The Nationalisation of Railways and Other Services

A copy of the most recent book on the nationalisation of railways, by Mr. A. Emil Davies (A. & C. Black, 125 pp., limp cloth, I/-), has been sent us for notice. The question is one that is again occupying considerable public attention, and some examination of the case for this and kindred reforms is therefore called for from those who regard anything less than Socialism as something approximating to a delusion and a snare from the point of view of the working class.

If, first of all, the nationalisation of the railways were as important as Mr. Davies would have us believe, we would very readily admit that Mr. Davies’ book is as handy a presentation of the case against the present system of private ownership as we have seen. It manages to compress the essential arguments of the railway nationaliser into 120 pages of easy setting, without leaving the impression of a scamped job. It is not so exhaustive an examination as that published by Mr. Clement Edwards some years back, yet the reformer will find most of what he wants in it, including matter of as recent a date as February and March of this year.

From the Socialist point of view, however, the only value the book has resides in the evidence it adduces of the incapacity of the railway capitalist to manage his own


and in the proof it provides of our continuous contention that nationalisation and municipalisation as such have nothing in them advantageous to any section of the working class that is not considerably out-balanced by the disadvantages that result from them—even if, which is at least arguable, they have any advantage at all.

The advantage, contended generally, is in the higher wages and better conditions obtainable under municipal or national control. This may result—sometimes. But it is just as probable that it won’t, seeing that the service municipalised or nationalised is still under the control of capitalist administrators, who are dominant in legislative and administrative affairs. While this condition holds, as it will while the capitalist system lasts, the paramount desideratum is the realisation of profits. It is merely an exhibition of economic stupidity to urge that these profits, used as they may be to reduce rates, go back to the pockets of the community. Even if this were true the fact remains that the profits have been realised from the labour of a section of the working class, and in going into the pockets of the community, they have gone in part into the pockets of the capitalist class that forms part of the community, and to that extent have been diverted from the rightful owners—the working-class producers. But although the argument has been extensively used by those who presumably should know better—the Clarion crowd, the I.L.P., the Fabian Society, etc.—it is simply not true that the relief of rates is a relief of the working class. If it were true, the working class of Nottingham and Glasgow, and other places where many services have been municipalised, should be in a flourishing condition, seeing that most of their public services are realising large profits. In point of fact the working class there is not one whit better off than is the working class in towns that haven’t a single municipalised undertaking, for the very simple reason that the labour-power which the workers have to sell, and must sell, in order to live, is bought like any other commodity at its average cost of production. So that, assuming such a relief of rates in any given district that a material reduction in the cost of living is effected, the cost of production of the commodity labour-power would be less, and the price of its purchase—wages—would also be less. Why is it that the


is higher in some districts than in others if it is not because cost of living is higher in some districts than in others ? Moreover, it does not even follow that low rates will imply low rents, nor that a reduction of taxation on any other commodity will reduce the price of that commodity—although this point is not germain and has already been adequately dealt with in these columns on previous occasions.

So much for the alleged advantage of a municipalised or nationalised service. But what of the disadvantages ? The case of the railways is before us. In the chapter on “Waste,” Mr. Davies gives, inter alia, a list of things in the administration of which economies could be effected under nationalisation. The cost of the present competition is due to separate offices, separate stations, separate lines, separate engines, wagons, and carting services, light loads, unnecessary haulage, an enormous advertising and canvassing staff, a great clearing house system, and so on. Given nationalisation there follows the concentration of traffic, the closing of offices and redundant stations, the abolition of the canvassing and clearing house departments, and, to a large extent, the abolition of the advertisement department, the reduction of trains, etc., etc., etc. In short, the elimination of “waste.”

Now the working class under capitalism is not concerned with the elimination of waste. To the orthodox person such a statement is no doubt dreadful. If so, the further statement that the working class is a distinct gainer by waste must be the very devil. Yet it is obviously the case. The working class must live. To live it must sell its labour-power. Does “waste” increase the demand for labour-power ? If so, it is good for the immediate purpose of the working class. There is nothing more immediate than


We are dealing with the railways. The elimination of “waste” there means the abolition of the clearing house rendered necessary by the conflicting interests of many private companies. The clearing house has a staff of about 3,000 clerks. The demand for the labour-power of 3,000 clerks no longer exists and—the 3,000 clerks no longer exist. The same thing holds in the case of all the other departments mentioned. The saving is effected every time at the expense of the workers who have found employment through economic “waste.”

Therefore, under capitalism “waste” is positively a good thing to the workers to the extent that it provides them with the means of living. The South African War, notwithstanding the lamentations of the “moral” Jeremiahs directed against national “waste,” created a demand for labour. If that war had not happened a large number of the workers would have had to take in their belts another hole. If the nationalisation of railways happens a great army of the workers will be without visible means of subsistence.

The railway nationaliser seems to see the difficulty as through a glass darkly. Mr. Davies. says

“It would be a great mistake to measure the advantages of State ownership solely from the point of view of the yield per cent. on the sum invested. Under an equitable, reasonable, and uniform system of rates, trade would be stimulated to an extraordinary degree, and regard would be paid to the social needs of the nation, as is done in Belgium, Germany, and other countries, so that masses of even the humbler town workers would live in the country, and the depopulation of the countryside, with all its attendant evils, would be checked.”

Hope, says the sage, is very cheap. Trade is to be stimulated to an extraordinary degree—by a reduction, to the extent of the thousands of railway workers displaced, of the demand for the commodities that “Trade” supplies !


