The Slippery Slope/Social Reform and the New Socialism

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When I was asked to write a paper for this Conference, and to choose my own subject, my thoughts at first naturally turned to some of the many points of practical Poor Law administration which it has been the custom to discuss at these Conferences in the past. But then it occurred to me, as it has probably occurred to many others, that such discussions are losing their interest, because they are rapidly becoming out of date; that, for instance, questions such as the treatment of the aged poor, of the able-bodied, of the children, and the comparative merits of indoor and outdoor relief, are losing their significance so far as the Poor Law is concerned, because they are being withdrawn one by one from the purview of the Poor Law altogether. Indeed it appears likely that by the time the Royal Commission issues its Report there will be only the shadow of the Poor Law to report about, because the aged poor will have been transferred to a pension authority, the able-bodied to the bodies specially formed for the purpose of finding work for the unemployed, the children to the education committees, and the sick and impotent to some public health authority. Already the London County Council have had a sort of full-dress rehearsal of the dissolution of Boards of Guardians. They have already, in theory, torn us limb from limb, and after throwing certain parts of us, rather contemptuously, to Borough Councils, they have reserved the lion's share for themselves to be assimilated at their leisure. In view of these considerations I have thought it better to raise a discussion to-day upon the wider issues underlying these changes, rather than to any specific points of Poor Law administration: issues with which we are concerned not only as Poor Law Guardians, who may be presumed to have special knowledge of questions concerned with the relief of the poor, but as citizens.

I suppose that we shall all agree that the force which is at the back of all this is that which is known as "Socialism"; but before going further it is necessary to be clear as to what is meant by the word itself. There are probably few words which are used by so many, and the meaning of which has been exactly thought out by so few. It is rare, except within a very small circle, to find two people who are agreed about it. Broadly speaking, every one who is not purely selfish, but has aspirations for better social conditions, and is prepared to help towards these conditions, is a socialist: in that sense, most of those who are the most convinced individualists are very practical socialists. They have no selfish ends to serve, but they believe that the solution of the social problem is to be found in the strengthening of the position of the individual, and their idea of social service is directed to that end. They deplore, as much as any one can deplore, the evils of poverty and the contrasts of poverty and wealth. But their remedy is to stimulate the ambition and accumulative instincts of the industrial classes, rather than to supersede the necessity for these qualities. They agree with Carlyle, that Poor Laws and poor relief of all kinds are "an anodyne, not a remedy," and that to accept them as a remedy is a policy of despair. Those who hold these opinions are certainly deficient neither in social instincts nor in social sympathies, and their position is quite consistent with that of the earlier Christian socialists such as Kingsley and Maurice.

At the other end of the scale we have another sort of Socialism altogether, a Socialism which is very distinct and definite, and the adherents to which know their own mind very clearly: a Socialism which, whether practicable or not, is quite logical and consistent. I mean that academic Socialism which is the inheritor of the traditions of the French Revolution, and of the doctrines of the German socialists of the middle of the last century, and which must be looked upon as the source of inspiration of all the English Socialism of the day, and the centre round which a mass of social theory gravitates. It would, as we all know, throw the whole responsibility for social welfare upon the State, and for that purpose would abolish private property as an institution, and vest all the means of production in the State, which would organise industry and carry on all manufactures, and whilst accepting the responsibility for the maintenance of its citizens, would regulate their lives and affairs upon lines adopted by the vote of the majority. It cannot be denied that Socialism of this kind has made great advances of late years; not that, in my opinion, it is itself any nearer realisation, but that it has acted with constantly increasing momentum in the promotion of another form of Socialism to which I shall presently refer. In the future it can, I think, never be more than a dream. In the past it has never been more than a theory: there is no instance in history in which society has organised itself upon such principles; many attempts have been made to form communities upon such a basis from the time of Robert Owen onwards, but they have without exception failed. The property instinct is too deeply seated in human nature to tolerate such conditions. Neither would any Englishman endure for a day such a State regulation of his private life as must follow. Apart from that, our experience of the management of business affairs by public bodies, which are constantly changing in opinion and constitution, is not such as to warrant us in looking forward with complacency to the management of our industrial affairs by the State.

