In 1951 Eric Hobsbawm, who died on 1 October 2012 full of fame and honours, wrote an article in which, for once, the imperatives of his Stalinist politics worked to mobilise his great talents as a historian in favour of enlightenment in current politics.
Since about 1935, and especially in World War 2, the Communist Party had been very moderate and full of praise for anti-fascist Tories. In 1951 it published a new programme in which for the first time it explicitly disavowed its revolutionary origins and declared that the "British Road to Socialism" would be via parliamentary vote.
In between times, however, from about 1947 to 1951, the CP had a leftist phase. Apparently Hobsbawm was reluctant to switch onto the new "British Road", and he wrote an article which, without mentioning the new CP programme, outlined the history of how parliamentary democracy had been "tamed".
In the article Hobsbawm said nothing about how the working class, when it overthrows entrenched capitalist power, can create a wider democracy - nothing about the ways of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the Soviets of 1917-8, with their recallability of delegates, direct control of executive functions by the legislature, officials on workers' wages, and information free of bourgeois domination.
No wonder: politically, he was tied to presenting the Stalinist police states in Eastern Europe as "people's democracies". Yet his critique of what the British capitalist class did to democracy remains valuable.
The article is abridged from The Modern Quarterly, autumn 1951.
Two or three generations of middle-class parliamentarism and newspaper writing in Western Europe have almost drained the word “democracy” of any serious content. Yet if we are to investigate how ruling classes attempted to manipulate political systems based on a wide suffrage, we must abandon the jargon of contemporary cabinet ministers and leading articles and ask ourselves what “the rule of the people” meant to its friends and enemies in an earlier and franker age.
In the eighteenth and a good part of the nineteenth century, for instance, men kept their eye firmly fixed on the social reality behind “majority rule,” the fact that the majority was poor, the minority rich.
Democracy ever since the English Revolution had what an American scholar rightly calls “a levelling tendency that ran in the direction of communism.” The French rationalist Condorcet took it for granted that in a popular government “all social institutions must aim at the social, moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the most numerous and poorest class.” The Chartists, who demanded on the face of it purely electoral reforms, were less interested in the abstract right to vote (let alone the prospect of alternative party governments) than in the knife-and-fork question they hoped to answer through their possession of the vote.
The men of property and privilege were equally clear about the matter. George Canning thanked God that “the House of Commons is not sufficiently identified with the people to catch their every nascent wish … According to no principle of our Constitution was it ever meant to be so … it never pretended to be so, nor can it ever pretend to be so without bringing ruin and misery upon the kingdom.” Lord Salisbury, arguing against the Reform Bill of 1866-7, warned his readers that democracy must inevitably bring with it “a system of ateliers nationaux, or … that the law should, by fixing the rate of wages, place the employer at the mercy of the employed.” The Red Peril could not be envisaged in more flaming terms by a peer of the mid-century.
A long and anxious debate raged in the early 1880s -before the Third Reform Act, which enfranchised ratepayers in the counties and extended the franchise in the towns -as to whether democracy must inevitably lead to socialism. One observer concluded that “when supreme power is vested in a majority of the people, property cannot sit securely till it becomes so general a possession that a majority of the people has a stake in its defence ... property must either contrive to get widely diffused or it will be nationalised altogether; and the fate of free institutions hangs upon this dilemma.” At the same time he rightly pointed out that “the natural conditions at present strongly favour concentration or aggregation of capital.”
The simplest conclusion from these unpalatable would have been to steer clear of universal suffrage altogether; and the classical versions of Liberalism - the French Constitution of 1791, the regimes set up in France and Belgium by the revolutions of 1830, the Reform Act of 1832 in Britain, the American Constitution as originally framed - did so. Oligarchy and property qualification were to be the safeguard of “free institutions.”
Until the 1880s it was universally agreed, among Liberals and Tories, that democracy was thoroughly undesirable. But the pressure of the radical and labour movement, and the logic of the middle-class struggle for power made this, in the end, an untenable position.
This is not the place to analyse the historical process of winning a wider suffrage; nor does it affect the main subject of our article, which is how universal suffrage came to be domesticated and manipulated.
Briefly, in most West European countries it became clear from the middle 1860s that the franchise must sooner or later be extended to the mass of the people, including, of course, the working class.
It is perhaps worth noting how late, how slowly and reluctantly this was done even in the typical countries of what is today called “western democracy.” In France the Constitution of 1875 marks the decisive step; in Britain manhood suffrage was achieved in instalments in 1867, 1884 and 1918, in Holland in the 1880s and 1890s and 1917. In Belgium the decisive advance was won by the General Strike of 1893. In Scandinavia, Norway did not get manhood suffrage until 1898, Sweden till 1907, and Denmark, where for a time an exceptionally advanced Constitution had been won in 1848, did not establish the supremacy of the Lower House until 1901.
