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Thirty Years From Now

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Englishman in touch with the British Labor Party cannot but be struck, in visiting America, by the profound difference between the outlook to which he is accustomed at home and that which he finds among American “Radicals.” To begin with the word: “Radical” has, to British ears, an old-fashioned Victorian flavor—it suggests a series of men extending from Francis Place, the wire-pulling tailor of the Reform Bill time, through John Stuart Mill, to Joseph Chamberlain in his youth. Since the beginning of the present century the word has been obsolete. But in America it lingers, like many other archaic forms of speech and thought. To an Englishman visiting America I should say, “Study the language of Shakespeare and the thought of Montesquieu. Then you will be able to understand such words as ‘chores’ and such beliefs as that America is dedicated to Liberty, both of which you might otherwise find unintelligible.”

To obtain a first rough outline of a comparison between the advanced movements in American and British politics it is necessary to remember that industrialism, as a dominant factor in the national life, is much more recent in America than in England. The serious development of American industrialism hardly goes further back than the Civil War, whereas that of England goes back to the Napoleonic wars. Now the technical side of production— the machinery, the processes, and so on—can be quickly developed in a new environment, and may positively gain from the absence of old plant and old methods. Accordingly, on the technical side American industry is, in the main, more advanced than that of Great Britain. But the psychological side of industrial life is a slower growth. Certain habits of mind inherited from agriculture, handicrafts, and commerce persist in the early phases of industrialism, causing friction in the political machinery. There is no country where the industrial habit of mind is completely dominant or completely developed, but it is perhaps natural that it should be nearest to complete development in Great Britain, where alone it is common to find industrial workers whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers were also industrial workers in the same industries and the same localities. Think of the Lancashire proverb, “Three generations from clogs to clogs,” meaning that when a working man rises to be an employer, his son or grandson will sink back to the level of the wage-earner. This implies a stable environment which is industrial, whereas in America no industrial environment is stable and every solution must be provisional.

Before going further it is necessary to guard against a possible misunderstanding. I spoke a moment ago of commerce along with agriculture and handicrafts. Now commerce in the sense of interchange of goods is, of course, promoted by industrialism. But commerce in the old sense, in which the merchant was a prince who ruled the economic life of nations, is a thing of the past, or at any rate, is rapidly becoming so. In olden days both sellers and buyers were unorganized. Between them stood a small group of great merchants whose economic strength far outweighed that of both sellers and buyers. Hence the wealth of Venice, Holland, and London. But with the growth of industrialism the situation changed The seller became, in regard to many commodities, a great and powerful corporation, able to dictate terms and to dispense with the middleman. Take, as an extreme case, the marketing of oil: this is undertaken almost wholly by the producers, and leaves no scope for the merchant. There is a tendency, as yet far less developed, for buyers also to organize; this is, in fact, part of the case for socialism. It is clear that while sellers are organized and buyers unorganized, the producer is in a position superior to that of the consumer. Equality of economic strength in an industrial world demands organization of each economic interest, and not only, of some. And wherever there is inequality of economic strength there will be exploitation.

The elimination of commerce as an independent factor in economic life is, of course, far from complete, but we can already see that it belongs to the inherent tendencies of industrialism, which must gradually substitute for the merchant, direct negotiations between a group of sellers and a group of buyers. In a socialistic world, each of these groups would be a State; in a capitalistic world one at least would be a trust or combine.

The importance of the elimination of commerce, from our point of view, is that commerce has always been the chief promoter of what are called “liberal” ideas—such ideas as religious toleration, free speech, free press, democracy, etc. If these ideas are to survive in an industrial world they will have to take new forms and be thought out afresh. How, for example, shall we combine a free press with the socialist program of state control of industry, including the newspaper industry? For such a problem nineteenth-century liberalism has no answer to offer.

