Ralph Fox

Labour and the Intellectuals

A Criticism of the New Whigs

Source: The Communist, October 28, 1920.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The criticism of Soviet Russia indulged in by Bertrand Russell, Charles Roden Buxton, Dr. Haden Guest, and others, on the ground that individual liberty is interfered with, is deserving of examination for the purpose of contrasting the outlook of the type to which they belong, viz., the Intellectuals, with the outlook of the wage-worker. It may have been noticed by your readers that the trade union leaders who visited Russia were not nearly so horrified at the interference with individual liberty as these gentlemen. And the rank and file of labour are still more unperturbed on the matter.

The fact is that our “Intellectuals” are still under the sway of the French Revolutionary period and of our English Revolution of a century before. Bertrand Russell confesses that he looks back to 1688 as the time from which our modern English view of life, with its kindliness and toleration dates. The distinguishing characteristic of the revolutionary periods of England and France was the insistence on individual rights. All the philosophers and thinkers of that time proclaimed the natural rights of the individual. The whole corporate idea of feudal society, with its rights conditional upon duties, and its theory of communal responsibility, went by the board. In England we got free competition, religious freedom, free trade, the growth of the idea of a free Press and of free speech.

But the workers found that free competition meant a denial of all rights of combination and of all state protection: it meant the unrestricted working to death of women and children in the mills and factories, and the freedom to starve unless the employer wished to employ them. The right to combine, factory legislation, etc., had to be won in the teeth of these “freedoms.” Can it be wondered then that abstract conceptions of freedom for the individual have always seemed hollow mockeries to the worker? Imagine the man unemployed and facing starvation (as thousands are to-day) being treated to violent denunciations of industrial conscription as is alleged to exist in Russia. The wage-worker asks himself if he is not conscripted by hunger every day and whether this economic conscription does not only fall upon one section of the people in our modern commercial system.

The current idea of individual liberty means, in effect, to such a man, the right of someone to live on his labour and to condemn him to a life of insecurity and poverty.

Feudalism built on the principle of mutual interdependence, and the responsibility of all for each. A man could not, as the saying is to-day, “do what he likes with his own.” He had to consider the general good. His individual liberty was limited. This prevented the grosser evils of competition. It prevented sheepfarming from becoming general until the capitalist idea of individual rights had advanced far enough to make the owners careless as to what became of the tenants who were driven off the land.

The workers are returning to the idea that all rights must be conditional; that every right must involve a duty. The clamour for individual rights came with private property; the customs of ancient society, rigid though they were, placed the well-being of the community first.

The idea of Social Freedom, of protecting society from exploitation by an individual or a group, naturally appeals to the workers. Behind demands for individual liberty, they sense the predatory claim which is made against society by the few.

The “Intellectuals” who still harp on the individual are completely out of touch with the development of labour thought today. Individualism is on the wane. Apart from communal traditions, the workers are taught unity, solidarity, and discipline by the conditions of production. They are massed as battalions; they think, work, and move forward as battalions and not as individuals. This will give the clue to the wide difference between the outlook of the modern labour movement and that of the somewhat anarchistic intellectuals.

Machine production makes the workers matter-of-fact. They are more concerned about processes than abstract ideals. They want practical results. They are becoming more and more convinced that by limiting the rights of the few over the many that they will get these results. By freeing the community from individual aggression, they believe that they will secure the greatest amount of liberty possible for all.

The harsh experience of the worker does not lead him to appreciate the kindliness and tolerance of the existing order which moves Bertrand Russell to admiration. Of course, Russell’s experience is rather different. Even when he was imprisoned, his imprisonment was made as easy as possible. As one of the anti-war working-class prisoners in Brixton prison, who was undergoing hard labour while Russell was there, I had abundant opportunities of seeing how kindly and tolerate imprisonment could really be made. If he had kept his eyes open during those almost daily walks across the exercise yard, when he went to see his visitors and on his walks back, bearing those bunches of flowers which they brought for him, he might have seen other prisoners who were then having to struggle with the authorities to get permission to see their friends occasionally without the interposition of a double wire grille, which made it almost impossible to distinguish any features at all. The meanness of such a system shows that there is another side to the kindly and tolerant mode of going on which we are supposed to enjoy here. But Bertrand Russell did not see or experience anything of this; just as the “Intellectuals” do not see or experience the everyday hardships of working-class life. Because of this they still hold by the capitalist-anarchist theory of individual rights. This theory still offers much to them, but the workers, out of their bitter experience, are brushing it aside as a mockery and a fraud.