The Proletariat in Power
THE Government of the Proletariat has arrived. It has caused, in the announcement of its personnel, some astonishment and some tranquillity. Anything less like the ‘proletariat’ as imagined in the nightmares of wealthy men could scarcely be conceived. It calls itself sometimes a ‘Labor’ Government, and sometimes a ‘Socialist’ Government; but it seems to consist in the main of Labor men who repudiate Socialism and of Socialists who have no claim to speak for Labor. For more than a week I listened to the prophecies of ‘red ruin and the breaking up of laws’ from the Conservative side in the House of Commons, and to the defiant assertions on the other, that the poor and those who had direct knowledge of the poor were at last coming into their own. Meanwhile, the newspapers outside indulged in a frantic dance of exultation, or almost hysterical alarm, at what would result if this new party came into office, although, from the nature of the division of the House of Commons into three nearly equal parties, it could not — of necessity — come into power.
One class of speakers pictured a rising from the slums; quoted the ferocious attacks on all who lived on rent or investments as ‘ bloodsuckers ‘ and ‘ parasites’; on the lawyers with great practices as ‘thieves.’ There was the vision of lean hands and thin-lipped fanatic faces destroying the ‘Capitalistic’ system and replacing it by the ‘Socialist’ State. On the other hand, those who had indulged in this queer claptrap on the platform announced that the rule of the rich and the lawyers was over, that for the first time those who had intimate and personal knowledge of the life of the poor were coming into their own, and that the domination of the landlord and the private capitalist and the inheritor of fortune and the bourgeoisie had closed forever.
It was in such circumstance and amid such argument that the Government, which had plumped for Protection and lost, was thrown out; and it was with the hopes or fears excited by such oratory that the country awaited a new Government in power.
To paraphrase one famous line of Clough: If hopes were dupes, fears have proved to be liars. In the new Cabinet which has been formed, the ‘bloodsuckers’ and the ‘parasites’ are substantially in the majority. One looks in vain, either with disappointment or satisfaction, for the men who have lived for twenty years in slum or garret. The Proletariat Government, with whose advent comfortable, wealthy, and middle-class people have scared their children, and who are supposed to be committed to the overthrow of society, is the most curious Government recently formed in this country. It consists in part of prosperous TradesUnion Secretaries, many of whom for many years have supplemented their Trades-Union salaries by the earning of considerable sums of money for articles contributed, under their own names, to the great ‘Capitalistic’ newspapers. It consists in the main of men of wealth, and of others living in comfort in that middle class which Socialism has always denounced. It consists largely also of men who were sometimes claimed as converts and sometimes stigmatized as renegades, recruited from the two great historic parties of the past. There is no particular reason why it should call itself a Labor or a Socialist Government. It might equally well call itself a Government labeled either Conservative or Liberal.
To go into more detail, one may examine individuals. The Cabinet consists of twenty of them. The Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, a clever parliamentarian and a man respected by all alike, is the pivot upon which rests the whole machine. It is quite obvious that, if he had to retire for health or any other reason, the machine would fall hopelessly to pieces. He is a Highlander from Scotland who has never known the meaning of poverty since nearly thirty years ago, when he married (in a union which was a real romance), a lady of substantial fortune. He has lived the life of the cultured classes, with a town house and two country houses, with a substantial library, and capacity for unlimited entertainment and travel, and many other of the enjoyments of existence denied to the less fortunate. The Lord Chancellor, who occupies the second most important position, is Lord Haldane, an ex-Liberal Chancellor, who has never forgiven the Liberals for dropping him in the Coalition of 1915. He acquired an immense fortune at the Chancery Bar, and is a great society entertainer, providing perhaps the most elaborate food, the choicest wines, and the largest cigars, of any host of the West End of London. Lord Parmoor, again, is a convert — or renegade — from the Conservative party. In nearly ten years in which I was a Member of the Liberal Reforming Government in the House of Commons, he used to oppose almost every measure which we were trying to pass for the social welfare of the people. And what was worse than opposition — he used to speak on every subject for at least two hours. Lord Chelmsford, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, an ex-Viceroy of India, who did not particularly impress the Government of that difficult continent by insight or ability, has never declared for Socialism of any kind in the whole course of his career; and has probably never been familiar with the life of the workingman. Mr. Noel Buxton, — a recruit also from Liberalism, — the Minister of Agriculture, inherits a great fortune from one of the most famous brewing firms in London. Mr. Charles Trevelyan, a former humble Liberal Under-Secretary, now head of the Education Department, is the son of Sir George Trevelyan, the famous historian of the American War of Independence, and will be the inheritor of a fortune of many hundreds of thousands of pounds partly derived from rents, partly from cottonspinning, and partly through his wife, the daughter of Sir Hugh Bell, one of England’s greatest iron ‘capitalists.’ He seems to come lamentably under the claptrap definition of the Glasgow Reds as a bloodsucker and parasite. The Secretary for Air, Brigadier General Thomson, an efficient soldier and member of the Staff College, who will no doubt do his work well, has also, so far as I know, no direct knowledge of the life of the poor, nor has he ever publicly accepted the Socialist position as an economic ideal.
