Here and there – but the centre did hold


Well now, you have every right to complain about the way I bang on about labels, or the repetition of that line that labels are what you put on soup cans.  My only excuse is that I keep getting provoked.  A lot of the labels get rolled out in what are called ‘culture wars’, and I gather that a female civil servant is about to get what my father called ‘the rounds of the kitchen’ for a remark about Captain Cook that reminded me of a wonderful line from a lecture in Cambridge.  It was to the effect that those who sailed from England as part of the empire were ‘water-borne parasites’.  That truly was a line for the ages.

The word ‘socialist’ is still loaded in America.  Well, they do things differently there.  But what use can we make of it here and now?  We believe, and we have believed since well before I was born, that it is the business of the State to deal with the sick, the aged, and the unemployed.  The phrase ‘the business of the State’ comes from Lloyd George.  He and Winston Churchill introduced the welfare state to England in 1909.  We have followed them.  Since we no longer organise our primary production through state owned corporations, what work is there left for the term ‘socialism’ in Australia?  That question may be more pointed during a pandemic, when even the most entrenched ideologues are begging the State to do all that it can to look after them.

The English don’t often say that they are following in the steps of others, but in 1909, they looked at what Bismarck had done in Germany.  Could it possibly be the case that the Iron Chancellor, the man of blood and iron, that fierce Prussian conservative, was in any way, much less in a liberal way, ahead of England?

I have mused on this question reading a book on Bismarck written by a Fellow of All Souls in 1920 by C. Grant Robertson.  That was an interesting time to publish a book about the man who unified Germany, but it has the advantage of being written when major events were within living memory.

Socialism was a fraught term in Germany in and after 1870.  Germany was the birthplace of Karl Marx, and his teaching was anathema to Prussian Junckers like Bismarck.  The Germans passed a law against them in 1870.  Socialists could be banished from their homes.  Mr Robertson offered some acute observations.

But the National Liberals by their action threw the earth on their own coffin.  The program of Social Democracy has always terrified middle class Liberalism more than any other party…..When National Liberalism had ceased to exist as a solid phalanx the way would be open for a reactionary Conservatism.  National Liberalism was to learn the wholesale lesson that when parties prefer tactics to principles and opportunism to conviction, the funeral service with their antagonist as the officiating minister is at hand.

All Souls is special, but do not these words, written more than a century ago, throw a frightening light on the United States of today?

Mr Robertson went on to remark that ‘Criticism that is successful is always ‘offensive’ to autocrats and bureaucrats.’  (And, Boy! do we not see that every day in Washington?)  And, of course, the Social Democrats thrived under persecution.

So, how did the man of iron, by far the leading statesman in the entire world then, respond?  He engaged in a huge program of reform in a nation that had just been just born and for a people not renowned for radicalism.  Every part had to be fought over hard, not least the comprehensive legislative code creating for the industrial workers compulsory insurance by the State against accidents and sickness, and establishing old-age pensions.

The broad result of these nine years of feverish effort and strenuous controversy was completely to alter the economic and political structure of Germany….But he [Bismarck] was a realist and opportunist and he recognised that change must continually be taking place….The problem was essentially one of political judgment, knowledge, delicacy of method, and elastic adaptability – a perpetual compromise which conceded details but never allowed fundamentals to be questioned or weakened…A Conservatism that lacked the political instinct and the true political judgment was as useless as….Socialism…

Mr Robertson went on to say that in one sense every act of a State is ‘socialistic’, and that ‘bargaining over principles is always a failure.’

Hence coalitions in a country where party systems rest on principles are usually failures, and always hated by the country as a whole. But bargaining over interests is simply an affair of political and economic arithmetic.

So, what did that arithmetic suggest?  The socialists might sulk and call this ‘bastard Socialism,’ but – and this is what it’s all about – ‘Bismarck’s ‘socialistic’ policy was the minimum of blackmail that the ruling classes would pay in order to strengthen their own political power.’

That rings dead true.  It’s about politics, numbers and not dreams, dear boy, so shut up, and eat your sauerkraut.

So, when you ask if America is about one and a half centuries behind, say, Germany, here is what Herr Otto von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenberg and Prince of Bismarck, told the German people way back in 1884.

Give the working man the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, and assure him maintenance when he is old.  If you do that and do not fear the sacrifice, or cry out at State Socialism – if the State will show a more Christian solicitude for the working man, then I believe that the gentlemen of the Social-Democratic program will sound their bird calls in vain…..Yes, I acknowledge unconditionally a right to work, and I will stand up for it as long as I am in this place.

Heavens above!  Can you imagine the bird calls – the shrieks, even – coming out of that house of all labels, the Institute of Public Affairs?  To see just how awful it may be, you need to conjure up an image of the eternal victim – the ‘terrified middle class Liberalism.’

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