Practictable socialism – Samuel A. Barnett

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Facing, then, the whole position, we see that among the majority of Englishmen life is poor; that among the few life is made rich. The thoughts stored in books, the beauty rescued from nature and preserved in pictures, the intercourse made possible by means of steam loco­motion, stir powers in the few which lie asleep in the many. If it be true, as the poet says, that men live by admiration,’ it is the few who live, for it is they who know that which is worth admiration

Reprinted, by permission, from the Nineteenth Century of April 1883.

Some time ago I met in a tramcar a well-known American clergyman. ‘Ah! ‘ said he, ’ten years’ work in New York as a minister at large made me a Christian socialist.’ The remark illustrates my own experience.

Ten years ago my wife and I came to live in East London. The study of political economy and some famili­arity with the condition of the poor had shown us the harm of doles given in the shape either of charity or’ of out- relief. We found that, gifts so given did not make the poor any richer, but served rather to perpetuate poverty. We came therefore to East London determined to war against a system of relief which, ignorantly cherished by the poor, meant ruin to their possibilities of living an independent and satisfying life. The work of some devoted men on the Board of Guardians, helped by the members of the Charity Organisation Society, has enabled us to see the victory won.

In this Whitechapel Union there is no out-relief, and ‘charity’ is given only to those who, by their forethought [191] or their self-sacrifice, awaken those feelings of respect and gratitude which find a natural expression in giving and receiving presents. The result has not disappointed our hope. The poor have learnt to help themselves, and have found self-help a stronger bond by which to keep the home together than the dole of the relieving officer or of the district visitor. The rates have been saved 6,000l. a year, and that sum remains in the pockets of ratepayers to be spent as wages for work, and by the new system of relief the poor are not only more independent but distinctly richer. The old system of relief has been conquered, and the result we desired has been won. What is that result? With what a state of things does the new system leave us face to face?

We find ourselves face to face with the labourer earning 20s. a week. He has but one room for himself, his wife, and their family of three or four children. By self-denial, by abstinence from drink, by daily toil, he and his wife are able to feed and clothe the children. Pleasure for him and for them is impossible; he cannot afford to spend a sixpence on a visit to the park, nor a penny on a newspaper or a book. Holidays are out of the question, and fie must see those he loves languish without fresh air, and sometimes without the doctor’s care, though air and care are necessities of life. The future does not attract his gaze and give him restful hours; as he thinks of ‘ the years that are before ’ he can­not think of a time when work will be done, and he will be free to go and come and rest as he will. In the labourer’s future there are only the workhouse and the grave. He hardly dares to think at all, for thought sug­gests that to-morrow a change in trade or a master’s [192] whim may throw him out of work and leave him unable to pay for rent or for food. The labourers—and it is to be remembered that they form the largest class in the nation—have few thoughts of joy and little hope of rest; they are well off if in a day they can obtain ten hours of the dreariest labour, if they can return to a weather­proof room, if they can eat a meal in silence while the children sleep around, and then turn into bed to save coal and light; they are well off indeed, only because they are stolid and indifferent. Their lives all through the days and years slope into a darkness which is not ‘quieted by hope.’

If the wages be 40s. a week the condition is still one to depress those who on Sunday bless God for their creation. The skilled artisan, having paid rent and club money and provided household necessaries, has no margin out of which to provide for pleasure, for old age, or even for the best medical skill. There can be for him no quiet hours with books or pictures, while his children or friends make music for his solace. He can invite no friends for a Christmas dance; he can wander in the thought of no future of pleasure or of rest. England is the land of sad monuments. The saddest monument is, perhaps, ‘the respectable working man,’ who has been erected in honour of Thrift. His brains, which might have shown the world how to save men, have been spent in saving pennies; his life, which might have been happy and full, has been dulled and saddened by taking (thought for the morrow.’