Perhaps the most curious appointment is that of Colonel Josiah Wedgwood as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster — a position I once held in a Liberal Cabinet. Coming of a famous family in the Potteries, which had built up a great and historic reputation and a great and legitimate fortune from the Wedgwood ware, and having shown extraordinary gallantry in Gallipoli — where he was wounded — and in East Africa during the Great War, he is deservedly one of the most popular Members of Parliament. But he is in the very fibre of his being an anarchist, hating state and all other control, and the chief apostle in this country of the single-tax system of Henry George — which is, of course, the antithesis of Socialism. The only man who could claim to be a representative of the Reds is the Minister of Health, Mr. John Wheatley, who has raised himself from humble origin to a comfortable position as a ‘capitalist’ publisher, and who, after announcing before Christmas that he would oppose Labor ever taking office dependent on Liberal support, has now accepted office in a Labor Cabinet which cannot continue in Parliament for one week without the active and not merely the passive assistance of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. For if the Liberal Party were merely to abstain in any critical division, the Conservatives, with a majority of something like sixty over Labor, would have no difficulty in turning them out.
If one may classify the Cabinet, therefore, in various groups, he would find, belonging to the wealthy: Lord Parmoor, Lord Haldane, Lord Chelmsford, Mr. Noel Buxton, and Mr. Charles Trevelyan, or one quarter of the whole number. He would find belonging to the comfortable bourgeoisie, who either possess private fortune or have obtained it through their wives: Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, Sir Sydney Olivier, Mr. Sidney Webb, — one of the greatest of society’s hosts for the last twenty years, — Mr. Philip Snowden, — a journalist of distinction,— and Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, making another quarter. He would find among Members of Trades-Unions who have supplemented their incomes with money obtained from journalism, who live in comfortable houses in middleclass surroundings and have a ‘stake in the country’: Mr. Clynes, Mr. Henderson (who was for many years a Liberal Agent), Mr. Thomas, Mr. Hartshorn, and Mr. Jowett, making another quarter of this strangely mixed gathering. And of the five remaining in a hopeless minority, you have: Mr. Steven Walsh as Secretary for War, and Mr. Thomas Shaw as Minister of Labor, both representing those Lancashire Trades-Unions which are and always have been essentially Conservative; Mr. Adamson, the Secretary for Scotland, who represents the moderating influence among the Scotch miners, sharply distinguished from such a man as Mr. Smillie who represents the Left Wing and who is not in the Government; Mr. Wheatley, as I have said, a Glasgow ‘capitalist’ with violent opinions on the platform; and General Thomson, who is not exactly a ‘horny-handed son of toil.’
I do not see the pillars of society shaken, or any reason why rich men should not sleep at night, or why the middle classes — who were to be the special victims of Karl Marx and his followers — should feel any trepidation at the coming into office of such a Government as this.
