The Future of the Party – More Pioneers
We sing ‘England, arise!’ But do we always mean it?
By the dark cities where your babes are creeping,
Naked of joy and all that makes life dear…
From each wretched slum
Let the loud cry come,
England is risen, and the day is here.
I am dealing with Glasgow as typifying commercialism at its worst but with the true sociological purpose of showing that evil has generated its own cure. Glasgow has risen. Even its card-sharpers quote the language of political economy, and urge that the gains of their nefarious practices in railway carriages represent ‘the rent of ability.’
Crooks have, indeed, in days gone by had somewhat of a look-in in connection with the Labour movement in Glasgow. Apart from free-lance adventurers who never had the backing of the Labour movement, there have been times in Glasgow when ‘the trade’ financed official Labour candidatures – for its own end. It got nothing; its support was withdrawn; and now Labour is paying for its politics, and stands to get much more satisfaction out of the support it gives to it politicians than ever it had from the publicans and football players who got (and get) so much of its money.
In these notes I am keeping clear of the adventurers and the men who were politicians first, last and all time – yea, even when an election was on, and the word Socialism was doing but occasional service as a party shibboleth. Casting the memory back over the past thirty years of the public life of Glasgow, one recalls many meteors that have flashed across the horizon, and have long since sputtered out. With these I have no concern.
Someone (John Morley I think) has said: ‘It is only the very great and good who have any faith in the simplest axioms; and there are few who are so lucky as to feel that 19 and 13 make 32 as certainly as 2 and 2 make 4.’
But the Collectivist solution of the world’s troubles is not at all difficult to understand. Indeed, it is so simple and irresistible that one has a difficulty in understanding how all the notable people who have adopted it of late did not adopt it as soon as they came to years of discretion. It was obvious to me forty years ago, at the age of seventeen; and that certain members of the Labour Party, now very active, were equally active against it only a few years ago, casts discredit either upon their mental or their moral make-up. ‘Go hang thyself, good Crillon,’ said Henry of Navarre. ‘We fought at Arques and you were not there.’
The proposition that Society can do whatever the individual can do is as self-evident in human relationships as the proposition that the whole is greater than the part is in mathematics. Society could not write the play of ‘Hamlet’ or the music of ‘Pinafore’; but it can command the services of the best contemporary genius and talent within the realm.
The cardinal principle of Socialism is that there is no function discharged by the landlord or capitalist that cannot be much more efficiently performed by the organised community. This is no mere assertion; the thing has been done. It is regularly done in time of war, and it could be done in time of peace. Indeed, it is done in time of peace. All the great undertakings are left to the State as a matter of course. When the banks threaten to put up the shutters the State comes to the rescue with its credit. The Panama Canal, the draining of the Zuyder Zee, the making of the Sudan railway through many miles of hostile country, the conduct of the Great War – all are left to the State. When a private company cannot finish its Ship Canal, and has spent all its capital, the corporation comes to the rescue with public money and finishes the job.
It is half a century since Frederic Harrison advised us to ‘Look to the State,’ and when Edward Bellamy’s great creation ‘Looking Backward’ appeared, Harrison acclaimed it as embodying a social system to which we were undoubtedly tending. And he welcomed it. This was in the eighties.
It was all so obvious then that a man had only to be in earnest about politics, free of a vested interest in the maintenance of muddlement, and willing to live and let live, in order to adopt it.
And so I prefer to tell of the humbly placed men who ‘saw the cat’ thirty or more years ago rather than the men who have come in because Socialism looks like winning. We do not suggest, as Henri Quatre did to Crillon, that they should go and hang themselves because they did not lend a hand when help was most needed; but we do ask them to consider well whether their timidity and their distrust of liberty and right is not making them hang back even now from the true implications of the Socialist principle. In view of current events and tendencies, the advice is far from superfluous.
The new Parliamentary party will have to make up its mind for the application of its principles constructively, and above all, will have to get ready for their application by much study, thinking, discussion, and planning, of which one sees little sign at present.
