1920s >> 1921 >> no-197-january-1921

Book Review: Capitalism’s Dilemma

England and the New Era, by Brougham Villiers. T. Fisher Unwin. 12s. 6d.

Mr. Villiers’ work, “England and the New Era,” is so well written and arranged that the subject—with most writers dry and tedious— is made quite interesting and in places even instructive. He assumes that there must inevitably be a new era, because the forces operating within the present order unless consciously controlled will bring disaster and chaos on human society.

According to him, every nation in the old world, with the exception of England, is so weighed down with debt that they are virtually bankrupt, and will be compelled to repudiate their debts. “England,” he says, “may readily find herself alone in the new era, the only nation in the whole world bearing a crushing burden of debt, competing with nations which have virtually gone through the bankruptcy court and come out with free hands.” From this we discover quite early that his conception of a “new era” is not different from the old order in its fundamentals.

In his introductory remarks Mr. Villiers lays much stress on the aspirations of small nations to establish their independence. He says: “Sinn Fein is no isolated phenomenon: It is only the Irish manifestation of a universal spirit.” He fails to show, however, that the realisation of their ambitions will modify in any way the general character of the capitalist system. The capitalists of each country, large and small, will still compete for the world’s markets, and amalgamate into opposing groups in the same way that they did in 1914. While the workers can be blinded with the ashes of Imperialism or the dust of Nationalism, it is plain that they have yet to learn that they are both built on their slavery.

Mr. Villiers’ second disruptive force is the Labour movement throughout the world. He says: “There are, of course, vast differences in form between its manifestations in various countries and in the same country at various times, but in Germany and France, in Great Britain and in Russia, among the most moderate ‘collectivists’ and the most extreme revolutionaries, there is an essential unity of idea, a common conception of a new order utterly different from that which is falling to pieces around us. It is here, as will be seen later on, that the hope of the world will be found ; here, if anywhere, is the foundation from which a new order can arise.” (Page 52.)

In none of the countries mentioned by Mr. Villiers, nor in those he has not mentioned, is the Labour movement revolutionary. While there may be revolutionaries in every land, the Labour movement everywhere is. merely reformist. The reforms advocated may be different in the different countries; that they are reforms is their “essential unity of idea,” and their “vast differences in form” amount to little or nothing because none of the forms are based on Socialism, but only seek to modify the existing order of society.

Mr. Villiers is, of course, unable to show from the manifestoes or programmes of the Labour Party in this country that it is revolutionary, so he gives a brief sketch of the movement in which he says “The terms ‘masters and men’ had given way to ’employers and employees’ even before 1911, an indication in itself of the coming spirit. Just as villeinage could no longer be maintained once the villeins felt it to be an indignity ; if the working classes no longer wish to be employees producing goods for anyone’s profit, such a change in the point of view must in the long run be equally fundamental.” (Page 59)

All of which is extremely consoling to those capitalists who fear that Bolshevism is the beginning of the end. While capitalists generally will be quite willing that the workers should call themselves by any name they choose so long as they leave them surplus value. But the mere wishing for a better system by the workers, or a rooted objection to produce for the profit of others, will not get them a better system, even “in the long run.”

A still more hopeful sign for Mr. Villiers is the revolt of the rank and file of the trade unions against their leaders. If this action were the result of their growing knowledge it would indeed be a hopeful sign; but as Mr. Villiers himself points out, many of the strikes are of a “frivolous nature.” As the workers understand their position more clearly it is safe to say that their actions on the industrial field will be based on common sense, instead of becoming wild or frivolous.

The Trade Union and Co-operative movements and their growth in recent years are also indications to Mr. Villiers of the approaching revolution, although the rank and file of these movements are still engrossed with the idea of obtaining paltry advances of wages, or a few coppers in the pound discount on the wages they, spend at the stores—facts that in themselves reflect the ever-growing poverty of the workers.

But the greatest advance of all, according to our author, is the propaganda of “Guild Socialism.” He claims, that “this has greatly enriched, if not the philosophy of Socialism, at least the stock of ideas current among British Socialists.” One of these enriching ideas is quoted by him from a Fabian pamphlet on  Guild Socialism” by Mr. G. D. H. Cole as follows :

   “There is no hope in Bureaucratic society. Nor any hope or chance of capitalism lasting much longer. . . . That puts it up to you either to accept what I am saying or else find some means by which you can induce men to go on producing, other than the fear of hunger. . . . Hunger has made men work in the past, but it is everywhere breaking down to-day. Either men won’t go on working at all or else they will go on working for some quite different reason.” (Page 61-2.)

