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Arne Swabeck

The British Scene

The Unemployment Problem

(August 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 17, 1 August 1931, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Two years ago when the British Labor Party won the parliamentary elections, aided by its glittering promises of gradual development into “socialism” and of a definite cure for the unemployment situation, it naturally stood out in bold contrast to the reactionary Baldwin Tory government. However, when in power, the labor agents of imperialism, even to attain their promised reforms, would be compelled to go beyond the bounds of reformism and engage in a struggle with the actual rulers of the system from which they would again have to draw certain revolutionary conclusions. Such are the relations between yesterday and today. And in politics, it is one thing to promise and another thing to attain. Of course, the MacDonald coterie of leadership never had any serious intentions with their promised reforms.

But the working masses who expected something from their support of MacDonald have received nothing but disillusionment. What, among the grotesque figures in knee-breeches at the British court, may be considered quite brilliant victories won in the diplomatic field, are not worth a brass farthing to the masses. On the contrary, it has only helped further to reduce their position and hence their dissatisfaction with the “labor” government is now growing apace. Thus the future does hold promises for the British workers, and far more real than MacDonald’s election promises. The future holds promises of defeat of the disgraceful illusions of laborism.

In the two major problems facing the British working class directly at home to which splendid promises had been given, those of the unemployment situation and the repeal of the anti-trade union act, the “labor” government failed signally – or what would be more correct to say – it acted precisely as a government, capitalist also in name, would have acted.

The Serious Unemployment Situation

At the time of the liberal labor politicians taking over the golden reins of his majesty’s government, in June 1920 there were a total of 1,100,125 unemployed officially registered. On July 6, 1931, their numbers had more than doubled and were 2,634,288. The dole system initiated in 1920 and intended then as a temporary measure, has since become permanent in character. And while the weight of the dole is becoming rather irksome to British capitalist society the “labor” cabinet is considering means of lightening this “burden” by shifting the load to the backs of the workers.

It attempted to substitute migration of the unemployed to the Dominions. But this had to be discarded even by the hidebound reactionary Jimmie Thomas lord privy seal and first minister of unemployment. The Dominions, having such problems of their own, did not want the unemployed. He found a perplexing problem and succeeded in getting relief only for himself in form of a change to the Dominions. His successor to tackle the unemployment problem, Vernon Hartshorn, died in office. So while the unemployment problem remained and became more acute, all parties, – exclusive, of course, of the Communist party –, were called upon for help. The Royal Commission was created and it returned a report for a cut in the dole and an increase of payments to the fund. According to the report unemployment relief would be reduced, for example for a family with three children, from $8.00 weekly to $7.25. Workers with jobs would be required to pay to the unemployment fund 4 cents more weekly, employers 2 cents and the state 3 cents more. However, this was too raw even for the “labor” government to support. It would have become dynamite to the growing dissension within its own party ranks, so it confined itself to sponsoring a bill for the elimination of “abuses” of the dole evidently hoping that in the process, in committee, more teeth could be put into the bill. For the sake of facilitation Snowden had already announced, prior to presenting his budget, that, only “drastic and disagreeable means” would prevent the country from slipping into bankruptcy.

The Communist Party and Unemployment

It seems quite paradoxical that the British Communist Party has proven itself almost entirely unable to take advantage of this long protracted serious unemployment problem. It has, of course, religiously observed all the Stalinist calendar dates of unemployment demonstrations, but they have become mainly formal exercises. Their significance as well as the number of participants have dwindled. The party in the unemployment situation has not been able to set the workers into motion around a revolutionary perspective, nor to instill the life and spirit necessary to advance.

The crux of the party’s demands has been to shift the burden of unemployment from the workers to the bourgeoisie. Thus its outlook became limited to one of a purely national reformist character. It could make little or no distinction from the views of the “Left” within the labor party and the trade union officials who contend that if the state – that is the capitalist state – cannot assure work for its citizens it must provide them with a free living. For the workers there could hardly be anything else to do than attempt as best as they could to adjust themselves to the “inevitable” dole. Until the British Communist Party is able to extricate itself from such views it will remain pretty well paralyzed.

The Anti-Trade Union Act

The vicious Trades Dispute and Trade Union Act, legislated by the preceding Baldwin government after it had become so frightened during the general strike, increased the miners’ workday from seven to eight hours; it prohibited any coercive strike over wages or similar disputes which may tend to have a direction against the established order; it prohibited civil service employees from joining unions; finally it also prohibited any levy upon trade unions for political purposes. To the liberal labor party lackeys this latter clause became the only real obnoxious part and accounts for their zeal in election promises to repeal the act. But then, after assuming power a way was easily found to overcome that.

So when the so-called bill of repeal was promulgated it could easily be allowed to be ditched and die in committee. Meanwhile when the Scottish and Welsh miners fought against the spread-over (the eight hour day) and to uphold the more recent Coal Miners Act which provided first for a seven and a half-hour day and by July a seven-hour day, MacDonald advised the miners to accept the spread-over in return for a promised minimum wage law for miners.

To expect from this champion of gradualness to sponsor a movement for the shorter workday to relieve unemployment would, of course, be ridiculous. His “gradualness” leads in the opposite direction knowing, as he does that the shorter workday would cut directly into the absolute surplus value still pocketed by the lords of finance and industry. Yet it is absolutely certain that the productive capacity of British industry and the output per man has grown to an extent making a demand for a six-hour day without reduction of pay as potent as was the demand for the eight-hour day when first advanced. There are at least good reasons to assume that it could become, in the present unemployment situation, a powerful rallying cry for the working class and a means of unifying the employed with the unemployed. It could become a means to help bridge the gulf of the present retreat and defensive toward the working class offensive. From the point of view of building a class movement if utilized by the Communist Party, this slogan could undoubtedly become an effective supplement to the feeble demands of the charter movement. Oh yes, the party has already adopted the seven-hour day slogan; but apparently it overlooks (?) the fact that the seven-hour day today supposed to be law for the coal miners and as a slogan for a movement it could hardly mean much to them.

What Does the Balance Sheet Show?

The salient fact is that the considerable and militant unemployment movement once existing has practically disappeared. The British Communist Party failed to consolidate this movement and to help assure its revolutionary course. It failed in the necessary class education and thus could not raise the general class level of this movement. It is now failing to take advantage of the costly experiences of the British workers who put their fate into an excursion in the degenerate field of laborism. Yet the unemployment problem is still the center of gravity in England pressing ever more acutely for a solution. A beginning can be made only when the masses are actually set into motion upon a definitely revolutionary course.

With its two years in power the Fabian gradualness of reformism has quite clearly revealed its miserable role. From once having played a historically progressive role, it is reaching its inevitable conclusion. At its very apex its true character is being exposed. The labor party leadership as a reactionary obstacle is losing its hold upon the masses. There is today a mighty abyss created by the contradiction between the vital needs of the masses and the reactionary imperialist course of the “labor” government. In this lies the great future prospects for the British Communist Party. Despite all its wasting of the capital of the world revolutionary movement it still has the opportunity to utilize these possibilities.

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