interest evinced by the majority of the people's representatives in the matter was not very great. Still, the bare fact, that a question which had hitherto been carefully avoided as much by the capitalist classes as by the so-called aristocracy of labour, should have engaged tie attention of the House of Commons for a whole afternoon, shows that the anti-Socialist campaign, which has now lasted for well-nigh eighteen months, is not wholly dictated by Tariff Reform tactics, but is in a sense a genuine expression of fear on the part of our rulers of the growth of Socialist consciousness in the rank and file of the British proletariat.

To the extent to which the Labour Party is itself the product of that rising consciousness, it may claim the credit for having brought that debate on. We willingly concede its members that credit, and offer them our thanks, in the name both of our party and the working class in general. But we are not prepared to go much further and to express our gratification also with the way in which they managed the debate. In our opinion the debate moved throughout at a very low level—so low indeed, that Burns was quite justified expressing his “high satisfaction” with its character and challenging Mr. MacDonald “to make the same speech in the same tone on some other occasion in other parts the country.” But for one or two expressions of Socialist feeling, and Socialist thought on the part of Corran, there would have been no indication that the discussion had been initiated by others than members of the Liberal Party in opposition. Mr. MacDonald spoke something about a “new power” and “new enthusiasm,” but he was careful not to call the spade a spade and never pointed out that the “social organisation” to whose failure he attributed the phenomenon on unemployment is none other than our dear capitalist system, with its anarchical production for profit, instead of for use. Likewise Curran spoke of the monopoly in land and the introduction of machinery, but he, too, stopped at the land without extending the argument to other means of production, and failed to point out the essential background on which this topsy-turvy action of machinery could take effect at all. These were not mere accidental omissions—they are highly characteristic of the “scientific” a frame of mind in which the speakers approached the question under discussion. The question of unemployment is for them “one of the most difficult questions with which any Minister could be called open to deal”—small wonder that they themselves felt diffident about the task and fought shy of the “crude” Socialist theories which have a ready solution for it.

But by placing themselves in the position of a Minister in a Liberal Government and directing the discussion into the channels of orthodox political economy, with its fetishism of Free Trade and vulgar theories of “under-consumption,” our Labour men themselves supplied their opponents with weapons with which the whole of their “scientific frame” could easily be upset. And Mr. Cox did it not less effectually than John Burns. The argument of the former that the “Labour members had never yet suggested producing things which the nation really wanted,” but confined themselves to the proposal “to set the baker and the shoemaker to work planting trees on the top of a Scotch moor,” was really, on the plane on which the debate had been conducted by the Labour members, unanswerable; and the remark of the same speaker that “unemployment was really part of the larger question of poverty” was a splendid snub to the “scientific frame” of mind of Mr. MacDonald and his colleagues, which they were not able to parry from the position in which they had placed themselves. And Jack the Renegade, too, was able to play havoc with the scientific pretensions of the Labour men by quoting a number of statistical facts which in themselves were wholly irrelevant, but which were unanswerable from the point of view of vulgar political economy. Indeed, if the phenomenon of unemployment is not essentially rooted in the capitalist form of production, but is merely “the expression of the failure of the social organisation,” as Mr. MacDonald put it in that hazy and grandiloquent way which is his own, then surely the facts enumerated by Burns with regard to the decline of the death rate, the proportionate decrease of pauperism, the rise of wages, etc., tend to show that there has been no such failure as alleged, and that, on the contrary, the social organisation is becoming more and more perfect without any change in its fundamentals. To have pointed out that not the movement of the general death-rate, but that of the infantile death-rate, was a true criterion of social progress; that to quote the figures of declining pauperism without mentioning at the same time the administrative measures which are being taken to deter the poor from applying for poor-law relief, was misleading; that if, alongside the figures showing the rise of wages, other figures showing the rise of the prices of most of the necessities of life as well as of figures showing the rise of incomes of the middle and upper classes, had been quoted, the picture would have been different: that instead of frightening his listener, by a picture of overcrowding in Berlin—a picture drawn up with the help of suppressing the essential fact that what he called houses in Berlin were really conglomerations of tenements such as we meet in the London West-End—and expatiating on the evil habit of English children to associate among themselves and of thus catching measles from one another instead of going quietly hone, as German children do (!), Burns would have done better to quote figures relating to the physical deterioration of the working-class children and compare the statistics of emigration from England and Germany; to have pointed out this and much else besides, would have meant to draw up an indictment of the present capitalist-cum-FreeTrade society, and for this our Labour members who are so anxious to appear “judicious” and “reasonable” were not prepared. It is a great pity that the debate was closured immediately after John Burns had spoken—we were deprived of the pleasure of seeing by what means, without leaving the ground they had chosen, our friends would have extricated themselves from the quagmire in which they had “scientifically” placed themselves.

But if we are not quite satisfied with the Labour men, we are, on the other hand, thoroughly satisfied with John Burns. Thrice blessed be the moment when he was appointed President of the L.G.B. We always envied our Continental comrades in that they had agitators even in the enemy's ranks. We ourselves can no longer complain on that head. John Burns is now a much better agitator than he ever was before, and his speech last Thursday deserves being distributed far and wide. His harangue on the evils of indiscriminate charity, as illustrated by his own adventure at the Salvation Army shelter, was excellent both in taste and as an argument, and his glorification of that lovely institution, the workhouse, as one of the bulwarks of the present social order against the propaganda of Louise Michel and other Communists, deserves to be placarded all over the country. Not less handsome was his allusion to the squadrons of police in Berlin hidden at the end of the streets, with clubs drawn up—a thing quite unheard-of in this happy country, as Burns himself could testify from his delightful experience in the days, now, alas, gone by; and his desire “to see Germany better off than she was” shows how generous a man can be even if he himself is blessed with plenty. We have no doubt his masters are delighted with him, and the more they are so the better for us. As between his successes and Mr. MacDonald's failures Socialism in these islands has nothing to lose, it will the sooner prove itself the only political creed by which the proletariat will effect its emancipation.