We have now arrived at the most exciting part of our subject, since it has to do with what we may fairly call the practical politics of Socialism, with matters which all who call themselves Socialists must of necessity consider, unless they chose to relegate themselves to the position of theorists pure and simple. What lies in the scope of these chapters is the giving some idea of the relative position of the attack and defence in the passing time, when armies are definitely gathering for the battle, and it is beginning to be perceived that Socialism is the one serious question of the epoch, since it covers every interest of modern life.
Let us turn our attention first of all to the defence; and we use the word advisedly, since the present proprietary and dominant class has absorbed into itself its old enemy the feudal proprietary class, and, since it has now no longer anything to attack, has taken the position once occupied by the latter. This indeed has been the position of the victorious middle-class for some time, but it is now at last waking up to the fact, and can see the enemy which is advancing to the attack. The middle-class is speedily getting to be no longer democratic even in appearance: it once wore that guise because it was confounded with the working-classes, whose position was then entirely subordinate to it. This condition of things was the high-water mark of the French Revolution, though there were from time to time indications of the coming solidarity of labour; and it lasted through the revolutionary period of 1848. Up to that time the triumphant middle-class, trampling down the last embers of the feudal opposition, saw nothing before it but a continued career of success; although the principles on which that success was founded were not of the kind that would allow it to have a definite aim beyond the point which it had already reached.
The first distinctive movement in England betokening a separate and aggressive community of feeling in the working-class itself, was the Chartist agitation; but this, as we have pointed out in preceding chapters, was swept away by the great wave of British commercial prosperity indicated by the success of the Cobden-Bright, or as it is called on the Continent, the Manchester School. The main result of this wave of prosperity was the enormous increase in the number and power of the middle-classes, and the corresponding rise in their standard of comfort. It is often alleged that the working-classes are in a better position than they were fifty years ago, and that this is the main work of the nineteenth century; but the improvement is doubtful and the inference drawn from it is false. The fact is, that the country fifty years ago was passing through a severe commercial revolution, that of the great machine industries, which, as before stated, brought for the time unexampled misery upon the workers, and that the settling down of this crisis did to a certain extent relieve this special and temporary misery. But apart from that the condition of even the aristocracy of labour is little if any better than it was. What has really happened is just that increase in the numbers and prosperity of the middle-classes above spoken of. But this great and overwhelming prosperity of theirs is now seriously threatened. The increasing severity of competition in the world-market, accompanied by a ceaseless and rapid increase in the productivity of labour, acting and reacting on one another, are bringing about a fresh commercial revolution which will extinguish the small capitalist by reducing his profits to the vanishing-point; so that none but huge concerns, joint-stock or otherwise, will be able to survive, and the once small capitalist will have to become a manager, a servant of the great one. This process is already far advanced, and is creating a fresh lower middle-class entirely dependent on the commercial aristocracy. Under these conditions that very rise in the standard of middle-class comfort has become a snare to the class as a whole. The difficulty of ordinary well-to-do families in finding a 'respectable' position for their children is now a sufficiently trite subject; all occupations endurable by a 'refined' youth are overstocked; education is cheap and common, and has lost its old market-value, and even at the ancient seats of learning it has grown to be a matter of commercial competition(1). The lower ranks of art and literature are crowded with persons drawn to these professions by the pleasantness of the pursuits in themselves, who soon find out the very low market value of the ordinary educated intellect. These, together with the commercial clerks, in whose occupation no special talent is required, form an intellectual proletariat, whose labour is 'rewarded' on about the same scale as the lower portion of manual labour, as long as they are employed, but whose position is more precarious, and far less satisfactory.
On the whole, then, in spite of the rise in the standard of comfort of the middle-classes, it must be said that they have rather gained power than well-being, and that they are now being threatened with a loss of that power, their tenure of which, now that the working-classes are beginning to learn their solidarity, depends on the latter being apathetically contented with a position at the best inferior to that of the bourgeoisie.
But the bourgeois ideal of what that position of the workers might be at the best, has never been realized, nor ever can be; nor as above-said have the working-classes any special reason for being 'contented' at the present time. The class of unskilled labourers are still, as they always must be in a system which forces them to compete with their fellows, in the position of earning a bare subsistence wage; and this class tends to increase more and more, as the introduction of fresh machines increases the productivity of skilled labour, makes it possible to substitute unskilled in its place, and thus drives the skilled artizan from his position and compels him to accept that of the unskilled labourer.
Elaborately arranged figures, therefore, by which is sought to show that the workmen in general are steadily improving their condition, where in themselves correct, which is by no means always the case, are only applicable to certain groups of workmen, and even then frequently do not prove what they are intended to: eg., the average wages will be stated at such and such, but it never happens in any trade that all the workmen receive the full amount of the wages stated after all deductions are made; few workmen indeed are in constant employment, even when trade is flourishing; the estimated prices are the full wage laid down by the trade unions, but most workers unprotected by a union, and in bad times even men inside the union, often work for less than the full wage; some, as in the building trades, are never employed for a large part of the year; and in all trades it would be impossible to keep up the standard of wages without occasional strikes and lock outs. It must be remembered, too, that the workman is often taxed in the form of his subscription to his trades union or benefit society, which from one point of view means that he helps his master to pay his poor-rate. Moreover it is doubtful if the unions are strong enough pecuniarily to hold out against a continued depression of trade.
However, the question of this doubtful improvement in the position of the better-off workmen is by the way. The real point is, first, that there are many indications that this improvement cannot be sustained in the face of the continuous increase in the productivity of labour, and that the position of the skilled mechanic is a precarious one; and secondly, it is clear that however the workmen's position may have improved, they are growing discontented with it, since it is becoming manifest to them that it is one of inferiority, and quite unnecessarily so. And that especially since the management of production is less and less undertaken by the so-called manufacturers, who are more and more becoming mere financiers, or shareholders obviously living on the privilege of taxing labour, both that of the 'hand' and of the manager.
All this has been gradually dawning on the workmen of the Continent, and especially of Germany (so much more intellectually advanced than the British workmen) since the bourgeois constitutional revolution of '48.
1.A very old friend, who has been for many years engaged in tuition at Oxford, has told me that the pressure there has enormously increased since I was an undergraduate; that for instance the kind of man whose attainments would once have ensured him a mastership at Rugby or Harrow has now to put up with a place at a third-rate grammar school, and that the competition for quite insignificant posts is most severe. -W. M. back
Commonweal, Volume 4, Number 113, 10 March 1888, PP. 76-77