Even Switzerland, which had taken the decisive step forward in the Revolution of 18117, did not get its modern political regime until the 1870s. In the remainder of Europe bourgeois democracy was not formally adopted until just before or after World War I, and was, in the main, a temporary phenomenon.
The adoption of this new system faced all capitalist classes with extraordinary problems, but none with greater ones than the British, for in Britain alone of major states would universal suffrage give proletarians by themselves a majority.
In France, Germany and the USA, for instance, masses of farmers, peasants or petty-bourgeois could be used to outvote the actual workers, Hence intelligent reactionaries like Napoleon III and Bismarck could adopt universal suffrage and “plebiscites” as a harmless window-dressing to non-parliamentary régimes quite early.
But in Britain middle-class statisticians estimated (rather doubtfully, as it happened), as early as 1867 that 80 per cent of the occupied population belonged to the “working class.” The problem was therefore acute. The gingerly extension of the franchise, hedged round as it was with limitations and chicaneries, could postpone, but not solve it. To study the measures taken to tame universal suffrage in Britain is therefore to study a vital aspect of capitalist rule in a very pure form.
To safeguard minority rule in a state in which, theoretically, the working class can vote whom it likes into power, two things are necessary: to prevent them voting for effective enemies of capitalism, and to prevent the business of state from being interfered with by parliament and public opinion at all.
As Robert Lowe put in back in 1867, with his engaging habit of blurting out ruling-class thought: “If the House were placed on a more democratic basis, the English system of making the Executive directly responsible to the Legislature would have to be abolished.” This article is concerned mainly with the first of these “safeguards” against the people. It would lead too far to describe the technical process which the second has been made to come true.
That the state machine has been strengthened, and been increasingly insulated against parliamentary and public control, against every advance in the political consciousness of the working-class, and every growth in the danger to the stability of capitalism, is not to-day denied by anyone except newspaper hacks and campaign speakers. “Parliament,” says so orthodox an authority as Sir Ivor Jennings flatly, “cannot govern; it can do no more than criticise”; and not very effectively at that. Our government is indeed, he admits, a dictatorship of Cabinet and Civil Service -both, as any number of constitutional students show, effectively insulated against popular pressure, or the membership of “undesirables.”
Sir Ivor may salve his belief in popular government by arguing that it is “at worst ... a dictatorship for a term of years certain”, but since it is equally well established that, on the vital issues of life or death for the social system there is “continuity of policy” informally passed on from official to official, and party leader to party leader, whatever the composition of the parliamentary majority, even this defence of our political system will convince only those who want to be convinced. The point is made, because it important to realise that at no time has the British ruling class let the levers of power out of its hand, or relied entirely on its power to make universal suffrage “tame.”
The machinery of non-parliamentary rule exists, perfected, well-oiled, ready for use when necessary (and against real dangers to the status quo, like the Irish in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the revolutionaries and Communists since 1914, it has been used without hesitation).
For, as one of the wisest of ruling-class statesmen, the late Lord Balfour said, “democracy” is tolerable only while it is harmless; while the people are “so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker; and so sure of their own moderation that they are not dangerously disturbed by the never-ending din of political conflict.”
This was written in the 1920s; it could have been written in the 1820s. If it would probably not be written for wide publication today, it is only because the danger to, and the decay of the established system forces its defenders to lie where once they had the confidence to speak the truth.
The first important extension of the suffrage to workers in Britain came at the tail end of the “Golden Age” of British capitalism, in 1867. Since then we can distinguish four main periods of British history, and consequently of the evolution of parliamentarism: the breakdown of Britain’s international domination and security (roughly, 1870-1900); the period of successful Imperialism (roughly 1900-17); the first phase of the crisis of British capitalism (1917-39), and the present, second and even graver phase of that crisis.
To each of these periods correspond certain changes in the structure of British capitalism, as well its inter- national position; in the nature of the classes; and in the political system.
Each of them -and this is clearly vital for the problem of “taming” parliamentary democracy - marks an advance in the organisation and consolidation of the labour movement, in the growth of class consciousness and hostility to capitalism, and therefore in the potential danger to the stability of parliamentarism; though each period also provides (though in a decreasing measure) certain antidotes to this.
In the “Golden Age” labour organisation was confined to a limited section of better-off workers, and was almost purely trade-unionist. It put forward no political programme independent of the radical wing of Liberalism, except on certain specific, and mainly sectional, economic points.
In the transitional period of 1870-1900 we see the beginnings of an independently organised political labour movement; a much more widely based one (and certainly a much better organised one); but above all the reappearance of groups in the working class who made a fundamental challenge to capitalism -the “rebirth of socialism.”
In the early Imperialist period we see the creation of a permanent working-class party; of industrial organisation permanently embracing previously unorganised industries and grades; and a marked sharpening of class tensions. In the crisis period we see the working class lose political confidence in openly capitalist leaders and parties, and adopt (however vaguely and uncertainly) socialism as its political aim; and a Communist Party makes its appearance.
