August 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard
Part 1 here.
January, 1884, the Democratic Federation brought out a weekly periodical, "Justice,” which had a hard struggle to exist owing to lack of funds, and was eventually taken over by the Twentieth Century Press, a publishing company whose share capital was provided by small subscriptions from workers and small organisations. A monthly periodical was also issued privately with Belfort Bax and J. L. Joynes as editors. The title of this publication was “To-Day” and it claimed to be a journal of Scientific Socialism, but would open its columns “to all expressions of advanced opinion.” Its contributors were drawn from a very wide field, including Eleanor Marx. Morris, Lafargue, Hyndman, Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Walt Whitman, Michael Davitt, Stepniak, William Archer, and Henry Arthur Jones.
Just before the Democratic Federation changed its name another section of the Radicals formed the Fabian Society in January, 1884. The Society was mainly composed of people drawn together to discuss the “higher life” ideas of Thomas Davidson and was infused with an “intellectual” atmosphere; its smug and self-satisfied members were keenly conscious of their mental superiority to the rest of society. They were opposed to sweeping changes, proposing to gradually permeate society, both “Upper” and “lower” classes, with a leaven of “advanced” ideas until it had imperceptibly changed its form. They were to be the intellectual leaders of the bovine herd. The new form of society at which they aimed eventually emerged as State Capitalism, though they designated it Socialism.
The Society was soon joined by Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, Annie Besant and Sydney Olivier. Most of the early members of the Fabian Society were government officials, and their occupation led them to believe that they were in a position to influence legislation in the direction of their aspirations. After 60 years of their efforts one result they appear to have achieved is to make the exploiting machinery work more smoothly! In the direction of education, however, their members have accomplished some good work examples of which are Sidney Webb’s “History of Trade Unionism,” Graham Wallis’s “ Francis Place,” and the voluminous and pointed ridicule of Bernard Shaw. The establishment of the London School of Economics was also an offspring of their work. For the rest they were opposed to the foundamental ideas of Marxism and drew economic nurture from Stanley Jevons' antiquated supply and demand theory of value. At the end of Hyndman’s “Economics of Socialism,” there is a chapter entitled “The Final Futility of Final Utility” which is a crushing answer to Fabian conceptions of economics.
The social position of most of the Fabians, government officials and professional men, was responsible for their snobbish outlook; they felt themselves to be the destined leaders of the movement for social regeneration. One of their members, Ramsay Macdonald, expressed this outlook clearly in an article he wrote for “To-day,” in March, 1887, entitled “A Rock Ahead.” This is how he put it:
“I would therefore plead for stronger and stronger efforts in intellectual circles, and a vigorous propaganda amongst the thoughtful and reasonable; that thus the ‘party of physical needs’ may be weakened, and Socialism stand forth before the eyes of men, a stage in the process of intellectual development. When we are strong in the strength of intellectual faith, the discontented will be at our command, and as explosive as ever. We may have to use them or we may not; but should the worst befall their destructive power will be skilfully directed; it will not cause ruin, but will clear a way; it will be the instrument, but not the life; the tool, but not the designer.”
Could intellectual priggishness go farther than this? And this was the man who eventually became the first Labour Prime Minister!
In spite of their false ideas on Economics, however, some of the Fabians, Bernard Shaw was an example, did realise that those who lived by the sale of their labour-power belonged to one class opposed to the Capitalist class, and that however high their apparent wages or salaries were they were all paid on the basis of subsistence; what it cost them to live in order to do the job for which they were paid. Here is an instance from one of Shaw’s early writings that is worth while bringing to light again:
"The division into classes with various standards of comfort which always occurs among slaves, and which is due to the necessity for educating and maintaining the slave who is a doctor or a barrister very much better than the slave who is a mere hewer of wood and drawer of water, makes the highly skilled slave despise the unskilled, the unskilled hate and envy the skilled; makes the upper regard classification with the lower as an intolerable degradation, and the lower spurn classification with the higher as a hypocritical effort to reconcile him to his inferiority. Organisation of the proletariat, and recognition by them of their common interest, is thus defeated by class feeling, which is always bitterest among the worst off. It is doubtful whether Dukes habitually despise beggars; but it is certain that butlers despise scullions, artisans, labourers and professional men tradesmen. The solicitor's daughter must not know the young lady from Peter Robinson’s, nor will the ‘amalgamated engineer' permit his wife to demean herself by visiting the spouse of the carman. The proprietors, on the other hand, though their properties vary in size, seem to understand that they belong to the same class; and so, whatever petty jealousies and disputes as to precedence may arise between them, they are always united against the proletariat. There is a saying that a man can be no more than a gentleman (a gentleman being one who lives by robbing the poor). There is no such saying as that a man can be no more than a worker, there is, on the contrary, a widely spread feeling that he cannot be much less, short of being a convict or a pauper. Hence the proprietors succeed in maintaining their privileges against enormous odds in point of numbers. The proletariat, excepting the fragment in the trade unions, are a mere mob; and even the trade union regiments seem to mistrust one another far more than they hate the enemy, to whose ranks everyone of their individual members is eager to desert if a commission there be offered to him."(From "Our Corner," September, 1887.)
