Book Review: A Gloomy Professor

“THE UNSOLVED RIDDLE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE,” by Stephen Leacock. London : John Lane, the Bodley Head, Vigo St., W.1. 5s. net.

This book, written by a professor of Political Economy at McGill University, Montreal, is one of the numerous attempts made to explain the “labour unrest” throughout the world, and to propose some remedial measures for it. To be, and remain, a professor at a University necessarily means that one must not put forth ideas or statements that are injurious to the interests of the master class. Should one do so one very quickly loses one’s chair, and is forced to seek employment in another direction.

This does not prevent certain guarded criticisms being made, especially when “unrest” reaches a troublesome stage, but the edge of the criticism is always turned in the end against one or two “exceptional” employers while the majority are shown to be virtuous, hard-working, self-sacrificing benefactors of mankind.

thus the present volume opens with several important admissions on the conditions existing to day. On page 14 we are told.

“With all our wealth we are still poor. After a century and a half of labour-saving machinery we work about as hard as ever. With a power over nature multiplied a hundred fold, nature still conquers us.

And more than this : There are many scenes in which the machine age seems to leave the great bulk of civilised humanity, the working part of it, worse off instead of better.”

This point is further emphasised on page 76 where he says:

“Labour-saving machinery does not of itself save the working world a single hour of toil; it only shifts it from one task to another.”

In the third chapter the author attempts to disprove the usual theories on Value and Price. Especially does he object to the views of Adam Smith and Ricardo that the quantity of labour governs value. After referring to the stock illustration of the primitive savage he contends:

“But in the complexity of modern industrial life such a calculation no longer applies; the differences of technical skill, of native ingenuity, and technical preparation become enormous. The hour’s work of a common labourer is not the same thing as the hour’s work of a watchmaker mending a watch, or of an engineer directing the building of a bridge, or of an architect drawing a plan. There is no way of reducing these hours to a common basis.”

The falsity of this statement is proved by everyday experience. Engineers, Architects, trained Technicians, etc., make elaborate and close calculations to show how the time they have to spend in acquiring their special knowledge and training has to be taken into account when their remuneration is being fixed. Directly or indirectly these multiplications are always applied to the unskilled labourers’ standard as the basis of the calculation. Thus in the agitation carried on to-day by the school teachers, many of the speakers are taking the dustman or coalman as a basis for their calculation of what the salary of the teacher should be. A striking illustration of this fact is given in places where technical and professional education is partly or wholly supported from the national taxes. This reduces, or in some cases abolishes the fees that were paid formerly by the students, who are then expected to take lower salaries because their training has cost them less. Chemists in Germany were a front rank instance of this.

It is quite true, as Mr. Leacock says later on, that the payments at a given moment are the outcome of “economic strength.” But “economic strength” only determines the range of the “fluctuations,” it does not fix the line about which these fluctuations take place. That is determined by the cost of production based upon the average unskilled labourer.

Having admitted so much of the evils of the present system the author turns to remedies. Apart from his own nostrums he only refers to one other proposed remedy, namely, Socialism. This is impossible—”Socialism is a beautiful dream, possible only for the angels” (p. 22). Still he objects to the proscribing and persecution of Socialism, and claims that “It will languish and perish in the dry sunlight of open discussion.”

But what is the “Socialism” that Mr, Leacock combats? In this second decade of the twentieth century, sixty-one years after the publication of Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy,” a critic of Socialism, not an ignorant Christian Evidence ranter, or a Tariff Reform charlatan, but a full-blown “professor” of Political Economy, takes as the standard work on Socialism Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward!” The laws of social evolution are not even mentioned. The stage of development that present society has reached, and the only alternatives before us are passed over and a philanthropic sentimentalist’s dream of a future state of society, with all its details fully worked out, is put up to be shot at, while the scientific analysis of capitalism and the discovery of social laws by Marx, Engels, and Morgan are carefully ignored.

Even then what is the author’s main objection to “Looking Backward”? It is to the elected managers. They, in his opinion, must work as angels. “Now,” he says (p. 106) “Let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?” And he answers that they cannot be found anywhere.

What, then, is to be done ? For evidently something must be done to avert chaos.

“The time has gone by when a man shall starve asking in vain for work ; when the listless outcast shall draw his rags shivering about him unheeded of his fellows ; when children shall be born in hunger and bred in want and broken in toil with never a chance in life. If nothing else will end these things, fear will do it. The hardest capitalist that ever gripped his property with the iron grasp of legal right, relaxes his grasp a little when he thinks of the possibilities of a social conflagration.” (P. 119.)

Mr. Leacock’s remedies can hardly be described as heroic. “Work must either be found or must be provided by the State itself,” he says, and points to the undeveloped lands of Canada, United States, and Australia as being capable of absorbing the labour of generations. Whether this means compulsory emigration we are not told. It is interesting to note in passing that he says much to discredit the Malthusian doctrine.

“Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education for the children.” (P. 130.)

The two great measures to be applied to this end are the establishment of a minimum wage and the shortening of the hours of labour. Even eight hours a day at a mechanical task is considered too long by our author. These measures are to be brought into operation gradually by the combined means of legislation and collective organisation.

It needs but a superficial examination to show that even a rigorous application of these measures would not affect more than the fringe of the subject. Despite the so-called shortage of commodities, General Haig has been appealing in vain to the employers to give work to hundreds of thousands of demobilised men and officers who are unemployed. Gibing at certain of the trade unions is mere clap-trap as these unions point to the number of unemployed already in their ranks. Above all this, however, is the over-riding constant factor of improving machinery and means of production. These grow far faster than the effective demands of the market can absorb their products. Hence, apart from certain times of fluctuation, the number of unemployed is not only maintained, but is bound to increase.

Against this great fact Mr. Leacock’s puny measures are as useless as Mrs. Partington’s broom against the sea.

And even then, with unconscious humour, our author turns his own arguments against Socialism upon his own case when he says :

“Yet it is clear that a policy of State work and State pay for all who ate otherwise unable to find occupation involves appalling difficulties. The opportunity will loom large for the prodigal waste of money for the undertaking of public works of no real utility, and for the subsidising of an army of loafers.” (P. 130.)

A terrible outlook, truly! And how can it be met ? By the very means that our author declared impossible.

“Clearly enough a certain modicum of public honesty and integrity is essential for such a task ; more, undoubtedly, than we have hitherto been able to enlist in the service of the commonwealth. But without it we perish.”

Then perish we must, for Mr. Leacock has already stated that such people cannot be found.

The Socialist—a student of social evolution— has no use for either the well-meaning Utopias of the Bellamys or the despair of the Leacocks. He knows that the development of the powers of production, their increasing size and complexity, the steady concentration of the means of life into fewer and fewer hands, with its increasing slavery of the workers, will force the problem before mankind:—Either social ownership of the Means of Life, or Destruction.

The unrest, the rumblings, the strikes, are all signs that the working class are beginning to kick.—still blindly, it is true—against the effects of this system. That restlessness, turned into right channels due to the education the conditions give, aided by the propaganda of the Socialist, will ensure that not destruction, but Socialism, will prove the solution of the problem.


(Socialist Standard, May 1920)