What do most people associate with the name William Wilberforce? Probably if they had been fed on the usual diet of school history books, it is the abolition of slavery. We are told by one common text, for instance, that “Wilberforce sacrificed the prospect of a great political career to devote his whole life to humanitarian causes” (Modern Britain 1783-1964, D. Richards, J. W. Hunt). In fact, when it came to the majority, the working class—also known as the Rabble—Wilberforce’s attitude was less than philanthropic. From the close of the eighteenth century until his death in 1833, as the MP for Yorkshire and a prominent politician, he fought a constant crusade to keep the workers in their place. Along with Dr. John Bowdler he founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion. The message this type of organisation gave to the poor was summarised by Edmund Burke: “Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality and religion should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud”.
Wilberforce was himself a member of the owning class and took the view that a religious worker is a meek and docile profit-creator, acquiescent in poverty. If you could teach them, he thought, to forget about their hardships in life and to look forward to a better state of affairs once they were dead, workers would carry on in poverty producing the wealth and handing it over to the capitalists. Meanwhile the rich people would spend the occasional hour in church intoning hypocrisies and wondering whether they could purchase any sufficiently large needles for camels to pass through. Perhaps he was considering the state of his own mind and the sort of company he kept when he wrote: “Remember that we are all fallen creatures, born in sin and naturally depraved. Christianity recognises no innocence or goodness of heart” (A Practical View of Christianity).
Wilberforce’s comprehension of human nature (or more accurately human behaviour) was not particularly well-informed. When we are born we have a brain but no mind. We learn a certain language and code of behaviour depending on where and when we enter society. A baby has no innate notions of sin. Sin and all the mental injury and inhibitions that go with it have to be instilled into the child by warning and punishment. In fact some societies today, existing outside the commercial system of wages and capital, have no concept of this sort of superstitious guilt. One such community is the Panare Indian settlement around the Orinoco basin in Venezuela. They organise their production and consumption on the basis of the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. They have no leaders or bosses. They have refused to be employed by anyone. They have no inequality of class, sex or age. Ironically they are being evangelised by a civilised horde of American missionaries (The New Tribes Mission) who want to force them, with fear of hellfire, to stop drinking alcohol and enjoying themselves, to work in the local mines for wages and desist from Sin. The trouble was that in the Panare language there was no word for “sin” or “guilt”. The idea was not within their social experience. What were the missionaries to do? The method they chose to manufacture guilt among the Panare—upon which repentance and salvation depended—was to re-edit that Middle Eastern book of fables, the Scriptures, so as to implicate the Panare in Christ’s death. To avoid divine retribution for this murder the Indians would have to become as mentally lame as the missionaries. Wilberforce’s contention that human beings are born with Sin is contradicted everywhere by simple evidence.
In any event, he did have some interest in children. He was in favour of child labour and had small children working for himself. He was a firm opponent of legislation to outlaw such exploitation. His main concern seems to have been that capitalism should be permitted to function without any stroppiness or backchat from those who produce the wealth. In 1797 he expounded the “great law of subordination” and laid down his “articles for the management of the poor” in which he said
“that their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God; that it is their part faithfully to discharge its duties and contentedly to bear its inconveniences; that the present state of things is very short; that the objects about which worldly men conflict so eagerly are not worth the contest.” (A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians)
Even his campaigns against the slave trade were not quite as simple as they are often made out to be. A factor not entirely out of Wilberforce’s consideration when opposing the importation of slaves to Britain was the fact that many industrial capitalists were having their goods undercut in the market by goods which had been produced with slave (unpaid) labour owned by capitalists who had easy access (mostly near the ports) to this workforce. The abolition of the slave trade would put rival capitalists on a more equal footing.
Wilberforce was energetically opposed to Trade Unionism in a fashion which would inspire Norman Tebbit, General Jaruzelski and Andropov. He devised the 1799 Workmen’s Combination Bill which completely prohibited the formation of any association which was, or could be possibly construed as, a combination of workers. This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death. At a commemorative service in Westminster Abbey held in July, Margaret Thatcher read the lesson. Like the sanctimonious Wilberforce, Thatcher had some disapproval for shackle slavery, while advocating that in the servitude of wage-slavery the workers are milked for as much as the wage-slave-owning bosses can get. We are tethered to a life of working for the boss or living off the dole; of boring routines and consuming, if we are fortunate, bland, second-rate goods and services; of being screwed up by the dehumanising effects of relating to each other so often on the basis of buying and selling. We are only really tethered to this social system because of the mentality of wage-slavery. The consent of the majority which the minority needs to keep its system going. We must unite to change society. We have nothing to lose . . .