1920s >> 1925 >> no-256-december-1925

Fifty Years of “Progress” !

The Economic Position of the Workers.

(Concluded from last issue)

We have now seen how pauperism has grown over the last 50 years and how the workers have become poorer during the latter half of that period, and it is time to ask whether the capitalist class have shared that poverty. On the contrary we find that in respect of the wealth produced this country has grown continually richer up to 1914. Sir W. Beveridge (Econ. Journal, Dec., 1923) gives the following figures of Real Income per head of the population, after allowing for the movement of prices. The figures represent, therefore, a statement of the production of “real” wealth, not merely money prices :—

1860 £26.0
1870 £29.6
1880 £34.1
1890 £40.0
1900 £45.9
1910 £46.9

He clearly explains that while more wealth was being produced it was only the workers who suffered, their loss being the gain of the propertied class.

“From 1900-1913 we lived on a rising tide. This also is an element favouring capital as against labour, profits, rather than wages.”

And again :

“The smooth development of Victorian days was broken, but the characteristic of the time was inequality of fortune rather than general misfortune ; discontent rather than poverty; a gain by capital in relation to labour, by profits in relation to wages, by some classes of workmen at the expense of others, even more than a check to our progress as a nation.”

Least of all was the poverty of the workers due to natural causes:

“Europe on the eve of war was not threatened with a falling standard of life because nature’s response to further increase in population was diminishing. It was not diminishing; it was increasing. Europe on the eve of war was not threatened with hunger by a rising real cost of corn ; the real cost of corn was not rising ; it was falling.”

A. L. Bowley (“The Change in the Distribution of the National Income, 1880- 1913”) estimates the division of the national income as between “Property” and “Wages” at 37½ per cent, and 62½ per cent, respectively; and, further, that this percentage was nearly constant over the period. In this he differs from Mulhall (“Dictionary of Statistics”), who considered that in 1881 the percentage going to property was only 21 per cent. Sir Josiah Stamp (Statistical Journal, July, 1919) estimated the then percentage of “Property” at 32 per cent.

It is, however, necessary to point out how misleading is the classification used by all the above. An enormous number of workers are not engaged in the production and distribution of wealth at all, but are simply employed as personal servants or as profit “snatchers” out of the field of production proper.

Thus the services of the cook and the gardener and the valet are obviously enjoyed only by their employer, the property owner.

Yet in the above classification their wages go to swell the proportion of the “workers.”

If we follow the more useful method adopted by Sir Leo Chiozza Money, the picture is presented in another light. He shows how much of the wealth produced actually goes to the workers who produce it.

He estimates the wealth produced in 1913 at £2,150 millions, and says :—

“The manual workers, who, with their dependents, accounted for about two-thirds of the entire population, took about one-third of the entire national income, while the income-tax payers, with their dependents, forming only about 5,000,000 of the population, drew nearly as much as the remaining 41,000,000.” (Fifty Points about Capitalism, p. 13.)

The remaining portion went to the 4,000,000 clerks, shopkeepers and assistants, small farmers, etc. He considers that the division remained in 1924 approximately what it had been in 1913.

The exploitation of the workers is well illustrated from another angle by the statement made by Mr. Spencer. Liberal M.P. for Bradford, and quoted from the DailyNews (New Leader, October 19th, 1923) : —

“If you look at the returns of the profits of this firm (Saltaire, Ltd.), you will find that by good management and skill they made a profit of £137 per head on each of their workpeople. Sir Isaac Holden,. Ltd., the woolcombers, made a profit of £140 per head of their workpeople last year. …”

Here we see how the workers’ wages could be doubled out of the wealth they produce.

We may notice here how the same process of declining real wages and increasing profits has gone on in America.

“In the period from 1897 to 1915, when real wages were falling in spite of an enormous increase in national production, business profits far outran the rise in the general price level. . . . From 1897- 1913 railroad and industrial stocks advanced about 100 per cent. . . . Moreover, this was a period in which huge corporate surpluses were being set aside out of profits.”—(American Economic Review, March, 1925.)


As for the distribution of capital (as distinct from that of annual income), Professor Henry Clay (Times, March 24th,1925) wrote : “It is probably safe to say that over two-thirds of the national capital is held by less than 2 per cent, of the people.” As he also pointed out, such inequality was unknown in eighteenth century England.


