UNDOUBTEDLY the one prophetic event in the recent general election is the emergence of the Labour Group into the governing sphere. It is a political portent of the first rank, and vast issues depend ultimately upon it. It symbolizes a revolution peaceful yet potent, and aspirations seeking expression in the life of the people. It indicates the rise of the working classes as a governing power in the realm; not merely as a force affecting government, for they have long been that, but the rise of the people into the governing sphere itself.
We must remember that an election registers rather than creates opinion. Sudden as the Labour victory seemed, it was in reality but the climax of long processes of political education during the last thirty years. Students of democratic life have long been aware of the things that have suddenly taken political shape and have astonished the ordinary public.
A few weeks ago a citizen of Leicester wrote to me saying that I could not really understand the working-class movement or I would not give it my support. For, he said, it was concocted in those dissipated clubs of working-class men which were the despair of magistrates and police. I replied that I thought he must go rather deeper for the causes of this phenomenon, the Labour movement. I said that he must not confuse these clubs, which sometimes were no doubt ill-conducted, with a genuine moral and political movement; that the people who most lamented evil in the clubs, whether those clubs were among rich or poor, were the groups of earnest men and women throughout England who are responsible for the political education of the working classes. For an explanation of the Labour triumph he would refer me to the police; whereas he should have referred me to God. For He it is Who by means of His faithful workers among the poorer classes has long been educating their civic and political conscience towards better things.
For what is the spiritual explanation of these things, if it be not that the motions of God the Holy Spirit among the people render unbearable conditions before endured? How was it, for instance, that such an outcry was raised in 1905, as issued in the Unemployed Workmen's Bill, though the number of the workless has been, at certain times, for many years, greater than in 1905? The answer is that conditions tolerated before have now become intolerable owing to the quickened moral consciousness of the nation.
About a year ago the Prime Minister of Russia, Count de Witte, wrote as follows in a letter to the Tsar: "The agitation in Russia is not the outcome of partial imperfections in the social and Governmental regime, nor is it the outcome of the irregular proceedings of the extreme elements. Its roots are deeper, and they spring from the violation of the equilibrium between the moral aspirations of the people and the external forms of Russian Society."
Across this the Emperor is said to have written:--
"To be taken as a guide."
Russia is not England. But this transcript may be "taken as a guide" in a deep and universal sense. For it may refer to all those spiritual elements which, in the life of any nation, contribute to the purging and the strengthening of the moral aspirations of the people. It is these aspirations which irresistibly demand political expression. Hence the rise of the Labour Party.
This is what we want both the Church and the public to see and believe; that the Labour group represents the best aspirations of the mass of earnest working-men and women, between which and the present external forms of British society there is no longer any balance that is true. Men know as they never knew before that the external forms of human society are unjust and oppressive to the poor and feeble. These external forms of society in industry and social life too often crush out the best life of the people, and instead of lifting them to hope, drive them to despair. This oppressive social order, intensifying the bitter struggle, the struggle for existence, must, Labour says, be reformed:
"For, indeed, it takes
From our achievement, though performed at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute."
The Labour movement means that the external arrangements of politics, industry, and social life must be changed, reformed, until they correspond with the moral aspirations of the people for a better, purer, and happier life. The Labour Party, in fact, stands for a moral system in industrial and social life, which shall supersede the cruel chaos which now ruins so many fair and lovely human lives. The Labour Party challenges the existing order of society.
It is a religious cry it raises--that there is nothing Eternal about any outward system of society. That there is only one Eternal, the "I Am," that Spirit of God Who is perpetually making all things new, so that:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,"
Again the Labour Party represents the "class-consciousness "of the workers. It means that the labouring classes have awakened to the fact that none can save them except themselves. They cannot be saved by any patronage, however benign it be. Some people speak of class-consciousness as something evil, whereas it is something good and absolutely necessary. For if we do not care for that which is immediately about us, how shall we care for that which is remote? If we do not love man whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen? If working men do not care about the sorrows of the poor, how will they ever learn to condole with the miserable rich? "Class-consciousness" simply means that we must begin with that which is around us; we must give up fighting for our own hand or even for our own family, and enter into the sorrows of our class, those with whom we live from day to day. When people talk as if class consciousness were wicked, they forget the fact that not until the working classes generate a common hope, and a common policy, is there any chance of their uplifting. The Labour group in Parliament indicates the rise of this brotherhood among the working class.
But this "class-consciousness" is no sudden or isolated thing. It has reached to-day a new point of manifestation and of development, that is all. But it has been long in coming, and its origin is not recent. It is radically connected with the whole Labour movement of the last century. To understand it, we must enter into the travail and tragedy of the industrial era. Blended with the rise and progress of the factory system was a growing consciousness of wrong; bad, bitter, unutterable wrong. For the growth of the system involved the rise of the modern great cities, with their slums and all their horrors--the neglect of and cruelty towards child-life, the sweating system, the practical slavery of the "workers," the debasement of men and women beneath the level of the brute creation. For the brute creation of God was, and often still is, cared for better in England than man "made in His likeness and image."