Clearly, the technique of “taming” demo had inevitably to become more complex and sophisticated. In the “Golden Age” the problem was simple. Bagehot rightly saw the strongest safe- guard of ruling-class policy in the “deference of the old electors to their betters,” i.e. their willingness to follow the ruling class lead.
Radical middle-class theorists like James Mill put their money on parliamentary government precisely because they were so sure that workers must always follow “that middle rank which gives to science, to art and to legislation itself, their most distinguished ornaments, the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature.” But nowhere was that habit of deference to aristocracy and middle class more deeply engrained than in Britain. Nowhere was the working class so “comparatively in- different to political power.”
Unlike the reactionaries, who were all the more nervous about franchise extension, the less actual contact they had with the small stratum of organised working-class opinion, the radical sections of the bourgeoisie scented no immediate danger. The long-term danger could be avoided on one condition: if the workers could be prevented from organising, politically and industrially, as a class for class objects.
To do this required flexibility. “They [the rulers] must willingly concede every claim which they can safely concede,” urged Bagehot, “in order that they may not have to concede unwillingly some claim which would impair the safety of the country.” The essentials of middle class reformism lie in this statement. In other words, the workers must at all costs be kept under the leadership of the old parties.
The ruling class succeeded in this aim until the period of early Imperial- ism without having to undertake any social reforms, until 1917 at the cost of granting some. Nevertheless, until World War I the old Bagehotian policy in its simple form sufficed.
Winston Churchill appealed to the opponents of Lloyd Georgeism in 1909 on exactly the same grounds: if they pressed their opposition, “those who are now grouped under the standard of party will reform themselves under the standard of class. The class line will become, if the party system is shattered, the line of demarcation.”
In the period of crisis since 1917, the rulers of Britain discovered that they had in fact failed to keep the decisive groups of working- class voters behind the old parties.
If the labour movement was not yet a political class movement in the real sense - the new Communist Party was and remained small – it revealed a growing distrust of capitalists, a growing hostility to the system, a growing support of the potentially explosive doctrines of ending it, among the rank and file of organised workers. The problem therefore became one of making this new movement harmless through its own leaders. In one word, what had been a problem of Liberal-Radicalism became one of Reformism and Social-Democracy.
In the inter-war years this turned out to be, in the main, a question of how to stop the movement from interfering with the normal conduct of capitalist business and government, for its strength was not yet overwhelming. Since the war it has become the much trickier problem of conducting the main business of British capitalism through a social-democratic party officially dedicated to its overthrow; for, whether Labour or Tories form the government to-day, the force of the movement which has to be distracted is immense. (It is difficult to think of any British government, for instance, which would seriously attempt to return to the policy of Baldwin, MacDonald and Chamberlain in home affairs.
The safest way to keep the working-class practically harmless is to keep enough of it, or decisive sections of it, satisfied within the capitalist system; better still, to persuade them that their prospects depend, not on the destruction of the system, but on the contrary, on its prosperity as a profit making concern. Clearly the ideal would be expressed by the well-known Songs for English Workmen to Sing (1867):
“Work, boys, work and be contented
So long as you’ve enough to buy a meal;
The man you may rely
Will be wealthy by and by
If he’ll only put his shoulder to the wheel.”
Yet even in the golden age of British industrial supremacy the mere hope of one day rising out of the working class was not enough; though the skilled artisan’s chances of setting up as a small master were by no means negligible, for outside a few industries, large-scale and factory production did not really develop till the last third of the nineteenth century.
Nevertheless, a moderately contented “aristocracy of labour” did develop in Britain after the 1840s: an upper stratum of workers, sharply distinct from the “labourers,” but shading off into the lower middle class of small masters and shopkeepers, and through them, into the fairly small owner-managed provincial mills and factories which were still typical of capitalist production.
They fought a two-front war: against employers, for a small share of profits and trade union recognition; against the rest of the working population, for the enjoyment of the relative monopoly which allowed them to claim even that much. For the exceptional wages and conditions of the aristocrat of labour depended on the maintenance of a relative scarcity of certain kinds of labour, i.e. excluding, often through deliberate restrictive policies, the “labourers” from the charmed circle of “artisans”, organised or not.
On the other hand they also see seemed to depend directly on the prosperity of their employers. The more British capitalism expanded, the better for the “aristocrats of labour.” Hence they willingly tied their wages to the movement of prices (e.g. in the iron and steel industry), and habitually took the same attitude to foreign competition as their masters; for instance, the cotton operatives to Indian cotton manufacture.
Perhaps the extreme case of such a “partnership” is that of the Bolton cotton spinners who, between 1897 and 1906 invested their union funds - an average of some £16,000 per annum -in the cotton spinning industry. Other cases, almost as extreme, could easily be given. Patently such men were unlikely to challenge the capitalist system as such.
Moreover, as we have seen, the labour aristocracy in the later nineteenth century was sufficiently close to the lower middle class to share its economic and political beliefs. Even if they did not actually become employers (and many union rules provided for this contingency), they retained many of their characteristics. As sub-contractors, piece-masters, skilled men paying their helpers, they were largely the co-employers of the poorer workers, with a certain vested interest in exploitation.
