Another year older. Are we another year wiser? I doubt it somehow. This months' Gateway offerings are substantial in length and so I won't add much to that. My observations for this New Year are that we have definitely not learned from mistakes of the past and therefore are most certainly condemned to repeat them (endlessly, with variations.)
This month, Leatham writes about the 20th Century Puzzle. This is one that surely, as we settle into the 21st Century we should have solved. But no.
I can't help but feel (at least politically) that the appropriate advice is 'abandon hope all ye who enter here' as we move into 2018. The Star Wars Saga continues but I see no 'New Hope'. I see a new generation, struggling with fundamentally the same issues, in a new format - but never looking back with enough insight to realise the lessons we might learn - including that Hope is never enough!
Is the answer Decadence? Leatham thinks not. His essay on Decadence in society and literature is interesting if for nothing else than to remind us how loose definitions can actually be - and how culturally relative so much of our life experience is.
But beyond decadence, the question is how to lift oneself out of the gloom? Well, the world may be going to hell in a handcart (but then, hasn't it always been?) and I suggest it is possible to escape into the past and fictional worlds and learn something in the process. This month Orraman explores Hogg's Brownie, and we counterpoint it with Nicolson's version. My short conclusion is that the world is in need of Brownies more than ever today. Politics won't save us. Brownies might help us save ourselves, if we learn the lessons they have to teach. So - this month - read and weep - or laugh -but above all read and THINK. For yourself.
In 2018 I’m tasked with exploring the unco calendar authors. This gives me the chance (and excuse) to read and re-read some unco Scots authors, mostly from the 19th century – what’s not to love. It’s the kind of exploration I relish.
The first of these is James Hogg. You can find my wee guide on www.unco.scot. But here at Gateway I’m offered the privilege of going into the author in a bit more depth and offering more of an opinion and bias than might be strictly acceptable over at unco.
Previous to this task I’ve never really given James Hogg the space he deserved. I’ve fallen prey to reading the ‘bestseller’ and then never really exploring the lesser known paths. That’s something I’m in the process of rectifying. I say process because I have to alert you to the fact, you’ll not get to know James Hogg in an instant. So I got reading… and came across this:
Brownie’s Here, Brownie’s there,
Brownie’s with you everywhere.
You’ve got to love that wee rhyme! It makes me smile and instantly I read it I thought Before Batman there was The Brownie of Bodsbeck. Somehow the rhyme just put me into the zap,pow, kaboom frame of mind. And folks, that’s just the start of Hogg’s box of tricks. Expect fireworks.
His writing is contemporary with Scott which has its challenges. I’m up for much longer and more complex sentence constructions than 21st century or even 20th century fiction favours, and can more than hold my own with work from the second half of the 19th century. But when I head back to the early 19th century, and beyond that, into the spill over of the 18th century, I begin to struggle. Mostly I don’t bother. Mostly that’s because the content is as difficult for me to swallow as the form. But with Hogg this isn’t the case. Hogg is not your usual writer.
He’s unapologetic in his use of Scots dialect. That can slow things down, but slowing things down can help you to savour them. And yes, he uses long and convoluted sentences so you have to hold onto your hat to try and keep up with the complex ideas. Unlike Scott (and most other late 18th/early 19th century writers) he’s not writing from the position of the upper ‘ gentle’ classes. Nor even from an emerging aspiring middle class. He’s writing, if not exactly from the position of the working class, (his Ettrick Shepherd routine is partially a construct) then at least he writes honestly about them and with a knowledge that is neither patronising nor damning. That’s enough to keep me reading.
Hogg has lots to offer, and to readers who have substantially different interests to my own, I know that. So don’t just take my word for it. I’ll tell you what I like about him, but there’s plenty more to reward time spent in his company.
My particular favourite at present is The Brownie of Bodsbeck. I’m not big into the supernatural, but I do love a good Aiken Drum/Brownie tale. I like the ‘outsider/community’ aspect of the tale. And in The Brownie of Bodsbeck Hogg is being really clever in his delivery. It’s actually the cover for a Covenanting Tale. So if you’re interested in the history of Covenanting (or indeed the history of Covenanting stories) as I am, it’s a must read. We are often sold our Covenanting history on the back of the Jacobites with ‘Whiggism’ constructed as a lackey of the Union. S.R. Crockett goes a long way to redress this balance, and he drew much of his inspiration from Hogg. It’s a connection which has not been explored nearly fully enough to date –let’s hope that changes some time soon.
Without wanting to spoil the story for you, Hogg’s mysterious ‘Brownie’ is in fact a Covenanter, and the guts of the story is to do with the viciousness and violence visited on the ordinary folk of the Borders as part of the Killing Times. As such it’s raised far beyond a tale of the supernatural, and into an exploration of society and politics of the time. That’s what I love about it anyway.
Hogg is a subversive writer. Brownie shows this, and as I am working my way through the Perils of Man and the Perils of Woman I am finding the same thing – though in ever different ways. He keeps you on your toes as regards structure. He deals with a load of complex ideas about people and society. He’s definitely no Walter Scott - and that, to my mind, is a good thing. But that said, if you like Scott (and can thole the dialect) you’ll probably like Hogg too.
There’s enough reading in Hogg to keep you going all year – though perhaps you might want to pair him up with something easier and save him for the times you can spare a good few hours or days to really get your teeth into him at his own pace. He’s the complete opposite of the beach-holiday read, though for me, were I stuck on a beach for a week, Hogg is the man I’d want to take with me. His brand of escapism is for those who like to escape while keeping their brain engaged. Is he the thinking man’s (or woman’s of course) Walter Scott? I think he possibly is.
James Leatham’s Pamphlet Publication of ‘The Brownie of Blednoch.’
William Nicholson, Supreme Type of the Wandering Minstrel.
William Nicholson, the Galloway poet, was born at Tanimaus, in the parish of Borgue, Galloway on 15th August 1782. We ought to be surprised to learn that in his boyhood weak eyesight prevented his progress at school; but the handicap of childish lameness probably had much to do with giving Walter Scott’s mind a bookish turn; and the Ettrick Shepherd learned to read only after he had passed school age. He was herding at the age of seven.
Unfitted, we are told, for the local callings of shepherd or ploughman, Nicholson became a packman, and for thirty years he traversed his native country, reciting and singing his own verses, which became popular in a way and to a degree that is now impossible. There are no Willie Nicholson’s now on the road and the fun and fact, the fancy and music and diablerie he and his class disseminated through rural Scotland are no longer in the scheme of things.
Visiting a large Aberdeenshire farm, we looked into the bothy, which had recently been refitted internally. It was forbiddingly bare of any homelike decoration; not a picture on the walls, nor a book or even a page of a newspaper was to be seen. On the mantelpiece, however, we found, as sole symbol of the cultural heritage of the ages, a copy of the Rules of the Order of Buffaloes! To a halflin who stood by I remarked that in such a place we would at one time have expected to see at least a Burns, a bible and some number of the Tales of the Borders. ‘Na’ he said with a grin, ‘there’s nae billies o’ that kin’ here.’
In 1814 Nicholson issued a small 12mo book of ‘Tales and Verse Description of Rural Life and Manners,’ by which he is reported to have cleared £100. In 1828 a second edition appeared, with a memoir by his friend M’Diarmid, of Dumfries.
But Willie missed all the chances he had of ceasing to be what he essentially was – the gaberlunzie piper, singer, and reciter; and at the age of sixty-seven he died in poverty at Kildarroch in Borge on 16th May 1849 – ‘a true man of genius,’ and the friend of all.
Of Nicholson and his poems great-hearted Dr. John Brown says: ‘They are worth the knowing. None of them has the concentration and nerve of ‘The Brownie’ but they are from the same brain and heart. ‘The Country Lass,’ a long poem is excellent; with much of Crabbe’s power and compression.
‘Poor Nicholson, besides his turn for verse, was an exquisite musician, and sang with a powerful and sweet voice. One may imagine the delight of a lonely town-end when Willie the packman and piper made his appearance, with his stories and jokes and ballads, his songs and reels and ‘wonton wiles.’
