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CHAPTER 5: THE DISCONTENT OF THE WORKING-CLASSES BY EDMUND VINCENT - Thomas Mackay, A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation (LF ed.) 
A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation, consisting of an Introduction by Herbert Spencer and Essays by Various Writers, edited by Thomas Mackay (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Foreword by Jeffrey Paul.
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THE DISCONTENT OF THE WORKING-CLASSES
Children in the nursery are chidden for discontent, but there is a discontent of grown men which has in it something of the divine element. If all men were able to satisfy conscience and ambition by doing their duty in that state of life into which it had pleased God to call them, civilization would advance with but tardy steps. It was no culpable discontent which induced George Stephenson to engage his mind upon things foreign to his duties in the Tyneside colliery, which led the first of the Herschels to prefer the study of the stars to service in the Hanoverian Guards. In truth, there are many species of discontent. There is that which is the spur of ambition, which leads men to strive for better things, which causes them to rise in the social scale; there is that which crushes them into dull and hopeless apathy; there is that which renders them prone to grumble at a fate which they do not attempt to improve by making themselves too good and too strong for it, which makes them prone to jealousy of their neighbours, which renders them ready to suspect that the inferiority of their position and the degradation of their surroundings are the results of injustice and of oppression. In the discontent of the working-class all these elements are present in varying proportions. The better and more skilled workman strives to raise himself by cultivating his skill; the unskilled labourer’s discontent shows a larger measure of jealousy, albeit he too has his honest ambitions.
The discontent of the unskilled labourer is the material upon which the agitators, roughly described as socialists, who have been largely responsible for recent disturbances in the labour market, exercise an increasing influence, and the object of this paper is to inquire in what sense of the word these men are socialists. Then comes the question whether the unskilled sections of working-classes follow these men because they are socialists or simply because they are useful in the struggle for higher wages, and whether the working-class do or do not relish socialistic legislation when it enters into their lives and sensibly curtails their liberties as individuals. Last comes the question whether the methods adopted by the so-called socialists are of a character which can be tolerated in any well-regulated community. And here let me say by way of preface that the word socialist is used not in a scientific sense, but to denote a class of men who call themselves socialists, whom other people call socialists, whom the writer, for his part, would much prefer to call professional agitators.
The field of survey is conveniently narrow. London is the centre of socialism in England; disputes between labour and capital in and about London have been, to a certain extent, but to an extent more limited than is commonly supposed, used by the socialists for their own purposes; and the London socialist leaders are but a few in number. They are Messrs. Burns, Hyndman, Champion, Tillett, and Mann, and, perhaps, Mr. Cunynghame Grahame. Of these Mr. Burns is far and away the most influential, and, in a paper which aims to be practical, his character and his beliefs must be reserved for particular notice. Mr. Hyndman, sometime of Trinity College, Cambridge, law-student, newspaper-correspondent, and author, is a more cultivated man than Mr. Burns, and understands better than he the theoretical principles of socialism. But Mr. Hyndman is not a man of influence. Mr. Champion, once an officer in the army, is a man of some education and of considerable business ability—he was of great service during the Dock Strike in this respect—but he is no orator, and suffers in the opinion of those whom he addresses, not only here but in Australia, by reason of a suspicion, not altogether ill-founded, that he is not of their class. Moreover, he has a habit of giving moderate counsel, which rendered him unpopular at the end of the Dock Strike, and during the Gas Strike, and has produced a similar effect in Australia. Tillett is the comedian of the group, a man with some capacity for organisation, a speaker who can hold a popular audience. But he is lacking in education and knowledge, and not a man of solid weight. Mann is a ferocious orator, calling himself a socialist, whose occupation consist in stirring up class against class. Untiring and energetic, ready for any quantity of work, careless as to the results which his speeches may produce, he is the most dangerous of them all. Both Mann and Tillett have recently, in the matter of the grain-porters’ dispute, shown that, in extreme cases, they recognise the value of moderation. Mr. Grahame, who is nothing if he is not a socialist, has no following in the East End, and is not always welcomed by the leaders of agitation: for example, on a certain critical Saturday during the Dock Strike, when a manifesto, calling for a general cessation of labour had been issued and not withdrawn, Mr. Grahame shouted to the mob, ‘Revolutions are not made with rose-water.’ On that very evening he received from the headquarters of the strike committee an intimation that his services were no longer required. He was a nonentity; he was ordered to go away and to place himself out of reach of doing mischief. He went off like to a child which had been scolded. He had to learn early, as every man who engages in active socialism must learn sooner or later, the first lesson of slavish obedience. Two other working socialists, Dr. and Mrs. Aveling, may be mentioned. They are cultivated socialists of the revolutionary order, ready at any time to make speeches, to keep accounts, to frame placards and manifestoes for the agitators; but they are not persons of commanding influence. No apology is offered for these brief character sketches, for, if the writer’s view be correct, the man’s personality commands the following no less than the creed. Indeed, the rude socialism of the men who call themselves socialists is in itself somewhat chaotic, nor, until quite a recent date, has there been clear evidence to show how much influence was exerted by the men themselves, how little their socialistic views were accepted, how easily, when the simple and unsocialistic desire for an increase of wages desired free play, they and their crude socialism were thrown aside.