No wonder that they became increasingly “Lib-Lab” as the century progressed. No wonder that A. V. Dicey predicted with misplaced confidence in 1867 that “a free extension of the franchise will in 30 years make the artisan as little distinguishable from the rest of the nation [i.e. the middle class -E. H.] as the men whose fathers in 1832 almost overthrew the Constitution from which they were excluded.” The existence of such an aristocracy made possible the Liberal-Radical phase of parliamentarism.
The extension of the franchise thus faced the ruling class with only one immediate problem: how to humour and organise the new (but politically as yet harmless) electorate, and devise suitable tactics and propaganda for it. Up to the end of the nineteenth century this did not require any major changes in programme, any major shifts in political personnel or organisation.
The British ruling class disposed of powerful assets for the job, mainly concentrated in the Whig-Liberal-Radical party.
There was the memory of common struggles with Whig aristocrats against the monarchy; with radical mill-owners against Church and Squire; the extraordinary latitude which 18th century oligarchy had allowed popular movements which did not constitute a real political danger; the propagandist symbol of the bluff John Bull enjoying roast beef and freedom, which had been formed in 125 years of expansionist wars against the French.
Naturally the interests of capitalists and workers diverged, as the manufacturers won the freedom and power they wanted, and turned it against their employees. But “after the artisans are once satisfied with the sympathy, ability and honesty of their leaders, no class is so tolerant of differences of opinion, or so willing to be faithful to leaders with whom they cannot wholly agree,” as a Liberal observed smugly in 1867.
In any case, the old united front of middle- and working-class radicals was by no means dead between 1867 and 1900. Municipal reform, in towns like Birmingham and London, prolonged it. Sectional differences and rivalries between industries, regions, commercial, financial and industrial interests, did the same; for, as Engels once said “the bourgeoisie never rules as a whole.”
The appeal to maintain the old alliance of “the people” (including the liberal bourgeoisie) against “reaction” (preferably of a kind which did not involve the main source of profits) could therefore be confidently launched.
Thus in France Gambetta told his working-class constituents that the essential need of politics was the “fraternal and patriotic alliance of proletariat and bourgeoisie,” and announced a programme of anti-clericalism which dominated thirty years of French politics. Just so, the Liberal Party in Britain dropped virtually all its programme for the single demand of Home Rule for Ireland (a just cause, in itself), precisely when the workers’ demands for a social programme first came to be seriously pressed.
Such a “shift to the left” implied no real sacrifice; though it drove some of the dukes and big businessmen out of the Liberal Party, thus giving it an even greater air of radicalism.
Yet the percentage of Liberal MPs who represented industrial, commercial and financial interests in 1900 was the same as in 1885; that of Radical MPs with similar connections, more than twice as great. Given the social bases of the late nineteenth-century labour movement, only a little reassurance was needed to keep it safely behind Liberal leaders. No man learned the rules of this new game to better purpose than the Grand Old Man himself.
Gladstone, who made no secret of his belief that all desirable reforms (outside Ireland) had been achieved by 1874; who opposed trade union rights and all social legislation; who supported the extension of the franchise only to those “not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or political danger” was and remained the idol of British workers. But Gladstone was the first Prime Minister to address mass meetings; to grant J. P. titles freely to trade unionists; to take a trade unionist into his administration.
Perhaps his technique was too successful. When the working class seriously demanded social reforms (as well as the old radical ones) in the 1890s, the Liberals failed to adapt themselves in time. They recovered between 1900 and 1905; under Lloyd George and Winston Churchill they once again had the labour vote firmly in tow. But they had lost an important round: an independent socialist movement had struck roots; a Labour Party (however loyal to Liberalism) had forty seats in Parliament. In the long run, the days of the Liberals as the party of the working class were numbered.
The prospect had, to some extent, been foreseen by more far-seeing Radicals and Tories-notably by men like Joseph Chamber- lain and Lord Randolph Churchill. “What insurance,” Chamberlain had asked, “will wealth find it to its advantage to pay” to safeguard a position which no longer remained unchallenged after the rebirth of a socialist movement in the 1880s. The economic devices which created a satisfied “aristocracy of labour” operated automatically (i.e. without the deliberate adoption of reformist policies) ‘only so long as Britain’s world monopoly lasted.
The depression era of 1873-96 shook them; the business prosperity of early Imperialism (1900-17) did not restore them. Though imperialist expansion was consciously seen by some imperialists as the answer to labour discontent, it operated - for reasons which we need not analyse here - in such a way as to intensify class antagonisms at home also, and to lower real wages.
A deliberate policy of reformism was therefore forced on the rulers of Britain from about 1907. Of course, there is a great deal of difference between the modest Lloyd-Georgian policy, largely paid for without a significant increase in taxation, and the much stiffer “insurance premiums” forced on British capitalists after 1917.
