2010s >> 1906 >> no-22-june-1906

If They Knew!

A letter describing certain grievances of Railway Workers has been sent to a writer in the daily Press in the hope that the directors of the railway company may see it. The journalist re-echoes the hope because the reason “why all that is best in human nature is so often eliminated in the relations of shareholders, directors, and workers” is “that they don’t know each other.” In one sense the remark is certainly true. Shareholders often hold shares in industrial undertakings without even knowing where the work is being carried on or the conditions under which the workers labour. Even directors seldom know much of the details of the operations they are supposed to superintend, and have to rely upon their managers and foremen for both information and suggestions as to the carrying on and improvement of the business, showing the truth of the Socialists’ contention that the capitalist class to-day perform no useful function in Society, and, so far from being “captains of industry,” have to depend upon the working class for the actual direction and manipulation of the various processes of wealth production.
 
But the gist of the remark lies in the railway worker’s simple faith that if the directors knew of the conditions under which he and his fellow wage slaves are so vilely sweated they would at once alter—if not abolish those conditions. While this faith of the worker is largely due to ignorance, we could not dare to insult the journalist by crediting him with the same fault. Reports of Sweating, Children’s Employment, Labour and other Royal Commissions of enquiry are at his command, or within his reach as well as the works of Chas. Booth, Mr. Rowntree, R. Sherard, R. Hunter, etc., giving details of the conditions under which the workers exist and obtain the means of existence. He must also be aware—even if the writer of the letter is not—that directors are put into position by shareholders for one purpose, that is, to extract or get extracted, as large an amount of surplus value out of their employees as possible. The shareholders are only concerned with obtaining the largest amount in dividends that they possibly can. The conditions under which, or the means whereby, this is obtained, concerns them not at all. They are just as willing to destroy life as to maintain it; just as willing to invest their money in gun or poison factories as in bakeries or butchers’ shops; just as willing to supply the enemy with whom their country may be at war with money or munitions as they are to swindle their own governments in the matter of supplies; in fact, only let the business promise profit with any reasonable degree of probability, and, no matter what it is money will be forthcoming to secure that profit.
 
When the disclosures were being published of the conditions of the match makers in the East End of London suffering from “phossy jaw” etc. —it was shown that a large number of the shareholders in Bryant & May’s Match Co. (one of the worst offenders) were clergymen, and Messrs. Rowntree and Sherwell give figures in their book “The Temperance Problem” showing the large number of clergymen holding shares in brewery companies.
 
Men, women, and children may drown in rotten ships sent to sea, or be murdered in mines that are known to be dangerous to life, for the sake of the profit accruing from the transactions. 
 
Then why do they who are aware of these facts preach the absurd idea that it is only because the shareholders are unaware of the conditions under which their profit is made that such conditions are allowed to continue? Because they are employed for the purpose of perpetuating the ignorance of the working class by fostering all the simple, stupid, and erroneous ideas held by that class, and to mislead any who may lie waking up to the fact that the capitalist class is concerned only with its own material interests, by encouraging the superstition that it is a question of “good” capitalists or “bad” capitalists, instead of it being the question of capitalism itself.
 
Interest, dividends and profits can only be procured by robbing the workers of the wealth they alone have produced. It therefore cannot be a question as to whether the robbery is carried out under “good” or “bad” conditions. The workers’ only concern should be how to end the robbery. Tricky, therefore, as the attempt may be to foster the idea that it is largely a question of bringing the matters to the knowledge of the directors or shareholders, it can at best only have a temporary effect. The gigantic competition—generally ending in monopoly— of the present day increases the gulf between the capitalist class and the working class. This gulf is unbridgeable while private ownership in the means of life continues to exist.
 
With the increasing combination among capitalists there is an increasing economy in the production of wealth by the elimination of waste and useless labour, introduction of new and larger machinery and the increasing application of scientific discoveries to industry. This results in fewer workers being required to produce a given quantity of wealth, or a larger amount being produced by the same number in the same time as were employed before. The increase in the number of workers rendered relatively redundant by these means will bring home to the workers themselves the absurdity of imagining that the capitalist could—if he would or would if he could—alter things in any material way while allowing the present basis to remain. Only by altering the system, by overthrowing and abolishing the capitalist class and establishing Socialism in its stead can the workers get rid of the bad conditions they exist under to-day.
Jack Fitzgerald

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