Whigs Astray [2]

Source: “Whigs Astray [2]Commonweal, Vol 5, No. 159, 26 January 1889, p.26-27;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A Dialogue Between Owen Marx Bakounine Jones, an architect (unsuccessful), and — the Rev. Swain Stride, a Nonconformist parson, and Mr Jeremiah Brown, a business man — advanced Radicals.

Scene — A comfortable batchelor-looking room in Mr Brown’s house, with tobacco and pipes and grog to the fore. Mr Stride and Mr Brown sitting on either side of the fire, looking important and self-satisfied. Between them Mr Jones with an occasional ill-concealed grin on his face.

S. ‘We are in favour of giving some relief by way of security of tenure to leaseholders who are exposed to enormous losses and ruin. It is true that this may only be in accordance with a contract voluntarily entered into; and it must be admitted that the evil is a difficult one to deal with.’

J. Yes, so difficult with your qualification tacked on to the remedy (as you think it) that you won’t deal with it at all. It doesn’t matter: a man who can have enormous losses must be rich: it is a question between two groups of capitalists. Pass on.

S. ‘We are in favour of the State making some provision for employing men and women who are unable to find work. It is a matter requiring very careful treatment; but no one can believe that the State as the people’s executive has exhausted its powers in this matter.’

J. Well, if it has, certainly exhaustion has come before effort; for it has never tried to give work to the rejected of the labour-market: and if it did try it could only do so at the expense of the workers generally.

S. Well, but you see, ‘the work provided and the wages paid need only be sufficient to stave off hopeless poverty; but that at all events a wise and practical system of government might offer’.

J. Yes, indeed, only sufficient to stave off hopeless poverty: an easy job, isn’t it? Man alive, do you know what hopeless poverty is? Live the life of it, and then you will know. And how many live such a life? — two thirds of all the workers? Nearer three thirds, I think. Your system of government need be wise and practical indeed to stave that off.

S. Let us hope it will be; for we say ‘there ought not to be a single human being in the nation who can honestly stand up and say: I am willing to work, but I know not where to go to earn house-rent and daily bread’.

J. Of course there ought not, and I am glad to hear you say so; but what are you to do but cherish your sentiment as a pious opinion? Can’t you see that if it were so, labour would be dear; the capitalist would have to compete for the workman, instead of the workman for the capitalist, as is now the case? The capitalist would be undone, and would cease to employ, unless by the aid of new machinery he could once more win the blessing of having a due amount of men willing and unable to work. And if the capitalist won’t employ labour — ie., workmen — how is it to be employed?

S. They must employ themselves, I suppose.

J. I suppose so. In that case, where are those non-producing classes that you are so tender of?

S. Well — gone, I suppose.

J. So do I suppose. And yet you have been speaking of them as though they and their necessary complement, the poor, were essential and eternal.

S. (after a pause.) For my part, ,]ones, I think you are trying to confuse the simplicity of true democratic ideas with your pedantic political economy. Let us come back to the point. Now please attend. ‘We are in favour of making; justice easy of access to all. The path to the judge ought to be the most easy; but it is the most difficult. Justice ought to be the cheapest commodity in the nation; and it is the dearest.’

J. The path to the judge is pretty easy for some people; and it strikes me that when they find him, they pretty often find an animal which is a cross between a baboon and a tiger. But do you know that I suspect that by justice you mean law; and I more than doubt if that wouldn’t be dear at any price. For doesn’t all civil law mean the enforcement of private contract, with all its intricacy, by the overmastering violence of the executive, which doesn’t trouble itself to consider whether the carrying out of the contract will be injurious to the private person or to the community, so long as it has been entered into legally?

S. I really don’t understand you.

J. I fear not; and there are many in your case who think that peace means the rule of law. So much the worse for all of us. I advise you to watch a civil process in a law court (if you haven’t done so already), and then tell me what you think of it. If you then don’t understand what I have been saying, it’s no use trying to make you understand.

S. Well, listen to this! Now I think that you will agree with me: ‘The Radical is in favour of a resolute reform of the Land Laws, with a view to getting the whole of the land into the hands of the community or the State. Our great towns, especially London, are getting dangerously congested simply because the countrymen who are pressing into them cannot get at the land; and they cannot get at the land because of laws and customs which were never made for tenants and labourers, but for landlords and aristocrats; and there will never be any hope for the labouring classes in the country districts until these bad old laws and customs are changed.’

J. I agree with what you say, and with what you might mean, but which I don’t think you do mean, since you began by cursing those who set class against class.

S. Why! what do you mean?

J. Ain’t the landlords and aristocrats a class?

S. Well — well — perhaps they are.

J. They are, when you have properly understood the meaning of the word aristocrat nowadays; to wit, a person privileged to live on the labour of others.

