Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Party System. And why the workers received the franchise. (1914)

From the June 1914 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Necessity for the Party System.
“In every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch.”
The frequency with which working-class questions are brought before Parliament to-day goes far to prove this scientific truth, so far as its political application is concerned. Industrial questions and disputes occupy an increasing amount of Parliamentary time. Working-class problems as they affect the capitalist, become more insistent and call for more attention from their representatives on the executive body. How to deal with the growing “unrest” is fast becoming the chief problem before Parliament, and mere party questions sink into insignificance beside it.

The inability of politicians to work up issues that will obscure the line of cleavage between the two classes in society, becomes more apparent daily.

Without friction the party system must necessarily be a failure. For although every party question ends in a compromise, both sides carry on the sham fight as though complete victory were of vital importance to them. The working class have to be deluded into the belief that the fight is real, and that they are concerned in it. A compromise effected, a new Act or Budget passed, without being first staged, without the “exciting scenes, noisy incidents and protracted debates”, would be an opportunity lost of deluding the workers. Without friction and agitation the workers cannot be divided to ensure their united support for capitalism – but one of the many inherent contradictions of capitalist society.

“Politics”, says Edward Jenks, “is the business of government”. In other words, politics is the art of keeping a slave class in subjection.

This business of government is really more of an art than most people imagine. The most arbitrary rulers of the Middle Ages could not rule exactly as they chose. Slaves, no matter how docile, hold fast to ideas and customs which their rulers are, in the main, compelled to recognise

Increasing Difficulties of the Capitalist Class.
When a system advances toward its disintegration, the forces encountered by the ruling class demand greater cunning, resource, and courage to cope with them – just the qualities they have allowed to decay while revelling in fancied security. The revolution of the capitalist class in England and France against the monarchy and nobility found the latter muddled and weak – the result of generations of vice and debauchery.

In like manner, the capitalist class to-day cannot supply the brains to carry on the business of government. They have to breed or encourage professional politicians from the class beneath them. The days of their “directing ability” passed with the manufacturing period. The introduction of power-driven machinery, and the growth of limited companies stripped them of their last economic function, and left them without the necessity to struggle. That they are forced to requisition fresh blood from outside their class to fight against the awakening working class proclaims the rapid progress of their senile decay.

The ruling class of our day is a parasitic organism devouring the substance produced by the working class. It is an organism within an organism, and is compelled to adapt itself to its surroundings. It rules, and yet is governed by its environment, and restricted by the limitations of the system it imposes, and the principles it is compelled to adopt.

Compelled to Confer the Franchise.
How the capitalist class were compelled to confer the franchise, and must continually extend it, is shown by the position in Russia during the past few years, where the constitutional question is not even yet fought out. There is no pretence of giving the workers the vote because it is their right, or because it will benefit them. It is given merely because it means an improved form of government. M. Shingareff in the Budget debate said: “Our Government is strangely opposing itself to the all-powerful spirit of the times. It has no organic union with the country, and with its own hands is digging an abyss between the population and the administration”.

Stability is the object to be attained, and the capitalists of Russia look with envy on the English form of government because it possesses that quality in a greater degree than their own government by oligarchy.

Those Ministers and politicians here who realise the value of the party system, speak their minds when it is in any way threatened. When, in 1910, a Liberal finance bill was in danger of mutilation by the House of Lords, Mr. Lloyd George told the opposition they were not playing the game, and that “If the party system were destroyed, the class line must become the line of demarcation”.

Again, in 1909 he said: “Is it not a real advantage to the country that there should be two great parties, each capable in turn of providing responsible administration for the service of the Crown? How much better our system of government, as worked upon this balance, than in those countries where there is a permanent governing class, with all those interests of wealth and privilege massed around them, keeping the rest of their fellow-countrymen in sullen subjection by force of arms”.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Lord Haldane, at the Royal Academy Banquet, referred to the growing education of the working class and the danger of allowing affairs to drift: the crisis could be forestalled by broadening the basis of the Constitution so as to give it stability.

