1920s >> 1923 >> no-227-july-1923

Progress and Politics (book review)

PROGRESS AND POLITICS. By Ramsey Muir. Methuen & Co., 36, Essex Street, W. C.2. Price 3s. 6d.

The dust cover advertises this book “as an attempt to survey the whole field of politics from the standpoint of a progressive who is deeply dissatisfied with many aspects of the existing order, but who is convinced that the Socialist scheme of reconstruction is no better than a will o’ the wisp.”

After reading the book we can share the author’s conviction concerning what he calls “the Socialist scheme of reconstruction,” for thoughout “Socialist” is used to denote the Labour Party, and for the workers the schemes of that party, like the schemes of the Liberal Party, are will o’ the wisps.

We have no space here to quarrel over the meaning of words, but to apply the term Socialist to the Labour Party is unfair both to responsible Socialists and to the Labour Party. The Labour Party is not, and never has been, a Socialist Party. Even its own publicists admit that, as witness Mr. Snowden’s statement that

“the British Labour Party is certainly not Socialist in the sense in which Socialism is understood upon the Continent. It is not based upon the recognition of the class struggle.”—(Page, 528, “Manchester Guardian” Reconstruction Number, 26th October, 1922)

And so, while Mr. Muir is convinced the futility of Labourism, he says nothing about Socialism, and it is therefore impossible to know whether he has any convictions on this subject.

But more of this anon; for the present the book itself provides ample scope for comment. It can be divided into three sections, dealing with (1) the broad aims of Liberalism, 2) the achievements of Liberalism in the past, and (3) the Liberal solution of immediate problems. To take the last first.

It proposes as a solution of modern financial problems, increased death duties (the capital levy is discussed and turned down), the League of Nations as a means to abolish war, and a re-organisation of industry and an improved dole system to solve the present unemployment problem

The capital levy and death duties are no concern of the workers. The incidence of taxes falls on the people who can pay them, not on the propertyless class. Financial problems are therefore problems for master class, who will have to solve them unless the workers do so by ending the system which engenders them.

As for the League of Nations, only a Liberal can imagine that it will prevent wars. They have their basis in the economic structure of society itself, and result from the struggle for markets under competitive production. And although the workers allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder, they are all the time only fighting their masters’ battles while neglecting their own. The futility of expecting to end war under capitalism by peaceful negotiation is shown with naive clearness by our author himself on page 89, where he writes :

“It was by the use of the Concert of Europe that Sir Edward Grey succeeded in averting the almost annual threats of war by which Europe was disturbed during the years 1906 to 1914, and he could have succeeded in averting the final menace of 1914 by the same means if Germany had only permitted the concert of Europe to come into being.”

Moreover, somebody will be doing things like this again, for Mr. Muir is not going to trust a pacific League of Nations with an army,

“for the commander of such an army would have in his hands the means of making himself the despot of the world.”

The League of Nations is to be bossed, not boss, you understand !

And then unemployment. As this did not arrive with the war, but was quite a flourishing problem which should have appealed to Liberals of the past prior to 1911, and as “it is a problem of manageable dimensions capable of a reasonable and just solution” (page 133), it is strange that it was not solved by one of the many Liberal Governments the workers have chosen for themselves. But, there, even Liberals cannot do everything at once, and while the House of Lords needed reforming, what time had they to deal with a problem like unemployment, which was soluble and would therefore present no difficulty? The solution is Government relief work, and insurance by industries. Of course,

“there would remain a large group of industries which could not be directly helped by this method ; the textile trades, for example. In these industries the only way of minimising—for that is all that is possible—the evils of a period of exceptional trade depression would be a system of organised relay work with partial unemployment relief.” —(Page 136.)

As Mr. Ramsey Muir does not know, or at least does not say, how periods of “exceptional trade depression” can be avoided, this is an admission of blank failure and shows that even Liberalism of the pinkest hue will not give the workers that security of which Mr. Muir prates.

So much for the future Liberalism. What of the past?

