It is only when the various economic and social developments are put in order of date that we can understand the cumulative effect upon Great Britain which produced the astonishing results that followed. Before this remarkable series of changes took place struggles between labour and capital were by no means uncommon, and laws were passed giving the justices of the peace powers to fix fair rates of wages in the interest of the workers between employers and employees. The latest important strike under these conditions that I can trace took place in the year 1756. It was between the weavers of wool and their masters. The justices were accused by the weavers of refusing to comply with the law for fixing an adequate rate of wages. This led to a definite revolt, by which, in spite of the difficulties confronting them, such as the resolute attitude of the masters and the inclination of the lower grade of employees to give way and surrender, the weavers won. The year of this struggle is worth noting, for it may be taken as practically recording the end of the old system of antagonism between handicraftsmen as such and the capitalism of that stage of industry.
Shortly thereafter the greatest purely industrial revolution of all time began. Its steps forward may thus be traced by the improvements in cotton and wool machinery and the system of communications, with the dates of the following inventions:–
The expansion in population and wealth during this period from, let us say, 1780, was quite unprecedented up to that time. In regard to population, the growth was remarkable not only in mere numbers but in proportion to the time required.
Thus the increase in the hundred and twenty years from 1630 to 1750 is estimated at 800,000, or from 5,700,000 to 6,500,000, or at the average of no more than 66,000 a year. From 1750 to 1800, however, there was an addition of upwards of 3,000,000; from 1801 to 1821 a further increase of more than 2,000,000; in the ten years, 1821 to 1831, another 2,000,000, giving at the latter date a total population of 14,000,000; while in 1841 the population amounted to nearly 19,000,000, or roughly about 80 per cent more than the total for 1801. This was a phenomenal rise, which was accompanied by an increase in mechanical power of production, largely worked by women and children, calculated at the time as equal to the labour power of 80,000,000 men, but was probably a very great deal more. Out of the in-oed [?] population not fewer than 1,000,000 were poor Irish driven from their homes, who were coming over to Great Britain at the rate of 50,000 a year to compete, as stated above, with British labourers on a lower standard of life. By far the ler [?] proportion of this increased number of persons in the inland were propertyless wage-earners, engaged in manufactures in the towns. The proportion of families engaged in agriculture had actually fallen. In 1801 it was 35 per cent, of the whole; in 1814 but 25 per cent. The addition in the whole country to agriculture was only 7¼ per cent. Yet, so greatly had even agricultural methods improved, that in forty years the production of wheat alone had increased yearly to the extent of 44,000,000 bushels, or sufficient for the consumption of an extra 5,500,000 persons at the rate of eight bushels per head.
Production and trade, profits and accumulations went up by leaps and bounds in the same period. Nothing so amazing had ever before been seen in all economic history; not even when the treasures of the Mediterranean basin were being poured into the lap of the Roman aristocracy. It was this sudden increase of wealth, and the development of England’s supremacy in industry and commerce which enabled our country to make head against the vast power of Napoleon, and eventually to defeat that great general and administrator. Even during the war itself the riches of the capitalists and landlords increased enormously. The figures themselves look small in comparison with recent statistics for Great Britain and other countries, especially the United States of America. Germany and Japan also have exhibited extraordinary progress within the past forty years. But when we examine the ratio of development prior to the rise of English capitalism, the years between 1801 and 1841 or 1848 constitute an unprecedented epoch in human history. Not a single department but showed phenomenal expansion. Leaving exports and imports aside, as being possibly capable of more than one explanation, we find that public buildings, inhabited houses of considerable rental, the growth of large steam factories, the value of real and personal property, and the greatly improved communications all gave evidence of extraordinary prosperity for the rich. Times of crisis and apparent depression barely checked the general advance. Fire insurance, which only amounted to £230,000,000 in 1801, ran up to over £800,000,000 in 1848. In England and Wales alone the rental of real property increased by £40,000,000 in thirty years. The whole of the well-to-do classes shared in these surprising results, and fortified their economic and social positions in every way.
