1920s >> 1923 >> no-230-october-1923

“Agriculture and the Guild System” (book review)

“AGRICULTURE AND THE GUILD SYSTEM.” By Montague Fordham. 24 pages, price 4d. I.L.P., 308, Grays Inn Road.

Mr. Fordham summarises his proposals in a paragraph, thus (p. 9) : —

“… we have to secure Democratic Control of agriculture, the limitation of the rights of private owners over the land, the establishment of just prices and just pay, and the replacing of the dealers and other middlemen by co-operation. Then, we can get what we should have been aiming at all the time—farming for food, with a reasonable return, many well-paid workers on the land, and the economic basis for restoration of a jovial country life.”

He sees, however, that the bear has to be caught and killed before it can be skinned.

“It is quite unwise to suppose that what is substantially an agricultural revolution can ever begin, whilst power remains in the hands of the landlords, large farmers, land agents, solicitors, bankers, dealers and middlemen.” (Page 10.)

He tells us also on page 10 that control cannot be obtained through the Trade Unions, but does not tell us how it is to be obtained. He skips this, and goes, straight on to tell us what the parish will do when control has passed “out of the hands of the landlords” into those of a “National Chamber of Agriculture . . . responsible to Parliament alone.” As the owning class control Parliament, we have in fact first to capture that seat of power— a detail Mr. Fordham apparently overlooks. It is by no means an unimportant detail, because the present ruling and owning class, will never willingly yield to any denial whatsoever of the rights of private property. They may be willing to listen to suggestions, for the better ordering of their economic system, and one section of the capitalist class may be not only interested but quite enthusiastic about a harmless-looking scheme which will in effect enable them to plunder some other section. It will be .noticed from Fordham’s statement quoted above that he is not proposing to destroy private ownership, only to “limit” it; and behind some interesting, but quite irrelevant, discussion of the economic machinery operative under the total different conditions of the Guilds in Mediaeval England, we find that Fordham’s suggestion is simply a form of indirect subsidy. He adduces arguments which he considers should weigh sufficiently with the financial and industrial capitalists to make them willing to maintain the agricultural industry, temporarily at least, out of their profits. Since the eighties of last century British agriculture has been badly hit by competition which arose when railways opened up the interiors of North and South America and, later, Russia, thus making it possible to ship foodstuffs to industrial Europe. The first two had virgin soil needing no fertilisers, and so vast as to permit extensive cultivation, and the wheat from all three was put on the home market at a price which forbade profitable arable farming except under very advantageous conditions. This was profitable for the manufacturers, for whom cheap food meant low wages. They had discovered this in 1846, when they repealed the Corn T.a\vs. Incidentally, the ruin of agriculture and the depopulation of the countryside was also good for them, as it increased the supply of cheap labour in the towns.

But during the present century this supply of cheap food from abroad has shown signs of decreasing. Railway freights in U.S.A. have steadily risen, virgin soils are being exhausted, and intensive cultivation has had to be substituted, while the growing industrial populations of these countries are coming to need all their home supplies. Russia has left the market, and, curiously enough, in that country now we have just the reverse of the policy Mr. Fordham suggests. The Bolsheviks are driven to subsidise their bankrupt industries out of agriculture. Whether they can succeed in such a policy will depend on their maintaining their control of the Government. They are at least realists, tut Mr. Fordham thinks he can carry out his scheme without capturing political power.

In view off the changing agricultural situation, the British industrial capitalists have had to consider of recent years whether it would not be worth their while artificially to stimulate agricultural production by subsidies, in fact of the declining quantity and threatened rising price of foreign wheat. The problem was temporarily brought to a head during the war, when a bonus was given for the growing of wheat and oats, coupled with a statutory minimum wage for agricultural labourers. The whole of this machinery was scrapped in October, 192l. Mr. Fordham does not want the re-introduction of the Corn Production Act, but he wants prices to be “stabilised” and “a just price to be based on cost of production.” This, he thinks, would also cut out the middleman who at present gets the bulk of the retail prices of farm produce, and lead to the formation of Distributive Cooperative Societies.

Fordham admits that the limitation of imports would be necessary, which means that prices would, in spite of his statements to the contrary, be raised above world prices to benefit agriculturists. In short, through all the fog of Mr. Fordham’s reasoning we see that the essence of his case is that the industrial and financial capitalists are to be asked to dip their hands in their pockets to guarantee to farmers the average rate of profit on their capital.

The necessary adjunct of capitalist private ownership, the wage system, is to remain, but wages of labourers are to be secured at an “adequate” level by the price-fixing authority.

The introduction of this scheme will depend, while the capitalists remain in power, on their view as to whether the economic, political, and military gains to them justify the expenditure. Mr, Fordham should therefore offer his advice to the proper quarter.

As Mr. Fordham says (page 6), various things will happen, “If the British Government will give facilities,” etc., etc. There is just one thing for which the British Government will not give “facilities” ; that is Socialism. It yet remains to be shown by Mr. Fordham how a slave class can improve its position except at the expense of its masters, or how propertyless workers can emancipate themselves except by appropriating for the use of society the private property of the present owners.

If the workers capture political power for the purpose of ‘.ntroducing Socialism, they can, in abolishing capitalism, also sweep away the minor evils and problems of organisation which worry Mr. Fordham.

I notice with amusement that he receives most flattering notices from G. K. Chesterton and A. J. Penty. Chesterton once remarked of Penty that he was one of the two or three really original minds of our day. I wondered then who was the third. It now only remains for Mr. Fordham to say something really nice about Chesterton.

Personally, I wish all of them would find some little hell of their own on which to inflict their precious schemes for the Feudalisation of society. The workers would do far better to learn something about capitalism as it really is to-day, than to be misled by the fantastic pictures of Mediaeval Europe drawn by these three romantic humbugs.


(Socialist Standard, October 1923)

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