1930s >> 1932 >> no-329-january-1932

Socialism and the Tariff Issue

Are Socialists Protectionists or Free Traders? This is a question which appears to worry some workers who derive their ideas about Socialism from the Labour Party and kindred organisations. The Socialist Party supports neither policy and opposes all the parties which enlist the support of the workers by promising either to protect them from the competition of foreign goods or to secure them cheap food. Socialists maintain that the tariff issue is one which concerns the capitalist class and not the working class; and that, consequently, the workers are wasting their time and energy in giving their support to the different sections of the master-class who put these policies forward.

For the last hundred years or more, these rival policies have been used by the masters to divide the workers and hinder them in developing an independent political party; and the futility of the Labour Party from the workers’ point of view is clearly demonstrated by its inability to drive this red-herring from its political path—nay, its readiness to help in dangling this rotten fish of long ago in front of the workers’ noses.

A hundred years ago Free Trade was the battle-cry of the British manufacturers conquering the markets of the world with the cheap goods which machinery (plus child-labour in many cases) made possible. They wanted cheap raw materials and, above all, cheap food, because this enabled them to lower wages more easily. Hence they were most aggressive in demanding the repeal of the Corn Laws, which they secured in 1846 and celebrated by reducing wages 10 per cent. shortly after.

Protection at that time was the creed of the landed class, who got rich on rents squeezed from the capitalist farmers. The free importation of corn hit these interests in that important place, their pockets; but then, and since, protectionists have always pretended, like their political rivals, to have the interests of the workers at heart.

In some respects the situation is different to-day. Capitalism, based upon modern industry, has developed apace in countries which formerly provided markets for British goods. The tables have been turned and these countries now pour cheap goods into the one-time workshop of the world. This has led to a change of outlook on the part even of that considerable section of the master-class which calls itself Liberal. Sectional interests among the masters are less clearly defined. Landlords have bought shares in industrial and financial concerns. Industrial magnates have purchased land. Hence it is easy for a “National” Government with an “open mind” on the tariff issue to hold office and secure the support of the major portion of the master-class, while a majority of the workers, still in the dark regarding the cause of their permanent condition—poverty—turn in despair to such a Government for some amendment of their lot. Is there any real ground for this hope? Five million unemployed in Germany and double that number in the U.S.A. should be a sufficient answer for any worker who is prepared to think for himself.

The poverty of the workers in this country is not due to Free Trade, any more than the poverty of the workers in protectionist countries is due to the tariff policy prevailing there. The workers of the world are poor because they depend for their existence upon means of living which are owned by another class, the capitalists. This class only allows the land to be tilled, minerals to be dug, factories to be run and goods to be distributed in order that they may make a profit upon the sale of the goods. This profit is possible only because the workers can exist upon very much less than they are capable of producing. Their wages represent the cost of their subsistence, hence cheap food is an advantage, not to them, but to their masters who purchase their energies by the day or the week. The fall in the cost of living since 1920 has not benefited the workers, for wages have also fallen and unemployment increased.

On the other hand, the most formidable competitors which the workers have to contend with are not their fellow-workers either at “home” or abroad, but the machines. Tariffs cannot protect the workers against these rivals. A machine produced in a British town can put men out of work in the same place, and the master-class have more machinery at their disposal than they know what to do with. Hence rationalisation schemes, such as that of the English Steel Corporation, which placed half the village of Penistone on the dole a few months ago. The unemployment in Germany and America is due to similar causes, and not to “foreign goods.”

Poverty exists in all lands where the means of producing wealth exist in the greatest abundance. The very conditions of the problem provide the means for its solution. It is for the workers to discover them. It is an obvious paradox that idle machinery should exist side by side with idle men and women whose wants could be satisfied by setting the machinery in motion. This they are ready and willing enough to do, but they are prevented by the fact that the machines are the private property of a class who own and control with the motive of profit. Whenever the surplus product of the workers’ labour reaches such proportions that it cannot all be sold, production slackens because profits fall. Unemployment, under such conditions, is inevitable, no matter whether the country be “old” or “new,” Free Trade or Protectionist.

The solution for such a situation cannot be found along the lines of supporting any political party which asks for power to administer capitalism, for capitalism, as a system, is responsible for the problem. In order to obtain free access to the means of living, the workers must use their political power to remove the existing legal barriers; in other words, they must abolish capitalist ownership of these means. They must make the land, factories, railways, etc., the common property of the whole people and establish democratic control over them in the interests of all. That is what the S.P.G.B. means by Socialism.

The change to such a system can only be hindered as long as the workers continue to support demands for tariffs or for cheap food, irrespective of whether these demands are made by sections of the capitalists or by labour leaders of different political groups. In our issue of November last we gave evidence that the Labour Party and the Communist Party, no less than the Liberals and Tories, endeavoured to divide the working class upon this issue during the General Election. Having stood by the Liberals for Free Trade for the greater part of their existence, it is not, of course, surprising that the Labour Party should have wobbled when their tutors wobbled. Prior to the election they showed some indecision on the point, but during the election they came down on the side of Lloyd George and Free Trade. The Communist Party followed suit and demanded, with all the “revolutionary” fervour of which they were capable, “No taxes on the people’s food.” This is indeed only consistent with the declaration in their 1929 programme (“ Class against Class,” pp. 29-30):—

“Free Trade has nothing to offer the workers. . . . The demands of the Communist Party consist, therefore, of the following:—
(1) Abolition of all indirect taxes.”

It is indeed typical of the Communist Party that it demands with one breath something which it has described as useless to the workers less than five minutes previously; and to make their inconsistency complete, its supporters invariably adopt an air of injured innocence when Socialists describe their actions as anti-working-class.

The S.P.G.B. alone stands for Socialism and points out to the workers the futility of demanding either more tariffs or the abolition of existing ones. It alone consistently opposes all political parties representing the different sections of the masterclass, and demands the support of every Socialist.

Eric Boden