Proletarian and Petit-Bourgeois/What Comes of Playing the Game

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What Comes of Playing the Game.


A proletarian movement can have no part, however slight, in the game of politics. The moment it takes a seat at that grimy board is the moment it dies within. After that it may for a time maintain a semblance of life and motion, but in truth it is only a corpse.

This has been proved many times. It is being proved today in Great Britain. It has been proved recently and most convincingly in the experience of Australia and New Zealand.

In Australia the proletarian movement that began eighteeen years ago has achieved an absolute triumph—in politics. Under the name of the Labor Party it has won all that any political combination can possibly win anywhere. It has played the political game to the limit and taken all the stakes in sight. The whole national government is in its hands. It has attained in fullest measure to the political success at which it aimed. It not merely influences the government; it is the government.

To make the situation clear by an American analogy, let us suppose the Socialists of America join hands with the progressive element in the labor unions and with the different groups of advanced radicals. Let us suppose a coalition party to be formed called the Labor Party. Let us suppose this to have entered the state and national campaigns, winning at each successive election more seats in Congress, and finally, after sixteen years in conflict, electing its candidate for President and a clear majority of the Senate and House of Representatives. This would be admitted to be the summit of such a party's aims and to mean great and notable success; and it would closely parallel the situation in Australia.

Exactly such a Labor Party has administered the affairs of Australia since April, 1910. Its triumph was the political success of a proletarian movement that was steered into the political game. What has resulted?

This has resulted, that the Labor Party of Australia is now exactly like any other political party and means no more to the working class except its name. Constituted as the political party of that class, it has been swept into power by working class votes, and after almost a year and a half of control of national affairs it can show nothing more accomplished for working class interests than any other party has accomplished. The working class under the Labor Party is in essentially the same condition that it has been in under all the other administrations, nor is there the slightest prospect that its condition will be changed.

In other words, the whole machine runs on exactly as before, the vast elaborated machine by which the toilers are exploited and parasites are fed. Once in power, the Labor Party proceeded to do such things as other parties had done for the purpose of keeping in power, and it is these things that maintain the machine.

On the night of the election, when the returns began to indicate the result, the gentleman that is now Attorney General of the Commonwealth was in the Labor Party headquarters, jumping up and down with uncontrollable glee.

"We're in!" he shouted. "We're in! We're in!"

That was an excellent phrase and neatly expressed the whole situation. The Labor Party was in; it had won the offices and the places of power and honor; it had defeated the opponents that had often defeated it. It was "in." The next thing was to keep in, and this is the object that it has assiduously pursued ever since. "We are in; now let us stay in. We have the offices; let us keep the offices."

The first thing it does is to increase its strength with the bourgeoisie and the great middle class always allied with its enemies. To its opponents in the campaigns the handiest weapon and most effective was always the charge that the Labor Party was not patriotic, that it did not love the dear old flag of Great Britain with the proper degree of fervor and ecstasy; that it was wobbly on the subject of war and held strange, erratic notions in favor of universal peace instead of yelling day and night for British supremacy, whether right or wrong—which is well known to be the duty of the true and pure patriot. This argument was continually used and had great effect.

Naturally, as the Labor Party was now in and determined to stay in, the wise play, indicated in the game upon which it had embarked, was to disprove all these damaging allegations and to show that the Labor Party was just as patriotic as any other party could possibly be. So its first move was to adopt a system of universal military service, and the next to undertake vast schemes of national defense. The attention and admiration of the country were directed to the fact that the Labor administration was the first to build small arms factories, to revise the military establishment so as to secure the greatest efficiency and to prepare the nation for deeds of valor on the battlefield.

At the time this was done there was a crying need for new labor legislation; the system or lack of system of arbitrating labor disputes was badly in need of repairs; workingmen were being imprisoned in some of the states for the crime of striking; the power of government was often used to oppress and overawe strikers, even when they had been perfectly orderly and their cause was absolutely just. These, with many other evils of the workingman's condition, were pushed aside in order to perfect the defense system and get the small arms factories in good working order, for such were the plain indications of the game that the Labor Party had started out to play. "We're in; let us stay in."

