First Published: 1887
Source: The Unsocial Socialist, Chapter 5
Transcription: Steve Palmer
Copyleft: Internet Archive(marxists.org) 2009. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons License.
Do you know what a pessimist is?"
"A man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it."
"So, or thereabout. Modern English polite society, my native sphere, seems to me as corrupt as consciousness of culture and absence of honesty can make it. A canting, lie-loving, fact-hating, scribbling, chattering, wealth-hunting, pleasure-hunting, celebrity-hunting mob, that, having lost the fear of hell, and not replaced it by the love of justice, cares for nothing but the lion's share of the wealth wrung by threat of starvation from the hands of the classes that create it. If you interrupt me with a silly speech, Hetty, I will pitch you into the canal, and die of sorrow for my lost love afterwards. You know what I am, according to the conventional description: a gentleman with lots of money. Do you know the wicked origin of that money and gentility?"
"Oh, Sidney; have you been doing anything?"
"No, my best beloved; I am a gentleman, and have been doing nothing. That a man can do so and not starve is nowadays not even a paradox. Every halfpenny I possess is stolen money; but it has been stolen legally, and, what is of some practical importance to you, I have no means of restoring it to the rightful owners even if I felt inclined to. Do you know what my father was?"
"What difference can that make now? Don't be disagreeable and full of ridiculous fads, Sidney dear. I didn't marry your father."
"No; but you married - only incidentally, of course - my father's fortune. That necklace of yours was purchased with his money; and I can almost fancy stains of blood."
"Stop, Sidney. I don't like this sort of romancing. It's all nonsense. DO be nice to me."
"There are stains of sweat on it, I know."
"You nasty wretch!"
"I am thinking, not of you, my dainty one, but of the unfortunate people who slave that we may live idly. Let me explain to you why we are so rich. My father was a shrewd, energetic, and ambitious Manchester man, who understood an exchange of any sort as a transaction by which one man should lose and the other gain. He made it his object to make as many exchanges as possible, and to be always the gaining party in them. I do not know exactly what he was, for he was ashamed both of his antecedents and of his relatives, from which I can only infer that they were honest, and, therefore, unsuccessful people. However, he acquired some knowledge of the cotton trade, saved some money, borrowed some more on the security of his reputation for getting the better of other people in business, and, as he accurately told me afterwards, started FOR HIMSELF. He bought a factory and some raw cotton. Now you must know that a man, by laboring some time on a piece of raw cotton, can turn it into a piece of manufactured cotton fit for making into sheets and shifts and the like. The manufactured cotton is more valuable than the raw cotton, because the manufacture costs wear and tear of machinery, wear and tear of the factory, rent of the ground upon which the factory is built, and human labor, or wear and tear of live men, which has to be made good by food, shelter, and rest. Do you understand that?"
"We used to learn all about it at college. I don't see what it has to do with us, since you are not in the cotton trade."
"You learned as much as it was thought safe to teach you, no doubt; but not quite all, I should think. When my father started for himself, there were many men in Manchester who were willing to labor in this way, but they had no factory to work in, no machinery to work with, and no raw cotton to work on, simply because all this indispensable plant, and the materials for producing a fresh supply of it, had been appropriated by earlier comers. So they found themselves with gaping stomachs, shivering limbs, and hungry wives and children, in a place called their own country, in which, nevertheless, every scrap of ground and possible source of subsistence was tightly locked up in the hands of others and guarded by armed soldiers and policemen. In this helpless condition, the poor devils were ready to beg for access to a factory and to raw cotton on any conditions compatible with life. My father offered them the use of his factory, his machines, and his raw cotton on the following conditions: They were to work long and hard, early and late, to add fresh value to his raw cotton by manufacturing it. Out of the value thus created by them, they were to recoup him for what he supplied them with: rent, shelter, gas, water, machinery, raw cotton - everything, and to pay him for his own services as superintendent, manager, and salesman. So far he asked nothing but just remuneration. But after this had been paid, a balance due solely to their own labor remained. 'Out of this,' said my father, 'you shall keep just enough to save you from starving, and of the rest you shall make me a present to reward me for my virtue in saving money. Such is the bargain I propose. It is, in my opinion, fair and calculated to encourage thrifty habits. If it does not strike you in that light, you can get a factory and raw cotton for yourselves; you shall not use mine.' In other words, they might go to the devil and starve - Hobson's choice! - for all the other factories were owned by men who offered no better terms. The Manchesterians could not bear to starve or to see their children starve, and so they accepted his terms and went into the factory. The terms, you see, did not admit of their beginning to save for themselves as he had done. Well, they created great wealth by their labor, and lived on very little, so that the balance they gave for nothing to my father