Short story: In The Train: Bermondsey Bunkum Baulked
Characters: PETER PIP—a Bermondsey voter.
Scene. Third-class “smoker ” on the S.E.C. Railway. Peter Pip is seated in corner smoking his pipe. Enter Viator, who takes opposite seat.
VIATOR : Good evening. I suppose things are pretty lively just now down Bermondsey way?
PIP : Yes, the election’s in full swing—all three candidates are hard at it.
VIATOR : Who do yon think will win ?
PIP: Oh! The Socialist, Dr. Salter. He’s bound to get in. I and my mates are for him, anyhow.
VIATOR : I thought the doctor called himself “Labour” candidate.
PIP : Well, it’s all the same. Labour is Socialism, isn’t it ?
VIATOR : May I ask you some questions by way of trying to answer yours ?
PIP : Certainly.
VIATOR : Well then, the doctor was chosen by your local branch of the I.LP., wasn’t he ?
VIATOR : The local branch had to get sanction from the National Council of the I.L.P. ?
PIP : Why, yes, of course.
VIATOR : Of course you know that before the doctor could be run as a candidate for Parliament, the I.LP. had to get sanction from the Labour Party executive, being affiliated to that body?
PIP : That’s so.
VIATOR : The candidate must sign the Labour Party ticket and agree to obey the Party whip?
PIP : Yes.
VIATOR : One of the conditions to be agreed to is, I think, that the candidate must stand as “Labour,” and not as “Socialist.”
PIP : Quite true.
VIATOR : Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a Socialist should not be allowed to run as such, and that if returned he must obey the Labour Party whip, nine times out of ten voting with the Liberals?
PIP : It never struck me like that. But all the same Salter’s a real good Socialist. Why just look at his programme!
VIATOR : Ah, let me see it. (Pip hands him a copy of the election address.) Yes! I thought so. Same old story.
PIP : What’s wrong now ?
VIATOR : The first article in his confession of faith is the dear old “Right to Work Bill.” Hum!
PIP : But you surely don’t condemn the “Right to Work Bill?”
VIATOR : No need to: it condemns itself! What about the clause empowering a municipality to find work for the unemployed? If the unemployed are not satisfied with the kind of work allotted them, or the rate of pay, and refuse to do the work, the municipal authorities, who are representatives of the master class, have power given them to haul the offending workers before a magistrate. That means six months gaol! Fancy a Socialist voting for such a measure.
PIP : But I say—
VIATOR : Next item. General Eight-Hours Day. Well suppose you get it—and mind you, you have got to get it from the masters; many of them are in favour of it and would vote for it. That fact alone ought to make you suspicious of it. “Timeo Danaos et dona ferantes.” That’s French or Figian—you know, for “When the masters send you a gift horse, look in the beggar’s mouth.”
PIP : (Rather uneasily, feeling he is being “got at ”) Well but—
VIATOR : But me no buts! Can the master class—or employers as you call them— can they or can they not speed you up in the factory to the highest possible pitch, 8 hours day or no 8 hours day ? Aren’t they doing it now? If you are going to cross the road to vote, vote for something that’s to do you good!
PIP : I think you will have a job to get round the next item.
VIATOR: Then I’ll go under it. Minimum wage! Minimum fiddlesticks! Do you suppose the labour market is a thing to be played with so? There was a “maximum wage” law as the result of the dearth of labour after the plague in the middle ages, a law strengthened by far more severe penalties than any a capitalist government is likely to attach to a mere “minimum wage” enactment in these days of “freedom of contract”—the futility of the attempt to enforce this law should be a lesson for all time. When labour was scarce the labourer was master of the situation, in spite of the Statute of Labourers which the employers of labour themselves caused to be enacted, in their anxiety to obtain labour power cheaply, but which they were compelled to evade. Now that labour power is so terribly redundant the masters will remain masters of the situation, minimum wage laws notwithstanding, for starvation will compel evasion on the one hand, and profit-hunger on the other. But if such a law can have any effect at all in preventing sweating, there is one counterbalancing factor that will rob it of all benefit to the working class. When any one talks to you about minimum wages, shorter hours, and so on, don’t forget that grim spectre at the worker’s elbow—his constant competitor— machinery. Every restriction placed upon the exploitation of labour power, makes for the advantage of machinery; every lifting of the price of labour-power handicaps it against machinery. So far then as a minimum wage law can affect the situation it can only result in the extended use of machinery and the factory system, and the further displacement of workers.
PIP : That seems to make the struggle hopeless. (Removes his hat, wipes his brow, and looks out of the carriage window.)
VIATOR : It makes Socialism the only hope, at all events. (Pointing) That’s a very nice piece of land over there, isn’t it? Look well nationalized, wouldn’t it? “For sale. Apply Law, Jaw, Wynstun & Co.” I see your worthy doctor has “nationalization of land” on his card. In Japan they have nationalization of land; in Russia the mines are national; in Germany the railways are national property. Yet the proletariat (that’s you and me, you know) who work all those services are not a whit better off—worse off in some cases. German and Belgian State railway workers for example.
PIP : That’s true.
VIATOR : Then : “Municipalisation of means of transit, lighting, water, milk, electricity and power.” Let’s see. In Bermondsey you have all these things run either by the County Council or the Borough Council. Milk, you say,—better milk. Yes, quite so, but a doubtful advantage if you’re a milkman out of a job. Can’t you see, my dear fellow, that you can nationalise and municipalise ’til you’re black in the face, but so long as you leave the masters in full possession of the political power, they will take good care to keep top-dog?
PIP : Surely you will support the next item : “Votes for all men and women of adult age”?
Viator : The principle’s all right, but as a vote catcher it’s all wrong. Besides, aren’t there enough votes now to get Socialism if they were used properly? What we want to do is to educate the present working-class vote— which greatly preponderates—as to the meaning of Socialism, not to bother about extensions of the franchise, and above all, not to use such issues, however much we may agree with them in principle, as bait to catch the voles of those who are opposed to us on the question of Socialism.
PIP : (With an air of conscious superiority) Well, you must agree that raising the amount of old age pensions and lowering the age limit, as our candidate suggests, would be a good thing ?
VIATOR : Yes! for the master class! Shifting the burden of the aged poor off the rates on to the taxes, neither of which affect the worker tuppence. No’ if that’s the best your doctor can do for you you might as well vote : for Dr. Cook.
PIP : What shall I do then?
Viator : Stop at home this time and don’t vote. I tell you the disease Bermondsey is suffering from can’t be cured by medicine. What is wanted is a surgical operation. Here you are, this will tell you all about it. Read this (hands him a Manifesto). Full details – how to cure poverty and when you’re tired of messing about with quacks and their nostrums, take your courage in both hands and try “the knife.”
Here’s my station. Good night! (He gets out. Pip is left thinking.)