It is a long time since the last great trade depression. Younger people will have little or no clear recollection of it. It occurred between 1929 and 1939, coming to an end after the outbreak of the Second World War. The period was known as the Hungry Thirties. At that time there was something like a million unemployed in Canada, three million in Britain, six million in Germany, eleven million in the United States. In 1934 it was reported that there were between 80,000,000 and 100,000,000 unemployed at that time throughout the world. Even Russia, where unemployment was claimed by its supporters to have lately been abolished, was affected by the depression and had to cope with growing numbers of unemployed. And wherever it existed, unemployment, then as now, deprived its victims of the sources of life other than the limited means made available through charitable groups and government agencies.

The world’s warehouses were filled with goods, the world’s workers were in want and the statesmen were helpless. Bennett, of Canada, who rose to power in 1930 promising to end the depression, was ushered out of power in 1935, leaving 1,341,000 of the electorate on relief. Roosevelt of the United States called to his service the greater part of the alphabet and won the hearts of the American people—but failed to end the breadlines. Hitler of Germany blamed the evils suffered by his countrymen on the victors of the First World War and he fed the German workers’ national pride, red banners and brown shirts—to go with their black bread and sausages. The Labour Party of Britain, which came on the scene to bring shelter to the underdog from the storms and stresses of modern life, became, after a quarter century, without accomplishment, an unheroic victim of the 1930’s, broken by a Labour Government measure designed to worsen the living conditions of large number of workers.

And so it went. Wherever one chanced to turn, the story could be told in much the same terms. It was a time of bleakness and want, anger and upsurge, fed upon by demagogues and mountebanks and turned in directions that brought no clear thought, much worthless and harmful effort and nothing of benefit to workers who were willing simply to serve as followers. Children spent their childhood improperly fed and clothed and lacking in playthings other than those that were whittled from wood by their fathers or fashioned from rags by their mothers. They entered schools and came out again, products of an educational system that shed no light on the desolation surrounding them. They approached young adulthood with nothing better to hope for than permission to enrol on the breadline without being subjected to the humiliating impertinences of petty officials. They feared to become married because marriage carried responsibilities which they had no way of meeting, as was carefully pointed out to them by the guardians of society. And those who became married despite these cautions found the stern visage of authority hovering over them fearful lest they add to their numbers and increase further the burden the nation was already groaning under!

The passing years, particularly the dozen recent years of work and wages and television sets, have dimmed the memory of the Hungry Thirties. For most people the angry insistence that something be done has given place to a placid acceptance of things as they are. That there can be another depression is a thought they will not entertain. They feel vaguely that everyone learned a lesson from the last depression, that people will not stand for another one, that in any case the world’s governments have taken measures or will take measures to prevent another from occurring. What lessons were learned and what measures have been taken or will be taken to prevent depression, these are matters which the average person hesitates to discuss—the blunt and gloomy truth being that his views in this connection are simply the product of wishful thinking.

It is a fact that the average person learned no lessons that matter from the last depression. It is also a fact that the politicians, the statesmen and all those on whom they depend for impressive thoughts, have failed to prove themselves better informed. The reasons are not hard to find. The average person has not made the slightest attempt to learn about depressions, and the official representatives of society, if they have made a study of the subject, have not come up with knowledge they are prepared to impart or act upon; for if they have discovered anything they have discovered that such knowledge can provide no help in preventing depression and nothing sensible that can be used to encourage the average worker to continue his approval of the existing form of society; and since these people are committed to the preservation of present society without important changes they are obliged either to remain silent or ask people to retain confidence, trust in providence, or engage in other childlike pastimes.

There is no treatment for depressions that can bring lasting and beneficial results for the mass of the people while retaining the present order of society. That is why the brightest of capitalism’s defenders have nothing to offer on the subject but nonsense. The trouble is that capitalism is not a system that can concern itself about the needs of people and how best to satisfy those needs; it is a system in which goods are produced in order that capitalists may obtain profits; and when a situation arises in which these goods cannot be sold profitably, they are retained in warehouses whether or not there are people in need. This was the situation that prevailed during the Hungry Thirties; vast quantities of wealth decaying with passing years, vast numbers of people in constant and serious need—and not a government anywhere in the world that knew what to do about it!

Capitalism is by nature a chaotic form of society, often in the throes of stagnation and never free of misery. To end the fears, uncertainties and horrors of modern life requires the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of society as a whole. This is a task to which you should give immediate thought and action.

(Leaflet published by the Socialist Party of Canada)

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