The prominent figure of the group is that of Mr. John Burns. He is the life and soul of that which, for the lack of a better name, may be called the practical socialism of London, the socialism of action as opposed to the socialism of the library. ‘If ever I cease to be a Socialist,’ he said in the course of the Dock Strike, ‘I shall be a Conservative.’ The probability is that he has never been a theoretical socialist at all; that he has never analysed his creed so as to discover whether one article of it is consistent with another. His views are not sufficiently defined nor capable of scientific definition, but for all that he is a notable and a powerful personage. It has been the fashion to describe John Burns as a charlatan; but no greater mistake, no more foolish blunder, has ever been made even by men who, living out of the world, presume to pass judgment upon the men who live in the world. Let men who, prone to pronounce impetuous judgments, and ready to impute mean motives, describe such a man as Burns by the words trickster and self-seeker, take their Carlyle to heart, reading particularly his dissertation upon Mahomet; let them remember that in the autumn of 1889, John Burns held 100,000 men at his beck and call; that when he speaks in Hyde Park thousands assemble round him while other orators are deserted, and they will refrain from charging with insincerity a man who has many faults and some virtues, a man who is before all things absolutely sincere. For our part, using the words of one who was in his time a keen and not over kindly judge of human character, ‘We will leave it altogether, this impostor hypothesis, as not credible; not very tolerable even, worthy chiefly of dismissal by us.’
John Burns has all the faults which are natural to a man of implacable zeal, imperfect education, and undisciplined sympathies. His life has been passed among the working-classes; he knows the hardships of their life and the vices which they practise; he is quite as prone to dilate upon their sensuality as upon their grievances, to rebuke as to incite. The fault of the man is that he has read too much and yet too little; that he has been taken with the notion that he has a mission to fulfil; that he has gone to work without giving due thought to the methods of working, without sufficiently considering the results which his acts may bring about. Trained as a working engineer, imperfectly cultivated, but yet having a strong taste for culture, to which he is able to give spasmodic indulgence, he preaches a doctrine which is a curious mixture of Socialism, Communism, Collectivism and Trade Unionism. Ignoring the rule that men are by nature not equal but unequal, a rule of which he is a strong example, he believes in an essentially Socialistic Trade Unionism which aims to crush individuality and to equalise the earnings of strong and weak, wise and foolish. His object in life is mainly to improve the position of the working-classes, and the improvement at which he aims, justifying the means by the end, is a real improvement. He would like, and he rarely omits an opportunity for making his desires plain, to see his fellows more sober, more pure, more enlightened; we are all of the like opinion, but we are not all imbued, as he is, with a trust in humanity which is almost touching in its implicity. He believes that a working-class with more leisure would show a keen desire for self-improvement; he thinks that a working-class with higher wages would spend its surplus earnings in obtaining the means of education, in providing comforts for the home in which the wives and children have to live, and to be reared, would altogether tend to become more divinely human and less deplorably bestial. He does not know that the discipline which men undergo in winning these advantages for themselves is more valuable than the things gained, is the necessary guarantee that the advantages shall be properly used. Therefore he aims to raise wages generally, and to shorten hours of work by all and any means. At the same time he has no fear of bringing about the destruction of trade—it may be that he hardly understands how delicate a plant trade is, and his view may be summarised by saying that he thinks the masters to be perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. This is a quaint creed, unreasonable and illogical; a creed which the experience of men contradicts, since it is found that in times of prosperity the collier of the Midlands and his neighbour the potter buy champagne and bull-dogs in preference to the cheapest of literature; that the wives of gas-stokers have been heard to complain of the eight-hour shift, as opposed to the twelve-hour shift, on the ground that it gives the men more leisure for spending their earnings at the public-house, and leaves them less money for domestic purposes; and that, as a plain matter of fact, trade is easily driven away from a port, especially from a port such as London, which is not altogether conveniently situated. But the creed, chaotic as it is, is held by Mr. Burns with undeviating sincerity, and it explains his actions. In him we find, in these later days, a man who will support legislative interference with the hours of labour, and legislative regulation of the conditions and of the remuneration of toil; a man who will join in the direction of any and every labour movement or strike of which the avowed object is either to raise wages or to drive the labouring community within the limits of a militant Trade Unionism; a man who will join heartily and make his influence felt in promoting any and every movement, measure, or scheme, which appears to be likely to lead to an improvement of wages, to an amelioration of the conditions and to a diminution of the hours of toil. He is, in fact, a socialist with variations.