Reading the Socialist Review month by month, one would expect to see the questions of the future discussed there if anywhere. Can capitalism carry on? If so, how! And how long? Should Socialists try to help in the re-opening of foreign markets, or should they frankly admit that the game of capitalist civilization is up, and advocate the adoption of Collectivist principles now? If the Labour Party were returned to power on the not improbable early collapse of the present government, what would it do? The matter has not been discussed.
If France persist in her policy in the Ruhr, what remedy have we short of the unthinkable arbitrament of war? And if the policy of wrecking Germany is persisted in, what hope is there of the continuation of commercialism with our best markets gone?
Instead of such questions as these being discussed, all the concern of the editor of the Review (who is also leader of the Labour Party in Parliament) is about electioneering and the chances of Liberal reunion.
Turn to Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s books, and there is the same haziness about what the party would do in the way of reconstruction. One lends ‘Socialism and Society’ by request, to a keenly intelligent man of goodwill, and he hands it back with the puzzled comment ‘I cannot make out what he would be at.’ In MacDonald’s ‘Socialism and Government’ there is not a single reference to the all important role of the municipality and local governing bodies in general. I reviewed the book at great length years ago, and Mr MacDonald promised to reply; but he never did.
On the other hand, he admitted privately the rightness of my strictures on certain points, including this neglect of the great truth embodied in De Tocqueville’s dictum that ‘It is in the Commune that the force of a free people resides.’
That is to say, in the domain of local government. Having no practical or technical training, Mr MacDonald has, unfortunately, no discoverable constructive bent – a fact of which there are many disappointing proofs.
I am not disloyal, and I have no personal political ambition whatever. I advocated Socialism by voice and pen for years before MacDonald cut his connection with the Liberal Party. But his party will have to take him in hand, and I am leading the way, as I have always been apt to do.
And let me suggest, on a minor matter, that Mr MacDonald should try to curb his fondness for metaphors that are always second-hand and never particularly felicitous. The Archangel Gabriel, sowing dragon’s teeth, and getting into the ( ) have all done duty of recent weeks, and on the other hand one who looks in vain for specific detail as to the future.
Speaking to the Aldwych Club of rich men, he denounced ‘Ca’canny’ and Bolshevism, but said nothing of matter that ought to have proved of more interest to his hearers and the public, such as the advantages to everybody of nationalising the railways and the mines, about which one reckons the nabobs would have expected to hear. These would be the two first jobs we should expect a Labour Government to tackle. There is ‘Ca’ canny’ and sabotage and Bolshevism among the rich as well as among workmen, and he was addressing a rich man’s gathering.
I get back with great goodwill to my humble heroes who were Socialist first and politicians a long way afterwards. It will be part of my plan to discuss the future of Glasgow in a chapter all to itself. The question has already emerged in a Trades Council resolution which is all in favour of retaining the capital system – on international grounds, if you please.
One of the steadiest, most resolute of the early Glasgow Socialists was Willie Nairn, who, although a labouring man, was for years a very shrewd and keen, regular correspondent of Justice. Hi pen-name was Sandy Macfarlane; he was an S.D.F.er; but, although resolute and stalwart, not narrow. He took the chair for me once, much to my surprise, at an Albion Hall meeting for a lecture, ‘What is the Good of Empire?’ delivered during the South African War. I can recall even now the pleasure I had in his stern approval of the lecture as ‘economically, politically and morally sound and in strict accordance with Socialist principles.’ The boys said it was a great compliment from Nairn, and this, not so much because he was a stickler for orthodoxy, though he was that, as because he was an undemonstrative man whose approval, when given, counted for all the more. Nairn is long dead, and had a Socialist funeral by his own request.
William Nairn conveyed such an impression of integrity that he was once taken to task by a Glasgow policeman haling, like Willie, from the north country, as to why he, a respectable man, should consort with a lot of Fenians.
To this Willie demurred. They were not all Irish. There was Hob Hutchison. Well, where did he come from? Stranraer. Wasn’t that near enough? Then there was Pat Curren: he was Irish certainly. Then there was Doyle, yes, he was Irish too. But there was Stewart ‘who comes’ said Nairn ‘from about the same place as ourselves’ ‘Does he?’ said the bobby indignantly. ‘I don’t care what you say. If he comes from the north he must have risen left shin by some Irish hairs han’.’
