TOPICS OF THE DAY • THE FIRST OF MAY.
T is easy to exaggerate the importance of the European demonstration to come off on May 1st., and probably the foreign correspondents do exaggerate it; but the fact that such a demonstration should be interesting all the Govern- ments and most of the capitalists of Europe, is a most striking sign of the times. It is a proof that the solidarig of European workmen is increasing, that their aims are becoming more definite, and that the "Labour Question," which means substantially the claim of the majority of handicraftsmen to be a little more comfortable, is taking precedence of all other social disputes. Even the great secular contest between Free-trade and Protection, though it concerns every class more directly than the remuneration for organised labour, Protection affecting the whole body of the peasantry as well as the artisans, does not irritate capital, and excite society, and frighten great military Governments, as the new agitation does. Troops are not held in readiness either to defeat or to carry Tariff Bills, though they may half-ruin the prosperity of whole populations ; but because the artisans suspend labour on one day in order to cry aloud for shorter hours, Field-Marshals in every country of the Continent west of the Vistula are stirring, Staff officers are working, and orderlies are riding as if a dangerous invasion were at hand. Special orders are issued to the commandants of all the garrisoned towns in France ; the troops in the cities of Germany will be held in even more than usual readiness ; "special military arrangements have been made" in Italy ; and in the Austrian composite Empire "the whole Army is practically dislocated," in order to overawe manufacturing towns ; and the half-dozen capitals are filled with troops as if to withstand a siege. There are actually three fresh garrisons planted in Vienna—that is, special forces drawn in from country districts, and stationed in different suburbs, to put down rioting at once. The disturbance in men's minds is the more remarkable because the professed wish of the workers, and probably the real desire of most of them, is to promote an object which Governments, as such, do not seriously dread. The workmen are not crying for Republics, or for democratic freedom, or for the redistri- bution of profits, or for higher wages, but only for shorter hours ; and statesmen and soldiers would as lief they had shorter hours as not. What worries them is the feeling that they are being threatened, that some much larger demand may be behind, and that, with "the People" once in the streets, anything, however disastrous or dangerous, may by possibility happen.
. We suppose the Governments of the Continent know their own affairs best, and at all events it is not our business to reprove what seems to us their excessive timidity ; but we are convinced that much of the vague alarm and dislike which the whole movement excites among the conservative classes in England has its origin in ignorance. They confuse the handicraftsmen of the Continent with the population of the Continent. Because in this country the receivers of weekly wages are the bulk of the population, they fancy that it must be so also beyond the Channel. Nothing of the kind is the case. The proportions differ, of course, in every country, and, indeed, in every district ; but, speaking broadly, all over the Continent two-thirds of the arms-bearing population live on and by the land, are not paid in weekly wages, and settle their hours of labour under constraints not connected with any contract at all, or any individual will. They are not in sympathy with the minority on the Labour Question, do not share their social ideas, and always authorise the Governments to employ any force required for the maintenance of order. There is no more danger of the social system being upset by any pronunciamiento on the part of artisans, than there is of the industrial system of Great Britain being upset by the unemployed. They have not the physical power to do it, even if they have the will, in which, with a reserve as to a fanatical section, we utterly disbelieve. They may have the power to make riots, or even to seize particular cities for an hour ; but outside Austria we question even that. It is admittedly not true in England, where the body of workers, as all clear-sighted Socialists allow, distrust every form of fanaticism. France, and Paris in particular, is in the • hands of one of the most determined and least scrupulous men who has recently appeared among French statesmen.; and the whole future, as well as the immediate reputation • of M. Constans, depends upon his success in maintaining order. He has prohibited demonstrations, he has ample force at his disposal, and, if we may judge from the ex- perience of thirty years, he will not, under those circum- stances, even be faced by the most fanatical of the workmen. In Lyons there is always danger, for Lyons is full of Southerners, who suffer, of think they do, and who are liable to accesses of a sort of frenzy ; but because there is danger, Lyons is held down even more strongly than Paris, and there has been ample