At the street corner
One of our earliest, and one of our wisest decisions of policy, was that wherein we allowed an opponent access to our platform. Having heard our case, and subject only to the common usages and decencies of debate, we offer any opponent the right to oppose us, on our own platform. We believe that, as a party, we are unique in this respect. But then, of course, we are unique in having a position that we know will stand the test. Obviously a case can be made out for anything, even the most absurd proposition, if you ignore enough, and throttle the opposition. So that propagandist parties of all sorts, religious or political, who decline to allow their statements to be combated, where and when uttered, stand self-convicted of cowardice or dishonesty.
To allow questions is not enough. Their very allowance is often transparent trickery, for a false position can rarely be overthrown by one question. As soon as a questioner follows up by supplementaries, one usually finds the speaker evading an issue by saying the questioner is selfishly monopolising too much attention. He should give someone else a chance.
Or again, an awkward question is parried by another question from the speaker, or met by a provocative remark, and the succeeding jeers and howls used as a cover, whilst a more congenial questioner is baited. This is notoriously the method of the Anti-Socialist Union, and analagous bodies. They will not permit anyone on their platform to state a reasoned opposition. Oh, no! But questions! Bless you, yes!
There was a speaker the other day in a London market place, representing the British Empire Union. His remarks were a strange blend of sense and fallacy. He said, very wisely, “Do not be led hither and thither by leaders of any sort. Do not read the exclusive literature of any one party; read all, and come to your own conclusions. Read and think deeply,” he said. “Do not hurry to a decision, but let what you read and hear, have time to digest in your brain and then, as an individualist, stick to your own opinion.” How wise! How sensible! It impressed the audience. But someone asked him what he meant by an ”individualist,” a term he had used rather frequently. He replied : “One who believed in making his own bargain with an employer, and not being dictated to by a union.” Then, of course, the storm broke. Howls and jeers from obvious Labour adherents, gradually died down into questions, dealt with as outlined above. Then the mention of China was seized upon by the speaker as a useful get-out, and a peg upon which to jibe at the Labour Party and then invite further questions. Did he think it right, asked one questioner, that the Chinese women and children of Shanghai should have to work 14 hours a day in the cotton mills. As an “individualist,” replied the speaker, he believed anyone should have the unquestioned right to work as many hours as they wished. More howls and jeers, and then a quiet, insistent little man who had evidently thought out a short series of consecutive questions, got a hearing with his first one. “What was the cause of the trouble in China?” he asked. Twice the speaker ignored him. The third time the speaker paused, waved the crowd into comparative silence, and replied : “I don’t know, do you?” Bang went the little man’s series. Thrown on the defensive, he said, “But I’m-asking you.” “Yes,” retorted the speaker, “but I don’t know. I’m asking you.” Bravely the little man started to explain conditions in the cotton mills in Shanghai when the lecturer interrupted by asking which mills, British or Chinese. The little man was not quite certain, but said both, when the speaker followed up by saying, “How many British mills are there out there?” The little man got nettled and said “I do not know, and the number is immaterial. What I contend—” “Oh, no!” said the speaker, “you are not sure of your facts. Let us have the facts,” and so on. Collapse of the little man.
So that the acceptance of questions at a public meeting does not constitute it a fair vehicle for the diffusion of views. Politics is essentially a subject for public discussion, and that cannot be called discussion which says “These are our views. You may ask us questions about them, but we will not allow your contrary views to be heard.”
Obviously, the British Empire Union is not concerned with the dissemination of accurate views, for its speakers must know perfectly well that the phenomenon they call an “individualist” cannot exist in human society. They must know that in ten short minutes a capable opponent could make the absurdity of such a claim apparent to the simplest intelligence. They must know, in spite of their waving of Union Jacks and their blether of King and Country, that the Government gave very short shift to “individualists” during the War or during the coal trouble. The B.E.U. therefore, take no chances. The capable opponent is kept off their platform. He may question, but not expound.
The Socialist Party is not built that way. We have a position, a philosophy, a policy, which has been tested in every possible way. Scientists, economists, politicians, have attacked it, belittled it, sneered at it, but Socialism remains. It is the one subject that is the common talk of the whole civilised world. Wherever human progress has attained the stage known as Capitalism, there inevitably the problems it raises are sure to be soluble in only one way. Nothing hinders its steady onward march. Even a world-war, overturning thrones and making hay of political frontiers, leaves Socialism still the talk of the world, and the hope of millions. As a policy, we of the Socialist Party have always realised that Socialism can only come when the majority of people want it. We conceive it our task therefore, to convert a majority of people to our point of view. With this clear object before us, we believe there cannot be too much opportunity for discussion. We are so convinced of the impregnable strength of our position that our platform is open to anyone who cares to try to prove us wrong. We have nothing to hide, no secrets to keep, no leaders to apologise for, nothing but straight Socialism to preach. So we have nothing to fear. If anyone thinks we are crying for the moon, or are on a wild-goose chase, he is at liberty to tell us so. If he can prove it, he will save us wasting our precious time, and so do us a service. On the other hand, if we can in turn show that he is harbouring delusions unawares, he should be indebted to us. We have everything to gain by discussion. Can it be said that any of our political opponents are similarly anxious for discussion, or that they are prepared to offer equal facilities? Try them and see. And in the meantime read our pamphlet called Socialism, still obtainable at the modest price of twopence (plus postage) in spite of its 48 packed pages.
W. T. Hopley