« ZurückWeiter »
themselves to a third-class, labor leaders to a first-class, compartment.
Everyday life teems with such visible signs of the tendency toward the obliteration of former distinctions; anyone who looks can see it. Indeed, it is so obvious that those who maintain the obsolete theory of a widening gulf have to close their eyes to avoid seeing patent facts.
But the appetite grows with what it feeds on. Each rise in the standard of living and social status becomes a starting-point for a further advance, which is actively entered upon when a new generation, with fresh aspirations, has gained sufficient strength, by the cumulative effect of growing up while the old dies off, to make the essay. This is, I believe, the chief explanation of the periodical ferment.
The last manifestation began in 1911, and several circumstances combined to give it a special character. Trade was rapidly improving, and wage-earners, more strongly organized than ever before, and more conscious of strength, had an unanswerable case for a larger share in the rising prosperity; for prices had been going up, while wages were stationary. By the formation of the political Labor Party, ten years before, the Socialist element had joined hands with some of the large trade-unions and had exercised increasing influence in the joint councils of the party. The remarkable successes of labor candidates in the general election of 1906, consolidated in those of 1910, had given a great stimulus to the movement on the political side and inspired it with confidence.
But still more conducive to a state of active ferment was the spread of organized revolutionary propaganda, and the introduction of new ideas, about this time or shortly before, - industrial unionism, syndicalism, and a little later, guild-socialism, which differed
from the old by making trade-unionism the source, and not merely the instrument, of revolution.
These ideas made little visible impression at the time, and were ridiculed by the advocates of State Socialism, to whom they were obnoxious; but they struck root and began to grow, chiefly in Scotland and South Wales. They were a leaven, and their influence is seen in the marked prominence of those areas in the turmoil during and since the war. In 1911, however, the movement was still confined to the old tradeunion line of demanding advances of wages and allied changes, and enforcing their concession by strikes. Employers, blind to the new strength and vigor of the unions, adopted the fatal policy of refusing legitimate demands, which they could well afford to concede, until a strike took place, and then promptly giving way. The result was a series of strikes, unprecedented in number and magnitude, and for the most part successful, which had the effect of still further increasing the strength and self-confidence of the unions, enhancing the prestige of an active policy, and embittering the relations of employers and employer.
There is always a see-saw going on between industrial and political action, each having the ascendancy in turn. In the years preceding 1911, political action was in the ascendant, but it had apparently exhausted its potency, and a reaction had set in, which prepared the way for another turn with the industrial weapon. The striking success of the latter in 1911-12 led, as usual, to overuse and reaction. Strikes were still very numerous in 1913,- indeed, they were more numerous, but they were on a smaller scale and did not last so long.
Then, in 1914, the character of the conflict began to change. There were indications of declining trade, many
employers were awaiting an opportunity to retaliate for the squeezing they had undergone, and what would have followed in the ordinary course was a period of renewed strife on the opposite line of employers' demands and workmens' resistance.
This is the background to the present situation. The prospect immediately preceding the war was one of declining trade and industrial conflict, waged with stronger forces and more embittered feelings than before. At the same time, it is to be noted that the period of prosperity-strife had produced other and contrary effects. It had led to a better appreciation of the principle of conciliation and to the development of conciliation machinery. In some quarters the relations between employers and employed had improved, and this element must not be overlooked; for it, too, plays no small part in the present situation. Still, the outstanding features of the industrial position before the war were a spirit of acute antagonism and the prospect of a determined conflict, in which the trade-unions would probably have had the worst of the encounter, with the result of reaction against the industrial weapon and recourse once more to the political.
Now the broad effect of the war has been to reproduce all these conditions on a higher scale, or in a more acute form, together with the complications introduced by government control, the break-up of international economy, the general impoverishment, and other aggravating circumstances. The economic process just outlined was short-circuited, so to speak; and a state of prosperity was restored by the war-demands on industry. It was artificial, of course, paid for by realizing capital assets and mortgaging the future; and it was con
ditioned by war-psychology. But the usual influence of prosperity on the labor market was rather heightened than modified by the special circumstances, as the country settled down to the business of carrying on war with all its strength. The demand for labor revived, unemployment diminished, wages rose, and strikes reappeared after some months of abeyance.
This movement went on at an increasing pace during the early part of 1915; but it was not until July of that year that organized labor began to realize the immense strength conferred on it by the emergency of war in indispensable industries.