But what was going on among the mass of the people? In my Historical Basis of Socialism (1883) I gave an account of the frightful state of things for the wage-earners which accompanied this rise of wealth for the propertied classes. This survey was based upon official reports and Parliamentary papers, and strengthened by the admirable investigations of foreign observers, as well as by the fine, self-sacrificing work done by the great Chartist agitators and statesmen, with the scathing criticisms of the noble Robert Owen and the powerful denunciations of Sadler, Oastler and other champions of the people. Since then others have worked in the same field. The public, therefore, have nowadays a general but superficial knowledge of what went on in Great Britain in those long-drawn years of horror for the workers, when the capitalists of this island had things all their own way. Conditions for large sections of the workers are very bad in Great Britain even now, a hundred years later. But in the early part of the nineteenth century the atrocities committed by the employers upon the men, women and children who were forced to sell their labour power to those exploiters of mankind exceed, in continuous and calculated infamy, the general sufferings of the workers in the times of chattel slavery and serfdom.
During the whole of the fifty years when capitalism was fastening its grip upon this country wages were very low and prices were high. It was impossible for a man alone to keep his wife and family decently upon the pittance he could command for his labour from the capitalists. So keen was the competition of the propertyless wage-earners that remuneration fell below the standard of life necessary to keep the labourers in health. Then women and children were dragged into the slave factory. The scenes in the mines of Egypt and Athens described by Diodorus Siculus and others, the tales of brutality under feudalism recorded by the annalists of the Middle Ages, refer to adult men and women. Children suffered in the homes, but their misery was not, as a rule, created deliberately by the slave-owners or serf-owners.
But in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the halcyon times of laissez-faire, women and children were the principal victims of the inhuman greed of the profit-making class. Women were overworked, in the factories above ground and in the mines below ground, to such an extent that the whole future of our race was jeopardised. The doctors who denounced the entire system from this point of view, and pointed out its dangers for the nation, the official inspectors who exposed the dreadful abuses rising out of these anarchical proceedings in regard to family life, the humanitarian politicians and agitators who tried to shame the capitalists into decent behaviour and stir up public opinion against them – one and all failed to obtain any reforms, or any effective reduction of hours of labour, for fully half-a-century. With the children of tender years it was even worse, especially with those who were sent out of the workhouses in order that the capitalists might have their will of them in their factories and workshops. These wretched infants were systematically worked to death by their employers, toiling, under constant fear of the lash, from twelve to fifteen hours out of the day.
This was the climax of horror. The facts were published far and wide. How the employers crushed the very life out of these babes, in order to make more profit for themselves, was well known and discussed in every city of Great Britain. Tremendous efforts were made by noble men to put a stop to this frightful slaughter of the innocents. All to no purpose for many a long year. The philanthropists of capital were destitute of any human morality. Even when a law was passed to restrict this liberty of unlicensed slave-driving for defenceless children it was not accompanied by any means of enforcing its prohibitions, and the employers simply went on as before. Their motto was: “Buy cheap, sell dear. Labour is only a commodity like other commodities. Children are the cheapest and most easily squeezed commodity of that type.” Therefore they declared it was to the interest of the country they should be worked to death as their fathers and mothers were. No wonder that the toilers of Lancashire were worn out at the rate of ten years to a generation.
All the while new machinery, which had ruined handicraft and had been used to maintain a permanent fringe of unemployed upon the labour market, to keep down the rate of wages in the factories, was piling up wealth at a pace previously unknown. Men who, like Owen, could compare the slavery of the West Indies, and of the Southern States of the great American Republic, with the condition of the free workers under the domination of capital in Great Britain, one and all declared that the chattel slaves and their children were in every way – in food, clothing, housing, hours of labour, treatment in sickness, even in education – far better off than the wage slaves of their native land. It is indeed the truth that British wage slavery during the rising period of capitalism was worse in many respects than any slavery previously known on the planet.
