T. H. Wintringham

The End of an Experiment

Source: The Plebs, December 1924, pp.461-465
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). 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.

So much good water-power has flowed under the bridges since the autumn of 1923 that it is difficult for us to throw our minds back to that period. But the effort is necessary, for the autumn of 1923 is the standard by which we have to judge the facts—and fancies—of the last twelve months. It represents the normal dull level of capitalism in a crisis of stagnation, from which the pale pink froth of more recent episodes must not distract our attention.

It is important because in 1923 the realities of the economic situation were more evident and more widely realised than they have been since. Before the Protection crusade was launched, and while the debate on inflation was growing in bitterness, there was a period of political uncertainty in which a steady growth of the desire to do something—no matter what—to release industry and trade from their depression was obvious.

The Westminster Bank Review estimated that production as a whole during 1923 was only 88 per cent. of 1913. (When considering any such figure, it must be remembered that in many basic industries productive capacity greatly increased during the war). If in a few months’ time the Westminster Bank Review estimates production as a whole during 1924, it will almost certainly show it as somewhere between 86 per cent. and 90 per cent, of 1913. The number of unemployed in September, 1923, was 1,354,750, a figure which, with due allowance for those working short time, means that some 10 per cent. to 12 per cent. of the available labour-power of the nation was lying rusting. This figure corresponds fairly well with a level of production 12 per cent. below the 1913 standard. (Unemployment in September, 1924, was 1,163,600.)

In 1923 imports were (in volume) 89 per cent. of 1913, re-exports 70 per cent., and exports of British goods 69 per cent. (Figures are not available for imports and exports in 1924.) One more illustration of my point: the pound sterling, on September 2 2nd, 1923, was worth 4.54 dollars. On September 22nd, 1924, it was worth 4.46 dollars.

That was the position in 1923—under production, depression and inability to reach the gold standard. The same position rules to-day.

The things they had to face were not only conditions of depression at home, although it was those conditions that provided the main spur to action. They feared a revolution in Germany; they feared a Franco-German industrial combination; they were conscious all the time of the threat of America to throw her financial weight into the scales on the side of France and against Britain. Something had to be done about it. . . .

Some said, “Try a dose of inflation.” Others, “Withdraw from Europe and re the Empire as an economic unit.” But those who won in the elections of 1923 were those who said, “Accept America’s terms, settle Europe, and open the Russian market.”

The only link between Lloyd George and Mr. Wheatley, as elements of an electoral majority and later of a governing “bloc,” was that of agreement on the stabilisation of Europe. But even while that stabilisation was being carried through, doubts began to rise in the minds of large sections of the British industrialists as to its likely effects. Many industrialists saw ahead of them not new markets but new competition; and this was perhaps the basis for the Liberal Party’s entirely unscrupulous repudiation of the Dawes Plan during the 1924 elections, when they flooded the South Wales valleys with leaflets showing how stabilising Germany and perpetuating reparation coal deliveries was hitting the British coal industry. It would be a mistake to treat the vigorous campaign again the Dawes Plan carried on by the Daily Mail and its associates before and during the elections as a piece of political irresponsibility. The interests of all small industrialists, of the traders and shopkeepers catering for the home market, and of investors whose money is locked up in home industries are against the Dawes Plan.

On November 9th Sir Robert Home issued a manifesto in the Sunday Express warning British industry against the effects of the Dawes Plan, and calling for Protection by some less clumsy weapon than the Safeguarding of Industries Act. This movement is at present confined to those outside the Cabinet, for the good reason that “it does not do” as yet for responsible politicians to come out against stabilisation openly.