In the course of the recent labour movements—in which the agitation among the police is not included, since the police laughed at the efforts of the social democrats to interfere in affairs outside their scope—the writer has enjoyed abundant opportunities of seeing the so-called socialists at work. They were the life and soul of the Dock Strike; they were repulsed by the blind leaders of the blind during the Gas Works strike; they led the men at Silvertown to their ruin; they promoted and encouraged the miserable affair at Hay’s Wharf; they had a considerable share in the organisation of the Eight-hour Demonstration in Hyde Park, and they attempted to thrust themselves upon the parties to the recent railway dispute at Cardiff. These movements are of importance, because the first of them was the beginning of a chapter in English History which is not yet closed, nay, has threatened of late to be written in terrible characters; because, through them all, and in spite of their differences in character, the so-called socialists pursued their aim with undeviating purpose.
The Dock Strike was, at the outset, a revolt against conditions of toil which were intolerable. In the year 1889 the Directors who were in nominal control of the mass of the London Docks found themselves, not by their own faults but through the mistaken policy of their predecessors, in a position of great difficulty. They were weighed down by a burden of debt from which no financial magic could relieve them; they were at the mercy of their creditors; the capital value of their property had been greatly reduced; they were in the position of a manufacturer who, having enlarged his buildings and increased his plant to meet a trade which was expected to grow, has found that the trade has diminished steadily. But this was not the worst feature of their position. The system upon which the work at the Docks was done was, and had been for many years, the worst conceivable. The permanent staff of labourers was small; the main part of the work at the Docks was systematically performed by casual labourers. There was little picking or choosing at the Dock gates; there was no inquiry into character as a preliminary to employment; and employment, at a small rate of pay, it is true, but still at some rate, was almost always to be obtained. Discharged servants, convicts released from prison, agricultural labourers thrown out of work, militiamen when their training was over, in brief all the men who, either from fault or misfortune, had no settled occupation, knew that at the Dock gates there was always a fair chance of obtaining something to do. The inevitable result followed. Year after year the stream of the reckless, the incapable, the unfortunate men, the men who had been failures, flowed steadily towards the East End of London, and the condition of their lives grew worse and worse. There were more men to work than before and, if anything, less work required to be done; the wage-fund was spread over an increasing number of mouths and bodies. Meanwhile the congestion of the population caused the rents of houses and of single rooms, however dilapidated, to rise rather than to fall. Sanitary considerations, never held in much respect by the poor, were utterly neglected. Overcrowding, squalor, poverty and immorality continued to increase without check. The wages, when they were obtained, were insignificant, but it is not here contended that they did not amount to an adequate remuneration for the work done. On the contrary, it is asserted that the work done by the average dock-labourer was barely worth five-pence, let alone six-pence, by the hour to the dock-owners who employed him. Those who accused the dock-owners of hardness of heart, because the labourers could not earn enough to support life adequately, forgot that it was the irregularity of the work rather than the inadequacy of pay for work done which caused the misery. In short, there was too little work and there were too many men to do it. The fault lay in the system which had encouraged a population of men who could not earn enough to support themselves in decency to assemble and to multiply in the East End.
The result was that in the summer of 1889, Burns, Mann and Tillett found in the waterside districts an undisciplined aggregation of individuals living from hand to mouth, accustomed to walk upon the verge of starvation, discontented with a lot which could not satisfy any man, passing an existence so miserable and squalid that they had nothing to lose. It was no very difficult matter to stir this population into rebellion, and the only troublesome part of the business was to organise the mass of individuals into one body. How the Dock-labourers Union was formed, how the stevedores and the lightermen, in other words the skilled labourers and the monopolists, made common cause with the ‘dockers,’ how, eventually, the members of the Joint Committee of the Docks were coerced into something near akin to total surrender, into making concessions which were larger than their responsibilities warranted—these and like matters are foreign to the present purpose. More interesting is it to observe that the leaders of the agitation, while they were careful never to advocate and never even mention legislative socialism, were nevertheless compelled, not only to teach, but also to enforce the first principle of communism, which may be taken to be that of equality, not natural but artificial. Trade Unionism of the new, that is to say of the militant species, succeeds by subordinating the individual to the class. The foundation upon which it rests is that the strong man shall earn no more than the weak; and to this principle the dock-labourers, as a class, offered no opposition. They objected vehemently to piece-work, to that payment by results which rewards the industrious and the sturdy workers, and leaves the idle and the weak to their fate: they cried out for one uniform rate for all workers. Later in time, as we shall note shortly, the ‘dockers’ practically repudiated all the socialism underlying this principle. But even here there is room for doubt whether the mass of the dock-labourers accepted the principle of equality upon its merits, since the contract system has one inseparable fault in London and elsewhere. The foreman, gaffer, or headman of a gang, has always the opportunity of swindling his subordinates. He rarely loses it.
