The Problem of the Small Shopkeeper
Lord Beaverbrook, who says that Fascism must be sternly resisted, and Lord Rothermere, who says it is the only solution, have joined hands to deal a stout blow at the Co-operative Movement, and are obligingly writing articles in each other’s papers about the iniquity of co-operative stores ruining the little shopkeepers.
The two lords are noted for their political stunting and for their frequent startling reversals of policy, and the present campaign shows them, as usual, wildly disregardful of consistency. Lord Beaverbrook, for the past three years, has loudly clamoured for higher wages, on the ground, among others, that higher pay means more money to be spent at the counters of the stores which advertise in his columns. He also found it a useful stick with which to beat the Labour Government early in 1931. He now makes a major point in his indictment of the co-operative stores, that they also have reduced the pay of their staffs. Yet Lord Beaverbrook finds no difficulty in associating with Lord Rothermere, whose papers have always been foremost in defending every wage-cut there ever was, and which now oppose the restoration of the 1931 “cuts,” which Beaverbrook supports.
Lord Beaverbrook denounces the co-operatives because they dabble in politics. A trading concern, he solemnly says, should not be allowed to go in for politics. Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere themselves are interested in trading concerns, their newspaper companies. Do they keep out of politics? On the contrary, as everybody knows, politics, their own personal ambitions, their wirepulling and political back-biting, are the life-blood of their newspapers.
Then Lord Beaverbrook declares that the cooperative stores are to be condemned on two grounds: (a) That their prices are higher than those of the small traders, and (b) That the co-operatives have an unfair advantage in being able to return to their customers at the end of the year a “ dividend on purchases.” It should be apparent to Lord Beaverbrook that if, in fact, co-operative store prices are higher than those of private traders, then the “dividend on purchases” merely represents the accumulated savings of the customers. They pay more for the goods and in due course get the excess back again. If that were all the difference between the co-operatives and the small traders then the latter could help themselves quite simply by starting similar schemes for saving up their customers’ spare cash.
The real trouble between the co-operatives and the small traders is a quite different matter. The gist of it is that the small trader is small, and the co-operatives are becoming mammoth capitalist trading concerns, just like any other.
That is where the shoe pinches, and Beaverbrook and Rothermere have observed it. They have learned from Hitler the political value of exploiting the resentment of the small trader at his extinction by the chain store and department store, and—also like Hitler—they have seen the wisdom of directing that resentment in a quarter least harmful to themselves, i.e. against the cooperatives. Logically, of course, Beaverbrook and Rothermere should march determinedly, not only against the co-operatives, but also, and mainly, against all the big battalions, Boots, Woolworths, Marks & Spencers, Selfridges, Harrods, Imperial Chemicals, Unilever, the London Passenger Transport Board, and so on. They do not do so because that would rouse too much and too powerful opposition, and would directly harm their Lordships by cutting off revenue from the advertising of the products of those concerns in their pages. The moral would appear to be that the co-operatives should pay for immunity by placing big advertisements in the Daily Mail and Daily Express. As they have recently taken a whole page in the Daily Telegraph, perhaps that is what the co-operative directors are going to do.
Before leaving the subject of the small trader and the big store, a candid declaration made by Mr. Gordon Selfridge deserves to be rescued from obscurity. In an address broadcast to a conference on retail distribution, held at Boston on September 18th, 1933, he said that both in U.S.A. and Great Britain there are “too many retail shops.” (See report in Daily Herald, September 19th.) What he thought about small shopkeepers was this: —
This surplus of shops is an uneconomic proposition, and most of these inexperienced managers or owners are attempting to do work for which they are unfitted either by temperament or ability.
Small shopkeepers who have faith in Beaverbrook and Rothermere should ask their Lordships if they will publicly denounce Mr. Selfridge, and if not, why not.
A few words about the forerunners of Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere may also serve to show the danger of trusting to the promises of politicians that they will turn back the march of large-scale industry. Ten years ago, and twenty years ago, the Labour Party was vigorously defending the “little men” against the “great soulless corporations.” “ Down with monopoly” was their battle-cry. As Mr. Clynes put it, a short twelve years ago, better a large number of small capitalists than a small number of large ones.
But capitalism marched on unheeding, and one day the Labour Party found itself in office, saddled with responsibility for tackling the problems of capitalist adjustment to changing economic conditions. At once the defence of the small man became inconvenient, and by the time the Labour Party entered office again, in 1929, the old coat had been turned inside out. It had been discovered by Mr. Herbert Morrison, Mr. Bevin, the late W. Graham and others, that monopoly is the salt of the earth. All the Labour leaders, except a few who resented this volte-face, now preached salvation by public utility corporations.
So now the small shopkeeper is looking to new groups of politicians, Hitler and Dollfuss, Rothermere and Mosley, to save him, but in that quarter the old game of broken pledges is proceeding merrily. Rothermere and Beaverbrook have no intention of attacking their own big-business friends, and Hitler, before being in power a year, was already explaining away his unwillingness to demolish the German chain stores and departmental stores.
That, however, is the affair of the small shopkeeper, not of the Socialist movement. What is our affair is the need to repudiate the charge put forward by Beaverbrook and Rothermere that Socialists support co-operative big business against the small shopkeeper. The co-operative movement (which, incidentally, is so unlike the dreams of its founders as to be almost unrecognisable) and the Socialist movement are as chalk and cheese. We have not the slightest interest in the efforts of the co-operative movement to extend its business organisation. Some workers may find co-operative “divi.” a convenient method of saving, but, as a movement, it never will or could bring emancipation any nearer. It can thrive only by accepting and imitating capitalism. It can never bring the workers more than a few crumbs from the capitalist table.
As Socialists we do not gloat over the personal tragedies of the wiping out of the small shopkeeper any more than we do over other tragic effects of ruthless capitalism. What we do say, is that Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook have no intention whatever of setting back the clock of capitalist development in order to retrieve the fortunes of the small man. If they have, let them show it by retiring from the fight in which their newspaper combines crush out the small local newspaper.
Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook appear to have devised an astute plan for boosting circulation and delimiting their respective interests. They agree to disagree about Fascism, they agree to co-operate about the co-operatives, they agree to be dumb about the other big stores which advertise in their columns, they agree to disagree about higher wages and restoring the “economy cuts,” and, above all and all the time, they are completely silent about capitalism and Socialism, except to gloss over the evils of the one and misrepresent the other.
The appeal of Socialism is primarily to the workers, that is, to all who live by selling their mental and physical energies, their labour-power, to an employer, for it is our class which provides and will provide the driving force towards Socialism.
At the same time we point out to those groups of “small men” trying to maintain a precarious and often illusory independence against large-scale industry and commerce, that there is no salvation for them under capitalism. As individuals their place is within our ranks, when they recognise that the prime need of our age is the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution, and the establishment of Socialism, and when they are prepared to work with us to that end.