In his outline of past achievements, our author is continually compelled to confess that Conservatives shared in the so-called reforms of the nineteenth century. Thus we get frequent passages like these :

“This Act (giving the counties representative councils) of 1888, though it had been drafted by a Liberal statesman, was actually carried by a Conservative Government.”—(Page 94.)
“A Liberal Act of 1871 saved the unions from this danger (of prosecutions for conspiracy in restraint of trade), though it had to be supplemented by a Conservative Act in 1875.”—(Page 95.)
“In the early days, a great Tory philanthropist, Lord Shaftesbury, was one of the most persistent advocates of factory legislation, which always had Liberal majorities.”—(Page 100.)
“Conservative Ministries and Parliaments contributed from time to time to the work.”—(Page 101.)

From this it is seen that if the worker had cause to be grateful for these reforms, if they mitigated the evils of his slave condition, his gratitude must be showered on Liberalism and Conservatism alike. Such reforms have not fundamentally altered the position of the working class, however, and no gratitude is needed. And if Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery are achievements to be referred to with pride, does Mr. Muir forget that the Liberals like Cobden, so energetic in freeing slaves, were equally energetic in opposing Factory Acts? And in spite of capitalist historians, was the emancipation of slaves so disinterested and high-minded as Mr. Muir would have us believe? The Act liberating slaves was passed in 1832. David Hume had already pointed out in 1711 that

“from the experience of planters, slavery is as little advantageous to the master as to the slave, wherever hired servants can be procured. A man is obliged to clothe and feed his slave and he does no more for his servant. The price of the first purchase, therefore, is so much loss to him, not to mention that the fear of punishment will never draw so much labour from a slave as the dread of being turned off and not getting another service will from a free man.”

And in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” occurs this passage :

“Though the wear and tear of a free servant be equally at the expense of his master, it generally costs him much less than that of a slave.”

The liberation of slaves was as charitable and disinterested as is the sending of “armies of missionaries whom Britain maintained” into every land, which our author claims to be characteristic of a new policy of Liberalism (vide page 92).

“The purpose of the Missions is not to develop trade, but trade is inevitably developed by missions. They steadily increase material needs: soaps, oils, cloths, sewing machines, books, tools, follow hard on Mission enterprise. Missions teach thrift, industry and honesty in commercial dealings. It is worthwhile for business men to support Missions if from no other motive than that they create new, larger and better markets for their goods.”—(Record of the Home and Foreign Mission work of the United Free Church of Scotland, December, 1919, page 267.)

These are a few of the past achievements of Liberalism which Mr. Muir rakes up. There are some he has forgotten. What of Mr. Asquith sending soldiers to Featherstone in 1893, when the miners were shot down, and Churchill’s calling out of troops at the time of the Dock Strike in 1911, when, by mistake, of course, Mr. Tillett told the dockers to rush the bakers’ shops? For an author who chides Labour orators with trusting to the ignorance of their hearers (page 86), this is a serious omission. And how does he square this use of force with the statement that the Conservative is distinguished from the Liberal by

“the use of force rather than persuasion as the easiest weapon for dealing with any sign of revolt against the established order.”—(Page 9.)

The use of force as a protection to the master class is another honour shared equally by these two parties, and with the advent of a Labour Government there will arise a third participator.

Force is the foundation of capitalist domination, and that force is obtained through Parliament; capitalist control there means capitalist control everywhere. The workers therefore have nothing to gain by supporting any party which seeks to maintain that control. Concessions and reliefs may have been granted in the past by both parties, but none of these concessions, none of these vaunted reliefs, such as Old Age Pensions, State Insurance, etc., have altered the general position of the workers in society. They are still slaves, and whilst Liberalism, Conservatism, or Labourism has their attention they will remain slaves. Mr. Muir admits that

“Liberalism and Conservatism are united in their belief that private enterprise must, in the future as in the past, provide the main driving force in the economic sphere.”—(Page 7.)

And that statement damns Liberalism for the workers, to whom the only problem of vital importance is the problem of ownership and control of the means of life. The ending of private ownership solves the problem of the division of the product of industry, in which Liberalism promises the workers a larger but still a small share. The object of the workers should be to dispossess the master class. They therefore have no use for any party which denies the class struggle. For the achievement of their emancipation the Liberal Party is as useless as the Conservative or Labour Parties. The workers alone can free themselves from the burden of their condition—this they can do when they wish by organising on a class basis.

W. J. R.

(Socialist Standard, July 1923)

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