1900s >> 1908 >> no-51-november-1908

Revolution. The Problem of the Out of Work

A Strange Inversion

The free born wage-worker of to-day has a heaven that is peculiar to himself and his age and which speaks volumes for the wretchedness of his position. It is his paradise to be exploited, regularly—to have plenty of work—while his hell is to have none. And, truly, the hell is genuine enough ! Use, however, becomes second nature, and many a worker is so inured to his position that he accepts his lot uncomplainingly, or even with a certain smug satisfaction, so long as he is in work, his “manly” breast swells with pride when he hears the politicians talk of “honest toil,” and he grasps with humble gratitude the few mouldy crumbs that are flung to him out of the heap of good things he has created. So might the chattel slave have been proud of his chains, grateful for the offal thrown to him, and jealously appreciative of the dignity of his toil and his right to do it.

Modern times, however, differ somewhat in that the society of to-day cannot feed its slaves. Its slaves go begging for a master and yet are turned empty away. Thus in a period that is heir to the discoveries of the ages, and that possesses means multiplied a thousand-fold for producing all the good things of life, and wherein labour-saving devices have reached a perfection hitherto undreamed of, there exists, nevertheless, among the very class whose labour made this abundance possible, a mass of poverty and suffering that makes the famines of olden time trivial by comparison.

And this is caused, not by scarcity, as of old, but by sheer plenty ! The producers are but the hirelings of those who own field, factory, and workshop, and these leave no stone unturned in their feverish anxiety to find means, by improved combination and machinery, of reducing the number of wage-slaves they need hire. Hence the unemployed—a permanent and growing feature of capitalist society.

No Hope in the Master Class

During the coming winter, indeed, the question of unemployment may be expected to reach an acuteness never before equalled. And what will the master class do ? Will they solve the unemployed problem ? Only fools think so, for the master class themselves confess that it is, to them, insoluble. They neither can nor will solve this riddle of the Sphinx. A capitalist system without unemployed would be impossible, and our masters know it.

Economic development under capitalism, however, makes the out-of-work army grow rapidly to huge dimensions and become in fact a serious menace to the security of the class that rules. Indeed, the indifference of the ruling class and the needs of the unemployed make disturbance the only resource of the latter in their endeavour to get an immediate plate of soup or crust of bread to prolong their pitiable existence. Yet, by appealing to the class in power to do something what will they get ? What but promises and then more promises ? What but paltry relief works that do not relieve and votes of sums of money that may not be spent ? Works that can wait no longer for execution will be said to be put in hand to “help the unemployed.” If a City alderman, having worn out seat of his trousers with constant dining, buys a new pair, it will also, presumably, be for the sake of the unemployed, just as tramway works that have been delayed until they can be delayed no longer are started ostensibly “to relieve the unemployed.” And so the fraud goes on.

The Treachery of the ‘Labour’ Members

Meanwhile the unemployed, as though their misfortunes were not great enough, continue to have their misery exploited by reform organisations and fresh editions and emulators of John Burns. For whatever else the recent Grayson episode may have emphasised, it made once more abundantly clear that the “Labour”, members are prepared—even anxious—to range themselves on the side of Labour’s enemies when it suits their book to do so—although whether this will be apparent to those who pay the piper is, unfortunately, still very dubious. But so many things have happened that it would seem must come to those who have pinned their faith to these Labour misleaders as direct blows, full between the eyes, and yet have been practically unnoticed, that there is little immediate hope that this last instance will have much greater effect. The Parliamentary group rely for their present maintenance upon working-class ignorance, and knowing how abysmal that ignorance is, feel safe in taking action the results of which must overwhelm them and render further misleading impossible directly the working class have anything like an adequate appreciation of their class interests. Just as recent bye-elections have been significant of nothing so much as of the desperate concern of the “Labour” members to hang on to the coat-tails of Liberalism outside the House, lest the security of their seats and their £200 a year be imperilled, so the Grayson incident made it clear that the methods to be pursued inside are those that will not embarrass the Government, and may result in recognition and advancement, if not to the elevation of a seat in the Cabinet, at any rate to the comfort and security of some minor official job that will remove them from the risk of the loss of their £200 a year consequent upon working-class enlightenment.