This ought not so to be, and this will not always be. The question therefore naturally occurs, ‘Why should not the State provide what is needed? This is the [193] question to which the Socialist is ready with many a response. Some of his suggestions, even if good, are im­practicable. It may be urged, for instance, that relief works should be started, that State workshops should be opened, and starvation made impossible. Or it may be urged that the land should be nationalised and large in­comes divided. To such suggestions, and to many like them, it is a sufficient answer that they are imprac­ticable. Their attainment, even were it desirable, is not within measurable distance, and to press them is likely to distract attention from what is possible. If a boy who goes out ‘ in the interest of the fox ‘ can spoil a hunt by dragging a herring across the scent, a well-meaning socialist may hinder reform by drawing a fair fancy across the line of men’s imagination. All real progress must be by growth ; the new must be a development of the old, and not a branch added on from another root. A change which does not fit into and grow out of things that already exist is not a practicable change, and such are some of the changes now advocated by socialists upon platforms. The condition of the people is one not to be long endured, but the answer to the question, ‘What can the State do? ‘ must be a practicable one, or we shall waste time, make mistakes, rouse up anarchy, and destroy much that is good.

Facing, then, the whole position, we see that among the majority of Englishmen life is poor; that among the few life is made rich. The thoughts stored in books, the beauty rescued from nature and preserved in pictures, the intercourse made possible by means of steam loco­motion, stir powers in the few which lie asleep in the many. If it be true, as the poet says, that men 1 live by [194] admiration,’ it is the few who live, for it is they who know that which is worth admiration.

It seems a hard thing—but I believe that it is on the line of truth—to say that the dock labourer cannot live the life of Christ; he may, by loving and trusting, live a higher life than that lived by many rich men, but he cannot live the highest life possible to men of this time. To live the life of Christ is to make manifest the truth and to enjoy the beauty of God. The labourer who knows nothing of the law of life which has been revealed by the discoveries of science, who knows nothing which, by admiration, can lift him out of himself, cannot live the highest life of his day, as Christ lived the highest life of His day. The social reformer must go alongside the Christian missionary, if he be not himself the Christian missionary.

Facing, then, the whole position, we see first the poverty of life which besets the majority of the people, and further we recognise that the remedy must be one which shall be practicable, and shall not affect the sense of independence. It is difficult to state any prin­ciple which such remedy should follow. If it be said that men’s needs, not their wants, may be supplied by others’ help, then it is necessary to set up an arbitrary definition and to define wants as those good things which a man recognises to be necessary for his life, and needs as those good things the good of which is unseen by the individual to whose well-being, in the interests of the whole, they are necessary. Food and clothing would thus be an example of a man’s wants, education of his needs; and it might, according to this definition, be a statement of a principle to say that the remedy for the [195] sadness of English labour is to be sought in letting the State provide for a man’s needs while he is left to provide for his own wants. It is, however, a statement which, depending on an arbitrary and shifting definition, would not be understood. If, as another statement of a principle, it be said that means of life may be provided, while for means of livelihood a man must work, then it becomes difficult to draw a distinction, for some means of life are also means of livelihood. There is no prin­ciple as yet stated according to which limits of State interference may be defined.

The better plan is to consider the laws which are ac­cepted as laws of England, and to study how, by their development, a remedy may be found. On the statute book there are many socialistic laws. The Poor Law, the Education Act, the Established Church, the Land Act, the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, and the Libraries Act are socialistic.

The Poor Law provides relief for the destitute and medical care for the poor. By a system of outdoor relief it has won the condemnation of many who care for the poor, and see that outdoor relief robs them of their energy, their self-respect, and their homes. There is no reason, however, why the Poor Law should not be developed in more healthy ways. Pensions of 8s. or 10s. a week might be given to every citizen who had kept himself until the age of 60 without workhouse aid. If such pensions were the right of all, none would be tempted to lie to get them, nor would any be tempted to spy and bully in order to show the undesert of applicants. So long as relief is a matter of desert, and so long as the most conscientious relieving officers are liable to err, there [196] must be mistakes both on the side of indulgence and of neglect. The one objection to out-relief, which is at present recognised by the poor, is that the system puts it in the power of the relieving officer to act as judge in matters of which he must be ignorant, so that he gives relief to the careless or crafty and passes over those who in self-respect hide their trouble. Pensions, too, it may be added, would be no more corrupting to the labourer who works for his country in the workshop than for the civil servant who works for his country at the desk, and the cost of pensions would be no greater than is the cost of infirmaries and alms-houses. In one way or another the old and the poor are now kept by those who are richer, and the present method is not a cheap one.

