Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History


16. The Industrial Revolution and the Workers.

'AT the conclusion of the last Outline, and also in dealing with the early phases of the trade unions in Outline 14., the gloomy and disastrous results of the Industrial Revolution upon the status and conditions of the workers were foreshadowed. They will now be followed more closely. But no pen will ever do justice to this period of "dreadful night," or ever succeed in fully describing the pitiful state to which so many of the workers were then degraded. The Industrial Revolution enabled the middle-class to achieve final supremacy over the old nobility, who now became its adjuncts. It enabled the capitalist to ignore all limits of sex or age, day or night, and to satisfy his ravenous appetite for surplus labour and profits in a mad orgy; until the glutton had - for his own sake as well as his victims- to put a knife to his throat and restrain his greed for the good of his digestion, and in order to secure his continued existence. The ravages and the forced checking of the stretching of this natural appetite form our present subject.

The Competition of the Machine.-The fate of the early workers, competing with the machine when it began to invade their industry, was especially unhappy. The machine-produced commodity contains less labour than the hand-produced commodity; as it is the amount of socially necessary labour which determines the value of the product, the human competitor who still follows the older process has to sell at the same price as the machine: and his wages are lowered and hours extended in the hopeless struggle. The same process occurs when old machinery is competing with new, or a small factory with a big one; the workers' wages are lowered to help make up for the handicap of the old machinery and obsolete methods. Writing in 1844, Engels painted the poverty endured by the hand-loom weavers before they were finally ousted by the power-loom.

Introduction of Woman and Child Labour.- "The constant aim and the tendency of every improvement in machinery," wrote Dr. Ure, the philosopher of machino-facture, "is, in fact, to do away entirely with the labour of man, or to lessen its price by substituting the labour of women and children for that of grown-up men, or of unskilled for that of skilled workmen." Ample contemporary evidence is given in Chap. IV., Gibbins, to prove this statement. "Persons of all ages and both sexes collected together in huge buildings, under no moral control, with no arrangement for the preservation of health, comfort or decency." The terrible lot of the child slaves of the factory-system sickens the imagination. As early as 1802, legislation was necessary, "for the preservation of the health and morals of apprentices and others employed in cotton and other mills," because of the ravages of a terrible disease in the factory districts, the natural result of insanitary workshops and homes, inferior and scanty food, and constant overwork. Extracts from the speeches of Shaftesbury and other reformers, and even from the official reports of factory inspectors, teem with details of these early horrors of the factory system which are almost unbelievable; and they also contain figures giving indubitable proof of the displacement of adult labour.

By the employment of women and children the home was broken up. The following may be found in the sad pages of Engels' Conditions:-

The employment of women at once breaks up the family for when the wife spends twelve or thirteen hours every day in the mill, and the husband works the same length of time, there or elsewhere, what becomes of the children? They grow-up like wild weeds; they are put out to nurse for a shilling or eighteen pence a week, and how they are treated may be imagined...In many cases the family is not wholly dissolved by the labour of the wife, but turned upside down. The wife supports the family, the husband sits at home tends the children, sweeps the room and cooks.

Then he (Engels) gives a pathetic letter from a working man relating such an instance. Thus while there took place an enormous increase in infantile mortality, while immorality, child slavery, ignorance, and want flourished, capital, by machinery aid raised the degree of exploitation.

The value of labour-power was determined, not by the labour-time necessary to maintain the adult labourer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery by throwing every member of that family upon the labour-market, spreads the value of the man's labour-power over the whole family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may perhaps cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days' labour takes the place of one, and their price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus-labour of one. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expend surplus-labour for the capitalist.

Extension and Intensification of Labour.- When Capitalism "was in the summer-time of this its first love," we read of ceaseless day and night work, of children working by relays and sleeping "in filthy beds which were never allowed to cool," and weary of hands and feet having to rapidly follow the quick movements of the never-tiring machines. Not till 1832 and 1847 was the factory working day reduced to 12 and 10 hours respectively; and when hours were limited, then by increased intensity, within the shortened day, production was maintained at the same level.

The factors making the capitalist anxious for a quick turn-over can be easily understood. Besides the stimulus of a wide, ready, world market, and the huge profits made by the first adopters of the new machines over their slower rival capitalists, the early capitalist wished to get back as quickly as possible the constant capital embodied in the new machines, because they were not then so well protected against the natural elements as now, and they stood in danger of being superseded by new superior inventions. Therefore, as these dangers of dead losses existed, the capitalist, by extending the working day to the 24 hours, attempted to get back his capital as soon as be could. The faster the value of the machinery was transfered to the commodity by the labourer, the more the risks of non-use and supersession were obviated. Thus the machine made man its slave.

