Does capitalism reward inventive genius?
The recent celebrations held in Lancashire to commemorate the memory of Samuel Crompton, a Bolton weaver and inventor, who died 100 years ago, call to mind a question often asked of the Socialist. How about the inventor under Socialism?
Ironical as it may seem, it is such inquiry that throws a lurid light upon the treatment that Capitalism has meted out to genius and ability. When this is understood, the position of all under Socialism will present no difficulty. We do not claim that exceptional ability can exist apart from the social conditions which give it birth. We propose to show that it is those who can exploit such ability to-day who reap the reward which the labour of others makes possible. Without the discoveries in the remote past of such now apparently simple things as the wheel, the lever, the ratchet, all the machinery of to-day would be unthinkable. Without the skill and dexterity of the workers, past and present, all the inventive genius ever born would have remained sterile. The cotton industry of to-day is one to which a number of fundamental inventions have been applied during the last century. Their application, with its operatives, has increased its productivity far beyond the effective demands of the world’s markets, but under the present system these operatives live in poverty and suffer years of short-time working through their very productivity. What insanity ! And what of those who did so much to make such output possible. One of these was John Kay, inventor of the “Fly Shuttle,” one of the most important inventions made toward the improvement of the loom. He was a man of whom it was said he invented “everything.” But his ideas were shamelessly stolen, and he died in poverty and obscurity somewhere in France. Another, James Hargreaves, saw a spinning wheel overturned which caused him to reflect upon certain improvements. He invented a machine as a result of which 20 to 30 spindles could be attended by one person. He died in Nottingham Workhouse. Richard Arkwright invented the water-frame. He appears to be one of the few who gained financial reward, yet, strange he is one about whom there are doubts as to his originality. He was assisted by Kay, who declared “the water-frame was no device of Arkwright’s,” but of another obscure individual. Whether this was true or not he, like others, had to contest his patent rights, and had at one time as many as nine law-suits going. Samuel Crompton invented the “mule,” a combination of Hargreave’s spinning jenny and Arkwright’s water-frame, which, with Watts’ steam-engine revolutionised the cotton industry. He was a man of gentle and sensitive nature, made a violin, taught himself to play, and earned eighteen-pence a night in a Bolton theatre while working in his spare time on his invention. His machine was such that any mechanic who saw its finished condition could carry away its leading features ; crowds gathered round his house, and he was often afraid to go out lest it was stolen. A few months, he says,
“Reduced me to the cruel necessity of destroying my machine altogether, or giving it up to the public. To destroy it I could not think of, to give up that for which I had laboured so long was cruel. I had no patent, nor the means of purchasing one. In preference to destroying it I gave it to the public.” (National Dictionary of Biographies, Vol. XIII.)
For using his invention, 80 firms and independent manufacturers gave him a document possessing no legal validity, in which they agreed to pay him certain sums. As a result, he received the handsome reward of £67. Sir Robert Peel offered him a partnership, but he declined. Like so many of his type, he possessed little business acumen. Making fortunes possible for others, he reaped little or no pecuniary reward himself, and died in poverty, embittered with his experiences. A like fate has awaited in the past composers, artists, scientists, poets, writers, public performers, etc. It is the Capitalist reward and fitting tribute to a rotten svstem. Mankind will ever crave to approbation of his fellow-man. When, with the coming of Socialism, security and a full life is made possible for all, those who show exceptional ability will not need to give of their talent to serve the profit of the idle few, but will add to the comfort of the whole race —whose best interests will be identical with
(Socialist Standard, June 1927)