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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Slave Labor ...

(7 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 40, 7 October 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

That eighty years after the abolition of slavery in the South slave labor should reappear in the western world is an index not only of the sapping of moral values which has taken place since 1914 but of the economic disintegration which European capitalism in particular is experiencing.

The conscription of slave labor in our times, of course, was begun by the Stalinists in Russia who organized vast prison camps in the north under the control of the NKVD. Here millions of Russians labored and died under the most primitive conditions, felling timber, digging canals, and doing other exceptionally arduous work. The Nazis followed the same pattern, first employing Germans and then, as Europe fell beneath their armies, nearly all the peoples of Europe.

These inhuman practices called forth the condemnation of the allied powers during the war, who spoke with professional horror of the forced labor system. But, it turns out, the English government is not averse to the use of such labor either. One out of four farm workers in Great Britain, for instance, is now a prisoner of war. In other words, twenty-five per cent of English farm workers are slaves.


That despite “repeated questions in Parliament just before the current summer recess” no steps have been taken to send home these men who are suffering for the guilt of their untouched capitalist masters in Germany, indicates that these PW’s supply a definite economic need.

Under “normal” capitalist conditions to employ PW’s would be unprofitable. To do so would only increase the army of unemployed which characterizes capitalism. It would thereby provoke undesirable clashes between labor and capital over the issue. Because of lower wage rates the market for goods would be curtailed. Further, slaves, having little stake in the job, are notoriously poor workmen.

That is under “normal” conditions.

But today conditions are far from normal. First, because of deaths in the war, a large army stationed all over the world, a reduction in hours worked in comparison with the war years, and the withdrawal of women from industry there is a shortage of workers. This is especially acute in the agricultural areas. Because of the less desirable working conditions in these areas workers tend to migrate to the cities. Capping all this is a large backlog of demand for civilian goods difficult to meet because of an adverse position in the foreign trade market in relation to the United States, a large, parasitic army and navy, and relatively antiquated plant equipment.

Under these conditions the employment of PW’s becomes economically feasible. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the government is intending to increase the number of PW’s in farming until they account for one-third of the farm labor force.

The United States government is a partner to this crime. Prisoners supposedly being sent home from the United States have been retained in England and put to work. They have been informed that they will spend one to two more years in England!


Thus some half-million Germans find themselves virtual slaves in England reconstructing houses and working on farms at twenty-five cents a week. This silent chorus of 500,000 men forms a suitable background for the dapper Sir Hartley Showcross at Nuremberg as he thunders against Sauckel, the former organizer of the German slave labor corps.

Capitalism in its decline is poisoning the world’s conscience. Accompanying the world economic disintegration is both an inevitable and a calculated progressive moral anesthesia. What once could electrify the best men and women of a generation – a czarist pogrom, an Amritsar, the anti-socialist laws of Bismarck, chattel slavery – now provokes only a shrug of the shoulders. The atomic war is being prepared before our eyes. Lacking a politicalized working class to inform it, mankind stumbles toward a new cataclysm.

Socialism represents the economic, and hence the moral, salvation of our times. Every socialist, every worker who is beginning to recognize that capitalism is the common enemy, and every veteran who is beginning to realize that the German GI was as helpless a victim of the capitalist military machine as he was himself, is obligated to defend the German PW’s.

They who were the first victims of fascism, who served in the military machine so long, and whose world is bounded by a few faded photographs, fading memories, and an occasional letter out of a shattered homeland should be allowed to return home.

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