The coercion which the members of the Union used upon other labourers—and with a great deal more effect than ought to have been permitted in a civilised community—was essential to success. The idea underlying it was only partially socialistic, but it was the natural outcome of socialistic spirit. ‘Ex hypothesi,’ the leaders would say, ‘the Union represents the true interests of the workers. Sequitur that it is the duty of every worker to be a member of the Union. We will enforce that doctrine by preventing non-Unionists from going to work.’ The whole doctrine and the manner in which it was carried out were but amplifications of the principle that the individual must be subordinated to the class; if he accepted his slavery willingly, so much the better for the class; if he rebelled against it, so much the worse for him. Of intimidation, of the open and physical kind, some instances were detected; but it was an open secret, and a fact thoroughly understood by both parties to the struggle, that much intimidation existed in concealment. Men able and willing to work were oppressed with a vague and mysterious terror that, if they worked, they would be made to rue the day. It may be answered that there was no evidence to justify this terror. The answer is that the working-men, who knew their own class, felt it; that although willing to work and spurred by hunger, fear stopped them from stepping into vacant places.
It was no matter for surprise that speaker after speaker should institute comparisons between the lot of the rich and the poor. ‘The rich man rolling in his chariot,’ ‘the popping of champagne corks at the Dock House’—vide the Star, erroneously, passim—were naturally brought into contrast with the lot of the starving dock-labourers. Such comparisons are the weapons with which the agitator fights; but the feeling to which these comparisons were addressed was nothing more than that vague discontent with existing conditions, that desire to become rich by acquiring the property of other people, that jealous feeling of injustice which is always to be found in the lowest scale of society. At ordinary times the ashes of this jealous discontent do but smoulder; but they are always there, and the agitator with his windy speech blows them to a white heat. It is a part of his regular business. Neither, if the thing be looked at dispassionately, is the permanence of this discontent a matter for wonder, nor the thing itself a mere silly feeling which can be argued away. The lot of him who is born in the lowest scale of society is hard; it is easier to persuade him that he has been defrauded of his opportunities, than to convince him that he has missed them; to those who would fain reason with him, speaking of ‘Laws’ of political economy, of supply and demand, and so forth, he answers that he knows no laws save those which man, who made them, can alter. The appalling ignorance of the people, the readiness with which they accept statements and arguments of glaring absurdity, renders them an easy prey to the agitator. The agitator cries out for education. He may be well-assured that in proportion to the knowledge of a man are his desire and determination to work out his own destinies, to argue rather than to fight, and that if culture ever does obtain a firm hold upon the working-classes of England, the result will be diminution in the number of strikes, increase and improvement of profit-sharing schemes, and the extinction of the agitator’s craft. Among the better class of the working-men the agitator is even now a nonentity.
We have gone rather far from Mr. Burns, but it must be remembered that he had lieutenants who were more ignorant and less scrupulous than himself. In the matter of omission, however, he and his lieutenants were at one. Rarely, indeed, in those days did they allude to the possibility of legislative interference between labour and capital. Never did they suggest a limitation of the hours of labour. From time to time Mr. Burns would deliver himself of a fiery exhortation to the people, would allude, almost in the words of a recent preacher of note, to the ‘carnal, low-lying marshes of sensuality’ in which they lived, would speak to them hopefully of the millennium in which they would have more leisure for improvement of themselves so that they might be better husbands, better parents, better citizens. But Mr. Burns and his satellites were very well aware that the hope which buoyed up the people was that of obtaining more money, and that mere love of socialistic theories went for nothing; so Mr. Burns and his friends made a species of compromise, and salved their socialistic consciences by urging that the hours of work to be paid for at ordinary rates should be few, and the hours of work to be paid at extra rates should be many. Given a certain quantity of work to be done and a limited number of men to do it, in proportion to the shortness of ordinary hours and to the number of ‘over-time’ hours, will be the increase in the wages of the earner. With regard to other socialistic measures, projected and effected, it will be convenient to speak later; it will be enough to say here that, during the Dock Strike, it would have been in the last degree imprudent to enunciate the principles of an Eight-hours Bill. Your casual labourer at sixpence an hour would like the legitimate day to be as short as might be, and the overtime, at eight-pence, to be long; but the principle of the Eight-hour movement eliminates overtime altogether: to advocacy of that purely socialistic principle a mixed crowd in Hyde Park will listen; but the moment it is seriously threatened numerous sections of the working-classes, as the Trade Union Congress showed, are up in arms. A very recent incident in the history of the Dock Labourers’ Union shows how little the dock labourers realise the principles of socialism. The socialists helped the dock labourers to victory in August of 1889. Twelve months later the socialist leaders, under compulsion from below, announced that for the future admittance to the Union would be rendered more difficult. In short, they attempted to create a monopoly of work in the London Docks for the 22,400 London members of the Union. This, of course, is not socialism, but its very opposite, selfishness.