Still, by 1914 the principle pioneered by economists, philanthropists and Fabians since the 1880s, that it was good business and good security to pay Chamberlain’s “ransom” was established. In the main, however, the effort of the ruling class was concentrated on maintaining the support of the workers without giving anything concrete in return through conscious concessions.
The period of the Great Depression and early Imperialism thus saw above all the invention of modern demagogy. Two aspects of this deserve brief mention: the bowdlerisation of the term “democracy”, and the rise of irrational propaganda.
Some time after the passing of the Third Reform Act (1884) which first extended the vote beyond a limited circle of better-off artisans, ruling-class politicians ceased, on the whole, publicly to admit that they did not like democracy, and to spout instead the platitudes with which we are so familiar today.
This was not merely a defensive device of the sort which leads French politicians, however high Tory, to describe themselves as Radicals, Socialists, Radical-Socialists, Revolutionaries, etc., in deference to the wishes of their voters.
“Rightly” interpreted, the slogans of democracy proved unexpectedly useful, for did they not apparently slur over precisely those class divisions which the unregenerate Whigs, Tories and Liberals in the past had so incontinently stressed? “The real danger to England,” Bryce had written as early as 1867, “is ... from the isolation of the classes... This danger is not met by treating classes as hostile bodies... A Commonwealth therefore knows nothing of classes, and, while it leaves to the possessors of rank and wealth all the advantages that naturally belong to them, it entrenches them behind no rampart of privilege. If those advantages and all that they imply do not enable them to lead a free nation, they cannot be worthy to lead it.” But could there be any doubt that they were?
“Democracy,” as Shaw, a sharp critic of its bourgeois version saw, was a most valuable slogan: “I talk democracy to these men and women. I tell them they have the vote and that theirs is the kingdom, the power and the glory. I say to them, ‘You are supreme; exercise your power.’ They say ‘That’s right; tell us what to do’; and I tell them. I say, ‘Exercise your vote intelligently by voting for me.’ And they do. That’s democracy; and a splendid thing it is too for putting the right men in the right place.” It is indeed. In spite of the fact that the population of Britain almost doubled, and the electoral system was transformed, the number of Old Etonians and Old Harrovians in the House of Commons in 1918-36 was scarcely inferior to that in 1865 (an average of 148 per Parliament, compared to 157).
Yet clearly, this was not enough - especially not for the masses of non-privileged workers who also, increasingly, had to be granted the vote from 1885 on, who had no special traditional link with middle-class Radicalism, and were becoming more and more politically conscious. “We must educate our masters,” Robert Lowe had said after 1867; and the Education Act of 1870 was justified by the argument that voters had to be suitably educated in what would to-day be called “the western way of life.”
But it was the Tories, unencumbered by the Whig-Radical belief in reason and knowledge, who supplemented education by a daring and successful use of irrationalist propaganda, which fitted well into the framework of early Imperialism, with its mysticism of flag, blood, race, and monarchy. The Jubilees of 1887 and 1897, the foundation of the Daily Mail and its competitors, the Mafeking hysteria are so many steps on the miserable road from reason to instinct and magic. From 1900 on the “stunt election” appears.
It is worth remembering how much of a retreat all this meant from the tactics of the classical radical politicians, with their honest belief that the workers could be held to middle-class leadership because Free Trade, Free Enterprise, etc., were invincible in argument. In an earlier situation of crisis, Edmund Burke, the great defender of ruling classes, had seen more clearly: “All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life . .. are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.” Now, in the decline of capitalism the draperies were being put back, if not on life, then at any rate on the flagstaffs and processional ways, and in front of the slums.
Changes in the productive system and the social relations of production do not always find an immediate reaction on the political level; and in Britain above all the accumulated reserves of the old world monopoly have acted as a protective belt round older political techniques. Hence we have been able to discuss the period of early Imperialism (1900-17) very largely in the same terms as that of 1870-1900. Nevertheless, with the coming of Imperialism the social basis of a “moderate” labour movement changed somewhat.
In the first place, the nature of the economy changed, slowly at first, but with much greater speed as soon as the period of permanent crisis began. Between 19111 and 1939 Britain was converted from Free Trade to Protection, from a country with fewer and weaker monopolies than others to one dominated by a handful of giant restrictive combines and nation-wide employers’ associations; from one in which the state was content to hold the ring for private enterprise to profit from its long start and from Britain’s inter- national position, to one in which business looked to government for direct guarantees of profit, direct help in capital concentration. Thus the government became an open partner of the monopolist.
It might even, in the interests of the profits of big business as a whole, take over individually unprofitable but vital sectors of the economy, as many governments had in the past taken over railways. British capitalists were thus, in their own interest, evolving a state-monopoly-capitalist system camouflaged a managed “mixed” economy.
