Monday, April 5, 2021

Progress and pauperism. (1927)

From the April 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

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 !

Three pamphlets (1927)

Pamphlets Review from the April 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

Published by the Labour Research Department, 162, Buckingham Palace Road.

Rivals of the Co-operatives” (price 1d.) contains figures of the large profits made by the Maypole Dairy Co., Ltd., and various other big grocery concerns. Apart from these figures, the leaflet is grossly misleading. It assumes (without a shadow of proof) that working-class poverty is due to high prices, with the implication that low prices and working-class prosperity go hand in hand. Secondly, it admits that the Co-operative Societies have made profits of £220 million between 1913 and 1925, but does not attempt to explain in what respect Co-operative profits—drawn from the exploitation of Co-operative employees—differ from Maypole’s or Peark’s profits drawn from a similar source.

The Co-operative movement is part and parcel of the capitalist economic system, and as such is opposed by Socialists and should be exposed, not defended, by the L.R.D.

Co-Partnership and Profit-Sharing” (price 1d.) is a handy little summary of the progress of profit-sharing and co-partnership devices intended to obscure the class struggle. It presents a table showing how little of the income of certain well-known firms actually reaches the workers under the guise of a “share in profits.”

The Reform (!) of the Poor Law” (price 1d.), by John Scurr, is a denunciation of Conservative proposals to hand over the functions of Boards of Guardians to County Councils and County Boroughs, although he has to admit that “Labour policy has been directed in the same pathway” (page 12). The whole discussion reveals the barrenness of Labour Party reforms and the unsoundness of their theories. Does it really matter the least little bit to the working class whether property owners pay certain sums locally as rates or nationally as taxes? And is it not time to recognise that it is not the form of administrative machinery which counts, but the class interests of those who control it? While the capitalist class are in political control, no amount of words or parish council debating ability shown by Mr. Scurr and his party will prevent the capitalist class from using their administrative machinery to carry out their policies as they think fit. Mr. Scurr ends with the very revolutionary slogan. “Let our cry be, No further starvation of the poorest of the poor.” It is a pity he does not explain what degree of starvation is permissible, and why the rest of the poor are to be thrown to the lions. Will it ever dawn on these professed Socialists that Socialism really is the only remedy?
Edgar Hardcastle