Capitalism and the Shopkeeper

The Socialist teaching of the truth that capital is becoming concentrated in the hands of a diminishing number of capitalists has been recently attacked, from two points of view, by the “illuminati” of the I.L.P. and by the Anarchists.

In both cases is the wish father to the thought. Both parties have a case to bolster up, and both have diligently sought for “facts” to support their tenets.

The Joint-Stock Company and the small shopkeeper are stock illustrations supposed to prove the theory of the division of capital among an increasing number of happy and deserving recipients. The “theory of increasing misery” has its converge in the theory of a slow but sure evolution into terrestrial paradise. No one will be able to say of any particular period: here ends capitalism and Socialism has its birth ; but the change will be gradual, peaceful, ethical—through the Joint Stock company and the small shopkeeper, and small reforms, vide Bernstein & Co. Let us look into the position of this small shopkeeper.

The English race have been reputed a nation of shopkeepers; the growth of multiple retail stores has suggested the remark that we are now a nation of managers. It is beyond dispute that the existence of thousands of company stores has limited the scope for individual success in the retail trade, and has driven the small retailer to accept the most casual and unremunerative portion of that trade. A huge business is carried on in multiple and chain shops, by mail-order businesses, departmental stores, and other massive concerns. They cause tradesmen great anxiety ; all along the line the small shopkeeper is exploited ; manufacturers are making attempts to deal direct with the consumer ; department stores are trying to filch suburban trade ; they are spoiling the retailer by well-organised mail-trading systems.

If the man with little capital can exist to day at all it is as a retailer; but even this small sphere of activity seems narrowing. Half a century ago little capital was required to become a retailer. In no branch of commerce is the personal factor, the knowledge of a customer’s wants and whims, of such value. The old tradesman was in personal contact with hundreds of his customers, and it was once thought that. here was a barrier to Joint Stock Company success in the retail trade. However, slower than in manufacture, but as surely, the big capitalist is gaining ground.

In the North of England the shopkeeper has two competitors—the multiple stores and the co-operative societies. These obtain the cream of the cash trade, and leave to the shopkeeper a hazardous credit trade, plus what he can catch when the stores are closed—for he works fifteen hours a day. Certainly, as one walks along and sees hundreds of small shops, it would seem as if the small trader throve in spite of powerful competitors. But even if we grant an increase in the number of small shops, it does not imply greater prosperity for their owners, nor that a certain number of proletarians have risen out of their class and become independent shopkeepers. In large towns hundreds of these “emporiums” are run by workingmen with the aim of adding a trifle to their petty wages, just as, as Kautsky has shown, in Belgium many of the belauded peasant proprietors work in contigious mines and milk to help eke out a livelihood.

It is certainly the ideal of thousands of workingmen to “get out of the factory,” as the phrase goes, and live a life free from the factory buzzers, managers, and foremen ; alas, many are called but few chosen ! The majority of them have not even a sporting chance of obtaining a livelihood from their shop alone. Years ago such, small speculators had better opportunities of becoming successful retail merchants, but to-day they are snowed under by powerful enemies. The big fish, are swallowing the little fish even in a branch of commerce where so much is in favour of the small fry. The Marxian law surely stands unassailable everywhere if it is applicable to retail trading. The following figures relative to the number of shops in Prussia are taken from Bernstein’s “Evolutionary Socialism,”

1885 1895 Increase per cent.
Businesses with 2 and fewer assistants 411,509 407,656 13.6
Businesses with 3-5 assistants 176,867 342,112 93.4
Businesses with 6-50 assistants 157,328 303,678 92.6
Businesses 51 or more assistants 25,619 62,056 142.2

Bernstein remarks : “It is not the large businesses that offer the most deadly opposition to the small ones; the latter provide it among themselves.” If he can obtain comfort from such statistics his position is surely in dire straits.

The better placed shopkeepers who manage to obtain a “living” are, too, getting more in the clutches of the big capitalists. Most retail tobacconists are merely agents for the Imperial Tobacco Company ; in the grocery line such firms as Lever Bros, are obtaining great power ; and in every department of retail trade we meet with combination and association. Competition is as dead as piety. Arrangements are made amongst manufacturers to keep up prices, and amongst retailers to do likewise. Small dealers attempt, through their associations, to buy collectively. A few weeks ago a Manchester ironmongers’ association actually discussed a proposal that they, as an association, commence a large store in the centre of the city, to enable them to fight the great firms with better prospect of success. These stores, it was stated, were stealing the most profitable portion of the trade ; and individually they could not compete with the splendid displays and powerful organisation of the stores.

The transition from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of managers is the transition from “small to big industry,” analogous to the transition from handicraftsman to factory hand in the sphere of production. The journals which circulate amongst the various retailers are not blind to this change, however much the I.L.P. official gang may deny it. The “Boot and Shoe Trade Journal” is a better judge of the havoc wrought by company shops amongst small retailers than is Ramsay Macdonald or the editor of the “Labour Leader.” And when the present chairman of tbe I.L.P., Mr. W. C. Anderson, was peripatetic organiser for the Shop Assistants Union, his stock speech was a lament at the small opportunities possessed by modern shop assistants, of budding into independent shopkeepers.

The Socialist must wish for a quick awakening, both in the ranks of the shop assistants and those of the shopkeeper. The former in permanently proletarian, the latter liable to drop into the proletarian ranks at any moment. The assistant, working in a shop, amongst thirty more of his class, that shop being but one of six hundred owned by his employers, is better able to appreciate the vast changes in the retail trade than are I.L.P. critics and Anarchist theorisers with creeds to defend at any cost.


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