Among them only the smaller ones, squeezed out by the big combines which had twined themselves into the state, or political fossils, regarded this as essentially anti-capitalist. This state of affairs gave new possibilities of reformist manoeuvre within the framework of the political system. Since in the pre-imperialist days (whose memory was naturally strong) “government action” and “private enterprise” had been widely regarded almost as excluding one another, it was easy to suggest to muddled minds in the labour movement that more government action necessarily meant less capitalism. The Fabians did so; with much success.
Moreover, the changing structure of the economy produced new “aristocracies of labour” in addition to (and sometimes instead of) the old-for instance, those managerial and office-workers to whom the new Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook Press appealed, and on whom the Conservative Party relies so heavily for mass support.
Now the point about an aristocracy of labour is that it believes its prospects of improvement stand or fall with the prosperity of its employers, individually or as a class. Since, how- ever, that very prosperity was in question after 1920, it was only natural that it should try to join in reestablisliing it -in open collaboration with them. Its leaders would try, increasingly, to avoid “awkwardness” - oldslogans of anti-imperialism, which might cut down the yield of foreign investments, trade union militancy, wage demands etc. Hence they would in turn provide a buffer against political radicalisation.
Meanwhile, many of the non-privileged workers were also temporarily given what appeared to be a “vested interest” in the imperialist economy. Some of them benefited from the vast expansion of state and municipal administration with its mass of low-paid but fairly secure jobs.
The growth of mechanisation and mass production opened up a good deal of semi-skilled (though, more efficiently and intensively exploited) work to people who had hitherto only had the chance of low-grade fetching-and-carrying, or domestic sweating. Changes in the distribution of industry between the wars happened to benefit centres of casual slum labour, like London.
Moreover, in the “Golden Age” of British world monopoly, the main method by which a share of business super~ profits was passed on to workers was by means of sectional collective bargaining for higher money-Wages. Even this .method, which was heavily biased against those who could not bargain effectively, was important enough to allow Engels to speak of the English proletariat becoming “more and more bourgeois”; “for a nation which exploits the whole world,” he thought, “this is to a certain extent justifiable.”
Britain still exploited a very large sector of the world, through her investments, her power to dictate the terms of trade with backward areas, etc. But under imperialism two additional means of making concessions to labour appeared; through cheaper consumer goods on the market, and through the social and welfare legislation of the state, however inadequate in itself. These, if anything, affected the hitherto completely helpless sections of the working-class proportionately more than the rest.
It is therefore not unlikely that, under the new circumstances, the roots of reformism spread, if not deeper, then at any rate more widely throughout the British labour movement. Thus it is not only the personal characteristics of the two general unions which have turned them into firm supporters of the right-wing leadership over a period of years. (We should not forget, however, that these unions also contain important sections which have never ceased to be militant, and have indeed probably become more so over the past fifty years-notably dockers and passenger transport workers.)
The political attitude of many British workers is thus the result of two tendencies: On the one hand there is the major current which, since the beginning of the imperialist era, has driven them towards the left, increasing class-consciousness and opposition to capitalism; on the other the complex and sectional cross-currents which tend to create “vested interests” in the existing system for some; or which make it difficult for others to see beyond the confines of that system.
But the imperialist era has also seen the rise of a social group whose function is to keep the rank and file firmly tied to the capitalist wagon: the body of labour leaders and officials. For these the mere creation of a state-monopoly capitalism provided new functions, new status, new jobs. With every advance in the strength of the labour movement, the politeness with which they as individuals are treated, grew.
Whatever the fortunes of the rank and file in the imperialist era, for them it has quite clearly brought an almost unqualified advance. Under these circumstances, then, as soon as the mass of workers ceased to follow leaders who frankly supported capitalism, social democracy became the main pillar of the orthodox parliamentary system. Between 1918 and 1924 the Labour Party entered on the heritage of Liberal-Radicalism in most parts of the country.
However, we sometimes forget that there are two sides to reformism as a policy. It requires not only a labour movement(or a body of labour leaders) willing to remain within the frontiers of capitalism, but also a bourgeoisie willing to play this particular political game. French big business, for instance, could undoubtedly afford both wage concessions, welfare legislation, and a very full recognition of trade unionism,
Small as that which has tamed many British labour leaders; but it has in general relied on union-smashing. Secure in its own relative strength, and the numerical smallness of the working-class in France, until quite recently it rejected even elementary collective bargaining. In Britain, with its absolute majority of wage-earners, the comparatively late growth of big monopolies, and the great strength of organised labour from the 1860s, such intransigence would have been suicidal. Nor was it generally attempted after 1900. Naturally this was not the result of a deliberate plan. Nothing in capitalism is: capitalists cannot even consistently plan their own advantage.
It emerged from the struggles of numerous sectional groups, each with its own policy, die-hard or conciliatory. Naturally also the ruling class safeguarded itself against the growing threat of a genuinely militant left-wing movement, by strengthening its powers of direct coercion—Emergency Powers Acts, Trades Disputes Acts and more recently, Defence Regulations. Nevertheless, it is now fairly clear that British capitalists as a whole reconciled themselves to reformist policies sometime in the 1920s.