‘There is one story about him which has always appeared to me quite perfect. A farmer in a remote part of Galloway, one June morning before sunrise, was awakened by music. He had been dreaming of heaven, and when he found himself awake he still heard the strains. He looked out and saw no one; but at the corner of a grass field he saw his cattle and young colts and fillies huddled together, and looking intently down into what he knew was an old quarry.’
The farmer ‘put on his clothes and walked across the field, everything but that strange wild melody still and silent in this ‘the sweet hour of prime.’ As he got nearer ‘the beasts’ the sound was louder; the colts with their long manes, and the nowt with their wondering stare, took no notice of him, straining their necks forward, entranced.
‘There in the old quarry, the young sun glinting in his face, and resting on his pack, which had been his pillow, was our Wandering Willie, playing, and singing like an angel – ‘an Orpheus, an Orpheus.’
‘What a picture!’ When reproved by the prosaic farmer for wasting his health and time, the poor fellow said; ‘Me and this quarry are long acquaint, and I’ve mair pleasure in pipin’ to thae daft cowts than if the best leddies in the land were figurin’ a way afore me.’’
Nicholson was an unmoneyed man; but that he should be so happily absorbed in his playing and singing did not call for the pitying epithet ‘poor.’ On a June night there may be a more uncomfortable bedchamber than a quarry-hole in the fields. We have known men and women of substance who could not tell one tune from another. They were born poor, and lived and died in that special condition of poverty, the most spiritual of the arts a closed book to them.
The artist so rapt in the enjoyment of his art that nothing else counts, is happily still known among us. Walter Hamspon (“Casey”) was found playing his violin on a Yorkshire moor while an audience was assembling for him in the nearest town. Anthony Smith, a very fine cellist and an intelligent man, sat playing by the wayside in the station square of Aberdeen for hours on end, oblivious to the world, the collection, and the professional engagements he might have had, upon conditions with which he could not comply. How they love and live in their art, such men.
William Nicholson is notable for us – a generation so different from his – because he, like Burns, was so unlike the traditional Scot. There are men of other nationalities who have the ‘defective sympathies’ which Charles Lamb found to be a characteristic of the Scots he knew. But neither north nor south of the Tweed are they the outstanding ones, these men who play for safety in all things, who keep their heads cool, their feet warm, and ‘never put out their hand further than they can conveniently draw it back again.’
The men who stand out in the life of Scotland have not been the traditional Scots. William Wallace, Robert Bruce, John Knox, the Admirable Crichton, Robert Burns, David Livingstone, Louis Stevenson, Chinese Gordon, Cunninghame-Graham, were none of them canny, careful, plodding, unimaginative men. Even Andrew Carnegie made his first success by ‘a piece of lawless initiative’ that served a good turn for other people.
‘The Brownie of Blednoch’ shows that in the mercenary calling of a pedlar it is possible to preserve and cultivate the supreme gift of imagination – that gift which, in one form or another, enables the dreamer of dreams to reason from what is or has been to the better things that are to be.
William Nicholson, moving around with his music, his poetry, and his happy comradeship, welcomed wherever he was known, is in his life a challenge to the self-regarding one who dully thinks of success and of self, a taker rather than a giver at the table of life.
Of the poem here reprinted, Dr. John Brown wrote:
We would rather have written these lines than any number of Aurora Leighs, Festuses, or such like, with all their mighty ‘somethingness’ as Mr Bailey would say. For they, are they not ‘the native wood-notes wild’ of one of Nature’s darlings? Here is the indescribable impress of genius. Chaucer, had he been a Galloway man might have written it; only he would have been more garrulous and less compact and stern. It is like Tam O’Shanter in its living union of the comic, the pathetic, and the terrible. Shrewdness, tenderness, imagination, fancy, humour, word-music, dramatic power, even wit – all are her. I have often read it aloud to children, and it is worth anyone’s while to do it. You will find them repeating all over the house for days such lines as take their heart and tongue.
Glasgow in the Limelight
What and Who Made Glasgow Socialist?
One of the Pioneers
There was at one time a widely prevalent conception that Socialism was a creed held only by amiable idealists – ‘fools and poets,’ as it was breezily expressed. The opposite view is now epitomised in the epithet ‘Bolshevik,’ which aims at connoting an ogre thirsting for blood and loot, and ‘in need of a bath,’ as Lord Birkenhead in his more irresponsible days put it. Socialism undoubtedly has always drawn the poets, to its credit (and to theirs) be it said. But if Germany had its Freilligrath and Britain its Morris, before either of these poets were the ‘economists and calculators’ Rodbertus, the junker of Judgetnow; Lassalle, a wealthy and luxurious Jew, ‘the wundekind of philosophy’ (as Baron Hunboldt called him); Marx and Engels, the latter a prosperous and caustic cotton manufacturer and Marx certainly not a soft-hearted poet; and in England H.M.Hyndman, Oxford man, war correspondent, and latterly financier. Not much of the rapt, mooning dreamer about any of these latter, any more than there is today about ex-civil servants such as Sidney Webb and Philops Snowden, or bank inspectors like the late David Campbell, or shrewd manufacturers like Willie Leach of Bradford; France Littlewood of Huddersfield; and John Jackson, of Salford.
To have constructive imagination, foresight, ‘the presentiment of the eve,’ belongs essentially to the character of the best type of business man.
If the best type of business man in Glasgow does not turn to Socialism as a deliberate, declared movement, it is partly because churchianity is still very much of a manacle upon the mentality of the ‘respectable classes’ in Scotland as a whole. But if the very successful Glaswegian does not take up with Socialism in theory, he does so extensively in municipal practice. Glasgow has so long taken the lead in the Socialism of the Municipality that it was a standing marvel she did not until now strike out for the larger Collectivism of the State. It was because of the shrewdness of her business men that they adopted as much Socialism as suited them, while opposing the sort of Socialism that might not suit them. To municipalise gas, water, and tramways, to establish municipal lodging houses, crèches, washhouses, farms and a works department did not greatly disturb vested interests. The shareholders of the old tramways company did not depend on tramway dividends for a livelihodd and they were a specially grasping lot, and treated the public and their employees so badly that it was only human nature that there should be reprisals upon them. Then the corporation always owned the lines anyhow. So long as textiles, shipbuilding, or the metallurgical and chemical industries were not interfered with, the shrewd Glasgow business man, by reason of his very shrewdness was willing and even anxious to adopt Collectivism. Indeed if he could be sure that every other business could be socialised and his left alone, he might well be in favour of a process that would suit him so well as a consumer and a citizen. But just there comes the rub. He could not hope for anything of the sort, and his sympathy would naturally go out ot any form of threatened private enterprise from the consideration that his turn might come next. And so he has favoured the socialising of ‘monopolies,’ without stopping to define exactly what a monopoly is. Every business is a monopoly to those who are outside it.
But if this consideration operates with the employer, it need have no weight whatever with the man who is not an employer and who is not likely ever to be. The capitalist municipalisers builded better than they knew. They gave a succession of object lessons proving how immensely successful large-scale managerial direction in the market, such as a public service can always command.
They were so proud of these civic successes that they could not forbear stroking the t’s and dotting the I’s – in municipal reports and speeches, and the newspapers. Outsiders took up the cry. When in a Nineteenth Century article Mr John burns wished to state the case for London Collectivist Development as against company extortion and mismanagement, it was to the Collectivist triumphs of Glasgow that he turned for his examples of the better way. The thing, at last, was done. The wonder is that the intellectual and manual labour proletariat voted against their own obvious interests so long.
There was no escaping the moral, sooner or later, that if better and cheaper service, better treatment of employees, and impressive money surpluses for the common good could be secured from a few services, the process was capable of indefinite extension, the personnel of local government being increased to cope with the additional work, and the conduct of a business simply transferred from a board of more or less amateur directors to a not more amateur committee of the city council.
