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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : Russel Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Great Strike--And After. (S749: 1912)
Hopes of a National Peace.
Chat with Prof. Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., F.R.S.

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Harold Begbie printed on page four of the 13 March 1912 number of The Daily Chronicle. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S749.htm

    "And now about this strike," says Dr. Wallace, his eyes smiling, his voice chuckling with an almost schoolboy enthusiasm. "It's a grand thing. Oh, a really grand thing! First the Railway Strike. And now the Coal Strike. Splendid--the whole thing--splendid!" He laughs quietly, but blithely, for a moment. Then, still smiling, but with greater earnestness and a deep gratitude, he adds: "I'm glad I've lived to see it. I'm glad of that!"

    The reader must picture this contemporary of Darwin stretching his long length on a brown sofa, the ivory-coloured face with its masses of white hair pillowed against cushions, the hands clasped behind the head, the eyes now turned to study, through tinted spectacles, the face of his visitor, and now looking up with a cheerful smile to the ceiling, as though some particularly knowing eavesdropper from another world had ensconced himself between the lath and plaster.

Message of Big Strikes.

    The rain beats against the French windows of this orderly room, with its many tables and bookshelves. The glass streams with water, and the frames strain with the buffets of a driving wind. The distant downs of Dorsetshire are blurred by mist, are almost invisible; below in the valley the broad waters of Poole Harbour loom grey and sunless, like ashes in a grate. Something angry and malevolent is astir in the outer world--an unrest of the elements, which is less genial than the unrest of humanity.

    The Meredithian old man on the sofa would be out of doors but for the wind and the rain. He is planting just now some hundred and eighty rhododendrons. "It's a nuisance, this rain," he exclaims, glaring at the windows; "it stops my plantin'."

    Then, convinced that the heavens will be unkind till luncheon is reached, he returns to the strike. He speaks, as he says, at random, discursively, and not with the grim purpose of an "interview" in his mind. He is taking his case, and chats to a friend pleasantly, and with no solemnity, certainly with no pomposity!

    In his deep and vibrant voice, clipping his "g's," and stressing important words with a telling emphasis of pronunciation, he declares the reason of his optimism:--

    "These big strikes, really big strikes, bring home to people the fact of their dependence on the working man--the poor working man! They are apt to criticise him; to say he is one thing and another; to find fault with him; to be angry with him; in their hearts to hate and despise him. Well, a strike like this says to the self-satisfied and criticising public: The working man may be everything you say he is, your criticisms may be entirely just, you alone may be virtuous, thrifty, industrious, and logical; nevertheless, you depend upon the man you criticise, you absolutely depend upon him for your very life!

    "And that is a good thing for them to know. Because it must lead the more intelligent of them to perceive the importance, the enormous importance, of so ordering the national life that those upon whom they depend, absolutely and entirely, for the necessities of existence are properly provided for, are living in conditions which leave no reasonable room for complaint. It makes us all think about the working man, the poor working man!

The Working Classes.

    "What do these strikes mean? They mean that the working classes are living their lives conscious of injustice, burdened by a sense of grievance. Every strike reveals some definite wrong. Now, is that not a perilous state of things? How can a community be safe, how can any national life be wholesome and strong where the vast majority of the population is convinced that it is being cheated and wronged by the minority? Little strikes only serve to make us uneasy. The big strikes bring home to us the essential truth--that we depend upon the working classes, that our whole national position is in their hands, and that these essential people in the State are conscious of injustice, conscious of wrong. Now, is that a rational state of things?

    "People distrust the working classes. That is absurd. Examine any of the claims they have ever made; examine this present claim of the colliers! Could anything be more modest and more just? They ask for a minimum wage, or, as it ought to be called, a fair living wage. Can anyone point to a claim ever made by the working classes which is unjust or extravagant? Have they ever set up a claim so monstrous and inequitable as the claim of ground landlords, the claim of millionaires with their Trusts and Combines? The working classes are the most modest and sensible people in the community. Their only stupidity has been acquiescence in cruel conditions; their only folly doubt as to their own power to obtain justice. I rejoice in these strikes, these splendid big strikes, because they demonstrate the welcome fact that democracy is at last awake to its power.