The gas-workers affair, in which the London socialists were not allowed to play any part, was never a strike in any accurate sense of the word, for the simple reason that the would-be strikers were replaced without much difficulty. The energetic policy of Mr. George Livesey converted men who said they were out on strike into men who were out of employment, and all the talk of the necessity of arbitration or the possibility of it, all the well-meaning efforts of cardinals and ministers to interfere in the matter, were entirely futile. There was nothing to arbitrate about, no mediation was possible; the outgoing men were men who had been gas-stokers, who knew how to charge a retort or to stoke a furnace, and that was all. Their best chance of becoming gas-stokers again was to seek employment elsewhere. It is necessary to impress this point, although it is foreign to the immediate purpose of this paper, because Mr. Livesey has been much misrepresented. He has been spoken of as a merciless man who would not yield an iota, whereas in fact he was a merciful man, albeit strong of purpose, who having at last accepted a challenge to fight, took without a moment’s delay such measures that, while victory was certain, retreat was impossible. The world did not know at the time what the series of provocations had been; it did not know that concession after concession had been followed by demand after demand, that the men, acting upon the orders issued by the executive of a Union, which was and is by the confession of the secretary (see the January number of Time) purely militant, had embarked upon a policy of aggression; that they were asking for more than was reasonable. It has learned this now. It must also be well aware that the objection of the leaders of the Union to the profit-sharing scheme, which, on the face of it, was a scheme of socialistic tendencies, in the best sense of the words, was due not to any suspicion that it would be worked unfairly, but to a knowledge that it must have the effect of checking the policy of restless importunity upon which the existence of the Union and their prosperity as leaders depended. But it is said that Mr. Livesey openly stated his intention of crushing the Union and of destroying the men’s right of combination. As a matter of fact, Mr. Livesey made no such statement, but there is not a particle of doubt that he did mean to take a course that would result incidentally, but none the less inevitably, in the destruction of the Union, and that from the public point of view he would have been entirely justified in aiming to crush the particular Union to which he was opposed. He saw, he must have seen, that this Gas-Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was purely and undisguisedly a confiscatory engine in everything but name. The difference between it and the established Unions may be easily stated. The older Unions, presided over by men having some knowledge of political economy and of the conditions of trade, have a defined policy. They desire, when it is possible, to improve the position of the working-man; in times of commercial prosperity they will insist, using his obedience to them as a weapon, that he shall have what they consider his fair share of that prosperity; in times of commercial depression they will help him and, in effect, they perform many of the functions of a friendly society. Admission to such Unions is a privilege not lightly to be obtained. This policy is stigmatised as degenerate by the secretary of the new Union. His policy and that of his Union is that of the daughter of the horse-leech; it is a policy of continual importunity. The new Union cares not whether men are ill or well paid; it is ever ready with a fresh demand. Concession does but whet its appetite; it claims for labour the whole of the profits made by labour and capital combined; it aims to be the absolute dictator of the conditions of toil, to say who shall work and how much he shall receive. And this, be it observed, was the Union which grew from that which Burns, Tillett, and Mann created. Its development in the direction of greed shows how little the socialistic theory of life affected the dock-labourers and their fellow-unionists. This was the Union which Mr. Livesey aimed to crush, and it is here deliberately said that the endeavour so far as it succeeded—and it did succeed to the extent of setting the South Metropolitan Gas Company free—was entirely to be justified. The public were largely interested in the result of the conflict inasmuch as the position of the Gas Company was such that its shareholders could not entirely lose their money, until the increase in the cost of labour was such that men ceased to consume gas. Mr. Livesey therefore was a trustee, and the public were his cestuis-que-trustent. He had a duty towards his men, a duty to see that they were reasonably paid; but he was under an obligation no less paramount to see that the public was not imposed upon, as it would have been if a firm front had not been shown to the Union. The Union would have coerced him, if it had been able to do so, into complete neglect of the obligation to the public.
Enough has been written to prove that the New Unionism which has been at the bottom of all the recent troubles in London, adopts the confiscatory articles of the socialistic creed. Some of the founders are sincere and enthusiastic, if not well-informed, socialists; but the bulk of its followers only care to use the socialists as means to securing higher wages; others, it may well be, have personal objects in view; some, while they think they are sincere, do not mind combining the pursuit of their own interests with that of the principle which, more or less honestly, they believe to be just. That is not the point. It is more worthy of notice that the principle which underlies the militant Union is the principle of socialism. In the first place, the individual is subordinated to the class; in the second place, the class desires to obtain the whole of the profits which are derived from capital and labour combined. In other words it desires to confiscate capital.
