Skip to Content

Economic Liberty versus Political Power

Below we append a letter received from a correspondent bringing forward the above point for answer.

We read in "Economics of Labour" (H. Quelch) p 10, "attempts to secure political power without economic freedom meet with but sorry success," and earlier in the same book (p 4) "it may not be impossible to secure economic liberty by the exercise of a mere shadow of political power which is possible in a state of economic dependence, but it is certain that this shadow of political power has frequently erected nothing in the way of economic liberty, while it is equally certain that men have never long possessed economic freedom without effectually freeing themselves from all political, social or religious disabilities."

Now it seems to me, to free ourselves from the slavedom we are in, necessary to first secure Economic liberty rather than exercise our ''shadow of political power" in the hope of gaining our freedom, and Quelch's remarks certainly support the opinion. I don't suppose you agree with this, hence mi taking the trouble to write upon the matter, yet I will be obliged to you if you will please state your view of the points at issue.—Yours etc..
J. EDWIN GARVEY.

Obviously it is no task of ours to defend or even explain what Mr. Quelch may have said in "Economics of. Labour," but on the face of it the statements will not bear the interpretation placed upon them by Mr. Garvey. We will, however, take his own assertion first, namely, that "to free ourselves from the slavedom we are in" it is "necessary to first secure economic liberty rather than exercise our 'shadow of political power.' " The rejoinder to this is so clear that one wonders how Mr. Garvey missed it; for at once the query arises, "how are you going to obtain this economic liberty?" Unfortunately we are not informed, and here we might leave the matter if it were only a question o£ meeting Mr. Garvey a statement. But many members of the working class are confused over the question of "economic" and "political" power, and the confusion is further spread by the superficial, anarchistic propagandists of so-called Industrial Unionism.

A slight examination suffices to show the essentials of the matter, and to completely meet the objections these people raise against political action.

It is generally stated that the capitalist class rule because they have possession of the means of life—the land, factories, machinery, railways, etc., which are indispensable for the production of material necessaries. This is true so far, but it doesn’t complete the statement. On the land are notice boards warning trespassers that they will be prosecuted; over the factory doors is the legend "No admittance except on business " ; in the stores and warehouses we are reminded that to take any article is called stealing, the punishment for which is prison. Numerically the working class vastly outnumber the capitalist class—according to one writer they are 38,000,030 out of the 44,000,000 persons in the United Kingdom. Evidently, then, it is not the superior power of the capitalists as individuals that enables them, to retain possession of the means of life. Neither can it be it claimed that the notice boards could, of themselves, prevent a person going upon the land, entering a factory, or taking an article out of a shop. And this quite apart from the fact that even to-day a certain number of the workers cannot read, and notice boards would be useless so far as they are concerned, unless they were told what was written thereon. Whence then the control by the capitalists ? How do they remain in the position of dominators ? The answer supplies the key to the problem of working-class action.

When an individual trespasses upon land or factory, or takes a loaf of bread from a shop without payment, the force known as the police is put into motion, and the offender is hauled before a magistrate and dealt with according to law—said law having been devised beforehand to meet such cases in a way we shall presently refer to. If a number of persons too large for the police to handle indulge in these "lawless" acts, or come out on strike against their employers and start demonstrating in a manner to arouse capitalist fear, then the army (as at Belfast and Featherstone) and the navy (as at Hull and Grimsby) are called upon to protect the capitalists and their property, and keep the workers in subjection. So it is by the control of these forces—and in the ultimate by these alone—that the capitalists are able to maintain their economic domination. The "economic supremacy" of the capitalist class would be an empty phrase without the power to enforce their ruling. Obviously, then, the working class must obtain control of these forces before they can free themselves from wage-slavery—before they can enjoy economic liberty. How are they to do this ?

The forces mentioned are maintained out of revenue taken by Parliament, which, at the present stage of development can, and does, use this very force to obtain the revenue. Thus it is seen that it is by controlling Parliament that the working class must get control of the fighting forces so as to use these for their own emancipation. This brings us to the point of "political power." Have the workers this power ? The answer is yes. The quotation from Quelch puts the matter even more strongly, for he says "it may not be impossible to secure economic liberty by the exercise of a mere shadow of political power which is possible in a state of economic dependence." The workers to-day have far more than "a shadow" of political power. They possess an overwhelming majority of the votes and it is these working-class votes that return the capitalists and their representatives into control of Parliament and thereby the continuance of the capitalists' domination. The second portion of the quotation stating "that men have never long possessed economic freedom without effectually freeing themselves from all political, social or religious disabilities" is misleading to one who has not studied the rise of capitalism. The capitalist class did not achieve economic freedom in the full sense of the term 'til they had obtained political control. Before obtaining political power they were subject to King and nobles. Their only "freedom" was freedom to carry on trade and commerce under strict and often very harsh conditions, with the payment of various dues and charges. The severe oppression suffered by the Jews in the middle ages, when economically and financially they occupied a high position, shows how little economic possession is worth in the absence of the power to control its products.

What has to be noticed is that those who were in economic possession—but not control—soon became conscious of their general interests and used every effort to obtain that political power necessary for domination or emancipation Thus through the later stages of Feudalism we find a continued and increasing struggle on. the part of the bourgeoisie for, first a share in, and then the control of, Parliament, the struggle ending in the victory—in the main—of the bourgeoisie in the Civil War of 1642-49. Not until then were they "economically free."

To-day the working class are largely unconscious of what constitutes their own interests. They are thus easily misled by the paid agents of the capitalist class to use the political power they possess against the real interests of the working class. While they are in this state of mind or education "attempts to secure" or enlarge "political power" must of necessity "meet with sorry success" from the point of view of their own advancement.

This, of course, is an answer to the Radical politicians who imagine, or seem to imagine, that it only needs the extension of political power for the millennium to arrive even while the workers are ignorant of their class interests, equally fallacious is the anarchist teaching that the workers should avoid and oppose political action and secure economic liberty first, without attempting to explain how this is to be done. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, draws attention to past history and present circumstances to show how the ruling classes have maintained their position of dominance. From these facts the impregnable position is taken up that it is only by the exercise of its "political power" that the working class will secure "economic liberty."

J.F.
(Socialist Standard, May 1909)