The next thing to attest properly the true spirit of patritoism that burned and throbbed in the Labor Party was to send the Prime Minister and eighteen members of Parliament, at public expense, to the coronation puppet show. The Prime Minister was, in fact, one of the bright ornaments of that precious occasion, and was universally admired as he pranced around in knee pants and other regalia. He is by trade a steam engineer, and for years lived by the work of his hands. He was said greatly to enjoy the gew-gaws of the occasion. I do not know whether this is true, but certainly he presented a sad and humiliating spectacle as a representative of the working class, and one that would never have been offered to the world except for the necessity of "playing the game." It would have been bad politics for the Labor Party to have appeared in the least indifferent to the childish and silly tricks of the coronation; hence it must leave nothing undone to show its loyalty, lest our enemies get ammunition to use against us and we shall not be able to stay in. Nothing more absurd and degrading can be imagined than the participation of any Labor Party in such a spectacle, but such are the conditions of this game. If you start in to play it you must play it, and you must play it in the way that will win.

Meantime there remains this awkward fact tbout the condition of the working class. It is no less exploited than before. It is as far, apparently, from the day of justice under the rule of the Labor Party as it was under the rule of the Liberal Party. What are you going to do about that? Why, there is nothing to be done about that as yet. The country, you see, is not ready for any radical measures on that subject. If we undertake to make any great changes in fundamental conditions we should be defeated at the next election, and then we should not be in, but should be out. True, the cost of living is steadily increasing, and that means that the state of the working class is inevitably declining. True, under the present system power is steadily accumulating in the hands of the exploiters, so that if we are afraid to offend them now we shall be still more afraid to offend them next year and the next. But the main thing is to keep in. We're in; let us stay in.

Hence, also, the Labor administration has been very careful not to offend the great money interests and powerful corporations that are growing up in the country. These influences are too powerful in elections. Nothing has been done that could in the least disturb the currents of sacred business. It was recognized as not good politics to antagonize business interests. Let the administration keep along with the solid business interests of the country, reassuring them for the sake of general prosperity and helping them to go on in the same safe, sane and conservative way as before. It was essential that business men should feel that business was just as secure under the Labor administration as under any other. Nothing that can in the least upset business, you know. True, this sacred business consists of schemes to exploit and rob the working class, and, true, the longer it is allowed to go upon its way the more powerful it becomes and the greater are its exploitations and profits. But if we do anything that upsets business, or tends to disturb business confidence, that will be bad for us at the next election. Very likely we shall not be able to keep in. We are in now; let us stay in, and have the offices and the power.

Therefore it is with the greatest pride that the Labor people point out that under the Labor administration the volume of business has not decreased but increased; the operations of the banks have shown no falling off; they are still engaged as profitably as of yore in skinning the public; the clearings are in an eminently satisfactory condition; profits have suffered no decline; all is well in our marts of trade. The old machine goes on so well you would never know there had been any change in the administration. Business men have confidence in our Party. They know that we will do the right thing by them, and when in the next campaign the wicked orators of the opposition arise and say that the Labor Party is a party of disturbers and revolutionists we can point to these facts and overwhelm them. And that will be a good thing, because otherwise we might not be able to keep in. We're in; let us stay in.

So stands the case in Australia. But if anyone says to me that the heart of the trouble is some defect in the men that are the leaders of the Australian Labor Party, I deny it. There are no leaders of the Australian Labor Party in the sense that American politics understands leaders. Whoever comes to the front in the affairs of the Australian Labor Party is chosen by a free vote of the members of that Party and has not pushed himself to the front in the manner to which American politicians are accustomed. And as for the men that hold cabinet positions in the Labor administration, and therefore may be regarded as chiefly the advocates of the policy I have here outlined, if we think that these men are at fault we shall make the greatest possible error. There are no better men anywhere. Their sincerity is beyond question. They believe absolutely in working class government, they are personally above reproach, they represent a class of public men that for flawless honesty and purity of purpose is almost unknown in American public affairs; I wish we had a thousand like them in our government this day.

Nor is there any question about their ability. They are among the ablest of all executives. Every one of them, when he came into office, gave a notable example of efficiency by studying, simplifying and improving the operations of his department. The fault is not with their convictions nor with their intellectual resources. The trouble is with the game that they started out to play. That game has always these results and no others. Whosoever starts to play it must play according to the rules, and these are the rules. You sit at the grimy board to win. If you win you can win in but this way, by continual compromise and by continual sacrifice of your principles.

Most of these men are Socialists. One of them, Senator George H. Pearce, now the able and efficient Minister for Defense, once delivered in my hearing the clearest and most concise exposition of the fundamental principles of Socialism that I have ever heard anywhere. They are convinced Socialists and they will tell you that their ultimate ideal is the Co-operative Commonwealth—when the people are ready for it. And yet, sincerely and truly believing in the Socialistic theory, they proceed to play the Capitalists' game, because they must play that game to keep in. We're in; let us stay in.

