Progress and Reaction
Already, before the war, there were numerous critics of the turn which human affairs had taken. The promise which early capitalism appeared to hold out to mankind had not been fulfilled. The industrialisation of the nineteenth century may have seemed then to open up new horizons of unlimited wealth for all. The social stagnation of a feudal agrarianism was swept away impetuously as machine upon machine fertilised man and nature into heights of productivity hitherto undreamt of. Economists and philosophers combined in lyrical praise of the new social order, and predicted that humanity had at long last entered the portals of a social system that could guarantee material well-being to all. “The greatest good of the greatest number” was the assured estimate of the new society’s potentials.
But the new avalanche of wealth did not succeed in stifling the critical faculties of all thinking men. These could not help being aware of the fresh, profound social evils which the industrial revolution had brought into being. The newly begotten plenty brought no added comfort to the majority, but flowed mainly into the rapacious pockets of a favoured few. The masses of men and women, many of them forcibly ejected from their meagre but secure existence on the land, laboured unlimited hours amid the stench and filth of factories and mines. Their reward was hunger and disease. Even the children of this modern proletariat were not overlooked by the new class of economic masters in their hunt for profit-producers.
The grievous sufferings of the workers eventually led to opposition and revolt. The working class, “organised and disciplined by the very process of associated labour,” finally succeeded in securing some amelioration by the combined strength of their vast numbers. Trade unions and labour movements appeared all over the capitalist world. The new needs of scientific wealth-production demanded education on a mass scale. Comparative freedom of political expression was fought for and won. Labour organisations assumed increasing importance and influence in the affairs of state. The feeling was widespread that the way was now cleared for uninterrupted and substantial advances along the “road of progress.” As some of the early and most primitive anomalies of capitalism had partly been eliminated, so, it was felt, would, the more deep-rooted problems of poverty, bad housing, unemployment and war yield to the persistent efforts of “practical working-class politics.”
The minority, the Socialists, uncompromising in their advocacy of a social system based upon the Common Ownership of the Means of Life, were dismissed as “Impossibilists.” The doctrines of Marx and Engels, formulated upon the most penetrating and exhaustive investigation into the anatomy of capitalist society, provided scientific foundations for the view of Socialists. They proved conclusively that the expropriation of the capitalists by a Socialist working class was necessary to assure humanity as a whole the advantages held out by the new technique of production. These doctrines were attacked as “fallacies” or ridiculed as “out-of-date” by critics many of whom did not trouble to analyse the theories of Marxism. It was easier and more comfortable to “lead” the workers and in the process share in the good things which capitalism offered to the privileged. The watchword of the times became “The inevitability of gradualness.”
Since then a world-wide economic depression and two world-wars have shocked the “practical politicians” and many of their supporters out of their complacency. The policies of economic and political lassez-faire have largely been abandoned. On the continent of Europe they have been eliminated by forces whose outlook and methods are reminiscent of the dark ages of a mediaeval world. The spectacle of a continent, which in the past contributed an imposing array of men and movements, who have helped to illuminate the knowledge of mankind, now held in the grip of political adventurers, must on all accounts be a source of depression.
However, this state of reaction cannot be confined to the borders of Germany or the German-occupied countries. Nor can its roots be isolated from recent economic and political events and tendencies throughout the world. On the contrary, they are symptoms of a particularly virulent character reflecting the prevailing impotence of a society unable to solve its problems.
The war has done nothing to bring a solution nearer. The main social issues still await a much-promised settlement. The problems of unemployment and poverty in general still inflict their cares upon the minds of most people. The hideous slums, relics of the barbarous greed of capitalism a century ago, remain a token of the unchanged character of social relationships. The machinery of the “ democratic ” capitalist state bristles with powers of coercion, and the workers find restrictions of every kind drawing an ever closer dragnet around their existence. It may be argued that they are a temporary measure only, dictated by the necessities of war. But against that we have the statements of leading politicians. Thus we hear Mr. Bevin, Minister of Labour, proclaiming:
Don’t Ask for Old Liberty Back Too Soon.
Mr. Ernest Bevin to-day appealed to trade unionists not to ask for their old liberty back too quickly after the war.
The report quotes him as saying:
I would appeal to my fellow-workmen to insist that the country carries on some control for a considerable period. We want to do it, because if there is a sudden let-up, if we lose this discipline and control, we may get back into the orgy of speculation and chaos that we had at the end of the last war. (Evening Standard, January 13, 1943.)
We know what is in ruling-class minds. They want to level the economic ups-and-downs of their system through “planning” on national and international lines. They hope that the economic and political arrangements that serve them in war can be modified to serve their purpose in peace. But these “plans” involve many doubtful factors. They demand the agreement of capitalists, nationally and internationally. They need a quiescent working class. So far, capitalism has never been able to achieve such a permanent “truce.” The competitive nature of the capitalist order has in the past doomed any permanent arrangements of an international and even national character. And what of the workers? Will they submit to the “discipline” that is the inevitable counter-part of capitalist “planning”? When the victory for “freedom” has been won and tyrants overthrown, what will be the attitude of the class that has born the brunt of the fighting? What will be the feeling of the workers in the defeated and devastated countries, the victims of war and persecution?
Many more questions could be posed. They would show that the capitalists are confronted by a social riddle that becomes more complex as the war drags its destructive way to eventual conclusion. There are some who believe the present conflict to be one of a series of social convulsions marking a revolutionary transition in social affairs. As to the kind of world that will emerge after these bloody “transitions,” we are not informed. It may well be asked: “What can be expected to result from years of bloodshed and destruction, from hunger and persecution?”
The answers given by capitalists and their “Labour” supporters are not convincing. They seek to persuade the working class that a modified capitalism will not repeat the catastrophies of the past They expect to dazzle the minds of wage-slaves with promises of permanent doles and better social reforms.
“Progress by Reform” is the only hope they can hold out to a shattered world.