1920s >> 1921 >> no-197-january-1921

Dignity and Impudence

“Dignity and Impudence” it the title of a well known print portraying two dogs

Dignity and Impudence 1839 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873 Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00604

peering from one kennel. One represents a St. Bernard, with heavy jaws and ponderous paws, shaggy mane, and eyes watchful and easy. Calm and powerful there he rests, while between his paws reclines a terrier, sporting in the shadow of the other’s strength.


There is something common to both, however, and it lies in the fact that they each depend upon their owner for the means to sustain life.


Now there is an analogy between this picture and the life of mankind in modern capitalist society. Let us, therefore, take a brief survey of the economic conditions of human existence.
In the first place we know that the world is inhabited by many millions of people, with a variety of tastes, habits, and so on. Further, out of this number there is an overwhelming proportion who have something in common. It is that they are compelled to work in order to live.


The capitalist system of wealth production has stretched out its tentacles over the whole world, so that almost everywhere we find these teeming, struggling millions, who not only have to work, but are compelled to work for someone else.


Unless the units of this vast army of workers can find work—someone to employ them—they are cut off from the means of life and must starve, as thousands are doing to-day.


So this vast mass of the world’s workers, like the dogs in the picture, have this common character—they are dependent upon some[one] else. They are dependent upon someone who will employ them, in order to get the common necessaries of life.


These “someones,” these employers, who are they ? Clearly they occupy an entirely different position from that of the workers. They are the ruling class, the possessing class, the idle class. They have no useful function in society, but live a life of luxury and ease upon the fruits of the labours of the working class—they are parasites on the body politic.


These are the two classes into which society is divided. Let us now examine a particular section of the working class, that section who usually refer to themselves as “brain workers,” but are often referred to as the “black coat brigade,” in order to complete our analogy with “Dignity and Impudence.”


This particular section is made up of types who are dignified and respectable, because they come into close daily contact with their employers. It is their specific function to assist the capitalist class in the direction of keeping their accounts, in order to show exactly how the exploitation of their fellow workers is progressing. The docile humility and faithfulness which distinguishes this particular type of slave seems now to be developing into something like impudence.


The writer has in mind the strike recently called by the Guild of Insurance Officials, because certain of its members were dismissed from the General Accident Corporation for being members of the Guild. The management of the G.A.C. having noted the impudence of this action, record their strong resentment in a letter to one of the dismissed. I quote the “Daily Express,” 17.11.20:


  “.   .   .  Moreover, did you for one moment think that any board of directors would agree to the setting up of a joint committee of employees and themselves to consider the merits or demerits of the various members of the staff and their remuneration ?   Such a thing in a commercial business that is run by brains is absolutely impossible.”


One can easily appreciate that it would seriously disturb the atmosphere of dignity in which employers of brain workers have always endeavoured to cloak their slaves, to permit them to organise themselves like common workmen—or like common masters for that matter, for they all do it—for the protection and furtherance of their economic interests.


Economic forces are no respecters of persons. They grind slowly but surely, compelling even the most stiff-necked to forgo their dignity and examine their conditions of daily life. Therefore it only proves the correctness of the Marxian method when the super-respectable find it necessary to organise for the defence of their economic interests.


In connection with the strike a joint mass meeting was held “to protest against the dismissal by the General Accident of employees who have joined the Insurance Guild, and to vindicate the right of brain workers to combine for mutual protection.” Associated with the demonstration were the following organisations:


Shipping Clerical Staffs’ Guild
Stock Exchange Clerks’ Guild
Commercial Staffs’ Association
National Guild of Accountants’ Clerks
Scottish Bankers’ Association
Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries
Railway Clerk’s Association
Clerical Officers’ Association (Civil Service)


Representatives of these organisations addressed the meeting, and each endeavoured to outshine the others in their rhetoric.


The black coats, however, must bear in mind that they are, comparatively, newcomers in the trade union movement, and that if progress is to be made the rank and file must get acquainted with the motive force which has compelled them to organise; they must get to understand their class position and the nature of the class struggle which Socialist knowledge makes clear.


When this has been attained, the function of the trade union leader, whose record in other fields is marked by treachery, will be realised.


Leadership implies an ignorant following. An intelligent rank and file require democratically elected delegates to represent them. This is a distinction of fundamental importance to the workers, if they are to achieve their emancipation from wage slavery.


When resolutions were moved by the leaders at this meeting that Mr. Lloyd George should be asked to intervene, and if he was not respectable enough, then the Prince of Wales should be acquainted with the facts, the fitness of these men to “lead” their followers anywhere save into “outer darkness” is utterly disproved. Political parties represent class interests. Mr. Lloyd George represents the interests of the capitalist class, whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the working class. The Prince of Wales is an estimable young man who knows his job, which is to eyewash the workers in the interest of the capitalist class.


One speaker, however, determined to maintain his dignity at all costs, said “We view the strike method with abhorrence.” Of course, “on strike” does not sound a bit respectable, but the strike is the only weapon the workers have on the economic field. The black coats may get more familiar with it in the near future, when the contempt that will be bred of familiarity will, doubtless compel them to look for other methods.


Those other methods are class-conscious political action. And the Socialist Party, with its political object, awaits eagerly that time of understanding.


The action of the “General Accident” was not altogether appreciated, however, by the employing class, because, as the “Daily News” put it in an editorial (19.11.20) : “This is the way to drive the brain workers and manual workers closer together, and both of them towards extremes. Is it worth while ?”


This observation on the part of the capitalist Press is particularly significant, and there is a wealth of meaning and fear hidden in that last sentence, “Is it worth while ?”


After all the pains which the ruling class have taken to impress a certain section of the working class with the respectability of their black coats and the dignity of their calling, and to isolate them from the “lower orders,” they have to recognise that their policy of divide and rule is nearly played out.


To salary slaves the lesson should be clear. They must understand that whether they have to work in black coats or overalls they belong to the working class. When they grip this fact they will know the worth of the high-sounding phrases about respectability, gentility, dignity, and the rest of the flattering notions with which their masters keep them in subjection.


The working class are compelled to grovel on the floor of the industrial kennel, and if some of their number assume dignity they are but taking on a pose which ill fits the degrading nature of their existence. Their remuneration, whether it is called wages or salary, is determined by what it costs to keep and reproduce their kind. Like carrots and cat’s meat, their energies are bought and sold, and the wage or salary is the price. It may sound undignified, but, nevertheless, it is an economic fact which has to be firmly gripped.


Finally, organisation on trade union lines, no matter how well disciplined the rank and file may be, and necessary as it may be to-day, in order to resist the pressure of the employing class, will not emancipate the workers from the wages system. To achieve this end they must organise into a political party conscious of their class interest, and equipped with the necessary knowledge.


That political party already exists—in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Study its Object and Declaration of Principles, and then—ACT!