was large. He bought more cotton, and more machinery, and more factories with it; employed more men to make wealth for him, and saw his fortune increase like a rolling snowball. He prospered enormously, but the work men were no better off than at first, and they dared not rebel and demand more of the money they had made, for there were always plenty of starving wretches outside willing to take their places on the old terms. Sometimes he met with a check, as, for instance, when, in his eagerness to increase his store, he made the men manufacture more cotton than the public needed; or when he could not get enough of raw cotton, as happened during the Civil War in America. Then he adapted himself to circumstances by turning away as many workmen as he could not find customers or cotton for; and they, of course, starved or subsisted on charity. During the war-time a big subscription was got up for these poor wretches, and my father subscribed one hundred pounds, in spite, he said, of his own great losses. Then he bought new machines; and, as women and children could work these as well as men, and were cheaper and more docile, he turned away about seventy out of every hundred of his HANDS (so he called the men), and replaced them by their wives and children, who made money for him faster than ever. By this time he had long ago given up managing the factories, and paid clever fellows who had no money of their own a few hundreds a year to do it for him. He also purchased shares in other concerns conducted on the same principle; pocketed dividends made in countries which he had never visited by men whom he had never seen; bought a seat in Parliament from a poor and corrupt constituency, and helped to preserve the laws by which he had thriven. Afterwards, when his wealth grew famous, he had less need to bribe; for modern men worship the rich as gods, and will elect a man as one of their rulers for no other reason than that he is a millionaire. He aped gentility, lived in a palace at Kensington, and bought a part of Scotland to make a deer forest of. It is easy enough to make a deer forest, as trees are not necessary there. You simply drive off the peasants, destroy their houses, and make a desert of the land. However, my father did not shoot much himself; he generally let the forest out by the season to those who did. He purchased a wife of gentle blood too, with the unsatisfactory result now before you. That is how Jesse Trefusis, a poor Manchester bagman, contrived to be come a plutocrat and gentleman of landed estate. And also how I, who never did a stroke of work in my life, am overburdened with wealth; whilst the children of the men who made that wealth are slaving as their fathers slaved, or starving, or in the workhouse, or on the streets, or the deuce knows where. What do you think of that, my love?"
"What is the use of worrying about it, Sidney? It cannot be helped now. Besides, if your father saved money, and the others were improvident, he deserved to make a fortune."
"Granted; but he didn't make a fortune. He took a fortune that others made. At Cambridge they taught me that his profits were the reward of abstinence - the abstinence which enabled him to save. That quieted my conscience until I began to wonder why one man should make another pay him for exercising one of the virtues. Then came the question: what did my father abstain from? The workmen abstained from meat, drink, fresh air, good clothes, decent lodging, holidays, money, the society of their families, and pretty nearly everything that makes life worth living, which was perhaps the reason why they usually died twenty years or so sooner than people in our circumstances. Yet no one rewarded them for their abstinence. The reward came to my father, who abstained from none of these things, but indulged in them all to his heart's content. Besides, if the money was the reward of abstinence, it seemed logical to infer that he must abstain ten times as much when he had fifty thousand a year as when he had only five thousand. Here was a problem for my young mind. Required, something from which my father abstained and in which his workmen exceeded, and which he abstained from more and more as he grew richer and richer. The only thing that answered this description was hard work, and as I never met a sane man willing to pay another for idling, I began to see that these prodigious payments to my father were extorted by force. To do him justice, he never boasted of abstinence. He considered himself a hard-worked man, and claimed his fortune as the reward of his risks, his calculations, his anxieties, and the journeys he had to make at all seasons and at all hours. This comforted me somewhat until it occurred to me that if he had lived a century earlier, invested his money in a horse and a pair of pistols, and taken to the road, his object - that of wresting from others the fruits of their labor without rendering them an equivalent - would have been exactly the same, and his risk far greater, for it would have included risk of the gallows. Constant travelling with the constable at his heels, and calculations of the chances of robbing the Dover mail, would have given him his fill of activity and anxiety. On the whole, if Jesse Trefusis, M.P., who died a millionaire in his palace at Kensington, had been a highwayman, I could not more heartily loathe the social arrangements that rendered such a career as his not only possible, but eminently creditable to himself in the eyes of his fellows. Most men make it their business to imitate him, hoping to become rich and idle on the same terms. Therefore I turn my back on them. I cannot sit at their feasts knowing how much they cost in human misery, and seeing how little they produce of human happiness. What is your opinion, my treasure?"