Crises and Distress. - Another result of the Industrial Revolution was the terrible decennial crises and times of depression which now regularly occurred. Famines and scarcity through natural causes, earthquakes, drought, hurricanes, etc., had always been known to mankind; but these new periods of disaster, dogging the most prosperous and busy periods, had never been known before. Many explanations have been put forward which, upon examination, are not satisfactory, or only record the symptoms and not the true cause and cure of this disease. The fact is that Capitalism practises law and order inside the workshop, but outside it practises anarchy. In times of prosperity, their owners being eager for profits, the wheels of production are speeded up. Everything proceeds madly. Rival capitalists, in fierce competition, make no attempt to estimate the needs of the market, and glut it with their commodities, until soon the prices fall and the inevitable crash comes, and lasts until the stocks have been consumed and confidence is again restored. At such times as these, when poverty is caused by plenty; when bootmakers' children have to go without boots because their parents have produced too many boots, and when it would be a good thing for the workers if the products produced by their toil and effort were to vanish into smoke, so that they might once again have the opportunity of earning wages, then the contradictions in the capitalist system are most apparent; then social production and individual distribution stand in vivid contrast with each other, and Capitalism is dearly seen to be a fetter upon production. For as long as the surplus labour, or the unpaid for part of the product, is owned, not by the worker, but by the capitalist, then there must be a search for a market in which to dispose of this surplus product, and when the market fails, then must come the crisis. Previous to the Industrial Revolution, production had never been able to fully supply the needs of the market. Later in our lessons, we shall have occasion to refer to the various crises in the 19th century as they affected the workers, gradually changing from sharp and acute affairs to longer periods of permanent depression.[For a good account of these happenings, the student should consult Hyndman's Commercial Crises of the 19th Century.]

An attempt might well be made to show how the warlike phase of capitalism, needing markets for its surplus iron and steel commodities, as well as supplies of raw material for the making of the same, has resulted in a terrible crisis and in the highest form of waste imaginable.

The high wheat prices, ranging often above lOOs. per quarter, and spelling starvation to the workers, aggravated the distress of the workers in the early decades of the century. The capitalist, increasing his constant capital, and dispensing with some of his workers as he lessened his variable capital, was the upper millstone; while the landed interest, intent on securing good rents from the farmers by protecting them by the Corn Laws, was the nether millstone, which, between them, crushed into poverty and starvation the powerless workers.

The state of affairs which the Truck Act in later times made an attempt to remedy was in existence, and this, too, helped to fill the workers' bitter cup to the brim.

Destruction of Skill. -This was another effect of the Industrial Revolution. Back in the neighbourhood of 1860, Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, said:-

The characterstic feature of our modern mechanical improvements is the introduction of self-acting machinery. What every mechanical workman has now to do, and what every boy can do, is not to work himself, but to superintend the beautiful labour of the machine. The whole class of workmen that depend exclusively upon their skill is now done away with. Formerly, I employed four boys to every machine. Thanks to these new mechanical combinations, I have reduced the number of grown-up men from 1,500 to 759. The result was a considerable increase in my profits.

Bearing in mind who are the receivers of the benefits of the modern dilution of labour, the truth of the last sentence will not be doubted. The undermining of the craft basis and structure of the trade unions by industrial development hastened the Revolution - and, being still continued, is a subject big enough for separate treatment.

The Factory Acts.-We have now to turn to the limits which had to be placed upon the operations of a soulless Capitalism -limits strenuously opposed by the capitalists, who prophesied immediate disaster from these attempts to interfere with the rights of unrestrainedly exploiting men, women and children. "John Bright especially distinguished himself (February 10th, 1847) by his violent denunciation of the Ten Hours' Bill, which he charactensed as 'one of the worst measures ever passed in the shape of an Act of the legislature.'" (Gibbins furnishes the page, etc., in Hansard, where this "extraordinary utterance" can still be found.) However, these gloomy prognostications proved to be false. These limits prevented capitalism from "killing the goose that laid the golden egg," and delayed its Nemesis.

Marx, in his chapter on The Working Day, tells us that:-

As soon as the working class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the new system of production, recovered, in some measure, its senses, its resistance began, and first in the native land of mechanism, in England. For thirty years, however, the concessions conquered by the work-people were purely nominal. Parliament passed five Labour Laws between 1802 and 1833, but was shrewd enough not to vote a penny for their carrying out, for the requisite officials, etc.

