Friday, June 24, 2022

Population and Social Progress (1942)

From the June 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Fashions in social theory are as changeable as fashions in clothes. During peace-time industrial depressions, when unemployment is rife, the advocates of birth control come into favour with their theory that unemployment is due to an excessive population; but when war is the order of the day the urgent demand for man-power and the fear that other nations are becoming numerically stronger and therefore more formidable as military powers gives a chance to those who preach the need for more children. And just as clothes are fashioned to suit the taste, occupation and purses of different groups of people so also with population theories, as witness the unmarried of both sexes who urge the poor to have large families, the wealthy parasites who brazenly support the argument that large families are the cause of poverty and the Eugenists who want the rich to be fruitful and multiply and the poor to curtail their devastating torrent of children. In 1913 Mr. Allan G. Roper, B.A., in his “Ancient Eugenics,” could write of the “reckless propagation” of the “lower classes,” but now the Government and numerous propaganda bodies are considering family allowances and other devices to encourage a more reckless spirit among working-class husbands and wives in order to stop the threatened decline of the population.

There has been much inquiry into the remedy for the problem and much into the cause of the decline, but most of it is marred by an inability to recognise fully the nature of the capitalist system of society in which we live. The inquiry starts with the fact that since 1870 the birth rate has declined from 34 per 1,000 to 15 per 1,000; only partly offset by a decline of the death-rate per 1,000 from 21 to 13. For many weeks all sorts of learned and other persons have written to the Times offering to explain why this has happened. Among the varied suggestions are the following : The spread of knowledge about birth-control methods, the increased employment of women in factories and offices, the growth of unemployment, the failure to provide adequate housing accommodation at low rents, the decline of religion, the fear of war, and lastly, the new milling processes which in the seventies popularised white bread and consequently robbed the population of the elements in wholemeal flour which made for greater fertility—we are told that this alleged deficiency will be counteracted by the new national loaf.

The reader can examine these claims in the light of his or her own experience and knowledge. One thing, however, that is undeniable, is that many working class men and women looking at their life and prospects under capitalism are reluctant to have as large families as their parents and grandparents. Economic insecurity and war play their part in this attitude and also the recognition that young children stand in the way of activities outside the home, whether recreations and amusements, or taking part in organised activities, including those of political parties. For women of the working class it is difficult if not impossible to have the care of young children and at the same time to take an intelligent interest and share in the work of a political party. Another factor of course is that the parents feel that if they are to give their children “a better chance in the world” than they had it is necessary to limit the number, and it is to this feeling that the advocates of family allowances make their strongest appeal. They argue that wages are inadequate for the maintenance of a family, therefore an additional 5s. a week given in respect of each child would raise the standard of living and encourage larger families. Let us examine a typical statement of the case, that contained in a leaflet, “Family Allowances and the Labour Movement,” issued by the Family Allowances Labour Group.

Their statement is “that wages are in many cases too low to support more than one or two children; that therefore the greatest source of poverty in this country is the possession of young children.” Put in that form it appears plausible enough. Ask a worker if he would be better off if he were relieved of the cost of supporting his children he would naturally reply yes ! Meaning, of course, that he would be better off provided that his wages remained unchanged and he received children’s allowances in addition. But the same argument could be used, and has been used, about other items of working class expenditure. There are those who have maintained for years that the greatest cause of working class poverty is high rents, so they advocated rent restriction or subsidised State housing. What has been the result ? Wages have adjusted themselves to changes in rents. In spite of the rent restriction acts during the past 28 years, working class poverty has not been materially lessened. In Vienna and other cities where rents were much reduced it was established by independent inquiry that wages followed suit. Agricultural labourers have very low rents, 3s. or 4s. a week, but their wages were also the lowest of any industry, and now that their wages have been raised to 60s. at once a movement is on foot to charge “economic” rents.

What about food ? Would not the worker be better off with free food? Mr. Fred Montague, M.P., opposes family allowances and states a case for an alternative proposal, that of spending a like sum of money in providing free milk and bread (Manchester Guardian, May 13th, 1942). Here again the workers’ problem would not be fundamentally different from what it is now. They would still have to struggle to maintain a given level of wages, with the certainty that such a cheapening of the cost of living would encourage a tendency for wages to fall. Are domestic servants, agricultural labourers and others who get board and lodging as part of wages better off than other workers who do not ?

We need not dispute that family allowances, or free food, or low rents, would probably be a gain to some sections of the workers on very small wages. And for a time to all workers with dependent children. But it would still leave the workers in the position of having to struggle unceasingly to maintain their standards, still faced with the permanent insecurity that is their lot under capitalism.

The basic argument of the above mentioned Family Allowance Group is false. The greatest source of poverty is not the possession of young children. Are there not hundreds of thousands of single men and women and childless families in dire poverty ? Are all our surtax payers celibate ? Were agricultural labourers on their pre-war average wage of 34s. only poor through having young children ? Will not the mass of the workers still be poor if they get family allowances and even if they were able to keep up the level of wages as well ? The source of poverty is the capitalist system which simultaneously prevents the maximum production of articles needed by the workers, entails enormous waste, and endows the propertied class with a large part of the wealth produced. The cure for this is Socialism, not family allowances or subsidised food or rents.