Meanwhile, it is to be observed that, wherever the working classes are brought into contact with legislative socialism as an actual fact, they invariably rebel. The greater part of the socialistic statutes of recent times are simply hateful to the people whom they were intended to benefit. The enforcement of cleanliness, of sanitary regulations and such matters, is attended with the greatest difficulty as the promoters of ‘model dwellings’ have found to their cost, because there are no people in this world more sensitive than the working-classes of this country to encroachments, real or fancied, upon their liberty. The proverbial saying that the Englishman’s house is his castle does but emphasize the fact that there is nothing more hateful to the average Englishman than interference. He loathes the inspector and the official, but the inspector and the official are the inseparable accidents of the socialistic community, and every socialistic measure which is passed into law brings into birth new officials and new inspectors not only of houses but of persons. It is idle for Parliament to enact that children shall be vaccinated, that children shall be educated, that children shall not be set to work while they are of tender age, to formulate rules supposed to prescribe the minimum number of cubic feet of air allowed to each person in a house, the minimum of sanitary conveniences and so forth, unless Parliament also sends somebody to see whether any attention is paid to its commands. Yet the people who are despatched upon these errands are universally detested; indeed, it is not more unpleasant to be a tax-collector than an inspector of nuisances. It is only after socialist measures become law, or when they threaten the interest of an intelligent class, that those whom they affect realise the position. Of this an excellent example has lately been afforded. The Bishop of Peterborough recently introduced a Bill affecting the liberty of the working-class with regard to the insurance of their children on the ground that in some instances the liberty was abused. His proposal received much support from the press and the sentimental public, but it created such a storm of indignation among the working-class that in all probability nothing more will be heard of the measure. Again, not many months have passed since a meeting in support of the Eight-Hours Movement attracted a huge crowd of more or less enthusiastic persons to Hyde Park. There need be no hesitation in saying that the measure contemplated by the promoters of that meeting would, if it ever became law, involve the greatest possible amount of interference with the liberty of the working-man and his freedom of contact. There are twenty-four hours in the day; it is proposed, to put the matter plainly, that no working-man should be allowed to sell to his employer more than eight hours of those twenty-four; that the remaining sixteen hours must be spent in compulsory idleness, or as the enthusiast would put it, in cultivated leisure. It is the firm opinion of the writer that if that measure ever became a part of the law, it would, within a year, be held so intolerable by the working-classes that Parliament would be compelled either to depart from the practice of centuries and eat its own words by an immediate Act of repeal, or to stand by and see its orders ignored. The textile trades have found this out, but great numbers of the people support this utterly despotic movement now and will, very likely, continue to support it until they find themselves writhing under the pressure of a law which they have themselves helped to create. For the present, they are reminded that the hours of toil are long; they are frightened with idle tales to the effect that their lives are shortened by excessive toil, whereas in truth the working-man’s day is not nearly so long as that of the busy lawyer, or the journalist, the doctor, or the active clergyman. But they are not told, and all but the more intelligent omit to remember for themselves, that in a world which is hard and practical, a world in which buyers, whether of work or of things manufactured, will give that which the thing bought is worth to them and no more, a diminution of the hours of labour involves an inevitable diminution of the earnings of labour. Nor will they realise this until it comes home to them in the shape of bitter experience.
In conclusion upon this head let the opinions set forth in the foregoing words be summarised. The working-classes, especially the lowest among them, the men who have least to lose and most to gain, are not averse to the confiscatory side of socialism; nay, finding that socialism at the outset does tend to improve their position, they will honestly and in good faith proclaim themselves socialists. They would be glad to earn more and to work less. So would every man upon whom the curse of Adam has fallen: and the vision which is presented to them is that of a golden age, in which the least possible amount of work shall be rewarded with the greatest possible amount of pay. On the other hand, they bitterly resent all laws which are socialistic in their tendencies, that is to say, all laws which interfere with their individual liberties; but the pity of it is, that they rarely perceive the socialistic tendencies of a projected measure and the menace to their liberties which it involves until they feel its pressure. Then, and not before, they appreciate the fable of the Stork. Moreover, as soon as socialism has done its work of raising their wages, they desert it altogether.
With regard to the legality of the methods employed by the socialist leaders in the course of strikes there has been some question; concerning the facts there is none. Dock-labourers have been induced to threaten that they would not touch coal brought to Cardiff, for example, from collieries upon proscribed lines, and it has been announced that even if coal was placed on board vessels, the seamen and firemen would refuse to navigate the vessels. The same menaces, futile for the most part, but significant none the less, since they show the existence in outline of a vast and far-reaching conspiracy, have been held out in every one of the great disputes that have been mentioned. Mr. Wilson’s threats during the Dock Strike, the nefarious manifesto issued during that strike, with the view either of causing or of terrifying the public with the apprehension of a general paralysis of trade; the threats of Mr. Wilson and of an Irish agitator, representing the coal-porters, during the gas-workers’ affair; the abortive manifesto issued to the carmen of London by Mann and his allies during the strike at Hay’s Wharf; and the incidents of the recent disturbance at Cardiff—all these are of such a nature that nobody, remembering them, can doubt the design which these men, call them socialists or not as you will, deliberately entertain. They divide mankind roughly and inaccurately into capitalists and workers, and they desire to so perfect the organisation of labour, that whenever there is a dispute between an employer and his men, the whole force of the labour of the kingdom shall be brought to bear on that dispute with a view to settling it in favour of the men.
