The Battle of the Isms
When Hyam Eezi was much younger, he used to wonder what all this talk of Liberalism and Conservatism and other ‘isms was about. He was puzzled. You would not have called him a deep thinker at all. He just wondered and pondered, and occasionally asked questions. “What is the difference, the real difference, between Liberalism and Conservatism?” he would ask. He was told that one believed in Chinese slavery and the other was opposed to it. The arguments both for and against Chinese slavery were then flung at him, and in the heat of discussion he was not at once aware that his original question remained unanswered. So that, like so many of us, he unconsciously shelved it until a more convenient season. A few years later, in one of his pondering moods he became dimly aware that he had never really got at the heart of this mystery, and he again pursued enquiries into the essential difference between the two creeds. He was surprised to learn that Chinese slavery was no longer a touchstone, but that now one was strongly advocating Tariff Reform; the other what they called Free Trade. He found himself in the midst of a deluge of technical jargon, in which imports, exports, taxation, revenue, invisible exports, and what not, battered him into mild bewilderment.“But what is Liberalism in itself,” he would ask? “What is the essential Conservatism?” he would enquire.
No one could tell him. Liberal newspapers or Liberal orators would say they stood for Land Reform, or Rating Reform, or House of Lords Reform, or something of the sort. They were reformers, anyway. And then he would read Conservative newspapers, or hear Tory speakers, and be assured that Conservatism stood for taxing the foreigner, for a big navy, for Imperial expansion, for Imperial preference, for restoring the Lords’ veto, and for a number of other higfh-sounding things. Hyam’s difficulty was that neither seemed to stand for the same thing long, and that when one tried to get behind their high-sounding slogans, one was soon lost in a bewildering maze of detail. When, he thought, a man is described as an electrician, or as a dentist, or as a navvy, I know what he will do, although I may not know how he does it. Furthermore, I know that, although methods alter, there is a certain measure of consistency between what a dentist, an electrician or a navvy did twenty years ago and what he is doing to-day and what he will do twenty years hence. But when I try to analyse what is meant by Liberalism or Conservatism, in the light of what they said or did forty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago, and to-day, I feel there is something missing.
Someone suggested to him that he was wrong in judging a political party as he would an individual or an occupation. But he reflected, Is it not as individuals they are presented to me? Does not the candidate at an election placard the constituency with photographs of himself and deliver shoals of leaflets telling of his outstanding personal qualities, his reputation, his residence in the constituency, his devotion to his leaders, and so on. And then his leaders ; is it not as persons they are presented to me ? How this one smokes a pipe and is fond of gazing at pigs; and that one covers one eye with a monocle and has a most dignified bearing; another wears strange hats; another fuzzy hair; or has a silvery, witty tongue. No ! I think I do right to judge them in the way they are presented to me ; for I seem as far off as ever from finding the essential difference between Liberalism and Conservatism.
And then, quite accidentally, he saw a definition of Conservatism quoted in a journal. It was attributed to a rich man named Lord Hugh Cecil, and ran as follows :
1) Distrust of the unknown and love of the familiar;
2) The defence of Church and King, the reverence for religion and authority.
3) A feeling for the greatness of the country and for that unity which makes for its greatness.
If the truth must be told, Hyam Eezi was not profoundly impressed by this definition. He felt that, if the first was true, he was a Conservative; the second seemed to apply equally to all the Liberals he knew; the third did not seem to fit in with his own conception of bodily comfort.
It was about this time he caught sight in a periodical of a cartoon portraying a Liberal omnibus labelled to go to a place called Westbury. The side of the ‘bus was placarded with a large notice : Peace, Retrenchment and Reform. One of his Liberal friends told him that was as good a definition of Liberalism as he would get; had done duty for years in fact. Peace, thought Hyam, yes, I’m in favour of Peace. One-third a Liberal. Retrenchment ! He had to look that word up in a dictionary, and found it meant either cutting down or part of a fortification. He gathered that a Peace party could hardly be in favour of fortifications, and deduced therefore the Liberal Party were for cutting things down. Involuntarily Hyam’s thoughts flew to wages, in his experience the thing’s most often in process of being cut down. In this he was nearer to fact than he knew, but let that pass. Reform ! Yes, he understood what that meant. Reform meant putting things right. And plenty of room for it too, thought Hyam. But then, in talking things over with his acquaintances, he found Conservatives in favour of Peace and Retrenchment and Reform. So he appeared to have discovered after all that, as the Irishman is alleged to have said, the only difference between them was that they were both alike, only one more so than the other.
But his great discovery followed a casual meeting with a fellow in a workman’s train. Their conversation had drifted from the weather to work, from work to no work, or unemployment, from that to the Government, and then to politics generally. He confided the result of his ponderous thinking to his fellow traveller, who listened attentively, and then said : “Will you listen to me for a quarter-of-an-hour?” Hyam agreed; whereupon the stranger began :
” If you were a slave on a sugar plantation, what would for ever be uppermost in your mind? ”
” Getting free,” replied Hyam.