Last of all we come to the question of our wasted powers of production. While the workers grow poorer, it is becoming ever easier to produce the things they lack. Labour, land, machinery, etc., exist in excess of society’s needs, and only capitalism forbids the production of wealth for the use of those who do not possess legal rights to property in the means of life.

Sir Leo Chiozza Money estimates that 1923 production was from 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. less than that in 1913 (New Leader, January 4th, 1924), and shows (“Fifty Points,” p. 44) that in 1907

“counting as a man a male worker aged 18 years and upwards, there were only 4¼ million engaged in producing. . . . The remaining 10,000,000 workers were engaged in transport, or commerce, or professions. When allowance is made for the useful workers amongst these, it is clear that the nation has to support millions of persons condemned by the capitalist system to be non-producers.”

To this add the enormous increase in numbers of unemployed and the still greater increase in powers of potential production due to inventions, etc., and we can then realise how the workers’ actual position compares with what economic conditions would permit it to be under another system of society.

If we take a few typical industries we shall see how great the development is, and also what are the effects of greater efficiency under this system. Thus Mr. Coppock, giving evidence in March, 1925, before the Court of Inquiry presided over by Lord Bradbury, stated that whereas 3,000 million bricks were laid in 1914 by 73,671 bricklayers, in 1921 5,000 million bricks were laid by only 57,170 bricklayers. More efficiency and its accompanying less employment are threatened in still greater degree should a proposed bricklaying machine prove commercially profitable.

“The Triangular Construction Company, of Imber Court, Surrey, have given the first public trial to a simple piece of machinery, invented by Major W. H. Smith, its managing director, which, worked by one skilled bricklayer and a labourer, can erect the walling of houses at a rate equivalent to the laying of 15,000 bricks a day.”—(Daily News. October 21 si, 1925.)

In the agricultural industry of America, it is stated by T. G. Risley, Solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labour, that :—

“the American farm labourer produces an average of 12 tons of cereals per year, while the foreign farm labourer only produces 1½ tons of cereals per year. … In 1920 there were 1,500,000 fewer men on farms in America than in 1910, yet the crops produced were one-third greater in 1920.(O.B.U. Bulletin, Winnipeg, October 1st, 1925.)

In the automobile factories in the U.S.A. the following startling progress has occurred. The figures represent the average number of cars produced per worker per
annum in the various years : —

1899 1.66
1904 1.80
1909 2.47
1914 7.17
1919 8.97
1921 11.15
1923 16.11

They are taken from a report to the Department of Labour submitted by M. W. La Fever.

Almost every capitalist country and every industry could furnish evidence of like developments, and were the achievements of the most advanced countries applied all round, the task of producing all the reasonable requirements of the world’s peoples would be incredibly simple. Our powers of production are, in fact, as Sir Leo Chiozza Money puts it:—

“Our working power is not less, but far greater than our needs.”—(Triumph of Nationalisation, p. 18.)


But these powers cannot be used to the full and freed from the hindrance of periodic crisis and depression, and the unemployed cannot be allowed to produce because the machinery of production is in the hands of the capitalist class or Governments and Municipalities controlled by them. Only the abolition of private ownership can remedy the evil for the workers. Failure to take this necessary step, and every year’s delay in doing so, leaves the workers faced with certain increase of unemployment, certain increase of insecurity, and certain worsening of their condition relative to that of the employing class, because of the inevitable growth of society’s powers of producing wealth. Although for a time, during the early expansion of capitalism, the workers were able to secure a rising standard of living, the tendency in all the leading capitalist nations, including the Colonies of the British Empire, has been for “real” wages to fall since the opening years of this century. While the level in this country may still be higher than that of 1870 (The L.R.D. figures would place it at about the level of 1880), there is no prospect of an improvement in any but the most backward areas of the capitalist world. Furthermore, unemployment and pauperism, “speeding up” and insecurity, have definitely operated to worsen the workers’ condition in relation to what it was fifty years ago. Lastly, and most important of all, while the workers have been getting worse off, the means of producing wealth have developed by leaps and bounds. If poverty in 1870 was a phenomenon which many well-meaning observers found incomprehensible, its existence in 1925 is a crime absolutely indefensible, and if only the workers realised, absolutely unnecessary.


(Socialist Standard, December 1925)

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