The history of Trade Unionism is the history of the struggle of this class-consciousness against that terrible industrial tyranny which ignored the claims of men, women, and children for a happy human life. No one can read this most tragic page of history without horror that man should be capable of thus treating his fellows under any "system" whatsoever. But there it is! the indubitable record of the truth--that human life and happiness have been wrecked and ruined for a century under the stress of this bitter competition for riches by all classes of society. Trade Unionism slowly and painfully fought its way to recognition. Step by step its progress was contested by the capitalist class. But it stood at the close of the nineteenth century as a tremendous bulwark against the oppression of the labourer by capital.
The two great principles for which Trade Unionists fought, and for which they suffered, were (i) Fellowship, (2) Justice. Their first work was to create a sense of brotherhood among the workers, and their second work was to win step by step economical justice for themselves and their brethren. All minor criticisms of Trade Unions wither up before the flame of these two divine afflations of the movement--Fellowship and Justice. Those who know anything of industrial life know how, even to-day, it develops a merciless and cruel temper, which is kept in check only by the motions of the Holy Spirit operating with the associations of the working men for succour to the weaker members, protection for all, and the amelioration of their class.
But great as the triumphs of Trade Unions have been, there comes a time when it is manifest that they avail only for certain things. They establish a brotherhood of the elect; but they fail to regenerate industrial society as a whole. They cannot in themselves "save"' the working classes. In every modern State they leave untouched whole spheres of human life, in which they can give no direct imperative. Their authority breaks down just at the point at which it all but compels success. They carry on a warfare with the exactions of capitalist production on comparatively even terms, but it is a warfare still. They fail to uplift thousands of their own members into real industrial salvation. They fail to secure even the allegiance of thousands of the unorganised--those "lesser breeds without the law"--who are the despair of the prophets of Trade Unions. They do not and cannot solve the vast social problems which lie beyond their own immediate trade interests--the schooling and education of the people, the housing of the poor, provision for the old age of the poor, the regeneration of rural England, the decentralisation of great cities, the restoration of the land to the people and of the people to the land, the calling back of the unemployed into communion with society, together with other vital matters. All these things they are powerless to control. It is seen, in fact, that Trade Unionism fails just as the Apostolic Communism failed; because the general ordering of Society is left untouched, and unreformed, and that while this is so it is impossible to realise the Kingdom of God in an isolated circle. In a word, God does not will that any group of His children shall be sufficient unto themselves. They cannot be redeemed apart from the fellowship which He has created and made in the human life around them, to which they too belong, and of which they are but a part.
The appeal of the Labour prophets must therefore be to that common life, and their efforts must be directed to secure the goodwill of the nation, and to effect the redemption of labour as part of the nation's general good. This is the difference between the new labour movement and the old. The older movement aimed at redemption by Trade Union combinations, the newer movement at securing the national action as a whole.
Thus the newer movement essays to control the law, to bring the law to bear upon the whole social problem, i.e., to bring the national will in its legislative and coercive function to bear upon the well-being of the people. Machinery, for instance, as at present applied to industry, is doing untold harm in society. In certain trades new machinery is constantly sending men into unemployment, while women and children, boys and girls, take their place. "When this tendency," says Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, "is pointed out to well-meaning people, they admit its potency, but shrug their shoulders in helpless despair. What can be done? The men must go. But the Socialist objects to this. He is determined to make the machine a social instrument, to make it serve society, and not control society." To do this, communal legislation will become more and more needful, in order that mechanical and other improvements may serve the common, that is to say, human interests. To secure this, the Labour movement requires the co-operation of the national law.
The whole business of the Labour movement may be summed up in one phrase--"The well-being of the people," or, as Ruskin would-have put it, their "wealth." This ideal would, if lamentable causes had not intervened to prevent it, naturally have secured the alliance of the Church. That alliance it has claimed a thousand times, and has a thousand times appealed for it. Quite inevitably, for by the whole Christian Ethic the Church is committed to that ideal. There is no antagonism of ideal, no antagonism of motive, no antagonism in morality. The antagonism lies in that unfortunate combination of the Church (i.e., those who rule, control, and direct, i.e., the official Church) with the "interests "of the capitalist classes. This, and this alone, is enough to account for the unfortunate "non-possumus" with which the Church (as I have defined it above) for a century has answered the pathetic appeals of labour for its alliance with labour's aspirations and ideals. The official Church has failed to see in the outstretched hands of labour the veiled appeal of Christ Himself. The cynical indifference of churchmen, or their open opposition, or their captious criticism of every method labour has employed (e.g., Trade Unions) for over a century, is the most terrible proof of and witness against that class monopoly of the Church to which public attention should now be directed.
But it is obvious that this antagonism is not natural. Opposition to the labour ideals does not belong to any intrinsic inward element in the Church, in her doctrine, sacraments, or worship, but merely to the class "interests "of many of her adherents. Intrinsically the Church has the same ideals, viz., the moral and physical well-being of the people. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the witness of the sacraments of Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion, even her mode of worship, point directly to an alliance between the Church and a movement involving ideas so eminently Christian as those of the Labour Party. It is therefore inevitable that the two must coalesce, or rather that the one shall absorb the other, and that the Church, awakened out of its temporary alliance with the "upper classes," and recognising, however tardily, in the Labour movement, the call of the enlightened and quickened moral consciousness of the people for reform in the external arrangements of social life, will by the very law of her being, absorb this last manifestation of the Holy Spirit's work in society, so that once again there shall be one flock and one Shepherd:--
"One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves."