1920s >> 1921 >> no-201-may-1921

Labour and Land

It is often difficult enough to discover what really is the attitude of the Labour Party to ward any particular problem; although its general policy of assisting the capitalists to govern, while endeavouring to win the “New Jerusalem” a brick at a time is perfectly plain —and perfectly fatuous. Not recognising the existence of the conflict of interests between the two classes of modern society, it wholly lacks a guiding principle. It is in effect, as also in the intention of many of its leaders, merely the “official Opposition,” waiting to get into power, but without the least idea of interfering with the system which will have enabled its prominent men to reach positions of eminence. As in order to obtain this end, it is prepared to adopt any programme circumstances may suggest from time to time, it has succeeded in bringing together a remarkable assortment of political odds and ends. Any decided line of action would be certain to offend some element of the party, so the safest course for its spokesmen is to say what they must say as vaguely as possible, and leave it to friends and enemies to interpret as they choose.

The least ambiguous, as the most shameful, action ever taken by the Labour Party was its enthusiastic support of Capital’s crowning glory, the war ; but even Mr. Patrick Lawrence could say when challenged to defend that attitude “but they didn’t all support it.”

It was not until after the Liberals had issued their manifesto on Ireland that Mr. Henderson defined the Labour Party’s position; and what was it ? The two were as like as a common purpose—vote catching—would lead one to expect, and as different in appearance as studied indefiniteness could make them.

At that time criticism of the Government’s activities in Ireland had become sufficiently popular to make this a sound plank for every bye-election platform of both parties. The decision not to oppose the Second Reading of the Reparation Bill, followed by a vote against the Government on the Third Reading is another case in point.

This lack of clearness, of which numerous instances can readily be found, extends to what is called the “agricultural problem,” but in the March issue of the “Nineteenth Century” is an article by Mr. W. R. Smith, M.P., President of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, which is an important suggestion, if not an official statement, of the party’s policy.

It is prefaced by a very naive editorial comment which is too good to be passed over. “People who have lived on the land and made a dispassionate and disinterested study of conditions there, are convinced that it (the abolition of private ownership) would throw the countryside into confusion and ultimate ruin.”

Notice the “disinterestedness”! Just as a professional crook might make a “dispassionate” examination of a proposal to increase the number of policemen and be “convinced” that it would be bad for business and an imposition on the ratepayer !

Mr. Smith admits the confusion of ideas, for, after mentioning various schemes which find favour with different sections, “confiscation,” “land bonds,” “taxation of land values,” etc., he writes “we do not see anything to regret in the existence of considerable diversity among members of the Labour Party.” He claims, whoever, two fundamental objects :

1. To get a big agricultural population, and
2. To grow as much food in these Islands as possible.

He admits the second quite frankly to be a war measure, and wonders whether Labour should concern itself with such a question, knowing “that preparation for war produces an atmosphere in which fear and greed are easily manipulated to cause an outbreak”.

Apart from the fact that war springs from capitalism itself and not from the fear and greed of the workers, which are themselves only the manifestation of the state of anarchy and ignorance in which the system keeps them, has Mr. Smith forgotten the part played by his party in the last war ? Mr. Smith may, as an individual, have retained his sanity in 1914, but can he deny that the Labour Party did, cheerfully and whole-heartedly, not only support the war, but condone every act of suppression the Government chose to introduce under the cover of military necessity ?

Further, in case you should think that bye-gones should be bye-gones, and that the Labour Party will act differently in the next war, just consider this from the same article : “and the Labour Party’s policy will certainly be to aim at as much progress in the agricultural industry as possible, such progress being socially necessary and desirable as a means of securing the nation against serious difficulty in times of crisis through war or world shortage.” Substitute “capitalist” for “nation” and you have the real attitude of the Labour Party.

As for the first point he contends that “a strong, happy population on the countryside is socially necessary, and that no system of national life can continue to exist and develope which is not founded on such a population.”

If this means that our present social system cannot work without a healthy and contented population I simply don’t believe it. Farmers have never been so prosperous as during and immediately after the war, and he himself admits that this has been accompanied by a further decrease in the number of agricultural workers. He goes on, “we recognise the necessity for a prosperous industry and cannot therefore be opposed to whatever steps will make for prosperity.” Our criticism is simply this, that on one hand the prosperity of the nation, which means, of course, the employers, is most decidedly not dependent on the well-being of the workers; and on the other hand that the employers can usually be trusted to look after their own prosperity, and if to do so involves attempts to lower still further the workers’ standard of life, the Labour Party has not the power, if it had the will, effectively to resist.

