Stumbling blocks


Mr. H. J. Priest (Islington) sends the following five questions, which we answer.

1. Should all reforms be opposed by the members of the S.P.G.B. ?

Our members oppose no reform which benefits the working-class.

We, however, resolutely decline to barter our Socialism for some vague promise of reform that resembles the proverbial pie crust. We decline to support an enemy, who is utterly opposed to us on the most important points, because he promises some minor measure.

Further, practically the whole of the so-called “reforms” at present proposed would not, under present class rule and economic conditions, materially benefit the workers if obtained.

2. Are the reforms for which our forbears fought, useless—e.g., The Factory Acts, Free Speech, and the Education Acts ?

The reforms to which Mr. Priest refers are not useless and have never been characterised as such by the S.P.G.B. They are, however, all echoes of the last class struggle.

The passing of the Factory Acts (particularly that of 1847) was largely due to the Tory landed aristocracy in revenge for the Corn Laws, and in vain attempt to stem the rising tide of manufacture, to stop the desertion of the land for the factory, and to hinder the mill owners in competition with the agriculturists for the available supply of labour power. On the part also of the more far-seeing manufacturers and Tories alike, it was to prevent the loss to the ruling class that would follow the utter degeneration of the working-class goose that laid the golden eggs. How near this was may be judged from Engels “Condition of the Working Class in 1844.”

For long the Factory Acts were rendered practically inoperative by the manufacturers, until they slowly discovered that, in moderation, the Acts did not diminish, but rather increased efficiency, output, and profits. We counsel our friend to examine the present Acts and their working; he will not find much to be proud of.

Free Speech and Education Acts were essential to the development of Capitalism, and were the work of the modern capitalist class on its advent to political power. Free Speech as a necessary corollary to free competition and the development of trade ; Education Acts, in order that the wage slaves should be more efficient and therefore cheaper.

Just as capitalist development renders Socialism inevitable, so also do many of the measures which were indispensable to Capitalism, prepare the way for Socialism in spite of the interests which promoted them.

3. Are the people in Russia fighting for phantoms in fighting for reforms?

This question hangs closely to the previous one, and the subject has been dealt with in No. 6 of this journal. Historically the people of Russia are fighting the battle of middle class emancipation. They are fighting precisely the same battle that our forefathers fought: and this is the secret of capitalist sympathy for Russian revolutionists.

It must not be forgotten how backward Russia is in economic development. Only 12 per cent. of her population live in towns, whilst commerce and great industry are largely in foreign hands. Hence the Russian industrial capitalist has still his emancipation to achieve. Though the populace is (in the towns) largely leavened with Socialist teaching, economic development is not yet ripe for Socialism, whilst it is largely a cloak for middle class aspirations. The freeing of the growing Russian industry from the strangling grasp of autocracy is the next step in social advance, and necessarily compels the support of the Russian working-class. Let our friend notice also that the work is being done by a revolutionary movement, out for the abolition of Czardom, not for its reform. Showing thereby that a revolutionary movement is far more efficacious even in the obtaining of concessions than is a timid reform movement. But reform cannot satisfy modern Russian conditions, for so long as Feudal Czardom is left in control, so long will it use its power in its own interests against the other classes in the state. Nothing but the deprival of the Russian feudal class of the control of the machinery of government can meet the present needs of Russia.

This means revolution ; it means the advent to administrative control of a new class : a class thrust forward by economic development. It means Bourgeois supremacy, leavened, (let us hope), by working-class influence.

What Mr. Priest calls reform in Russia really spells revolution ; the rise of a new class to the helm of the State, and the breaking down of the barriers to the untrammelled development of industry in that country; the inevitable, but let us hope brief, precursor of the Socialist Commonwealth.

The bloodshed and disorder which too often accompany revolution are due to desperate efforts of the ruling class to cling to power, to retain their domination over society, in their own interests in spite of the changed conditions and the will of the people.

The victory of the third estate in Russia, accomplished necessarily with the aid of the workers, will doubtless find a strong Socialist party on its feet to keep pace with the ever more rapid economic development, profiting by the experience of the more advanced countries, until the time arrives for proletarian triumph, when class distinctions are abolished, and the people come by their own.

4. Are not well fed, well leisured, well educated proletarians more useful to Socialists than anaemic, underfed, ignorant workers without leisure to read or think ?

From social history one fact stands clearly out ; that great political movements do not depend for their success upon the actual prosperity or otherwise of their participants, but upon far deeper economic causes. Thorold Rogers points out the frequency of great social discontent in prosperous times, and gives the Peasants’ War in England as an example whilst we know numerous instances of great political changes which have been effected by the people in times of direst distress. It can hardly be said .that the organised and determined movement of the Russian people is connected with a surfeit of food, education and leisure.

But is it at all probable that the modern proletarians (i.e., propertyless) will become well fed well educated and leisured, persons, otherwise than by their emancipation from wage-slavery ? Is it not true that there is an alarming and continued growth in lunacy, degeneracy and pauperism ? Is not toil daily becoming more intense and employment more insecure ? Are not wages on the decline, and is not the modern worker worn out at an earlier age than his forefathers ?

There is, unfortunately, but little hope that the conditions of the working-class can materially improve under capitalist rule. The ruling-class will secure that the amount of their rent, interest and profit shall not dimmish by being expended unprofitably to themselves upon the means by which their wealth is created; and the growing intensity of competition nips in the bud any attempt at genuine aid to the workers by even the most kindly disposed. The growth of the unemployed side by side with the intensification of toil and decline in wages, are features inherent in capitalist development; and the ruling class cannot deal with these without committing social suicide.

The more capitalism presses upon the proletariat, the more nearly is the remedy placed within reach. Taught discipline in the factory, the workers will be forced to discipline themselves into economic and political organisations: whilst the concentration of wealth into fewer hands, the trustification of industry, the growing gulf between, the two classes, increasing wealth in face of spreading poverty, declining wages in face of greater productivity, all make the issues clearer to the workers and show to them that the way out of their misery is to take and hold the vast means of producing wealth, and so transform these from instruments of public oppression and private profit, into social instruments for social well-being.

Through Socialism alone can education, leisure and a material existence worthy the name become a possibility for the workers, and their physical, mental and moral uplifting a reality.

In face of the growing contradictions, and ever more glaring anomalies of capitalist society who can doubt that the toilers will, like Jonathan in the day of battle, “taste of the wild honey in the wood and find their eyes enlightened” ?

5. Are Socialists, who, while admitting that it in not Socialism, yet support reforms purporting to improve the condition of the workers, to be considered decoy birds and traitors to Socialism ?

This question is answered in our reply to No. 1. We have only to add that those who realize the truth of our principles, yet who attempt to wheel the workers into line on some petty issue behind one section or other of the capitalist party, are traitors to the working-class and should be branded as such.

ff the workers are content to support capitalism and capitalist candidates for the sake of “reforms” that are useful to capitalism (and a capitalist government will grant no other unless by fear of extinction), then, we say, the removal of the cause of working-class misery is indefinitely postponed.

The degradation and impoverishment of the workers are due to capitalist exploitation, and this, no mere reform can end. Our supreme aim must therefore be the abolition of the system of robbery.

It is less difficult to convince the average worker of the necessity for Socialism, than it is to convince him of the necessity for some dozen ineffective reforms ; while it is infinitely more useful.

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