Published in Commonweal in March 1885.
Forty years ago England stood face to face with a crisis, solvable to all appearance by force only. The immense and rapid development of manufactures had outstripped the extension of foreign markets and the increase of demand. Every ten years the march of industry was violently interrupted by a general commercial crash, followed, after a long period of chronic depression, by a few short years of prosperity, and always ending in feverish over production and renewed collapsed. The capitalist class clamoured for Free Trade in corn, and threatened to enforce it by sending the starving population of the towns back to the country districts, whence they came: to invade them, as John Bright said, not as paupers begging for bread, but as an army quartered upon the enemy. The working masses of the towns demanded their share of political power — the People’s Charter; they were supported by the majority of the small trading class, and the only difference between the two was whether the Charter should be carried out by physical or by moral force. Then came the commercial crash of 1847 and the Irish famine, and with both the prospect of revolution.
The French Revolution of 1848 saved the English middle class. The Socialistic pronunciamentoes of the victorious French workmen frightened the small middle class of England and disorganised the narrower, but more matter-of-fact, movement of the English working class. At the very moment Chartism was bound to assert itself in its full strength, it collapsed internally before even it collapsed externally on the 10th of April, 1848. The action of the working class was thrust into the background. The capitalist class triumphed along the whole line.
The Reform Bill of 1831 had been the victory of the whole capitalist class over the landed aristocracy. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the victory of the manufacturing capitalists not only over the landed aristocracy, but over those sections of capitalists too whose interests were more or less bound up with the landed interest; bankers, stock-jobbers, fundholders, etc. Free Trade meant the re-adjustment of the whole home and foreign commercial and financial policy of England in accordance with the interests of the manufacturing capitalists — the class which now represented the nation. And they set about this task with a will. Every obstacle to industrial production was mercilessly removed. The tariff and the whole system of taxation were revolutionised. Everything was made subordinate to one end, but that end of the utmost importance to the manufacturing capitalist: the cheapening of all raw produce, and especially of the means of living of the working class, reduction of the cost of raw material, and the keeping down — if not as yet the bringing down — of wages. England was to become the “workshop of the world”; all other countries were to become for England what Ireland already was — markets for her manufactured goods, supplying her in return with raw materials and food. England the great manufacturing centre of an agricultural world, with an ever-increasing number of corn and cotton-growing Irelands, revolving around her, the industrial sun. What a glorious project!
The manufacturing capitalists set about the realisation of this their great object with that strong common sense and that contempt for traditional principles which has ever distinguished them from their more narrow-minded compeers on the Continent: Chartism was dying out. The revival of commercial prosperity, natural after the revolution of 1847 had spent itself, was put down altogether to the credit of Free Trade. Both these circumstances had turned the English working class politically into the tail of the great Liberal party, the party led by the manufacturers. This advantage, once gained, had to be perpetuated. And the manufacturing capitalists, from the Chartist opposition not to Free Trade, but to the transformation of Free Trade into the one vital national question, had learnt and were learning more and more that the middle class can never obtain full social and political power over the nation except by the help of the working class. Thus a gradual change came over the relations between both classes. The Factory Acts, once the bugbear of all manufacturers, were not only willingly submitted to, but their expansion into acts regulating almost all trades, was tolerated. Trade Unions, lately considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more nefarious up to 1848, were gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves at their own time. Of the legal enactments, placing the workman at a lower level or at a disadvantage with regard to the master, at least the most revolting were repealed. And, practically, that horrid “People’s Charter” actually became the political programme of the very manufacturers who had opposed it to the last. “The Abolition of the Property Qualification” and “Vote by Ballot” are now the law of the land. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 make a near approach to “universal suffrage,” at least such as it now exists in Germany; the Redistribution Bill now before Parliament creates “equal electoral districts” — on the whole not more unequal than those of France or Germany; “payment of members” and shorter if not actually “annual parliaments” are visibly looming in the distance and yet, there are people who say that Chartism is dead.
The Revolution of 1848, not less than many of its predecessors, has had strange bedfellows and successors. The very people who put it down, have become as Karl Marx used to say, its testamentary successors. Louis Napoleon had to create an independent and united Italy, Bismark had to revolutionize Germany and to restore Hungarian independence and English manufacturers had to enact the People’s Charter.
For England, the effects of this domination of the manufacturing capitalists were at first sight startling. Trade revived and extended to a degree unheard of even in this cradle of modern industry; the previous astounding creations of steam and machinery dwindled into nothing compared with the immense mass of productions of the twenty years from 1850 to 1870, with the overwhelming figures of exports, and imports, of wealth accumulated in the hands of capitalists and of human working power concentrated in the large towns. The progress was indeed interrupted, as before, by a crisis every ten years, in 1857 as well us in 1868; but these revulsions were now considered as natural, inevitable events which must be fatalistically submitted to, and which always set themselves right in the end.
And the condition of the working class during this period? There was temporary improvement even for the great mass. But this improvement always was reduced to the old level by the influx of the great body of the unemployed reserve, by the constant superseding of hands by new machinery, by the immigration of the agricultural population, now, too, more and more superseded by machines.
