Theo. Rothstein January 1913

“Our” Food Supply

Source: Letter, Justice, p.5, January 18 1913;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I have no wish to re-embark upon the discussion of the question of Armaments; on which we spent so much effort a couple of years ago. It is altogether deplorable that we cannot agree to leave the subject severely alone seeing how urgently in the present state of our Party and our cause in general, our efforts are required in other directions. More, than ever it is necessary for us to maintain our unity and our discipline, and to avoid impairing our strength by discussion, only too well calculated to raise bad blood.

This said, I wish, anent comrade Quelch’s recent article, to offer a few remarks on the subject of “our,” food supply, which, though it has a most direct bearing on the question armaments and serves in the hands of the advocates of a big navy as probably the most telling argument, is nevertheless susceptible of a more academic treatment, and is therefore less calculated to arouse partisan passions. What strikes me most in the view taken of this food question by our comrades Quelch and Hyndman is their easy abandonment of the concrete form, under which this question of food supply arises in our present society conditions and their adoption of the same abstract form of treatment which distinguished the fancies of the old, “vulgar” economists on the subject of the “economic man.” Do our comrades really imagine that the presence of abundant food in these islands at the time of war will secure the population against starvation? It seems they do, because they regard the comparative self-sufficiency of the Continental countries in this respect as constituting their advantage over this country, which has to rely on imports for five-sixths of its food supply, and will therefore be “in deadly peril of being absolutely starved into submission.” Yet it is only necessary to put the question as I have just done it to perceive the fallacy contained in this abstract mode of reasoning. At the time of the civil war in America this country did not suffer much from the momentary disorganisation of her food supplies. At any rate, the records show very little complaint on that head. Yet Lancashire – that is, the workers of Lancashire – were starving in the literal sense of the word. Why? Because the war had stopped the supply of cotton. There being no cotton, the mills stopped, the workers were thrown out in the streets, and not having any money to buy food they starved. Our comrades Quelch and Hyndman simply forget that we are living in a capitalist society producing commodities, and that in consequence food-stuffs no more than any other article of consumption can be had under any conditions except by an exchange of equivalents, in this case simply money. How is it they have forgotten it? How is it that they who otherwise clearly recognise the fallacy and humbug contained in such phrases as “our national wealth” or “our national trade” suddenly forget the suggestion of false which is conveyed by the phrase “our national food supply"?

But if this be so, it is easy to see that our “deadly peril” in case of war will not be so much due to the reduction of “our” food supply as to the dislocation of the trade, the credit, the productive activities of this country, and that it will on that account not be more deadly than the peril which will be incurred by Continental countries. “Just imagine,” said Bebel in the course of a speech before his constituency at Hamburg, on March 26, 1911, “just imagine the kind of ruin that will accompany a modern European war from the very first day of mobilisation. Not only the restriction of food imports from abroad, but also the feeding of the troops summoned to the colours, will so much enhance the price of the necessaries of life that after the lapse of merely a fortnight famine will rage throughout the breadth and length of the land. The Government will have to support, the families of the Reservists and Territorials who have taken the field, and the suspension of trade and navigation will bring about the ruin of numerous businessmen. This was the case already in 1870 and it will be still more terrible in a future War, as Germany’s exports and imports have, since 1870 more than doubled. When I in 1905 brought forward these facts in reply to Prince Bülow, and declared there is a revolution lurking behind every future war, Bülow admitted it, and replied: “That is why we do not make war.”

I recommend these words to the serious reflection of comrades who foresee the most disastrous consequences of a war to follow from the restriction of “our” food supply. It will not be the restriction of the import of foodstuffs which will lead in this country to famine, but the restriction and dislocation of trade and industry, which will bring about wholesale unemployment, and, therefore starvation whatever the food supplies may be. If a contemporary example of what a war means even when food is abundant is needed, we only have to turn to the situation in Austria-Hungary, which, indeed, is not even at war, but has only been affected by the war in the Balkans and is under semi-mobilisation. As everywhere else, the year 1912 began in the Dual Monarchy under the best auspices, and trade, commerce and credit were expanding at a “boom” rate. Yet the last three months of the year proved sufficient to throw the country into an abyss of misery. The heavy expenditure entailed by the mobilisation has rendered money scarce and impaired commercial credit, while the closing of the Balkan markets has ruined many industrial and commercial establishments. I have before me numerous statistical figures of a very startling nature to illustrate the extent of the disaster into which Austria-Hungary has been plunged, but I refrain from quoting them in order not to overload the article. It will be sufficient if I quote the head and cross lines of an article which a prominent, Vienna journal devoted on New Year’s day to a review of the economic history of the past year. These are some of them: “Enormous Depreciation of Securities,” “Restriction of the Export Trade” Increase in the Number Bankruptcies,” “Withdrawal of Investments,” “Heavy Damage to Home Trade,” d,” “Intense Deterioration of the Labour Market” “Suspension of Activity in the Building Trade,” “The Worst Scarcity of Money since Forty Years,” and so forth. Try to describe the phenomena described in these lines and actually characteristic of the economic situation in Austria-Hungary at the close of the year to this country, and you will see that food supply or no food supply the people of these islands – the real people, not the wealthy handful which rules it – will starve at the time of war even sooner and more completely than the Continental countries which, though more secure in their food supplies, have a less intricate economic mechanism and are not so dependent on foreign trade. It thus appears, contrary to Comrade Quelch’s opinion, that the abolition of the right to capture of private property at sea is for England of greater importance than a big Navy to ensure an abundant food supply. The latter may be secured without difficulty but the people will starve all the same, because trade will be dislocated and industry will stop. If, therefore, England be wise she will offer to abandon her old piratical right in exchange for the satisfaction of her demand that food should be excluded from the list of even conditional contraband, as determined by the Declaration of London; But England, even in its Socialist section, is, I am afraid, not wise, and so with all her preponderance in big ships and big guns, she will starve during the next war, whatever ultimately “our” food supply may turn out to be.

For the rest, if the thought of our food supplies in time of war causes such anxiety to our two comrades Hyndman and Quelch, have we no other scheme to advocate for securing them than the building of a big navy at the risk of seeing it used for further Imperial expansion? I seem to remember a certain allusion to them in our old S.D.P. programme, and also a special conference held on the subject a few years ago. Is it all gone by the board?

[We have not had room to reply to the above in this issue, but we shall do so next week – Ed.]