If one makes allowances for some looseness of phrasing and for the backward organisation of the workers at the time, it will be seen that Shaw here senses the social division into two antagonistic classes and also what constituted a member of the working class. He had no illusions about the social status of the so-called intellectuals; he appreciated that they were just members of the working class. Where he went astray was in believing that this section was marked out to lead and direct the movement for social emancipation.
The confused outlook of the Fabian Society was illustrated in the report they submitted to the 1896 Conference of the Second International, which contains the following paragraph:—
"The Fabian Society discards such phrases as 'the abolition of the wages system' which can only mislead the public as to the aims of Socialism. Socialism does not involve the abolition of the wages system, but the establishment of standard allowances for the maintenance of all workers by the community in its own service, as an alternative to wages fixed by the competition of destitute men and women for private employment, as well as for commercial profits, commissions, and all other speculative and competitive forms of remuneration. In short, the Fabian Society, far from desiring to abolish wages, wishes to secure them for everybody."What else is this but State Capitalism? How far the Fabians got with their scheme for social regeneration is revealed by one of the founders of the Society, E. R. Pease. In his “History of the Fabian Society” he sums it up in words that are just as true today as when they were written in 1925:
“But it must be confessed that we have made but little progress along the main road to Socialism. Private ownership of capital and land flourishes almost as vigorously as it did 30 years ago." (Page 243.)
That is an expression of the final futility of the policy of permeation—despair.
Towards the end of 1884 there was a split in the Social Democratic Federation and some of its most capable members, including the majority of its Executive Committee, broke away to form another party, the Socialist League. The cause of the split was a mixture of personal feeling and dissatisfaction over policy. The practical policy of the Social Democratic Federation during elections, a policy that it kept to during most of its existence, was the making of pacts with the opposition to fight whatever government held power; at one time they accepted support from the Tories to oppose the Liberals and at another time they did the reverse. In 1884 it was alleged that money from the Tories was accepted to support two of their candidates against the Liberals, who formed the government of the day.
There was a personal antagonism to Hyndman on the ground that he was ambitious and was trying to dominate party policy, but there was also a more important difference, the one that eventually destroyed the Socialist League, an opposition to political action that pushed it over to the anarchist position. At first this appeared as a claim by its prominent members that the workers were not yet sufficiently advanced to justify the putting up of Socialist candidates for election and that for sometime to come the party should concentrate all its efforts upon educating the workers; in time this attitude drifted into an opposition to parliament itself, as a perfidious instrument of Capitalism, a body in which it was impossible to do anything except lose one’s head and one’s principles. In the eyes of the League, therefore, parliamentary action became a thing that was tainted with evil and should not be touched.
The financial backbone of the Socialist League was William Morris.
Owing to international connections, principally through Eleanor Marx and Frederick Lessner, the League attracted attention that had been withheld from the Social Democratic Federation; an attention that the latter had partly lacked on account of the antipathy of Marx and Engels to Hyndman. The League soon had its own periodical, the “Commonweal,” the first number appearing in February, 1885, edited by Morris and Aveling. The March number contained congratulatory messages from Liebkneckt, Bebel, Lafargue, Vaillant, Kautsky, Frankel, Lavroff, Stepniak, and Domela Nienwenhuis (the latter, an adherent of Marx at the time, was responsible for the rise of the social democratic movement in Belgium, but he later became an anarchist).
From the beginning a strain of anti-parliamentarism ran through the League’s pronouncements and the May, 1885, number contained an article by Joseph Lane opposed to the capture of parliament. In November, 1885, the League published a pamphlet on the forthcoming General Election which concluded with the words:
“Compare this ideal which we International Revolutionary Socialists offer you, and which it lies in your power to realise, with the miserable pettiness of parliamentary life, and the mean lies and hollow pledges of an election contest, and then surely you will agree with us that it is your business NOT To VOTE but to prepare yourselves to bring about the SOCIAL REVOLUTION, and to accept its happy consequences.”