The occasion was a dispute in the South Wales coal-mining district, where feeling between employers and employed was already much strained, and revolutionary theories had for some years been actively propagated among miners, chiefly by the agency of the Labor College. Originally they were in the right. The standing agreement was about to lapse, and they asked for a new one, with certain advances. The owners boggled and put them off, until the general mass of the miners, convinced that they were being tricked, became exasperated and ripe for revolt, regardless of the war.
And here I may say that British workmen never did believe that the Germans had any chance whatever of winning, until their complacency was somewhat shaken by the advance in the spring of 1918. This accounts for their apparent indifference to the effect of strikes upon the war: it was not due to lack of patriotism, but to complacency. I found it out by going among them in many districts, including South Wales. A young miner there, whom I knew personally, told me that they would have stopped out for six months rather than submit to injustice. 'But what about the war, then?'
'Oh, if I was n't at work, I should overtaking, the rise in the cost of living. join the army and fight.'
They never thought that there was any real danger of defeat, and consequently were ready to accept the arguments pressed on them by revolutionaries, pacifists, and pro-Germans, that every compulsory war-measure was really unnecessary, and that the war was merely an excuse for the subjection of Labor by 'Capitalism.' This belief was fostered by the ultra-patriotic, bombastic prophets, who told them week by week that the Germans were practically beaten and that wonderful events would shortly happen. They readily believed this nonsense because it was just what they wanted to hear; and it played into the hands of those engaged in promoting trouble for their own ends.
In this mood the Welsh miners successfully defied the government and the law, and their success opened the door to all the trouble that followed. The trade-unions learned that they would get nothing unless they asserted themselves boldly, but that, if they did, they were irresistible and could coerce the government. Gradually the lesson sank in by repeated experience in the three great indispensable industries - coal, railways, and engineering. Employers fell into the background through government control, and the hostility of labor was transferred from them to the government, which inspired distrust and lost authority by conceding to force what it refused to argument.
This policy discredited the moderate trade-union leaders who were unwilling to go to extremes from patriotic motives, and at the same time exalted the temper of the militant wing. The trade-unions waxed mightily in strength and self-confidence; unemployment fell to zero, while wages rose continually. It has very often been asserted that the rise of wages only followed, without
That is doubtful, but, even if it is statistically correct, it does not apply to earnings, which increased far more through overtime; and it takes no account of family incomes, which swelled out of all proportion through the unlimited demand for boys and girls at very high wages.
The effect of all this was a general state of prosperity never dreamed of before. I witnessed it myself repeatedly in all the large centres; and the unanimous testimony of health-visitors, district nurses, midwives, and other persons whose duties take them constantly into the poorest homes, confirmed this impression with a cumulative mass of detailed evidence, to which the decline of pauperism gave statistical support. The standard of living was visibly and generally raised to an artificial height, which made reversal proportionately difficult when the economics of war, carried on by an inflated currency and State loans, came to an end. The people were the less prepared for reversal be- . cause they were given very freely to understand that the conditions of life were to be changed all round for the better after the war. The nonsense about 'reconstruction,' 'a land fit for heroes to live in,' and similar visionary promises was taken seriously.
Prosperity did not produce contentment, because popular indignation was continually aroused by the denunciation of 'profiteering,' which was held up to the ignorant by the ignorant as the sole cause of high prices. This put a powerful weapon in the hands of social-revolutionary agitators, who made the most of it. The same tendency was promoted within the trade-unions by the success of militant tactics, while the self-importance of labor leaders was fostered by incessant appeals, consultations, flattery, offers of ministerial jobs, and other marks of distinc
tion. The theory that Labor produces everything and ought to have everything seemed to be convincingly demonstrated.
The ferment was further increased by the new theories superimposed on the old ones, and actively spread by young intellectuals, drawn both from the trade-unions, through the Labor College, and from the old universities. Both have exercised a marked influence: the former by educating young workmen in revolutionary theory and tactics, the latter by taking up the mantle of Fabianism, permeating the Labor movement with new ideas, supplying it with arguments, and guiding its action.
It is not surprising that in the excited state of mind caused by the topsy-turvydom of war, the feeling that society was ripe for a radical transformation was already gaining ground in 1917, when the Russian Revolution occurred, and seemed to realize in a concrete form the half-conscious aspirations formed out of the elements I have indicated. A miscellaneous gathering of excited persons was hastily arranged in the name of Labor, and it was resolved to establish soviets in Great Britain. Nothing came of it, but this incident is significant of the state of mind then prevailing. Things had got out of focus. A good many labor men had lost their heads, and others, who never had heads to lose, thought their time had come.
