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Socialist Commonwealth

Volume 92: debated on Tuesday 23 April 1901

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I rise to move the motion that stands in my name. After the discussion to which we have just listened, in which one section of the community has claimed support from the State, and shown that German steamship lines have an advantage over British lines because they are subsidised by the State, I trust the House will listen to the logical outcome of these arguments. I make no apology for bringing the question of Socialism before the House of Commons. It has long commanded the attention of the best minds in the country. It is a growing force in the thought of the world, and whether men agree or disagree with it, they have to reckon with it, and may as well begin by understanding it. In the German Empire Socialism is the one section of political thought which is making headway, and to an extent which is, I believe, alarming the powers that be. Over fifty Socialist members occupy seats in the German Reichstag, between forty and fifty in the Chamber of Deputies in France, and between thirty and forty in the Belgian Parliament. Socialism on the Continent therefore is an established and recognised fact so far as its entry into politics is concerned, and if it be argued that while that may be true of the Continent it is not true of this country, I reply that the facts and conditions now existing in this country are such as to make it extremely probable that the progress of Socialism in this country will be at a more rapid pace than in any other country in Europe. Needless to say at this hour of the evening it is impossible for me to treat this subject adequately, and I will therefore summarise briefly the principal arguments that it was my intention to submit to the House had time permitted, I begin by pointing out that the growth of our national wealth instead of bringing comfort to the masses of the people is imposing additional burdens on them. We are told on high authority that some three hundred years ago the total wealth of the English nation was a hundred millions sterling. At the beginning of the last century it had increased to two thousand millions, and this year it is estimated to be thirteen thousand millions. While our population during the last century increased three and a half times, the wealth of the community increased over six times. But one factor in our national life remained with us all through the century, and is with us still, and that is that at the bottom of the social scale there is a mass of poverty and misery equal in magnitude to that which obtained 100 years ago. I submit that the true test of progress is not the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, but the elevation of a people as a whole. I admit frankly that a considerable improvement was made in the condition of the working people during the last century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the nation industrially was sick almost unto death. It was at that time passing from the old system of handicraft, under which every man was his own employer and his own capitalist, and traded direct with his customer, to the factory system which the introduction of machinery brought into existence. During these hundred years the wealth of the nation accumulated, and the condition of the working classes as compared with the early years of the century improved, but I respectfully submit to the House that there was more happiness, more comfort and more independence before machinery began to accumulate wealth. [AN HON. MEMBER: No.] "No" is not an argument. I ask hon. Gentlemen opposite to listen, and refute my statements if they are incorrect. I will quote an authority on this point whose words deserve respect. I mean the late Professor Thorold Rogers, who supports that view in his "Six Centuries of Work and Wages." The high standard of comfort reached by the labouring classes at the end of the last century has not brought them that happiness which obtained in England three hundred years age, when there was no machinery, no large capitalists, no private property in land, as we know it to-day, and when every person had the right to use the land for the purpose producing food for himself and his family. I said that an improvement was made during the last century, but I would qualify that statement in this respect—that practically the whole of that improvement was made during the first seventy-five years. During the last quarter of the century the condition of the working classes has been practically stationary. There have been slight increases of wages here and reductions of hours there, but the landlord with his increased rent has more than absorbed any advantage that may have been gained. I could quote figures, if that statement is disputed, showing that in all the industrial parts of the country rents during the past twenty years have been going up by leaps and bounds. I will refer to one authority whom even hon. Gentlemen opposite will not dare to call into question. Viscount Goschen, when First Lord of the Admiralty, in defending the Government for refusing to give increased wages to labourers at Woolwich Arsenal, said on 14th April, 1899—

