1930s >> 1931 >> no-323-july-1931

The Economic Crisis and the Workers

There is one respect at least in which the “New Party” founded by Sir Oswald Mosley is exactly like all of the older non- Socialist parties. That is in its emphasis on the trade depression as a reason for putting, aside the question of Socialism. The argument is that capitalism’s in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. Ruin stares not only the worker, but also the employers, in the face. Great Britain must either take some novel and drastic steps to escape from the threatening disaster, or grave decline will follow and this country will become a third-rate power. “Let us,” say the New Party leaders; “defer the consideration of Socialism until we have stabilised capitalism once more.”
This is a very old story—as old as capitalism. In the eyes of the defenders of capitalism no time is an opportune time for the workers to interest themselves in their class interests. And many organisations engaged nominally in protecting the workers have shared the views of the capitalists on this question.
There have been at least eleven marked industrial crises in the past 100 years. Every one of them has shown the same general characteristics. Every one of them has been viewed as a sign of irretrievable ruin, and every one has been used to dissuade the workers from looking towards Socialism.
There was one great crisis during 1829, at a time, that is, when this country was strongly Protectionist. Listen to the description given by William Huskisson in a letter dated December 30th, 1829 (published in the Huskfsson Papers, p. 310):—

   I consider the country to be in a most unsatisfactory state, that some great convulsion must soon take place. . . .  I hear of the distress of the agricultural, the manufactural, the commercial, the West Indian, and all trading interests.  . . . I am told land can neither pay rent nor taxes nor rates, that no merchant has any legitimate business. . . .  I am also told that the whole race of London shopkeepers are nearly ruined.

Huskisson, sometime President of the Board of Trade, was one of those who believed that England must go over to Free Trade. The Liberal manufacturers, who had an interest in Free Trade because it meant cheap food and therefore low wages, urged the workers to neglect their own class interests and to support the demand for the abolition of the Corn Laws, which restricted the import of corn from abroad. The workers did this. They listened to the specious argument that they should only concern themselves with so-called practical, bread-and-butter questions. And the result was the building up of fabulous fortunes for the manufacturers and the continuation of poverty for themselves.
After Free Trade was introduced, the crises recurred periodically as before, although it is often represented by present-day politicians that everything was satisfactory during this period when Britain was the “workshop of the world.”
The following is Lord Randolph Churchill’s account of the crisis of 1884, in a speech at Blackpool (published in The Times, June 10th, 1931):—

    We are suffering from a depression of trade extending as far back as 1874, ten years of trade depression, and the most hopeful, either among our capitalists or our artisans, can discover no signs of a revival. Your iron industry is dead, dead as mutton. Your coal industries, which depend greatly on the iron industries, are languishing. Your silk industry is dead, assassinated by the foreigner. Your woollen industry is in articulo mortis, gasping, struggling. Your cotton industry is seriously sick. The shipbuilding industry, which held out longest of all, is come to a standstill. Turn your eyes where you will, survey any branch of British industry you like, you will find signs of mortal disease.

The difference between Huskisson and Churchill was that Churchill saw the remedy in a return to Protection! Large numbers of workers, seeing that Free Trade had not brought prosperity to them, were persuaded to assist this section of the employers in their campaign against Free Trade; while other workers sided with the Liberal Free Traders and supported their campaigns for the 1909 Land Tax and against the House of Lords. In the meantime working-class interests were neglected as usual.
After the War came the industrial crisis of 1921-22, which moved the Prime Minister, Mr. Bonar Law, to assert in a speech at Glasgow in December, 1922, that—

There is almost no business that is making  profits to-day.

In May, 1921, the percentage of insured workers unemployed rose to as much as 23 per cent.—higher than it has been in any subsequent month, including 1930, and 1931 to date. There were, in May, 1921, 2½ million unemployed.
The present crisis, which follows 10 years of unemployment never appreciably below the million line, is similar to the others and will take the same general course.
Industrial depressions are not evidences of capitalist poverty or capitalist. weakness They will not of themselves result in the collapse of the capitalist system, and only a misunderstanding of the nature of crises leads the workers to slacken their efforts to maintain wages at those times. Trade depression arises simply from the over-production of goods in relation to the demands of the market. The world is overloaded with goods for which purchasers cannot be found. Purchasers cannot be found because the workers, who have unsatisfied needs, have only a limited amount of money with which to buy, and the wealthiest section of the propertied class, who have the bulk of the purchasing power, have no unsatisfied needs. Once depression begins, prices are forced down and every holder of goods seeks to realise them at all costs. The consequent feeling of insecurity causes the rich to curtail even their normal expenditure, thus aggravating the depression and adding to unemployment.
Many industrial capitalists suffer a decline in their profits owing to curtailed sales, while money-lending capitalists on the whole improve their position.
The crisis is overcome simply because the manufacturers close down their factories and turn the workers out to join the unemployed. Then, when the accumulations of goods have been slowly dissipated, production begins again in response to the newly evinced demand, and the crisis is, for the time being, over.
This is a process which is prolonged by wage reductions, and made more acute by the constant improvements in productivity of industry. which increase the volume of surplus goods.
All the parties which accept the popular view of crises necessarily find themselves pursuing courses contrary to working-class interests. The Communists believe, and indeed hope, that the crises will wreck capitalism, and they therefore propagate their dangerous doctrine of waiting fatalistically for the breaking-point of capitalism, at which point they will take to the streets and challenge the armed forces. The basis of the doctrine is unsound. Crises are not the ruin of capitalism, but merely correctives to its contradictions. Capitalism and its crises can, and will, go on indefinitely until the workers take conscious steps to end the system.
The other parties — Liberal, Tory, Labour and I.L.P., and the later rivals, the Empire Free Traders and the Mosley Party—all preach the doctrine that the workers must at times of crisis take joint action with the capitalists in order to save a desperate situation. As this usually means, in practice, taking lower wages and working harder, it is not only anti-working-class, but also has the effect of prolonging the crisis.
The Socialist Party tells the workers that Socialism is the only remedy for their troubles. There is no time which is not a proper time for them to work for Socialism. This is true whatever the excuse offered by defenders of capitalism. Whether the crisis is a war crisis or a trade crisis, the Socialist Party will continue to preach Socialism. Workers who understand the working of capitalism will see through the excuses to the capitalist interests behind them, and will help us with our task.
Edgar Hardcastle

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