The largeness of Glasgow helped in many ways. For one thing, bigness makes for larger conceptions. Where large sums had to be spent, a certain amount of prospecting had to be done. Deputationists came back with enlarged ideas from what they saw being carried on elsewhere. Pro or con, they were obliged to think matters out, and ample revenues deprived cheeseparing of much of its motive. Local pressure and local criticism were much less felt than they would have been in a small town. A big job often had to go on, and heavy items of emergency expenditure had to be sanctioned by the convenor of a committee even if he was the only member who turned up at a meeting for the purpose. This on the administrative, public side.
But bigness helped the mental growth of the private citizen too. In a small community , with small businesses, Jack and his master are much more closely in touch than where businesses belong to limited companies and Jack has no one master in particular. In the small community Jack may start in business more readily than in a city where the shipyards, foundries, shops, offices are on the big scale, with plant, buildings, and raw material beyond his means. His position as ‘hand’ is stereotyped. With the hands he must stand as a matter of course.
Thus the evils attending the concentration of wealth work their own cure by causes inherent in the system.
Not that the inevitable functions inevitably and without conscious direction. The movement which has given Glasgow an overwhelming Parliamentary majority for Socialism dates back to the eighties, when the Socialist movement was represented by branches of the Socialist League and the Social-Democratic Federation. The Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society were to come later in the day. These first-named branches were primarily for the workman, though even by 1887 there was a professor of Glasgow University in the attenuated ranks of the Socialist League. The petty bourgeois also had their Single Tax movement, with which a Lord Provost was connected, their bête noir being, not the capitalist but the landlord. I know no other provincial city in Britain where Georgeism had any following or influence as a movement; but Glasgow in the early nineteen-oughts had enough Single Taxers to maintain a journal and an office staff, and sent out a brilliant speaker in the person of John Paul, a small man in stature only. It is hardly likely that these Individualists have had any lot or part in the return of the Labour men.
Of the men returned, I have met only two in my lecturing days. These are Mr George Hardie, the brother of Keir; and Mr Neil Maclean, who was the little secretary of the Clarion Scouts on at least two of my visits, twenty odd years ago.
The earliest and best exponent of Socialism in Glasgow was J.Bruce Glasier, who was called away two years too soon to witness this great triumph for the principles (if not for the methods) he used to advocate with so much eloquence, at the street coerners chiefly. A native of the isle of Arran, Glasier attended school in Ayr, it seems , though somehow, amid all he told me, he never told me that. He was fairly well schooled and had good taste anyhow. He had little of the Glasgow cadence in his speech, but had a trick of leaving out oa syllable in some words, such as ‘bar’n’ or ‘baron.’ When I first met Glasier in Glasgow he had turned aside from his proper calling of architectural draughtsman, and was drawing iron grates and things of the kind for an ironfounder at Alloa. He preferred the Alloa connection because it left him with more freedom in Glasgow, to which he went home on Saturdays. In those days he needed all his freedom. His ideas were ardently revolutionary, and when in one of his frequent rhapsodies he threw back his high head with its shock of fair hair, and his blue eyes lighted up with splendid visions, you felt that this was the constructive Communist incarnate. He used to chaff me over my pedestrian sanity, and say of each succeeding pamphlet or article I published that it would be ‘appreciated by the trades unionists .’ His first connection with politics had been as secretary of a branch of the Irish National League, and he knew the Irish as few Scotsmen or Englishmen do.
He married Katherine St. John Conway, a Girton girl who came to Manchester, where I already was, in 1893. For years he and Mrs Glasier moved around lecturing, lecturing, incessantly lecturing, putting up in workmen’s houses, and often not seeing each other for weeks on end. They were an absolutely disinterested, single-minded pair, caring nothing about money, and he at any rate very little about comfort, although both of them knew what pleasant surroundings were. Having great thoughts for his companions, he was apt to have spells of silence which passed for absent mindedness, combined latterly with a certain haughtiness which got him the reputation of being somewhat of a Captain Grand. Full of genuine fun and poetic rhodomontade, he nevertheless played at being a politician and had, indeed, some very just views, which he expounded in pointed and picturesque language.
But Glasier was a dreamer, a propagandist and inspirer. Scorning propitiatory arts and the soft answer, no constituency would return him to Parliament, though he offered himself, and though smaller men were accepted. He was in turn editor of the Labour Leader and the Socialist Review and easily the best editor the Leader ever had; but, knowing his own mind, he was a fighting editor, and while his readers resented his sharpness, they did not appreciate his qualities of style and judgement. He was not a ready writer, but when the thought beat itself out it was worth while. He wrote a few pamphlets. He made a few witty songs. But in proportion to one’s feeling of his powers, his literary achievements are trifling. What was it that checked him? I have often speculated. Was it the lethargy of the dreamer? Was there a lack of physical emberance? Or is it simply that he allowed himself to be spent upon meetings? I say spent, not wasted, for it was those meetings that made the movement, in which others are reaping what he sowed.
Glasier was an idealist; but his Idealism had suffered in Glasgow too. When I firest know him he was a ‘barricades man’ ; but on going to England he became very much of a politician in outlook, though never in personal diplomacy. His Idealism suffered in Glasgow by the depressing influence of his surroundings and the helplessness of his position as an employee in the iron-gate business. I who had always been on friendly and equalitarian terms with my bosses could not but be impressed by Glasier’s fear of ‘the governor.’ He once wrote in The Commonweal of a very bad half-hour he had when travelling one day with his Alloa employer. A soldier in the railway carriage (it must have been a third class one, and so the boss would have been no great nabob) hailed Glasier. ‘Aren’t you the block that spouts Socialism at Paisley Road Toll?’ Glasier confessed then in print and afterwards in private that he was greatly relieved when the journey came to an end.
He once remarked to me that an employer ‘always has the advantage of you in an argument, even if you are relatively right. He can put you down by virtue of his position.’ This he said without any bitterness, as if recognising a certain propriety in such domination.
This feeling of helplessness in the tremendous spider’s web of Glasgow’s commercial life showed itself in other ways. He would not spend money upon books, and used to refer to one who did so as ‘a collector.’ A delightfully kind and cultured journeyman trunkmaker, Dan MacCulloch, who liked to gather around him volumes of Carlyle, and to read you favourite passages from Rabelais, was the subject of a good deal of mild scoffing by Glasier, though Dan read the passages very well and had a pleasant voice, and sang very nicely. Glasier was nevertheless very ready to turn to one for a quotation or a verification. His last letter to me contained a request for the best version of a northern ballad which the wife of a Socialist doctor used to sing to us. He was then collecting an anthology of ‘Songs of Peace and War’ (some such title – I have not seen the book.)
It is but natural that a man who loves books, and uses books, and is himself something of an author, should want to be surrounded by books. There are plenty of bookmen in Glasgow; but that the influence of the city is not friendly to study is surely reflected in Glasier’s conception, that a man was ‘a collector’ because he like to gather books about him and was not happy without them. It was not as if Dan MacCulloch and I did not read our books.
It is possible to have lofty ideals as to mankind in the abstract and yet to be suspicious and chilly as regards individuals. It was some abatement of Glasier’s idealism – due, one feels sure, to his experience of Scotland’s largest city – that he was not trustful of the human unit.
In this connection a disagreeable incident occurred in my own house. He had come north on a holiday to the Highlands, and took in Aberdeen on the way that he might see and have a long talk with me. We sat till the summer dawn was well in, and then slipped quietly to bed, feeling a little dissipated and guilty. I had decided to take the morning off from office work that I might see him embarked on the railway journey to Buckie, from which he proposed to take the boat to Inverness, or something of the kind. He emerged from his room looking a little anxious, and explained that he feared he had lost his purse. He had, he said, provided himself with sovereigns and thought he had put the net purse in which they were contained under his pillow on going to bed. He turned over the pillows but could see no trace of it. I mildly wondering that he could not have left his purse, if he needs must carry a purse, in his pocket. He then said that he must have left it behind at home, and that he would telegraph to his people in Glasgow. I lent him a few pounds in notes, without any clear recollection now of whether he was to go on or to stay on till he had a replyl to his telegram.