The decision to do so was perhaps the last major service of the moribund Liberal Party to capitalism. Liberal employers sponsored the Mond-Turner conferences after the General Strike; Liberal business- men and politicians, as Sir Osbert Sitwell has told us, were instrumental in getting the Strike settled before the diehard Churchillian section of the Tories had time to arrest the TUC leaders. Liberal administrators and economists, finally, Keynes, Beveridge and others, elaborated the policies which have now become Labour Party orthodoxy, but whose avowed purpose was to make capital- ism work, and to salvage the wreckage of world empire.
The decision to play the reformist game showed great political acumen. It secured the British ruling class three major advantages, at the cost of some unavoidable expense: a smooth switch of the political system from a Liberal-Conservative to a Labour-Conservative pattern, a collaborative Labour Party capable, broadly speaking, of keeping its supporters under control; and the possibility of operating the state largely through cadres drawn from the ruling class itself, yet still enjoying a fair measure of popular confidence. All this made for a welcome flexibility in politics.
In France and Italy bourgeois tactics are limited by the impossibility of permitting the main working-class party to win, not merely a majority, but even fair parliamentary representation. Again in France and the USA a smokescreen of professional parliamentarians, of petit-bourgeois or even working-class origin, has long had to be laid down between the people and those who really make decisions of power, for organised political hostility to big business as a group has long been much greater there. Or else public opinion may have to be harnessed by means of so frenzied and hysterical a propaganda as sometimes seriously to restrict the rulers’ freedom of tactical manoeuvre.
In these matters the British bourgeoisie, whose Wykehamists and Etonians have to a large extent maintained a solid and unbroken grip of both parliamentary and non-parliamentary positions outside, and even within the Labour Party, has a distinct advantage. To take merely one striking example: it managed the abdication of a King in 1936 with smoothness and dispatch, while in Belgium a similar problem brought the country to the verge of civil war. Nevertheless, the period of imperialist crisis since World War I, and especially since World War II, has distinctly narrowed the safety margin of bourgeois parliamentarism in Britain, though it has not yet led (nor is there any historical reason why it should immediately lead) to a serious loss of political control over the working-class voters.
The inter-war years were admittedly an exceptionally favourable period for the country’s rulers. A short, great but uncoordinated advance of labour was succeeded by a long retreat: in 1933 trade unions had barely more members than in 1913, and Labour’s main strongholds were in the isolated distressed areas. The second war came before the renewed advance of Labour had made itself fully felt.
In Parliament the majority of openly capitalist parties was never challenged. Not until after 1945 did bourgeois newspapers feel obliged seriously to discuss a situation which had been implicit in British politics since 1918: “Liberals and Conservatives differed sufficiently to give the country a choice, and agreed sufficiently to maintain the continuity of national life. Is a similar harmony possible between Socialists and Conservatives? Yes it is possible; modern Con- and moderate Socialists have a good deal of common
They could alternate in office without vast destructive reversals of legislation.” (from the Observer) Ruling class politicians therefore still envisaged their problem in modest terms. The capture of Labour leaders, the direct transformation of minority Labour governments into “national” ones, Stanley Baldwin’s surprisingly successful appeal to “trust me” -these and similar techniques were believed to be adequate for the maintenance of parliamelitarism before World War II.
Yet the gap between ruling-class policy and working-class opinion grew increasingly wide; consequently a variety of techniques of defence and evasion had to be evolved. The major developments of the inter-war period were of this sort. Orthodox students of the Constitution observed, though they sometimes misinterpreted, the tendency to limit the scope of Parliament and public agitation, and to strengthen the non-parliamentary levers of power. Demagogy too became primarily evasive. The great achievement ‘of Lloyd George had been to enlist labour opinion positively behind Liberal policy. The great achievements of inter- war demagogy were negative: the devices by which the nationalisation of coal mines was side-tracked in 1918 and 1925-7, Collective Security smothered in the 1930s, or, a prolongation of the same tendencies, the Churchillian policy on the Second front and on Greece pushed past the labour rank and file during the War. Indeed, the inter-war years are notable for the development of a catchment system within Parliament and party organisations (notably the Labour Party). A multitude of channels were dug through which popular agitation might be distributed harmlessly, sped by “assurances” and “promises,” until it had, for the time being, subsided.
These devices still retain their usefulness; but they have ceased to be adequate in themselves. Since the war parliamentarism has had to be played in its most difficult version. The business of a capitalist economy has had to be conducted through a Party whose members expected it to abolish capitalism (though they were not always clear what this implied). Moreover, this had to be done at a time when tactics were becoming less flexible. The grave crisis of the economy no longer permitted Labour leaders to put forward, even for platform purposes, a very different programme from that of frankly capitalist politicians.
