William Morris. Commonweal 1888

Sweaters and Sweaters

Source: “Sweaters and Sweaters” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 132, 21 July 1888, p.225-226;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The London Trades’ Council having taken up the strike of the match girls, it did at any rate go on long enough to force the attention of even the stupidest of the capitalist class, and the girls have at least gained something out of the struggle; and surely nobody but the cruellest as well as the stupidest of bourgeois will grudge them that small gain. For the rest, like other strikes, it is a necessary incident in the war of capital and labour; whatever may be the fate of any particular strike, the whole mass of strikes forms one side of this great war: if there were no strikes but those which were likely to succeed in times like the present, the manufacturing capitalists would have an easy time of it, and would reduce the workers under their control to the very lowest point of misery; but as it is, even people in such a wretched condition as these poor match girls can make themselves felt temporarily, and can help to swell the mass of opposition to the manufacturers’ ideal, to wit, human machinery which will give not more, but less, trouble than the machinery of mere dead matter, and will be as contented as that; so that Mrs Besant and the others whose exertions have made this strike possible have done and are doing good service.

It is curious, though, to see how the capitalist press have straightway set their backs up, and set to work to whitewash the extremely ‘respectable’ firm — company, I should say — who live on this miserable industry. What has become of the ‘Bitter Cry’ and all the fashionable slumming which followed it? Why, this industry, which is of such commercial importance to the world — of shareholders — is just the very thing that all that deedless sympathy was poured out on; and yet now we find the press, which was so ‘interested’ in the affairs of the East-end workers four years ago, is quite content to leave the match girls to the tender mercies of Messrs Bryant and May and other such benefactors of the human race; and if any attempt is set on foot to make these poor folk conscious of the fact that they are part of a great class which must struggle for existence and should struggle for a decent life, immediately we find the papers, to say the least of it, tender of the rich and harshly critical of the poor, scattering broadcast innuendoes against the disinterested people who really feel the ‘Bitter Cry’, telling mere lies about the events of the strike, chuckling over the slavery of the poor wretches who hug their chains and are angry with the strikers for making them risk the loss of the starvation wages which they are doomed to exist on. Such shabby people as these, and the public for which they write, who simply want to be mildly amused by other people’s troubles, are not likely to note one lesson which would seem to be pretty clearly taught by the exposure of this manufacture to the light of day, and that is the utter helplessness of any philanthropic remedies for these miseries, or, indeed, any remedies but the one remedy of destruction of the whole system under which they are possible; still less are they likely to see that this flourishing and respectable company, the names of whose managers are a kind of household words, is a reductio ad absurdum of the competition for profits which is the ‘bond of society’ at present. The superstition of the ‘cultivated classes’ of to-day concerning the necessity of profit-grinding is as gross as ever superstition was. I take as an illustration a sentence from an article in the Daily News by a well-intentioned sort of person apparently, and read:- ‘These poor people are really the victims, ‘not of any exceptional greed or hard usage of Messrs Bryant and May’ (close shavers, though, my friend!) but of that steady onward rush of the great industrial machine whose course is directed not by the needs and welfare of those immediately beneath its wheels, but of the community at large for generations to come.’

Well! that is tall talk. Let us pick this match-making business from ‘the steady onward rush’, and see what it means. It is a very simple story, and a very shabby one. A lot of helpless girls and women are driven by fear of mere destitution to hire themselves out at starvation wages to do mechanical and unhealthy work; they are cleverly drilled by a perfected system which aims at wasting nothing (except human life) and the result of their labour is sold at the lowest price possible in order that the money passing through the hands of the company may be turned as often as possible; and in order to do that even the wretched wages are clipped by fines, which have the double advantage of helping in the drilling as well as saving the wage outlay. That is the process; what is the gain that comes of it, beyond the keeping alive in misery a number of girls? Certain persons are able to live a luxurious and useless life without working, and matches are made so cheap that the public buy twice as many as they want of them and waste half. Here is a gain indeed for ‘the generations to come'! Are we so helpless that this shabby story is to be told over and over again, and the sad fact always a-doing? Once more, a farthing box of matches is no great plunder to take from a ‘victim’ of the great industrial machine, and, on the whole, I think it would be better to try to direct it ‘by the needs and welfare of those immediately beneath its wheels’ — only you cannot, as long as the machine is composed of capital and wage-slavery. You can only help whatever tends towards upsetting the said machine. And all wise men will do so, and spread discontent till we make a better bargain than selling ourselves to the Devil — for nothing.


It is noteworthy that we are to-day having the extreme form of the systems of the robbery of the worker dragged up before the public gaze. On the one hand there is this system of the complete merciless drill of the factory, obvious authoritative compulsion, and on the other the compulsion which passes through the links of the sweating system, in the last link of which mere obvious necessity of bread earning compels the poor sweater to compel. When the two systems are brought face to face it will be seen that there is little enough to chose between them, because after all there are plenty of links between the idle appropriator of the results of other people’s labour and the workman in the factory system; the various managers, clerks, and foremen are the sweating machinery in this case, and many of these are of the working-class just as the sweating tailor is. It is true that the organized sweating system carries the misery a stage lower down, in spite of the shameless defence of it which is being made before the Lords’ Commission, and the last link the poor sweater is a speciality of the system, and a disgrace even to our disgraceful sham society. But it must never be forgotten, and we must repeat it again here, that all capitalistic production which is not purely individual, as the work of the doctor or the artist, is done by means of sweating in some form or other. It is the knowledge, conscious or otherwise, of this fact which gives some of the witnesses before the Lords’ Commission courage to stand up and represent their horrible industry as a benefit to humanity; they cannot help feeling that the sympathy of the lords and gentlemen on the Commission will be accorded to those respectable people who are performing the whole duty of modern man by making a profit, even if they are forced by circumstances to be the instruments of inflicting misery upon other people; for as our worthy friend in the Daily News on the match-girls sees, that is the necessary process of commercial production: in short, the respectable factory capitalist excuses the sweater, respectable or not. Doubtless the conclusion that will be expressed in the report of the Commission on Sweating will be that the evils of the system have been much exaggerated, that the worst form of it is not widespread, that the system, with whatever exaggerated evils belong to it, is necessary to civilization, nay, to humanity; all this probably in much these words, and as a practical rider to the conclusion, though not openly stated, that we the commission recommend that something be pretended to be done to keep the people quiet.

A friend of mine once expostulated with a hatter for the price he charged for his hats; the hatter had been dining, and wine inspired him to tell the truth. ‘Mr -’, said he ‘how can I live in the style in which I do unless I charge you at least as high?’

This is really the conclusion which the Sweating Commission must come to. The misery of those who are sweated, whether by the drill of the factory or the many links of the sweating chain, is the high price that we pay for the glory of sustaining a class of idle rich men. Is the gain worth the price? Working men, it is for you to answer the question, and act according to your answer.