A permanent improvement can be recognised for two “protected” sections only of the working class. Firstly, the factory hands. The fixing by Act of Parliament of their working day within relatively rational limits, has restored their physical constitution and endowed them with a moral superiority, enhanced by their local concentration. They are undoubtedly better off than before 1848. The best proof is that out of ten strikes they make, nine are provoked by the manufacturers in their own interests, as the only means of securing a reduced production. You can never get the masters to agree to work “short time,” let manufactured goods be ever so unsaleable; but get the workpeople to strike, and the masters shut their factories to a man.
Secondly, the great Trades’ Unions. They are the organisations of those trades in which the labour of grown-up men predominates, or is alone applicable. Here the competition neither of women and children nor of machinery has so far weakened their organised strength. The engineers, the carpenters and joiners, the bricklayers are each of them a power, to that extent that, as in the case of the bricklayers and bricklayers’ labourers, they can even successfully resist the introduction of machinery. That their condition has remarkably improved since 1848 there can be no doubt, and the best proof of this is in the fact that for more than fifteen years not only have their employers been with them, but they with their employers, upon exceedingly good terms. They form an aristocracy among the working class; they have succeeded in enforcing in enforcing for themselves a relatively comfortable position and they accept it as final. They are the model working men of Messrs Leone Levi and Giffen, and they are very nice people indeed nowadays to deal with, for any sensible capitalist in particular and for the whole capitalist class in general.
But as to the great mass of working people, the state of misery and insecurity in which they live now is a low as ever, if not lower. The East end of London is an over-spreading pool of stagnant misery and desolation, of starvation when out of work, and degradation, physical and moral, when in work. And so in all other largo towns — abstraction made of the privileged minority of the workers; and so in the smaller towns and in the agricultural districts. The law which reduces the value of labour-power to the value of the necessary means of subsistence, and the other law which reduces its average price as a rule to the minimum of those means of subsistence: these laws act upon, them with the irresistible force of an automatic engine, which crushes them between its wheels.
This then, was the position created by the Free Trade policies of 1847, and by twenty years of the rule of the manufacturing capitalists. But then a change came. The crash of 1868 was, indeed, followed by a slight and short revival about 1873; but that did not last. We did not, indeed, pass through the full crisis at the time it was due, in 1877 or 1878; but we have had, ever since 1876, a chronic state of stagnation in all the dominant branches of industry. Neither will the full crash come; nor will the period of longed-for prosperity to which we used to be entitled before and after it. A dull depression, a chronic glut of all markets for all trades, that is what we have been living in for nearly ten years. How is this?
The Free Trade theory was based upon one assumption: that England was to be the one great manufacturing centre of an agricultural world. And the actual fact is that this assumption has turned out to be a pure delusion. The conditions of modern industry, steam-power and machinery, can be established whereever there is fuel, especially coals. And other countries beside England: France, Belgium, Germany, America, even Russia, have coals. And the people over there did not see the advantage of being turned into Irish pauper farmers merely for the greater wealth and glory of English capitalists. They set resolutely about manufacturing, not only for themselves but for the rest of the world; and the consequence is that the manufacturing monopoly enjoyed by England for nearly a century is irretrievably broken up.
But the manufacturing monopoly of England is the pivot of the present social system of England. Even while that monopoly lasted the markets could not keep pace with the increasing productivity of English manufactures; the decennial crises were the consequence. And new markets are getting scarcer every day, so much so that even the negroes of the Congo are now to be forced into the civilisation attendant upon Manchester calicoes, Staffordshire pottery and Birmingham hardware. How will it be when Continental and, especially American goods, flow in ever increasing quantities — when the predominating share, still held by British manufactures, will become reduced from year to year? Answer, Free Trade, thou universal panacea?
I am not the first to point this out. Already, in 1883, at the Southport meeting of the British Association, Mr. Inglis Palgrave, The President of the Economical section, stated plainly that “the days of great trade profits in England were over, and there was a pause in the progress of several great branches of industrial labour. The country might almost be said to be entering the non-progressive state.”
But what is to be the consequence? Capitalist production cannot stop. It must go on increasing and expanding, or it must die. Even now the mere reduction of England’s lion’s share in the supply of the world’s markets means stagnation, distress, excess of capital here, excess of unemployed workmen there. What will it be when the increase of yearly production is brought to a complete stop?
Here is the vulnerable place, the heel of Achilles for capitalist production. Its very basis is the necessity for constant expansion, and this constant expansion now becomes impossible. It ends in a deadlock. Every year England is brought nearer face to face with the question: either the country must go to pieces, or capitalism must. Which is it to be?
And the working class? If even under the unparalleled commercial and industrial expansion, from 1848 to 1868, they have had to undergo such misery; if even the great bulk of them experienced at best a temporary improvement of their condition, while only a small, privileged “protected” minority was permanently benefited, what will it be when this dazzling period is brought finally to a close; when the present dreary stagnation shall not only become intensified, but this intensified condition shall become the permanent and normal state of British trade?
The truth is this: during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working-class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why, since the dying-out of Owenism, there has been no Socialism in England. With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working-class will lose that privileged position; it will find itself generally — the privileged and leading minority not excepted — on a level with its fellow-workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be Socialism again in England.