Society and Morals. Part VII. The Morals of Capitalism (Continued)

The Age of Cant
Summing up the “morality of capitalism,” what is the distinctive feature by which it is distinguished from that of other class-divided societies ? It is undeniably that hypocritical taint which pervades it through and through, and which is seen in the glaring contrast which is presented between the moral theory professed and the actual moral reality practised. This moral hypocrisy is the imevitable outcome of the social relations immanent in capitalism. It results from the antagonisms which exist in the system ; partly from that engendered in the competitive struggle between individuals and groups of individuals, but primarily from that antagonism which exists between the interests of the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and of the proletariat on the other.

Every activity of the bourgeoisie in its own interest must be undertaken professedly in the interests of the workers, or, more correctly, of “society as a whole.” For the “unity of society” and of its interests is a cardinal dogma, in which the very existence of classes is often denied. “Democracy, Liberty, and Humanity” have been the watchwords of bourgeois society, but words only, for in their name more horrible and sickening atrocities have been perpetrated than in any previous period in history. Thus, human life is held in this “most humanitarian age” to be sacred, yet witness the widespread equanimity with, which the slow starvation of thousands and the mental and physical deformation of millions are endured, and even the fervid glee with which the international capitalist class and their dupes beheld the bloody murder of 20,000 workers after the Commune of Paris, and which to-day greets the slaughter of millions on the battle-fields of Europe.

The worship of “democratic” and “humanitarian” phrases has led to the ludicrous situation that everyone professes to admire the rule “Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” and for the most part to be guided by it, and yet the social system which these same people uphold makes the practice of this rule absolutely impossible. Did, indeed, anyone actually attempt to abide by this principle he would certainly come into such violent conflict with existing conceptions and institutions as to be branded an Utopian and a madman, and most likely he would be punished with imprisonment.

There is hypocrisy and deceit everywhere, from the lying and trickery of trades and the cant about the “honour of our public men” to the veneer of religious orthodoxy and the “love” that in conventional belief cements the economic contract we call “marriage.” Verily, our time has rightly been called “the Age of Cant.”



Owing to the fact that capitalist society rests upon the exploitation of the wage-earners by the owners of capital, it is rendered possible to generate a system of morality radically different from the bourgeois ethics we have been considering, namely, a system which conforms to the interest of the exploited class—the proletariat.

At the same time we have seen also, that an essential part of the superstructure of capitalism consists of institutions which effectively prevent the majority of the workers from recognising their real social status, make them contented with the system they are born into, and secure their acceptance of the bourgeois moral code. The formulation of a proletarian moral code and its acceptance by the working class is, therefore, a slow and difficult process, obstructed at every point by practically all the institutions of the social environment.

Only by gradual and uneven stages can the proletariat in the mass really assimilate a class ethic of their own. Thus to-day, for example, but a small minority have already reached this position, although many are fairly class-conscious and considerably ahead of the main body of the workers, who as yet only possess a faint glimmering of their class interests, whilst on the other side a backward section, growing, however, continually smaller, have not even achieved this state, but embrace in its entirety the capitalistic outlook.

The mental evolution of the proletariat is a subject so vast that here our survey must be practically confined to working-class development in England.

The Early Working-Class Movement
The earliest independent organisations formed by the modern working class aimed at regulating the conditions of working, such as raising or maintaining the standard of wages or shortening the working day. In several of the more advanced industries such “trade clubs” had already been formed quite early in the eighteenth century. They were, at first, small and local. Working men of a common craft, living in a common locality, gathered together for the protection of their common interests. Though they were concerned with minor and immediate grievances, seeking only to palliate the, to them, evil effects of evolving capitalism, yet their very existence is evidence of the fact that, even in the pre-machine period of capitalism many workers were beginning to realise that their interests and those of their employers were by no means identical. While they acquiesced in the general nature of the system of production prevailing and considered it, on the whole, to be right and just, yet many things which their capitalist employers regarded as perfectly justifiable and reasonable they held to be wrong and unfair.

Their classification of “good” and “bad” employers still lingers in the minds of their latter-day trade-union descendants. In many respects their economic principles and morality were conservative and even reactionary, for they strove energetically to retain their old-established skill or craftsmanship against the tendency which the employers favoured of sub-dividing the labour process—a means of increasing profits and the domination of the capitalist over the labourer, but also a means of increasing the fertility of human energy, and therefore directly in the line of human progress.

Then came the “industrial revolution” with its ensuing horrors—the dawn of the “machine age” was at hand. In the many revolts against the terrible oppression of the factory system reactionary ideas were still, at first, the prevailing feature. Blindly, the outraged workers struck at the lifeless mechanisms which were the immediate cause of their degradation.

Violent machine-breaking riots occurred, the workeis regarding the machines themselves, and not so much their capitalist owners, as the enemy to be combated. Strikes now became frequent, and trade combinations among the workers multiplied to such an extent as to seriously alarm the ruling classes and awaken them to retaliation through the State machine.