But the prospect of regard being paid to his social needs, and of an opportunity of living in the country where the work he requires is not, must be sweet solace to the man in danger of being thrown on the unemployed market by the elimination of railway “waste.”

No, the fact must be faced that, until the working class understand the reasons why it is. in a position of dependency upon the fluctuations of trade for even a precarious living; why it must sell its labour-power for wages that represent not the value of the wealth it has produced, not even a third of that value, but the bare cost of the sheer necessities of existence ; why it must stand starving in the market places of the world at the very moment when, all the requirements of happy, healthy life are piled in riotous profusion on every hand—until the working class has understood the causes of these things and expressed its determination to remedy them by capturing the political machine, in order that the capture of the economic machinery may follow, questions of the nationalisation of this, or the municipalisation of that, undertaking, are only of interest to the extent to which the change may affect the pockets, or the stomachs of the workers immediately concerned. For the working class as a whole, there is nothing in them except danger of being sidetracked in an endeavour to get at the solution of the economic problem.

That danger still needs considerable emphasis. If any section of the workers is persuaded that in some such reform movement as the nationalisation of railways there is salvation, it will come to itself in the final reckoning, sick and sorry, with apathy bred of disappointment and despair born of withered hopes. It will be more difficult material for the Socialist leaven to work upon. It will retard the advance of the workers toward the Co-operative Commonwealth that lies at the end of our journeying. It will, until the effect of its painful experience and knowledge of its wasted energies have grown small, be a stumbling block and a rock of offence in our path.


Therefore we do not want, reform agitations. Therefore we will do what, we may to counteract the possible influence of Mr. Davies’ book by indicating the narrow limitations of its working-class potentialities, and pointing to that more excellent way—the straight, narrow way—of whole-hog, revolutionary, uncompromising demand for the working-class ownership and control of all the means of life, along which alone the party of the proletariat may march to victory.

“But,” says the earnest reformer, ”you will not be able to get control of the means of life all at once. You must walk before you can run. It’s all a matter of evolution.” The dear child ! If a man wants bread shall he assiduously pick up stones ? Shall he endeavour to gather figs from thistles ? The worker wants what Socialism alone will give him. He must therefore make for Socialism, aim at Socialism, concentrate on Socialism. Under Socialism the municipality will probably supply him with dough-nuts and hob-nails, while “blood-alleys” and commoner marbles will doubtless be available for his children. Shall he, therefore, wanting Socialism, cry aloud to-day for the municipal supply of blood-alleys and hob-nails and dough-nuts ? Why not ? Because they are not important ? Neither is a nationalised railway.

Mr. Davies points out that most of the Continental countries and nearly all “our” Colonies have nationalised railways. Wherein are the workers of those countries beneficially affected ? Who are making the demand for nationalised railways in England ? Other sections of the capitalist class. To assist the working class or expedite Socialism ? Not much. Rather to enable them to exploit the working class the more. The nationaliser of the railways of Germany was—Bismarck!

Nationalised railways will be a factor in the Socialist Republic. They will be important—then. But only important because Socialism holds. Socialism is the thing that matters. Let us go for it—and the dough-nuts and blood-alleys and hob-nails will be shied at us in the hope that, because we shall have them under Socialism, we may be stupid enough to turn aside to pick them up now. But Socialism will not be shied at us. We may have everything else at the hands of the good capitalist; hut the only thing we want—no ! The capitalist will do anything for the working class, anything—except get off its back.

If our reformer friend’s difficulty is that, unless we nationalise and municipalise as we go along, we shall be


when we arrive, let him remember one little fact. The evolution of capitalism (he will like that word “evolution”) has placed the workers practically in complete control of industry. From the top to the bottom the whole process of production is managed by—wage servants. The workers are in control in fact but not in name. It’s the product they do not control. The thing necessary, therefore, and the only thing necessary, is to evolve in the minds of the workers the knowledge of the fact of their control and the means by which they may expropriate the present expropriators, so that they may be dominant in name as well as in fact, and secure for themselves the product of their own labours. That evolution of knowledge is quite as easy under private ownership as under State ownership. All that will then be required will be the capture of the political power through which the armed forces are manipulated, and—a notice to quit to the capitalist. The industry socially worked to-day, will have its product socially owned then.

But the publicly-owned service has, anyhow, a good educational effect on the working class, surely ? Perhaps—p’r’aps not. In any case there are enough of them for all educational purposes to-day. But they have been converted to publicly-owned services by representatives of the capitalist class in the interests of the capitalist class. The effect of that outstanding fact to any but the serious student who will take the trouble to dig below the surface of things, will hardly have great educational value. The casual enquirer, such as the worker unfortunately often is, will conclude either that the capitalist is willing to help the worker along the road to Socialism, or that the publicly-owned service is, Because it is a capitalist move, steered clear of completely. In both cases he would be wrong. The educational effect of the fact of Post Office sweating, Clothing Department sweating, Woolwich Arsenal sweating, London County Council-jerry building, etc., etc., ad nauseam, is also likely to be a little dubious.

Are there any other legs upon which the national cum-municipal-Liza can stand ? Probably. Our ”Liza” has as many legs as a caterpillar. But not one of them can support the argumentative superstructural body that it is hoped to stick on it. In the final analysis we come back to the incontrovertible fact that Socialism is the only hope of the workers, and that everything else is mere leather and prunella.


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