Social contrasts

Anatole Frrance in one of his novels says that “the life of a people is but a succession ui miseries, crimes and follies.” This is largely correct. Certainly, from the manifold volumes of historical works in existence, treating of various periods and various peoples, we may gather some knowledge of the crimes and follies perpetrated by the ruling classes of these times, and the enslavement, and consequent misery, of the other, and greater, portion of the populace. It would, indeed, appear from an examination into different historical epochs, that the greater the wealth and culture of the ruling class, the more degraded and hopeless is the condition of those they rule.

If, for example, we turn back to the so-called “golden” age of Greek civilisation, we find that at the time of the greatest prosperity of the Attic state, the whole number of free Athenian, citizens, women and children included, amounted to about 90,000 ; the slaves of both sexes numbered 365,000 ; the balance of the people being made up of aliens—foreigners and freed slaves—these numbering about 45,000. History tells us little or nothing of the lives of these 365,000 human beings on whose toil practically the whole structure of the much-vaunted Greek culture rested. We have had handed down to us the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle, the lyrical dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides; the sculpture of Pheidias can yet be seen in the British Museum ; in the glowing pages of Pluttarch (to say nothing of William Smith) are to be found the records of all the heroic deeds performed by Pericles and Alcibiadea ; but the life of a slave does not make such pretty reading as that of a philosopher or artist, and so the historians have been very careful not to disturb the sleek complacency of their readers by a recital of the doings of the mere wealth-producers. The blood and sweat of the slaves would soil the classical purity of Greek culture, so the blood and sweat must be buried beneath the traditional glory of the slaves’ taskmasters.

Coming down to later times a very similar contrast may be observed between the status of the rich and the poor, between the dominant class and the class dominated. In another “golden” age—that of the “virgin”‘ queen Elizabeth—wealth, we are told, increased to an enormous extent. Green, in his “Short history of the English People,” says,

“The lavishness of a new wealth united with a lavislmess of life, a love of beauty, of colour, of display, to revolutionize English dress. The Queen’s three thousand robes were rivalled in their bravery by the slashed velvets, the ruffs, the jewelled purpoints of the courtiers around her. Men ‘wore a manor on their backs.’ The old sober notions of thrift melted before the strange revolutions of fortune wrought by the New World. Gallants gambled away a fortune at a sitting, and sailed off to make a fresh one in the Indies. Visions of galleons loaded to the brim with pearls and diamonds and ingots of silver, dreams of El Dorados where all was of gold, threw a haze of prodigality atid confusion over the imagination of the meanest seaman.” English literature, following in the wake of the Italian Renascence, took on. a new lease of life through such men as Spenser, Shakspeare, [Bacon and the numerous other poets and writers who graced the Elizabethan age. A scientific knowledge of natural laws was spreading.”
“It was only in the later years of the sixteenth century that the discoveries of Copernicus were brought, home to the general intelligence of the world by Kepler and Galileo.”

Drake, Raleigh, Hawkins and Frobisher, between the intervals of “singeing the King of Spain’s beard,” were circumnavigating the globe, breaking into the charmed circle of the Indies, or discovering the North-West passage.

And yet there is very distinctly another side to the medal. During the reigns immediately preceding that of Elizabeth, a great and ever increasing number of the people had been forcibly expropriated from the soil and thrown out upon the highways to exist as best they might.

“They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe, a bloody legislation against vagabondage The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as voluntary criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own goodwill to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.” (Marx in “Capital.”)

Marx further tells us that

“In Elizabeth’s time ‘rogues were trussed up apace, and there was not one year commonly wherein three or four hundred were not devoured and eaten up by the gallowes.’ (Strype’s ‘Annals of the Thee-formation and Establishment of Religion, and other Various Occurrences in the Church of England during Queen Elizabeth’s Happy Reign,’ Second ed., 1725, Vol. ‘2.) According to this same Strype, in Somersetshire, in one year, 40 persons were executed, 35 robbers burnt in the hand, 37 whipped, and 183 discharged as ‘incorrigible vagabonds.’ Nevertheless, he is of the opinion that this large number of prisoners does not comprise even a fifth of the actual criminals, thanks to the negligence of the justices and the foolish compassion of the people ; and the other counties of England were not better off in this respect than Somersetshire, while some were even worse. . . . Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.”

In modern capitalist society these same sardonic contrasts prevail. In the Daily Chronicle of June 6th, 1903, it was pointed out that “the whole volume of British Trade has increased from 764 millions sterling in 1898 to 877 millions in 1902,” and in the same issue appeared a report of a speech delivered by the late Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, in which he declared that about 30% of the population were underfed, were on the verge of hunger. (Vide SOCIALIST STANDARD, August this year.)

During the first nine months of 1910, official trade returns show that :
Imports rose by £37,530,000,
Exports of British goods rose by £41,239,000, and Exports of imported goods rose by £11,063,000
as compared with January to September 1909. In the same issue of the paper (Morning Leader 8th October) in which these figures are given, is a short paragraph, headed “Pea-pickers Hardships,” giving an account of a meeting held at Romford, at which “the lamentable conditions under which the pea-pickers live in Essex” was discussed, Canon Ingles remarking at this meeting that the way the pickers lived while on the farms was a disgrace to a Christian country and Canon Lord William Cecil supporting the view that employers should be compelled to provide pure water for drinking and clean straw for beds.

In spite of the great increase in trade that has taken place since the beginning of 1910, at the present time there is perhaps more dissatisfaction among the industrial workers of this country than for some years past. The boiler-makers, the miners, the cotton operatives, the chain-makers and the railwaymen. to mention only a few, are seething with discontent. And yet exports of British goods rose by £41,239,000 !

Historical research shows that, no matter at what period—ancient, medieval or modern,—no matter what may be the wealth and culture, the spread of knowledge, the goodwill even (if such there be) among the dominant class, the condition of the class dominated is, in the main, one of base and degrading servitude, of physical and mental misery. Using the words of the before-mentioned French author, we may epitomise the history of the members of the slave-class by saying that “they were born, they suffered, they died.” Suffering has been their only heritage since slavery was first instituted ; whether it he chattel slavery or wage-slavery does not make very much difference, except that perhaps the chattel-slave was, in some respects, better off than the modern wage-worker.

The Socialist Party exists for the purpose of abolishing, once and for ever, both slave-class and master-class. We of course recognise that natural inequalities between individuals do and must exist. But we know further that social inequalities and contrasts between individuals or classes are an anomaly. To help do away with these social inequalities and contrasts, to raise society to a higher plane, where equality of opportunity shall be accorded to all, irrespective of race or sex, is the reason for our existence as a party. We ask for the intelligent co-operation of our fellow wage-slaves to assist us in this work, so that the day may be hastened when such terms as slave and master, owner and owned, working class and capitalist class, will be, without meaning. When society has evolved into this stage, when the Socialist Commonwealth has at last been established, then for the first time will a period of real culture and intellectual activity be possible to all, and not to, comparatively, a mere handful of men and women, such as have monopolised all the best things of life up to the present.


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