Now of these menaces, it is contended, all are distinctly illegal, upon several grounds. Neither carman, nor coal-porter, nor seaman, nor any man who is not engaged upon piecework, has a right to say to his employer, ‘I will not touch these goods,’ ‘I will not navigate the ship in which they are conveyed,’ unless he has entered into such a contract with his master as will save him from the consequences of his prima facie illegal refusal to perform the duty for which he was hired. In the absence of such a contract, he is liable to be prosecuted at the instance of his master. But it is here proposed to formulate, and that without much hesitation, a wider proposition, to wit that in the absence of such a contract the recusant men are liable to be prosecuted not only by their masters but by the aggrieved persons, and, in the presence of such a contract, not only men but masters are liable to be prosecuted by the aggrieved persons. Who are the aggrieved persons? They are the merchants and shippers who, by reason of what, for the present, shall be called an agreement, are prevented from having their goods carried in a lawful manner. Now all conspiracies are agreements; in fact, all agreements are conspiracies; and of agreements or conspiracies some are criminal and some are innocent. It happens, very fortunately, that the line between the criminal and the innocent conspiracy has been recently drawn by the Court of Appeal in a recent case, the result of which is that a conspiracy, even though it may tend to injure the property or the prospects of C, is innocent, as between A and B, if it is calculated to result in benefit to them. This doctrine has been questioned, and will be tested in the House of Lords, since it renders the denotation of the words ‘innocent conspiracy or agreement’ wider than it has ever been. It will certainly not be extended. The inevitable inference from it, whether it be correct or too wide matters not, is that a conspiracy between A (Coal-porters Union) and B (Seamen and Firemen’s Union) to the injury of C (the South Metropolitan Gas Company) is criminal, even though it be entered into with the view of doing service to D (the gas-stokers). In short it is believed that the simple law of the matter is that, in the case of a strike, the Union which is a stranger to the dispute has, being an aggregation of individuals, a doubtful right to subscribe to the strike fund, but no right whatsoever to go out of its way to injure the employers concerned.
Let us away from technicalities and look at the morality of strikes. Small matters may be passed by. No human being in his senses really thinks that anybody has a right to intimidate, by word or deed, the man who offers to take work upon terms which the intimidator has refused. No reasonable man can think that the Unionist has a right to say to his master, ‘You shall not employ a non-Unionist,’ or to make things unpleasant for the non-Unionist if he is employed. Some things must be taken as postulates, and amongst them are the propositions that a man has a right to take such work as may be offered to him upon such terms as he can obtain, and that an employer has a right to offer terms of employment at his discretion. It may be that the employer may offer less than will support the man, whereas he could afford to support him and still make a profit. In such a case he is cruel, unjust, wicked; but in a world which becomes more and more practical, it is impossible to conceive a community the laws of which would refuse to recognise and support the right of free contract in relation to adult human labour, which would deprive the working man of freedom in the use of the only capital he possesses, his sturdy body and muscles; and it is needless to point out that, if there existed a law regulating wages, nothing would be more simple than to evade it. There have been such laws in the past; they were consistently evaded: there is neither rhyme nor reason in passing laws which cannot be enforced. If a law be passed to the effect that the writer shall not work more than so many hours per day, and shall not receive more than x nor less than y for his work, he will engage, given a demand for his services, to work precisely as long as he pleases, and to take on occasion xy or .
It would be idle to deny the absolute right of the individual, or of the members of a given Union, to strike when they please. A strike, that is to say, a strike brought about by formal giving of notice, and not by sudden refusal to work, may be foolish, may even be wrong from the point of view of the wives and families whom the men are bound to support, but cannot in any advanced community be made punishable at law. We must allow men to take their own measures for the improvement of their own position so long as they do so without disturbing the public peace, and, if they are punished, it must be for disturbing the peace or for combining to disturb it, not for combining to further their own interests, whether wisely or foolishly.
This Union of Unions, indefensible as it is at law, is a thing which cannot long be tolerated in a civilised community. Let us examine this chronic conspiracy of which manifestoes and speeches from representatives of men not concerned in this or that dispute are the only sign. It is hardly an existing fact; it is something more than an idea. (Since these words were written the Federation of Labour, which is the Union of Unions, has made great strides to the front.) It represents in fact the determination of various men, not entirely without influence among the working-classes, that whenever employer and employed are at variance, the whole force of the employed in the kingdom, and for aught we know in the civilised world, is to be brought to bear upon the employer; that he is to be boycotted until he has been driven into submission; that other masters are to be coerced into helping in the process of boycotting. Now this determination comes, in the first place and manifestly, from a desire upon the part of agitators to use the most effectual weapon at their disposal, and it is based, since there is no other possible foundation for it, upon the idea that Labour and Capital are constantly at war with one another, that there is a distinct line and opposition of interests between the classes and the masses. It is unnecessary to show in detail the errors of this idea; to point out that without the aid of the mind which planned a railway, the men who found the money to lay it, and the directors who watched over its destinies afterwards, there would have been no room for engine-drivers, stokers, plate-layers, guards, brakesmen, signalmen, porters, and all the rest of them, and that the case of every industry is analogous.
