Book Review: The slump in the nineteen-thirties

In The Slump (John Stevenson and Chris Cook. Jonathan Cape 348 Pages £8.95) the authors took a new look at “society and politics during the depression”. They pose such questions as: “How depressed were the depressed areas? What, if anything, did the hunger marches achieve? Why were both the communists and fascists confined to the sidelines of British politics? Why did the electors vote as they did? Why was there no revolution in Britain?”

With its illustrations and numerous statistical tables it makes an interesting and useful survey, though some of the conclusions are open to question.

In answer to the belief that it was a decade of universal and unrelieved decline in living standards they show that after unemployment dropped by about a million from the 2½ million of 1932, and helped by the fall of prices, especially of food, there was “appreciable rise in the standard of comfort and welfare” of working-class families in regular employment. The persistently heavy employment was concentrated in certain areas and certain industries.

They tell the story of the MacDonald Government which entered office in 1929, pledged to conquer unemployment and restore “prosperity”, only to be brought down by an unforeseen world depression which pushed unemployment up from something over a million to a peak of 3 million. But why were they so single-minded as to believe that they could operate capitalism without unemployment and periodical depressions? The Minister dealing with unemployment was J. H. Thomas, the railwaymen’s leader. He stated that they “were going to do what they could to reduce unemployment while accepting the present order of society” (Daily Herald 6 July 1929). He complained afterwards that he took on the job because the economist, Josiah Stamp, had assured him that unemployment was on its way down! In the Socialist Standard (June 1929) we foresaw the failure of the Labour Government to reduce unemployment.

The Minister in the Labour Cabinet appointed to assist J. H. Thomas was Sir Oswald Mosley. He tried in vain to induce Thomas and the Cabinet to adopt a “bolder” policy, and the authors believe that mass unemployment could have been solved but for “the attitudes” of the Labour Cabinet. By this they mean that the Cabinet had not then adopted the “full employment” policy of J. M. Keynes. “Keynesian ideas still lay outside the view of most politicians, although Lloyd George and Mosley were prepared to implement policies along these lines”.

The authors fail to notice that since 1945 we have had Cabinets which have all accepted Keynes, but this did not prevent mass unemployment — over 1,600,000 registered unemployed in 1977, with another estimated 250,000 not on the register.

In the Chapter “The Revolution That Never Was” the authors tell us that there was a very widespread belief in the nineteen-thirties that mass unemployment threatened a breakdown of the political system and the end of capitalism itself. “For Marxists, the great depression was clearly the ‘final crisis’ of capitalism”.

The authors obviously do not know that in February 1932 the Socialist Party of Great Britain published a pamphlet setting out the Marxist point of view, with the title Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse.

They go to some trouble to minimise the extent of the Labour Party defeat at the 1931 General Election, though the fact is that if in 1931 they had got the same percentage of votes as in 1929, of an electorate increased by more than a million, their vote, which was actually 6,650,000, would have been nearly been nearly 8½ million.

The authors explain the 14½ million votes given to the “national” government as being due to “the massive middle class” vote having gone that way, while “the working class” vote largely remained with the Labour Party. This merely confuses the real situation. The overwhelming proportion of the electorate were wage and salary earners, that is working-class, and they constituted at least a big majority of the 14½ million votes given to the Tories and their allies.

The authors carry this confusion about ‘middle-class’ voters into their attempt to explain the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, thus obscuring the fact that when, in democratic elections in July 1932, the Nazis became the largest party, with 13½ million votes, at least several millions were working class voters, including many who had formerly voted for the Social Democrats.

Edgar Hardcastle