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39.10 The Political, Economic, and Social Disorganization Caused by the Great War

The world in the year after the great war was like a man who has had some vital surgical operation very roughly performed, and who is not yet sure whether he can now go on living or whether he has not been so profoundly shocked and injured that he will presently fall down and die. It was a world dazed and stunned. German militarist imperialism had been defeated, but at an overwhelming cost. It had come very near to victory. Everything went on, now that the strain of the conflict had ceased, rather laxly, rather weakly, and with a gusty and uncertain temper. There was a universal hunger for peace, a universal desire for the lost safety and liberty and prosperity of pre-war times, without any power of will to achieve and secure these things.

Just as with the Roman Republic under the long strain of the Punic War, so now there had been a great release of violence and cruelty, and a profound deterioration in financial and economic morality. Generous spirits had sacrificed themselves freely to the urgent demands of the war, but the sly and base of the worlds of business and money had watched the convulsive opportunities of the time and secured a firm grip upon the resources and political power of their countries. Everywhere men who would have been regarded as shady adventurers before 1914 had acquired power and influence while better men toiled unprofitably. Such men as Lord Rhondda, the British food controller, killed themselves with hard work, while the war profiteer waxed rich and secured his grip upon press and party organization.

In the course of the war there had been extraordinary experiments in collective management in nearly all the belligerent countries. It was realized that the common expedients of peacetime commerce, the haggling of the market, the holding out for a favorable bargain, were incompatible with the swift needs of warfare. Transport, fuel, food supply, and the distribution of the raw materials not only of clothing, housing, and the like but of everything needed for war munitions, had been brought under public control. No longer had farmers been allowed to under- farm; cattle had been put upon deer parks and grasslands ploughed up, with or without the owner’s approval. Luxury building and speculative company promotion had been restrained. In effect, a sort of emergency socialist state had been established throughout belligerent Europe. It was rough-and-ready and wasteful, but it was more effective than the tangled incessant profit seeking, the cornering and forestalling and incoherent productiveness of «private enterprise».

In the earlier years of the war there was a very widespread feeling of brotherhood and the common interest in all the belligerent states. The common men were everywhere sacrificing life and health for what they believed to be the common good of the state. In return, it was promised, there would be less social injustice after the war, a more universal devotion to the common welfare. In Great Britain, for instance, Mr. Lloyd George was particularly insistent upon his intention to make the after-war Britain «a land fit for heroes». He foreshadowed the continuation of this new war communism into the peace period in discourses of great fire and beauty. In Great Britain, there was created a Ministry of Reconstruction, which was understood to be planning a new and more generous social order, better labour conditions, better housing, extended education, a complete and scientific revision of the economic system. Similar hopes of a better world sustained the common soldiers of France and Germany and Italy. It was premature disillusionment that caused the Russian collapse, So that two mutually dangerous streams of anticipation were running through the minds of men in Western Europe towards the end of the war. The rich and adventurous men, and particularly the new war profiteers, were making their plans to prevent such developments as that air transport should become a state property, and to snatch back manufactures, shipping, land transport, the public services generally, and the trade in staples from the hands of the commonweal into the grip of private profit; they were securing possession of newspapers and busying themselves with party caucuses and the like to that end; while the masses of common men were looking forward naively to a new state, of society planned almost entirely in their interest and according to generous general ideas. The history of 1919 is largely the clash of these two streams of anticipation. There was a, hasty selling off, by the «business» government in control, of every remunerative public enterprise to private speculators. By the middle of 1919 the labour masses throughout the world were manifestly disappointed and in a, thoroughly bad temper. The British «Minister of Reconstruction» and its foreign equivalents were exposed as a soothing sham. The common man felt he had been cheated. There was to be no reconstruction, but only a restoration of the old order-in the harsher form necessitated by the poverty of the new time.

For four years the drama of the war had obscured the social question, which had been developing in the Western civilizations, throughout the nineteenth century. Now that the war was over, this question reappeared gaunt and bare, as it had never been seen before.

And the irritations find hardships and the general insecurity of the new time were exacerbated by a profound disturbance of currency and credit. Money, a complicated growth of conventions rather than a system of values, had been deprived within the belligerent countries of the support of a gold standard. Gold had been retained only for international trade, and every government had produced excessive quantities of paper money for domestic use. With the breaking down of the wartime barriers the international exchange became a wildly fluctuating confusion, a source of’ distress to everyone except a few gamblers and wily speculators. Prices rose and rose with an infuriating effect upon the wage earner. On the one hand was the employer resisting his demands for more pay; on the other hand, food, houseroom, and clothing were being steadily cornered against him. And, which was the essential danger of the situation, he had lost any confidence he had ever possessed that any patience or industrial willingness he displayed would really alleviate the shortages and inconveniences by which he suffered.