Henrietta seemed a little troubled. She smiled faintly, and said caressingly, "It was not your fault, Sidney. I don't blame you."
"Immortal powers!" he exclaimed, sitting bolt upright and appealing to the skies, "here is a woman who believes that the only concern all this causes me is whether she thinks any the worse of me personally on account of it!"
"No, no, Sidney. It is not I alone. Nobody thinks the worse of you for it."
"Quite so," he returned, in a polite frenzy. "Nobody sees any harm in it. That is precisely the mischief of it."
"Besides," she urged, "your mother belonged to one of the oldest families in England."
"And what more can man desire than wealth with descent from a county family! Could a man be happier than I ought to be, sprung as I am from monopolists of all the sources and instruments of production - of land on the one side, and of machinery on the other? This very ground on which we are resting was the property of my mother's father. At least the law allowed him to use it as such. When he was a boy, there was a fairly prosperous race of peasants settled here, tilling the soil, paying him rent for permission to do so, and making enough out of it to satisfy his large wants and their own narrow needs without working themselves to death. But my grandfather was a shrewd man. He perceived that cows and sheep produced more money by their meat and wool than peasants by their husbandry. So he cleared the estate. That is, he drove the peasants from their homes, as my father did afterwards in his Scotch deer forest. Or, as his tombstone has it, he developed the resources of his country. I don't know what became of the peasants; HE didn't know, and, I presume, didn't care. I suppose the old ones went into the workhouse, and the young ones crowded the towns, and worked for men like my father in factories. Their places were taken by cattle, which paid for their food so well that my grandfather, getting my father to take shares in the enterprise, hired laborers on the Manchester terms to cut that canal for him. When it was made, he took toll upon it; and his heirs still take toll, and the sons of the navvies who dug it and of the engineer who designed it pay the toll when they have occasion to travel by it, or to purchase goods which have been conveyed along it. I remember my grandfather well. He was a well-bred man, and a perfect gentleman in his manners; but, on the whole, I think he was wickeder than my father, who, after all, was caught in the wheels of a vicious system, and had either to spoil others or be spoiled by them. But my grandfather - the old rascal! - was in no such dilemma. Master as he was of his bit of merry England, no man could have enslaved him, and he might at least have lived and let live. My father followed his example in the matter of the deer forest, but that was the climax of his wickedness, whereas it was only the beginning of my grandfather's. Howbeit, whichever bears the palm, there they were, the types after which we all strive."
"Not all, Sidney. Not we two. I hate tradespeople and country squires. We belong to the artistic and cultured classes, and we can keep aloof from shopkeepers."
"Living, meanwhile, at the rate of several thousand a year on rent and interest. No, my dear, this is the way of those people who insist that when they are in heaven they shall be spared the recollection of such a place as hell, but are quite content that it shall exist outside their consciousness. I respect my father more - I mean I despise him less - for doing his own sweating and filching than I do the sensitive sluggards and cowards who lent him their money to sweat and filch with, and asked no questions provided the interest was paid punctually. And as to your friends the artists, they are the worst of all."
"Oh, Sidney, you are determined not to be pleased. Artists don't keep factories."
