When our party was formed in June, 1904, the world was, in some ways, vastly different from what it is today.
The British Empire was flourishing as one of the greatest empires the world had so far experienced, and radicals waxed eloquent on topics like “Home Rule for India.” This huge land mass was under British rule, and British capitalists were being enriched out of the exploitation of the Indian peasant. “Home Rule for Ireland” was also another favourite topic, plus the women’s suffrage question. Africa was split up amongst the Western Powers; Germany,- France, Belgium and Britain taking the lion’s share, and various measures were adopted to force the natives to be exploited in the mines, diamond fields and rubber plantations. Harrowing stories were told of the brutalities they suffered. Canada and Australia were being settled with a cynical disregard for the interests of the aboriginal inhabitants.
Russian peasants, in the vast ramshackle empire of the Czars, were steeped in almost hopeless misery to produce luxury for the Russian nobility. China was a hotch potch of conflicting war lords and petty peasant culture in which the Western powers were trying to force their trading interests. Japan was on the verge of emerging as a great power, whilst the United States was in a fever of internal industrial expansion that was building up huge fortunes for the Rockefellers, Astors, Carnegies, Morgans and other multi-millionaires.
Cutting across all the sectional interests was the cleavage between workers and capitalists, owners and non-owners of the means of production, and frequent strikes were a common result.
In Germany the adherents of the Social Democratic Party were numbered in hundreds of thousands. In other countries smaller Social Democratic Parties also carried on a great deal of propaganda. In America they had even reached a point where a member of one of the radical parties, Eugene V. Debs, was a candidate for the Presidency and received a large vote.
In Britain there were a variety of radical parties like the Social Democratic Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society, Industrial Unionists, Land Reformists and a number of others, all with a variety of reformist proposals. Since those days these parties and groups have either gone out of existence or become moribund.
At the time our party came into existence men whose names figured prominently on the theoretical side of the working class movement were either still alive or not long since dead; men like Engels, Leibknecht, Lafargue, Kautzky, Plechanoff, Labriola, and others. Thus theoretical questions loomed large at meetings, particularly at indoor meetings. The early members of our party, who had broken away from the Social Democratic Party on account of its reformist and political trading attitude, were pioneers; enthusiastic, fanatical and uncompromising. To them the Socialist movement was all that really mattered, and many of them suffered economically for the position they took up.
The world the Party was born into was a much slower world than the world of today. There were no aeroplanes, wireless or huge ocean liners; no world wars, belt systems or traffic problems; no petrol buses, electric trains or tube systems; no cinemas, dog racing or jazz; no health or unemployment insurance, and one could travel widely without passports. Horse buses, hansom cabs, bicycles and steam trains were the means of locomotion. Hours of work were long but, in general, not as intense as today. Translations of foreign radical literature were scarce. Printing, premises and halls were relatively cheap. Outdoor meeting places were prolific and a platform could be set up almost anywhere. The outstanding questions of the time were religion, Home Rule, Reforms and the suffragette question—and the abolition of slums!
What vast changes, in some respects, have come over the world since those days. Russia and the United States have become the major capitalist empires, seeking to split the earth between them but threatened by a developing and populous China. India has secured its “freedom” without much advantage to its teeming and poverty stricken millions. The African natives are struggling to free themselves from the older bandits; some have developed independent states that have made little difference to the oppressed; they have simply exchanged exploiters.
All the territories of the world have come under the sway of international capital. Areas that were once undeveloped are rapidly being transformed, and the world is seething in a maelstrom of conflict and confusion such as has never been experienced before. Cutting across all sectional interests is the cleavage between capitalist and worker, owner and non-owner, privileged and unprivileged, dominant and subjected— just as in 1904. Progress has been in the accumulation of wealth for the privileged, frustration and nervous tension for the unprivileged. The class position of the working class has remained the same.
The root of the troubles that afflict the world today is the same as it was in 1904; the ownership of the means of production by one class, the capitalist class, whose members can lfve without the need to work, and the subjection of the working class, whose members must work in order to live.
Production under capitalism is carried on for the purpose of profit and, just as in the past, sections of the international capitalist class came into conflict over markets, sources of raw materials, routes to these markets and raw materials, and strategic bases for domination. The seeds of war are sown with a prodigal hand. Today even the sky above the earth has become an area for strategic manoeuvres. Nation faces nation full of suspicion, armed with more terrible means of destruction than mankind has ever contrived, and workers are forced into armed forces to slaughter each other.
Myriads of reformers, some with the best of intentions, have sought to relieve some of the worst aspects of social existence. In spite of decades of reformism their efforts have brought no material change. The main evils still flourish. Abolition of slums was on the programmes of the main political parties in 1904—it is still on the programmes of the main political parties today. The reformers failed to attack the source of the trouble, the capitalist ownership of the means of production. Planning against slumps and booms, peace movements, proposals to abolish poverty and slums, all break to pieces against the ramparts of capitalism.
The cynical degradation of labour; the exploitation of workers of all colours and creeds in all parts of the world to enhance the wealth of those in the position of power and privilege, is basic to the present system. What is produced is produced solely for the purpose of profit, regardless of the misery it involves. That is capitalism, and so it will always be while capitalism lasts.
Thus, in spite of the vast superficial changes in the world since 1904, it is still, fundamentally, the same old capitalist world, with its exploitation, misery and frustration for the mass of the population.