Monday, June 6, 2022

Poverty and Food (1941)

Book Review from the November 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Englishman's food : a history of five centuries of English diet by J. C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham (Jonathan Cape, 12s. 6d.)

Blessed be ye Poor (Luke vi. 20).
J. C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham make a notable contribution to Social Science in their book “The Englishman’s Food” (Jonathan Cape, 12s. 6d.). The general reader will appreciate its vigorous and clear treatment and apt illustrations, the student its wealth of duly documented references, while the Socialist will find a rich mine to quarry. Its main theme is to be found on page 484: “Most of them (the poor) did not even get enough food to satisfy their hunger; in nine cases out of ten, sheer poverty was the cause.”

* * * *

Dives and Lazarus.
It is the same hideous tale throughout the ages, and on the whole the wage slave has suffered more than the chattel slave from under-nutrition; gluttony and guzzling have characterised sections of the governing class no less under modern Capitalism than under Roman Imperialism. The cartoon opposite page 259, “A Lord Mayor’s Banquet,” may remind readers of Herbert Morrison’s tears for a blitzed Guildhall, which our County Hall tribune associated with noble fights against tyranny ! The dietary given for workhouse inmates in the nineteenth century on page 264 is a fitting contrast, where “same” occurs with damning iteration, and the changes are rung on broth, dumplings, and treacle.

* * * *

Noblesse oblige !
Wholesale exploitation eked out by petty thievery is clearly indicated in Chapter 17; some of the facts recorded will be an eye-opener. “When his own stocks were short, the Lord of the Manor seldom hesitated to draw upon the poor man’s reserve. Usually this amounted to confiscation. Piers Plowman described the plight of one left with nothing but a worthless ‘tally’ in exchange for the goods removed.” They order these things better to-day, our Lords of the Manor, with their retinue of “economists.” The smaller thieves, it is true, occasionally had a slim time, as “The Fraudulent Baker,” reproduced from an early MSS., grimly portrays, but, be it noted, the Lord of the Manor was almost as nearly touched by the baker’s fraud as the serf or tenant farmer.

* * * *

Patriotism and Profit.
Petty thievery attained bigger and bigger stature, until, under fully fledged Capitalism, it assumed the rank of the Order of Minor Brigandage, and was officially recognised and blessed by the Liberal hero, John Bright, who recognised Adulteration as a form of Competition. Chapter 17 will repay careful reading.

“In 1852, the public was shocked to learn of the proportion of tins supplied to the Navy which, on being opened, were found to contain putrid meat . . . unprincipled manufacturers utilised all sorts of unsavoury materials in preparing their products” (page 555). Since the Crimean War, a huge number of attempted safeguards, extending to and amplified in the present war, have sought to protect the armed forces of the nation against patriots who grace boards of directors;—it is at least unfortunate that to-day the office of Government watch-dog and profit maker are not altogether dissevered.

* * * *

Benevolent Fagins.
The Boer War effected more than the compulsory union of Dutch and British exploitation of the unfortunate African native; it brought home to the governing class the necessity of conserving Labour Power to meet the exigencies both of industry and of war under modern conditions. As a result of Government enquiry, reluctantly undertaken, it was found that “the public which had rejoiced vicariously in the triumphs of the football field and cycle track were discouraged to learn that of those who wished to serve their country in the day of trial a startling number were found physically unfit to carry a rifle” (quoted on p. 484). The Commiittee “tended to give greater attention to such factors as overcrowding, bad sanitation, alcoholism, ignorance, etc., than to what was, in fact, by far the most important cause, SEMI-STARVATION DUE TO SHEER POVERTY.” Since that period, milk in schools, infant welfare, vitamins, carrot juice. The “expectant mother” was discovered— the working class father is still left in a blurr of uncomfortable and perplexed “expectancy.”

* * * *

Limping Reform.
Page 539 affords a striking example of how Capitalism, twist and turn how it may, is itself dogged and thwarted by inherent contradictions and nasty snags. Stockton-on-Tees removed a foul slum, and settled its inmates on a relatively decent estate. Surprisingly enough, the death-rate increased under the new conditions; enquiries made it clear that attempts to throw the products of poverty out of the windows will only result in them coming in at the doors in other guises. “The move to the new estate had involved the tenants in larger rents, which had been just sufficient to reduce their purchase of the most nutritious foods.” It is worth noting that one year on the estate recorded 3.2 per cent, as against an average slum percentage of 1.4 previously.

