No one can be more tired than the reformer of the perpetual cry that disaster is the price of competitive anarchy. For at least a generation radicals in England have been arguing that industry conducted as a scramble for profits was a menace to the country. They pointed to the normal horrors of peace, they painted pictures of what might be, and were put down as theorists who did not comprehend the sacred mysteries of business. They were treated as the trustees of Pennsylvania’s university or the New York Times would like them to be treated. And now in this hour of peril—the prophecies of the reformers are fulfilled with an accuracy so swift that it must have made them gasp. They themselves could hardly have realized how dramatically a few months of war would reveal the sins of the thoughtless peace which preceded it.
At last the rulers of England have had driven into their heads the old axiom of social reform that industry exists not for profit but for service. The service in this case happens to be the service of war, whereas the reformers had been thinking of the service of human happiness. But a service it is, with a definite national purpose, a service which subordinates business to the needs of the nation. To their dismay the English are discovering that a business anarchy which never served any purpose, which was simply an individual struggle of caprice, habit, accident, privilege and speculation, cannot suddenly be transformed into an organization national in scope to serve a definite end. England’s despair at this moment is he price of an unsocialized business system. She has neither the education, nor the tradition, nor the cooperative training for using her immense industrial resources. She has not the technical skill, the collective habits, the trained administrators, the industrial statesmen, nor the social goodwill to carry out her plans. England is suffering at this moment for the lack of those very things which the social reformers have begged her to secure. Mr. Lloyd George rises in the House of Commons saying, “If I could lay my hands on an adequate supply of skilled labor I would double in a few weeks our supply of machine guns.” An adequate supply of skilled labor! What is it that the advocates of vocational training have been pleading for except just such a generalized technical education as would make the people of a country able to adapt themselves quickly to the new processes? England not only lacks skilled labor; she has misdirected the labor she has. At the beginning of the war when the army and navy needed recruits and equipment, they actually competed with each other. Men were enlisted to fight in Flanders where skill was needed for building ships or mining coal. So deep had become the habit of private competition that the two fighting arms of the empire acted toward each other like two employers who steal each other’s trade and workmen. These are instances among many which show how the war is exacting payment for the evils of peace.
In the June number of that excellent British quarterly, The Round Table, the whole industrial record is stated with entire frankness. The story may be recommended to all those short-sighted persons who can learn only from disasters; who, like the rulers of England, need a war in order to learn the platitudes of reform. If only these people will see that England is suffering what we should suffer in her place, if only they will remember that these evils are normal to peace, their knowledge will prove immeasurably valuable to our own future.
England began by trying to forget about the industrial conflict. There were patriotic appeals for a “truce” and for “national unity.” But the cleavages of class and interest were too real to be covered by mere enthusiasm. There was all sorts of trouble, and finally, on February eighth in the House of Commons, Mr. Tennant, the Under-Secretary of War, took public notice of the labor problem. His words are of historic interest; they deserve to be inscribed on trade-union banners and flaunted in the face of all complacency:
If I might address myself to my honorable friends below the gangway (the Labor members) I would appeal to them to help us, the Government, to organize the forces of labor.
In those words a great empire confessed that the trade unions are not impertinences to be fought, not outrageous monopolies to be crushed, but institutions which a modern state cannot do without. It was asking the unions to do what for a century they have fought for the right to do; it was asking them to organize labor in the service of the whole community. The union had been “recognized” with a vengeance.
But the invitation was a bit sudden, and the task gigantic. Moreover, the trade unionists suspected a joker in the invitation, for Mr. Tennant asked them in the next breath to relax their union rules, and to recruit for industry workers “not of military age and physique.” He was asking them to begin their imperial service by abandoning at one stroke the fruits of a century’s agitation, and he offered no more than a verbal promise that after the war the old conditions would be restored. When American newspaper editors become impatient with the British workmen because they do not make the sacrifice without hesitation, some effort should be made to realize what an enormous sacrifice it is. It means hazarding employment itself, it means risking the bare necessities of life, not only now but after the war is over. Workmen may well be forgiven if even in the midst of a war they are not eager to throw away that pitiable minimum of civilizaton which is their share in the empire.
If Mr. Tennant had gone to the landlords, the investors, and the bankers with an equivalent offer, what would have been their answer? Suppose he had said, “If I might address myself to my honorable friends above the gangway, I would appeal to them to help us, the Government, to organize the economic forces of the country,” and had then proceeded to suggest that they relax for the period of the war the payment of rent, interest, and dividends, giving them at the same time nothing but a verbal promise that after the war things would return to the old condition. Would the landlords and shareholders have rushed to the War Office to deposit their title deeds, their bonds and their stocks? That is the kind of sacrifice that was asked of labor.