In passing from these generalities to the actual comparison of American radicalism with the British Labor Party, the first thing that strikes an observer is the more backward condition of American trade unionism. In America, doubtless partly owing to the influence of Mr. Gompers, organized labor still hesitates to take an independent part in politics. It is still believed by many that industrial action -—the attempt to raise wages and reduce hours by strikes and the threat of strikes—can be pursued independently of political support. I remember attending an international socialist congress in London in 1896, where the more conservative section of British trade unionists advocated this view, as against what was then known as the “new” unionism. Opinion was almost exactly what one may expect it to be in America two years hence. Trade union development in America is now just about at the stage which British unionism reached thirty years ago.

In England the next stage in development was forced on the unions by the law courts. The Taff Vale decision showed that unionism could be made safe only by a change in the law, and therefore political action was necessary if industrial jolion was to continue possible. The Liberal government of Sir Llenry Campbell-Bannerman in 1906 passed an set reversing the Taff Vale decision, but there is little doubt that this act would not have been passed but for the menace of the newly-formed Labor Party. Mr. As-quith, in common with most of the lawyers in the Liberal Party, was very loath to support the change, and was driven into doing so only by the knowledge that uniess he did, organized labor would give no support whatever to the Liberal Party.

The British Labor Party, owes its existence to the reactionary decisions of the law courts, and probably the same cause may be relied upon to produce the same effect in America. When once labor is adequately organized, it is oniy a question of time before the opposition of conservatives forces political action upon the unions. If I were an American radical I should devote the bulk of my energy to persuading trade union leaders of the necessity of forming a political labor party to safeguard the political interests of their followers. This is clearly the next step at the present time.

It would, however, be a mistake to expect the labor movement in America to develop exactly along lines which Europe has made familiar. There are three principal causes of difference which it will be well to consider successively. The first is the immigration population; the second, the immense prosperity of America; the third, the importance of agriculture and the fact that it is semi-industrialized.

In New York and along the eastern seaboard generally, the strength of radicalism, such as it is, appears to be mainly derived from immigrants, supported and more or less led by a few Europeanized intellectuals. The result of this situation seemed to me to be—though I saw too little to speak at all positively,—that the conceptions and program of the radicals were unduly European. Men—especially Jews—who have been socialists in the countries from which they came, remain socialists in America until they become well off; then they become persuaded that their socialism was merely traditional, part of the habits they brought with them from the Old World, which they have to unlearn in the new environment. Meanwhile, those who have been born in America look upon radicalism as something foreign, tainted, unsuitable to a hundred-percenter. While this situation persists a strong radical movement in the East is impossible. The restrictions on immigration will, however, cause it to change rapidly. Some conservatives, seeing that the radicals are mainly immigrants, think that the restriction of immigration will kill radicalism. This seems to me a profound error. I hold, on the contrary, that American radicalism will be iinme^ely strengthened by diminishing the supply of immigrants. At present everybody in America, with few exceptions; grows continually, richer, and does so because there is a continually new supply of immigrants to exploit. If they are stopped there will begin to be native-born Americans who are not improving their economic position. Such men will grow discontented and will supply material for a labor party far more formidable than recent immigrants, who are easily suppressed and easily branded as disloyal. Restriction of immigration, I am convinced, will be an immense gain to American radicalism.

Comparison with the British labor movement strengthens this conviction. The foreign-born population of Great Britain is negligible; the Labor Party derives its strength from men and women whose ancestors have lived in the country from time immemorial. It is therefore difficult to accuse them of being unpatriotic, which in fact they are not. They cannot easily, be persecuted, because no race-antagonism can be invoked against them. Liberty and toleration are perhaps scarcely possible except in a homogeneous nation. If America continues to restrict immigration it seems probable that within thirty years almost all the foreign elements except the negroes will have been thoroughly assimilated. That will give a new strength and a new respectability to the American labor movement. The process will, of course, be gradual, and will presumably begin at once; but its completion may be expected to take something like a generation. Thirty years seems, therefore, about the right length of time to allow for it to mature.

