The Real Dilemma of Collectivism.
Social students, such as Dr. Shadwell, write and speak of the ‘dilemma’ in which Socialists are placed by the failure of Sovietism in Russia. They claim, fairly enough, that Communism is simply Socialism in a hurry, and they say that the refusal of the Russian peasants to fall in with the spirit of the revolution is typical of a personal recalcitrancy that might well shipwreck Collectivist attempts elsewhere.
This is so far the most formidable objection that can be urged against Socialism. The objection is that we have not enough public spirit to make full-blown Socialism as satisfactory in its results as even Individualism, defective as we know the present system to be.
The Russian Disappointment.
I have been and still am a defender of the Russian revolution. It was inevitable, and has carried in its train many blessings, among them, as one of the best, the holy war upon illiteracy. One has attributed the failure to reach pre-war productivity to the dislocation and destruction caused by the Great War, the repeated invasions since then, and to the famine caused by the deadly drought of 1921. But all these events are of the receding past. The Russian authorities themselves admit that the recovery is not sufficiently rapid, and in the Soviet Review, which I got regularly till it was discontinued on the expulsion, it was at least once stated that there was a personal demoralization. I am not paying any attention to the lurid tales of reactionaries. I am going by admitted failures reported by the agencies of the Soviet Government. The country in Europe that could most readily be self-supporting is Russia. With her vast territories, her range of climate and variety of products, her natural wealth in timber, oil, furs, great corn lands, and even sub-tropical produce such as tea, Russia ought to have recovered from all her troubles quicker than any other European nation. The shortage of machinery and rolling stock on the railways should long since have been overcome, given the willingness of good citizenship and even the relative efficiency of Tsarist Russia.
Is the average worker not good enough for Collectivism? Will he not work for himself as hard or as carefully as he does for an employer? Does he need the fear of dismissal to keep him up to the full height of his efficiency? Is he incapable of realising in practice that as a public servant he is working for himself? If industry were fully socialised would he wipe out the benefits secured from consolidation, efficiency, and the stoppage of waste by simply becoming a slacker?
Existing Collectivism Hardly a Fair Test.
The answer to these fears is so far to hand. The Socialism of the State and the municipality, one is glad to say, has been overwhelmingly successful on the whole. But outside of Russia this Socialism is still exceptional in the industrial life of the nation. The prevailing atmosphere is still that of Individualism. The State or Municipal employee knows that if he does not attain a certain standard of diligence and efficiency he will be dismissed almost as readily as by a private employer.
The present Postmaster-General is, of course, a Tory, and local postmasters are doubtless not all Socialists. The discipline represented in the system of signing on and off duty, the timing of postmen upon rounds, the keeping of an individual employee’s record, with black marks against him for faults, represent forms of discipline which might conceivably be considerably slackened under Socialist auspices, where the employee would know that he had friends all up through the official hierarchy, and where he would know that he had to be maintained in some way no matter how he behaved?
The Co-operative Movement.
Something of an approach to Socialist conditions is shown in the co-operative movement. It has been called ‘a State within the State.’ Do we find co-operative employees ideally loyal? Are they always as civil and efficient as the servants of private enterprise? Can it honestly be said of the Co-operative Movement as a whole that it serves the public cheaper and better than the private shops? Co-operative prices ought to be lower than shop prices; but they are not. They are often so much higher that, taking them all over and deducting the dividend, it is extremely doubtful, to say the least, whether the store does not take more from the public for the service it renders than does the private shopkeeper. The dividend should stand for the shopkeeper’s profit, but it really seems to be rather a mere rebate, rendered possible only by the higher prices charged.
Many housewives regard the store as a means of compulsory saving, believing that they hand over week by week in higher prices what they receive at the end of the half-year in dividend. This means, to put it bluntly, that the Co-operative movement is spoiled of its full effect by inefficiency and probably a certain amount of corruption. There are, after all, no substitutes for integrity and brains.
An Object Lesson.
I once had, during 4½ years, the manager-editorship of a co-operative newspaper and job printing office. From my young manhood I have had to do with the giving out of work to men and women, and never had any difficulty in ‘managing’ them so long as they were accountable only to myself. But in this concern the employees declared that it had never paid a dividend, and they would ‘take ___ good care it never did.’ This would not have distressed the shareholders, working folk as they were; but they did not want the enterprise to fail. One of the ways in which the payment of a dividend was prevented was by the regular working of overtime, at, of course, overtime rates, and with lessened efficiency during the ordinary time. One overseer complained after I had been there some time that ‘the job wasn’t worth so much,’ meaning that the overtime had been cut down and more labour employed.