The Bolshevist Revolution followed and increased the confusion; it sobered some, but deepened the intoxication of others. The general stir going on in 1917 was further marked by the increase of strikes, journalistically labeled 'labor unrest,' by the rise of the Syndicalist shop-steward movement, and by an ambitious reconstruction of the Labor Party which was widened to include individual members, with special facilities for the admission of women. The intellectual element was formally
recognized by the phrase 'producers by hand or by brain,' whom the party claimed to represent 'without distinction of class or occupation.'
My excuse for recounting all this ancient history is that it is indispensable to a clear understanding and a balanced judgment of subsequent events. I have cut it down to a minimum, but have said enough, I hope, to show that trouble was inevitable after the war, and that there were ample grounds for expecting more trouble than has actually occurred. Any reader who puts together the several factors I have enumerated can see how greatly the prospect of strife impending before the war had been enhanced. The tradeunions had been schooled in it, and Mr. Lloyd George himself had, in 1917, advised them to be 'audacious' in demanding an after-war settlement.
My comment at the time was that the advice was quite superfluous, and that there would be more audacity than he would like. The Left Wing felt that revolution was in the air, that the trade-unions were attuned to their purpose and that the end of the war would leave the field open to them and to class-war. They yearned to exchange external for internal war, and the Armistice was no sooner concluded than they raised the cry - 'Get on with the only war that really matters - the class-war!' Employers, on their side, chafing under bureaucratic control and the excess-profits duty, resentful at their treatment by the Government, which had never consulted and flattered them as it had the Labor side, were preparing to get their own back.
The campaign was not long delayed: January, 1919, saw it opened by the engineers and the 'Triple Alliance,' a combination of miners, railwaymen,
and transport-workers, which had been ⚫ set on foot in 1912, after the general coal strike, and fully established at the end of 1915. All came forward with large demands, behind which the militant revolutionaries were busy stirring up violence whereby they hoped to usher in the revolution they believed to be imminent. Every pretext was seized upon, and every sort of provocation brought into play, to stimulate the class-war. The editor has relieved me of the task of recounting events in detail, and it will be enough to summarize them.
The year 1919 was marked by a series of attempts by the Left Wing to bring matters to a head, and they met with a certain measure of success. On several occasions public order was threatened, and some collisions actually occurred; but they never got very far. The revolutionary gun went off at half-cock, or misfired, every time. The public remained calm, though by no means indifferent, while the tradeunions refused to go beyond a certain point and showed a general disposition to abide by constitutional methods.
The views held at this time by advanced, but not the most extreme, men in the trade-union movement were well expressed by Mr. Cramp, of the Railwaymen's Union, at the annual meeting of the society at Plymouth in June, 1919. "The centre of gravity,' he said, 'is passing from the House of Commons to the headquarters of the great tradeunions. . . . While social in outlook, our ultimate aim is the control of industry.' But he did not advocate the forcible seizure of control; they must first fit themselves for it by proper training. I do not think the ideas of what may be called the rational revolutionary section can be better put.
Commenting on Mr. Cramp's statement, the moderate Socialist paper, the Clarion, contrasted his view with that
of the 'hot-heads,' who 'believe that they are fully qualified now, immediately, to take control of the mines, the railways, the shipyards, the factories, the government of the country and the management of our international affairs. In this conceit of ignorance lies the danger of the troubled time. The wild men are using all devices of incitement not excepting a plentiful supply of lying-to prompt them to instant revolt.'
They tried it, as I have said, on several occasions, but always failed. Success depended on the amount of support they could command from the general body of men concerned, and in every case the test of actual experiment proved that, though they had enough influence to start trouble, they had not enough to carry it through. And each successive failure weakened such influence as they had and strengthened the forces of sobriety.
This is what I mean by saying that the prospect has improved as each corner has been turned. To observers at a distance, it may appear that the state of things here has progressively worsened. On the surface, it has perhaps done so. The last three months have been economically the worst we have experienced. They have been a climax, the severest crisis we have yet gone through; but the more decisive by reason of its severity. And the issue confirms what I wish to assert with all the emphasis at my command, namely, that superficial appearances are deceptive, and that under the surface things have steadily improved.
The set-back of the revolutionary Left Wing is only part of the story; but before going on to other considerations, I will finish what I have to say on that head.
The organizations and agencies representing the Left Wing are many in number and varied in complexion, but