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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Introduction

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Introduction

The "Letters to a Working Man" tell their own story, and so require very few words from me by way of introduction. I may perhaps be allowed to mention, however, that the gentleman to whom they are addressed, Mr. Charles Harvey, lives in Bishops Sutton, a small colliery village in Somersetshire. Though Mr. Harvey worked in the mine as a lad, his present work is in a shop doing a large retail business. I may state that the first two or three of the letters were addressed to Mr. Harvey without thought of publication. Later, it was suggested to me to throw into the form of letters to him matter which I had written elsewhere, and to publish the whole, first in the Spectator and afterwards in book form; but in putting together such matter I always had the thought of my correspondent in my mind. I should add that in writing to Mr. Harvey as I have written I knew well that I was preaching to the converted, for his views on the problems and perils of Socialism are in close agreement with my own. This fact was illustrated by two very able letters on Socialism contributed by him some eight or nine months ago to the Spectator, though not signed by his page x name—letters which deservedly attracted a good deal of attention. I mention these facts as it has been suggested that the letters were not really addressed to a bona fide working man.

The letter form, when used in dealing with a number of detached points, has its advantages, but there are also certain inherent disadvantages. In the first place, there is the danger of repetition; and next, there is an equal danger of omitting a good many subjects that ought to have been included. If I tried to sum up the general result of these Letters, it would be to say that they show that the chief peril of Socialism is waste—waste both in the moral and in the economic sense. Socialism would not only deteriorate character, but it would lessen product. No man realises more clearly than I do that there are a great many evils in our present system of production and distribution. Still, that system does contrive to provide shelter, clothing, and food for the mass of the people of this country. Can it be said that Socialism would do the same? I believe it would do nothing of the kind, because the mainspring would have been taken out of the clockwork. Our present organisation does provide an incentive to work. Socialism withdraws that incentive, or rather substitutes the much less powerful incentive of coercion. Till it can be shown that slave labour is as profitable in the economic sense as free labour, and that the order of an official or of page xi a committee can compel men to as great activity as that which is shown under our present system, I at any rate shall consider that free exchange holds the field, and will always beat compulsion in the matter of production. But that system which has the greatest product must clearly be the system which will give the best results, and do most to diminish the evils of poverty. The ultimate cause of poverty is scarcity, and the only way to combat scarcity is by increased production.

I ought perhaps, before I end this Introduction, to say that, though I have written so strongly against State interference in the matter of the labour of grown men and full citizens, I have no objection whatever to State interference intended to protect women and children, as in our Factory Acts. Women and children are not free industrial agents. They are in a position of dependence, and work can be and is exacted from them by others—by those, that is, from whom they derive their subsistence. Therefore the State has not only the right but the duty to see that they are not forced to work unduly by those who stand to them in a position of trusteeship. I know that this view will be challenged as regards women, though no doubt it will be admitted as regards children. Nevertheless, I hold that, owing to physical, social, and moral considerations which I cannot enter into in detail now, women are constantly placed in a position where they may be com- page xii pelled to work under injurious conditions unless the State interferes to protect them. No doubt the State must not overdo that protection, but some measure of restriction as to hours and conditions of labour is certainly beneficial. I refuse, however, to admit that the protection of women and children from excessive hours of work affords a ground for preventing full-grown men selling their labour at their own price and under their own conditions. My working day is not infrequently one of twelve hours, and occasionally more. I should regard it as a piece of gross oppression if, owing to a Journalists' Eight Hours Act, I were not allowed to work as long hours as I pleased. That being so, what right have I to assent to the State depriving men in trades in which I am not concerned of their liberty, and of saying to them: "Whether you like it or not, we refuse to allow you to work more than eight hours a day "?

In concluding this Introduction I desire to thank the Rev. R. H. Law for allowing me to reprint in an Appendix his spirited verses "To a Socialist Friend." They express most happily the lessons of Freedom and good sense which I have tried to set forth in these pages.

J. St. Loe Strachey.

The Spectator Office, Wellington Street, Strand, London, W.C.