If, therefore, there was ever in history a time when forcible revolt in any shape was justifiable, when men were righteously impelled to use whatever means came to hand for the purpose of freeing themselves from unendurable, unmerciful and sordid slave-driving oppression, that time was the period from 1780, or a few years before, to 1841-1848 in this country. Where greed for gain and the certainty of procuring it was concerned, religion, morality, mercy, good feeling had no place whatever with the governing class. Freedom for them meant the unlimited right to suppress the economic and social freedom of the mass of their fellow-countrypeople, and to crush down, imprison, torture or hang all who dared to champion the rights and welfare of the mass of the people against this baleful supremacy. For the greater part of this half-century or more freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of combination were to a large extent quite illusory freedoms; and when admitted in name they were suppressed in reality. Men who agitated for some reasonable and beneficial social reforms were arrested and imprisoned for words they never uttered. Others were transported for life, and not a few were hanged for treason which they never committed, on evidence that would not bear the slightest impartial examination. Political influence the people had none. The House of Commons and the House of Lords were both against giving even a modicum of the suffrage to the workers. All such legal outlet as existed for the ventilation of grievances could be, and often was, stopped. Men who publicly attacked the capitalists and their Government under such circumstances did so at the risk of their liberty and even of their lives. Nor did the various administrations hesitate to resort to the lowest treachery, in order to provoke the people into action where success was impossible, and repression could be safely exercised, or to suborn spies and traitors who could be relied upon to betray plots which did not exist.
Hence, I repeat, there never was a time, even under the most ruthless tyranny, when “direct action,” or revolt against the possessing classes, could be more justly defended than in those terrible days in Great Britain. A new and dreadful slavery had been constituted, from which there was no escape and no relief. Penal servitude for life for adults, overwork and crushing physical conditions for women, tortures and working to death for children. No leisure, no pleasure, no education. Constant anxiety that even the miserable weekly pittance, barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, might be withdrawn, owing to the installation of new improved machinery and consequent “over production.” And all this hideous Malebolge [?] of despair, into which the victims of capitalism had been suddenly plunged, came upon our people almost unprepared. They had not grown up in this state of things, like the slaves and serfs who were their economic ancestors. Therefore they felt their sufferings the more. If ever violent revolution seemed not only rightful but probably successful, then was the time. The dominant class was unpopular and ill-mannered. Its brutality was recognised. The force at its disposal through the Government was by no means overwhelming. The numbers of the wage-earners in proportion to the sections of society which lived upon their labour were larger than they have ever been since. Everything seemed favourable to a great and victorious uprising of the people against unbearable wrongs.
Moreover, the opportunity for such an upheaval was ever present. Just as the ruthless pressure of profiteering capitalism was beginning to be seriously felt, the twenty years’ war with Napoleon began. In all probability the political and economic position of the wage slaves might have been considerably improved had the great Corsican won. The mass of the population had absolutely nothing whatever to lose. Certainly the war gave the oppressed class a better chance – not of complete emancipation, for which the economic development was unfortunately not ripe – but at least of putting the fear of man into the hearts of their worst enemies at home, and of establishing forthwith those limited improvements which were not even begun in earnest until nearly half-a-century later. To talk of patriotism was preposterous, in view of the conditions of the workers summarised above from official reports.
Yet success was not to be. The mass of our people, ill-educated and ignorant as they are now, were far worse informed then. Their means of communication were still very bad, thus rendering a widely organised revolt extremely difficult. There was no general military training, and arms were not readily procurable. Trade unionism was in its infancy, and trade combinations as far as possible were repressed by law. No recognised portion of the clergy took the side of the workers and kept the local rebels in touch with one another, as the “hedge priests,” Ball and others did, centuries before, during the Peasants’ War. But notwithstanding all these difficulties a partial victory might have been achieved had not the wage-earners, through their lack of education, directed their attack on a wholly wrong point.