Combinations of workmen had never been legal bodies, but they had been more or less tolerated prior to the coming of the machine. But now their rapid progress in numbers and militancy brought forth the severe Anti-Combination Acts of 1799-1800. Savage persecution of workmen followed and unions were relentlessly suppressed. But, nevertheless, these organisations, made inevitable by capitalist exploitation, continued to exist in secret, and in the underground warfare against the em­ploying class, some recognition of the class antagonism inherent in capitalist society must have been forced upon many of the workers.

At length, however, after over twenty years of terrible persecution, the dominant classes seemed to have realised the futility and even worse of forcible suppression, and the unions were granted some measure of legal sanction. Immediately trade unions sprang up everywhere in greater abundance than ever before, for, in the intervening period, capitalist production had advanced exceedingly and machinery had now invaded almost every branch of industry. Consequently more oppression occurred, but to no real purpose.

Now, however, the far-sighted among the bourgeoisie were coming to see that these organisations were unavoidable, and although an evil were a necessary one. If they could not be killed they could, perhaps, be conciliated. How this view was justified we shall see later.

Many various experiments in industrial organisation were made by the workers in the succeeding decade or two, principally through the efforts of enthusiastic Utopians like Robert Owen. The social ideals of such men were high indeed, but the vast majority of the workers remained uninfluenced by them. They were in the unions because they thereby hoped, just as their predecessors had done, to ameliorate their immediate grievances, to obtain higher wages, shorter hours, and better conditions of employ­ment.

Eventually, after many experimental failures, trade unionism settled down into that general form which prevailed throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. One advance was made, however. The unions for the most part ceased to be mere local associations and tended more and more to become national in their scope—a development made possible and necessary by the great progress in communication achieved through the introduction of railways. It is, perhaps, needless to add that as capitalist production gradually took root all over the world there spread along with it its necessary accompaniment, trade unionism.

Meanwhile the final struggle of the industrial capitalists for political power had had the effect of turning the workers’ attention also to the field of politics as a means whereby they might obtain relief from their intense impoverishment and distress.

Though the “industrial revolution” had considerably enhanced the wealth, numbers, and influence of the manufacturing bourgeoisie, this class remained, for a long period afterwards, excluded from direct political representation. Whilst insignificant country districts often had separate representatives, large and now vastly important and thickly populated industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester were without independent representation under the existing constitution. Parliament, accordingly, continued to be dominated by the aristocratic landlords, vestigial remains of the now dead feudal system.

The manufacturers and their “intellectual” allies demanded political reform and strove, by incessant agitation, to draw the working class to the support of the reform movement. Among the discontented workers such propaganda fell upon fertile soil. Huge demonstrations were held all over the country and eventually, after many years of obstinate resistance and brutal repression, the government, fearful of civil war, reluctantly conceded the Reform Bill of 1832.

This Act, while it partly remedied the anomalies in the representation of the industrial centres and extended the vote to the wealthier strata of the capitalists, left the proletariat still without the franchise. Great disappointment and resentment was aroused in the workers by this betrayal, and within three years an association of working men drew up their own political programme—the “People’s Charter.” This was soon adopted by the majority of the politically active workers who became known as Chartists.

The enactment of the Charter was to establish political democracy by a thorough revision of the electoral system, and the Charter was thus the logical outcome of the political ideals of the bourgeoisie. But there can be no doubt that, to the masses of working men who gave their support to Chartism, political reform was but a means to an end—the alleviation of their miserable poverty, slavery, and degradation. This is shown by the vigorous activity of the Chartists on behalf of the Ten Hours Bill and other factory legislation, and by their loyal support of the industrial movement of the workers which was apparent in every strike. In such activities they were met by the bitter op­osition of those self-styled “friends of the people,” the free-trade factory capitalists.

During their existence of about twelve years the Chartists accomplished a great amount of agitation and educational work, several widely-read newspapers being published in support of the movement. Adherents to the party multiplied rapidly, especially in the great northern centres of industry. The growth of the agitation made it hated and feared by the ruling classes both aristocratic and bourgeois, and many of its members were victimised by the employers and imprisoned by the authorities.

The Chartists, however, proved too weak to carry their point. Dissentions had grown in their ranks, and among the mass of their supporters, who were but loosely organised, many were side-tracked by the bourgeois agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Parliament scornfully rejected the petition for the Charter, and in the suppression of the minor insurrections and disturbances which followed, the Chartists found themselves “confronted with a highly developed military administration, with barracks ranged through the industrial districts, and with a newly organised and well drilled police force.” (Green’s “Short History,” p. 859.) Open revolt seemed futile.

Furthermore, the factory acts had removed many of the more pressing grievances of the workers, and a revival of trade relieved the unemployment situation. The bulk of the workers became politically apathetic ; the vigour of Chartism declined and, after a time, the movement collapsed and disappeared.