The leaflet contains quite a good statement of the position of the workers and criticisms of political parties, but it does not give any indication of how Socialism is to be achieved. All it has to say on the point is “if you will but claim it, you will be the world!” It would certainly have been helpful if some idea had been given of how the claim was to be implemented other than by voice and pen. In the course of a few years the League was completely captured by the anarchists and ceased to have any further influence on the progress of the working class movement.
The first page of the first number of the “Commonweal” contains the Manifesto of the League: it was the clearest and soundest attempt to formulate Socialist principles put forward in England up to the end of the Nineteenth Century. The following are some paragraphs from this Manifesto which speak for themselves:
“We come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society—a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.
“As the civilised world is at present constituted, there are two classes of Society—the one possessing wealth and the instruments of its production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments but only by the leave and for the use of the possessing classes.
“These two classes are necessarily in antagonism to one another. The possessing class, or non-producers, can only live as a class on the unpaid labour of the producers— the more unpaid labour they can wring out of them, the richer they will be; therefore the producing class—the workers—are driven to strive to better themselves at the expense of the possessing class, and the conflict between the two is ceaseless. Sometimes it takes the form of open rebellion, sometimes of strikes, sometimes of mere widespread mendicancy and crime: but it is always going on in one form or other, though it may not always be obvious to the thoughtless looker-on.
“We have spoken of unpaid labour; it is necessary to explain what that means. The sole possession of the producing class is the power of labour inherent in their bodies; but since, as we have already said, the rich possess all the instruments of labour, that is, the land, capital, and machinery, the producers or workers are forced to sell their sole possession, the power of labour, on such terms as the possessing class will grant them.
“These terms are. that after they have produced enough to keep them in working order, and enable them to beget children to take their places when they are worn out, the surplus of their products shall belong to the possessors of property, which bargain is based on the fact that every man working in a civilised community can produce more than he needs for his own sustenance.
“This relation of the possessing class to the working class is the essential basis of the system of producing for profit, on which our modern Society is founded.”
“Nationalisation of the land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value inevitable under the Capitalist system.
“No better solution would be that State Socialism by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages still in operation; no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.
“The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation”
As far as it goes there is not much that the Socialist would object to in the above and it is noteworthy that it appeared before the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party had been formulated. On the back of the same number of the “Commonweal” is printed the “Provisional Rules,” the preamble to which is a replica of the Preamble to the Provisional Rules of the first International Working Men’s Association, which was written by Karl Marx. The Rules themselves have one important defect; they give the Central Council too much power, including the power to dissolve branches.
Engels showed his preference for the Socialist League by contributing two articles to the “Commonweal”; one was a criticism of [Broadhouse’s] translation of portions of Capital, and the other was a brief history of the previous 40 years. The latter was reproduced by him in his 1892 Preface to “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.”
During the few years of its existence the “Commonweal” published some excellent propagandist articles but also a good deal that was weak, vague and misleading. Its attitude to political action in particular was confusing and conflicting; it hunted with both the hare and the hounds, gradually throwing its weight more and more against political action and flirting with the anarchists. Morris was its most prolific writer, producing articles on a wide variety of subjects; some of his poems and essays that appeared in this periodical were later reprinted in book form and constitute a large part of his claim to popularity. There were two noteworthy features of the “Commonweal”; it did not contain any advertisements except those relating to meetings and similar activities, and it was entirely controlled by the League itself.
(To be continued)
Gilmac is incorrect on a couple of points in the article.
- Rather than being responsible for the rise of the social democratic movement in Belgium, Domela Nienwenhuis was in fact a pioneer of the social democratic movement in the Netherlands. See his wiki page for more details.
- In Gilmac's original text, he makes reference to Engels penning a piece for Commonweal, where he criticises "Henry Broadhurst" for his inexpert translation of portions of Capital. Broadhurst was in fact an early Lib-Lab MP. Gilmac meant to write 'Broadhouse'. See the links here and here for further information on this. The latter link suggests that 'Broadhouse' was, in fact, a pen name for H. M. Hyndman. I have no idea if this is the case and, if true, I have no idea if Engels knew 'Broadhouse's' real identity when he penned his barbed piece for Commonweal.