When vastly improved machinery is introduced into any branch of production, obviously the manual craftsmen in that particular industry are liable to be interfered with very seriously indeed. The superior efficiency of the new machine, and its consequent ability to turn out more, and therefore cheaper, articles with much less human labour than before, tends to throw men and women, working with their hands on the old methods, out of work, and to reduce the wages even of those who continue in employment. There is no immediate compensation for this dislocation, nor is there any until much later, even if then. Three hundred years before the inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, Cartwright and Jacquard were used as practical means of spinning and weaving in England, the machine of a foreign inventor was destroyed by German weavers, and the inventor was clubbed to death. These weavers saw that the machine threatened the well-being of their trade by cheaper production, and took the shortest and to their minds the most practical way of putting an end to a mechanical device which must promptly put their hand labour at a disadvantage. English weavers three hundred years later came to the same conclusion as the Germans. They smashed up Everett’s machine, as stated, in 1758, and Hargreaves’ in 1764. But this time conditions, economic and social, being ready for the adoption of the improved processes, they failed to check the advance, however harmful it might be to themselves, by individual or local destruction. The Juggernaut car of human progress was too well equipped to be arrested by such primitive methods. Machinery made way rapidly in small industrial centre after small industrial centre. Cheaper production and more effective organisation had their inevitable influence. Skilled cotton and wool workers were thrown out of employment, and wages were rapidly reduced all round.
Thereupon, instead of endeavouring to obtain control of the machines – which, as a matter of fact, they could not have done at that stage – instead of supporting the men who advocated strong political action – the Duke of Richmond brought a Bill for universal suffrage into the House of Lords in 1792 – great mobs in the industrial centres attacked the machines themselves, not their proprietors, and smashed them up. Reasoning as they did that the machines were the cause of their impoverishment, as they undoubtedly were, this course of action was natural enough. There can be no doubt at all that machines in the cotton and wool trades were being used against the interest of the workers, were reducing their wages, lowering their standard of life and weakening their economic and social independence all round. This opinion, becoming widely spread and increasing in vehemence as years passed on, led to the more or less organised revolt of the so-called Luddites, who set to work to destroy the machines systematically, partly because of their admitted economic effect, partly because they belonged to the masters, whom the wage-earners regarded with justice as slave-drivers and blood-suckers of the worst type – far worse in every way than the usurers against whom laws still stood on the Statute Book, though rarely enforced. Those Luddites, then, destroyed machinery and burnt factories in many of the large towns. In Blackburn, by force and fire, they made a clean sweep of the entire machine industry; in Nottingham they did the same, and so elsewhere. Throughout the years just before the end of the war the state of things became really serious. In 1810 and 1811 affairs had got so far that anarchistic success throughout the factory districts seemed possible.
The Government was alarmed, and used all the means that class administrations invariably resort to when the rights of property are threatened in order to suppress incipient insurrection. Every kind of repressive expedient was brought into service to crush the rebels. Hangings were common, imprisonment of suspected, persons became the rule, spies and what the French call agents of provocation were used to incite rioting, for the purpose of giving the excuse for relentless reaction, and could be found in numbers in all the manufacturing centres. Favourable as events seemed to the rioters and revolutionists, they failed to shake the power of the dominant classes and their representatives. It was not even necessary to repeal the Habeas Corpus Act, though all the time the results of the war were by no means encouraging, and the spirit of revolution was, to all appearances, rife throughout the country. Lack of comprehension of the economic facts around them, defective organisation all through, want of really capable leaders, inability to stir the country at large to a sense of the harm being done, and the mistake of directing their main attacks on machinery, instead of upon the political and social causes of oppression, ruined the entire movement. It is very doubtful, however, whether complete success, as already suggested, could have been achieved in any case. Unpleasant though it is to accept the conclusion, it is clear that in this instance, as in others, revolts against a rising economic system, as capitalism undoubtedly was at this date, cannot by themselves anticipate the course of the entire evolution. Such violent protests do unquestionably rouse the popular intelligence, and keep alive that sense of freedom and desire for independence which lead the way to complete transformation, when the general development has been unconsciously made ready for the next great change. But until then the noblest pioneers must be content to do their work and sacrifice their lives for the sake of generations to come.
