Book Review: Some Errors of A Syndicalist
“MY SECOND COUNTRY,” by Robert Dell. John Lane, The Bodley Head. 75. 6d.
Written with sympathy and insight, and in a taking style, this book gives one of the best descriptions of conditions in France that has appeared since the war.
Beginning with an examination of the French character, the author then describes the political Constitution, tracing its developments from the Revolution, and afterwards looks into the economic conditions.
One conclusion that he draws from his survey is that France is bankrupt, and must either repudiate her National Debt or
Face a Revolution.
But Mr. Dell holds out no hope of the former solution, for he believes that while the French Bourgeoisie cannot agree to repudiation, neither will they submit to a heavy capital levy, nor to the huge taxation that would be necessary to tide over the difficulty even temporarily. “These people are quite willing to
Let their Sons be Killed,
said an eminent Frenchman two or three years ago, “but you mustn’t ask them for five francs.” (P. 191.)
The way in which the French capitalist class have resisted the increase of taxation during the war on the claim that “Germany will have to pay in full,” is well described. Now the fact emerges that Germany cannot “pay in full,” but no serious attempt is made to meet the situation, and hence Mr. Dell thinks a revolution is inevitable.
He shows the grip of the big financial interests upon the political machine, and thinks the political corruption in France is greater than in England, but as he admits that the thing is done more openly there than here, anyone who has looked at affairs that have been exposed in England during and since the war will be more inclined to hold the view that the difference, if any, is small, and that it is only a matter of how much more is concealed here.
Combined with this corruption there is a host of forms and methods connected with Politics and Administration that are obsolete and
A Considerable Hindrance
to the smooth working of the machinery. The resentment against these methods and results, coupled with the corruption, leads the author to the conclusion that Parliament as a whole is discredited.
How erroneous is this conclusion is clearly shown by the increased number of people who take part in the elections and still more by the huge struggle between the “interests” for control of Parliament. Among many instances that the author gives is one of the metallurgical industries, of which he says “there is good reason for believing that they prevented the bombardment of the mines of Briey when the latter were held by the Germans.” (P. 61.) This action would have been impossible without
Control and use of the Parliament.
The author’s study of the economic conditions prevailing in France is, in general, excellent, though a few points call for criticism. Moreover, as it is a question seldom seriously examined by ordinary writers, its treatment adds considerably to the value of the volume.
Mr. Dell claims, and gives good evidence to support the claim, that the ideas engendered by small property or “petty bourgeois” conditions are the prevailing ideas in France. This accounts for the readiness of the people to subscribe for Government loans and similar “safe” securities, and their reluctance to invest their money in industrial undertakings at home, though wild cat schemes abroad have strong attractions for them. Hence France is a great lending nation, and this explains the vast control of affairs by the
Purely Financial Interests
as distinct from the industrial ones.
In dealing with the practice of family limitation, a practice French people have carried further than any other nation, Mr. Dell says:
“If families have been too much restricted in France that is the result of the economic system. In a capitalist state of society a man without property, who brings into the world a large number of children, is exposing them to the risk of a life of misery.
The limitation of families in France is not due to the selfishness of parents but to their desire only to have children to whom they can give a decent chance in life.” (P. 46.)
Now capitalist states of society exist in England, Germany, and other countries as well as in France, yet limitation of families is not practiced to anything like the same extent in those lands. Mr. Dell has failed to note the condition that is, in the main, responsible for the greater limitation of families in France than elsewhere. The reason is to be found in the land system established by the Revolution.
Under this system a proprietor of land cannot leave it to his eldest son, or any other child alone, but must allow it to be divided
Equally among the Children.
The plots, as first shared at the Revolution, were sufficiently large to maintain one family, but were quite inadequate to support two or three. The experience of a generation drove this fact home, and the peasant-proprietors began to limit their families to prevent their plots from being cut up into pieces too small to support a family. The population passing into the towns from the country carry these ideas with them and make the practice prevalent.
In this connection it is certainly surprising to find so acute an observer as Mr. Dell supporting the exploded lies of Malthus, written to justify the misery caused by capitalism in its early days, when, on p. 48, he says : “the world can support in comfort only a certain number of people,” and “Malthus only formulated in a theory the conclusions of ordinary good sense.”
The former remark simply begs the question —What is this “certain number”? None of us know, except that under Socialism it could be far greater than the present population, even if one only considered that the millions at present engaged on useless labour or in destruction would then be employed upon productive work. Yet in the same section in which he lends support to the Malthusian sophistry, the author calls for an increase of the population in France when he says:
“France can only be saved by a large immigration of adult men, or by a large number of illegitimate children, or both.”(P. 51.)
“The only solution to the problem is the endowment of motherhood whether legitimate or illegitimate. The endowment should be limited to three children.” (Pp. 47-48.)
Similar measures were openly advocated in this country during the later stages of the war when the wholesale slaughter of the male population began to deplete seriously the ranks of the wage slaves. Malthus then, and since, was
Pushed into the Background,
where, doubtless, he will remain till the question of unemployment looms large enough to bring him forward again.
If the French bourgeoisie will not submit to the confiscation of part of their wealth to meet their huge liabilities, what form will the inevitable revolution take? It is here that the author loses a large part of his grip upon essentials.