An element which was frightening the minds of men was not only that what many regard as the wickedness of spoliation of property might immediately commence. It was that, even if that ‘wickedness’ were averted, the eagerness and inexperience of youth might cause the overthrow of society, not so much in definite class-warfare as in sanguine and perhaps violent pressing forward of measures, in the desire of young men for immediate remedy for ancient ills. But this is not a Cabinet of youth. It is a Cabinet of old men and men of advanced middle-age, probably older than the Cabinet which it has displaced. It is encouraging to people like myself, after more than twenty years of political warfare and nearly ten years of office, to realize that if we had been members of this Government we should be to-day almost the youngest of its queerly assorted company. Mr. MacDonald is nearly fifty-eight; Lord Haldane is ten years older; Lord Parmoor is over seventy; Mr. Sidney Webb is sixty-four; Mr. Henderson, Mr. Snowden, and Mr. Stephen Walsh are over sixty; Mr. Adamson is another sexagenarian; and most of the remainder are beyond the half-century of life. I can find only one who appears to be in the ‘fortunate forties,’ and none younger. This is a Government of aging men, very different from the Cabinet of which I was a Member, and which was so distinguished for reforming zeal — in which, at entrance, Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Winston Churchill, Mr. Runciman, Mr. M’Kenna, Sir John Simon, and myself were all in the early forties or below it, and a man over sixty years of age was a unique and venerable figure, whom we younger and more ardent spirits regarded with the respect due to the weight of his years.
The average age of the new Government is something over fifty-eight: an age normally beyond rash experiment or romantic endeavor. It is probable that the younger Liberals, upon whose support they depend for their existence, will have to assist in providing the driving force necessary for social reforms.
Something of the same comment can be made concerning the Members of the Government outside the Cabinet. It is true that here, as of necessity among Under-Secretaries, the age is lower. But there is the same quaint combination of Socialist and non-Socialist, of men who have either descended from the heights or climbed from the ranks; and of men of the classes who have been denounced at every street corner by Labor orators, with representatives of the very men who have denounced them. Thus Mr. Arthur Ponsonby, the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is the son of Sir Arthur Ponsonby, who was Secretary to Queen Victoria. He was born in Windsor Castle, was a godson of Queen Victoria, and inherited a substantial fortune, living hospitably in an old monastery converted into one of the most charming country houses in England. Mr. Patrick Hastings, the new AttorneyGeneral, is probably earning the largest income of any of the practising lawyers at the Bar. Mr. Sidney Arnold, Undersecretary for the Colonies, is a wealthy Manchester stockbroker, who left the Liberal party on the question of a Capital Levy. The Under-Secretary for India is Mr. Richards, a Welsh Professor. The Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. W. Graham, is a distinguished journalist and writer of Edinburgh University. Mr. Slesser, K. C., the Solicitor-General, is a Jew who has become a High Churchman in the Episcopal Church. These are rubbing shoulders with such men and women as Miss Bondfield, for many years a shop assistant, Mr. Ammon, for many years a telegraph messenger and sorter, with Mr. James Stewart, a sixty-year-old Glasgow hairdresser and violent Socialist, and Mr. Lawson, one of ten children of a Cumberland miner, who began work in the pit at the age of twelve. Perhaps the ablest of this group of lesser officials is Mr. Shinwell, of East London and Glasgow, a Jew who has suffered imprisonment for his opinions, and is now Secretary for Mines. There is a curious combination of men like Major Atlee, Under-Secretary for War, who has a record of distinguished service in Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, and France, and men like Mr. Morgan Jones, Secretary to the Board of Education, who was one of the leaders of the No Conscription Fellowship, who was among the first of the conscientious objectors, who passed through the dreary record of arrest, court-martial, detention, imprisonment, and persecution even after the Armistice, when he was arrested again as a deserter and kept in prison at Aldershot for several months.
Generally one may interpret the test of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s selection as far less one of adhesion to economic Socialism than as a reward for those who assisted in the work of the Union of Democratic Control, in active opposition to the spirit of the people, which maintained a terrific struggle and sacrifice to its victorious close. It was in opposition to such spirit that men like Mr. Ponsonby and Mr. Trevelyan and Mr. Graham forsook the Liberal Party and men like Lord Parmoor the Conservative. And it would be ridiculous to brand such individuals either as possessing the qualification of direct acquaintance with the life of the poor, on the one hand, which would enable them to call themselves ‘Labor,’ or on the other, with sympathies with the ideas of Mr. Sidney Webb and his supporters, which would enable them to call themselves Socialists.