In spite of the immigrant element in the American radical movement, it is less international than the Labor and Socialist parties of Europe. This is a natural effect of geography. Internationalism and militarism are both caused by experience of war—the former as a means of preventing wars, the latter as a means of winning them. But America, remote and powerful, turns naturally to one or other of two . different policies: isolation . . . or economic imperialism. Isolation is the traditional policy, economic imperialism the policy suggested by the post-war situation, and capable of being used either for reactionary or for progressive ends. I do not propose to argue the question as to which is best, either for America or for the world, but I have little doubt that isolation will be more and more abandoned. Advocates of America’s entry into the League of Nations, protagonists of disarmament conferences, philanthropists who desire loans to impoverished nations are all helping to bring about a new world-government in which the moving power will be American finance. Perhaps it is just as well—but who knows?

If a labor movement is to succeed in America it will have to differ in its appeal from the corresponding movements in Europe. In Europe there is an acute problem of poverty; there are large sections of the population who obviously earn too little for well-being. The contrast between these sections and the very rich raises a feeling of injustice which always has made the major part of the driving force for socialism in Europe. In America, apart from recent im-rnigrants, there is little poverty as a European understands it. Almost all wage-earners born in America earn quite as much as anyone really needs. Important things are lacking in their lives, but among these, purchasing power is not to be included. They lack liberty, leisure, education, culture, but not material goods. There is therefore not much force in the simple argument of the European proletarian: “Why should I starve while the millionaire’s idle son lives in luxury?” And this makes it necessary to have a new philosophy behind the American labor movement if it is to win any sweeping success.

The prosperity of the American workingman is calculated to bring despair to the heart of any labor leader who follows European models. Yet in former times material prosperity only increased the demand of the prosperous for equality. The revolt of the commercial classes against the feudal aristocracy grew more and more formidable as the commercial classes grew richer. Cromwell’s Ironsides were not men suffering from destitution. The old battles, however, were political, and political privilege has practically disappeared. With the coming of political democracy, it is supposed that everyone has acquired his due share of power, and that unjust discriminations have ceased. Wage-earners will see through this device only when they have learned to understand the part played by economic power (as opposed to political power) in the modern world. This will require a slow education by means of voluntary propaganda; but when once that education has been completed . . . wage-earners, however prosperous, will demand the democratization of economic power also. When that time comes the American labor movement will lead the world.

This brings me to the farmer-labor movement of the Northwest—a movement which, whatever its immediate future, appears to me to contain something genuinely new, with more promise than anything yet existing in the Eastern states. In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota I seemed to find a type of economico-political thought which does not fit into the traditional categories but is more adapted than they are to modern economic conditions. From the traditional socialist point of view, a farmer is a capitalist and an employer—he must count with the enemy. The attempt to co-operate with him, which is being made in the Middle West, can only succeed if it is accompanied by a new economic philosophy … less remote from facts than that which many socialists have uncritically inherited from the ‘sixties. There are, of course, inherent difficulties in the farmer-labor combination. A few prosperous years might cure the farmers of their discontent and make them again friendly toward the banks and railways. The mentality of a man who lives on the land is bound to be rather different than that of an industrial wage-earner. For these reasons the combination may not last. But if it does, its results may be surprising.

Agriculture in Europe has hitherto proved a fatal stumbling-block to the Labor and Socialist parties. Where it is carried on by, small peasant proprietors they are intensely conservative—terrified lest socialists should nationalize their land. Where it is carried on by aristocrats employing virtually serf labor, it is bound up with feudalism. Where, as in England, it is carried on by large tenant farmers employing laborers, the farmers feel the laborer their enemy rather than the landowner, and are therefore conservative, while the laborers are usually too terrorized to vote against their employers. The War has intensified the opposition of town and country. The conservatism of the peasants forced the new economic policy on the Bolsheviks, defeated the Socialists in Germany, Austria and Hungary, and kept Poincare in power in France until he took to imposing taxes. This conservatism is largely traditional, the instinctive adherence to old ways common among settled agricultural populations. It is a dead weight which Europe has found great difficulty in moving.

