The Dignity of Labour, at Home and Abroad

One of the chief complaints of the capitalist-class and its parasites is that the native at home and abroad does not fully appreciate the ”dignity of labour.” It is in vain that so mild and popular a reformer as John Ruskin has pointed out that to labour with the hands all day is degrading, for the capitalist maintains that labour is dignified—if it is performed by someone else.

Labour, manual labour, is good, wholesome, and above all, necessary; but whatever of dignity it may have possessed in the days of handicraft has been lost amidst the whirr of machinery. To labour hour after hour, day after day, year after year, at some mechanical work is wholly degrading, nor can any amount of education awaken the power of thought in minds dulled by the excess of purely mechanical labour.

That useful machine called the worker, whose engine, the mind, is stoked with the rubbish and lies of newspapers and politicians, can work only along the lines laid down for him by the master-class. That, at least, is the intention of the capitalist, and not until the worker realises that his interests are entirely antagonistic to those of his owner will he make any real progress. He will then cease to cry for “work” as the remedy for the evils of unemployment; he will not demand the expulsion of alien labour from England, nor will he work himself into a passion because Chinese labour is introduced into South Africa. He will rather find in all such troubles the natural results of the modern system of production for profit instead of for use.

The South African Labour question is a typical case. The possible employment of white men is not to be considered: the white worker is too apt to demand a fair wage and a vote; he does not realise the dignity of cheap labour; he forms trade unions and other unpleasant societies. The white labour market is already over-stocked and unemployment is rife in South African towns. The question is whether the Kaffir, Indian, or Chinaman is to appreciate the “dignity of labour” in the mines, and the “Bloemfontein Weekly Post” explains why alien labour is necessary. The attitude of the native is the cause of the trouble. To begin with, he is better off than his fellow in England. In our country the English native has no possessions, is divorced from, and not permitted to cultivate, the soil, and is forced, therefore, to sell himself in the labour market for the mere cost of subsistence. In “our” colony, however, the native is allowed to squat on the land, paying little or nothing to the farmer. He can cultivate the soil without becoming the farmer’s servant, and sometimes the farmer even enters into an alliance with the native and they work the land on the “half” system, which is unsparingly condemned by those in want of cheap labour, and who urge that the native should be nothing but a servant.

This custom among many of the farmers has made cheap labour scarce, and the “Bloemfontein Weekly Post” suggests the remedy for this “bad state of things.” It is found that the “dignity of labour” is lost on the native, for “he does not want work, and prefers revelling in the pleasures of sun and shade, and waxing fat on mealies and Kaffir beer.” When we remember how in England the master-class urges the workers to lead this simple, thrifty life, we may well be amused to find the same class falling foul of the native for that very reason, and it shows how little reliance is to be placed in the Christian ethics of capitalism.

So the native’s “life of ease” is a source of annoyance to his would-be employers, and the “Bloemfontein Weekly Post” suggests that the farmers in Orange River Colony—no longer a free state —should be forced to employ the natives as servants or else turn them off their farms, for “the native must work.” “There need be no forcing” says this paper, only he must he taxed so heavily that he is compelled to sell himself and live laborious days in order to exist. In fact, he must occupy the same position in his country as we English workers do in our country. Otherwise, it is suggested, “Indians should be imported on the same system of indenture as is adopted in Natal.” That is to say, if the native cares naught for the “dignity of labour,” he must be compelled to enslave himself or else alien labour must be imported.

It is absurd and useless for the English wage-slave to complain that his masters told him that the Boer War would open up a new market for his labour; it is, and always has been, evident that the capitalist is indifferent whether yellow, white, or black labour is used—cheapest is best. Socialists continually warn the wage-slave that when he fights he is not fighting for the benefit of himself, but of his master. If, instead of crying over spilt milk, he begins to study his own affairs from the point of view of his own class-interests, he will realise that every catch phrase, “dignity of labour,” “glory of England,” etc., is a species of bait to lure him on to his own destruction.

A real “dignity of labour” may be found if belabours for the “glory of England,” and of all other countries, in the ranks of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of that Socialist Republic which is the aim and ideal of the International working-class


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