” But supposing you had been born a slave, the son and grandson of slaves; if your chains did not gall you too much ; if your slavery were explained to you as perfectly natural, quite normal ; the best system, in fact, that man had yet discovered; would your freedom be quite so insistent a question?”
On reflection, Hyam admitted it would not.
“Then I hope you can conceive of a time when, in order to obtain their willing’ consent to their slavery, the slaves are allowed to elect their own masters, and to agree on the conditions of their slavery.”
Hyam could see this.
“Now, not to push the analogy too far—for these things never took place under chattel slavery—if, before the desire for liberty had been stifled or lulled to sleep, the slaves were invited to vote for their masters on some such question as Taxation of Land Values or Reform of the Upper House, what would have been their probable reply?”
“To hell with your catch-phrases. Give us our liberty,” said Hyam.
“You are right,” said the stranger. “And it is only because our fellows nowadays are unconscious of their slavery that they are caught so easily with these tags. The difference between Liberalism and Conservatism is very slight, and may be compared to two friends have have different views on methods of gardening. The Liberals have one theory of taxation, the Conservatives another. The one believes in the desirability of reforms as much as the other; but they differ a little as to the most urgent reforms. The essential difference you have been looking for does not exist. They have one ‘ism in which they both believe—Capitalism. And it is in Capitalism you should interest yourself. You were telling me how at one time you found their differences to reside in varying views of Chinese slavery; at another in Free Trade versus Protection, and at another in the Lords’ Veto. May I call your attention to one thing that was constant—your own condition. You were a workman all the time. All through the many elections that you have seen in your lifetime, all through the terms of office of Liberal Governments, Conservative Governments or Labour Governments, you have remained a workman. These various questions that have been dangled before you only assumed any prominence in your eyes because you were not conscious of your slave condition. Not once throughout all these years have you demanded your liberty. Not that you would have got it; for those who want liberty will have to fight for it. But that you have not demanded it shows you are unconscious of your slave position. That is the first thing to realise then, that you are one of a vast class in society that is held in subjection by another and smaller class. How are you held in subjection? By one simple feature. You are a human being and must eat in order to live, clothe yourself in order to defy the elements, shelter yourself that you may not perish. Under capitalism you can obtain them in but one way apart from stealing. You must find a master who wishes to hire human labour-power, for you must remember human labour-power is the most wonderful thing you have heard of. Your master will bargain with you and hire your wonderful labour-power for such a sum as will enable you to buy food, clothes and shelter. With your labour-power you and your fellows will proceed to build him houses, ships, bridges, palaces, parks, railways, motor cars, hotels, roads, and a thousand things, all infinitely more valuable than the price of your labour-power. But you will not be permitted to touch them. You have been paid for the hire of your energy. And when you have filled the world so full of wealth that no more is needed, the price of your hire is discontinued, and you are given the sack. This process is believed to be the best possible by both Liberals and Conservatives. Anyone who dares to criticise it is ignored as long as possible, called unpleasant names and lied about when he can no longer be ignored; hunted and imprisoned if he appears to endanger the continuance of the system. Liberals and Conservatives would each have differing views on the best way to allay the miseries attending on the state of being- without a master, unemployment, as it is called. In this sense both are reformers. But neither would abolish it.
“So that, in brief, Hyam, Liberalism and Conservatism are slightly different viewpoints in the administration of Capitalism. In the defence of that system, Liberals are as conservative as the Conservatives. In dealing out reforms to keep the workers contented with things as they are, the Conservatives are as liberal as the Liberals. To judge of the value of reforms to the workers, you cannot do better than read the leading article in the Daily News of May 27. I’ll read the commencement of it to you.
” ‘The National Liberal Federation on its fiftieth anniversary can congratulate itself that, with the exception of land reform, every one of the reforms that year by year used to litter the agenda paper is now on the Statute Book. But the reformer is always in the position of a mountaineer. He reaches what he conceives to be the goal of his journey, only to find that there are more precipitous rocks ahead. The agenda of this year’s conference is just as packed with subjects requiring urgent legislation.’”
“There, Hyam, how’s that for half a century of progress? Perhaps in another half-century or so the reforms will come so thick and fast you will actually be conscious of improvement. But, again, as the perspicacious leader-writer says, the reformer’s life is one long surprise packet. Every rock he scales only gives him a view of more rocks. Do not follow this geological party, Hyam, or, as they plainly tell you, fifty years of that sort of progress only lands you on the rocks, and there is no finish.
“When the Socialist Party gains sufficient adherents their contribution to the Statute Book will be brief, but you will notice it. It will enact that on and after a certain date private property in the means whereby we all live shall cease, and they will be taken over in the name of the people to be democratically owned and controlled for the benefit of the whole community. And that’s all for to-day, Hyam.”
W. T. H.
(Socialist Standard/em>, August 1927)