"If the position of the labourers at Woolwich and Deptford was as described, it was rather due to sweating landlords than to the rate of wages. The wages had been raised 20 per cent. in the last ten years, and the house rents 50 per cent. it was constantly the ease in those districts that the increase of wages only led to a larger sum going into the pockets of the landlords, and he was even told that some of the men who were locally the loudest in the cry for justice to the labourers were owners of cottage property, who would benefit if the wages were raised."
In view of a statement of that kind, made by such an authority, I submit that my assertions is not without substance. I come now to the causes which have forced thinking people of all ranks of society to reconsider their attitude towards socialism. I refer particularly to the great and alarming growth of what are known as trusts and syndicates in connection with industry. We have hitherto been accustomed to regard a trust as a distinctively American product. That cannot be said any longer. Let me name a few of the trusts and combinations which have been formed in this country within recent years. Amongst others there are the Cotton Thread Trust, with a capital of £9,750,000; the Fine Cotton Spinners and Doublers, with a capital of over £5,000,000; the Bradford Dyers, £3,750,000; the Bleachers' and Calico Printers' Association, £14,000,000; Cory and Co., London. £2,600,000; Rickett and Co., London, £900,000; Armstrong, Whit worth, and Co., engineers, over £4,000,000; the Associated Cement Makers, over £7,000,000; the well-known Castle Line, £2,000,000; the Wilson, Furness, and Leyland and the Leyland Line, between them, £3,450,000. These are figures which might well give the House of Commons pause, and cause it to reconsider its attitude towards the whole question of political economy. So long as industry is conducted by individuals competing one with another there is a chance of the article produced being supplied at an approximation to its market value, but competition has been found to be destructive of the interests of the owners and possessors of capital in this as in every other country. Three or four firms which formerly entered one market and competed with each other find it conducive to their interests to combine, thereby creating a monopoly which enables them to charge whatever price they like, and to treat their workpeople in any way that seems good to them. I approach this question of trusts from two points of view: first, from that of the consumer, who is at the mercy of an uncontrolled and, it may be perfectly unscrupulous combination which cares only for dividends; and, secondly—and this is to me of greater concern from that of the worker. The consumer may protect himself, but the worker is helpless. I could quote instance after instance of the most scandalous and shame less persecution of workmen by these big trusts and combinations, railway monopolies and the like. I will refer only to one case, which occurred last year in connection with the Great Eastern Railway. An employee was elected to serve on the Poplar Borough Council, exercising a right conferred upon him by this House, and being elected to a body created by this House. He was dismissed from his employment because he had permitted himself to be elected to apply a part of his own time to the public welfare without having obtained the leave of his employers. As John Stuart Mill—himself a convert to socialism, despite the fact that as a political economist of the older school he had written against the system before he understood its full meaning and the necessity for it—wrote—
"The social problem of the future we [referring to himself and his wife] consider to be how to unite the greatest liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe and an equal participation in all the benefits of combined labour."
We are rapidly approaching a point when the nation will be called upon to decide between an uncontrolled monoply, conducted for the benefit and in the interests of its principal shareholders, and a monopoly owned, controlled, and manipulated by the State in the interests of the, nation as a whole. I do not require to go far afield for arguments to support that part of my statement concerning the danger which the aggregation of wealth in a few hands is bringing upon us. This House and the British nation knows to their cost the danger which comes from allowing men to grow rich and permitting them to use their wealth to corrupt the press, to silence the pulpit, to degrade our national life, and to bring reproach and shame upon a great people, in order that a few unscrupulous scoundrels might be able to add to their ill-gotten gains. The war in South Africa is a millionaires' war. Our troubles in China are duo to the desire of the capitalists to exploit the people of that country as they would fain exploit the people of South Africa. Much of the jealousy and bad blood existing between this country and France is traceable to the fact that we went to war in Egypt to suppress a popular uprising, seeking freedom for the people in order that the interest of our bondholders might be secured. Socialism, by placing land and the instruments of production in the hands of the community, eliminates only the idle, useless class at both ends of the scale. Half a million of the people of this country benefit by the present system; the remaining millions of toilers and business men do not. The pursuit of wealth corrupts the manhood of men. We are called upon at the beginning of the twentieth century to decide the question propounded in the Sermon on the Mount as to whether or not we will worship God or Mammon. The present day is a mammon-worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute-god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place. I beg to submit in this very imperfect fashion the resolution on the Paper, merely premising that the last has not been heard of the Socialist movement either in the country or on the floor of this House, but that, just as sure as Radicalism democratised the system of Government politically in the last century so will Socialism democratise the country industrially during the century upon which we have just entered. I beg to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That, considering the increasing burden which the private ownership of land and capital is imposing upon the industrious and useful classes of the community, the poverty and destitution and general moral and physical deterioration resulting from a competitive system of wealth production which aims primarily at profit making, the alarming growth of trusts and syndicates able by reason of their great wealth to influence Governments and plunge peaceful Nations into war to serve their interests, this House is of opinion that such a condition of affairs constitute a menace to the well-being of the Realm, and calls for legislation designed to remedy the same by inaugurating a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not for profit, and equality of opportunity for every citizen."—( Mr. Keir Hardie, Merthyr Tydvil.)

Assuming this subject is worth speaking upon at all, the twenty-five minutes which have been devoted to the question are hardly sufficient to inaugurate a socialistic commonwealth. The hon. Member who proposed the resolution, speaking of the Associated Cement Makers, and using this as an argument against trusts, said that—

It being midnight the debate stood adjourned.

Adjourned at five minutes after Twelve of the clock.