We left the house, I feeling uncomfortable, and he doubtless a little dashed also, when my wife came running after us. He had pushed the purse so far under the pillow that it had fallen out at the end of the iron bed, and it was lying on the floor under the bed. He looked, naturally, greatly relieved and I shared his feeling so much that I forbore comment upon the incident. I am minded of it by the fact that the other day a directory tout from Glasgow came to the little town where I write, and hustled, apparently, a good deal of money out of women and shopgirls by calling in the absence of the menfolk and pretending that two years subscriptions were due. He got it from my assistant; and a letter to his employers has elicited an apology, but no return of the money.
Glasgow figures largely in the newspapers in the annals of crime, and it is impossible to live in such surroundings without suffering by it. One of his majesty’s judges commented the other day on the alliance between crime and civic neglect; this a propos a heavy calendar for the assizes at Leeds, one of the most sordid towns in Britain.
This is part of the Socialist case against Commercialism. How could Glasgow escape these consequences?
The life of a large city makes men play for safety, and idealism and playing for safety are sworn foes. Country caution is founded, not on suspicion but on mere slowness.
Still, there Glasier was, for years the greatest, most charismatic pioneer of Socialism in Glasgow – all the more admired because he was not in the least concerned about becoming an elected person or in any way getting kudos out of what was his religion and his heart’s desire. The title of his most typical lecture was ‘The Promise and Prophecy of Socialism.’
Not anything to do with wages or machinery of politics but a picture of a grand and gracious social system of beautiful buildings, beautiful streets and gardens, beauty in all the features and appurtences of life, and not least so in the men and women who were to enjoy and profit by the redemption of life from the multifarious blights of commercialism, moral and mental as well as physical.
The Glasgow with which Glasier was familiar was essentially a Tory Glasgow. Picking up a reference book of those days I find that of the nine seats which the political city then consisted, three only were held by the Liberals and six by Tories, mostly of a peculiarly arid type. The one exception was Sir J.Stirling Maxwell, who sat for the College division and who had some of the characteristics that make the man of learning, leisure and culture very attractive to those who have none of these advantages. In the electoral statistics of these days Labour is represented by Mr Robert Smillie, with 696 votes against Mr Alex Cross’s poll of 3108 in CAmlachie. Shaw Maxwell with 443 in Blackfriars and Frank Smith with 368 in the Tradeston Division, as against Cameron Corbett’s 3373 votes. In spite of the Irish, Glasgow was a tory Town.
I do not suppose the political revolution coincides with a mental revolution. Wullie Paterson and his wife have not become ‘intellectuals’ all at once. Mrs Burnett Smith (‘Annie Swan’) testified after her defeat that the Labour women who questioned her before voting against her were better informed than the women still attached to the old-fashioned parties. It was very pleasant to read that, especially as coming from one who had suffered by this spread of intelligence.
Doubtless some part of the changeover is due to the specially large number of unemployed in the Clyde valley. This would not be a satisfactory foundation for steadiness in the future. The unfortunate feature of the shipbuilding industry is that it has depended largely upon the creation of battleships. The good of the world requires that there should be less and less of this production of illth as Ruskin called it to distinguish it from wealth. It was satisfactory to see that Mr Hardie declared for houses rather than battleships. It will be magnificent if the Clyde men can stick to that and still find a living, even if there should be some privation before the transfer to peace production is effected. With so little demand for freights, and much shipping laid up, there is no very cheering prospect ahead.
Will the Clyde Valley men not only stick to their new politics but make sacrifices for the sake of their opinions? Lord Macleay alleges that shipbuilding costs on the Clye are too high, and although Glasgow ILP has taken up the challenge, one has seen no throroughly convincing reply to his statements. The disconcerting fact is that contracts have gone to the east-coast yards.
One has had, from Socialist sources, disquieting accounts of the extent to which the policy of ‘Ca’ canny’ prevails, and wages are of course high as compared with those of some other shipbuilding districts. Glasgow cannot carry the Social Revolution itself, and till the world is changed, the Clyde men must reckon with outside competition.
I do not labour the point, as I wish well to the lively men of the district, and hope for the best. But under capitalism, prevailing conditions must more or less be accepted. It may very well be that, with the building of battleships considerably reduced and orders going elsewhere, even house-building may not be needed in the Glasgow area. In all conscience, Glasgow is big enough already. We may have come to the turning point when the large centres must cease to grow, and the population fall back gradually upon the land, to find a living in new ways. The probability and desirability of this has long been foreseen.
Anyhow, some amendment may be necessary in the spirit shown in the following incident witnessed by a devoted Social-Democrat. In a suburban train one day he found himself in the same compartment with two shipyard hands, once evidently something of an oracle to the other. The oracle decleard: ‘Things’ll never be richt till we have an aicht oors day an’ a poun’ a day for it.’ The other one queried doubtfully, ‘Div ye think it would staun’ it, Jeck?’ Jeck stoutly assured the doubting Thomas that it would, and Thomas seemed to be satisfied that a condition so satisfactory was also possible.
The incident transpired some little time ago, when conditions were better. It is to be hoped that, pending other changes, the ideal will not be fixed so rigidly. In any case, the instransigent spirit over details under capitalism is no necessary part of the Labour ideal.
Who are the Decadents? By way of a reply to an inquirer. (from Sept 1917)
A Berkshire correspondent, in the course of a hearty and friendly letter, says:
What is meant by ‘The Decadents,’ in literature? Why are they decadent? I know the dictionary meaning of decadence but I can’t apply it to the work of men like Zola, Maeterlinck, Ibsen,Wilde, Strindberg, Dowden, Hardy, Shaw, Middleton, Francis Thompson and Frank Harris. All of these men may not be generally considered of the ‘decadent’ school, but, to me they represent a certain affinity of spirit – a new phase of literature and life. The list, too, may not be exhaustive; but these are they whose work I am, perhaps, the better acquainted with. At any rate, they occur to me at the moment without searching. And why decadent?
I like reading the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Bjornson, Wilde and Shaw (although I never visit a theatre). I enjoy the word-mastery of Wilde, his affectation, his striving after effect, in short, if you will, his pose. I like the scorn and powerful satire of Francis Thompson, the devil-may-care abandonment of Dowden, the pessimism of Thomas Hardy, and the new spirit in the short stories of Frank Harris. All these men stir my emotions and cause me ‘furiously to think.’ Is this a sign of literary decadence or moral degeneration?
I regard these men as delivering a necessary message – that is, all is not well with the world. I like the realism they pourtray. I feel the philosophy they preach. Temperamentally, I find an echo of my own pessimism – hence, I suppose, my appreciation of them. Grant Allen was a pessimist: was he a decadent? If not, why not? By what standard are these men, many of them men of real genius, judged decadent, and who are the judges that have condemned them to posterity?
My query applies, perhaps more particularly to the so-called decadents of the ‘Nineties’ but what of our more contemporary decadents – Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, Charles Garrice, and a host of other ‘popular’ writers whose books cover the railway bookstalls, and crowd out decent literature in the bookshops?
If these contemporaries are not decadents because they do not deal in Realism, and preach only orthodox morality in hackneyed phrase and hoary platitude, is decadence a matter of orthodoxy only, or is it an attitude towards life? Oscar Wilde, I presume, was the arch-decadent. Was Walter Pater, who influenced him, also decadent? In short, what is decadence in literature and why?
I have searched the pages of The Gateway from Vol 1. Onwards for some reference to decadence in literature, and, apart from a condemnation by you of the pessimism of Ibsen and Hardy in particular, and of the philosophy of pessimism in general, you do not appear to have dealt with this particular phase of literature.
May I ask you to be good enough to enlighten me, and, I have no doubt, other of your readers, as to what is termed decadence in literature?
As you may gather from this letter, I do not always agree with your point of view, or your conclusions (where I feel competent to judge between us), but you are always explicit, always interesting, always instructive, and I feel that, providing you have the time, here is an opportunity of explaining to your readers another phase of literature and life.
I am writing to you on this question because 1. The Gateway is the only literary journal I know subscribe to, as it is the only one I know of for the ‘Man in the Street’ that is published at the ridiculous price of threepence. 2) I feel that your knowledge of general literature and your experience of the ‘Nineties’ fit you to deal with this particular phase of literature: 3) I rather think that you will give me a different impression of ‘decadence’ and of ‘decadents’ I have named to what my little knowledge tends to form for myself, and I want to know it: 4) your explanation would be of real value to my mental outlook.