Another curious and noticeable fact about the new Government is the comparative subordination or obligation of Englishmen. England, in population, wealth, and dimensions, bears about the same relation to the British Isles that Prussia does to the remainder of Germany. Yet this Government is almost entirely composed of members of the minority of what is sometimes called the Celtic fringe. Immediately after the general election, enthusiastic Reds from Glasgow announced that if Scottish Home Rule had been granted, the red flag would be triumphantly flying at this moment over Edinburgh Castle. And it is perfectly true that if to-day there were a Scottish Free State and a Welsh Free State, each with a Parliament for its own country, and neither sending representatives to the House of Commons at Westminster, and if the qualification of such representation at Westminster was that each individual member should be a pure-bred Englishman, there would be practically no Labor Party here at all.
Of the Cabinet — Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, of course, is not only a Scottish Highlander, but in appearance and method of thought almost a typical representative of that great and astonishing race. Other Scotsmen include Lord Haldane, Mr. Henderson, Mr. Wheatley, Mr. Adamson, and I think some others of Scottish blood if not of Scottish birth. Mr. Clynes, the new Leader of the House, is the son of an Irish laborer, and Mr. Stephen Walsh is also of Irish descent. Mr. Thomas is a typical Welshman, Mr. Hartshorn is of the same race. Mr. Sidney Webb belongs probably to a more ancient and renowned civilization. Of the twenty Members of its Cabinet less than eight probably, in any case a permanent minority, can claim to be of undiluted English blood. We Englishmen make no complaint at this domination of the races which we once conquered by the sword, and which rule us for our own good. Nor is this anything peculiar to the new Government, for — so far as I can remember — Mr. Asquith is the only Prime Minister of any party who had any claim to be an Englishman, for the last eighty years. It is interesting, however, to note how much the energy and driving force of any new Labor or Progressive movement comes from Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, and Jews. How little the great mass of stolid Anglo-Saxons really care for the difficult problems of social organization! How content they are to put up with inequalities and injustices until such inequalities and injustices become intolerable! How much they prefer, in rather happy-go-lucky fashion, to enjoy the simple pleasures of the day — the racecourse, the football field, the cinema entertainment, the happiness of home, rather than in fierce crusade to indulge in the impeachment of those more wealthy or more lucky than themselves, in a sustained effort to overturn present society and build something better upon its ruins.
I have said something of the personnel and the previous career of the members of this strange coalition which is now in office, although representing less than one third of the votes of the House of Commons and considerably less than one quarter of the electorate. In intelligence and experience it certainly compares favorably with its predecessors. For at the end, when Mr. Baldwin and his curious, obscure confederates had managed to get rid of the ablest Conservative parliamentarian in the person of Mr. Austen Chamberlain and the ablest platform speaker in the person of Lord Birkenhead, it was quite obvious that they had nothing left but a rather dismal line of men whose proudest ambition could never — except under such abnormal conditions as prevailed on the break-up of the Coalition — have been legitimately advanced beyond the standard of an Under-Secretary. In the debate on the King’s Speech, at the end of which they were turned out by a Liberal-Labor combination, by a majority of seventy-two, they presented a most pitiful and dismal spectacle: going to the slaughter almost like sheep, with a bleat or a cry but with no real effort to defend their own grotesque strategy or past ignoble record.
I may, of course, be prejudiced; but I can see no particular reason why this present Government should be preferred to a Liberal administration. If the test were to be personal knowledge of the life of the poorest, we should come as triumphantly out of the ordeal as they. For if Mr. MacDonald, for example, was the child of a peasant Highland home, Mr. Lloyd George was reared in the house of a Welsh village cobbler. If Mr. Clynes was the son of an Irish laborer, Dr. Macnamara was the child of an Irish common soldier or private, born in a barracks. And if there are in the new Government men who have studied economics in theory, there are in the Members of the old Liberal Government men who, — if I may be forgiven for boasting, — like myself, have spent most of the best years of their life in voluntary residence in block-dwellings in the slums of great cities, in order to learn and to help the life of the poor.