In the speeches of politicians towards the close of 1911 and the spring of 1920, there was manifest an increasing recognition of the fact that what is called the capitalist system-the private ownership system that is, in which private profit is the working incentive-was on its trial. It had to produce general prosperity, they admitted, or it had to be revised. It is interesting to note such a speech as that of Mr. Lloyd George, the British premier, delivered on Saturday, December 6th, 1919. Mr. Lloyd George had had the education and training of a Welsh solicitor; he entered politics early, find in the course of a brilliant parliamentary career be had had few later opportunities for reading and thought. But being a man of great natural shrewdness, he was expressing here very accurately the ideas of the more intelligent of the businessmen and wealthy men and ordinary citizens who supported him.

«There is a new challenge to civilization», he said. «What is it? It is fundamental. It affects the whole fabric of society as we know it; it’s commerce, its trade, its industry, its finance, its social order-all are involved in it. There are those who maintain that the prosperity and strength of the country have been built up by the stimulating and invigorating appeal to individual impulse, to individual action. That is one view. The State must educate; the State must assist where necessary; the State must control where necessary; the State must shield the weak against the arrogance of the strong; but the life springs from individual impulse and energy. (Cheers.) That is one view. What is the other? That private enterprise is a failure, tried, and found wanting-a complete failure, a cruel failure. It must be rooted out, and the community must take charge as a community, to produce, to distribute, as well as to control.

«Those are great challenges for us to decide. We say that the ills of private enterprise can be averted. They say, No, they cannot. No ameliorative, no palliative, no restrictive, no remedial measure will avail. These evils are inherent in the system. They are the fruit of the tree, and you must cut it down.’ That is the challenge we hear ringing through the civilized world today, from ocean to ocean, through valley and plain. You hear it in the whining and maniacal shrieking of the Bolshevists. You hear it in the loud, clear, but more restrained tones of Congresses and Conferences. The Bolshevists would blow up the fabric with high explosive, with horror. Others would pull down with the crowbars and with cranks especially cranks. (Laughter.)

«Unemployment, with its injustice for the man who seeks and thirsts for employment, who begs for labour and cannot get it, and who is punished for failure he is not responsible for by the starvation of his children-that torture is something that private enterprise ought to remedy for its own sake, (Cheers.) Sweating, slums, the sense of semi-slavery in labour, must go. We must cultivate a sense of manhood by treating men as men. If I and I say this deliberately if I had to choose between this fabric I believe in, and allowing millions of men and women and children to rot in its cellars, I would not hesitate one hour. That is not the choice. Thank God it is not the choice. Private enterprise can produce more, so that all men get a fair share of it . . ».[1]

Here, put into quasi-eloquent phrasing, and with a jest adapted to the mental habits of the audience, we have the common-Sense view of the ordinary prosperous man not only of Great Britain but also of America or France or Italy or Germany.

In quality and tone it is a fair sample of British political thought in 1919. The prevailing economic system has made us what we are, is the underlying idea; and we do not want any process of social destruction to precede a renascence of society, we do not want to experiment with the fundamentals of our social order. Let us accept that. Adaptation, Mr. Lloyd George admitted, there had to be. Now this occasion of his speaking was a year and a month after the Armistice, and for all that period private enterprise had been failing to do all that Mr. Lloyd George was so cheerfully promising it would do. The community was in urgent need of houses. Throughout the war there had been a cessation not only of building but also of repairs. The shortage of houses in the last months of 1919 amounted to scores of thousands in Britain alone.[2] Multitudes of people were living in a state of exasperating congestion, and the most shameless profiteering in apartments and houses was going on. It was a difficult, but not an impossible situation. Given the same enthusiasm and energy and self-sacrifice that had tided over the monstrous crisis of 1916, the far easier task of providing a million houses could have been performed in a year or so. But there had been corners in building materials, transport was in a disordered state, and it did not pay private enterprise to build houses at any rents within the means of the people who needed them. Private enterprise, therefore, so far from bothering about the public need of housing, did nothing but corner and speculate in rents and sub-letting. It now demanded grants in aid from the State in order to build at a profit. And there was a great crowding and dislocation of goods at the depots because there was insufficient road transport. There was an urgent want of cheap automobiles to move about goods and workers. But private enterprise in the automobile industry found it far more profitable to produce splendid and costly cars for those whom the war had made rich. The ammunition factories built with public money could have been converted very readily into factories for the mass production of cheap automobiles, but private enterprise had insisted upon these factories being sold by the State, and would neither meet the public need itself nor let the State do so. So, too, with the world in the direst discomfort for need of shipping, private enterprise insisted upon the shutting down of the newly constructed State shipyards.

Currency was dislocated everywhere, but private enterprise was busy buying and selling francs or marks and intensifying the trouble. While Mr. George was making the very characteristic speech we have quoted, the discontent of the common man was gathering everywhere, and little or nothing was being done to satisfy his needs. It was becoming very evident that unless there-was to be some profound change in the spirit of business, under an unrestrained private enterprise system there was little or no hope, in Europe at any rate, of decent housing, clothing, or education for the workers for two or three generations.