I am hoping that when times are again normal, you will see your way to making The Gateway a weekly instead of a monthly journal.
As the word itself indicates, Decadence means a falling away from the natural impulses and motives of humanity at its best. A love of fresh air, movement, freedom, and right; the instinct of sex and parenthood; the social instinct (friendship) as manifested in the horror at murder and in zeal for the saving of life; pugnacity in the face of whatever interferes with the expression of these instincts – all these are natural, and the absence of them or the perversion of them is decadence.
Everything of course has its limits, its just-enough and not-too-much. Charles Kingsley loved to sit and write in a draught, which to most people is unthinkable; most people prefer a cushioned seat or a bed to sitting or lying on the grass, which is flat and hard, has often stones or humps in it, and is always more or less populated by creepy things; and while one prefers rapid motion, one does not like to motor or cycle against the wind, and a rational being abominates the noise, smell, and jolting of a motor cycle. As regards fresh air, the limit on the one hand is the aviator who enjoys flying, even if he has afterwards to be thawed out of his frozen clothes, and on the other hand, the man of letters who likes to sit in a temperature of close on 90, declaring that his mind functions best when he is very hot. I like to write in a large, airy, book-filled room, having a wide outlook upon grass or corn lands, with trees, a river, or a sea in the distance; but one scribe found his mind worked best when he sat embedded in an atmosphere of rotten apples. I like to think that my taste is the natural and seemly one, and that the artists of the rotten apples and the Turkish bath temperature have degenerate tastes.
The decadents are those who deviate from nature or long-established and salutary social practice. The moral decadent is one who does not play the game according to the approved rules, who bilks landladies, runs after other men’s wives, and shirks the maximum number of civic, domestic, and personal responsibilities. In literature the decadent is one whose writing tends to convey the impression that rules don’t matter. He pretends, as Shaw does, that people do what they want to do, and find the reason and justification for it afterwards, if at all. This is very largely true; but the tendency is none the less anti-social, and should not be stated without an accompanying protest. The fact that the wicked often flourish like the green bay tree makes it none the less, but all the more, necessary that we should pour foul scorn upon those who want a greedy handicap in the race; who will not accept the conditions which alone make the race decent, or tolerable, or worth running at all. There would be no sense in playing cards if half of one’s partners were cheats, whose success in gaining tricks did not prove that they were skilled players, but merely that they were unscrupulous ones.
Decadence is another name for immorality, and we brand certain writers as decadent because they make a mock of the things that make life worth living. Thus Nietzsche says: ‘Neither good nor bad, but my taste.’ That is pig philosophy, and it was only natural that Nietzsche should finish up in a madhouse, where the inmates having done as they pleased out of doors, had now to do as their keepers pleased. Not to accept the rules of the game is a confession of weakness. It means that you believe you are so stupid and unskilful that if you play honestly you are sure to be beaten by other competitors. Now, a capable man would rather have the handicap against him than in his favour, because he has enough confidence in himself to believe that he can win even then.
Decadence in Literature
The history of the term Decadent as applied to literature does not seem to carry us far back. The word became noticeably current in the nineties, when the translation of Max Nordau’s book ‘Degeneration’ set people talking. I have not seen that book for over a score of years; but the argument was that literary decadence was insincerity as shown by rhapsody in prose, the use of meaningless refrains in verse, pessimism in outlook, and a tendency to coquet with the unwholesome or positively vicious.
Extensive translation of the verse of Villon, Verlaine, and Baudelaire – men of diseased minds all of them – the poetry of James Thomson (‘BV’) and the prose of Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Leopardi, Amiel, and Ibsen had prepared the atmosphere for an attack on pessimism, and, after the manner of modern warfare, it had to be a flank and not a frontal attack. To say of the pessimists that they were degenerates was a simpler way of casting discredit upon them than to analyse their claims and attitude. Old Judge Braxfield, at the end of a plausible speech from a man on trial for his life, disposed of the prisoner, if not his argument, by saying; ‘Ay, ye’re a clever chiel; but ye wad be nane the waur o’ hanging.’
The Natural History of the Pessimists.
There was, anyhow, plenty of colour for the categorical dismissal of the pessimists as degenerates. Villon, the house-breaker and associate of sluts; Baudelaire, knowing all about opium and hashisch; Leopardi, partially blind and deaf with broken fortunes, bad heredity, and a debilitated body ; Schopenhauer, son of a suicide father and a queer mother; Thomson, with many fine characteristics, but a dipsomaniac whose life was ‘one long defeat’; Von Hartmann, crippled and incapacitated for the military career upon which he had set his mind; Ibsen, the faithless friend, son of a bankrupt, spendthrift father and a neurotic mother – have they not all something of the badge of degeneracy?
The plain answer to the pessimists case is so obvious and so much a matter of detail that writers who would combat it fight shy of direct refutation, especially as they know full well that pessimism is a subjective condition of the mind rather than the result of objective conditions in the life of humanity at large or even in the environment of the dismal one himself. To the pessimist you may say that the duration of life is longer; that there is more freedom from disease; that medicine and surgery are more skilful; that pain is lessened; that crime and violence are less; that the pleasures of life are increasingly numerous and accessible; that laws and manners are both better; and that the outlook for humanity is more promising than ever it was. All that will be true as it is valueless. As Burns wrote:
Human bodies are sic fools,
For a’ their colleges and schools,
That when nae real ills perplex ‘em
They mak enow themsel’s to vex ‘em.
Or as Punch more prosaically said in answer to the question ‘Is life worth living?’ it depends upon the liver. And it does and all, Albert.
Sometimes a Nickname.
Of course the epithet Decadent may sometimes be a mere nickname, intended to be ‘a nasty one’ for somebody whose ideas one does not like. Some of the names included in our correspondent’s list are surely not rightly there. Grant Allen, for instance, had none of the marks of the decadent. It is true he wrote ‘The Woman Who Did,’ but that tale is a warning rather than an example. For the rest, one cannot conceive of any man who showed more of the signs of enjoying and being interested in life at many and varied points. Man of science, letters, novelist by necessity, a Socialist of the chair who enjoyed scarifying in print the so-called Liberty and Property Defence League, Grant Allen appears to us as an outstanding type of optimist who, without any old-fogey illusions, is vastly absorbed in the Passing Show, and very hopeful that man is capable of working out a higher destiny for himself and gives signs that he will do it.
All that is the opposite of decadence. The decadent says ‘What is the good of anything?’ and he answers ‘Why nothing.’ But Grant Allen bubbled over with fun and vitality, finding good in many things.
As said, Nordau found the great mark of decadence in literature to be insincerity, as exemplified, for instance, in meaningless refrains and the tricks of the poseur in general. According to exponents of the Nordau view, Morris’s ballad ‘Two red roses across the moon,’ is decadent because the verse is written round the refrains instead of the refrain being a mere incident, a kind of dramatic pause to heighten the effect of the lines it followed and preceeded. But if a meaningless refrain be the mark of decadence, then the decay set in long ago, for the use of the refrain is as old as poetry itself; indeed it may be older – refrains of even less suggestion than ‘Two red roses across the moon.’ There are in the rural districts of Scotland man known as ‘diddlers’ which does not mean cheats, but men who are fond of singing meaningless words to old tunes or to improvised tunes of their own such as;
Ring a riddle nick a dairie,
Ring a riddle nick a dee
Fal al de riddle al de ray
Ha hey dum dirrum dey dum daa
Hey the riddle and the oram
Roostie rackety roo roo roo
I give these ancient ones as having less sense than the consecrated Shakespearean
Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.
Or the Scottish
Hey and the rue grows bonnie wi’ thyme
With its companion
The thyme it is withered, and rue is in prime.