On March fifth Mr. Tennant had an interview with a deputation from the union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks. Mr. Turner, secretary of the union, “wanted to know what would become of the women when the war was over, for employers ought to give a guarantee to reinstate the men who had enlisted.” Mr. Tennant, “having acknowledged the patriotic way in which shop assistants had already enlisted, said the Government could not guarantee their reinstatement after the war. It was a matter for the employers, but he would bring the question before the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee to see if they could get employers to give some guarantee.” The old habit of asking sacrifices from the men and favors from the employers, the old notion of the business man as supreme in industry, still haunted the British Government, and mocked its appeals to labor.
At the same time, while workingmen were asked not to strike for higher wages, the cost of living had risen. On February eleventh Mr. Asquith stated that the wholesale prices of wheat, flour and sugar were between 72 per cent and 75 per cent higher than in February, 1914. Retail food prices, as a whole, were between 20 per cent and 24 per cent higher than those of the month of July—the last month of peace. And these July prices, as Mr. Snowden, the Socialist M.P., pointed out, were 16 ½ per cent over those of 1900. This meant that a wage of five dollars a week in 1900 was worth in February, 1915, about $3.50. After February the prices of food were still rising.
Together with this advance in cost came reports of enormous war profits. Yet the cooperative societies, which are workingmen’s institutions, resisted the temptation to advance prices. An official of these societies writes that a firm of millers at Cardiff made $1,850,000 profit—over $5,000 a day—on a capital of $5,000,000, while the Cooperate Wholesale Society, with the biggest mills in the world, made about $3,750,000 profit for the year on a turnover of $175,000,000. And those profits of course went back to the consumers. On April 27, 1915, the London Times stated that Messrs. Spillers and Bakers (Ltd.), millers of Cardiff, made profits of $1,840,000, as against $445,000 the year before.
These facts were not calculated to allay the workman’s old suspicion that whenever there is sacrificing to be done he is offered a special opportunity to shine. What he must have seen was that the war had simply intensified all the old evils he knew so well. Prices up, profits up, hours up, wages down, and now he was expected to give up his trade-union rules, the one protection between him and a servility more immediate than anything the Germans had yet offered to him. For let no one forget that the exploited worker of modern industry has as yet tasted very little of that freedom and civilization for which he is asked to fight, work, and die. If he is ready to sacrifice himself, it is because he is willing to give more than he has ever received.
On March 25, 1915, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers made an agreement with the Government which indicates pretty well the true animus of the intelligent British workman. The first article reads:
(1) That it is the intention of the Government to conclude arrangements with all important firms engaged wholly or mainly upon engineering and shipbuilding work for war purposes, under which their profits will be limited, with a view to securing that the benefit resulting from the relaxation of trade restriction or practices shall accrue to the State.
The unionists were willing to risk their security, willing to pledge the victories of decades, but they insisted that the benefit should go to the state, and not into the pockets of the profiteers. Who will say that they were not standing out for principles which would make England worth fighting for?
But old wrongs and bad social habits cannot be exorcised suddenly. In spite of agreements, arbitration courts, committees of investigation and Mr. Lloyd George’s speeches, the old chaos has not been transformed into an efficient service. The cleavages of suspicion and class feeling were too deep, and the intention of treating labor as an equal too new. The libellous report on drink showed how brutally stupid a class-blinded government can be. At one stroke it indicted as drunkards and wasters the men England was depending upon for her national salvation. So the friction has gone on. England faces the fact that she has never organized her resources, never educated her people, never shared power or profits with labor, and never organized for industrial democracy. The failure of the ammunition supply comes back to that. The army stands on the defensive in Flanders because of the social problem at home.
On Wednesday, June twenty-third, Mr. Lloyd George announced that labor had asked for seven days in which to man the factories voluntarily, if at the end of that time it had failed, industrial conscription was to be enforced. On Tuesday, June twenty-ninth, Walter Long, president of the Local Government Board, introduced a bill providing for compulsory registration of all people between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five. In time of peace such a register would be of the greatest value. At this moment it is ominous as the entering wedge for general conscription.
If England resorts to that, what will be the lesson? Will it not be that after fighting voluntary organization for decades, she has tried in the midst of a crisis to call voluntary organization into existence, and because free cooperation cannot be introduced overnight, she is driven to the servile state as the only remedy for her industrial chaos? For unless England is to emerge from the struggle a poor imitation of Prussia, she will have to do more than invite her honorable friends below the gangway to make sacrifices. The sober truth is that England is now choosing between the hateful tyranny of forced labor and what amounts to a social revolution.
This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.