To follow the various Factory Acts which were passed between 1833 and 1864; to notice how these Acts were passed in the face of fierce opposition, and then evaded in many ingenious ways, by the help of biassed interpretations from interested magistrates; to admire the work of men like Owen, Shaftesbury, Oastler, and Sadler in getting these Acts passed, the work of men like Factory Inspector Leonard Horner in getting them actually observed; and to notice how the landlords helped the workers with the Factory Acts in order to revenge themselves upon the industrial capitalists, but how they fonght the Repeal of the Corn Laws when their own interests were involved -these are things to which the reader can profitably direct his attention by reading the chapters listed.

The Act of 1833 was the first to stop children under nine years of age from entering certain factories, and it limited the working week of a nine-year-old child to 69 hours. The educational needs of the workers -previously entirely neglected- were recognised by the in-institution of "half-timers" in later Acts. The schools for many years hardly deserved their name. Many of the teachers could not even Write their own names correctly. Fatigued by toil, the children fell asleep on the stools. Later, rival theologians, squabbling over the children's souls, hindered the education of their minds and bodies. At Queen Victoria's accession one quarter of the children were totally uneducated; 49 per cent of the boys and 57 per cent of the girls could not read; and 67 per cent of the boys and 88 per cent of the girls could not write. Sympathy for our fellows, with their often low outlook upon life is engendered when one looks back to these dark years of dense ignorance of not so long ago.

It was the terrible state of ignorance and misery among the workers which drew from Carlyle in 1838 those scathing denunciations of a society which allowed such things to be: he wondered, not at the rumours of rebellion, but that the workers were content to be quiet so long. Ruskin, Dickens, and others echoed his criticisms in their own individual ways.

Sanitary inquiries into the state of the crowded, hideous towns, the new industrial centres which had grown up so rapidly, began in 1840. The first medical officer of health was appointed in 1847, and legislation making compulsory the cleaning and draining of towns and houses was started in 1848. Experience taught Capitalism that over-exploitation did not pay; reluctantly it had to recognise its own harmful effects.

The Chartist Movement (1238-1848).- The Chartist Movement was undoubtedly born out of the distress following the Industrial Revolution, for with the amelioration of the distress the movement disappeared. The only way by which workers could preserve their manhood was in revolt. The Chártists were the proletarian wing of the movement which was endeavouring to secure political freedom in the first three decades of the 19th century right up to its success in the Reform Bill of 1832. Many of them were disappointed with the results of this Bill, and drew up a Charter demandig further reforms. Though their demands were political, yet many of them saw that these political demands were only a means to the end that they nnght win economic justice. Diverse in their aims and methods, with their chief strongholds in the towns, having many fine men within their ranks, aiding the workers in their strikes, and spreading much fear and alarm in the minds of the ruling classes, the Chartists and their movement, after several of their risings had been suppressed by the military, flickered out in 1848. For a while they joined with the machinofacturers to repeal the Corn Laws, but the alliance was only a temporary one. Engels (p. 229) describes how the capitalists tried to use the workers as a catspaw to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. But the workers discovered that cheaper bread might mean, not more food, but less wages; the landlords were not their only enemies.

Reserving Trade Union development for our next lesson, it is worthwhile to notice the start of Co-operation in 1844, the separate societies federating to form the English Wholesale in 1863. Another example of the workers trying to improve their position is shown by the fact that friendly societies were formed and legally recognised and protected in the years 1829-50. Again, we hear of the formation of Workmen's Institutes and educational efforts. The worker was passing on from the Luddite machine-breaking stage to another, in which he sought to gain self-reliance and education in order to understand and remedy his condition.

"The Grand Era of Capitalist Expansion." - This occurred in the years from 1850 onwards. Trade went ahead by leaps and bounds. With America suffering irom the effects of the Civil War, with Germany late in arriving at national unity, and France yet disturbed by external and internal trouble, England, thanks to the start given her by the Industrial Revolution, remained the first industrial nation of the world till about the year 1875. The capitalists could afford to pay their work men fairly good wages and hence a higher standard of living was attained. But that "standing feud between worker and master," which was so evident and bitter throughout the years of the Industrial Revolution, only temporarily disappeared in these years of prosperity, to reappear again more open and distinct than ever. The forces which will finally compel the Workers to control the means of production are to be easily discerned if we have followed our lesson closely.

Books. Gibbin's Period V. Capital, Vol. I., Chaps. X. and XV., on the working day and machinery and modern industry. Craik's Modern Working-Class Movement, Section I. and V. Engels' Conditions of Working Class in England, 1844. (No full knowledge of the Industrial Revolution upon the workers can be gained until this terrible collection of evidence is read.) Kingsley's Alton Locke contains interesting sidelights upon the Chartist Movement and the conditions of the poor. Wage Labour and Capital.