His admiration for Voltaire is so great that Mr. Dell holds the France of Voltaire as “the great, the true France.” This is idealism of the type that looks to the past for its inspiration and guide, and fails to realise that each age must solve its problems with its own materials, and that attempts to revive the dead past must end in failure. Voltaire voiced the views and expressed the ideas of the then new rising class, the bourgeoisie. Those views and ideas do not fit the existing conditions ; neither are they any guide to the class now rising to control the social forces, the working class. This class must work out its own salvation from the basis of
Its Own Conditions and Desires,
without any regard for past forms, or blind following of previous systems.
Under the influence of this idealism the author, who announces himself a Socialist, and says “I hope not only to live to see the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also to have the honour of assisting in it” (p. 274), is led to ignore the very facts he so clearly described. He is so obsessed with that insane thing, Syndicalism, that would pit unarmed men against machine guns and aerial bombs, that he advocates the abandonment of political action because it is, he contends, quite useless. He declares: “A Socialist Parliament, with a Socialist Government, could not establish Socialism.” (P. 260.) If the reader should be rude as to ask why, the only pretence of an answer is found on pages 279-3, where it is said :
“Capitalism can never be abolished by Act of Parliament. Seeing the enormous pull the monied interests must always have in an election in our present social conditions, if only because elections cost so much money, I doubt whether a majority would ever be obtained at the polls for the abolition of capitalism.”
Even the meanest intelligence should be able to understand that people who are not prepared to vote for Socialism will not take infinitely more troublesome and dangerous methods to establish it. Hence the only conclusion that can be drawn from his statement is—that Socialism is impossible.
But what alternative to political action does our author offer ? The following :
“The modern revolutionary method is the general strike, not barricades in the street. That is the form that direct action will take, and if the general strike be properly organised, and the strikers hold, it can accomplish in a few days without bloodshed or violence what it would take years or generations to accomplish by constitutional methods, if they could ever accomplish it.” (P. 277.)
We have exposed the glaring fallacy of this on numerous occasions, but it will bear repeating.
The first point to note is that for the General Strike to come into operation it is necessary that practically the whole of the workers must have agreed to the strike and its object. Compared with the work and time necessary to obtain this result, the convincing of a majority of the workers of the wisdom of
VOTING for Socialism
would be child’s play.
Secondly, the immediate result of a General Strike is the stoppage of the production of foodstuffs. Moreover, the distribution of the foodstuffs existing is prevented.
What, now, are the conditions? This. On one side are the huge numbers of the working class, including the wives and children, whose total means of subsistence consists of the tiny stocks in their cupboards.
On the other side are the relatively small numbers of the capitalist class, whose well-stocked larders will keep them alive long after the workers’ stores have vanished.
But what of the foodstuffs in the stores and granaries? it may be asked. The answer is simple. As the workers have left political power in the hands of the masters, the Government would pass a decree in about ten minutes “commandeering” all available foodstuffs “in the national interest.” These stores would be guarded by soldiers and their contents used to keep the capitalist class and their supporters alive while
The Workers Starved.
“Could not the food producers stay at work and continue to produce food?” it may be argued. Quite likely, and as soon as it was produced it would be seized by the soldiers to feed themselves and the capitalists. Even this does not exhaust the methods open to the masters. When the French railway workers went on strike in 1910 the strike was broken by M. Briand mobilising the men—most of whom were on the Army Reserve—under military orders and then sending them to run the trains as soldiers. What is there existing that would prevent the masters, through the Government, calling upon the workers in the food industries and sending them to produce food, as soldiers, for the master class? Nothing—except the resistance of the unarmed men against the machine gun and the aeroplane.
Mr. Dell claims to be a follower, or acceptor, of Marx’s teachings. What distinguished Marx and Engels throughout their career was their clear grasp of the importance of political action. All through their writings runs the slogan— “Every class struggle is a political struggle.” Their famous Materialist Conception of History shows how every new rising class, in society had to seize the political machinery of its day for the purpose of destroying the old system and establishing the new.
Only when they had conquered this power and were thus able to
Control the Armed Forces
were they in a position to build up the constitution and social methods in harmony with the productive forces of society.
The modern proletariat cannot escape from the conditions that confront it. Until it has wrested the powers of control—the political machinery-—from the hands of the master class it cannot own the raw materials, it cannot organise production for its own purposes, it cannot retain the things it manufactures. Whatever differences of opinion may exist as to the particular forms under which Socialism will operate or the details of any interim period that may come, these all fade into insignificance before the two great factors that must first be achieved.
The first is that a majority of the working class must have reached an understanding that social ownership of the means of life is the remedy for the social evils.
The other is that before they can put any form of social ownership into operation they must seize the power necessary to take control.
To the workers who have had actual contact and conflict with the powers wielded by the master class, it seems astonishing that men of the professional section who take up the study of social conditions should be so blind to these facts. The workers, in the main, are being converted to Socialism by the pressure of the class war, and not by the immature theories of the “intellectuals.” Thus while granting praise for so much acute observation, presented in good they will reject the misunderstanding by the author of the lessons to be drawn from the facts.
(Socialist Standard, March 1920)