The Social Unrest

THE author of that curious eighteenth-century work, The American Negotiator, says that “it seldom happens that a proper degree of knowledge, experience, abilities, leisure, and inclination coincide or meet in the same person to induce him to set about producing a new thing of a particular kind.” This is eminently true if the new thing be a work on labor or other social questions. Nearly all writers on such matters are either blindly partisan or sadly deficient in that personal contact and first hand knowledge of the subject necessary to lend both interest and value to their work. Mr. Brooks states that his work 1 is the outcome of some eighteen years of constant and persistent personal investigation and contact with all sorts and conditions of men, in many lands, and on both sides of every question, supplemented by a careful study of an almost endless mass of important, but sadly neglected, labor papers and trade journals. The author has been able to divest himself to an unusual degree of the personal bias and class prejudice of the class in which he was born and educated, and with which he has his natural associations. Thus being on terms of familiarity and intimacy with the leaders of both capital and labor, Mr. Brooks is able to write from a richness and fullness of experience that are unique. He might well repeat the request made by Montesquieu in the preface to The Spirit of the Laws, that no one judge from a moment’s reading a work that cost the author twenty years of his life; and that every one judge the production as a whole, and not condemn or approve it because of certain phrases.

Although it is easy to characterize this work, the wealth of incident, argument, and illustration introduced makes it necessary to read the book many times to appreciate it fully. The main thesis is, that while the introduction of steam and electricity and the application of machinery to industry have made possible such creation of wealth as no previous age ever dreamed of, the production on so large a scale for world markets has led to an intolerable competition among capitalists. This bitterness of competition, years ago, drove the employers, in the more important industries, to enter into trusts and combinations. The concentration of ownership and control and the consequent severing of the bonds of personal knowledge and interest between capitalist and wage-earner have brought about an increased ability and temptation on the part of capital to oppress and crush the individual workman. In the midst of this phenomenal creation and concentration of wealth and growth of colossal individual private fortunes — and largely as a direct result of these changes — we have been moving toward a larger personal, political freedom, an unrestrained and cheap press, and an almost unlimited legal right of voluntary association. This enlarged freedom has caused the non-propertied and wageearning classes to question profoundly the justice of the present distribution of wealth, and to enforce this questioning by a more effective appeal to the power of public opinion than ever before. The ability of these classes to evoke public opinion in their behalf is greatly increased by the fact that the members of the general public, as consumers, have a wholesome and deepseated fear of oppression at the hands of the trusts.

Therefore the wage-earner, with more and more sympathy from the public, is demanding such a share of the wealth produced as will, at least, enable him to maintain his present scale of living and to keep his children in school long enough to give them a fair chance in life. It no longer satisfies the laborer to convince him that both his nominal and real wages have increased in recent years. He is inclined rather to ask if with a greatly increased production and a constantly rising tide of civilization the distance between him and his employer is diminishing or becoming wider. The wage-earner and the consumer used to be satisfied when it could be shown that they were not growing poorer. Today, they are unitedly demanding not only a large share, but an equitable division of economic goods.

Many competent observers will agree with the author that the present capitalistic organization of society gives the promoter of the trust and the controller of capital in large masses a share of the total national income much larger than their effective contribution to production calls for. In fact, it is beginning to be seriously doubted if the present distribution can be defended on the grounds of either abstract justice or social expediency. But the combinations, in addition to enabling their owners, if unrestrained, to work injustice and to get an unfair share of a rapidly increasing product, also create the great and imminent danger that the whole mass of non-propertied and wage-earning classes may be forced to lower their present standard of living. Both the working classes and the consumers are fast becoming conscious of this impending danger, and, with the increased means of social agitation and political action at their command, are able to voice their fear and resentment at an economic inequality and injustice that are far more galling to them than any former yoke of political bondage or personal unfreedom ever was.

Mr. Brooks, who has no word of abuse for rich men, approves the concentration of wealth, and despises the would-be “ trust-killer. ” At the same time he is keenly alive to the evils and dangers which necessarily accompany the early stages of such a movement toward combination. Yet he continually insists that every argument put forth to justify the organization of trusts — a device primarily for checking competition among capitalists — would hold with greater force in favor of the combination of laborers to check the competition of laborer with laborer, even if there were no trusts. Since, however, capital has, in fact, for years been organized and is constantly strengthening its organization and extending the field of its operations, the organization of labor becomes absolutely necessary. If the laborer is not to be degraded and the consumer exploited, this aggressive power of combined capital must be met and held in check by well-organized and federated labor unions. Such unions must be strong enough to force an entirely new conception of the relation of employer and employed. The progress of civilization and the interest of the laborers alike require that the laborers should have much more to say than ever before about all the conditions of employment. They must be taken into an actual, not a legal partnership. Nothing short of this will reconcile or hold an even balance between the conflicting parties. The employer may still run “his business,” but changed conditions have rendered necessary an entirely new conception and definition of what is his business.