On the continent of Europe events, similar to those in England were taking place. There the bourgeoisie, striving to win political supremacy, also allied themselves with the proletariat, and in 1848 broke out in revolt. When, however, the workers at the first success put forward demands on their own account, the bourgeoisie immediately became anxious about “law and order.” In Germany they joined hands with their political enemies, the nobility, in suppressing the rising of the workers, and in France, after constituting themselves the ruling power, the industrial bourgeoisie crushed the proletarian rebels with great violence and bloodshed.

The Reconciliation : Its Causes and Consequences
These early manifestations of a widespread spirit of revolt on the part of the proletariat took place, it must be remembered, before the days of “State education.” The marvellously complex organisations by which the workers were in later times to be impregnated with a bourgeois ideology had not yet been fully evolved. Masses of the workers were still unable to read or write, especially in the earlier period. What little reading and learning was possessed among them, here and there, was gleaned mainly through the agency of trade clubs or similar organisations, in connection with which small libraries were sometimes maintained and study classes held.

That capitalist tradition, including the dogmas regarding abstinence and directive ability, so respected by and ingrained in the bulk of the workers in after years, and which so largely holds them in its grip to-day, was, at that time, only in its formative period. The vast array of intellectual retainers of every type to-day in the pay of the bourgeoisie, was then much less numerous and not nearly so well organised, for the wealth and influence of the industrial capitalists was, at that time, comparatively small. Neither had they that undisputed control of the political machine which they were later to hold. Moreover, they themselves, in their revolutionary struggle with the nobility, had, in their criticisms of hereditary privilege, done much to discredit and undermine respect for established institutions and authority. When they had risen to complete supremacy the bourgeoisie were sorely in need of a working-class narcotic to occupy the place left by that which they had helped to undermine.

At length it was realised by the bolder and wiser elements of the bourgeoisie that an officially controlled educational system would not only give to the workers that technical instruction made more and more necessary by scientific commerce and production, but would also make possible the systematic and more efficient inculcation into the absorbant minds of the proletarian children the servile code of ethics which it had once been the exclusive business of the Church to foster. We have seen in our previous section the outcome of this idea. Still it seems hardly likely that the bourgeoisie could have seen what a valuable instrument in the service of class rule they were forging when the first timid “educational” schemes were put forward.

At all events, the fact cannot be gainsaid that with the gradual elaboration and extension of compulsory capitalistic education and, side by side with this the marvellous growth in cheapness, size, and circulation of the bourgeois Press (the greatest agent of mental perversion the world has ever seen), the earliest rumblings of revolt among the workers died down considerably. Engels has admirably shown that a religious revival fostered by the bourgeoisie also played its part in this process. Capitalism now seemed to have reached a comparatively stable and smooth-running condition as far as the workers were concerned, fulfilling all the desires of its profit-worshipping devotees.

Particularly was this conservatism of the workers manifested in England, where there operated more directly economic causes to this end. After the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1840 the capitalists of England entered upon their period of economic world supremacy. Out of the enormous and steadily increasing stream of profits the employers could well afford to conciliate the workers with sops in the shape of somewhat higher wages and with social reforms which eliminated many of the minor grievances of the workers. It paid to do this rather than risk a disturbance and a break in the continuity of their wonderful prosperity by unnecessary industrial strife twixt employer and employed.

After the workers had become docile the bourgeoisie could with safety satisfy that popular desire for the franchise which revived again and again, and this they did in succeeding stages. As Engels gays, “parliamentary government is a capital school for teaching respect for tradition,” and besides, the vote completed the argument of the bourgeoisie that the workers were “free.” Did they not elect their chosen representatives to rule them ? Was not “democracy” now a reality ? Thus, apparently, were the capitalists made more secure than ever.

In this long period of working-class quiescence, which started about 1850 and began to end towards the close of the century, trade unionism persisted but took on a form so distinctly bourgeois as to become in itself and its results a powerful “bulwark of capitalism.” Politically the workers for the most part supported the bourgeois Liberal and Tory parties.

Whatever revolutionary sentiment had existed in the earlier movement now almost entirely disappeared. The view that the respective interests of the capitalists and the workers were necessarily antagonistic, which had been taught by many of the advanced Chartists, was now discredited. The workers generally held that the capitalists as a class were useful, necessary, even benevolent, earning the well-deserved profits of abstinence and ability, whatever grievances the workers had were thought to be due either to the greed of exceptionally bad and unjust employers or to unfor­tunate misunderstandings on the part of the capitalists or their workpeople ; this was the justification for trade unions.

The unions had for their motto “Defence, not Defiance,” and “A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work.” Strikes were discouraged ; the new policy in dealing with disputes was one of arbitration based on compromise and mutual good-will. These tactics, of course, transferred the field of action from the mass of the organised workers to their officials and representatives, who met the employers or their agents in conference.

The growth in size of the unions, together with their anti-strike policy, enabled the accumulation of very considerable reserve funds, which were spent mainly in friendly benefits. These factors also tended to enhance the prestige and power of the prominent officials, who now became a full-time salaried staff, virtually, though not avowedly, dominating the policy and activities of their organisations.

(To be Continued.)


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