Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History


5. The Slave, the Serf and the Modern Wage—Worker.

'OFTEN, when complaining of the amount of work which falls to the lot of the modern worker, one is met with the assurance that work has always been necessary to support life, and always will be; and with an air of "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be," and of the last possible word on the subject having been said, your monitor goes away and makes of his necessity to labour a virtue, and feels proud that he is doing his bit of this ever—increasing toil. It is quite true that labour has always been necessary, and that, since civilisation began, there has always been a working—class. This fact, however, does not justify resignation to the present scheme of things. In the present article, an attempt will be made at a very brief examination of the various classes of workers who have existed, and a comparison of them with the modern working—class.

The Slave.—The probable origin of slavery was in war. There came a time in the economic development of man when he found that it was more profitable for him to retain the prisoners of war as slaves than to eat or destroy them. Then only did cannibalism become a sin. A slave would have been a useless burden before the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture began. The patriarchs in the early books of the Bible had their bondmen, and there are many other references in its later books which reveal the existence and growth of slavery in the Jewish nation. All the ancient Empires were built upon a slave economy. Greece and Rome are the best—known examples. In both it developed as the Empire decayed; the freemen, the founders of their greatness, were destroyed in the wars or became a landless mob, whose former holdings were owned by large proprietors and worked by slave labour. The Grecian philosophers accepted slavery as a provision of Providence whereby they could be freed from the work of the world to spend their time in contemplation. Aristotle declared slavery to be a part of the law of Nature—just as the intellectual defenders of Capitalism today try to persuade the worker that the present system is natural and eternal. At one time in Greek history there were ten slaves to every free man.

In Rome the same story was repeated; the Gentile bonds of kinship and the freeholders were destroyed. Some individuals possessed as many as ten thousand slaves. While Alexanders and Caesars marched over the world with conquering armies, the work of the world was being performed by slaves. The wealth of money and slaves these conquerors obtained only hastened the breaking—up process. Lecky says that slavery in Europe was alnost unknown by the 14th century; it was displaced by serfdom. In America it disappeared after the American War of 1861—5. In England slaves were advertised and sold for the Colonies in 1770, but in 1807 the slave—traffic was made illegal in British possessions.

There are several differences between the slave and the wage—worker :—(1) The slave, while he was useful, had a guarantee of existence in just the same way as a man must keep his horse alive. Therefore there was no competition for work or unemployment among slaves. (2) The slave had no legal rights; he could not appear in the law courts; his marriages were not recognised, and he was not allowed to own property. His master could crucify him or cut him up to feed the goldfish, or elevate him into being a private secretary or confidenffa friend. Roman laws later interfered with this absolute power of the master. (3) The slave did not sell his labour power; he was himself sold, and, apparently, all his labour was unpaid, though, of course, his master had to provide his maintenance. (4) The slave could be made free by his individual master giving up his personal ownership. Many slaves were liberated by their masters as a reward of faithful service; some purchased their liberty when they were allowed to acquire property, and at times of national and personal thanksgiving, and on their death—beds, slave—owners, "for the good of their souls," gave liberty to their bondmen. This practice of "manumission" so icreased that Cicero estimated that a well—behaved slave could obtain his freedom in six years. This state of affairs was not, however, universal, and when kidnapping and wars provided a plentiful supply of slaves, their lot was very wretched; there is nothing in slavery to warrant "hankerings after the past."

The Serf—The serf existed under the Feudal System, which superseded the old commune or mark. In Rome the freed—slave and the beggared freeman became the ieudal tenants of the barbarian invaders, who had no system of slavery. As in geology, where a certain stratum or layer of rock may be missing, yet never occurs out of its proper rotation, so in history. A nation may skip a stage of development through which other nations have passed, yet that stage never occurs out of its proper place. There is a controversy among historians as to whether or not the feudal system was developed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066; at any rate, the Norman Conquest made it general, and it lasted in its decay until the 17th century. In return for the protection of the feudal chief, the serf had to work a certain portion of his time upon his lord estate. There are several points about his position that are worth notice.

