It is now over nine years since the Great War ended, and, in spite of the feeling aroused in the minds of many that capitalism was staggering to its doom, the machinery of production, or perhaps it would be better to say the organisation of capitalism, appears to have practically recovered from the many dangers that threatened it during the perilous period of changing over from war to peace conditions.
How marvellous the recuperative powers of capitalism must appear to those who are carried away by the seductive theory that we have only to sit tight and await the working out of the “blind forces of production,” which are supposed to be driving the system to an undesired grave, without the assistance or intervention of the human element” ! The advocates of this view lug poor old Marx in by the scruff of the neck to support their erroneous ideas, on the plea that the Materialist Conception of History is the basis of the theory. The two men who worked out the Materialist Conception of History—Marx and Engels—were tireless in pointing out that in the process of human history there were two fundamental factors—man and his environment—and that it was human beings who struggled, and not environments. It is the action of shackling environment upon man that gives the punch, forcing man to act; the pressure of slavery, for instance, that urges the slave to free himself.
However, this is not quite what I intended to write about when I sat down. Sidney and Beatrice Webb have just published a volume on “English Poor Law History,” and Clifford Sharp, reviewing it in the Daily News (11/3/27), makes some observations that are interesting and also startling to those who are not acquainted with the earlier history of this country.
It is interesting to note, for instance, that destitution, in the sense that we moderns so bitterly know it, was practically unknown in the Middle Ages, that not until the beginning of the commerce that has made some people so wealthy, was it necessary to codify by statute the various methods of helping those who were poor. Perhaps the quotation itself would be more informing than a few remarks upon it—so here it is :—
The chief fact that is likely to strike the unlearned reader of this story is that once upon a time there was no Poor Law at all in England —or anywhere else for that matter. The poor were “God’s poor,” and their needs were dealt with by the Church and by personal alms. So it was in this island from the Middle Ages down to the time of the Tudors. There was, of course, then practically no such thing as “destitution” in the modern sense, for the poor were mainly serfs or villeins, and had feudal lords who employed them and provided for their ordinary needs (!); and it was only sick folk and unattached travellers or vagrants, who were ever actually destitute.
Of course, farther back still, before the feudal lords so kindly employed the serfs and villeins, there was a time when the people employed themselves and, with the limited means at their disposal, saw to it that no one was destitute except when accident or famine or something similar occurred, in which event all went hungry together.
But is it not remarkable that learned professors and politicians should boast loudly of the enormous strides made during the last few hundred years in productive methods, when there has grown up in our midst a poverty problem of an appalling extent. When one sits back and thinks, the position appears in a comical light— there was little destitution in England until England became wealthy and prosperous ! Then one reviews one’s own life, with the struggles to keep the wolf from the door, and begins to wonder who or what is the “England” that has become wealthy. A little further thinking and wondering, and at last the realisation dawns upon the wonderer that it is only the few who “own property” that have become wealthy. The mass who produce the wealth are poorer than they were, in the sense that they have to struggle harder for what they get, and that the actual amount of destitution is proportionately greater.
Since its beginning in the time of Elizabeth, the Poor Law has answered its purpose : it has kept the hungry multitude from doing anything that would seriously endanger the system that provides wealth and comfort for the few out of the blood and tears of the many. And as long as the capitalists are far-seeing enough not to be too niggardly with their “almsgiving” schemes, the system might stagger on for an indefinite period.
This brings me back to the idea underlying the remarks I made at the beginning. In spite of all that the employers do, and may do, to throw dust in the eyes of the workers, the shoe pinches, and sooner or later the workers, being intelligent human beings, will have a look at the shoe to see what the real trouble is. Slowly but surely the idea is taking root that the cause of working-class misery lies in the nature of the modern system of wealth production, and sooner or later, owing to the fact that they have brains which draw upon their experience for thoughts and ideas, the workers will grasp the fundamental fact that they must exert themselves to transform wealth production from a basis of private ownership to a basis of common ownership in the means of producing wealth. The slumbering Chinaman is stirring : it is time for the West to awake !