I do not know whether any one here has seen a little book by the late Dr Richter, who was leader of the German Liberal Party, entitled "Pictures of the Socialistic Future." It is a fanciful story of a German workman and his family who have been ardent supporters of the social revolution, and opens at the time when that revolution is supposed to have been accomplished amidst great popular rejoicings. At first everything is couleur de rose, and our friend the workman cannot congratulate himself sufficiently. But before long difficulties begin to arise; his children bring in the news that the savings banks are closed and guarded by soldiers. Property is abolished and community of goods established, so that private citizens have no further need for savings, and the savings of his life-time are appropriated by the State. Next, the organisation of industry by the State necessitates the separation of the family. His daughter's betrothed is sent away from Berlin to a distant German town because there are too many of his trade in Berlin. The youngest child has to be sent to the State institution for children, and the mother is only allowed to visit her at fixed times and under strict regulations; she is not even allowed to take her a toy, or a packet of sweets, "for fear of favouritism." The family have to take their meals at the public tables, where every one has the same food, and though the complaints as to its quality are many and loud no attention is paid to them. The workmen in the State workshops refuse to recognise the authority of the State foremen, and are in a chronic condition of insubordination. There are also some humorous touches: domestic service has been abolished as degrading, and the President of the Republic has to black his own boots before proceeding to his State duties. He finds that this and other domestic duties interfere with the proper perusal and consideration of State papers. There are many other details for which I must refer you to the book itself, but it appears to me that it presents a very fair picture of what would actually happen if the social democratic revolution were brought within the sphere of practical politics. That such can ever be the case is, I think, highly improbable; it is true that a large section of the Labour Party have adopted it as their programme, but the returns of the Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies shows that the industrial classes have amongst them some four hundred millions of savings and accumulations, and it is very unlikely that they would acquiesce in the absorption of their savings by the State. But it is impossible to strike at one class of property without affecting the whole. Neither is it likely that they would tolerate any such interference as is contemplated in their private lives. The instincts of self-preservation and the love of family life are still, happily, strong with the Englishman.

But there is another section of public opinion from which perhaps the largest body of those who would call themselves "Socialists" is found. These last, for the most part, represent a vague but widespread resentment against the inequalities of poverty and wealth, and they desire to see a redistribution of property by some means, of which they have hardly thought out the details. They recognise to the full the institution of private property, and are in that sense as individualist as the individualists, and they derive their main support from those who, not having property, want to have it.

Socialism of this kind is that to which the late Sir W. Harcourt referred when he made use of the well-known expression, "We are all Socialists now," and its danger lies mainly in its indefiniteness. It does not accept the underlying principles of State Socialism, whilst it is prepared to accept, by instalments, a large part of its programme under the name of "social reform"—a rather question begging phrase. Mr Balfour recently defined the distinction between Socialism and social reform. I have not his words by me, but they were to the effect that whilst Socialism aims at the abolition of private property, and the control of the means of production by the State, social reform will have nothing to do with such things, but starts from the basis of the institution of private property. That, however, being once granted (he continues), social reform recognises that it is the duty of the State to levy contributions upon the well-to-do for the benefit of their poorer neighbours. With such a definition, broadly speaking, no one will quarrel. Everyone recognises the necessity of taxation for Poor Law purposes, and for many other purposes connected with the well-being of the community, such as education and the like. But it is not difficult to see that the definition is not a sufficient one for practical purposes, and that it might be so applied as to carry out in practice most of the proposals initiated by the Fabian Society. I think that I shall have no difficulty in showing that this is really its present tendency. Meanwhile, neither Mr Balfour nor any of those who speak about social reform have clearly defined what they mean by "social reform." It is possible that they have not exactly thought it out in all its bearings themselves. We have, therefore, to judge from the measures that have been actually put forward under that name as to its true significance and tendency, and it is plain that they have, without exception, been initiated and inspired by the Socialist organisations. It is of Socialist measures put forward in the name of "social reform" by those who repudiate the name of Socialism that I desire to speak as "the new Socialism."

First and most important of these, because it affects the whole population of working age, is the recognition of the "right to work," which is implied by the "Unemployed Workmen Act." It was, of course, denied by its authors that the Act contained any such implication, and Mr Gerald Balfour, in proposing it, urged that it was so safeguarded by all sorts of restrictions and limitations that no such danger was to be apprehended. Public money was not to be used except for machinery, and even for that it was limited to a penny rate. Poor Law relief was to disqualify, and the benefit of the Act was to be confined by investigation to a strictly limited section of the higher class of workmen "exceptionally out of work." The opponents of the Act pointed out that if once the principle of State-provided work were recognised the safeguards would be bound to go; that all experience had proved that it was ruinous for the State to attempt to provide work outside of that demanded by the economic needs of the community; that when the State stepped in voluntary subscriptions would disappear, and that real and effective discrimination by public bodies was an impossibility. However, they hardly obtained a hearing, and the Act was passed almost unanimously by a House of Commons which would certainly repudiate the name of "Socialist." The Labour Party were more clear-sighted. Mr Will Crooks at once raised a paean of triumph because "the principle had been recognised." And now, after two years' experience, what do we find? My knowledge is chiefly confined to London, but there the anticipations of the opponents of the Act have been realised almost to the letter. Voluntary subscriptions have disappeared and an Exchequer grant has been a matter of necessity. Investigation has proved almost a farce owing to the different standards of the Distress Committees. The benefits of the Act, if doles of work can be called benefits, have gone mainly to the casual labourer. The practical impossibility of finding work which "will not compete with the work of those already in employment" has been proved up to the hilt. Of some 29,000 registered last year, only 3500 obtained temporary work, and a large proportion of the remainder were kept hanging about the offices of Distress Committees waiting for work which it was obvious ab initio that they could never get, and meanwhile were losing their places in the ordinary labour market. Some of the work, e.g. the laying out of golf courses and the formation of artificial lakes, has been unnecessary and of doubtful economic value, but much of it has been work which must eventually have been done by the labourer in the open market, who has therefore been pro tanto the sufferer. It has been done at a heavy loss varying from 25 to 75 per cent. The London County Council have valued the work done for them at one-fifth the value of that done by the ordinary unskilled labourer. Meanwhile the expenditure on machinery and officialism has been very heavy.[1] London has also made an experiment in the direction of the "reclamation of foreshores," of which we hear so much as a remedy for unemployment. Two hundred acres of land at Fambridge in Essex have been—rather doubtfully—reclaimed at a cost of £25,000, and the land is now valued at £800. Such has been the experience, after two years' working, of this flirtation with the main tenet of the Socialist creed, that it is the duty of the State to find work for everyone who is able and willing to do it. It has done little or nothing to mitigate distress from want of employment. On the contrary, the interference with the mobility of labour and the great expectations that have been aroused have rendered the position more critical than ever before. And I venture to prophesy that the longer we persist in a mistaken policy, the greater will be the extent of the evil.

The next plank in the Socialist programme which has been accepted by both political parties is the proposal for Old Age Pensions. Here, again, non-Socialist Parliaments have again and again accepted the principle as a measure of "social reform." As to this, we have to recall the fact that the question has been considered again and again by Commissions or Committees of experts who have in all cases decided against them, and that the only support has come from Committees composed exclusively of politicians. The main line of cleavage is between those who believe that the true line of social progress is to be found in the gradual improvement of the payment of labour and in the prudence and self-control of the working-classes themselves, and those who believe that such a consummation is impossible and that the burden of the maintenance of the aged poor must rest with the State.

Here again, if you once accept the principle, there is no limit to its extension; invalidity is a far more real claim to our sympathy even than old age, which comes to all, and for which there is a whole lifetime to prepare, and if we are to pension the aged we must also pension those who are incapacitated for labour from whatever cause: already in Germany the invalidity claims have far outstripped the old age claims. The fixing of any age is unscientific; some are "too old at forty," others capable of good work long after they are sixty or even sixty-five. The opponents of old age pensions believe that they would act in supplementation of wages, and so indefinitely postpone the true solution of the problem of provision for old age, and that they would be detrimental to thrift, because they would impose upon the thrifty the burden of the maintenance of the unthrifty. Finally, they know that the expectations which have been aroused have already had a disastrous effect upon the efforts that the working classes are themselves making through the great friendly societies and similar organisations, to provide against old age. At the time when old age pensions were first brought by Mr Chamberlain within the field of practical politics, there had been steady progress in this direction. For example, in 1871 there were twenty-one paupers in every hundred of the population over sixty, in 1891 there were only thirteen, and there was every reason to hope that this improvement might have continued. In the words of Lord Rothschild's Committee in 1898—"We desire to refer to one consideratoin which the course of our inquiry has strongly impressed upon us. It is that a large and increasing number of the industrial population do already, by prudence, self-reliance, and self-denial, make their old age independent and respected. We entertain a strong hope that the improvement which is constantly taking place in the financial and moral conditions of labour will do much to deprive the problem we have had to consider of the importance now attaching to it."

The next Socialist proposal which has obtained a recognition in principle from the "new Socialism" of a non-Socialist Parliament, has been that of the State maintenance of children. In this we may observe the gradual evolution that has taken place. First of all, the children were to be educated compulsorily; then they were to be educated free—the school pence were remitted, and it was argued that they would go to the better maintenance of the children. In time this argument was forgotten, and for many years past there has been increasing pressure for the State feeding of children upon the ground that you compel them to be educated, and that this carries with it the duty of feeding them also. The pressure has now culminated in the passing of the Provision of Meals Act of last year. Like all similar measures it is tentative, and education authorities have the option of raising a rate or dealing with the question by voluntary means. For the moment a considerable number of these bodies have adopted the latter alternative, but it is not difficult to see that it will be impossible to maintain this policy for long. Already there is almost intolerable pressure upon local bodies to throw the cost upon the rates: Socialist organisations are multiplying deputations upon the subject, and Socialist or quasi-Socialist members of the bodies themselves are not allowing the matter to rest. As usual, the difficulty of raising voluntary subscriptions increases when the rates are in the background. Meanwhile Socialist managers of schools are doing their utmost to magnify the numbers of the children reported to be "underfed," and are straining every nerve to bring about a breakdown of the voluntary system. But of course much wider issues are involved; the question of the feeding of the children is really a minor one. The question of clothing, proper housing, and medical attendance is of more than equal importance. Meanwhile we have taken the first step upon an inclined plane leading towards the acceptance of the full Socialist demand for the State maintenance of children.

So much for these developments of the "new Socialism " which have already been or are about to be realised. We have now to consider the relation of the old Poor Law to the new Socialism. I am aware, of course, that the old Poor Law has been frequently discussed at these Conferences, and that there is always some impatience when it is mentioned. When I referred to it at a recent Conference there was a general cry, "Oh, we have heard all that before," and one of my critics facetiously said, "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be," etc. Well, I submit that criticism of that kind is not real criticism at all. These critics have one thing in common, namely, that though they denounce your arguments as obsolete they never attempt to answer them. The only course, then, is to repeat them until we either get an answer or become convinced that there is no answer. The plain fact is that the old Poor Law and the new Socialism are for all practical purposes one and the same.

The first purpose of the old Poor Law was that of setting the able-bodied to work, and the new Socialism has just accepted a similar responsibility. For some 230 years the old Poor Law was engaged in trying to solve the problem of "finding work for the unemployed." At the time of its enactment, and for many years afterwards, the main industry of the country was that of spinning and weaving, and naturally the provision of artificial employment usually took that form. Hundreds of schemes were devised " for the better employment of the poor," and hundreds of experiments made during these 230 years. The commonest was that of providing parish "stocks," that is to say, stocks of flax, wool, hemp, etc., to be worked up by the poor. The Overseers, whose duty it was to do this, answered to the Distress Committees of our day. These schemes uniformly failed, and the author of "Robinson Crusoe" pointed out, as far back as 1704, that if the State gives work to one man it takes it away from another, and that the effect of such employment is merely " to transpose our manufactures and confound our trade; for every skein of worsted spun in a workhouse there must be a skein the less spun by some poor family who spun it before; to set poor people to work upon the same thing that other poor people are employed upon is giving to one what you take away from another, putting a vagabond in the honest man's employment." So, too, under the new Socialism, most of us must know cases in which the ordinary workman has been thrown out of employment because the work has been given to the unemployed. Most of the work done by the unemployed of London in the parks and elsewhere at a heavy loss would otherwise have been done economically and well by the ordinary workman in the open market. I am afraid that the effect has been too often that of putting a vagabond in an honest man's employment. Under the old Poor Law, again, things came to such a pass that at last no one could get employment at all except through the parish, and it seems likely that the same will soon be the case in the twentieth century under the new Socialism. Finally, under "Gilbert's Act," it was provided that every one capable of work should be provided with work at or near his own home. The system of employment by parish stocks broke down early in the day, and towards the end of the eighteenth and in the beginning of the nineteenth century the main employment given was in work upon the roads or parish farms, or by hiring out labourers to farmers on the "roundsman system." Local Authorities were frequently reduced to such straits as putting men to stand in the parish pound for so many hours, or answering their names at a roll call in return for parish pay. The practical impossibility of finding economic work which will not interfere with the work of those already in employment, will soon reduce us to similar straits under the new Socialism.

The second great function of the Elizabethan Poor Law was the relief of the impotent, and under it practically every poor person had an old age pension. Those who have studied the old parish books will tell you that in most parts of England almost the whole labouring population—young, middle-aged, and old—were upon the rates, and outdoor relief was universal. There is no difference, but in name, between old age pensions and outdoor relief, except that old age pensions are more attractive, because they are on a higher scale and are free from the name of pauperism.