It is admitted by exponents of the Nordau view that Shakespeare has a good many refrains in themselves meaningless, but that they are always purely subordinate and triflingly incidental; whereas in the plays of his more immediate successors, Beaumont and Fletcher, the meaningless refrain usurps quite a different place and importance and as time went on poetry declined from the strong naturalness of the Elizabethans till it almost disappeared in the laboured ‘conceits’ and fantasticalities of the age of John Donne.
If this were all that was to be said on the subject of decadence in literature it would not be very damaging to those censured, and would certainly mean that decadence was no new and progressive blight that had overtaken literature.
The truth is, the arts are mostly as sincere as ever they were. Prose and poetry are, indeed, more sincere than ever. Not only is the language more direct and flexible, from use and the good reading and good taste of writers, but artificiality in verse and ‘fine writing’ in prose are less common than they were even in the day of Dickens, who himself loved to stretch a topic out on the rack as if to see how much fanciful rhetoric he could spin over it. This from a true Dickens lover who would abate no jot even of the rhodomontade, now that we have it.
No new thing in life.
If decadence is no new thing in literature, neither is it new in life itself. Effeminacy, cowardice, pacifism, slavish subservience, and all the unnatural physical offences are thousands of years old. In spite of commercialism, wealth, ease, luxury, and the dodging of civic responsibilities in the political field, man is today as game in spirits as ever he was, and is certainly cleaner in his life and surroundings. Johnson drank nineteen cups of tea at a sitting, and declared that he ‘had no passion for clean linen.’ When a prosperous trader complacently showed him his new bathroom, the great doctor said: ‘Sir, are you well?... Then let well alone. I hate immersion.’ Gibbon took so little exercise that he grew unwieldily fat. One day at a country house he required his hat, but it could not be found, and he explained that he had not seen it since he came there six weeks before. That sort of festering slothfulness would be inconceivable now. Drunkenness is dying an natural death from the growth of a sheer physical repulsion against it; and there is also a turning away from rich, heavy, stodgy food. Man is developing a physical conscience in increasing degree; and that makes war against degeneracy.
One might show in some detail how well-grounded are the objections to the teaching of some of the writers whose names are given. But Hardy and Ibsen have been dealt with in The Gateway and James Thomson is the subject of one of our pamphlets. One dislikes going over the same ground again. The Decadents are tired people whose tiredness might be pardonable if they did not seek to make a merit of it and induce other people to be tired also. There was a time when one felt like being out with a tomahawk and scalping-knife where they were concerned; but pessimism is itself a tiresome topic, from which one passes with great readi9ness to something constructive, cheerful and concrete.
‘My what a fine crop of potatoes you have,’ said an enthusiastic onlooker. ‘Ay,’ said the pessimistic cultivator, ‘it’s taking far too much out of the soil. Besides, there will be no little ones for the hens!’ Not much use arguing with that attitude is there?
I begin by stating what is to me a proposition so self-evident that it would not be worth setting down if it were not habitually ignored or even denied in practice. My proposition is that, there is no single function discharged by the private landlord and capitalist that cannot be performed much more efficiently and satisfactorily by the organised community working through its servants.
In any newspaper we pick up, indeed in whichever direction we turn our gaze, we see proofs of the elementary and clamorous truth that all the biggest jobs and all the best work are done by combinations; by the team rather than the individual, the choir and the band rather than the soloist, by the co-operative principle in stores, associations, trusts, and mergers as against the individual capitalist, and finally by the State and the Municipality as against all smaller and necessarily less powerful organizations.
The Only Thing That Would Do.
As I write, the chairman of the Midland and Scottish Railway Group has just been proclaiming, once again, the great savings that have been effected by the amalgamation of 120 competing companies into six trusts; and a few weeks ago the newspapers featured sensationally the great chemical combine of which Sir Alfred Mond is the head. From a Tory paper, whose opinions always run counter to the facts it has to record, I read that the City of Manchester employs over 25,000 persons and spends every year £4,000,o00, meaning, of course, that the corporation is by much the largest employer in a city of large concerns. What the Tory paper does not say, but what we all know, is that the Corporation of Manchester is not only the largest employer, but the best employer; that its work is done honestly - with neither scamping of the work nor profiteering as regards the price - and that this great system of public service has arisen strictly on its merits and in spite of the opposition of vested interests to every single advance. The State and the municipality as Public Servants have grown inevitably and notwithstanding all opposition because the principle under-lying Collectivism is as sound as the prejudices underlying Individualism are unsound and have been found to be unworkable in practice. The Collectivism of the State and the Municipality has grown because it was the Only Thing That Would Do. We need only look around us to see that private enterprise is responsible for such concrete evils as the slums, mean streets, poverty, ignorance, and squalor, while public enterprise is the cleansing authority, the order-keeper, the educator, the provider of parks, art galleries, libraries, the only builder now of working-class houses, the provider of pensions, poor law relief, unemployment pay, first aid, maternity benefit, and child-welfare services.
In view of all this evil from unregulated effort and all this good received at the hands of the organised community, the Twentieth Century Puzzle is that everyone should turn to the State for his own good while deprecating the office of the State in the general life of the community. Every class looks to the State for help and furtherance, nor does it look in vain. The capitalist, boasting of the superiority of capitalism, nevertheless turns to the State for subsidies – to bread, coal, dyes, housing, farming, shipping, cotton-growing, and the treatment of sugar beet.
If it be answered that in all these cases the State gives only what it has first taken, at least it is obvious that the State has the power and the goodwill to help when of other aid there is none. But that would be the least part of the rejoinder. The fact is that the State can beat private enterprise on its own ground. Dr. Addison has made the latest public addition to our knowledge on this head. In his little book ‘Practical Socialism’ he has told us, on the basis of the public accounts of the Administration of which he was member, how the National Shell Factory at Dundee produced 18-pounder shells at 9/1, while the average contract price charged by the private firms was 20s. to 23s.; how the national factories produced tin cups at ¾d. as against the private-enterprise price of 2½d.; and how, on transactions totalling £12,000,000, the Ministry of Food, after meeting all expenses, including rationing, made a net profit of £6,391,365 (This seems excessive – fully cent. per cent.; but the figures are so given.); and how the national factories paid the cost of their erection in from two to three years.
These items are only a few additional proofs of superior efficiency and economy of public enterprise. We had already heard and read of how much cheaper corporation electricity could be produced and sold than by private companies. The very best talent is at the service of State and the Municipalities; the larger scale of production tends to greater economy; and of course the element profit for the investor is eliminated.
All that seems so obvious; and yet we proceed in ordinary industrial and commercial practice as if we had heard of none of these results. Even those who have accepted the Collectivist principle as a matter of party affiliation often argue as if they were not quite sure of the superiority of Collective practice.
Thus Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, in censuring the Government for its failure to carry out the socialising recommendations of its own Coal Commission, is acclaimed in Liberal quarters because he favoured, not outright nationalization but what he called ‘a public utility organisation imposed upon a trust organization.’ Mr. Lloyd George seized this abandonment of principle as ‘very significant,’ and Captain Wedgwood Benn was so enamoured of it that he wrote an article for the Daily News about it.
Now, there is no ‘public utility organization’ outside of public ownership and control. If Mr. MacDonald was thinking of concerns such as gas companies and railway companies, which are in different ways subject to a measure of public control, their ‘utility’ is limited to just exactly the extent that they fall short of being really controlled and operated by public servants. As I pointed out at the time Mr. MacDonald made his speech, gas companies are restricted to a five per cent. dividend, but there is no restriction upon the amount they can and do carry to reserve. I know of companies which regularly carry five times as much to reserve as they disburse in dividend. The object of the restriction - which is to keep down the price of gas - is not attained. The reserves belong to the companies. Railway rates are controlled by Act of Parliament and by the Railway Tribunal; but this does not serve the public interest in the way that national ownership has done and is doing. No private railway company in the world can show an increase in its earning capacity to compare with that which has taken place on the Canadian State Railways within the past four years, which Sir Henry Thornton, the manager, put at fifteen-fold – from 60 million dollars a-year under private enterprise to 900 million dollars a-year now.