All of which is just as vague and indefinite as Mr. Villiers’ indications of a coming revolution. Though he thinks it is all true, and that “capitalism will work no longer for labour is refusing to work it.” Of course wild statements of this kind cannot be substantiated by facts. Everywhere the unemployed are demanding that they shall be put to work, and already there are signs that competition for jobs is resulting in speeding up and reductions in wages. Many industries are working short time, but it is against the wishes of the operatives, who would much prefer to work overtime. In their eyes a week’s wages is the essential thing, and they must make capitalism work to get it.

In his concluding chapter called “Creative Revolution” Mr. Villiers tries to show that the Labour Movement is revolutionary and that its adherents are increasing enormously. He does not tell us, however, that these numbers are made up by including the members of affiliated trade unions, co-operative societies, etc., the bulk of whom have never even tried to understand what the Labour Movement stands for. True they are nearly all more or less discontented and would listen and understand Socialism if it were intelligently presented to them. But the Labour Party and I.L.P. merely advocate reforms that lead nowhere, except that they serve capitalist interests by concentrating the workers’ minds on the patching up of the present system, instead of making clear to them the necessity of ending it.

The greater portion of Mr. Villiers’ book is taken up with the indebtedness of capitalist governments and the means by which the debt can be reduced or cancelled. On page 84 he presents three main ways of dealing with it.

” 1—To shirk it as much as possible, merely manipulating the taxes from time to time, so as to’ provide as long as possible for the payment of interest and perhaps for reducing the principle.
” 2—To repudiate it altogether or in part.
” 3—To devise some great scheme for its repayment either immediately or over a term of years.”

With regard to repudiation Mr. Villiers has examined all the arguments except one, and that one, of course, is the most important.

Those who hold the bulk of the war bonds control the political machine. The Cabinet represents their interests, and neither our author nor anyone else will ever succeed in persuading them that it is only justice for them to forego their interests when so many thousands of the workers gave their lives to make the country safe for them.

Heroic measures like repudiation form no part of capitalist policy. Not only so, other wars are expected, and who would lend if the present debt is repudiated ? Moreover, war bonds are a source of income which their holders have no wish to relinquish. The first policy is therefore the most likely to remain.

The third policy, repayment, it is suggested should be by a capital levy. His chief idea is that the stocks and shares now held by capitalists should be transferred proportionately, according to the holdings, to the Government, which would then have an income from which to pay the debt. But if that were all the capitalists might just as well keep their shares and pay themselves with the dividends. They would at least save the expenses of collection and distribution.

The capitalist class and the capitalist government are one in interests and outlook. The debt is owed by the capitalist class as a whole to some of its members. It is the collective responsibility of the capitalist class, and the assets of that class are the means of wealth production, which, operated by the working class, produces the revenue enjoyed by the capitalist class. That revenue will be neither more nor less because some of the shares, or all of them, are held by the Government, If the capitalist class, therefore, adopt Mr. Villiers’ suggestion, they would merely be giving up to their executive government annual dividends to be handed back to them as repayment of the executive debt.

Of course Mr. Villiers does not expect the capitalist class to be guilty of perpetrating such a delusion on themselves, but he does think they will allow the Labour Party to do so, or that the Labour Party will accomplish it, they having adopted it as part of their programme.

Debts or no debts, the workers under capitalism can never get more than wages based on the cost of subsistence ; the debt is, therefore, a capitalist debt, must be paid by the capitalist class if paid at all, and is their concern and their concern only.

But what of the Labour Party ? While claiming to be revolutionary it spends its time inventing and advocating schemes to relieve the capitalist class of their indebtedness, to get them out of a tight corner and establish their system on a surer foundation than ever.

If they were really revolutionary they would laugh at the “dilemma of capitalism,” and explain to the workers how they can escape from their dilemma—wage slavery—by establishing a system of society where the means of wealth production are owned in common and democratically controlled. Until they do this the Labour Party, instead of being “the hope of the world,” are a stumbling block preventing the workers’ acquisition of Socialist knowledge. Instilling hope by its sentimental clap-trap, it spreads confusion and breeds apathy in the minds of the workers.

Mr. Villiers dreams of revolution and repayment of war debts at the same time ; but they contradict each other. The one is to overthrow capitalism and the other is to make it solvent. He cannot have it both ways. Either revolution and the abolition of class-ownership in the means of life, and consequently the abolition of interest on war bonds and dividends, and the workers continue to be exploited as hitherto. His failure to deal satisfactorily with his subject is chiefly due to the fact that he does not realise what is meant by revolution and cannot conceive the possibility of a system not based on capital and ownership of capital with all that it implies.

F. Foan