Part 6: Western Europe, Section 16

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 16

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.

Part Six

Section XVI

IN 1886 the socialist movement in England was in full swing. Large bodies of workers had openly joined it in all the principal towns, as well as a number of middle-class people, chiefly young, who helped it in different ways. An acute industrial crisis prevailed that year in most trades, and every morning, and often all the day long, I heard groups of workers going about in the streets singing "We've got no work to do," or some hymn, and begging for bread. People flocked at night into Trafalgar Square, to sleep there in the open air, in the wind and in the rain, between two newspapers; and one day in February a crowd, after having listened to the speeches of Burns, Hyndman, and Champion, rushed into Piccadilly and broke a few windows in the great shops. Far more important, however, than this outbreak of discontent was the spirit which prevailed among the poorer portion of the working population in the outskirts of London. It was such that if the leaders of the movement, who were prosecuted for the riots, had received severe sentences, a spirit of hatred and revenge, hitherto unknown in the recent history of the labor movement in England, but the symptoms of which were very well marked in 1886, would have been developed, and would have impressed its stamp upon the subsequent movement for a long time to come. However, the middle classes seemed to have realized the danger. Considerable surms of money were immediately subscribed in the West End for the relief of misery in the East End,certainly quite inadequate to relieve a widely spread destitution, but sufficient to show, at least, good intentions. As to the sentences which were passed upon the prosecuted leaders, they were limited to two or three months' imprisonment.

The amount of interest in socialism and all sorts of schemes of reform and reconstruction of society was very great among all classes of people. Beginning with the autumn and throughout all the winter I was asked to lecture all over the country, partly on prisons but mainly on anarchist socialism, and I visited in this way nearly every large town of England and Scotland. As a rule I accepted the first invitation I received for entertainment on the night of the lecture, and consequently it happened that I stayed one night in a rich mans mansion, and the next in the narrow quarters of a working family. Every night I saw considerable numbers of people of all classes; and whether it was in the worker's small parlor, or in the reception-room of the wealthy, the most animated discussions went on about socialism and anarchism till a late hour,-with hope in the workman's house, with apprehension in the mansion, but everywhere with the same earnestness.

In the mansion the main questions asked were, "What do the socialists want ? What do they intend to do ?" and next, "What are the concessions which it is absolutely necessary to make at some given moment in order to avoid serious conflicts ?" In our conversations I seldom heard the justice of the socialist contention simply denied, or described as sheer nonsense. But I found a firm conviction that a revolution was impossible in England; that the claims of the mass of the workers had not yet reached the precision nor the extent of the claims of the socialists, and that the workers would be satisfied with much less; so that secondary concessions, amounting to a prospect of a slight increase of well-being or of leisure, would be accepted by the working classes of England as a pledge, in the meantime, of still more in the future. "We are a left-center country; we live by compromise." I was once told by an aged member of Parliament who had had a wide experience of the life of his mother country.

In workmen's dwellings, too, I noticed a difference in the questions which were addressed to me in England from those which I was asked on the Continent. General principles, of which the partial applications will be determined by the principles themselves, deeply interest the Latin workers. If this or that municipal council votes funds in support of a strike, or provides for the feeding of the children at the schools, no importance is attached to such steps. They are taken as a matter of fact. "Of course a hungry child cannot learn," a French worker says, "it must be fed." "Of course the employer was wrong in forcing the workers to strike." That is all that is said, and no praise is given to such minor concessions by the present individualist society to communist principles. The thought of the worker goes beyond the period of such concessions, and he asks whether it is the commune or the unions of workers, or the state which ought to undertake the organization of production; whether free agreement alone will be sufficient to maintain society in working order, and what could be the moral restraint if society parted with its present repressive agencies; whether an elected democratic government would be capable of accomplishing serious changes in the socialist direction, and whether accomplished facts ought not to precede legislation; and so on. In England, it was upon a series of palliative concessions, gradually growing in importance, that the chief weight was laid. But on the other hand the impossibility of state administration of industries seemed to have been settled long before in the workers' minds, while what chicfly interested most of them was matters of constructive realization, as well as how to attain the conditions which would make such a realization possible. "Well, Kropótkin, suppose that tomorrow we were to take possession of the docks of our town. What's your idea about how to manage them ?" would be asked, for instance, as soon as we had sat down in a workingman's parlor. Or, "We don't like the idea of state management of railways, and the present management by private companies is organized robbery. But suppose the workers own all the railways. How could the working of them be organized The lack of general ideas was thus supplemented by a desire of going deeper into the details of the realities.

Another feature of the movement in England was the considerable number of middle-class people who gave it their support in different ways some of them frankly joining it, while others helped it from the outside. In France and in Switzerland the two parties-workers and the middle classes-stood arrayed against each other, sharply separated from each other. So it was, at least, in the years 1876-85. When I uas in Switzerland I could say that during my three or four years' stay in the country. I was acquainted with none but workers. I hardly knew more than a couple of middle-class men. In England this would have been impossible. We found quite a number of middle-class men and who did not hesitate to appear openly, both in London and in the provinces, as helpers organizing socialist meetings, or in going about during a strike with boxes to collect coppers in the parks. Besides, we saw a movement similar to what we had had in Russia in the early seventies, when our youth rushed "to the people," though by no means so intense, so full of self-sacrifice, and so utterly devoid of the idea of "charity." Here also, in England, a considerable number of people went in all sorts of capacities to live near the workers, in the slums, in people's palaces, in Toynbee Hall, and the like. It must be said that there was a great deal of enthusiasm at that time. Many probably thought that a social revolution had already commenced. As always happens, however, with such enthusiasts, when they saw that that in England, as everywhere, there was a long, tedious, pre-paratory uphill work to be done, very many of them retired from active work, and now stand outside of it as mere sympathetic onlookers.

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January 21, 2017 17:42:46 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 16 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:48:28 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 16 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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