Many men and women fail because they do not know how to work. The workhouses might be made schools of industry. If the ignorant could be detained in work­houses until they had learnt the use of a tool and the pleasure of work, these establishments would become technical schools of the kind most needed, and yearly add a large sum to the wealth of the nation.

Lastly, the whole system of medical relief might be so ‘ organised as to provide for every citizen the skill and care necessary for his cure in sickness. As it is, no labourer nor artisan is expected to make such provision, as there are hospitals, infirmaries, and dispensaries to supply his wants. By application or by letter he can gain admis­sion to any of these, and he is expected to be grateful. Medical relief is thus supplied; to organise the relief is merely to take another step along a path already entered, and properly organised the relief need not pauperise. The necessity of begging for a letter, the obligation of [197] humbly waiting at hospital or dispensary doors, the chance that real needs may be unskilfully treated—these are the things which degrade a man. If all the dispen­saries, hospitals, and infirmaries were properly ordered, controlled by the State, and open as a matter of right to all comers, it would be possible for every citizen at the ‘ dispensary to get the necessary advice and medicine, and thence, if he would, to enter a hospital without any sense of degradation. The national health is the nation’s in­terest, and without additional outlay it could be brought about that every man, woman, and child should have the medical treatment necessary to their condition. The rich would still get sufficient advantage, but it would no longer happen that the lives most useful to the nation would be left to the care of practitioners who, however kind and devoted, cannot provide either adequate drugs or spare the time for necessary study when for visit and drugs the charge cannot be more than 1s. or 1s. 6d.

By some such development as these suggested, with­out any break with old traditions, without any fear of pauperising the people, the Poor Law might help to make the life of England healthier and more restful.

In the same way the Education Act might be deve­loped in conjunction with the Church and the Universities to make the life of England wiser and fuller. A complete system of national education ought to take the child from the nursery, pass him through high schools to the University, and then provide him with means to develop the higher life of which all are capable. Some steps have already been made in this direction, but secondary schools or high schools are still needed, and the Church organisation will have to be made popular, so as to [198] re­ present, not the opinions of a mediaeval sect, but the opinions of nineteenth-century Englishmen. Schools in which it would be possible to learn the facts and thoughts new to this age, Churches in which, by ministers in sympathy with their hearers and by the use of forms native of the times, men could be lightened with light upon their souls, would add an untold quantity to the sum of national life.

Alongside of such development much might be done with the Libraries Act and with the powers which local bodies have to keep up parks and gardens. It would be as easy to find in every neighbourhood a site for the people’s playground as it is for the workhouse, and all might have, what is now the privilege of the rich, a place for quiet, the sight of green grass and fair flowers. It would be as easy to build a library as an infirmary. In every parish there might be rooms lighted and warmed, where cosy chairs and well-filled shelves might invite the weary man to wander in other times and climes with other mates and minds. In every locality there might be a hall where music, or pictures, or the talk of friends would call into action sleeping powers, and by admiration arouse the deadened to life. The best things gain nothing by being made private property; a fine picture possessed by the State will give the individual who looks at it as much pleasure as if he possessed it. It is no idle dream that the Crystal Palace might become a national institu­tion, open free for the enjoyment of all, dedicated to the service of the people, for the recreation of their lives, by means of music, knowledge, and beauty.

If still it be said that none of these good things touch the want most recognised, the need of better dwell­ings, [199] then we have in the Artisans’ Dwellings Act a law which only requires wise handling to be made to serve this purpose. A local board has now the power to pull down rookeries and to let the ground at a price which will enable honest builders to erect decent dwellings at low rents. Unwisely handled, the law may only destroy existing dwellings and put heavy compensation into the pockets of unworthy landlords and fees into those of active officials; wisely handled, the same law might at no very great expense replace the houses which now ruin the life of the poor and disgrace the English name.

