1940s >> 1943 >> no-463-march-1943

Editorial: The Doctrine of the Half-Loaf

In working-class political circles the doctrine of the half-loaf is deep-rooted, insidious and difficult to combat. It seems so obviously the teaching of common-sense to welcome the half-loaf rather than stand out for an uncertain time trying to get the whole one; yet the Socialist resolutely affirms that to achieve Socialism the policy of the half-loaf is not sensible at all.

It is admitted that in many human activities it is sensible and necessary to take what is immediately practicable rather than sacrifice the moderate but certain gain for the more attractive but remote ideal. A settler in virgin territory who could throw up a log hut in a few hours would be foolish to die of exposure trying to build a larger house more to his liking; he could always turn to the larger task when he had secured his immediate needs—but the achievement of Socialism is not a problem of that kind. The position of the working class under capitalism is not that of a man steadily climbing a mountain, hewing out steps one after the other at higher levels, but rather of a man trying to climb step by step up a moving escalator that is moving downwards.

With his eyes fixed on the next step he listens to his leaders, who tell him that it is certainly better to be on that step than where he is now, and he refuses to listen to those who advise him to climb off the escalator and seek to gain control of the machinery which governs its movements.

The task of achieving Socialism is the task of changing the foundation of the social system. The change-over cannot begin until the workers become convinced of the practicability of Socialism, and gain control of the machinery of Government for the purpose of introducing Socialism. Even from the point of view of getting some immediate benefits from the capitalists, the step-at-a-time doctrine is a hollow fraud. For see the attitude of mind it breeds. It encourages the political vice of always accepting some meagre whittled down concession lest worse befall. Remember the early self-styled Socialists who said Socialism is not immediately attainable, so let us demand nationalisation under capitalism, the husk without the grain. “It will,” they said, “be the stepping stone.” In 1918 the Labour Party said it stood for “immediate nationalisation.” But this, too, proved to be not immediately attainable, so they dropped it quietly and asked for Public Utility Corporations as a step to nationalisation. Now Mr. Herbert Morrison has conceded that Public Utility Corporations are not suitable for all industries, and suggests that these industries be turned over to “some form of management under a board of directors with a nationally nominated chairman” (Times, December 21st, 1942). What will be the next step away from the next step to Socialism remains to be seen.

Or take the housing problem. Some reformers used to ask for proper houses for the workers at rents they could afford. In practice some Council-built houses have rents out of reach of the average worker, and some with low rents are seriously cramped and inconvenient to live in. After the last war, as even these dwellings were sadly deficient in number and too costly to build, they tried for a time to popularise still cheaper dwellings made of steel. The final depths to which the doctrine of being immediately practical could lead well-meaning people was the proposal mooted some 20 years ago that wooden shelters should be erected at a trifling cost in Hyde Park so that homeless tramps could sleep in a standing position, protected from the rain. And, indeed, why not? The tramp could not afford to rent houses, and it is not practical to build houses under capitalism for those who cannot rent them, and no one can deny that the tramp would be better off with such shelters than without them! Or take the national minimum wage. Fifty years ago this was the “bold” demand of reformers who said, “Let us get something definite now and go for Socialism later on.” So the mountain laboured for years, and eventually Mr. Churchill in a Liberal Government produced the Trade Boards for sweated industries; surely an instalment towards an instalment of Socialism? But the Labour Party reformers were not satisfied. They would, when in office, carry out the original instalment. In 1924 they were too busy; and in 1930, when in office again, they simply disowned it: the practical instalment was not practical! The only times when a national minimum wage for agricultural workers was practical was during the two world wars, not because reformers asked for it but because of the U-Boat blockade!

A little light relief in the minimum wage campaign was provided by the New Leader, organ of the I.L.P., which years ago ran a prize competition for a programme of immediate demands. Among the proposals of the winning competitor was that a minimum wage be fixed and enforced, but at a level moderate enough not to be opposed by the employing class!

The latest tragi-comedy is the complete out-manoeuvring of the Labour Party on the Beveridge Report. They have demanded for years (as a stepping-stone to something or other) a much improved system of unemployment and sickness benefits and old-age pensions. One familiar demand put forward by Labour Party Conferences (e.g., in 1923) was that unemployment pay should be at trade union rates. Along, comes the capitalist politician Beveridge with a much less favourable scheme, and the Labour Party, fearful lest this second-best scheme should be endangered, give it their qualified approval. Now the Government announces that it too approves of the scheme, but with modifications and postponements. The Labour Party, now fearful of “diehard” opposition, finds itself hesitant and divided about endangering the modified scheme, which is itself two steps backward from its own. But how can it deny its own doctrine that “anything is better than nothing ”?

The Labour Party may argue that the Beveridge Scheme even as modified is a stepping-stone (though a smaller step than the one they wanted) towards Socialism. It is interesting to see that its author. Sir William Beveridge, denies this and says “It is a move neither towards Socialism nor away from it. Nor towards Capitalism. It is straight down the middle of the road.” (Daily Express, December 10th, 1942). His rather cryptic illustration is really very appropriate. He leaves us to suppose that the road is a meandering one which leads nowhere.

The unqualified tragedy is war. Socialists always held that war is inseparable from capitalism, but the reformers said surely you don’t suggest that war cannot be abolished until Socialism is achieved? So the reformers left capitalism alone and concentrated on the immediately practical issue of abolishing war by the League of Nations. The result needs no comment.

The sum total of the diligent hunt after the “practical” is that the real quarry, the king of beasts, has gone on fattening in untroubled strength, and even the hoped for immediate captures have proved about as elusive and unsatisfying as electric hares on the greyhound track.