"No; but the factory is only a part of the machinery of the system. Its basis is the tyranny of brain force, which, among civilized men, is allowed to do what muscular force does among schoolboys and savages. The schoolboy proposition is: 'I am stronger than you, therefore you shall fag for me.' Its grown up form is: 'I am cleverer than you, therefore you shall fag for me.' The state of things we produce by submitting to this, bad enough even at first, becomes intolerable when the mediocre or foolish descendants of the clever fellows claim to have inherited their privileges. Now, no men are greater sticklers for the arbitrary dominion of genius and talent than your artists. The great painter is not satisfied with being sought after and admired because his hands can do more than ordinary hands, which they truly can, but he wants to be fed as if his stomach needed more food than ordinary stomachs, which it does not. A day's work is a day's work, neither more nor less, and the man who does it needs a day's sustenance, a night's repose, and due leisure, whether he be painter or ploughman. But the rascal of a painter, poet, novelist, or other voluptuary in labor, is not content with his advantage in popular esteem over the ploughman; he also wants an advantage in money, as if there were more hours in a day spent in the studio or library than in the field; or as if he needed more food to enable him to do his work than the ploughman to enable him to do his. He talks of the higher quality of his work, as if the higher quality of it were of his own making - as if it gave him a right to work less for his neighbor than his neighbor works for him - as if the ploughman could not do better without him than he without the ploughman - as if the value of the most celebrated pictures has not been questioned more than that of any straight furrow in the arable world - as if it did not take an apprenticeship of as many years to train the hand and eye of a mason or blacksmith as of an artist - as if, in short, the fellow were a god, as canting brain worshippers have for years past been assuring him he is. Artists are the high priests of the modern Moloch. Nine out of ten of them are diseased creatures, just sane enough to trade on their own neuroses. The only quality of theirs which extorts my respect is a certain sublime selfishness which makes them willing to starve and to let their families starve sooner than do any work they don't like."
"INDEED you are quite wrong, Sidney. There was a girl at the Slade school who supported her mother and two sisters by her drawing. Besides, what can you do? People were made so."
"Yes; I was made a landlord and capitalist by the folly of the people; but they can unmake me if they will. Meanwhile I have absolutely no means of escape from my position except by giving away my slaves to fellows who will use them no better than I, and becoming a slave myself; which, if you please, you shall not catch me doing in a hurry. No, my beloved, I must keep my foot on their necks for your sake as well as for my own. But you do not care about all this prosy stuff. I am consumed with remorse for having bored my darling. You want to know why I am living here like a hermit in a vulgar two-roomed hovel instead of tasting the delights of London society with my beautiful and devoted young wife."
"But you don't intend to stay here, Sidney?"
"Yes, I do; and I will tell you why. I am helping to liberate those Manchester laborers who were my father's slaves. To bring that about, their fellow slaves all over the world must unite in a vast international association of men pledged to share the world's work justly; to share the produce of the work justly; to yield not a farthing - charity apart - to any full-grown and able-bodied idler or malingerer, and to treat as vermin in the commonwealth persons attempting to get more than their share of wealth or give less than their share of work. This is a very difficult thing to accomplish, because working-men, like the people called their betters, do not always understand their own interests, and will often actually help their oppressors to exterminate their saviours to the tune of 'Rule Britannia,' or some such lying doggerel. We must educate them out of that, and, meanwhile, push forward the international association of laborers diligently. I am at present occupied in propagating its principles. Capitalism, organized for repressive purposes under pretext of governing the nation, would very soon stop the association if it understood our aim, but it thinks that we are engaged in gunpowder plots and conspiracies to assassinate crowned heads; and so, whilst the police are blundering in search of evidence of these, our real work goes on unmolested. Whether I am really advancing the cause is more than I can say. I use heaps of postage stamps, pay the expenses of many indifferent lecturers, defray the cost of printing reams of pamphlets and hand-bills which hail the laborer flatteringly as the salt of the earth, write and edit a little socialist journal, and do what lies in my power generally. I had rather spend my ill-gotten wealth in this way than upon an expensive house and a retinue of servants. And I prefer my corduroys and my two-roomed chalet here to our pretty little house, and your pretty little ways, and my pretty little neglect of the work that my heart is set upon. Some day, perhaps, I will take a holiday; and then we shall have a new honeymoon."