There was another and more formidable series of outbreaks of discontent and accompanying attempts at violence when the war came to an end. The peace of 1815, and the reactionary policy of the Government which followed, made the condition of the people still worse than it was before. Poverty and oppression of the most fearful description pervaded the whole country. From one end of Great Britain to another agitation went on, in spite of all the persecution that followed, and great meetings were held, at which demands were urged and resolutions passed in favour of a complete revolution. Even London, which had not felt the pressure of the factory industry to any considerable extent, was stirred. The enactment of the Corn Laws which, in 1815, disallowed any import of corn until the price had reached 80s. a quarter, provoked Londoners to action, and the metropolis rose in open revolt. So threatening was the aspect of affairs that in 1817 the Government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act. A large portion of the middle class was provoked, by this and other repressive proceedings, to make common cause with the incensed people. In the face of every danger of imprisonment and execution, downright subversive opinions, which would be accounted revolutionary even to-day, a hundred years afterwards, were publicly expressed throughout the length and breadth of the land. There was no effective political outlte for the discontent even of the well-to-do.
From 1815 to the passing of the middle-class Reform Bill of 1832 the country was in one continuous turmoil. That Bill was a miserable compromise. It crippled the power of the aristocrats and swept away some of the political corruption but it handed over Great Britain to an even more insidious domination than that of the class whose rule was shaken.
Under their new Poor Law the poverty-stricken people became criminals, in much the same sense as the masterless men of the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth. They were swept into workhouses which were no better than ill-found gaols. Yet, though there were risings and revolts and secret societies and anarchist propaganda of direct action, there was still no revolution. Though leaders were now coming to the front of the highest ability and character, though the speeches made, and the fly sheets distributed by tens of thousands, were of the most incendiary character, the people at large were still more difficult to rouse to political or forcible action than they were in the earlier years of the century. In fact the Luddites, with their systematic attacks on machinery and the factories which housed it, were the most effective and best organised agents of attack upon capital and machine-aided wage slavery up to 1832-1833.
This is remarkable, since the popular political and economic writings of the time showed the clearest possible conception of the real functions of profiteering capital. They prove how recent was its growth, how merciless its operation on the well-being of the people, how destitute of all morality in its social relations, and how futile any assaults upon its power would be which did not succeed in substituting control by the workers and wage-earners for the overlordship of this class. A careful study of the pamphlets, books and orations they issued on behalf of the wage-earners, proves to demonstration that the leaders of that date were thoroughly grounded in the knowledge that the toilers had now become the human tools of the owners of the means of production; that wage slavery was merely chattel slavery in disguise; that though workers as individuals had ceased to be at the mercy of special slave or serf owners as individuals, yet wage-earners, as a class, were the slaves of the capitalists as a class, the only freedom they possessed being a right, by no means always easily exercised, of changing their masters. Their miserable wages were the inevitable result of their lack of property. “A slave,” wrote Cobbett, “is a man who possesses no property.” In spite of all these vigorous and unwearying efforts, by a series of noble and disinterested agitators, to instruct and move their countrymen, not until 1834 to 1838 did the first really organised and class-conscious working-men’s combination in Great Britain take shape. This was the famous Chartist Movement, the records of which have, as far as possible, been suppressed and kept under by the literary representatives of the classes in possession. So true is it that all history up to the present time has to be rewritten, and all the terrible facts of the past of the human race revealed in their true proportion, before we can hope to master the truth about the long martyrdom of man, from the break-up of the gentile and communal period, onwards, to the forms of private-property production and exchange. In all this, for the most part, ethic has no say; human sympathy plays little or no part. For the mass of the people it is ever the same. Each generation in turn enters upon its mournful heritage of suffering, and passes on its burden of never-ending sorrow to the next, and the next, and the next.
What closes the eyes of the many to the inevitable outcome of slow and relentless evolution? Why is it that even the ablest and best thinkers of the period are unable to understand or to foresee? How does it come about that, in our own country, where our boasted liberty is held up as a lesson to the world, leaders and people have alike failed to apprehend fully, or to control and handle effectively, the evolution of the economic forms and social domination which have grown up under their eyes? The right answer to these questions may never be given. Certain it is that, looking down the centuries, we see mankind as a whole slowly groping their way, unconsciously and incapably, through the thick forest and brushwood of prejudice and ignorance, dragging the car of progress, which must eventually crush them, wearily in their track.
Last updated on 7.7.2006