Debate with a Liberal Candidate

Debate with a Liberal candidate

A debate between H. Young (S.P.G.B.) and Mrs. Curtis, Liberal Candidate for Clapham, took place at Manor Street Baths, Clapham, on February 6th, on the question: “Which Party should the working class support?” J. Trotman (S.P.G.B.) was in the Chair.

Debate opened by S.P.G.B.

Comrade Young made the opening speech. He said: —You have already heard the subject. It is, in the view of the Party I represent probably the most important question to be discussed and decided, because it is on this decision of the working class that everything else hangs. As the name implies we stand for Socialism, and from the day in 1904 when the Party was founded we have defined precisely what we mean by Socialism. That Object and our Declaration of Principles are printed in all our publications. Socialism means, a new system of society based upon common ownership of the means of production and distribution, and it also implies democratic control and social equality.

Our object is in direct opposition to the programmes and policies of all other Parties without exception, whatever they may claim.

The chief characteristic of Capitalism is private ownership of the means of wealth production: Socialism implies common ownership. Therefore there can no penalisation of or discrimination against any person or groups of persons under Socialism. Today we have a class society—a community divided into groups, economically speaking. This division has nothing to do with biological characteristics. It is largely an accident of birth that makes one a capitalist. What determines his place in society is his economic position; and everything follows from that. Our habits, manners, speech, customs, ethics, all follow from this division. According to a recent statement by Mr. Hall, the Secretary of the Treasury, “of the 550,000 people who die each year only 10% own more than £2,000, but these 10% between them own 90% of the total property.”

It means that 10% of the people own 90% of the wealth, of this 10% many own vastly more than £2,000, some own £2 million. Therefore Class society means grinding inescapable poverty for the working class. People can be in a state of poverty without going short a meal or clothes. Therefore my second point is that we live in a class society and cannot escape from poverty.

The worker has only his ability to work to sell— the power of his muscle, sinews and brain. He therefore goes to work for wages, and receives only enough reproduce his labour power. The amount the worker receives is determined by what is required to reproduce his labour power, the surplus beyond which goes to the owner. It follows from this that the political interest of the working class is to overthrow the system which robs them. Everything else is idle nonsense, making no ultimate difference to their class position in society. This, therefore, is the reason we oppose all other political parties. They all stand for the same viewpoint—the Conservatives, Liberals, Labour Party and Communists—for a series of measures which they claim will ease the collar of poverty where it rubs too hard.

This system of society which we propose is entirely different from what we know today. After taking over the means of production the characteristics of Capitalism will disappear. Exchange will cease, for Socialism will replace sale by free distribution. Socialism will put into practice “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Labour Exchanges, Stock Exchanges, Banks, Insurance offices will all disappear. Force will cease. There will be no question of what to do with the man who won’t work; most people want to work; most would be only too glad to do a sensible job of work. Socialism will succeed by the enthusiasm and determination of the socialists who have brought it into being to make it successful.

We stand for a system which will be world-wide, democratic, and based on a community of interest of the individual and society.

Opposing me is the representative of the Liberal Party, this party which traditionally upholds the interests of industrial capitalism. It is the party concerned with Factory Acts, repeal of the Corn Laws, cheap bread and, in general, with ways and means of keeping the workers’ wages low. The programme of the 19th Century Liberals can be compared with their programme of social services today. They are all means of keeping wages low without impairing efficiency. The writings of modern Liberals show that they are still the same Liberal Party as in the days of Cobden and Bright. Frank Byers in a statement of Liberal Policy written by him for the News of the World, said: —

“We have not got a Socialist State today, we have got merely a State run by Socialists …  wherever real Socialism has been put into practice, as in Czechoslovakia, the people have soon found out how little freedom they enjoy.”

Implicit in his statement is that the Labour Party is socialist, and that the measure of their “Socialism” is the amount of nationalising they have done. But Socialism has nothing to do with the schemes of Capitalist governments for running Capitalism. The complexity of modern economic life is such that communications—postal, road, rail, transport, water supply, are essential to capitalism as a whole, and must be controlled by capitalists in general. During the 19th Century Cobden and Bright fought bitterly against the 10-hour Bill and Trade Unions, which were opposed by the Liberal Party as a whole. Later men like David Lloyd George realised the need for a new policy. He introduced schemes which undertook to relieve poverty; he claimed to soften the hardships of the worst oppressed. But these schemes are not in the interests of the working class. Every such scheme fastens the shackles of poverty only more firmly round the workers’ necks. They give false hopes of ease and relief to workers which the capitalist system nullifies by its very operation.

