What the Poor Want

Of late years numerous books have been written and published, having for their subject the daily life of that class of the populace known to the authors of these works by the significant appellation of “The Poor.”

At the head of an article in the current number of a well-known quarterly review (the mention of a quarterly review in a Socialist paper savours somewhat of profanity) appears a list of nine or ten books, most of which are principally concerned in dealing with the social condition of the working class, written either by Governmental officials, or by men and women who—while apparently far above the poverty line themselves—have sought and found a “new thrill” in the contemplation of their less fortunate brethren.

The author of the article (it is entitled “What the Poor Want” and is by a Mr. Stephen Reynolds) informs us that he has spent “from choice” some years among a certain section of the working class, living—intermittently, one infers from what he says—as an inmate of a working-man’s cottage. By reason of this dilettantism be presumably considers himself fully qualified to judge what it is that will really benefit the poor, and what is the best way of giving it to them. He is almost pathetic in his childlike naiveté. He regrets having to use repeatedly in the course of his article, the words “poor” and “poor men,” and deprecates any impression of patronage in so doing. He cannot however see, in his simplicity, that to live in a man’s family circle (whether the man be a fisherman or a duke) and to use any of the information of the family life therein gained for the purpose of making money by contributing such information to a capitalist magazine, is not only patronage in its most ignoble form, but a breach of the common laws of hospitality.

Mr. Reynolds has set himself the task in his article of showing how legislation in the past has signally failed to improve the condition of the workers (or the poor, as he prefers to call them). With a sad lack of humour, though with the utmost indignation, he speaks of the impertinence of interfering with the life of the poor without their being consulted, and then goes on to prove to his own satisfaction that only through a careful and systematic espionage into the domestic concerns of the poor can any hope of assistance be held out to them. Mr. Reynolds tells how resentful the poor man is at being interfered with by Government inspectors and democratic leaders (“who flatter him and hold him in contempt at the same time”) and all the while he is writing the most fulsome flattery interspersed with good-natured contempt.

Parts of the article have a certain educational value, not, however, in the sense intended by the writer, nor for the people to whom he is ostensibly appealing. For example, in speaking of the last Licensing Bill, he says that : “while the Lords would not hear of the proposals directly affecting the brewers, they were ready to consider the sections which would interfere with the personal liberty for good and ill of the working classes.”

Later on he points out very pertinently that the Bill recently passed for the purpose of preventing children entering Public Houses (that Bill hailed so piously by the Nonconformist Press as “The Children’s Charter”) reacted altogether to the disadvantage of those for whose benefit it was framed, that is, the children themselves. (So much for our muddle-headed Liberal legislation.)

He can sometimes tell a hawk from a handsaw. He considers that our present system of free and compulsory education is absolutely useless for all practical purposes to the class on which it is forced.

He finally sums up the complete futility of all reforms in the following damning indictment. It is an extract from a work by Miss M. Loane, who is a “Queen’s Nurse” (whatever that may be) and for whose opinion he has the greatest respect :

“For many generations innumerable multitudes of charitable people have been deeply concerned in helping the poor. They have attacked the problems relating to them from the religious, the moral, the sentimental, the intellectual, the ‘practical’ standpoint. All alike have failed almost completely in reducing the number of the abjectly wretched, or of effecting any lasting improvement in their condition.”

We are in entire agreement with this extract and would recommend its perusal to all advocates of palliatives.

The following reason is given by Miss Loane for this failure of reforms, and is endorsed by Mr. Reynolds. She says it is :

“Chiefly, I believe, because they (i.e., the reformers) have hitherto one and all despised the home life of the poor, held it cheaply, as a thing of no moment.”

We will now proceed to examine our author’s proposals, the great and enlightening ideas which, when embodied in legislation and philanthropy, will raise the workers out of their poverty and misery, will disperse once and for all the ghastly shadow of unemployment at present hovering over them, which will, in fact, usher in a new era of prosperity and happiness for the erstwhile downtrodden proletariat.

Mr. Reynolds has, from his own account, an intimate acquaintance with the home life of the poor, and must therefore be in an excellent position to judge what would, and what would not, offer a lasting benefit to them. He insists that “a new spirit in dealing with the poor is indeed wanted.” This new spirit is to be found in what Mr. Reynolds’ calls a “tendency towards a New Toryism or Nationalism, a Nationalism founded on respect for the poor ; less bent on raising them out of their station than on pro¬viding them with justice in that station.”

Here we have once again the old, moth-eaten idea prevalent among “economists” of the school favoured by sentimentalists such as Mr. Reynolds, that the economic relations between slave and master can be maintained and yet justice be done by the slave. The only method by which the dominant class could give justice to those exploited by it would be by the effacement of itself. There can be no justice between master and slave, between employer and employed. Mr. Reynolds’ conception of justice as something that can be given as a favour and received as a gift is absurd. Justice is impossible in any society where one class is dominated by another.

Throughout the article the author persistently insists on the necessity of keeping the poor in their “state of life.” that is, of course, in the proper spirit of subjection to their pastors and masters. Children (of the working class, of course) should be educated in accordance with the conditions of life into which they are born. Presumably, Mr. Reynolds is advocating the institution of a new educational system, in which for example, incipient dock-labourers and potential scavengers shall have the opportunity during childhood of efficiently learning the intricate technical details of their trades. That some such idea is in his mind will be seen by the following extract, quoted by him with relish :

“The best husbands and fathers among the poor have been men whose mothers ‘learned ’em to work and seed they did their share,'” i.e., when they were children.

Throughout the article, in spite of his vaunted regard for the poor, he offers no scheme that would make for the elimination of poverty. Poverty is so interesting and valuable to sentimentalists of the type of Mr. Reynolds that they cannot bear the thought of the well-springs of their so-called charity being dried up for want of suitable objects on which such charity may be lavished. As he says (without, however, seeing the applicableness to himself) :

“we have that charitable attitude, which, basing itself on such axioms as ‘The poor always ye have with you,’ is apt to take the diseases of the body politic and social as inevitable and a matter of course, as fortunate opportunities for the exercise of virtuous charity. ‘If there were no poor’ I have heard such people argue, ‘it would be Christianity’s loss. Therefore we must have poor.'”

It might also be said that if there were no poor Mr. Reynolds would not be able to go philandering among his poor friends, nor would he be able to accept their hospitality for the purpose of studying their poverty-stricken lives, nor be able to make money by writing articles in an expensive review on a subject of which he knows practically nothing. Therefore we must have poor.

But what is it that the poor want ? What is it that is necessary before the working class (Mr. Reynolds’ “poor”) can ever hope to combat the acknowledged evils rampant in its midst ? The only hope of the workers is in themselves. No one can help them but themselves. When they understand their actual position in society, when they realise that their position as wage-slaves is not eternally inevitable, is not a dispensation of any Providence, against which it is useless to fight, then only can there possibly be a chance of any improvement in their lot. This knowledge once gained, their organisation into a conscious political force and their final emancipation from the thralldom of Capitalism is the only logical outcome. They will, then hold their chance of happiness in their own hands, will not be dependent on a class, totally alien to them from every point of view, for a few transitory glimpses of a wider life than can be ob¬tained within their usual narrow and sordid ken.

If Mr. Reynolds is really desirous of helping the working class, we would suggest that he start by obtaining and distributing among his poor friends the literature issued by and recommended by the Socialist Party. He might with advantage, begin with the S.P.G.B. Manifesto. Even a perusal by Mr. Reynolds himself (the suggestion is thrown out with all humility) would do no harm, and might, perchance, increase the width of his economic and political outlook.


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