Exigencies of space forbid further references to the many good things in this highly interesting book, but the quaint picture reproduced on page 182 is too precious to pass by. A German artist of the 15th century presents a Madonna holding the hand of the Child whose limbs clearly betray Rickets. Hans Burgkmair took this then very prevalent infantile evidence of malnutrition for granted. Science to-day has made its complete abolition possible; children of the working-class alone to-day suffer from Rickets, a Poverty afflication. Lean Rickets and Swinish Gout mingle in the ghostly Dance of Death staged by Capitalism. The establishment of Socialism alone can ensure the utter and complete annihilation of Poverty, with its attendant horrors; Socialism alone can create the Carefree Madonna and the Happy Healthy Child.
Augustus Snellgrove

Editorial: News from New Zealand (1941)

Editorial from the November 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard

How the workers fare under Labour Government.
Mr. W. Holmes, General Secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, former President of the Trades Union Congress, has paid a visit to New Zealand, and contributes to the “Landworker” (October, 1941) an article on his impressions. He calls it “New Zealand: A Workers’ State. A Triumph of Labour and Democracy.” He is, of course, chiefly concerned with the economic and social changes that have taken place since the Labour Party took over the government in 1935.

An earlier account of New Zealand’s Labour Government was published in this country by the Labour Party in 1937. It was called “New Zealand’s Progress under Socialism.”

Both the article and the Labour Party pamphlet contain a description of the achievements of the Labour Government, and an indication of what else it aims to achieve, but neither the things done nor the things promised give any warrant for the use of the terms “Workers’ State” and “Socialism.” New Zealand is not a country in which the able-bodied non-worker has no place. Property incomes from the ownership of land or industrial capital are still the rule. Goods are still produced by the working class but owned by the capitalist class. Inequality of wealth may possibly have decreased; it has certainly not been abolished. Nor is it the intention of the Labour Party to abolish capitalism and introduce a system based on common ownership.

There is therefore no justification for claiming that Socialism is in being. That is the first quarrel the Socialist has with the supporters of Labourism; and it is not merely a dispute about words. Progress towards Socialism is not helped but hindered by propaganda which represents as Socialism what is no more than Labour Party administration of Capitalism.

The Other Side of the Picture.
Mr. Holmes, though he says, “Long life and increasing success” to the Labour Government of New Zealand, has not been swept off his feet by what he saw. He praises—but he also makes comparisons between life under Labour Government and life under frankly Capitalist Government. Sometimes his praises contain comparisons that he does not appreciate, and here we will help him out. Now for a few of his illuminating remarks. “The New Zealand Workers’ Union organises the country workers, and has already secured excellent arbitration awards for shearers, musterers, packers, and drovers; while the dairy workers are also covered by awards; but the ordinary farm and station workers are difficult to organise, and their conditions are not much better than those of the British farm workers.”

So it is obvious that in this “Workers’ State” the workers are not in ownership and control. They must still organise and struggle for livelihood, and the ordinary farm workers are not much better off than their brothers in this country agitating in vain for a wage of £3 a week !

Mr. Holmes searched for the reason for this state of affairs, and quotes a New Zealand Trade Union official as follows: —
“The present economic position of New Zealand farming could not support the introduction of trade union awards and conditions throughout the whole industry.”
Mr. Holmes, when he heard this plea about depressed industry and “the employers can’t afford to pay,” must have felt that he had made his journey of thousands of miles only to find things remarkably like they are at home.

Many Labour Party supporters have an answer to all such pleas. “Let the State take over the industry,” they say, “and then it will be run efficiently and will be able to pay higher wages.” Mr. Holmes probably shares this view, for he remarks: “I visited many workshops connected with railways, which belong to the nation, and saw the great strides they are making in war production. I also visited the State timber works and the State flax mills which have recently been established. There are also State mines and State forests.”

Again we shall have to recall the wanderer from the Antipodes and ask him to notice that here in Britain we have our State capitalist Postal, Telegraph and Telephone services, and they, too, are steadfast to resist when higher wages are demanded. Quite a number of the Post Office employees would like to get the £3 minimum which Mr. Holmes’ Union is trying to obtain for land-workers.