B. Of course he doesn’t mean -

S. (interrupting.) Yes, yes, Brown, you're quite right. Of course, I don’t mean that the land shall be taken for the landlords without compensation; though, perhaps, not full compensation.

J. Mr Brown, will you lend me a pound?

B. (putting his hand in his pocket.) With pleasure, my dear fellow.

S. (laughing rather sulkily.) Only he will require compensation.

J. Twenty shillings, eh?

B. Oh, silver will suit perfectly well.

J. Now I was thinking 15s. would do.

B. (grinning.) I see; an apology. No, Mr Jones, I shall want the twenty shillings in full.

J. So will your landlords, friend Stride — if they can get it. Believe me, they will try for more if a Radical government should (the fancy is a wild one) try such a measure as ‘getting the whole of the land into the hands of the community or the State’. And if they can’t get more, I promise you they won’t take less without fighting for their position.

S. I don’t know; perhaps they will if the thing is done carefully, without frightening them. Of course they won’t if you go hilloaing Socialism at them.

J. Well, if you like, we will grant that they will agree to the land nationalization which you propose to them. What are you going to do with the other capitalists?

S. The other capitalists! We shan’t meddle with the capitalists at all.

J. Indeed! They will do what they like with their riches then?

S. Certainly; it would be mere slavery for them else.

J. And what are their riches?

S. Well — well — well -

J. I see you don’t know, so I must tell you. So much privilege to make the producers of wealth pay for leave to live for no cause except the ‘interests’ of the taxers. That is what you have got to take away from the landlords and aristocrats. If you leave them that, whatever measure of land nationalization may be passed, whoever or whatever owns the land, they will monopolise the use of it. And how can you compensate people for taking away such a monopoly but by giving it back again to them?

R. (gasping.) But — why — Mr Jones, you are advocating the abolition of private property!

J. Mr Brown, you are a clear-headed man. Shake hands! Brown seems rather doubtful, but Jones seizes his hand and shakes it enthusiastically.]

S. Never mind, Brown, he doesn’t mean half he says.

J. I wish I could say half I mean.

S. Now comes the really important and practical part of our platform. We ‘are in favour of one man one vote ... of equal suffrages for men and women ... of a more democratic House of Commons ...the candidate under certain conditions should be freed from the official conditions; and it might be good policy to offer a small annual payment to those MP’s who need and desire it -’

J. Hold on, your qualifications and exceptions and cautions are muddling me sadly; but it don’t matter.

S. We ‘are in favour of making an end of the House of Lords as a house of hereditary legislators’.

J. Yes, so that you may have the Lords in the Commons; more qualifications. Well, go on; are you nearly at an end?

S. Yes, yes! I'm just at the end. ‘When Ireland has its Parliament for Irish affairs, and Scotland has its Parliament for Scotch affairs, and Wales has its parliament for Welsh affairs, the present House of Commons might be turned into the English Parliament; the House of Lords might then be converted into a great Imperial Parliament for Imperial affairs, in which there should be representatives from every part of the Empire at home and across the seas. This is the great Radical ideal.’

J. Well, that’s a new way of abolishing the House of Lords, certainly! I don’t think they will grumble much at it. At any rate, you wind up with a good thumping piece of nonsense. — Well, I must be off; that lecture will be half over by now, and I promised to go.

B. (showing renewed energy after a tendency to sleep.) Stop a bit, Mr Jones; I think I ought to explain to you that the earlier part of our programme -

S. (interrupting). Yes, Brown, yes; our friend understands. You see, Jones -

B. (rather indignantly.) I say, Stride, just let me have one word. Mr Jones, all that about land nationalisation, and State works for the unemployed, and the old people at the workhouse, and all that — you musn’t be too severe upon it; because, I say, it is put in — (no, Stride, let me go on!) — just to make people, or some people, help us in these suffrage matters, which is the thing we advanced Liberals or Radicals really care about; and I flatter myself we know something about it too.

J. Well, I must say I think you ought to, considering the number of years you have been hemming and hawing about it. But look here, gentlemen, I must go, I bet the lecturer is just in his peroration. But, I say, isn’t ‘Advanced Radicals’ rather lengthy in spelling

B. But, Jones, how would you spell it?

J. Try — it will save you some letters — try W-H-I-G-S — A-S-T-R-A-Y — it means the same thing if it don’t spell it. Well, good-bye; I shall just be in time for question-time.

2. The portions of this dialogue between the single ‘quotes’ are taken from a genuine document — ‘A Radical’s Creed’, by John Page Hopps, in the Pall Mall Gazette, Dec. 10th, 1888.