Socialism also offers the only cure for the problem of a declining population by removing poverty, economic insecurity, and the fear of war. It will also dispose of the problem which worries the eugenists. When Mr. Roper and others say that their problem is “the diminishing numbers of the upper classes and the rapid multiplication of the lower,” they overlook the fact that that problem too will disappear when there is no longer an upper and a lower class, a capitalist class and a working class. In their minds, of course, is an assumption that there is some innate, inherited, superior quality in the “upper classes,” but the truth is, as has been well said, that there is nothing wrong with the poor except their poverty. Indeed, if the eugenists take to heart one lesson of this war, the way in which things have been bungled by a considerable proportion of our ruling class civil and military notabilities, even they must now wonder whether the “upper class” are superior in anything but their wealth.
Edgar Hardcastle

Will the Workers Learn? (1942)

From the June 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard 

We can tell you the answer in a moment. They will learn. And there are abundant reasons for thinking so. But there are others who hold a contrary view. These gentlemen constitute two schools of thought. One group says that the workers are mentally incapable of ever understanding Socialist ideas, and the other group believes that there is something defective in Socialist propaganda. They say that our appeal lacks colour and vigour, in short, imagination. For example, we do not paint pretty pictures of what life will be under Socialism, the changes in domestic life, personal habits, social customs, architecture, music and art. Now, of course, we are aware that a system of production solely for use will make human society quite different from what it is now, but we obviously cannot sketch the details, It would be foolish to assume that we could accurately foretell the detailed reactions of the majority of people to the conditions of a Socialist society. In fact, we cannot say that everything will be perfect, that there will be no problems to solve, and no difficulties to settle. What we do say, and say it continuously, is, that in present society no problems may be solved, and no adjustments made, without first giving due consideration for the interests of a class of property owners. That only in a classless society will these hindrances be removed, and the way thrown open for development and improvement, and that there will be no poverty problem. We offer Socialism to the working class as a simple and practical solution to certain problems that face them. These problems are serious, and they become more and more urgent with time. The workers are faced with increasing insecurity set in a background of poverty and unhappiness. They are compelled to endure the kind of poverty that injures their health, and puts them into premature graves, half-starved or completely starved. This, mark you, in the so-called rich countries where the workers are said to consume larger quantities of nutritious food than the unfortunate workers in other countries that are not so prosperous. Remember that we are told that the workers of America and England drive their own cars, live in their own houses and that they bring home heavier wage packets than the miserable work beasts of Germany, Italy and Japan, not to mention the teeming millions of “over-populated” India and China. It is true that the workers in some countries eat more meat, but eating-more meat, particularly the embalmed variety, is no more indicative of happiness and good health than buying a car on the H.P. is evidence of economic security !

Many workers support the war because they believe that the imperial wealth in their employers’ hands allows them a much better standard of life and that the loss of this wealth would place them at a disadvantage. Now if it is true that German capitalism was too impoverished to allow the workers in that country higher wages and better social services, how can one explain its tremendous military power? It was estimated in 1939 that the Nazi Government had spent something like £6,000,000,000 in military expansion. Surely manna from heaven !

Japan, another “poor” and “over-populated” country, has maintained armies in China for four years, and is now strong enough to overrun strongholds in the Far East, even if only temporarily. This was accomplished by a superiority in machines. Quite obviously, men with empty stomachs cannot fight wars, nor can they work in armament factories. In order to produce the same tanks and planes as the workers in this country they have to be maintained in approximately the same degree of efficiency. In all of these “have not” countries there are groups of wealthy people who are engaged in the war with the one object of increasing their wealth because they feel that they are strong enough to do it.

The fact is glaring. The world is rich in untapped resources. Its mineral wealth is incalculable. Many more acres of land could be placed under cultivation. More factories could be built. And there are millions of men and women expending their energies in unproductive work who could easily do something useful. Socialism would make this possible. Why then do the workers turn a deaf ear to the message of the Socialist?

The question can only be answered by taking a long view. The workers are a comparatively young class, hardly out of their swaddling clothes, even in England. The vast countries of the East, with their great resources, have merely been scratched by capitalism. It is only in the last twenty years that Russia has begun to develop its agriculture and industry along modern lines.

In fact, it is only in America, Europe and the British Dominions that there exists, at present, the economic foundations on which Socialism could be established. It would be difficult to find means of measuring whether working class political development is slow or fast, but there is certainly not a shred of evidence to indicate that the workers will never understand their class position. They have definitely made very useful progress. They are enfranchised and educated slaves. They read and write, and they produce complicated instruments of great ingenuity. They have a knowledge of organisation and administration.

Darwin has shown that even animals will learn from painful experience. Men also learn from experience, perhaps more rapidly.

If the great majority of mankind were incapable of absorbing ideas, learning from their mistakes, and adapting themselves to changing conditions, then present development would never have appeared. But men fear the future. They cling tenaciously to outworn institutions until it becomes clear to them that these institutions have to be abolished if life is to become tolerable for them. The people who say that the workers will never understand Socialism are always anxious to emphasise that the capitalists are well aware of their own position in society. But if their theory is sound why should this be so? What is it that makes the capitalists conscious of their interests in apposition to the workers? They certainly do not possess a more than average capacity for abstract thought. But they to have something which the workers lack. They possess centuries of accumulated experience behind them. They have learned their lesson. The workers have yet a larger field of experience to investigate before they learn their own lesson.