We now have the situation where the German nationalists opposed to the Dawes Plan are gradually taking heart from Baldwin’s accession to power. Herriot labours in considerable difficulties and if Baldwin refuses to ratify the League of Nations protocol, the political conditions necessary for Herriot’s government will have gone. The concessions which on all sides were considered necessary to find agreement on some “way out” of the morass of 1923— England to avoid the conditions of crisis which we have already mentioned, France to avoid a collapse of the franc—have now achieved all that they can do. The high-water mark of capitalist internationalism has for the moment been reached. Now again each national group looks to the interests of its own national capitalism; and as a result, undeclared and hidden, the Anglo-French conflict will inevitably re-appear. For the policy of the party that has come to power (under the phrases and the politeness of Mr. Chamberlain) must necessarily be a policy of a free hand for British industry and insular finance in Europe.

The workers have not appeared yet in this analysis. Their pressure was one of the factors that induced British capitalism to try the great experiment of a MacDonald—government. There was a very definite hope, which only faded gradually, that a Labour Government could introduce peaceful co-operation into industry; i.e., keep the worker quiet. The remark of a Labour minister, Mr. Tom Shaw, that “it was hopeless at present even to dream of” compulsory arbitration, shows that he knew what was expected of him, as it also shows his inability to obey.

There was also the hope in the minds of many of those who followed Lloyd George and put Labour into power in January, 1924, that Labour would discredit itself by inefficiency in capitalist administration on the one hand, and in the eyes of the working- class movement on the other. This hope has not been entirely disappointed. The Labour government’s inability to deal effectively with strikes and “left-wing” propaganda ploughed a rich soil for Rothermere and the Foreign Office to manure. On the other hand, both action and inaction of the Labour government caused disaffection among the working class. Those affected by the government’s action were generally close enough to the revolutionary movement to remain “Labour” despite their disappointment, but among half-awakened circles there was a more dangerous feeling: “What has the Labour government done for the working man?”

What the Labour government had done for Imperialism in India or Egypt for the edification of food profiteers or building trusts, or for the interests of J. P. Morgan, did not affect these people. What they did feel vaguely was that all this Socialism was so much talk, that nothing had been done—no big schemes of employment launched, few houses built, no profiteers hung. . . . These are the Fascisti of the future, if Labour continues on its present lines; and it is their questions that those who are trying to influence and educate the workers along working-class lines must answer first. Their existence already is shown by the voting figures; of Labour’s million extra votes some came from the Liberals, some were gained by the seventy-two extra candidates put up, most came from that section of the working class which did not realise that there was a Labour movement until a Labour government took office. But there were definite signs that a body of Labour voters had swung right over.

To sum up: British capitalism still remains in the trough of depression. The interests which see themselves menaced either by a revival of German capitalism or of French capitalism, or both, are beginning to grumble at what “stabilisation” along the lines of the Dawes Plan involves. No one, of course, as yet attacks the Dawes scheme openly, but the capitalist campaign in that direction is on its way.

There are already signs that American tutelage is to be fought, and the mobilisation against America may be seen very soon. In the Daily Herald for October 29th, two members of the left wing of the Labour movement attacked the Times because of the American affiliations of its owners and spoke of this state of affairs as “a veiled menace to the sovereignty of our people.” It is always the most useful work that recruiting agents can do to persuade the Labour movement that the war, present or to come, is just and righteous. Hence it is strange to notice that these two members of the left wing should have chosen exactly the right slogan—“No Dictatorship from Wall Street.” The capitalists on the other hand, are more cautious as yet. The Evening Standard has urged that the time is ripe for reconsideration of the whole question of Allied debts to U.S.A. It seems likely to be this kind of sentiment, this mobilisation against the policy of sharing loot with French and American capitalism, which will replace the experiment of stabilisation and of Labour government. The national “sovereignty” of British capitalism has in the new government of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Churchill an able advocate.

The shape of British capitalism’s reaction to Wall Street’s policy of “encroaching control” in Europe cannot be, at present, political. Tariffs will enter into it, and the American Merchant Marine is always a vulnerable target. But probably the main lines of “advance” will be in China and a serious attempt to save the Dominions from falling under American domination will he made.

This roughly seems to be the specific conceived by the sections of British capitalism that have come to power. Before the end of the present Parliament it may have to be shortened to a word of three letters—“War.”