Debate: Socialism versus Liberalism

Our debate with Philip Guedalla

The following- report of the above debate is reprinted (by permission) from the Manchester Guardian (April 21st, 1928) :—

Mr. Philip Guedalla, prospective Liberal candidate for the Rusholme Division, and Mr. J. Fitzgerald, of London, a representative of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, last night debated, before a large audience in the Co-operative Society’s Hall, Platt Lane, Rusholme, the question : Should the working class support the Liberal or the Socialist Party?

Mr. Guedalla said the Liberal Party, with its history, need not be ashamed of facing its fellow-countrymen and seeing if it had any contribution to make to the solution of the problems of the day. But the real test was : What are the parties going to do with the problems that faced us to-day? The great problem, whatever name it was called by, could be called the problem of industry. Was the Liberal future or the Socialist future the more promising thing for British industry, upon which the welfare of all of us depended? Liberalism believed that two things were essential if we were going to have better conditions in industry. The first was peace throughout the world. The second was the keeping of obstacles out of the way—in other words, Free Trade. Liberals did not believe in nationalisation, because they did not believe nationalisation would pay. They believed that a State-run industry would not produce as much wealth as industry run on other lines, and it was no good devising the fairest way of sharing out the swag if there was not so much swag to divide out. Moreover, they did not believe nationalisation touched the real industrial evil. That evil consisted of a sense of injustice in the minds of the workers concerning their status.

To meet that, Liberals believed it would be just that when the worker went into employment he should know the terms on which he was employed, which he often did not—-that he should have a definite contract. Liberals believed that a worker dismissed in certain circumstances should have a right of appeal. Liberals wanted to give facilities for spreading the ownership of British industry over a greater number. Far too few people owned the show to-day in Great Britain. Liberals wanted a great drift in the direction of whatever was the fairest way of sharing out the proceeds of industry that was suited to each industry. Then Liberals wanted to introduce the principle of self-government into industry. They wanted the acceptance of the principle of “cards on the table” in industry, so that the workers should know what the condition of an industry really was, so that the workers could really be partners in the industry.


Mr. Fitzgerald said the fundamental fact of society to-day was that there was a deep cleavage. On one side there was the working class—-the class that lived by the sale of their services—and on the other the class that lived on profit derived from the ownership of capital. The economic circumstances of the two resulted in the worker class being slave class. In that sense the worker class were the slaves of the capitalist class. How were they kept enslaved? By the possession of political power; ultimately upon the control of the fighting forces for the purpose of keeping the other class enslaved. The working class could get control by obtaining control of the political machine. It came down, then, in the first instance, to the control of Parliament, which was the centre of power in all modern States. That was the lesson which the working class had got first to learn—to send their own representatives to Parliament.

Mr. Guedalla said that Liberals did not believe in class. They did not believe in a conception of society which represented different classes at the ends of a rope engaged in a tug-of-war. He would submit that you were not going to pull British industry together by making quotations from Karl Marx. Mr. Fitzgerald had not told them one single, actual measure that we ought to pass. There was no use in arguing with ghosts and shadows and slinging philosophy at one’s head. Mr. Fitzgerald had not deigned to say a single word about how a concern like the cotton industry was to be dealt with. He had not attempted to answer questions which had been put specifically to him.

Mr. Fitzgerald, in reply, quoted Mr. Philip Kerr, a Liberal, upon the tremendous modern development of international trustification, and from a Government report which said that five groups controlled half the food supply of the world. They would, he said, be buried under world trusts before the Liberal Industrial Report could be embodied in legislation. The Socialist was the only one who had called attention to the modern economic developments and tendencies, and he would ask the audience to observe that Mr. Guedalla had not ventured to touch his analysis or confute his arguments. Mr. Guedalla said he wanted to spread ownership. Very well. The only way to do that was to extend social ownership. He would agree with Mr. Guedalla that nationalisation would not go far, because nationalisation would leave industry under the control of the capitalist class through Parliament, and leave the workers still slaves. Not nationalisation, but socialisation—ownership by society was the thing needed. Mr Guedella had asked what were the Socialists going to do about foreign trade. The answer was that foreign trade was going. With the great extension of international trusts how could there be any foreign trade?

Mr. Guedalla said he hoped Mr. Fitzgerald would come and say what he had said about nationalisation to some of his Socialist friends in the Rusholme Division. He had advised the workers to collar industry. The end of that story was an idle man sitting on a rusty machine.

Mr. Fitzgerald, winding up the debate, said he had been asked who would do the selling under Socialism. Under Socialism there would be no selling. They would have no need to sell what was their own. Organise production for use instead of for profit, and there would be no need to sell. Mr, Guedalla said you could not divide the swag when there was no swag, or less swag,, to divide. But the fact was that the swag was choking us. The problem of production had been solved. The possibilities of production were so immense that they had increased beyond present consumption. It was being pointed out by more than one writer and observer that you could increase efficiency and yet create unemployment. The problem was rather the problem of distribution and consumption.

(Socialist Standard, May 1928)