Nor is war between capital and labour a real or a permanent thing. It may very safely be said, even in this era of agitation and strikes, that in spite of the endeavours of the Tilletts, the Wilsons, and the Manns to induce men to believe that they are being ill-treated, the men who are contented with their employment and with the rate of wages paid to them vastly outnumber the malcontents; but the last-named are, of course, the men who make the most noise. Strikes will come from time to time, and they are genuine fights to which men apply, sadly but with accuracy, the language of the battlefield. Men will not, by wilful blindness to the truth, by blind use of inappropriate terms, hasten the coming of those halcyon days when employer and employed shall have an equal interest in work done upon this or that profit-sharing principle, or when every dispute between man and master shall be settled by quiet discussion of a council table between representatives of either party. The intolerable incidents of the present state of warfare are bringing those days appreciably nearer to us. Numerous profit-sharing schemes have been established, and of these a few, notably those of Mr. George Livesey, are eminently successful. We hope to see more of such schemes in the future, and of designs, such as that which the Sliding Scale Committee embodies, designs calculated to render strikes impossible and founded upon principles capable of wide application.
In the meanwhile, although there is nothing in the nature of constant war between capital and labour, there are—and there is no sort of use in shutting one’s eyes to the truth—frequent battles. It is urged in this connection that the ends of the State are best served when the field of those battles is most narrowly confined. If, to take a recent example, when the proprietors of Hay’s Wharf are at daggers drawn with their men, all the carmen and all the dock-labourers, stevedores, lightermen, and coal-porters of London, make common cause with the men of Hay’s Wharf, there can be but one result. Masters unite and working-men learn that their maxim ‘Union is strength’ is of universal application. If the working-men of the kingdom or of the world are to form themselves into one aggressive body, it is almost a matter of necessity that employers in their turn should be driven into united action for defensive purposes. The results of collision between bodies so large must be serious; even now strikes in which men are supported, not only by the money, but also by the threats of outsiders, in which masters are encouraged by men engaged in kindred enterprises to stiffen their backs, are carried to such a length as to be productive of incalculable loss and to strain public patience almost beyond endurance. In proportion to the increase of the strength of the Union of Unions, and to the corresponding development, in spite of diversities of interest, of the spirit of unity among masters, is our approach to that state of warfare between capital and labour in which industry and commerce must necessarily languish and the public peace must, almost inevitably, be broken more and more often. The writer, for his part, having no confidence in the medicinal art of the statesman, and having a due regard for the fact that parliamentary efforts to deal with questions involving the relations between capital and labour have failed almost without exception, ventures to think that out of all these evils good will, after much suffering and tribulation, surely come. Let anything approaching to a general struggle between capital and labour once be fought out, and the result will not be dissimilar to that of the Franco-German War. The loss and the pain to both sides will be so great, whole districts and provinces will be so impoverished, that without the sanction of Parliaments and without the help of Governments, men and masters will combine to establish institutions, calling them Tribunals, Boards, or Committees, and to provide for them such an efficient sanction as shall make their awards certain of effect and render impossible future conflicts of equal magnitude. In short, although there are clouds in the sky now, there is room for hope. There is no danger that the Armageddon of capital and labour will be fought; but there is almost a certain prospect of a sharp conflict all along the line. From it labour will emerge convinced that, on the whole, without capital, it is helpless, and capital with the knowledge, which indeed it possesses already, that labour is not to be trampled upon lightly. On anything approaching to confiscatory socialism there is no real danger, for two reasons. Man is not by nature socialistic. He will, as a plain matter of fact, continue to love himself better than his neighbour, to seek in the first place his own advantage. Moreover, those who have some of this world’s wealth, and who are, or deem themselves, a little stronger, a little more skillful, a little more clever than the average of their fellows, are the greater number of mankind. To such men, to every man who has anything to lose, to him who feels the dignity of honest work, to him who loves freedom, to him who hopes to raise himself, the idea of socialism, as a practical thing, is altogether odious. Such men feel that to surrender their liberty of action, to resign themselves to living upon one dead level, to lay aside hope and ambition, would be to relinquish their humanity. They will not do so, and, if they would, they cannot; for a man can only rid himself of the individual spring of action, as he can relieve himself of his shadow, by going forth into outer darkness.