Again, he says he welcomes the increased use of machinery, and the possibilities it offers of an outlet for ambitious workers. He welcomes it because he cannot prevent it; but can it be denied that every mechanical improvement under present conditions only adds to the insecurity of the workers ?

Whatever the merits of these two points of policy Mr. Smith does not think they can be achieved under the present system of land ownership. He points out that only 5,000 landowners own 1,000 acres, and between them they possess half England, the whole being in the hands of about 1,000,000 people. To remedy this outrageous state of affairs he would nationalise the land. Not, however, “because it will mean the entire emancipation of the working-class, but because it is necessary in the interest of efficiency.” Naturally, no one who knows the Labour Party would accuse it of desiring the emancipation of the workers: they have a better reason than this. “Farmers should be able to expect a fair return, whatever be the nature of their land . .” I am not misreporting him—he is perfectly frank. “We have already seen how, in other industries it (nationalization) is being advocated by Capitalists and their newspapers . . clearly showing (if indeed anyone seriously doubted it) that nationalization can be, and is, advocated as part of a better organisation of Capitalism itself.” May I ask why, if Mr. Smith doesn’t seriously doubt it, he remains in the party which “stands pledged” to nationalization? “We do not reject it on this account, but we recognise it for what it truly is.” Could any opponent of the Labour Party invent anything more damning than this ?

“For the immediate future, however, practical politics are more likely to be concerned with questions of nationalization, to which, in the interests of efficiency, we are certainly not opposed.” We challenge Mr. Smith to show efficiency is of benefit to the workers. Increased efficiency simply means the more intensive exploitation of the wage earners by the class which lives on their labour.

He mentions the desirability of doing away with the hordes of middlemen who stand between farmers and the consumers of their produce, and confidently looks to nationalization to achieve it The advantage of this to the farmers is fairly obvious, but again, how can this improve the workers’ lot, involving, as it must, the unemployment of the thousands of employees of these middlemen ?

Mr. Smith considers a “moderate” Labour Government may follow the present one, and will introduce a Bill for the nationalisation of the land.

  “In that case we should be compelled to support such a Bill, always keeping in view its limited value and watching to see that nothing was done towards manufacturing fresh obstacles to real sweeping measures.”

I do not exactly know who that “we” is intended to represent, but whoever they are it is obvious from their being “obliged” to support the Government, and from the fact that the “real sweeping measures” are admittedly out of the question for the time being, that they are only a minority. That being so they are quite evidently not in a position to prevent the “manufacturing of fresh obstacles.” Means have yet to be discovered of holding up the machinery of government merely by “watching and seeing,” and a little thought would probably show that the “limited value” of the Bill in question would really be, for the workers, a positive evil. Even such an apparently harmless proposal as the “reform of weights and measures” is open to criticism, as a recent experience showed. A successful agitation by a worker’s organisation to get corn sacks reduced in size was followed by a move to employ boys in the place of men !

Mr. Smith cannot see that there is any necessary antagonism between farmers and the labourers they exploit. “Convinced then that any forward policy such as outlined above must be for the benefit of agriculture as a whole, the Labour Party’s policy will be to aim at as much progress in the agricultural industry as possible.” He has a grudge against the landlords. “None of us want to give the landlords more, since ‘living by owning’ is not a profession the Labour Party can recognise.”

Why not? As both farmers and landlords live on the surplus value taken from the workers why discriminate between them ?

”Undoubtedly under a Labour Government, even if there were no general attempt at Socialisation, our system of taxation would undergo great reforms . . much to the benefit of the farmers.” Does Mr. Smith really think Socialism merely a glorified re-adjustment of the “system of rating and taxation” ?
He concludes with a quite unnecessary assurance to “good farmers” that they have nothing to fear from a Labour Government. No, the Labour Party will defend the present order and when, to quote his words, “the proletariat develops sufficient social consciousness to bring about the complete overthrow of capitalism,” the Labour Party will be involved in the overthrow.

May I add one word of advice to those, including the I.L.P. and the Communist Party, who will insist on creating an agricultural problem in this country out of the alleged but unexplained difference between the relations of the workers and employers in towns and the labourers and farmers in the country. There simply isn’t any difference. All we have here is part of the general task of emancipating the workers from wage slavery. The solution of the Land problem is the recognition that for the workers there isn’t any real problem.