Three devices, therefore, are characteristic of this latest phase of parliamentarism: a greatly increased amount of parliamentary shadow-boxing; a greatly increased propaganda barrage against the left; and the “welfare state.” In a sense, none of these is new. There have always been rhetorical duels between Belloc’s “ac- cursed power that stands for privilege (and goes with women and champagne and bridge)” and “democracy” (which goes with bridge, and women, and champagne). Only today they are both more unreal (for the fundamental identity of interest is much more frankly admitted by representative leaders on both sides), and more necessary, for in spite of the virtually complete bipartisanship on all major issues of policy, the rank and file of labour is increasingly intolerant of open union with the capitalists. There has always been propaganda against the left. Only today it is necessarily shriller and more intense (especially from the official Labour side). A government which has so largely abandoned the traditional policies of Labour’s founding fathers (and of traditional British Radicalism) on foreign, imperial and trade union affairs, must make a rather big noise, if it wants to distract attention.
The "welfare state" also continues, as we have seen, policies first formulate and partly applied between 1880 and 1914. Here, however, political and economic development have led to somewhat greater changes. The "insurance premiums" against unrest today are certainly higher, in terms of taxes and general interference, than those which, say, Asquith envisaged in 1907, when he outlined the scope of the new liberal-reformist policy; the administrative changes much more striking.
Naturally, they are not such as to interfere with the essentials of the capitalist system; Lord Beveridge's full employment scheme was expressly constructed on the assumption that they should not. Indeed, Professor Brady's detailed study of the record of the Labour government has recently shown that what has been done since 1945 is frequently much more modest than what was demanded - sometimes by Commissions set up under the coalition government - during the war. Moreover, the "welfare state" with it ambitious social services and Keynesian policies has advantages for a monopoly-capitalist economy, which it would not have had for the small-scale competitive capitalism of the mid-nineteenth century.
It is not improbably that what business loses on the swings of taxation etc., it more than regains on the roundabouts of a more efficient exploitation of labour - as Alfred Marshall implied that it would - quite apart from the gain in political security for the regime.
Still, on its present scale the "welfare state" is a concession wrung from the rulers by the weight of the labour rank and file; and the Liberals who pioneered it have frankly seen it as a safeguard against revolution. "If we put off dealing with these social sores", argued Lloyd George in 1909, "ate the evils which arise from them not likely to grow and fester?"
"Without [this policy]," argued Winston Churchill in the same debate, "let the Committee be sure that our country will remain exposed to some fatal dangers against which fleets and armies are of no avail."
"Misery generates hate", wrote Beveridge in 1942. "This text is my main text. The greatest evil of unemployment is not physical but moral, not in the want which it may bring, but the hatred and fear which it breeds."
But it if is a concession, it is one which has been deliberately made by the rulers themselves. By granting it at well-chosen moments, British capitalism has been able to draw the maximum benefit from it. Full employment and the social services have so far maintained substantial working-class loyalty to the Labour leaders through a series of increasingly sharp disappointments.
Yet the margin of safety narrows. The historian of the future will observe with irony that the Party which opposed the extension of coercive legislation between the wars should find itself employing it more regularly than inter-war governments had to - for instance, in the use of troops to break strikes under the Emergency Power Act.
He will note that the official body of labour lawyers finds nothing to say about the state of British civil liberties in 1951. He will be unable to measure the increase in the influence of quite irresponsible secret police bodies (staffed in the main by traditional adversaries of labour), for few reliable facts about them are publicly available; but he cannot fail to notice that it is very striking He may indeed wonder whether the government of 1951 is that of the Party which was formed to safeguard the right to strike, and, as late as 1945, put the unqualified repeal of anti-union legislation high on its programme.
The use of the Defence Regulations more than restored the anti-strike powers thus repealed. In their arguments law officers of the crown even made the attempt, abandoned since the Taff Vale days, to question the intention of the trade union legislation of 1867-75. But for the resistance of the movement and the common sense of jurors, the attack on the right to strike might well have succeeded.
British capitalism thus finds it increasingly hard to maintain its old techniques of government in smooth working order, for it is increasingly difficult to pay a section of its workers the necessary hush money today. The extraordinary burdens of the armaments and foreign policy with which it has saddled itself will certainly increase this difficulty. The policy of reformism and propaganda thus yields diminishing returns.
The general tendency towards sharpened class antagonisms, and a growth of socialist consciousness in the labour movement, cannot be permanently reversed, though it can, for periods, be slowed down. The stability of capitalist democracy in Britain today depends on the political hold of the Labour Party's leaders on their rank and file. This in turn depends on the "welfare state"; but it is more than doubtful whether - even without the present burden of rearmament - this can, in the not so long run, function in a framework of "free enterprise", or a "mixed economy" as envisaged by government spokesmen.
The moment when the working class stands fully exposed to the winds which blow round the British capitalist economy in its desperate crisis, draws nearer; and with it, the "crisis of social democracy", and hence that of the present methods by which the ruling class maintains political control. The conditions for a politically conscious movement of the British people, under the leadership of a socialist labour movement, are therefore coming into being.