These are facts that the historian of mankind is obliged to note with as little comment as possible. Private enterprise in Europe in 1919 and 1920 displayed neither will nor capacity for meeting the crying needs of the time. So soon as it was released from control, it ran naturally into speculation, cornering, and luxury production. It followed the line of maximum profit. It displayed no sense of its own dangers; and it resisted any attempt to restrain and moderate its profits and make itself serviceable, even in its own interest. And this went on in the face of the most striking manifestations of the extreme recalcitrance on the part of the European masses to the prolonged continuance of the privations and inconveniences they suffered. In 1913 these masses were living as they had lived since birth; they were habituated to the life they led. The masses of 1919, on the other hand, had been uprooted, everywhere, to go into the armies, to go into ammunition factories, and so on. They had lost their habits of acquiescence, and they were hardier and more capable of desperate action. Great multitudes of men had gone through such brutalizing training as, for instance, bayonet drill; they had learnt to be ferocious, and to think less either of killing or being killed. Social unrest had become, therefore, much more dangerous. Everything seemed to point to a refusal to tolerate the current state of affairs for many years. Unless the educated and prosperous and comfortable people of Europe could speedily get their private enterprise under sufficient restraint to make it work well and rapidly for the common good, unless they could develop the idea of business as primarily a form of public service and not primarily a method of profit-making, unless they could in their own interest achieve a security of peace that would admit of a cessation not only of war preparation, but of international commercial warfare, strike and insurrection promised to follow strike and insurrection tip to a complete social and political collapse. It was not that the masses had or imagined that they had the plan of a new social, political, and economic system. They had not, and they did not believe they had. The defects we have pointed out in the socialist scheme (Chapter XXXVIII, sec 5) were no secret from them. It was a much more dangerous state of affairs than that. It was that they were becoming so disgusted with the current system, with its silly luxury, its universal waste, and its general misery, that they did not care what happened afterward so long as they could destroy it. It was a return to a state of mind comparable to which had rendered possible the debacle of the Roman Empire.

Already in 1919 the world had seen one great community go that way, the Russian people. The Russians overturned the old order and submitted to the autocratic rule of a small group of doctrinaire Bolshevik socialists, because these men seemed to have something new to try. They wrecked the old system, and at any cost they would not have it back. The information available from Russia at the time of writing this summary is still too conflicting and too obviously tainted by propagandist aims for us to form any judgment upon the proceedings and methods of the Soviet Government, but it is very plain that from November, 1917, Russia has not only endured that government and its mainly socialistic methods, but has fought for it successfully against anything that seemed to threaten a return to the old régime.

We have already (sec5) pointed out the very broad differences between the Russian and the Western communities, and the strong reasons there are for doubting that they will move upon parallel lines and act in similar ways. The Russian peasants were cut off by want of education and sympathy from the small civilized community of prosperous and educated people, which lived upon them. These latter were a little separate nation. The peasants below, under the really quite alien incitement of the Bolshevik socialists, have thrown that separate nation off and destroyed it. In the towns, and in the towns alone, communism rules (1920); the rest of Russia is now no more than a wilderness of barbaric peasantry, but there is much more unity of thought and feeling between class and class in the west than in Russia, and particularly in the Atlantic communities. Even if they wrangle, classes can talk together and understand each other. There is no unbroken stratum, of illiterates. The groups of rich and speculative men, the «bad men» in business and affairs, whose freedoms are making the very name of «private enterprise» stink in the nostrils of the ordinary man, are only the more active section of very much larger classes, guilty perhaps of indolence and self-indulgence, but capable of being roused to a sense not merely of the wickedness but of the danger of systematic self-seeking in a strained, impoverished, and sorely tried world.

In one way or another it seems inevitable now that the new standard of well being which the mechanical revolution of the last century has rendered possible, should become the general standard of life. Revolution is conditional upon public discomfort. Social peace is impossible without a rapid amelioration of the needless discomforts of the present time. A rapid resort to willing service and social reconstruction on the part of those who own and rule, or else a world-wide social revolution leading towards an equalization of conditions and an attempt to secure comfort on new and untried lines, seem now to be the only alternatives before mankind. The choice which route shall be taken lies, we believe, in Western Europe, and still more so in America, with the educated, possessing, and influential classes. The former route demands much sacrifice, for prosperous people in particular, a voluntary assumption of public duties and a voluntary acceptance of class discipline and self-denial; the latter may take an indefinite time to traverse, it will certainly be a very destructive and bloody process, and whether it will lead to a new and better state of affairs at last is questionable. A social revolution, if ultimately the Western European States blunder into it, may prove to be a process extending over centuries; it may involve a social breakdown as complete as that of the Roman Empire, and it may necessitate as slow recuperation.

[1]The Times, December 8th, 1915.
[2]Authorities vary between 250,000 and a million houses.

« 39.9 The Great War from the Russian Collapse to the Armistice |Contents | 39.11 President Wilson and the problems of Versailles »

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