warning. In Milan, Rome, and Naples, the demonstrations will probably be good-humoured, and certainly not dangerous. In Germany, the cities are held by irresistible force, and the majority of workmen deprecate angry movement, which, moreover, as the demon- strations are prohibited, they are unable to begin. It is only in Austria that the danger is real, because in Austri& hatred is directed against a class, the little Jew tradesmen, whom the governing classes, most unwisely and unfairly, do not care to defend ; but in Austria most unusual preparations have been made, and, we suspect, very stringent orders issued that, for this day at all events, the Jews must be secured from outrage. The Govern- ment neither can nor will quarrel with those who keep its Treasury in condition. We do not believe in a great disturbance of order anywhere ; and failing such disturbance, we think our conservative classes may regard the workers, at all events, with impartiality. They have, as we have repeatedly pointed out, genuine grievances. Even if eight hours is too short a day— which it is not if the work is hard, and not a mere minding of a tireless machine—the bulk of the workmen of the Con- tinent are overworked, and the popular cry embodies, though it exaggerates, a just demand. The cry for more wages may- be too loud, or inopportune, or swollen out of reason ; but the bulk of the labourers, if we deduct the specially skilled, are paid too little, in a period of " protected " agriculture and excessive rents, to live in any manner consistent with civilisation. If they can be paid 20 per cent. more, they ought to be paid it; and the "Festival of Labour" is a much more reasonable, because cheaper and more audible,. way of crying out than a series of strikes. People seem to us to forget entirely that, of all placating and conserva- tive influences, there is none so powerful, if we exclude a religious advance, as a rise in the average of general com- fort. Handicraftsmen are often gullible and always impres- sionable, but they no more want to cut their own throats than any other class in the community, and once decently comfortable, will desire that decent comfort to continue. If any one doubts that, just let him look round and ask himself whether the pick of the artisans, the men who are well paid and enjoy some modicum of leisure, are in any country dangerous, or inclined to kill, plunder, or outrage any class whatsover. They are often grumblers, as are their superiors, and on the Continent are still more often ideologues ; but they no more want a social cataclysm. than the financiers do, or the peasants, who, before they obtained property and security, were in all countries the dangerous class, as they were recently in Ireland, and who now all over the Continent form the rock upon which Governments rest. The success of the men in relieving their own condition is a preservative, not a destructive success. If they could all have a pound a week for fifty-four hours' work, Socialists might preach for a century, and then not achieve even as much success as the preachers of international arbitration have attained_ The social antiseptic is confidence, by which we mean freedom from fear; and of all fears, the fear of hunger is the one which most rapidly disintegrates society. We entirely admit, of course, as entirely as the most con- vinced capitalist in Europe, the immense difficulties of the problem,—difficulties from the state of trade; difficulties from the clashing interests of peasants who clamour for Protection, and artisans to whom Protection means dear bread ; difficulties from that endless puzzle, the disparity between modern wages and the modern cost of house-rent; and difficulties, the most serious of all, from the incom- parable silliness and want of civilisation in a section of the workmen themselves, who will neither save, nor work hard, nor endure with any patience ;—but we do not believe the problem for 90 per cent. of the workers to be insoluble on any terms, or insoluble through existing conditions. As long as order is maintained—and there are five millions of men under military law in Europe, enough to enslave its population, let alone keeping it orderly—arbi- trations, strikes, outcries like that to be audible on May 1st, are all toddling, childlike, half-directed steps towards the goal, which is a general condition of endurable comfort amidst hard daily labour. That once attained, the per- manent conservative instinct of mankind will assert itself among artisans as it has done among the peasantry of Europe, and they and the capitalists can settle by agree- ment and without fighting, as tradesmen and customers do now, what the permanent modus vivendi is to be,—probably, as in all other dealings, payment by quantity and quality taken together. It will not be a pleasant world even then, or a universally happy world, nor will it be under any economic conditions whatever, good wages arresting no evil except hunger ; but, at all events, it will not be a world in which accumulation stops, or in which conser- vative Englishmen need grumble because a day in a year is taken from work to let off steam in a grand growl.