Thus it is—and other laws, such as the Irish Land Act, are open to the same process of development—that without revolution reform could be wrought. I can con­ceive a great change in the condition of the people, worked out in our own generation, without any revolu­tion or break with the past. With wages at their present rate I can yet imagine the houses made strong and healthy, education and public baths made free, and the possibility of investing in land made easy. I can ima­gine that, without increase of their private wealth, the poor might have in libraries, music-halls, and flower gardens that on which wealth is spent. I can imagine the youth of the nation made strong by means of fresh air and the doctor’s care, the aged made restful by means of honourable pensions. I can imagine the Church as the people’s Church, its buildings the halls where they are taught by their chosen teachers, the meeting-places where they learn the secret of union and brotherly love, the houses of prayer where in the presence of the Best they lift themselves into the higher life of duty and devotion to right—all this I can imagine, because it is [200] practicable. I cannot imagine that which must be reached by new departures and so-called Continental practices. Any scheme, whatever it may promise in the future, which involves revolution in the present is impracticable, and any flirting with it is likely to hinder the progress of reform.

But now there rises the obvious objection, ‘ All this will cost much money ; ’  ‘Free education means 1d. in the pound; libraries and museums mean 2d.;’ ‘The suggested changes would absorb more than Is.; the ratepayers could not stand it.’

I agree; the present ratepayers could not pay heavier rates. There must be other means of raising the money. Some scheme for graduated taxing might be possible; but perhaps I may be told that such a scheme means the introduction of a new principle, and is as much out­side my present scope as the scheme for nationalisation of the land. Well, there remains the wealth locked up in the endowed charities, the increase which would be brought to the revenue by a new assessment of the land­ tax, and the sum which might be saved by abolishing sinecures and waste in every public office.

The wealth of the endowed charities has never been realised, and if that amount be not reduced in paying for elementary education, it might do much to make life happier. If men saw to what uses this money could be put, they would not be so ready to back up an agitation raised on the School Board to get hold of this money for School Board work. They would say, ‘No; the schools are safe; in some way they -must be provided and paid for. We won’t shield the Board from attacks of rate­payers by giving them our money to spend; we want that [201] for things which the board cannot provide.’ There is also a vast sum which might be got by a new assessment —which in some cases would be a re-imposition—of the land-tax, and by a closer scrutiny into the ways of public offices. The land-tax returns the same amount as it re­turned more than two hundred years ago, while rents have gone on increasing. The abuses of sinecures and of useless officials are patent to all who know anything of public work in small areas ; and it is possible that what is done in the vestry, on a small scale, is developed by the atmosphere of grander surroundings into grander proportions. The parish reformer can put his finger on one or two officials who are not wanted, but whose salary of a few hundreds seems hardly worth the saving; per­chance the parliamentary reformer might put his finger on unnecessary officials whose salaries amount to thou­sands. Out of the sums thus gained or saved a great fund could be entrusted to the governing body of London, and the responsibility would then lie with the electors to choose men capable of administering vast wealth, so as to give to all the means of developing their highest possibilities.

Perhaps, though, it is unwise to go into these details and attempt to show how the necessary money may be raised. In England poverty and wealth have met together. It is the fellow-citizens of the poor who see them in East London without joy and without hope. The money which is wasted on fruitless pleasures and fruitless effort would be sufficient to do all, and more than has been suggested in this paper. There is no want of the neces­sary money, and much is yearly spent—some of it in vain—on efforts on societies or on armies, which promise [202] to save the people. When it is clearly seen that wealth may provide some of the means by which their fellow-countrymen may be saved from dreariness and sickness if not from sin, then the difficulty as to the way in which the money may be raised will not long hinder action.

The ways and means of improving the condition of the people are at hand. It is time we gave up the game of party politics and took to real work. It is time we gave up speculation and did what waits the doing. Here are men and women. Are they what they might be? Are they like the Son of Man? How can they be helped to reach the standard of their manhood? That is the question of the day; before that of Ireland, Egypt, or the Game Laws. The answer to that question will divide, by other than by party lines, the leaders of men. He who answers it so as to weld old and new together will be the statesman of the future.

Samuel A. Barnett.

This piece has been reproduced from Barnett, H. O. and Barnett, S. A. (1888). Practicable Socialism. Essays on social reform. London: Longman Green and Co. The whole book is available from the Internet Archive: and is said to be in the public domain.