Mr. Holmes inspected housing schemes in New Zealand, for one of the Labour Party’s promises was good houses “at low rentals.” But he finds that “the housing of the country people is not very good” and “the rents are rather heavier than in England.” He notices, too, that the New Zealand Government, when it goes into the business of building houses and renting them to the workers, ”expects to get about 5 per cent. on its outlay.” Mr. Holmes apparently did not ask why they required any interest at all.

As regards the cost of living in general, “food seems to be about the same price as in England, but clothes and boots are dearer.” These are factors to be allowed for when making comparison between the higher levels of wages in New Zealand.

He gives an imposing list of social reforms introduced by the Labour Government, including old-age pensions of 30s. a week, children’s allowances, and free hospital treatment, but rather knocks the gilt off when he adds: “Of course, all these things have to be paid for, and there is a direct tax of 10 per cent. on all wages.”

Still a Capitalist World.
Some defenders of the Labour Party, faced with the above criticisms of Labour Government at work, will readily abandon the claim that New Zealand is a “Workers’ State” or has achieved Socialism. They will retort, however, that, apart from this, the criticism is unfair since it does not allow for the fact that in a capitalist world New Zealand must remain capitalist, and that capitalism places limits to the improvement of the workers’ standard of life. Socialists do not dispute this. We do not argue that Labour Governments fail in their task of administering capitalism through want of will or bad faith. They may be well-intentioned but the road to capitalist crises and capitalist war is paved with the good intentions of social reformers.

Work of National Importance (1941)

From the November 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard

In The Tatler and Bystander (October 1st, 1941), Bridget Chetwynd, in her “Social-Roundabout,” reported the following: “Mrs. Paul Willert (who was Brenda Pearson) gave a wonderful dinner party for Air Force people stationed in Regent’s Park. She has a darling little house in Chelsea, into which she fitted incredibly many people, and gave them glorious lobsters, with mayonnaise made by herself, cold chicken, fruit and cake, and there were big stone kegs of beer. Young women being amused by the chaps included Miss Duff, Mrs. Pamela Tiarks, Miss Jean Nicoll and Miss Eve Fayne.”

Contrast that irresponsible nonsense with statements made in the House of Commons during a debate on the food question. Mr. Griffiths, speaking of the conditions in the mines in South Wales, said (Daily Telegraph, October 4th): —
“Three hundred men were observed for a week during the investigation in a coal mine in his constituency. One hundred of them could only bring in their ‘tommy-boxes’ plain bread and cheese with unsugared tea to support them during eight hours’ work. Some of the remainder were able to bring jam, some butter and some vegetables from their gardens. Unless steps are taken to provide these men with more adequate food, it is not physically possible for them to perform the tasks the nation is demanding of them.”
Mr. Griffiths also championed the interests of the steel workers in South Wales. “… Investigation in steel works showed,” he said, “that many of the workers had lost weight during the summer months—some as much as two stone. What they need is cheese, butter, and, in particular, more sugar.”

Major Lloyd George, in reply to the modest demands of Mr. Griffiths, said: “As to the supplementary rations for industrial workers, the Government intended to maintain their policy of allowing the maximum rations for all consumers generally rather than give a supplementary ration to a particular class.”

Oh, quite! Oh, quite ! The miners and the steel workers are not, of course, rationed in the quantity of lobster, cold chicken and other delicacies. They could, of course, buy them just like Mrs. Paul Willert (who was Brenda Pearson). Mr. Griffiths also knows this too. But, like us, he knows that they cannot afford them.

We wonder whether the “Air Force people” purred their approval of the party at Regent’s Park so unctuously as the society gossip writer. Or did they wonder why in these days when even the very rich are reduced by income tax to a mere thousand or two a year . . . that there are still people who can throw a party which costs the equivalent of probably many workers’ wages.
J. Cuthbertson

Letters: Are Cheap Imports a Concern of the Workers? (1941)

Letters to the Editors from the November 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard
We have received the following letter from the Duke of Bedford criticising the article “A Few Words on the Atlantic Charter,” published in our October issue:
“Wigtownshire, Oct. 18th, 1941.