Meantime, how has the cause of Socialism progressed in Australia? Not at all. I would by no means disparage the efforts of the band of clear-sighted and able men and women that in Australia and New Zealand steadfastly insist upon the truth that nothing will ever be won by palliatives; but the great working population, carried away by the idea of winning political victories, is so far indifferent or hostile toward the only movement that can really accomplish anything. I know of but one other country in the civilized circuit where Socialism is so dead. The full attention of the proletariat is centered in the political success of this Labor Party. It will give no heed to anything else, and the few men that with clear vision and inspiration continue to insist that the only way to emancipate the working class is to emancipate it are like the voice of one crying in the wilderness. If the capitalists had designed the very best way in which to perpetuate their power they could not have hit upon anything better for themselves than this. It keeps the working class occupied; it diverts their minds from the real questions that pertain to their condition; it appeals to their sporting instincts; we want to win, we want to cheer our own victory, we want to stay in; this is the way to these results. And meantime the capitalists rake off the profits and are happy. We are infinitely better off in the United States. The Labor Party of Australia has killed the pure proletarian movement there. At least we have the beginnings of one here. If there had been no Labor Party there would now be in Australia a promising working class movement headed towards industrial emancipation. Having a Labor Party, there is no such movement in sight.

I said a moment ago that there is but one other country in the civilized circuit where Socialism is as dead as it is in Australia. The other country is New Zealand, where the game has been played as assiduously as in Australia and with identical results.

Here is the one spot on earth where the proletarian movement ought to be the strongest, and where it is, practically speaking, the weakest.

New Zealand was the first country where the workingmen recognized something of their power, the first country where the labor union was made a part of the government, the first to try to deal adequately with problems of factory conditions and hours of emplopment, the first to seek a peaceful solution of the problem of the strike.

Having made years ago so excellent a start, it is discouraging to find that the pristine spirit died out so early; that in these days the first concern of the working class seems to be the figures of the ballot box; and that, while the country has gone over wholly into the control of the capitalists, the workingman now gets nothing from his government but an elaborate confidence game and swindle.

In the face of injustice and governmental oppression as bad as anything we know in the United States and somewhat worse, there is no more revolt in the New Zealand proletariat than there is in so much putty. It has been hypnotized by the political game.

Year after year the wily gentlemen that hold the offices and rake off the good things in that country assure the workingmen that they are better off than the workingmen anywhere else in the world, and then fasten their minds on the Punch and Judy show of an election that, however it may result, can mean nothing to any toiler except the right to carry a banner in a parade and cheer on the streets on election night.

Nearly twenty years ago the working class of New Zealand went into politics as a game and won the nominal control of the country's affairs. A telegraph operator forgot all about his fellow workers when he got a cabinet office and accepted knighthood. The carpenters, masons and journalists that led the first movement lost sight of the real labor question as soon as they began to scheme and dream about getting office and keep it. After twenty years of government by the Labor Liberal combination, the telegraph operator, now became Prime Minister, slips over to Great Britain a present of a Dreadnaught battleship, taxes every man, woman and child in the country ten dollars to pay for the gift, and then parades England in the glory of his achievement. Meantime the condition of the workingman, absolutely and relatively, is worse than it has ever been; the government placed in power and held there by workingmen's votes gives to them such treatment as you would expect from a member of the National Manufacturers' Association; and a man that preaches the social revolution among them is looked upon as a strange, weird beast. What do we want of a social revolution? There is an election next year, and if you talk like that you may injure the chances of our candidate. People are not ready for that sort of thing, you know, and we must be practical.

Practical—that is a good word, especially in New Zealand. In that country striking has been made practically a crime; a man that engages in a strike (except under the impossible conditions laid down by the government) can be thrown into jail for that mere act alone. This is the express and practical provision of the statute and there is no protest against it from the working class.

In New Zealand the government operates a coal mine, wherein it exploits its workers and extorts from them more labor than private mine owners get; and the working class makes no protest against that.

Men have engaged in a just and necessary strike, and to punish them their homes have been invaded and the sewing machines and little personal belongings of their wives have been seized and confiscated; and the working class accepts that.

The system of compulsory arbitration is now being worked by the capitalist class to keep down wages in a country where the cost of living rapidly increases; and the working class endures that.

For some years almost every important issue has been decided by the arbitration court against the toiler; and the working class endures that.