The programme of the Liberal Party is before me. How it differs from those of the other political parties supporting capitalism is hard to find. It contains the same nauseating list of vote-catching nostrums, the so-called “Fighting Points.” The only one which they claim distinguishes them from the others is Co-ownership—that is profit-sharing. “Under the Liberal plan every firm of a certain size would be required to introduce a scheme to share profit after capital has been paid its rate of hire.”

This is throwing you a crumb to keep the banquet. They say they are the only Party which can abolish the class struggle by combining the classes.

The class struggle springs from the fact that under capitalism there arc those who own and those who don’t, and that there is an essential antagonism between these two sections of society that nothing but the abolition of capitalism will remove.

These ideas of the Liberal Party show that it is the same old Liberal Party of Cobden and Bright, which means opulence for the few and poverty for the vast majority. This ended Comrade Young’s opening speech.

The Case for Liberalism

Mrs. Curtis now replied. She said:—This debate was not planned as part of the election campaign. It arose out of a friendly exchange of views, and I would like to congratulate the S.P.G.B. on its readiness to debate. Liberals have always stood for freedom to discuss. We think it more important than economics. Only thinking together will solve our problems, and the decision to think together must come from you the people. Because we believe in people, because we believe in the capacity of human beings to understand anything if they apply themselves, we believe in free discussion. Liberals accept no particular dogma; we are not committed to any outworn economic doctrines. We know that in a space of a hundred years advances of a scientific and technical nature were made which completely changed our way of living. 1 refer to all those changes that together made the Industrial Revolution. Out of that arose problems which we’re still coping with. Look back to the work of Adam Smith, and to Das Kapital—the work from which Mr. Young’s views were taken. In those books one will find the fundamental laws of Capitalism. Liberals cherish the open mind, and are opposed to all dogma. We like to thresh out our problems to get at the explanation of their cause.

Now for this word Socialism. I don’t like “isms “; perhaps because I’m a woman, with a practical viewpoint. My favourite study is history—a concrete, real study; economics deal with abstractions. Economic man follows cast-iron rules, and the Liberal philosophy has always repudiated economic man, who is not a man at all, but a blue-print.

Cobden and Bright were mere well meaning chaps like Mr. Young but were also dogmatic—they worshipped “Laissez-faire.” A surgeon diagnoses cancer in a dead body but this is no use to a living person— no indication of the cure. The Liberal Party is a democratic organisation resting on two points:

1.    Empiricism—testing things out.

2.    The Belief in Personality.

How is this Socialism to be carried out? How will you set about organising it? How can I find this Garden of Eden? I heard Mr. Gibson, the Labour member, tell an audience in this Hall last week that his party is Socialist, yet you say they are not!

I suppose Mr. Young would say that if you do not vote for me. you should vote Labour, and we’ll hope they keep Left, but by keeping Left you go round in a circle.

Liberals want to get away from privileged society.

Mr. Young says his socialism will be based on “From each according to his ability—to each according to his need.” Who can tell what I need? I don’t know myself sometimes. If money is properly distributed then distribution will be fair. To me Mr. Young’s case is most vague. I admit there are flaws in the Capitalist system. Mr. Young talks of Society “as a whole “—what is that? You can’t tell Society “as a whole.” It must be done by groups of people and all people have their good and bad points. You will put power in the hands of individuals, Liberals believe the less power they have the better.

Keeping Left is what happened in Russia. Kerensky thrust aside by Lenin—as expressed by Mr. Young—and ending in Stalin.

Socialism ends in State Socialism. Instead of enlarging the sphere of the people they come under a group exercising extreme power. Socialism is an abstraction. There is no party in existence which claims to carry out Socialism in practice. Liberalism is a way of thinking. The 19th Century Liberals inherited faults from the Whigs. There were two groups in the Party, one of which favoured the 10-hour Bill, Fielden, Macaulay, Palmerston and Lord John Russell. Capitalism is not the system Mr. Young implies. The ordinary man has more today than the wealthy used to have Liberals would solve distribution and spread wealth, The Liberal 1928 Report foresaw the problems but was ignored. Liberalism is not a dogma but a practical way of raising the living wage of the workers.

The ordinary man does not want a Garden of Eden but a better standard, leave them alone, you don’t know what the other fellow wants. Your Socialism will only make a conventional standard with an elite in control; we don’t believe in an elite, and would stop Controls where they restrict freedom.

Second Speech for S.P.G.B.