In your October issue you raise the question of the threat to Agriculture provided by cheap foreign imports raised in a climate more favourable to agricultural production than our own. In view of the fact that we live in a labour-destroying age, I feel that we need to modify profoundly the whole of our thinking on the question of cheap imports, realising that the true purpose of both industry and commerce is not to provide work, but to provide real wealth in the form of desired goods and services. The close association of work with the right to receive an income has led us to attach too much importance to employment and far too little to the provision of adequate incomes for all citizens, whether they are employed, or, through no fault of their own, unemployed.

The policy of excluding cheap imports with the object of assisting a home industry inflicts an injury on three sets of people in the effort to help one, and is, therefore, not sound policy.

The restriction of imports of cheap goods is an injury to consumers; an injury to the men in our export trade whose goods indirectly “buy” the imports; and an injury to the foreigner who may need our exports but cannot obtain them if we refuse to buy his exports.

If imports are cheap, under a rational system which recognises that foreign trade should have the fundamental nature of barter, it simply means that the foreigner is able to send us a large quantity of goods in return for a comparatively small quantity of our own, and this, if we did not live under the economics of Bedlam, should be an advantage to us and not a drawback. Under the present system, the snag of course is that if cheap imports put people out of work in one of our home industries, the unemployed will not be able to buy the cheap imports— and other articles—low-priced though they be. But why should such a ridiculous state of affairs be tolerated ? If the goods are there for the unemployed to buy and the unemployed are out of work through no fault, or culpable indolence, of their own, why in the name of reason should new money not be created and given to them to enable them to buy the goods and enjoy a decent standard pf living ! Such money would not be inflationary because there would be the cheap imports behind it to back it and give it value and, seeing that it would be new money created not in the form of debt, and not existing money obtained by taxation, no one else’s standard of living would have been lowered in order to assist the unemployed.
Yours very truly,

It is obvious that our correspondent has not at all understood the article that he criticises. We are concerned with abolishing the Capitalist system and replacing it with Socialism, not with the question of solving the insoluble contradictions of Capitalism. The purpose of mentioning one of its contradictions, the conflict between the agricultural capitalist who wants protection and the industrial capitalist who wants cheap imported food because that means lower money wages, was to show the difficulty in which the Labour Party or any other party finds itself when it tries to administer capitalism.

There are many points in the letter deserving of reply. For reasons of space it is only possible to touch briefly on some of them.

Our correspondent writes of “the true purpose” of industry and commerce, implying that there is a true purpose which is not the actual purpose. This is a meaningless statement. The purpose that industry and commerce have can only be the purpose of those who own and control them, and as ownership and control are vested in a small part of the population, the owners of landed, industrial and commercial capital, their purpose is the only one and that purpose is not the provision of wealth for the population but the purpose of deriving an income from their ownership. Different sections of the propertied class have different interests in the question of cheap imported food, but the working class as a whole have no such interest. Broadly speaking, their money wages rise and fall with rises and falls in their cost of living. Their interest lies in abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and distribution.

Our correspondent sees a “close association of work with the right to receive an income.” This is only true of the working class. The propertied class do not enjoy their incomes because they work but because they own the means of production and distribution and own the whcle of the products of industry. The reason why the workers, employed and unemployed, cannot have and consume more of the goods that are produced is not the one given by our correspondent, that “cheap imports put people out of work,” but that the owners of the means of production and distribution are the owners of the products and are not primarily interested in any other question than selling them at a profit.

Like many other defenders of Capitalism who think they can solve Capitalism’s contradictions by currency juggling, our correspondent writes in amazement that his fellow property owners do not see what appears to him to be a solution. He is mistaken. They know at least a little better than he does what would be the consequences of his proposal of “creating” new money and giving it to the unemployed. If the penalty of semi-starvation through unemployment were to be removed, the workers would be in a position to wreck the wages system through which the propertied class are able to live on the backs of the wealth producers. Our correspondent may consider his fellow property owners are being ridiculous, but they know they are safeguarding their privileged position.

In conclusion, let us repeat that we are Socialists, and our purpose is to achieve Socialism, under which system goods will be produced solely for use and there will be no rent, interest or profit.
Editorial Committee.