From a recent issue of the Railway Gazette I quote the following:-
The 1925 report of the State-owned and operated Alsace-Lorraine lines shows a surplus of income over all expenditure of nearly 30,000,000 francs, which automatically goes into the Common Railway Fund. . . . The lines have the advantage of scarcely any debt, and have been realising profits ever since they were taken over from Germany. At one time there was talk of ceding them to the Est Company, but this idea has now been abandoned.
While the British railways are steadily drawing upon the reserves they accumulated during the war years, and have just raised their rates 10 per cent., the Canadian State Railway has rates to which the United States traders in vain demand approximation from the private owners of their capitalistic railways, though these serve much more densely peopled areas than do the Canadian lines. The yearly surpluses from the German and Belgian State railways, in spite of very low rates, were the subject of frequent comment till, in the immediate post-war years, the ‘interests’ were allowed to wreck these lines as a preliminary to denationalising them. To leave fare and freight charges stationary while everything else was inflated sky-high was a short and easy method of reducing them to insolvency. But the old balance sheets stand, and they show benefits to the public such as no ‘public utility organization’ could be expected to equal, or has ever equalled.
Mr. MacDonald might be expected to be more ardent than ever in the advocacy of a principle which is so satisfactory in practice and which is finding such increasing support in the constituencies. He has no mandate from the Party to suggest any form of public utility except in the form of public ownership.
Mr. Maxton Also.
But the leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party does not stand alone. Mr. James Maxton, the chairman of the Independent Labour Party, has stated the aim of his part to be the (a) ‘securing of political power by the ordinary political machine, (b) developing industrial power by the strengthening of the trade unions, and (c) increasing economic power by strengthening the co-operative movement.’
Is there not a disproportionate stressing of movements and machinery here as distinguished from what the movements and the machinery are to accomplish in the way of constructive change?
Socialism at its best surely approaches the citizen with proposals of nationalization and municipalization. To his duty as a voter it is not really necessary that the citizen should be either a co-operator, a trade unionist, or a member of the Independent Labour Party. He may, indeed, be all three and not much of a citizen. National and municipal property already much exceeds in value all that the trade unions and the co-operators can muster in the way of accumulated assets; and to many of us the business and the charm and interest of active citizenship are not enhance by their associations with the soap and clothes-pegs of co-operation or the destructive tactics of trade unionism. When Mr. Maxton writes of the ‘industrial power’ of trade unionism we recall that trade unionism as such has no industrial power. It can stop industry, but as to the starting thereof it still waits for the investor to say the word and find the money. We are too near the disastrous General Strike, foredoomed to failure as it was from the first, to be impressed with the politics of trade unionism. That the Parliamentary representatives of Labour should be free to condemn an ill-judged strike, either after it has taken place or, better still, before it takes place, has become a necessity, not only of self-respecting leadership, but of ordinary citizenship. The spirit behind all strikes - even the me forlorn hope - is right; it is the hankering after better times, a fuller life; but the time, the occasion, and the mode of a strike may be, any or all of them, foolish to the verge of crime. So long as trade unionism functions through capitalism, as it does, it depends upon the success of the capitalist in finding markets for its products. Any market-spoiling strike, therefore, is suicidal. Again, the trades unionists of Woolwich, Chatham, Clydeside, Tyneside, etc., depend upon wars and armaments. A good Socialist wants wars and armaments abolished, and the thousands who live by these anti-social industries set to plough and sow and plant and build houses and make roads and develop electricity. But the good Socialist may well have grave doubts as to how far the confirmed city workman is prepared to travel along the road of de-urbanised progress. A man of so such social goodwill as John Galsworthy pictures two down-and-out city men as supremely miserable when taken out of their slums and set to work at poultry farming. One of them hangs himself because he feels he is degraded by the work and life to which he has been set. This is so much in accordance with what one hears of working-class opinion – even Socialist opinion - that one is not greatly heartened trade union alliance by which Mr. Maxton sets so much store.
Nationalization and Municipalization.
The good Socialist is so fully persuaded of the cogency and ultimate necessity of nationalization and municipalization that he is inclined to urge its acceptance upon all classes. He may do this hopefully and without misgiving, recollecting that the national and municipal services and property we have been secured with the assent and furtherance of citizens of all classes, sometimes in spite of the opposition of Labour men. Thus when the very successful Hull telephones were municipalised the Labour councillors voted against, while a Labour Government dismantled the nationally owned town of Gretna, which the Coalition had built.
It very evidently needs to be repeated that nationalization and, municipalization are the essence of Socialism beyond and above co-operation, trade unionism, or even the Parliamentary Labour Party.
This is the more necessary in view of the wobbling one sees in all quarters. The man who is very sure of the justice and ultimate necessity of his principles must always be sorry that matters of good citizenship should become party cries and arouse a merely partisan opposition; but if this is inevitable - human nature being what it is - at least let us be sure that the end is not lost sight of in the means. There seems to be some danger of that in the meantime.
Even ‘The Social Democrat.’
If we might be prepared for a certain amount of trimming from the politicians of the I.L.P. (who always were politicians first and Socialists some way after), we might expect the Old Guard of the Social-Democratic Federation to be firm in the Socialist faith. I find, however, in two recent numbers of The Social-Democrat, the monthly organ of the S.D.F., a series of articles by the editor, Mr. Fred Montague, that give rise to some slight misgiving. In the December issue Mr. Montague, answering the question, ‘Can Capitalism Resolve its Contradictions?’ says:-
There is no more essential difference between nationalization in and by a capitalist State and trustification than there is between the high wages of Fordism and the wage demands of the Minority Movement or the I.L.P.
Let me say at once that I do not believe in ‘the wage-demands of the Minority Movement or the I.L.P.’ I do not say we could not have a State based upon the idea of capital and labour with their shares of the product regulated on a system of fixed percentages allocated by public officials on the ledger-evidence of the business done. But anything of the kind would be, not Socialism, but an artificial, complicated, empirical Individualism. Under such a system we should still have wasteful competition, the often incompetent management of private enterprise, the appalling workplaces which private enterprise thinks good enough for its workmen, and, among much else, probably a good deal of fraudulent book-keeping. Individualism, as a business bungle, is not worth preserving, and a system such as is indicated by Messrs, Hobson and Brailsford in ‘The Living Wage’ would be immensely more difficult to secure and cumbrous to run than Socialism pure and simple. The idea of it could have suggested itself only to men who either do not believe in socialization or who despair of ever securing it. It is worth noting that those who propound wire-drawn schemes of this kind are men of the study who do not take active part in public work and have no adequate sense of political possibilities. The working class is not incapable of taking a political lead if we do not darken counsel by the constant launching of novelties.
Between Henry Fordism and ‘The Living Wage’ policy there are the immense differences that Henry Ford pays high wages voluntarily, whereas the I.L.P. demands high wages compulsorily; that Henry Ford is a genius working a specialty, while the average employer is neither the one nor the other; and that Ford is working in and for a land of high wages, while the British capitalist is working for a poor Britain and a still poorer Europe. The Living-Wage policy assumes the continuance of Britain as a manufacturing and exporting country, whereas nothing can be clearer than that the outside world is more and more doing without our products and that every year we shall export less and less. I waive the mean-spiritedness that would seek to shirk the responsibility of communally organising production and distribution, but would leave it to the capitalist.
When we come to Mr. Montague's statement that there is no ‘essential difference between nationalization in and by a capitalist State and Trustification,’ we can offer only a complete negative.
If we take the Post Office as an example of nationalization, and the Thread Combine as a type of the Trust, we see the ‘essential difference’ at once. The Thread Combine keeps prices up; the Post Office keeps prices down. The Thread Combine pays low wages; the Post Office pays wonderfully good wages, having regard to the nature of the work; it pays for holidays, gives medical attendance, uniforms, superannuation allowance, and the marriage ‘dot’ to clerkesses who wed. No one of these privileges is a feature of work for the Trust. The Trust dispenses millions in profits, and its directors are millionaires; whereas the Postal Service is the least remunerative of all public undertakings, doing an immense amount of work for the poor in old age and other pensions for nothing. The index figure still stands at 70 odd; but postal rates have never been more than 50 per cent. above the 1913 figures. The Post Office loses money on press telegrams professedly in the public interest; but what Trust runs any part of its business deliberately at a loss? The Post Office is amenable to public and Parliamentary criticism. The Postmaster-General is an elected public servant; but none of these considerations applies to the Trusts. The Post Office is public property; the Trust is not. The Post Office has no motive to profiteer. The Trust has profiteering as its sole real existing.