    "And I trust the workman absolutely. I believe him to be an honest, sensible man; I am quite sure that he knows how far he may go in his demands for better treatment; I am perfectly certain he knows as much about political economy as any Member of Parliament; he is not in the least likely to wreck his means of livelihood. People talk of the working classes as if they were different from everybody else. That is pure nonsense. I agree with Herbert Spencer that you find the same diversity among them as among the upper classes, to whom in many points they bear a striking resemblance. Lady Bell wrote a very interesting book about her husband's work-people. In the grimy, ugly, and unnatural town of Middlesbrough, where people congregate in great masses to serve Capital, she went among the inhabitants, visited them in their homes, and found an extraordinary diversity. In the matter of reading, for instance, some went in for novels, some for religious books, some for science and politics, one man knew Greek, another was learning German, some of them read French, and some didn't read anything at all--a condition which exists in the country houses of England! It is absurd to suppose--as some people appear to think--that the working classes are drunken, dissolute, and ignorant. They are like the rest of us; you may find every temperament and disposition among them; and in the main, like the rest of us, they are honest, sensible people. The English temperament does not belong exclusively to the upper classes!

Principle of the Living Wage.

    "I think we have every reason to be hopeful and glad. For the first time, so far as I know for the first time in the whole history of the civilised world, we have got a Government which recognises the principle of the fair living wage, which acknowledges that the first duty of a Government is to secure the welfare of the wealth producers. That is a tremendous step forward. It is really the biggest thing in our times. I don't think everybody quite realises its enormous importance. If the nation would only give itself time to think, time to reflect, instead of all this panic about the coal, there would be rejoicing at the prospect now opening before us of a well-ordered State in which strikes will be impossible. All strikes are caused by bad management. No strike has ever occurred without reason. When Government removes the cause of unrest there will be peace and prosperity. It will be better for everybody. The very people who are writing feverish and preposterous letters to the Press will be infinitely better off. We are approaching a period of National Peace.

    "My conviction is that this present strike will drive the Government to take the coal industry out of private hands. It is a most monstrous condition of things that such an industry should be exposed to interruption or ruin. When the land of England was divided by the Normans, it was never given to any man; it was lent to men in return for certain important services, and nobody ever dreamed of coal beneath the surface. And who will pretend that by purchasing land a man has any right to constitute himself owner of the mineral wealth half a mile below the surface soil for which he paid his money? Does not the public perceive how foolish a thing it is to let private people own and control something which they did nothing to create and something which is essential to the general welfare? A man may improve surface soil, may develop land and make it more profitable to the community; but he can do nothing at all to improve coal. Coal cannot belong to private individuals. It is like the air. It belongs to all. It is the property of the nation. The working classes have awakened slowly to a sense of their power; but when will the public, which calls itself educated, awake to the madness of leaving coal in private hands?

A Law of Science and Humanity.

    "You hear people say that the minimum wage will destroy certain mines. But what does that really mean? It means that they want men to work for an inadequate wage and to live in unwholesome conditions! If a mine cannot afford to pay a living wage, it must be closed; it is a disgrace to civilisation that it remains open. But I think you will find that the law of a living wage will be the means of introducing improvements into the management of these poorer mines whereby they will be worked at a profit. It not, they must be closed. No industry should be allowed to exist which cannot pay its workers a wage whereby they can exist. That is a law of science and a law of humanity. We want a strong and healthy nation. Starvelings are a danger.

    "All this talk about the menace of Labour is a mere bugbear. Capital will profit by the rise of the working classes. When you get millions of men well paid, millions of men raised to a higher standard of living, it means that trade must prosper enormously. It will be good for the building trade, good for the manufacturer, good for the shopkeeper. A chief end of Government is equality of distribution. Their first concern is the well-being of the workers; then, if there be a surplus after that duty is discharged, a fair recompense for the shareholders. In the past these obligations have been reversed. Capital has considered dividends first; only what it has been driven to pay in wages has it doled out to the wealth producers. Hence slums, degradation, ill-health, and infant mortality. True Socialism preaches that the first obligation is a just reward of labour. The present Government recognises that principle, and now it looks plain sailing for the rest.