When I took over there was also bad time-keeping in the mornings. By being early myself, and often in the work-rooms at starting-time, the latecomers were shamed into punctuality without a word spoken. You passed two men talking in the yard, and not only did they continue their talk, but when you returned five minutes later, the talk was still going on and work was at a standstill, the workplace being indoors. ‘Affect a virtue if you have it not,’ you quoted. They separated at that; but the reproof was resented; for were we not a Socialist concern, and did not Socialists condemn slave-driving?
They made no allowance for handicaps, one of these being that our newspapers had hardly any really profitable advertisements, and another that we worked a forty-eight hours’ week and had few apprentices, while we had to compete for jobwork with rivals who worked a longer week, avoided overtime, and employed many apprentices We paid, besides, a wage higher than the local standard.
Up to that point one’s experience of estimating the time required for a job was that it could usually be done well within the time given, That is entirely as it should be. In fact it is the only line of ultimate solvency. In that establishment, however, the time taken, with machine composition (supposed to be an economy), always substantially exceeded the time-price allowed for hand composition.
Occasional dismissals - sometimes carried out with storm and stress - served to tighten the screws a little, though some of these dismissals meant that I had to take on the duties of the discharged one as an extra.
As showing the spirit of that staff, one operator before my time had been known to tear up an article of which he disapproved, saying he would not set ‘that stuff.’ And the easy-going editor of that time evidently let him off with it!
That concern, launched under favourable auspices, has long since been wound up, with a loss to the shareholders, and the loss, also, of a thousand pounds raised by a bazaar. This was in a district which returns Socialist members to Parliament in a straight fight with both the old schools of politicians. The two privately owned newspapers in that district are still going, for anything I know, although the majority of the citizens vote Labour. This tells its own tale.
It is worth pointing out that, although the shares in this co-operative society were held by working folk, no member of the staff except myself held any shares.
Too much Democracy.
The cause of the industrial-commercial failure of this paper was too much democracy and interference with the management. Even a stupid office-boy could not be dismissed for disobedience without a crisis over it. I resigned some time before the end came to a system that was obviously unworkable. Comparing notes with the managers of similar establishments - some extinct and some still going - I have found general agreement that the chief bugbear to success is indiscipline, the interference of the directorate between manager and men, and the excessive amenableness of directors to outside protest and dictation.
Collectivism can and does abolish a hundred and one wastes - in duplication, advertising, canvassing, and overlapping. Its credit is the best. It can buy to the highest advantage. It can command the best organising skill. But, given a rank-and-file community of comparative slackers, all these advantages might easily he cancelled out.
Give working men a privilege, and how often do we not see it abused? Allow them to smoke at work, or to have afternoon tea, and see how much time will he spent over a concession meant to be for their reasonable use and enjoyment. Stop clocking on, and see how men will come dawdling in, and how they will stand about the works entrance till minutes past the starting-time even if they are doing nothing and not even talking.
Certain it is that Russia should have been by now an object lesson to which we ought to have been able to point with pride and triumph. Instead of that we are constantly explaining and making excuses for her failure to produce more than 6o per cent. of the Tsarist output, and this with the idlers and wasters supposed to be eliminated, and organization at last introduced.
Peace Patriotism Required.
I am deeply sorry that the first Socialist Republic should have made so poor a showing, and should have had to fall back upon partial Capitalism as a ‘New’ Economic Policy. I can but wish that the lesson may be taken to heart by Socialists everywhere. It must be realised that Collectivism is essentially a constructive policy, and that the same ardour is required for the detail work of the transfer from Capitalism to Collectivism that is shown, in the name of patriotism, when a war is being waged.
When working men say they cannot afford to risk coming out into the open as Labour representatives, or that they cannot afford the time, the answer is: Very well, we cannot win the greatest struggle of all.
King Harry on Crispin Crispian’s day sought to hearten his troops by telling them they could ‘gentle’ their condition by fighting and prevailing against the French. What will you do to ‘gentle’ your condition? Will you read? Will you learn to speak and write at least one language correctly or even with some grace, that language being the speech of the country in which you were born? The gentle and strong shall bear rule, ought to bear rule. They have read, they have attended and assimilated cultural lectures, they have undergone the discipline of learning, they have qualified themselves to speak and discuss by reading and writing. The workman may do all these things. He has abundance of time for reading and worthy discussion. ‘The true university,’ said Thomas Carlyle, ‘is a library of books.’ The humblest has access to such a library, and consequently may have a university training of the best, such a training as Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens, and Shaw had - infinitely better in fact than the first three of these had. The will is all.
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