With regard to the third point, the maintenance of children, under what was known as the "Speenhamland Act," from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a week, according to the price of the quartern loaf, was allowed to practically any labourer who chose to apply for it in respect of each child, and the State or rate (for it is the same thing) maintenance of children was almost universal. So, then, we see that the new Socialism, so far as it has gone at present, is carrying us back in the direction of the old Poor Law, which is the one great Socialist measure which has been enacted in this country. We all know its history, and that of the ruin to which it led. Then came the new Poor Law, which laid it down that the position of the pauper should be less eligible than that of the independent labourer. Now once more we are making it more eligible to be a pauper, but the recipient of State relief is no longer to be called by that name. Thoughtful people who have studied the question, both in the past and the present, are, not unnaturally, alarmed at the outlook. It is true that we call things by grander names nowadays than they used to a hundred years ago. The word pauperism offends our ears, and much of what is really the purest materialism masquerades under the name of "idealism." Some here may think that I have gone outside the scope of a Poor Law Conference, but these are really the vital issues which are before the country, and I do not think that Guardians can afford to ignore them because it pleases people to make believe that they are not Poor Law questions. The great need of the moment is to clear the issues, and to call things by their right names.

Let me, then, recapitulate shortly the main points that I wish to place before you. First of all, public opinion upon these questions is divided roughly into three heads. We have the section of "Individualist" opinion, as it is called, which holds that the solution of the social problem is to be found in the strengthening of the individual, and that this must be an essential condition of true social reform, and that everything else leads to social disorganisation. At the other extreme we have the academic Socialist opinion; this again we can respect; it knows its own mind, and is very clear and definite as to its objects, and whatever we may think as to the practicability of these objects it has a logical and well-defined social policy. Between these two extremes, there is that large loose and fluctuating body of public opinion, which, though it is certainly not Socialist at heart in the true sense of the word, yet derives its chief inspiration from the academic Socialists, and is prepared to accept a large part of their programme. It is actuated by various motives, some of which are purely philanthropic, others political. It has not any very definite programme, and has not thought out the matter very clearly, neither have its adherents considered the logical consequences of measures hastily adopted by them. For example, it was probably something of a shock to the authors of the Unemployed Workmen Act to hear it cited the other day by Mr Ramsay Macdonald as the basis of his "Right to Work" Bill. Yet Mr Ramsay Macdonald was undoubtedly justified in his assumption. Similarly, Mr Chamberlain's scheme for contributing old age pensions by way of deferred annuity has developed into a scheme for universal non-contributory pensions, and the Provision of Meals Act is clearly another step in the direction of the State maintenance of children. This body of opinion, if indeed it deserves the name of opinion, is most heterogeneous in composition. It includes a vast number of people sincerely anxious to improve social conditions, but who have had no practical experience of social work, and have no clear idea as to how to set about it. It includes many who are tossed to and fro between the waves of sense and sensibility, and whose opinions are, to use the words of an old writer, "milde, mungrel, and ambiguous." It includes many political opportunists, and many who have pledged themselves in advance to opinions from which they are unwilling to recede. These last may be reminded that "for a man to correct himself, and when he is most in earnest to leave an ill opinion, are most rare, noble, and philosophical conditions," and again, that he who persists in an opinion after he has lost his faith in it "loveth himself better than the truth." These, then, are the three main divisions of public opinion: I believe that the middle position, which is that of the "new Socialism," is an untenable one, and that sooner or later its supporters must range themselves definitely on the one side or the other.

I have chosen to speak to you upon this subject because it appears to me to be the main issue now before the country, and one upon which Poor Law Guardians, who have wide experience and training, and full knowledge of the evils of pauperism, are better qualified to form an opinion than any others. The details of administration sink into absolute insignificance in comparison. Many suggestions are being made now for Poor Law reform; in my opinion, they most of them amount to little more than a shuffling of the cards. The main question is not by whom the Poor Law is to be administered, but upon what principles it is to be administered, and sooner or later the country will have to make up its mind upon the subject. So far, all that has been done has been to evade the question by putting forward measures which are really Poor Law measures, and calling them something else. This has been the sole result, up to the present, of the new Socialism, which, as I have tried to show, has been carrying us back faster and faster towards the old Poor Law, and which contains within it the seeds of irretrievable national disaster.

  1. The expenditure on establishment charges in London from Nov. 1906 to June 1907 was £11,090, or 7s. 4d. per case registered, 9s. 6d. per case investigated, £3, 2s. 6d. per case provided with temporary work.