The comparison is so hopelessly wrong that it may be taken as a type of a certain unfair and unwise attitude towards nationalization. In his editorial notes in the January number Mr. Montague, in the course of a long and very debatable passage, says:
We are not bound by any ‘doctrine’ to support any and every form of capitalist State management, irrespective of considerations of efficiency, against forms of capitalist ownership which may in actual fact contain more socialization in embryo, neither are we called upon to prove that State ownership ‘pays.’
This, surely, is coming to bury Caesar rather than to praise him. I do not know what the writer means. State and municipal ownership do pay. State management is efficient. There may be more ‘socialization in embryo’ in the Brunner-Mond Merger than there is in the Post Office; but it will take a lot of looking for.
Mr. Montague for the S.D.F., Mr. Maxton for the I.L.P., Mr. MacDonald for the Parliamentary Labour Party, either believe in nationalization or they do not. If they do they are dissembling their love with some considerable success.
There have, of course, been failures in both State and Municipal enterprise: Stubbs’ Gazette is full of the failures of private enterprise every week. Any business may fail if improperly handled or if industrial conditions change. But nothing can seriously invalidate the main advantages of public enterprise, namely, that a public concern can borrow money cheaply; can free the field from competition, as where corporation cars ran private buses off the streets; can secure the best managing talent; has claims on public support; and has no dividends to find for shareholders. Direct labour on the roads, in housebuilding, in the works departments of local imperial authorities has been a success all along the line as against capitalism. Every week brings its tale of Collectivist success. This week it is the report of £300,000 saved in five years by the Government Printing Works.
If Mr. Lloyd George comes forward as the advocate of State enterprise, and cites facts and figures making good his claims, why should professed Socialists cast doubt upon their own principles? Speaking in the House of Commons while Premier (18th August, 1919), he said, after dealing with economies effected in the making of shells, guns, machine-guns and rifles:-
When we took them [Lewis guns] in hand they cost £165, and we reduced them to £35 each . . . Through the costing system and the checking of the National Factories we set up, before the end of the war there was a saving of £440,000,000. . . . The Controller of Shipping saved hundreds of millions to this country. When you have to spend between £8,000,000,000 and £1o,000,000,000 of this country’s money, when you improvise great organisations, find your men where you can, find thousands of absolutely new men to work out these schemes, of course there may be extravagance, of course there may be errors of judgment. . . . But whatever is said about these little mistakes? I have seen the report of Parliamentary Committees. They are about comparatively small sums – I mean comparative to the gigantic expenditure. Those are advertised; those are flaunted. Leading articles are written about them. Never a word about these hundreds of millions that have been saved by these men! . . . Is it wise, when attacks are made upon systems of government . . . when all government is being challenged, if you get the democracy to believe that you get nothing but mistakes, nothing but what they call scandal, and there is no efficiency anywhere, how long do you think any system or institution can possibly continue in this country?
If Mr. Lloyd George has forgotten these triumphs of nationalization, why should we? Their value as object lessons is as great as ever. And in such advocacy Mr. Lloyd George is talking more like a Socialist than is the Editor of The Social-Democrat, though I believe Mr. Montague is normally a capable and spirited man. When Sir Eric Geddes pointed out (Times, 11/12/19) that the Woolwich Arsenal produced 12-ton wagons £100 cheaper than the profit-making builders, he also was talking more like a Socialist than do professed Socialists when depreciate State enterprise.
Even with a Tory Government in power we have had two instalments of nationalization carried within one year, the chief objection to the Broadcasting and Electricity schemes being that they are not Socialistic enough. If we had a Socialist Government in power, how much faster might not the process of socialization go forward? And not merely a Socialist Government at Westminster, but local bodies more and more composed of Socialists.
Mr. Montague writes of ‘vast hordes of officials,’ as if under Socialism we should not have many fewer officials than now. An official is a man in office, and there are more offices and consequently more officials now than there would be under a more consolidated system of production and distribution. The officials, moreover, would not only know their job, but would be amenable to the public. They are not always capable now, and owe no responsibility to anyone save their employers, who are usually just amateur directors.
As it is, men of goodwill welcome the experienced men of the Ministry of Health, who correct the ignorance and conservatism of local authorities. Personally I am always glad to see the Factory Inspector, from whom I have repeatedly got good suggestions and much useful information such as a travelled man seeing many workplaces might be expected to possess.
Great Immediate Schemes.
We are on the threshold of great public undertakings. With the mines nationalised, there will be subsidiary industries for the production of coke, tar, heavy oil, petrol, and gas for long-distance distribution under national auspices. National electricity from falling water can be made successful only under real national control from start to finish. House-building by national companies of masons - a building army! - could provide houses by the thousand in the new districts to be opened up in connection with the electricity works, schemes of afforestation, the making of new arterial roads, and the provision of cottages and farm buildings in connection with the overdue agricultural and horticultural developments required to keep in the country the hundreds of millions that go abroad for foodstuffs we might economically produce ourselves.
Nothing save State ownership, expert management, abundant capital, and the grand, hopeful scale of State enterprise can arrest the deterioration of the Homeland. There is in Britain capital to burn. It is being wasted on risky foreign investments and on a hundred and one bubbles such as the buses that crowd our streets and roads, endanger the lives of the people, poison the atmosphere with petrol fumes, and eat up the savings of many simple souls who embark in a grossly overdone industry. In spite of the coal lockout and the General Strike, the new capital issues in Britain during 1926, exclusive of Government loans, were of the value of £253,266,000.
France, with a much lower population, has 8,000,000 employed in agriculture and forestry, as compared with a million and a quarter in Britain. Naturally France has no unemployed and no emigration to speak of, while we, in the week in which I write, have 140,000 more unemployed than a week ago, and a quarter of a million more than in the corresponding week of last year.
The electorate is more and more with the Labour Party, which stands for national ownership and control whatever some of its spokesmen may say. On the test of work done and results achieved, even by middle-class local and national government, we can go forward confidently with a programme which aims at making democracy master in its own house, owning the house and using all that belongs to it, instead of sponging upon capitalist organization and being mastered and driven by the blind and chaotic forces of greed and mismanagement. It will be no leap in the dark to extend the social services and develop our neglected country on lines that have proved so successful, to the limited extent they have been followed.
The Co-operative Commonwealth.
The Living Wage, like the Right-to-Work slogan of some years ago, is a novelty hatched by impatient people not weaned from Individualism. Co-operation is a side-show sometimes flattered by being called ‘a State within the State.’ Guild Socialism is the smallest of small stunts. The State can gulp all these without a cough, and serve the nation better for their absence. What’s the matter with Britain Unlimited, with international affiliations? - the Co-operative Commonwealth? Nothing else and nothing less will serve; and if make up our minds we may have it. The greater includes the less, my brethren; the whole is greater than the part.
We shall need new forms of Government, local and nation to run the Co-operative Commonwealth. These will come as the State and the Municipality add to their functions. Manchester City Council, with its 140 members functioning through 20 committees, has grown up entirely since the day of Richard Cobden, and it is a type of what will extend more and more in Manchester as elsewhere. We want as many citizens may be desirable actively and intelligently participating in the work of government - political, industrial, commercial - taking the most capable men out of their little shops and offices to lend a hand in bigger business.
Not a Negation.
Socialism is not merely or primarily a criticism of capitalism, but an affirmation of the power and beneficence of Society organised. It is not a thing of negations, denials, a defeatism, but a constructive policy, already very successful, that would bring all social functions within the Reign of Law and Order, enormously increasing the wealth, health, resources and powers of man united at last for peace and its victories. Its coming will be gradual: all growth is gradual. But it may be as steady and as rapid as intelligence, determination, and goodwill can make it.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.