We Warned the Working Class.

Of course, to us this was apparent from the very inception of the Labour Representation Committee and we said so. The “half-baked” and the semi-enlightened then preferred to call us very much the sort of name some of them are now applying to the opponents of Grayson. If, however, incidents similar to those referred to have the effect of opening a few eyes to the actual and potential power for working-class evil resident in this precious “Labour” Group, it will be some sort of satisfaction. They have now reached a stage where, as we have said, it seems almost incredible that any man could be left who failed to see just what the Parliamentary “Labour” leaders are after and where they are leading. The attitude of the S.P.G.B. is more than vindicated.

Let there be no misunderstanding as to our view of Grayson’s action. Grayson is a man who has no very clear idea of where he stands upon questions of economics, who certainly does not understand the Socialist position, and who cannot, therefore, be accepted as in any adequate sense a representative of Socialism. He is, we should say, a product of Clarionism, Clarionism being compact of sentiment and snobbery, with a strong infusion of capitalist “progressive” ideas and a mild dash of Socialist thought —a queer compound that a staff consisting of little girls and old women serve up for the gratification of the elect weekly.

From a product of this sort of food nothing great can be expected, but Grayson took up a position on the unemployed question in the House that, at any rate, compelled attention and translated into action a protest against the callous indifference of capitalism to the growing volume of misery that capitalism had created, and the flacid, supine, “respectability” and “statesmanship” of the pseudo-Labour Group. With one accord these “Labour” gentlemen ranged themselves on the side of capitalism. Let that be included as a count in the indictment that in the name of the working class we bring against them.

What’s Bred In the Bone

And now, lest their treachery be too palpable, they hasten to explain that the Government were on the point of saying something, and they wanted to hear what it was before taking action. If the something had been unsatisfactory they proposed etc., etc. The same old story. The same contemptible lie, or the same hopeless, helpless stupidity—whichever they like. First they do not know the forms of the House. We were to wait until they had time to familiarise themselves, and then we should see something. Then—give the Government a chance. Let us wait to see what it would do. If it did not do anything . . . ! Then again, let us see what Burns would make of his opportunity. If nothing came of it we . . . ! And so on.

Not even sufficient originality to invent a new lie or a decent excuse. They either knew that the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Party’s jackal, Burns, would not do anything if they waited till the last trump, or the whole record of the Liberal Party was a closed book to them, or they had not even a glimmer of that essential antagonism of interest of which the Liberal Party is a political expression on the side of capitalism. In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, they were either damned fools or doubly damned knaves.

Now we have our Pete Currans who were cursing the forms of the House and praying for something to break them up, our Will Thornes who are forever mouthing “revolution” and the absurdity of awaiting the Government’s convenience, our Jowetts who are always ready to make scenes if necessary, our Phillip Snowdens—the Daily Mail’s fierce and bitter iconoclasts, and the rest of them turning to sneer at the theatricality (it may have been that, of course) of Grayson, and protesting that they could not be led by boys who indulge in expensive suppers and so on—banal puerilities given off in the hope that that which cannot be justified may be obscured.

Well, since the Grayson outbreak the Government has spoken, and the unemployed know that, except for an additional £100,000, they are where they were last year. Burns is to administer the fund as before—a wholly grotesque sum in the hands of a wholly fraudulent (from a working-class point of view) administrator. In addition, the necessity of the unemployed is to be used as a means, if possible, of making up Haldane’s special army reserve that would otherwise, in all probability, have failed to materialise. Indeed, the Liberal Party are full of sympathy for “the honest workman starving through no fault of his own.” We don’t think.

Keir Hardie, on behalf of the “Labour” Group, made certain dark references to what they would do if the Government’s proposal was unsatisfactory. The “Labour” Group’s action (at the time of writing) takes the form of an amendment expressing dissatisfaction !

