Age Without Wisdom

Workers Who Still Have Capitalist Ideas

As time passes the trade unions, and the Labour parties, become older and their policies change, but without any noticeable sign of having learned by experience.

These remarks are prompted by two recent events that would have appeared surprising 50 years ago. Earlier this year New Zealand farmers complained that they were selling less butter in this country because of cheaper butter coming on the market from several exporting countries, including Finland, Argentine and Ireland. After some delay the Government announced in the House of Commons on June 19th that they had approached the governments concerned and had got them to agree to reduce their deliveries of butter where this was not already happening. It was done deliberately to help the New Zealand exporters, although it meant that the price of butter here would go up. The first somewhat surprising event was that the T.U.C. supported the idea of helping New Zealand:—‘We decided to tell the President of the Board of Trade that we supported the New Zealand government’s request for anti-dumping duties.” (T.U.C. Report in What the T.U.C. is Doing.” Page 38.)

At the same time the Lancashire cotton manufacturers and the textile unions were pressing the government to help the depressed Lancashire cotton industry by restricting cheap imports from Hong Kong, India and elsewhere. And in the House of Commons on June 19th the Labour M.P. for the Lancashire constituency of Westhoughton, Mr. J. T. Price, asked:

“Whilst the House will be quite pleased with the action taken by the right hon. gentlemen’s Ministry in dealing with this stabilisation of butter prices and checking the unlimited import of very cheap butter at subsidised rates, why is not the Ministry also prepared to take similar action on behalf of Lancashire cotton, which it has just turned down?”

Here we see the T.U.C. and Labour Party opposing Free Trade and supporting restrictions on imports. Yet at the Trades Union Congress in 1904 a strongly worded resolution was carried (by no means the first, or last) affirming that “any departure from the principles of Free Trade would be detrimental to the interests of the working classes.” The resolution named as the chief evil result of departing from Free Trade that Protection would increase “the cost of the people’s necessaries.”

About the same time the Labour Party was declaring its staunch adherence to Free Trade, and Mr. Francis Williams in his Fifty Years March recorded that at the 1906 General Election the Labour Party “saw eye to eye with the Liberals” on the dominant issue of the election, “the issue of Free Trade or Protection.” (Page 155.)

That trade union and Labour Party policy of support for Free Trade in order to get low prices for food and other articles derived from the agitation of the early nineteenth century. It was led and financed by the British cotton and other manufacturers and ended with the abolition of the Corn Laws and other protective laws, and turned Britain into a free trade country. The employers (who were interested in low prices, because that would enable them to pay low wages and make large profits) persuaded the workers that low prices would be in their interests. Apart from the agricultural workers who saw their jobs disappearing, most workers accepted the employers’ argument and thought that they had won a great victory, so for nearly a century the trade unions and later on the Labour Party were mostly free-traders, though this did not prevent workers in particular industries that were hit by foreign competition from taking a different view: just as today, while the T.U.C. and the Labour Party agree in demanding lower prices they do not think it very odd when the miners favour dearer coal; transport workers, higher fares; and agricultural workers, dearer food.

The same confusion exists among workers in other countries and shows itself at international gatherings. The textile workers in Hong Kong and India are not at all perturbed about the troubles of Lancashire, and the workers in Ireland and the Argentine are not impressed by arguments about the danger that if New Zealand farmers’ incomes fall, they will not be able to buy British motor cars and other manufactures.

The policies, always dealing only with the surface of things, change, but do not become sounder and wiser. The fact is that the trade unions and Labour parties are not international workers’ organisations trying to better the conditions of the working class everywhere, but sectional and national bodies viewing the world in the light of what they imagine to be their interests as workers in a particular trade in a particular country: they identify their interests with those of their employers.

And, of course, they are quite wrong. They do not constitute a united movement of hope progressing towards a new, better social order, but fractional bodies fighting against each other and with their policies determined for them by the rivalries of capitalist industries and capitalist national groups.

They can see that the capitalist world does not provide abundance, security and peace for the peoples of the world; that it cannot even secure that surpluses of food in U.S.A., Canada, Australia and other countries, shall be made’available to the half-starved millions of the world. They can see, too, that unsaleable surpluses are a positive evil in causing unemployment. Yet all they do is to try to solve these problems within the framework of capitalism. They have tinkered with useless remedies for upwards of a century and have got nowhere.

Recognition of and action on the simple principle that the workers in all countries have a common interest against the employing class, and the logical further recognition that it is in the interest of the workers to abolish capitalism and establish Socialism would revolutionise the home and international scene: but with all their experience of the uselessness of Free Trade and of Protection this is the one thing they are still unable to see.


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