And if the test be less of that direct experience than one of familiarity and long skillful handling of national and international affairs, the Liberal party is first and the rest are nowhere. Mr. Asquith, Prime Minister for eight consecutive years, in the recent debate once more asserted his acknowledged and unassailable supremacy over all parties in the House of Commons. Mr. Lloyd George was a Minister of the Crown for more than sixteen years, and his name will always be associated, not only with the winning of the war, but with efforts of courageous and widespread social reform. And one could mention many more: Mr. John Burns, who arose from poverty through his own efforts; Mr. Winston Churchill, with unrivaled powers of oratory; Mr. M’Kenna, who has held almost every high office in the State, and was desired even by the Tories to be their Chancellor of the Exchequer; Sir John Simon, who has already refused the Lord Chancellorship and is at least as distinguished a lawyer as any of those now occupying office; besides many lesser lights who could form a Liberal Government of distinction.
The majority at the last election, — of a very few thousands only, — however, put the Labor Party in the position of being second in number in the House of Commons. The Liberals have generously recognized that Constitutional position. And despite all the wild cry of a defeated Conservative party and press that their vote meant Socialism, Bolshevism, and Red Ruin installed in the Executive and Parliamentary Government, they have promised general support to the Administration, in so far as its actual effect of Government is efficient, and in so far as the laws which it introduces are not directly harmful to the credit and social welfare of this little crowded island.
There has hitherto been no suggestion advanced as to what this programme is to be. Mr. MacDonald will probably have a difficult task in concentrating so heterogeneous a Cabinet upon any specific and far-reaching change more extreme than that which Liberalism, or a combination of Liberalism and moderate Labor, would itself have introduced, had it been called to power. But parties — and especially
new parties — which enter Government after long periods of opposition are generally very well pleased with themselves. Out of one hundred and ninety supporters he has some sixty whom he can provide with places in the Government itself, and many more who will be candidates for the vast patronage at home and abroad which a Government can exercise. I do not see this particular Labor Government speedily committing political suicide. I think it will be found easily to defy any growlings of those who demand the immediate destruction of the ‘capitalistic system’ or who have denounced, at every street corner, the wealthy and successful as all criminals.
It is true that these have formed in every constituency the spear-point and driving force of the Labor movement. Some have been inspired by hatred of men more successful than themselves. Others have been inspired by the vision of a great ideal in which poverty and riches will alike disappear, and effort for public service replace the incentive of private gain. Those are the men and women who, without any remuneration or reward, in dark days as in bright, in factories and dingy halls and on street corners, have preached a cause with a fiery zeal characteristic less of advocates of political change than of converts to a new religion. How far they will now accept, as a result of their efforts, a Government so largely composed of the wealthy and prosperous, of the aged and the aging, of those who have vested interest in the capitalistic system and have no wish to see it overthrown, remains a question which only time can answer. Four or five of their extremists, at least, have found no difficulty in accepting office in a Government predominantly non-Socialist, and which cannot move hand or foot without support from one of those ‘capitalistic’ parties, denunciation of which is the stock jargon of their eloquence. I wonder what my friend Mr. Keir Hardie, who earned in my first years in Parliament the hatred of the House of Commons and the passionate affection of the poor, would have thought of this strange triumph of the ‘Proletariat.’