(1) Unlike the slave he could not be sold. He was fixed, not to an individual, but to the soil, and he could not leave his birthplace, give his daughter in marriage, or apprentice his son, without his lord's consent. Like the slave, he had no fear of competition or unemployment, and his livelihood was secure. (2) His political status was low, like the slave, and his feudal lord's word was his law. (Only the wage—worker receives equality in the eyes of the law—a boasted equality which soon disappears in experience.) (3) The serf did not sell his labour—power or receive any wages. He owned, subject to certain restrictions, the means of production, which consisted at that time of the land; and the labour he had to put in upon his lord's estate stood out clearly and distinctly as unpaid labour. (4) Like the slave, the serf had a chance of obtaining individual freedom. For he could escape into the town and become a wage—worker in the guilds which were gradually growing, or he could get his services changed into payment in kind or in money, and become a tenant—farmer.

Considerations of space forbid an outline of the development of the various kinds of capital, usurers', merchant and industrial, and how their developments undermined Feudalism and made possible the modern wage—worker and the capitalist class. The guild handicraftmen of the town, and the rural producer, who had his loom in his cottage, and who also cultivated a small farm, were types of workers who bridged the gap between the serf and the wage—worker.

The Wage—Worker— The chief points of interest about the modern wage—worker are as follows :—(l) Unlike the slave and the serf, he is a "free" labourer and bound neither to an individual master nor to the soil. He is "free" to work or to be idle; "free" from the soil —"free" from the ownership of the means of production and from a secure livelihood; and often "free" from employment because of the competition for the job. At an hour, a day, or a week's notice from either side, he and his employer can part. (2) The modern wage—worker has a higher status in society than slave or serf. The same law applies to rich and poor—till the rich man charters a clever lawyer, and the judge, swayed by the unconscious bias of his class, gives his verdict. The slave and the serf were without the political privilege— which the worker has, but political rights are only useful to him (the wage—worker) in so far as they are used to bring about economic rights and solve "bread—and—butter" problems. (3) The wage—worker sells his power to labour at so much per hour, day, or week. [work rates are based upon the time taken by the average worker.] He owns neither the means of production nor the finished product. He receives the wages that were agréed upon, and while in the case of the slave all the labour seemed unpaid, in the case of the wage—worker he appears to be paid for all his labour. This is another illusion which needs explanation by the theory of "surplus—value." (4) While the worker as an individual appears to be free, he is bound —as a member of the working—class— to the capitalist class, through which he can alone find any employment, and to which alone he can sell his labour—power; therefore, his individual freedom resolves itself into freedom to starve if he cannot find an employer. The breaking of one relation emancipated the serf or the slave, but to emancipate the wage—working class it is necessary to change all property relations and substitute the common ownership of the means of production for private ownership. The guild handicraftsman stood a good chance of becoming his own master; the individual slave might rise out from his fellows and escape from slavery; but the modern collier is in no danger of owning a modern colliery, and the wage—worker can only better his individual position by joining in the united effort of his class.

Great progress in the means or pronuction has been made since the days of Greece and Rome. In America more wheat is now raised in ten minutes than was raised in the time of Nero in four—and—a—half days. Leisure should no longer be the right of the cultured few, but be for the enjoyment of all. History tells of slave—revolts and serf—rebellions which were ruthlessly crushed by the ruling powers. The modern working class —the wage—workers— are not destined to fail so hopelessly, for it is their mission to lift society up the next step in the stair of progress to where the necessary labour will be performed by all, and the fruits of all past development Will be enjoyed by all. "So long as the industrial powers of Labour were undeveloped work was inevitably a burden for the mass of mankind. The developments of those powers to their present prodigious dimensions involved the ruthless oppression of toiling millions. Chattel—slavery, serfdom, and wage—labour are the three leading acts of that sombre drama— the Tragedy of Labour."[W. W. Craik in Railway Review].

Capitalism has practically covered the world, and there is now no barbarian nation outside its influence who would be capable of invading the civilised nations and of sweeping them back, for a while, into a lower stage of development. The Yellow Peril yields its terrors when, after a lengthy period of stagnation, Japan and China are touched by the magic wand of Capitalism and are set developing at a rapid rate. French and English gold is helping to destroy the Russian commune and the serfdom which has persisted there until quite recently, and is now busily replacing it by Capitalism in its Imperialistic phase. The drama has become world wide, and yet must still proceed. It is the modern wage—worker who must raise the curtain upon the next act— an act in which the sombre—hued Tragedy of Labour must disappear before its joyous triumph.

B00KS — Section I. Craik's Modern British Working—Class Movement.