One of the earliest warriors I noticed about the S.D.F. meetings in Glasgow was John Turley. John was a cabinet maker earning fairly good wages, and a steady man; but, in case he should be accused of respectability, he would not dress or even shave for Sunday. He shaved before going to work on Monday, and my recollection of him is that he wore a red muffler, and had a strongish growth on his chin always at week-ends. Turley had two stereotyped questions which he put at lectures.
John Toole was an Irish hammerman, who, after the manner of his race, had a real grievance. He use to put it in this way:
I have no grievance against being born into this world to live in penury and labour for the benefit of others. Some people might find it unpleasant to do that because they are uneducated and have no better idea of what life ought to be. But the great grievance I have against the capital class is that, instead of leaving me in my ignorance and misery, they have educated me so that I should be more able to appreciate my abject position in this hell upon earth. That is my grievance against capitalism.’
These two last ‘cards’ appear in rather a bitter vein; but there were quiet humours as well. One man, a Clyde deportee who had a stutter, once said at a business meeting;
I b-beg to p-p-propose David McLean as a member of this branch. He m-might not know much about M-Marxian ec-economics; he is a damned good man at a p-pro-Boer meetin’!’
A well known figure in the movement of the nineties was Bailie George Mitchll, who managed a reform bookshop and printing business. George was a quiet-spoken, canny going man whose health was not robust. In the old days of horse traction he visited the tramway stables one day and was promptly accosted by a strapper as to what his business there. George said he was a councillor and had a right to be there; but two men set upon him and bundled him out. They got carpeted for it afterwards, and many said it was unfair, as George ‘did not look the part.’
Another time, when he had become a magistrate, he was about to enter the magistrates’ room behind the bench on the day of a licensing court. In order to prevent solicitation of the magistrates, a policeman was on duty inside the door of the room. As George proceeded to enter, the policeman asked what he wanted. ‘I’m a magistrate,’ said George. ‘So am I,’ said the policeman sarcastically, and proceeded to close the door on Geordie’s neck. The altercation attracted the notice of Bailie P.G.Stewart, who was already in the room, and who did look the character, and poor Mitchell was allowed to enter, with apologies from the policeman.
It is depressing to think how many of these men are long since dead, at comparatively early ages; but that is the price men pay for living in large cities. Returning to Manchester after an absence of eleven years, I met an old acquaintance. Inquiring as to men who had been our contemporaries, and mostly men in the thirties and early forties, one was greeted time after time with the answer ‘Dead!’ ‘Dead!’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead too.’ I had never till then adequately realised what a toll of life the city takes.
There were many bright spirits, jovial companions, good speakers and disinterested workers in Glasgow then, such as George Neil, an ex-army sergeant, Scots draper, poet and singer; Robb, the Burgoynes, Pollock and others whom one cannot specially single out because they were just normal good fellows.
But there was a speciality about Camlachie Dickson. A Fifeshire farm hand, he had emigrated for a time to America. Lecturing on ‘The Mississipi Valley in Relation to International Socialism’ Dickson took about three-quarters of an hour to get from Fifeshire to the boat at Glasgow. The bad cheese and margarine on board were exhaustively condemned and he had spent an hour and a half talking before he at last got to work, ploughing, in the Mississipi Valley. He was parading up and down the platform ploughing, the stilts in his hands, in imagination, when the big rough voice of Jock Bain bawled, ‘Half-time Dickson!’
Such are some of the rank and file who did the propagandist work in the early days before Socialism became Labourism. There was much character among them. They were quite disinterested. To them Socialism was a religion, not a career. They got their hands gown for the expenses of the work. They kept the door open for lecturers, and they scattered literature through various agencies. It is in such ways that movements are maintained till better times come, always provided there is a good idea behind them.
A Socialist Official.
In a niche all by himself stood James Thomson, Superintendent of the Corporation Baths and Washhouses. A descendent of the poet Burns, Mr Thomson himself was full of picturesque prose, full of ingenious, original ideas, which were printed mostly in Justice over the signature of Dan Baxter, but sometimes in official reports on the work of his own department, in which he was enthusiastic. Personally he was always the cheeriest and most amiable of mortals, and his official superiors gave him much of his own enlightened, benevolent way.
Part Six next Month
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