The men who are most trusted by the bulk of the workers and whom they regard with the most conspicuous personal devotion are not to-day found among the new membership of the Government of Labor. Such are, for example, Mr. Smillie, Chairman of the Miners’ Federation, who is not only the most transparently sincere but also far the ablest of the working-class leaders with whom I came personally in contact in the work of Government. And Mr. George Lansbury, of Poplar, a well-known Christian Socialist with a character which makes him beloved by all, regardless of his opinion. And Mr. Johnston, the editor of the Forward of Glasgow, the most vigorous and alive of all the Socialist papers of England. And Mr. Brailsford, editor of the New Leader, the organ of intellectual Socialism, one of the best journalists and most informed European and international minds in England to-day. And there are also other men of the type of Mr. Roden Buxton, who only lost his seat in Lancashire through an unholy combination of Tories and Liberals supporting a glib and undistinguished Welsh ‘carpetbagger,’ and who has not only devoted all his life, but actually dedicated his complete fortune by trust deed, to the interests of Labor. And men like Mr. Tawney, who passed from Oxford to live in East London among the very poorest, and whose published works have proved an inspiration here — and, I think, in America — to those who are seeking a new way of life and a day of better things. And I could name many others whose long years of devoted and impersonal service to a great cause would seem to have earned them a position in the first Labor Government more than the services of such men as Lord Parmoor or Lord Chelmsford or Mr. Patrick Hastings or other somewhat too recent converts to what may have appeared in later years to be the winning side. It may be that such men as these were invited to join the Government and have refused. If they refused from merely personal disinclination for office, while at the same time determining to give their support with enthusiasm to the new Administration, that Government is in no danger. But if the refusal is due in any way to the preponderance of the ‘moderate’ men and men of great possessions, to distrust of its personnel and policy, or if no offer was made to them at all, because of their divergence from ‘moderation,’ then I can foresee trouble brewing up for those who are now in power. You will have a new Left movement forming, attracting all the youth and ardor and idealism which secured for Labor its present success; and you will have the present Labor leaders either compelled to join with that Liberal and Radical Party whose programme is in fact indistinguishable from theirs, or being squeezed out, as being in character purely opportunist and in membership on the whole lacking in distinction and conspicuous efficiency in the extraordinarily important work of the daily administration of public affairs.
But I do not wish in this article to intrude into the regions of prophecy. My object has been rather description and explanation. Politics have been defined as the passionate pursuit of the second best. Under the extraordinary circumstances of English parliamentary life at the present, which repudiates alike the two-party system of America, and the group system of Europe, I am convinced that the ‘best’ would be either a Liberal Government in power or a Liberal-andLabor combination with a majority which could probably keep so progressive a union in office for ten or twenty years. But I am quite sure that the ‘second best’ is the advent of the Labor party. Whatever criticism one may pass on them — or rather, on the too extravagant claims made for them — in a contrast with others which cannot be sustained by reason, they represent a body of men intensely in earnest, many who in childhood have experienced the hardships of the life of the cottage in the little struggle for existence in the great towns of England, and all of whom are inspired by an overwhelming desire for the restoration of the peace of the world. All the obstacles which make for the violation of that peace and which form the shibboleths of a Conservative creed have been entirely brushed aside. There is no more talk of raising barriers against international trade. There is no more talk of throwing into the gutter the League of Nations, whose existence and continuous developing power seems to us on this side of the Atlantic the only hope of relief for the tormented family of mankind. There is no more encouragement of French chauvinism, or desire to start again in another mad competition for armaments, or to keep up the silly quarrel with the Government of Russia, or to emphasize the dissensions and possible causes of trouble between America and the British Empire. The Prime Minister himself, a man of wide culture and learning, has visited almost every country in the world, and is a familiar friend with most of those who are now charged with the government of human affairs. Even those who are purely raised from the position of Trades-Unionists have—largely in international conferences held in the various capitals of Europe, or at Washington — acquired something of the international mind. An administration which includes among its members an ex-Viceroy of India, whose name is associated with the greatest measure of reform ever voluntarily bestowed by a great Empire upon a subject people, is not likely to embark upon any scheme which will bring that now distracted Empire into ruin and despair. A Government containing so many men of property is not likely to advocate or attempt to put into force at this time either the much advertised Capital Levy, or any other scheme which may destroy credit or may frighten investment from the London money-market. I doubt if its action will prove as sensational as those expect who hail the advent of the first Labor Government in Britain, either as the end of prosperity or as the beginning of the millennium. It will do its work according to its lights, without making any great substantial change in the fabric of society. And it will be fortunate if, at the end of its period of rule, it can boast of as successful a series of measures for the amelioration of the condition of the bulk of the people as has been harvested by former administrations which it is now the fashion to despise.