The Discomfiture of Lawler Wilson
FINE DEBATE AT BATTERSEA
On the 3rd ulto, the debate arranged between J. Fitzgerald of the S.P.G.B., and Lawler Wilson, probably the ablest platform opponent of Socialism, duly came off. The proposition discussed was—
‘Does the Capitalist Class live upon the robbery of the Working Class?’
The Battersea Town Hall, capable of holding 1,700 people, was packed, and the arguments of the disputants were followed with the closest interest.
Although Mr. Wilson came with something of a reputation for sustaining his case against representatives of various bodies claiming to be Socialist, Fitzgerald had no difficulty in tearing that case to tatters. As the S.P.G.B., according to the most generous allowance of Mr. Quelch, and others who are concerned to belittle the Party upon the score of its numerical weakness, consists of no more than a dozen or two members; and as 1,700 doesn’t go many times into a dozen or two; and as a large proportion of the audience frequently gave expression to its endorsement of the Socialist position as set out by Fitzgerald, it follows that our view of the result of the debate is not shared among ourselves alone. After the comparatively easy task that, according to report and to his own statement, Lawler Wilson had in previous bouts with alleged Socialist champions, it is probable that he is himself a little surprised at his failure to convince his audience in Battersea.
The reason for our easy victory consists, of course, in the fact that our representative stood upon the impregnable rock of Marxian economics, understood the exact position of the working class, as a class, in the economy of capitalist production, and was not to be shifted a hair’s breadth from the direct issue of the inevitability of the exploitation of labour — given private ownership of the means of life — by any manipulation of figures, however dexterous, that his opponent thought proper to indulge in. To our man, the question of immediate moment was not as to the extent of the robbery of the workers, but the establishment of the fact of the robbery. Once that was fixed, Lawler Wilson’s case went to the winds, and Lawler Wilson knew it none better. Therefore we had most entertaining feats of high-class jugglery, of intellectual gymnastics of a quite amazing order, and all the other artifices by which a clever debater may sometimes cover his discomfiture and divert attention from the material point in dispute, which, to face directly and frankly, would mean his inevitable defeat.
To do Mr. Wilson bare justice, it has to be confessed that he is a red-herring trailer of the very first class. Which is the reason for the measure of success he has achieved in his discussions with those other champions of Socialism whose equipment, unfortunately, consisted, as to nine parts, of good intentions, and as to one part only of Socialist science. Even in the case of champions of wider knowledge attached to one or other of the parties misnamed Socialist, Mr. Wilson, being an exceedingly ‘cute and ready-witted person, is able to easily score debating points based upon the vacillating policy and general political ineptitude of their organisations. So he is able to require of them that they shall defend the multitudinous inconsistencies of their parties’ actions to the confusion of the pivot issue.
Up against the S.P.G.B., however, he found himself robbed of his thunder. The obscurantisms and political thimble rigging of the other parties are the subject of our consistent denunciation. We had to be dealt with, therefore, on our own record, which was unfortunate seeing that our record does not lend itself either to odious comparison or gibing criticism. Clearly it was a case with us of facing the issue, or—verbal pyrotechnics in conjunction with expert figure-fuddling. Mr. Wilson did his best in the latter department, but his pyrotechnics were very damp and sorry squibs, while in the end he as unhappily for himself, obliged to swallow his own political hotch-potch.
Fitzgerald gave no rope. He nailed his opponent down upon the fact of working-class robbery first, and then proceeded to an examination of the celebrated figures. It is notable that Mr. Wilson, grown bold by the inability of other opponents to deal with them, had written to ‘Justice’ daring the S.D.P. to prove these figures false. It is not less notable that the S.D.P. through Justice made no endeavour to do so, Fitzgerald flatly refused to accept the figures and denied their authenticity. Time and time again he challenged Mr. Wilson to name his authorities. But the wily Wilson evaded the challenge, as he had endeavoured to evade the central issue. In the last speech of the debate, however, relying upon the fact that his opponent would have no opportunity of further reply, or goaded by the stinging irony of Fitzgerald’s last speech, he proceeded with sublime effrontery, to quote his authorities. The result was an effect of quite dramatic intensity.
Mr. Fitzgerald, he said, has asserted that I will not give you my authorities. I will do so. They are the “Statistical Abstract of the Board of Trade,” the Fabian “Facts for Socialists,” Chiozza Money’s “Riches and Poverty” — Here Fitzgerald leaped to his feet. Mr. Chairman, he shouted, here (producing the books) is the “Statistical Abstract,” here are the “Facts for Socialists,” here is Money’s “Riches and Poverty.” With these in my hand I again challenge Mr. Wilson to justify his figures. He got no further. The audience rose at him with a great roar of cheering, and the famous figures went the way of the anti-Socialist case. Notwithstanding cries from all parts of the hall, Mr. Wilson preferred to accept the discomfiture of the denouement rather than touch the books flung on the table before him.
Altogether the debate was most successful from the Party point of view and will doubtless be productive of much good. The Battersea boys are to be congratulated upon their organisation of the meeting, and have the satisfaction of knowing that their work, by making the meeting possible, contributed largely to the result.
From W. Lawler Wilson’s 1909 book, ‘The Menace of Socialism’:
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a young organisation and an offshoot from the Social Democratic Party, is spreading about London and challenging the older organisations in such districts as Battersea and Tottenham. The members are Marxians and revolutionaries, preaching the Class War. The catechumens of the party are put through a rigid course of training in the principles of their creed, which they must be prepared to defend at the risk of their liberty. What is most remarkable and disquieting about this dangerous organisation is the fact that the members are unquestionably higher-grade working-men of great intelligence, respectability, and energy. They are, as a whole, the best informed Socialists in the country, and would make incomparable soldiers, or desperate barricadists. As revolutionaries they deserve no mercy : as men they command respect.”
W. Lawler Wilson, The Menace of Socialism, 1909, p.316.