Th. Rothstein 1919

A Revolutionary Municipal Policy

Pseudonym: John Bryan
Source: The Call, 27 November 1919, p. 5 (1,267 words)
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.

Labour has gained a brilliant victory in the local elections, and the B.S.P. has had a good share in it. As a social and political symptom it is of transcendent importance; but what use are the victors going to make of it? It is clear that so far as the B.S.P. is concerned, its old programme, inherited from the S.D.P., drawn up as it was many years ago in time of “social peace,” and in the spirit of the then prevailing conditions, can no longer apply in full, On the other hand, the party has had as yet no opportunity for drawing up a new one, and our elected representatives are confronted with, practically, a tabula rasa, a clean unwritten sheet. What shall we do? Where shall we begin? And by what guiding principles shall we direct our action?

In the old days when we had before us still a great and unknown distance to traverse towards the revolution, we regarded our programme of reforms, whether local or national, as so many makeshifts for the working-class living, and condemned to live for a good while yet, under Capitalism. We demanded this and demanded that on the basis of Capitalism, and with a view to the preservation and the augmentation of the strength of the working-class under Capitalism. It is obvious that the position is now different Whether the bulk of the working-class is conscious of it or not, we, of the B.S.P. know that the world, and this country, too, has entered upon a period of revolution, that the situation is everywhere, including our own country, charged with political and economic dynamite, and that therefore our task is no longer to ask for reforms on the basis of Capitalism, and with a view to the preservation and augmentation of the strength of the Working-class under Capitalism, but directly to prepare the working-class for the revolution by helping the educational work which is being performed among the masses, by the economic and political forces released and created by the war and the Russian Revolution.

How are we to do it from the vantage ground which we and Labour have just gained in the local elections? Obviously, our prime task ought to be to demonstrate to the working-class, to our electors, that any real reform which can ameliorate their condition is incompatible with the present order of society, and will be opposed tooth and nail by the Capitalist parties on the local bodies and, if needs be, also by the State in the shape of restrictive legislation and administrative prohibition. Take, for instance, the housing business, in respect of which the local bodies are supposed to have certain powers. The old housing Acts are, of course, even more inadequate than they ever were before. Even if the Capitalist parties of the councils should agree to their application, they would not meet the crying needs of the hour owing to their slowness, expense, and narrow scope. We must demand a much more drastic housing activity. We must demand that all vacant lands should immediately be seized by the councils (the question of compensation to be settled afterwards) and large proper dwelling houses be built upon them. We must also demand that all insanitary dwellings should immediately be confiscated by the council, and turned into healthy houses. Lastly, we must demand the immediate requisitioning of all large mansions for the housing of the poor and the homeless. In pre-war time such demands would have met with an incredulous and almost pitying smile on the part of the workers themselves. At present their mere formulation would arouse the enthusiasm of the masses, they would certainly meet with the approval of and they would be supported by the entire working-class population in the local area. But will the Capitalist parties on the council accept them? We doubt it. Yet every worker will see that the measures proposed are the only measures capable of meeting the needs of the moment, and their rejection by the other parties will have a great revolutionary educational effect upon them.

Or take the question of school education, on which the local authorities have some say. There are no teachers and no school buildings. The proper remedy for this scandal—and under the present conditions, the only one—is to double the salaries of the teachers and to requisition at once a number of large buildings. It is drastic, but it will be intelligible to the working-class in its new mood, and if rejected by the other parties on the councils or vetoed by the Board of Education will have a great revolutionary effect on the workers. It is similar with the entire range of children's welfare, so far as the local authorities are concerned. A municipal milk supply, hot school breakfasts, municipal care of orphans of abandoned, abnormal and criminal children—all this must figure in our programme of immediate demands, along with others such as a six hours’ day for workers engaged, directly or indirectly, on council work, municipal control of the employment exchanges, assumption of all financial liability in respect of social insurance of workers employed by the councils, etc. In respect of finance we must demand the entire abolition of the present rating system and the introduction of the municipal property and income tax to be levied in conjunction with the national income law, as the main source of local revenue.

It is not the intention of the present writer to enumerate all the thousand and one things which Labour must now insist upon obtaining in the teeth of all opposition. In all such demands the guiding idea must be real reform, and not, what the opponents may be likely to concede—revolutionary tactics, and not opportunist. This applies equally to the cases where the opponents are the Capitalist parties or the Government, and where our B.S.P. representatives are faced with timidity or folly of the rest of the Labour group. In other words, we, the B.S.P., must fight for such reforms against not only our class opponents, but also, if necessary, against our own colleagues. And in order to do it effectively and at the same time to bring the lessons nearer home to the working-class, we must not confine our activity to the floor of the council chamber, but must constantly appeal for the support and the sympathy of the masses by holding electors' meetings to explain our programme, and our action, to make them judge as between ourselves and our Capitalist or other opponents on this or other concrete issue, to send in deputations to the council in support of the measures we introduce, and if necessary, to demonstrate outside the council chamber against the Capitalist and other parties. In fact, there must be a constant and living contact between our representatives and the masses outside, for which purpose it may also be found advisable to organise our electors in a permanent body with a committee to act as the advisors to the Labour group. And wherever Labour is in a majority on the Council it should act with courage and, by appeals to the masses outside, try to carry out all the necessary measures regardless of all consequences.

In this way we shall educate the masses, increase their resentment against the Capitalist rule and gain them over to the idea that Capitalism must be abolished if their condition is to be radically improved. We must turn the local councils into so many forts from which to assail the Capitalist order.