    "I hope the Government will put an export duty on coal. To export coal at all is really immoral. It only benefits the rich, and increases the price of the commodity to our own manufacturers and to the poor. Coal ought to be as cheap as we can make it, and Government ought to have absolute control of its production. There is plenty of coal in almost every country of the world; it only wants to be looked for. Members of Parliament should certainly begin to insist at once that no coal be sent out of the country when the mines resume until the national supplies are lavishly restored. And, after that, an export duty, an increasing export duty.

Nation's Wheat Supply.

    "A wonderful little book has just been published by a Mr. Lumsden on our food supply. People demand a big Navy to protect our sea-borne food; but what protection will Dreadnoughts afford when the wheat crop fails in those areas from which we now draw the materials for bread? Our one and only protection is to grow our own wheat. And it can be done. By intensive culture, by choosing the right seed, we can grow ample wheat for our own needs. It seems incredible--it is almost a miracle--but from one little grain of wheat you can get 20 or 30 stalks, a veritable bush of corn! People won't believe you when you tell them, but it is quite possible for us to grow all the wheat we need for our population, and to have a surplus for export. My conviction is that Government must sooner or later attend to this business of wheat-growing, and then there will be work for everybody--even for the colliers dismissed from pits that cannot afford to pay a living wage! I think this business of our wheat simply will come home to us sooner than many people imagine. It will be worse than a coal strike.

    "The public ought to see that Government must nationalise coal, railways, and land. They begin to see it; but they are frightened. They say, How can we afford to buy up these immense interests? Well, the answer is quite simple. We need not pay a penny for them. Take the case of the railways. Government could take the railways over, effect an immense economy in working them, and pay the shareholders a fair dividend. Their first concern would be to provide all the railway workers with just wages, but after that they would see that the shareholders had their reward. However, that reward would not continue in perpetuity. I like Bentham's1 phrase that Government should avoid disappointing just expectations. Shareholders expect dividends: let them have dividends. But their heirs? Well, let the next generation have those same dividends. After that, no dividends. Free railway travelling for all mankind, and the price of freight, like the Post Office charge, identical and irrespective of distance. We put a penny stamp on a letter whether it goes from one end of a town to another or whether it goes from Land's End to John o'Groats, from Aberdeen to India! It should be the same with produce and merchandise. Railways should exist for the general welfare.

Foundations of a Real State.

    "I hope no one will suggest that Government should buy up the mines. There must be no madness of that kind. Government should take over the mines, take them by right of the will of the people, and administer them for the general welfare. Interest to the shareholders should cease with the heirs of the present generation.

    "One hears people say that Government has no right to take away the interest of a man's investments from his posterity. But they do not see that the man himself can do so now, and that nothing can stop him. Who complains? There is no law to prevent a man from leaving his money away from his family, and bequeathing it to a charity. I think if Government, taking land or railways, paid a fair interest to the next generation, it would do all that equity demands of it.

    "And think of the universal welfare under such a condition of things! Taxation would be lessened; cost of living would be reduced; hours of labour would be shortened; the housing of the people would be improved; and the health of the whole community would show itself in greater and more fruitful activity of mind and body. Why do people fear these sensible changes in government? At present they live in danger. They may be starved in a few weeks. And by nationalising coal, railways, and land they could live in absolute peace and security, sharing in such prosperity and happiness as the world has never known.

    "Well, it will come. I am full of hope. This ruinous and inequitable state of things is drawing to an end. It cannot continue very long. For instance, if the working classes have foresight enough to accumulate their funds for another ten years, so that they can provide themselves with strike pay sufficient for two months, they can bring the entire national life to a standstill. But I hope this Government, which has acted splendidly so far, which has not lost its head or surrendered to the panic of reactionaries, will so legislate that the workers may not have to enforce their demands by a general strike. The common sense of the community will support Ministers if they go forward with the principle they have enunciated--that Government's first concern is to provide a living wage for the producers of the national wealth. That is a grand statement. That is the foundation of a real State. Mr. Asquith2 has behaved nobly, like a true statesman, and I hope he will have the courage and the wisdom to take the next step."

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English jurist.
2Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), English politician (Prime Minister, 1908-1916).

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