Under Roman Law, a loser at the ancient and popular gambling game of “knucklebones”, could sue and was entitled to have his losses returned. Certainly a case of “the good old days” so far as modern punters are concerned; but even the thought of such a law today is enough to make the bet-shop tycoons turn deathly pale.
However, the costermongers of London’s 1850’s could put to shame our modern bookmakers when it came to showing some humanity in the betting jungle. The Victorian journalist Mayhew told of an established custom among them of making a “present of four or five shillings to those whose losses were heavy”. He also reported that the street Piemen of that period, finding competition severe from the increasing number of pie shops, used to cry . . . “Toss or buy! Up and win ’em”, handing over a pie if their customer won, and receiving one penny without parting with a pie, if their customer lost the toss.
But the business of gambling today, far from being alien to the gambling of business, actually complements it and proof of this is to be found in the Stock Exchange quotes of various bookmaking firms “on ’change” who blossomed forth from the squalor and the illegality of the old back-street betting dens of Britain. So that, since the “hungry thirties”, gambling has developed into a large-scale social habit with crowded bet-shops, bingo halls, dog tracks, casinos and last but not least, horse racing, boosted by T.V., with half the female population joining in. All this human activity, animated by the sordid incentive of money-grubbing, merely mirrors that of the stock exchanges and marketplaces of capitalism and is quite natural to the prevailing mode of production, despite hypocritical and illogical protests from the hired Men of God who bolster King Capital’s Establishment.
Those who, like the pre-Victorian writer and reformer, Sydney Smith, wish to suppress what they term “vice” in the form of gambling, should take a long hard look at the real vice — capitalism itself, instead of wasting their time tinkering with society. But even Smith, in his long essay on “The Society for the Suppression of Vice” in the Edinburgh Review jibbed at the prevailing social hypocrisy:
The gambling houses of St. James remain untouched. The peer ruins himself and his family with impunity . . . It is not true, as urged by the Society, that the vices of the poor are carried on in houses of public resort, and those of the rich in their own houses. The Society cannot be ignorant of the innumerable gambling houses resorted to by men of fashion. Is there one they have suppressed, or even attempted to suppress ? Can anything be more despicable than distinctions such as these?
Nor, may we add, was it logical of Smith to make a distinction between gambling and business as though one was alien to the other! And whether the rich gambled in St. James, their own private apartments, Monte Carlo, or anywhere else makes no iota of difference to the working class. While the “opium of the people” — which Sydney Smith helped to perpetuate, did them far more damage than any game of Pitch & Toss! Failing to “see the wood for the trees” he believed that the ugly face of capitalism could be improved, that “God was in his heaven and the world was all right”.
An early attempt to introduce government sponsored gambling in the form of Premium Bonds was made in 1917. In that year Sir Ellis Hume-Williams formed a Premium Bond Committee in the House of Commons, which was debated and defeated a few years later. As he remarked in his autobiography.
Of course my chief opponent was Sir Robert Kindersley who quite honestly — and I think rightly — feared that Premium Bonds would injure the flow of money to his War Savings Certificates. It so happened that we had never met, but in the winter after it was all over we found ourselves seated opposite each other at the very mild Chemin-de-fer tables at the Cannes Casino and a battle royal between us ensued.(The World, the House and the Bar)
Note that there is no mention here of any police harassment of these two members of the élite for their gambling activities, such as the Black Maria raids on the back-street gambling dens of Britain where members of the working class dared to indulge in the Sport of Kings, until the siege was finally lifted and betting for the wage-enslaved majority became “respectable”.
With football pools’ dividends reaching ever-new highs, gambling continues to boom like the quack remedies described by Marx and Engels:
Just as medical miracle workers and miraculous cures are made possible by ignorance of the laws of the natural world, social miracle workers and miraculous social cures thrive upon ignorance of the laws of the social world.
Speculation in stocks and shares is a characteristic of a gambling society like capitalism, and bankruptcies are another ! Even men like Pascal, who formulated a theory of probability (and who was known as . . . “the gamblers friend”), or Carl Frederick Gauss, nineteenth century German mathematician who “loved to calculate as a Soprano loves to hold high C” would be helpless to remove the gambling element from the anarchy of production for profit.
So, let us take a tip from Marx, and ignoring those miraculous social cures get wise to the laws of the social world within the ranks of the World Socialist Movement.
G. R. Russell