The government is plainly in alliance with the exploiting corporations, upholds the steamship trust, the coal trust, the bank trust, the fish trust, the oil trust, and many other trusts, and although this is perfectly apparent to any observer, the working class submits to it.

To make any protest and to urge the pure proletarian movement would not be to the advantage of our party or our candidate. People are not ready for such things yet. If we take an advanced position we shall not be able to carry the election.

In New Zealand, as in Australia, all workingmen continue to create wealth but do not possess the wealth that they create. They continue to toil for the pleasure and aggrandizement of the masters. They continue to live under a system that enables idlers, parasites and cogging knaves to ride pleasantly upon the toilers' backs; a system that makes the poor poorer and the rich richer; that places a premium on dishonesty and penalizes virtue; a system so ingeniously contrived in deviltry that the greater the efficiency of the worker the greater the amount of which he is robbed. They continue to live under this system and to have no means of protest against and no present hope of relief from it, although they know that it condemns four men in every five to existence below a rational standard of food, shelter, comfort, leisure and opportunity. They see, or can see if they but look around them, that every year the forces that establish and maintain these evils become more powerful in their country and that the difficulty of ever dislodging them becomes greater, and against all this they have no means of revolt and no impetus thereto, because they have been bedeviled by the game of politics. They want to elect this man or defeat that, and they entirely lose sight of the only thing in the world that is of real importance to them or to any of us, and that is the destruction of the wage system and the emancipation of the working class.

You say: Surely it was something gained in New Zealand to secure limited hours of employment, to have sanitary factories, clean luncheon rooms, old age pensions, workingmen's compensation. Surely all these things represented progress and an advance toward the true ideal.

Yes. But every one of these things has been magnified, distorted and exaggerated for the purpose and with the result of keeping the workingman quiet about more vital things. How say you to that? Every pretended release from his claims has been in fact a new form of tether on his limbs. What about that? I should think meanly of myself if I did not rejoice every time a workingman's hours are reduced or the place wherein he is condemned to toil is made more nearly tolerable. But what shall we conclude when these things are deliberately employed to distract his thoughts from fundamental conditions and when all this state of stagnation is wrought by the alluring game of politics?

I cannot help thinking that all this has or ought to have a lesson for the Socialist movement in America. If it be desired to kill that movement the most effective way would be to get it entangled in some form of practical politics. Then the real and true aim of the movement can at once be lost sight of and this party can go the way of every other proletarian party down to the pit. I should not think that was a very good way to go.

When we come to reason of it calmly what can be gained by electing any human being to any office beneath the skies? To get in and keep in does not seem any sort of an object to anyone that will contemplate the possibilities of the Co-operative Commonwealth. How shall it profit the working class to have Mr. Smith made sheriff or Mr. Jones become the coroner? Something else surely is the goal of this magnificent inspiration. In England the radicals have all gone mad on the subject of a successful parliamentary party, the winning of the government, the filling of offices and the like. I am told that the leaders of the coalition movement have already picked out their prime minister against the day when they shall carry the country and be in. In the meantime they too must play this game carefully, being constantly on their guard against doing anything that would alarm or antagonize the bourgeoisie and sacred businesses and telling the workers to wait until we get in. I do not see that all this relieves the situation in Whitechapel or that any fewer men and women live in misery because we have a prospect of getting in.

Furthermore, to speak quite frankly, I do not see where there is a particle of inspiration for Americans in any of these English speaking countries. So far as I can make out the whole of mankind that dwells under the British flag is more or less mad about political success, parliament and getting in. They say in New Zealand that the government can make a conservative of any radical, if he threatens to become dangerous, by giving him some tin-horn honor or a place in the upper chamber. In England we have seen too often that the same kind of influences can silence a radical by inviting him to the king's garden party or allowing him to shake hands with a lord. I do not believe we have anything to learn from these countries except what to avoid. And I do not know why we should not look for an American ideal in Socialism that will listen to no compromise, play no games in politics, care nothing for temporary success at the polls, seek to elect no particular individual to any office, never lower the standard, look beyond the skirmishes of the day, and following unhesitatingly and confidently the one ideal of the emancipation of the working class as the only object to which it will pay any attention.

Socialism or nothing. If this cause of Socialism is worth believing in it is worth following to the end without compromise. Either it is the greatest boon, incomparably, that ever was dreamed of for the human race, or we are a lot of lunatics. If it is what we believe it to be, then what shall we gain for it by compromise or coalition or turning for one moment from the ultimate goal? All the offices in the world—what are they worth compared with putting an end to wage slavery?




This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1941, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.