In America, except to some extent in the South, nothing of this kind exists. There is no peasantry, because those who cultivate the soil have not been settled on it for generations. The pioneers who developed the West were necessarily men of adventurous disposition, totally unlike the typical, timid, stay-at-home peasant of agricultural Europe. Ever since the time of Columbus the American continent has drained Europe of her most enterprising sons, selecting the vigorous and imaginative and leaving only the stolid and stupid. Consequently, the agricultural population of America is temperamentally different, on the average, from that of the countries which supplied it. And it is free from the inhibitions due to ages of feudalism and the fear which they generated among serfs and underlings.

This cause, however, might have been insufficient to produce any marked effect if it had stood alone. What has given it strength is its combination with economic causes.

The American agriculturist works, as a rule, for a distant market in Europe or in the Eastern states. He uses the most modern machinery, is free from tradition, and remembers with pride the pioneer work of his father. He undertook farming under the impression that he would be an independent economic unit. It turned out, however, that he was under the thumb of the railways and the banks, especially the latter. The little banks, in turn, are in the hands of the big banks, and the ultimate economic power produced by the work of innumerable Western farmers is concentrated in the hands of a few big men in Wall Street. All this operates through credit. Sooner or later a man wants a loan, and when he does, the economic power represented by his land passes into the hands of those from whom he borrows. Theoretically he might abstain from borrowing, but practically a bad harvest is likely, to leave him no alternative except to sell his farm. As soon as he has been compelled to borrow he becomes virtually an employee of the banks. Economically, he no longer counts as a landowner or as an employer, but as a mere intermediary. That is why it is possible for him to co-operate with wage-earners.

This case illustrates the industrializing of agriculture which has resulted from modern methods. Lenin, in his contest with the peasants, hoped to give them the industrial mentality by means of his grandiose scheme of electrification, which was to supply them with inexpensive power. This particular scheme has perished with him, but American agriculture has suffered a transformation not unlike that of which Lenin dreamed. The agriculturist is not an isolated unit who can ignore economic conditions in the world at large. In addition to his dependence on machinery and the banks, he depends upon the European market, and is hard hit by the loss of European purchasing power due to the War. He cannot therefore live in a closed circle like the traditional peasant. This situation combines with the selected temperament of the pioneer to produce an agricultural mentality which is quite new in the history of the world and a vast improvement upon what has gone before.

To meet the case of American agriculture, and to make the farmer-labor combination permanent, American radicalism needs new formulae and a new analysis. Henry George made the attempt long ago, but not in a form quite applicable to modern conditions. The nominal possession of land, which he regarded as the sole source of economic power, may not amount to much: it docs not in the case of the farmer who has had to borrow from his bank. The power of the bank rests on credit, and credit (when it is well-founded) rests upon some peculiarly lucrative monopoly, such as oil, railways, coal mines, etc., or possibly upon urban land, It is the holders of ultimate economic power who control our fate to a degree surpassing what was possible for any absolute monarch of former times. The goal which socialists have set before themselves will be reached when ultimate economic power is in public hands, instead of being, as now, in the hands of individuals who are responsible to no one.

The capitalist, as such, is not necessarily a holder of ultimate economic power. Mr. Henry Ford, for example, who owes his wealth to skill, not to monopoly, injures no one (except those who are run over by unskilful drivers). There is no good reason why he should be interfered with. But the gains which result from monopoly are in a different class. Socialists have paid too little attention to this distinction, and that is why some of them feel that there is something unnatural in the farmer-labor combination. In this view, however, they seem to me wholly mistaken.

The American labor movement is still in its infancy as compared with the British movement. But I do not doubt that, in view of the economic development of America, the movement will grow rapidly, and will take new forms for which Europe offers no precedent. Imitation of Europe is to be deprecated because American conditions are different from those of Europe. Nevertheless, the formation of a Third Party is imperative if anything is to be achieved. I make no doubt that within thirty years such a party will be as powerful, and as little destructive, as the British Labor Party is now. For the sake of America, and for the sake of the world, I shall rejoice in every step toward that goal.


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