Antoinette F. Konikow, M.D.

The Machine Means Different Things –
Depends on Who Owns It!

(9 June 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 23, 9 June 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed by Marty Goodman.
Marked up by David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mrs. Smith, my neighbor who always lived in the country, moved to town when her husband got work in a nearby factory. She likes to chat with me when we meet on the stairs, and expresses her delight with the modern improvements in her new home.

“What a relief to have a gas stove,” she told me. “I remember how I used to slave carrying up coal and sifting ashes.” Then she spoke about the sewing machine bought on the installment plan and how simply and quickly dresses for Mollie and Louise could be made. If only Charlie keeps his job, she plans to get a vacuum cleaner and her eyes shone at the joyous prospect, as she told me about it.

“Yes, this housekeeping machinery is certainly a help,” I remarked. “Help!” Mrs. Smith said, “why, it is a blessing. Caring for my five kids kept me constantly on my feet and my back always ached. Now I find time to rest and may even go to one of those meetings you always talk about.”

But Machinery Seems a Curse, Too

A few days later, Mrs. Smith stopped again for a neighborly chat. Her face was not as radiant as the previous time; “Charlie told me last night that they have a new machine in his factory. It is a new fangled one that can do the work of five men, or rather any man can now do in one hour what used to take five hours.”

I looked at her troubled face. “Why that ought to be fine for your husband. He will not have to work long hours. He will be home much earlier or will earn so much more.”

Mrs. Smith did not appreciate my joke. “Why are you kidding me? You know what it means and I’m worried to death. Charlie explained it to me. Unless they expand the business, and that appears unlikely, four out of five men will lose their jobs and Charlie may be one of them.”

I invited Mrs. Smith into my apartment and we continued our conversation. “We spoke only a few days ago of the blessings of machines you have at home. You, yourself, pointed out that they save you time and labor. Why should the new machine in the factory not do likewise for your husband?”

Mrs. Smith answered quickly, “The machines in my home are my own.” “Just so,” I agreed, “the machines in your home are yours and they are a blessing, but the machines in the shop belong to the boss and instead of a blessing they may mean your husband’s unemployment. But while they seem a curse to the worker, they bring more profit to the boss. To him they are a blessing.”

Socialism Will Make Machines a Blessing to Everybody

In other words, the machine – a product of human ingenuity and progress – is a blessing to the one who owns it. If the machinery in the shop belonged to the workers, they would get more leisure and rest whenever a new, improved machine is introduced. That is exactly what we Socialists try to explain to the workers.

“A big machine in the factory cannot belong to one worker as your small sewing machine belongs to you. But it can belong to all the workers, or to a workers’ state. Then every modern improvement in machinery instead of striking terror in the heart of a worker would be welcomed because it would ease their labor just as your little machines do at home."

Mrs. Smith was quite amazed. The comparison of machines in the factory and at home had evidently never occurred to her. Then she sadly shook her head. “It sounds right, but machinery belongs to the bosses and they would never permit workers to use it that way.”

“Well,” was my answer, “the workers in Russia succeeded in getting all the factories and mines and transportation in their hands. True it did not work out as it should have because workers of other countries did not follow their example. So in Russia the workers were unable to stop a bureaucracy from grabbing power away from them. But the revolution in Russia proved it can be done and the experience of the workers there will teach the workers of the whole world how to avoid the mistakes made in Russia.”

The machines have taught the workers a great deal. Because of large machines thousands of workers gather in one factory, they learn to organize into trade unions to protect their rights against the greedy capitalist. But while trade unionism is the first step to help the worker, it cannot solve the unemployed problem and many other problems, such as crises and war. Only ownership of the machines by the Workers’ State will assure for the worker security of work and leisure. To achieve that task is the work of the Socialist Workers Party.

Last updated: 14 July 2018