Comrade Young then replied to Mrs. Curtis.

I’ve listened for thirty minutes and what Mrs. Curtis has said is that the Liberal Party stands committed to the Capitalist system.

It’s quite useless to say “I don’t support ‘ isms ‘” while defending Liberalism and Capitalism. I tried to show that the Socialist case rests logically on an analysis of Capitalism—things as they are. What is that but empiricism, the modern scientific empiricist is a Socialist who has investigated the operation of Capitalism. We must closely define terms. Capitalist society is not an abstraction, to us it is most real. Tinkering with its details does not help. We urge workers to stop fiddling with trivialities like the Liberal proposals because they find themselves in the same position after their implementation.

Comrade Young then quoted from a speech by Gladstone in February 1843 in which he admitted as a melancholy feature of the social system that privation and distress were increasing among the workers alongside “a constant accumulation of wealth in the upper classes, a constant increase of capital.”

Gladstonewas a Liberal Prime Minister.

He then quoted a statement by David Lloyd George, another Liberal Prime Minister, who in 1911 said: — “This is the richest Empire under the sun. If there is poverty, misery, and wretchedness it is not because the land is sterile and bare and does not provide enough for all. The next fact is that there are millions of men and women in this country who through no fault of their own are suffering unnecessarily.”

Young continued: —

What real difference is there NOW, in 1950? My contention is that the Liberal Party supports Capitalism and is the enemy of the working class.

Socialism is not a dream world but a scientific proposition. Who judges our needs? We do. If Mrs. Curtis does not know hers neither do we.

What freedom is there for workers, when 50 million are in poverty.

We workers don’t want cheap bread or cheap anything else, we want the wealth we produce—Socialism.

Second Speech by Mrs. Curtis

Mr. Young has got a little nearer. We are to have no money, that means going back to barter. Now do we get goods by Tickets—or Rationing?

What is Society as a whole? Can it be done by individuals or committees? What is it to be? Gladstone and Lloyd George recognised the poor. Liberals will organise the system so that the greatest number of people are independent producers. We say small men are useful. The evil thing about wealth is that it gives Power.

1st. We must strengthen the islands of independence.

2nd. Deal with the problems of the two nations. Karl Marx analyses society correctly. BUT, before a new society you must have reforms, education, e.g.. one step is enough for me.

Secondly we must cope with the problem of the great mass. We must take steps to make the working class capable of managing its own destiny. Welfare cannot be confined to one nation. We advocate Free Trade for World Prosperity. This doctrine is now supported by U.N.O. Keynes said “I believe in Capitalism because it is the best system for producing wealth.” We must let Capitalism produce abundance and see that it is properly shared.

Co-ownership will give the workers a stake in industry. Do workers say “I don’t want a rise! because it will encourage me to put up with Capitalism”? We no longer see extremes of poverty, Young is wrong. Liberals say ‘“Not Right or Left but straight ahead” to give the worker the benefit of co-ownership NOT common ownership.

Concluding Speech for S.P.G.B.

Comrade Young said: —

It is our contention that there is no real difference between the other parties. I quote from a news report the statement of Lord Samuel at the Liberal pre-election Conference that, if they polled sufficient votes they “might be called upon to undertake Ministerial responsibility.” “We must accept this challenge” he said. When occasion demands the minor sham differences are sunk and they unite as supporters of the capitalist system. Liberals do not accept Marx—they made reservations—because it follows from Marx that only the abolition of Capitalism can solve problems. “The whole of Society” means what it says. Under Socialism everybody who can, will work—and vote—to decide questions. Liberals do not stand for abundance, they stand for the restriction and waste of Capitalism. Production will flower under Socialism. The change must be brought about by the workers themselves.

Concluding Speech by Mrs. Curtis

Each time Mr. Young speaks he throws a little more Darkness. First—no money. Second—No Government. Now Control of the Armed Forces. You’ve seen what happens when these resolutions are carried out. Under Socialism in Russia people are bowing to despotism. In Germany it led to Fascist reaction. The great enemies of Fascism are the Liberals. The Liberal Party is the only party having nothing to do with fascists. You have the choice between people who call themselves scientific but are not, they are visionaries. Liberalism is the method of trial and error to achieve a Commonwealth with a decent standard of living. Liberalism offers every worker the chance to better his standard of living, so that if Marx came back he would re-write “Das Kapital.”

Socialism is Heaven with the Utopian or Hell with the Marxist. Why not try Liberalism for Freedom and Prosperity?


(Socialist Standard, March 1950)

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