How our masters yearn for stability as their “cheap and nasty” system evolves! But the sands are shifting beneath their feet – the Rock of Ages is not only cleft, but barren.

Party politics are like the murky fluid ejected by certain denizens of the deep – they only conceal for a time. When capitalist interests are threatened by the workers both parties reveal themselves as one class.

That one man should have formulated the principles for both sides in the Parliamentary game is significant, and strengthens the conviction that it is but a game – mutually arranged – after all.

Edmund Burke, says Trevelyan, quoting from Moore’s Life of Sheridan, “has left behind him two separate and distinct armouries of opinion, from which both Whig and Tory may furnish themselves with weapons, the most splendid, if not the most highly tempered, that ever genius and eloquence have condescended to bequeath to party”.

His genius was needed. Capitalist domination was scarcely established before it was in difficulties; Burke, according to Lecky, was its saviour. In vol. III, History of the Eighteenth Century, he says: “It was necessary, in the face of the mass of discontent which was smouldering in the nation, and the growing corruption and inefficiency of Parliament, that each party should have a distinct line of policy. As time went on, these lines, as we shall see, became clearer, and the writings of Burke probably contributed more than any other single influence to define them.”

An Old Fraud with a New Face.
It is the continual boast of modern politicians that we live in a democratic State. When they say “we” they mean, of course, the ruling class. They see to it that neither King, lords, nor demagogues filch their “democratic” rights. But the so-called democracy conferred on the working class is not a semblance even of the real thing. Two thousand years ago Athens boasted in similar fashion of the democratic State, and the chief principle of the Athenians was that while there existed one man in the community who suffered in justice through the operation of the State laws, the others should not rest until his wrongs had been righted. An injury to one held possibilities of injury to all. But beneath this free and high-principled class was another class, chattel-slaves to them, who had no rights but what were willed to them by their owners.

This same description applies to the working class of to-day. They are driven into the workshops of the capitalist by hunger. They must sell their labour-power for what it costs them to live. When the capitalist has no market for the products of their labour they are driven out again – to starve. The over-crowded labour market is the spur to increased activity inside the workshops; greater concentration and efficiency are called for by the masters and easily obtained. Competition and unemployment haunt the modern worker like a nightmare, and every year bring him more helplessly under the control of the capitalist, who dictates all the hum-drum details that go to make up the wage slave’s wretched existence.

Liberal or Tory – what a choice for those who are robbed by both alike and left poor under either! This, they say, is democracy! It is the limit in impudence; the last word in bare-faced hypocrisy. “Millions of workers are stripped of everything but the bare necessities of life”, says Winston Churchill; of what use is a vote to these, when they can only give it back to those who gave it them – the capitalists?

The vote they were compelled to give, though they made a virtue out of necessity and said they gave it because they loved the principles of democracy. But no matter how they got them, the workers have far more votes than their masters. With the knowledge of their slave-position and the courage to organise, these votes can be used as the means to their emancipation. The capitalist class cannot abjure what they have established. The vote was given to secure their own domination; if they discard it they lose control and have no sanction to govern.

By constitutional methods the workers can win their freedom; they have no need to go outside the Constitution until they finally destroy it. So the party system together with the franchise – established because they promised stability – pave the way for working-class victory.

Real democracy will come with Socialism; when the game of party bluff has been played for the last time to unresponsive workers – when the latter are busy with their own interests, determined to enjoy the full results of their labour. The party system will be exposed as a fraud, consciously practised by the ruling class in their own interest. Its records will go down to posterity as curiosities, and future generations may read them and marvel that a working class, sunk in poverty and anarchy, could forget, even for a moment, their own wretchedness, while they voted this way or that on questions that concerned their masters alone.
F. Foan

Blogger's Note:
The quote at the top of the article is from Engels' introduction to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto.

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

That's the June 1914 issue of the Socialist Standard done and dusted.