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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

How Factories Were Born

(6 April 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 14, 6 April 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When you look at the old factories and mills of the industrial cities on the shores of the Great Lakes, it’s hard to believe that they stand on Indian trails where the hunter’s call and the beat of wild goose wings were the only breaks in the primeval stillness. The lake nearby was an emerald green, untouched by the red ore-mud and slag. Only the paddle of the birchbark canoe broke its surface in fair weather.

How long ago was this? A thousand years? No. Your great-great grandfather, if he were there, could have parted the foliage with his hunting knife and gazed or just such a scene. The factories grew up at a tremendous rate of speed and replaced the wilderness.

These factories didn’t come out of the sky. They didn’t spring up out of the ground either, like Indian corn. They were imported from England. And over in England, too, where they first started up, they are not so very much older than here. Two hundred years ago, the English mining towns still had “green valleys” and a great many people still made cotton and wool garments by hand.

Handicraft workers had been going along year after year, generation after generation, using their own little cottages for their private factories. These were not like your cellar workshop where you putter around for fun. They made their living and their family’s living at their handicraft, even though they had no machinery one-tenth as efficient as a Sears-Roebuck lathe.

When it was discovered that the looms of the weavers and the wheels of the spinners could be enlarged, the work simplified and done by several people together – then more material could be produced by each worker than before. And the well-off grocer, merchant, or craftsman, who had the money to buy a new-fangled machine and owned a shed to put it in, began to make money out of other people’s labor in this baby factory.

Once these little shops got going, production increased greatly. More money was made by the owners. They enlarged the shops, encouraged inventions to improve the crude machinery, and hired many more workers. Just before 1800 the “Industrial Revolution” began in England. The great discoveries of science began to be harnessed to production. (Most of the early scientists couldn’t collect any cash out of this, or were dead before this “revolution” began.) Steam power replaced water power. More and more improvements were applied to the machines that the steam propelled.

Capitalism Only a Few Centuries Old

This factory system of England was the main feature of capitalism, and we call England the classic country of capitalism. Capitalism dldn’t get much of a hold over here in North America when the first settlers came. The settlers who had money and materials and owned choice land were very much richer than the others, of course, but they couldn’t begin to make factories right away. Instead they carved out great plantations from the virgin land and forced white and black slaves to produce wealth for them. Other rich Americans in the early days used the capital they brought from England to build ships and pay sailors to produce wealth in the form of the profits of trade.

The United States was mainly a farming country for several centuries after its discovery. But along in the early 1800’s the little capitalists here began to steal the English capitalists’ machinery blue-prints and patents. They lured the British master-workmen over here to help them plan these factories which were such gold mines to the owners. Then American inventors began to come forward with inventions thick and fast. Not many of these made the inventors very rich, but like today they increased production, and enormously enriched the capitalist. Most of all they hastened the building of big factories.

The big steel plants were built after the Civil War. Then mines had to be dug deeper and spread farther. Railroads opened up the country in earnest. But the largest single factories in the world – far larger than any of England’s – have been started in our own lifetime. River Rouge – GM – Willow Run – Boeing – the population figures of these plants read like the census of large cities.

All this phenomenal growth within the United States from the wilderness to the factory has taken place in a few short lifetimes. Moreover, before that, neither factory owner, factory nor factory worker existed anywhere. The capitalist is a very young master for us workers compared to the 5,000-year-old chattel slave master whose system died such a short time ago. But nevertheless, the capitalist system – swifter than all others to grow – is even more swift to decline and die.

Next week: How The Factory Worker Was Born

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Last updated: 16 October 2018