The workmen are to-day fully aware of their rights and of the dangers which threaten them. They realize, too, their power of creating public opinion in their favor and even of appealing to the public for financial support. Any successful attempt on the part of the employers to resist the necessary readjustment of the relations with their workmen or to crush the unions will lead inevitably to a very much more rapid extension of state socialism than any nation has yet ventured upon. The movement will naturally begin, but not end, with these industries in which the consumers fear extortion from existing or prospective monopolies.

Collective bargaining in the form of working agreements between organized employers on the one side and organized workmen on the other is the instrument by which the virtual partnership between the parties is to be established and conducted. This increased influence of the laborer over the conditions of production will necessarily be accompanied by enlarged legal regulation, in the form of factory acts, provisions for fencing and inspecting machinery, prohibition of child labor, limiting working hours, and assuring compensation for such industrial accidents as cannot be prevented. Mr. Brooks believes that this increased legal control and, also, an extension of the field of public ownership are necessary in the interest of both the worker and the consumer, and that the chief question is not whether we shall have more of these, but rather whether we shall move slowly, experimentally, and wisely, or precipitately and recklessly in such matters. The answer to this question, in his view, depends on whether or not capital uses new machinery and improved organization to oppose and destroy the organization of labor. Although our author is no more blind to the evils of the existing labor unions than to those of trusts, he considers the dangers of unionism no greater than those of unchecked capitalism. Furthermore, since capital is already so thoroughly organized and in so militant a mood, he believes that organized labor, with all its regrettable resort to foolish boycotts and reckless sympathetic strikes, and, at times, even to gross physical violence, is still the most hopeful element standing between society and great and appalling evils. Besides, labor unions are learning by a hard experience to overcome the worst evils that have afflicted them in the past, and to rely more and more on legal and peaceful methods.

Mr. Brooks conceives that the best organization of industry is the one that has the greatest educational effect on the citizen, and that Americans have but a faint idea of the educational influence of the European labor unions and socialistic coöperative societies. The knowledge acquired in organizing and managing such enterprises has caused the unions to forsake their former violence and the socialists to give up their Utopias. Both these classes have become in the best sense of the word wise opportunists. These two movements have probably done more than anything else to destroy or at least to mollify the former spirit of uncompromising class hatred, which is infinitely more to be feared than any experiments in socialism entered upon peacefully, in good faith, with the sole, though mistaken, hope of benefiting mankind. It is but a short time since the socialists were demanding absolute equality of possessions and enjoyment of goods, and the unions were avowedly organized for promoting and supporting strikes. At present, the members of labor unions are seeking, by peaceful means and appeals to an aroused and awakened civic conscience, a minimum and progressive standard of living, and a reasonable opportunity in life for themselves and their children; while the socialists, having largely ceased from chasing phantoms, are simply aiming at the moralization and socialization of the means of production in the supposed interests of the community as a whole. Furthermore, both these classes are now willing to work with any group of citizens seeking similar ends by widely different means.

The unions are already in politics, and in to stay, and any successful attempt to thwart them in any of their legitimate industrial demands, or to deny them as complete a right of organization as the capitalists already enjoy, is simply to drive them more surely, swiftly, and irresistibly into the movement for public ownership. Through voluntary organizations, or by means of state ownership and control, the laborer will maintain his rights and protect his interests. The choice appears to lie between permitting the unions to develop and to federate, or seeing the state driven into socialistic experiments for which we are ill prepared. The only alternative to this seems to be a selfish and greedy plutocracy, small in numbers, resting upon a vast mass of brutalized, ignorant, riotous, industrial serfs held in sullen subjection by a strong military force.

Nevertheless, the perusal of this book does not leave one in a pessimistic frame of mind. The author introduces a great array of cases to prove that the captains of industry are rapidly coming to realise the injustice, inexpediency, and impossibility of crushing the labor unions. In fact, there is every evidence that the great industrial leaders are beginning to appreciate that not only common decency, but also their own interests and the common welfare demand that they shall grant as full rights of organization to the workmen as they claim for themselves ; and that with labor thus organized they must work harmoniously.

No one can read this work without getting a clearer and a nobler conception of the possibilities of human society, and of the spirit, if not the method, by which human progress must be achieved.

John H. Gray.

  1. The Social Unrest: Studies in Labor and Socialist Movements. By JOHN GRAHAM BROOKS. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903.