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New International, August 1938


E. Robertson

The English Worker

From New International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1938, p.253.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Seven Shifts
edited by Jack Common
xi+271 pp. New York. E.P. Dutton. $2.50.

Seven English workingmen, some with writing ability, have here deferred the temptation to make romantic “proletarian novels” out of their work-life and simply recorded the daily grind and their feelings about it. Behind them is the inevitable editor who has selected the authors and the material confessedly to avoid “any propagandist line”. There is a plasterer and a steel-worker from the Midlands, a blastfurnace stiff from the North, a stoker in a gas plant, a sweated London Jew trying to escape the wage racket by running a stall in a London market, a railway fireman who has never been workless, and an unemployed who has never had work.

The representation is lively but by no means broad. The editor promises a second volume to make up for the lack of women writers, but there is a notable absence also of a Scot or a Welshman – say, a Clydeside shipbuilder or a Merthyr miner. Factually, of course, the book presents nothing that one English worker doesn’t pick up from another in the course of daily fraternization at the local pubs, and politically its contributors either have nothing positive to say or haven’t been allowed to say it For workers in other countries Seven Shifts is nevertheless a revealing snapshot album of the English proletariat. All seven belong to unions; in America that would still suggest editorial collusion; in England, as the plasterer says, membership is “a natural act”. The plasterers have had one since 1832. At least two of the writers recognize that the present solidity of their unions is due more to a policy of conciliation than of struggle, so that most strikes must now be “unofficial”. Less encouraging, but still typical, is the fact that each is still organized on a craft basis.

Pride of craft is, in fact, as strong in them as pride of class and the two feelings sometimes support, sometimes interfere with each other. The plasterer rightly boasts that no machine can yet replace the skill of his hand with a simple trowel but it’s the bosses who can grin when he races with his mates to prove who’s the best man, or when steel workers kid themselves into 50 hours overtime in a week out of a bravado of endurance, or a machinist works on, for the same reason, with a finger nail torn away. Class solidarity protects the railwayman whose fellows see him drinking on the job, but craft vanity ostracizes him if he stays sober and makes mistakes or if he doesn’t occasionally beat the time-table in.

More potent to make them sweat is of course that universal spectre, fear of the sack. The plasterer, for all his hoary union, works under the shadow of a two-hour notice; the steel-man has had his bouts of unemployment and expects more. Just what they mean can be learned from the bitter Odyssey of Oxley, who has been looking for work since the War. “The staple diet of the unemployed is committees.” When the Means Test has made sure you are naked of goods and relatives, it may allow you about $4 a week in exchange for digging holes and filling them in again (literally). If you are married you won’t even be allowed to perform that sprightly labor; you will sit and rot with your family, physically just alive, mentally dying, industrially dead. A workless pal went fifteen years before developing persecution mania; some don’t take so long to reach the asylum or the graveyard. Americans may read their own future here, once the advancing spear of the depression pricks the WPA bubbles.

The American worker ought likewise to take warning rather than pride from the wage levels accepted by these seven as normal. Add a generous one-quarter to their figures, which will more than cover differences in living costs, and the English plasterer still clears less than $20 a week when working, and the railway firemen, on a crack passenger run, less than $25 for a steady seven days.

For this each must suffer the diseases of his occupation. The plasterer left his first job as doffer in a cotton-mill because he was being sweated down into a “human whippet”; now he suffers from chronic colds, bronchitis, and lime in the eyes. The hulking barrow-men in the blast furnaces grow misshapen from lifting too much; the feet of the fireman are being crippled by the torrid engine-plates.

On this subject the seven are naturally eloquent and for the most part they write with factualness and energy and slangy good humor, as workers do. But most of them fail to explain clearly the technique of their work, mainly because literary exposition is itself a technique, a craft which they have had little occasion or opportunity to learn. Instead there is much diffuseness, repetition, jargon, and a good deal of feeble literary wit characteristic rather of their Sunday newspapers than of their own pub-language. The editor tells us that two of the contributors have already published books; unfortunately it is not difficult to guess which two. Some of the other chapters cry out for an editor whose conscience is more literary and less political.

Above all, the book needs one good tough cockney bus-conductor to come out and confess actual membership in the Labour party and give his reasons for it. As it is, all seven whisper socialism and not one belongs anywhere, thanks to the editor’s (and the publisher’s?) distaste for “propaganda”; certainly more than one in every

seven English proletarians is an adherent of some working-class party. Here the nearest to the doctrinaire is the plasterer, who is a potential sucker for the People’s Front and a union of democracies to make something or other safe. But he says his “individualism” prevents him from “irksome” party membership. The unemployed man remembers learning some Marxism from a CP study class in 1920, but he concludes like a New Statesman editorialist with a despairing enquiry as to how both classes can be “wakened” to their evidently mutual “responsibilities”. The socialist gas-worker expects to be pushed off at the boneyard, by accident, lay-off or old age, but in the meantime there’s beer and – “well, that’s a working lad’s life anyway”. Blumenfeld and his fellow costers sit bleakly, “incarcerated in a decaying market ... Outcasts too, waiting for the sun”. The blast-furnaceman growls at the chiselers, including the parsons, but he still speaks confidently of Our Empire and doubtfully of women suffrage. Sure, he’s a socialist too. The fireman knows he was led up the garden in the 1926 upheaval (he refers to it, excellently, as the First General Strike) and again by the LP in Parliament; he knows the labor aristocrat is still only “hired help”, but he ends, like the others, waiting for the time when “we really are wanted” to help run things. The only one who gnaws free of the editorial mufflers is Stirling, the steel-man. He prophecies a revolution within a decade. “And the workers will take charge of it, and they will shape it the way they want to shape it. ... I hope you will like it when it comes, damn’ your eyes.”

For the lack of any voice from those who are actually trying to make this revolution, even in a nice peaceful Clement Attlee style, Editor Common bears responsibility. For other gaps in the record – for an almost complete obliviousness of anything outside the tight little isle, and for a drouth of any really good hating, any saeva indignatio, one can blame also an editor who is a propagandist for non-propaganda. But it is sadly true that not even Mr. Common is responsible for all of it. There is still something insidious about British imperialism, or British rains, or the fish-and-chip diet, which makes the average English worker learn socialism from his father’s knee and yet continue to be fall-guys for both the Daily Herald and the multitudinous Royal Family.

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