Book review: The Socialist Movement in England

BROUGHAM VILLIERS. Second edition. London : T. Fisher Unwin. 2s. 6d. net.

It is significant of the growth of Socialism that capitalist firms, in ordinary course of business, are publishing books claiming to explain what Socialism is and how it developed, by men dubbing themselves Socialists. It is noteworthy as marking a stage in the reception of Socialist ideas.

When an idea opposed to ruling-class interests is first advanced it is condemned and opposed on all hands ; later, when it has won a foothold, it is derided. When these tactics no longer apply, it is “explained,” interpreted by agents of the ruling class in an endeavour to remove as much as possible of the force and value of the theory.

The term Evolution is a case in point. And the volume here discussed evidences the anxiety of our rulers to have the theory so “explained ” as to leave them secure in their possession of power.

Perhaps the greatest merit of the work is the frank avowal of the author that he considers the Labour Party as the Socialist movement. All previous teachings of Socialism have failed to bring forth any substantial results because they have failed to recognise the peculiar characteristics of the English people. “There is an international aspiration in Socialism ; there cannot be an international method,” he says on page 18. This is rather hard on his special favourite, the I.L.P., who vary their claim to be specifically “British” Socialists by avowing their likeness to the continental parties both in aim and method. On page 107 our author says: “Until the Socialists had evolved a method and an instrument suited to the nation, political Socialism could make no headway in England. It was only with the advent of the Independent Labour Party . . . that Socialism gained a hold on the electorate.” We are also told that “Socialism is primarily of the heart, and only secondarily of the head.” (Page 88.)

It is not surprising after this to find the author defending the opponents of Marx and even attempting, by an important omission, to justify a statement that Marx was incapable of organising the working class. After saying (p. 85) “Whatever may be said of Marx’s value theory, there can be no doubt whatever that his book was of immense service to the intellectual prestige of Socialism,” and “To Marx the philosophic historian owes much ; while even those Socialists who most dissent from some of his theories must admit the intellectual inspiration his work gave the whole movement,” he goes on to say (p. 86): “To Lassalle, even more than to Marx, modern Socialists are indebted : Marx set the world of culture thinking and arguing, Lassalle set the people organising.”

Now it would be absurd to suppose that anyone having even an elementary knowledge of the growth of the Socialist movement, let alone one who writes a volume upon it, could be ignorant of the organisation of the International Working Men’s Association. This was built up by Marx and Engels, and was a splendid manifestation both of their powers of organisation and their understanding of the methods the working class must adopt to work out its emancipation.

Yet nowhere in this book is mention made of this Association’s influence or work, nor even of its existence ! Curious that the association so well known and, at one time, feared, should not be noted in a volume with the modest title of “Socialist Movement in England.” Why this silence ? We can only surmise that the author, unable to escape from referring to Marx’s writings (that are becoming more widely read year by year), hopes to justify the Liberalism of the Labour Party by ignoring as far as possible the work and teachings of Marx. We are told that Marxianism is “only one imperfect expression:” of Socialism; that “William Morris was the greatest personality that has ever been connected with Socialism in England, or perhaps in the modern world ” (!) who was utterly opposed to the doctrinaire side of current Socialism.

Just what this means we are not told, but as a little further on it is stated that the Socialist League “was primarily a protest against Marxianism and politics in the Socialist movement,” the inference is that Morris was opposed to the teaching and attitude of Marx. This is entirely false. In his propaganda work Morris stood upon the Marxian position, as his pamphlet “Art, Labour and Socialism” (published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain) shows ; while the Socialist League was formed as a protest against the underhand political trickery indulged in by the Social-Democratic Federation, and had as members Marx’s daughter and son-in-law, the well-known Avelings, and as a contributor to their paper the Commonweal, Marx’s life-long friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels.

Such are the lengths the defenders of Liberalism are driven to. And bow much a defender of Liberalism our author is can be further shown by the following quotations.

“Without the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Factory Acts, it is safe to say that no permanent improvement in the condition of the British people would have been possible . . . It is the supreme glory of Richard Cobden that he saw, and concentrated the attention of England upon, the first and then most vital of all reforms, the effect of which has been to render all subsequent progress possible.” (Page 52.)

To thus describe one of the bitterest opponents of the Factory Acts and the trade unions is, to use a popular phrase, laying it on with a trowel. But what is to be said of this :

“The repeal of the Corn Laws produced a sudden and unexpected regularity in the supply of food ; it greatly steadied employment.” (Italics ours.) And this when crises are not only sharper but occur closer together and last relatively longer. The gem, however, is the statement that “Free Trade brought to the English people, without loss of wages, cheaper food.” (Italics ours.) Seeing that Marx in “Capital” has shown, with evidence beyond all dispute, that the wages of the textile operatives were reduced an average of 14 per cent. upon the passing of the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the desperate straits our defender of Liberalism is reduced to become apparent.

But, as is so often the case, the much derided Marxianism has a splendid revenge in the pages of this book.

Several pages are given over to the praises of the “reforms” the Labour Party and I.L.P. are supposed to have brought about, while the municipalising of certain industries is called municipal Socialism instead of the municipal capitalism it really is. But on page 194 the truth leaks out when it is said :

“When the theory of Governmental incompetence was predominant everywhere, untheoretic aldermen and councillors were discovering that they must govern the cholera or it would govern them.”

Thus does Mr. Villiers justify the Socialist statement that the capitalists have done these things in their own interests and not out of any regard for the workers, or fear of the Labour Party.

It is on the question of capitalistic development, however, that the most striking turn about occurs.

“So the hand-worker was squeezed out by the first machines of the eighteenth century, so the first capitalist manufacturers were forced to extend their operations or succumb before rivals controlling a more effective and concentrated capital. … A ship of a thousand tons was a large one thirty years ago ; now such a one will be confined to harbours too shallow to allow for ships of larger draught. New manufactures are starting up every day, . . . and the rapid progress of evolution . . . will inevitably bring the whole industry into the hands of some Rockefeller or Pierpont Morgan of the future. . . . The grocer cannot compete with the syndicated shops, buying wholesale.
“Faced with the prospect that however prosperous his business to-day, a larger amalgamation of capital, with better machinery, may make a bankrupt of him in a few years, the capitalist combines, as the Trade Unionist combines, in his own defence. Combination in the form of large limited companies, marks the progress of national and international industry.
“In point of fact the most economical unit of production, in American oil, at all events, is the whole trade ; and when that is the case, no power on earth can prevent the ultimate triumph of monopoly, either public or private.” (Pages 198-201.)

What is the above explanation but the very same “doctrinaire” “Marxian formula” he had previously condemned ?

Written for the purpose of “explaining” Socialism as the Lib-Lab, attitude of the Labour Party, the author has been driven, when trying to explain important points, to take up the much despised Marxian view, not only on industry, but also in politics, for while on page 210 it is admitted that the I.L.P. supported the Liberal candidate at Bury in the bye-election preceding 1906, yet we were told ia few pages previously that capitalistic society would not fight for itself with or without “any theoretic justification.” Exactly ! and recognising that the “cause” of the Labour Party is to act as decoy ducks for the Liberal Party they have, as we have given overwhelming evidence to prove, been true to that “cause,” and have fought against the interests of the working class—that is against Socialism.

Excellent as an eulogy of the Labour Party, the book is misleading as a history of the Socialist Movement both from what is left out and what is wrongly stated. In its praise we may say it is well printed and nicely bound.


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