One other notable thing the present agitation has emphasised that can only be very briefly referred to, viz., the impotence of the “one step at a time” or “something now” “Socialist,” directly his “evolutionary not revolutionary” theory is put to the test. The people, the women and children, are starving. They want something now. What is the use of preaching Socialism to them ?—before they get that they must die of want. And so they proceed to get the “something now” by asking Governments who, by their very nature, cannot prevent starvation and do not even pretend to try, to take action. And the Governments take “action,” and have been taking “action,” and the starving people continue to starve, and the children continue to cry, and the unemployed army grows and grows, until—until we have reached the stage of crisis where the honest adherents to the “something now” policy, in desperation of ever getting their “something now,” throw in their lot with those who advocate riot and pillage as the only means by which food may be obtained immediately ; the only means by which fear may be stricken into the hearts of the capitalist class. Overboard goes “evolution” (their brand), and in its place they preach—anarchy. They break up their stepping-stones to use them as missiles.

Well, to the extent to which this change of attitude represents the demolition of the quasi-intellectual posture, it is good. But we have to point out that to preach pillage is to bring trained, armed, and well fed men against untrained, unarmed, and starving men. The.result harmful to the latter, although not necessarily more disastrous than the process of starvation they are at present undergoing, while the menace of a desperate crowd threatening to, or actually, running amok, invariably has quite a notable effect in stimulating the flow of doles.

While we cannot speak for God, as Cardinal Manning claimed to do, we agree that Manning was quite right in affirming that a starving man was entitled to take food—notwithstanding that, as Curtis Bennet, the magistrate, pointed out to the ferocious Will Thorne, M.P. (who mildly allowed himself to be bound over not to be naughty again), it was bad “law.” If anyone knows of any alternative for a hungry man, woman, or child other than that of getting food by some means or other (any means being justified) or starving, we have still to hear of it.

The point is, then, that only out of fear for their own position and possessions can the “something now” be obtained from the capitalist class. And that fear is struck more surely and far deeper by the fact of a working class, understanding their class interests, consciously organising for the overthrow of the capitalist system in its entirety, than by any conglomeration of unorganised human atoms blindly struggling for food with no idea beyond their immediate requirements. These last can be dealt with and their agitation “scotched” by judicious sops, or, in the last resort, by the use of the police and soldiery. The former cannot be so easily put off the scent. It will have to rain sops like manna before any hope of check can be entertained.

Now, is it not high time that the working class—in work or out of work, realised the futility of expecting those who live by working-class exploitation to seriously grapple with a problem the solution of which would spell their extinction as a class ? Instead of useless parading and futile tinkering with effects, is it not clear that the problem must be attacked at its root ? Its root is in the system of capitalism, and as an evil to the workers it can end only when capitalism ends—when the means of living are owned and used by the democratic community of those who labour.

That, however, will not be accomplished by those whose source of life is profits, but will and can only be brought about by the conquest of the powers of government by the working class for that object. This is the only way to deal with the unemployed problem, for what avails it to waste time on effects if the source of the misery pours unchecked an increasing flood upon us ? The task before us is not to appeal to the capitalist class to do something, but to organise the workers for the overthrow of that class so they (the workers) may do something for themselves. The battle-cry of the workers’ party is not “The Right to Work,” but “The Right to the Product of Our Labour,” and that right waits only upon their might. That is the really revolutionary way.

And you, reader, have a duty as a worker to yourself and to your fellows—it is to join the political party of your class. If unemployment is to cease to be your scourge, if you in common with your fellows are to have your lot made brighter, if you and those dear to you are to have the means of health and happiness secured, you must take your place in the ranks, for the deliverance of the workers from wage-slavery can come from none others than the workers themselves.

The party of the working class is the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which works democratically and consistently for the end of unemployed misery, and declines to exploit the wretchedness of the unemployed by parading them in futile appeal to the robber class. Your duty is to join it, for your only hope lies in the democratic organisation of your class for Socialism, since through working-class victory only can class opression cease and the toiler come at last by his own.

(Socialist Standard, November 1908)

Leave a Reply