Joseph Clayton – What Is The Class War? (1925)

[Joseph Clayton (1868 – 1943) was a British Anglican convert to Catholicism, a democrat, suffragist, and a socialist. He was a medieval and labor historian and a frequent contributor to the Dominican review Blackfrairs. You can find a short biography here.]

[Originally published in Blackfriars, Vol. 6, No. 59 (FEBRUARY, 1925), pp. 77-8]

The phrase ‘class war’ is in common use se, and like many another phrase is more readily uttered than defined. Daily do we read of the ‘preaching of class war’ or the denouncing of class war, and vague but decidedly horrible visions are projected of arson, murder and red terror. (‘All Sir Leicester Dedlock’s old misgivings relative to Wat Tyler, and the people in the iron districts who do nothing but turn out by torchlight’ may be recalled, and ‘the obliterating of landmarks, opening of floodgates, and all the rest of it.’)

The trouble with metaphors is that they will conjure up such vastly different and often such very shocking visions. Other military metaphors in common use are less disturbing. The ‘hotly-contested fight’ of the cricket field, or the by-election, suggests no bloodshed. The vigorous campaign of the politician is not more fearful than the ‘fierce attack’ of the forwards, or the ‘stubborn defence’ of the goal-keeper in the football season. As for leading ‘forlorn hopes’ and the readiness to ‘die in last ditches,’ we may approve the sentiment even when we find the metaphor somewhat absurd. That the motto of the famous Middlesex Regiment should be calmly appropriated by a section of one of our political parties, that ‘Die Hard’ should come to be used for a set of opinions, is perhaps the most glaring example of this fondness for military terms in civil life.

Let us be on our guard against over-stressing the significance of ‘war’ in this phrase ‘class war.’ Class struggle will serve to explain more accurately the meaning, to express more nicely the belief that this a struggle between classes of human beings, a struggle for existence. But this struggle is economic, only at times and under pressure of conscious injustice does the class struggle assume the panoply of war.

We can, if we are so disposed, seek antecedents of the class struggle in slave revolts, or find in the French Jacquerie and English Peasant Rising of the thirteenth and German Peasant War of the sixteenth century testimony that the struggle between ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-nots’ is perennial. In reality these spasmodic revolts and uprisings are evidence that man, goaded by his fellows, will at times under pressure be driven to take up arms, in the hope that by so doing his temporal lot may be bettered.

It is only with the development of capitalism that the class struggle becomes a permanent feature of social life.

For capital must either increase, that is, the business of the capitalist must increase, or it will perish. The competition between rival firms of capitalists allows no standing still. This very competition drives employers to cheapen the costs of production by cutting down wages to the lowest level of subsistence for the labourer. The great fortunes made in Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century—and very considerably expended on the establishment of public schools for the education of the sons of rich men—were made, quite indisputably, by the cheapest of cheap labour. Child labour, the work of women, grossly underpaid, kept down the wages of men and built these fortunes of the British capitalist. No longer was the man the bread winner, earning a wage sufficient to maintain himself and his household. The joint wages of the family were required to keep the family from starvation.

Nor was any blame to be attached to the capitalist for this wretched state of affairs. For political economists announced the discovery of ‘laws’ of supply and demand, vindicated free competition—as it was called—while rulers in the established church and state approved the glad news that by buying cheap and selling dear a country became rich, no matter the misery of the mass of the people. How could the individual capitalist be held responsible for the slums, starvation, fever, crime, and other discomforts of working class life since he was only acting in obedience to the ‘laws’ of political economy? (And not every early Victorian capitalist was a Gradgrind or Bounderby of Coketown. The type drawn by Dickens in Hard Times was common enough, but better specimens did exist). As for the protests of Anglican Christian Socialists they were of no more account than the writings of John Ruskin—the ‘laws’ of political economy laid down by liberal professors, and approved by liberal statesmen, were the supreme authority in the world of business.

But the desire of the workmen to obtain something approaching a living wage, a desire not unnatural in itself the liberal professors admitted, yet unreasonable since the higher the profit the more extensive the employment, was not to be utterly quenched, and the trade union came into legal existence just one hundred years ago (1825) to secure better conditions for labour, to resist the movement that drove wages down to the lowest level of subsistence. And for the last hundred years—to go back no further—has the struggle between capital and labour, commonly called the class war, been pursued in Great Britain. As the operations of capital have been extended to other lands so has this class war been extended. So that to-day there is no land known to the capitalist explorer where strikes and industrial disturbances do not periodically occur. And all because the labourer cannot be persuaded to accept whatever wage is given to him, but will—as Mr. Bounderby eloquently pointed out—’expect to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon’!

Under the development of capitalism, then, the class struggle becomes permanent. And the question may be put, often indeed is put, can modern industry be conducted and carried on without this class war, this struggle between capital and labour?

To the intelligent director of capital, strikes and similar manifestations of unrest are as great a nuisance as they are to the responsible trades union official. But how are they to be avoided when trade is bad and the only alternative to a reduction of dividends is a reduction of wages, or a decrease in the number of wage-earners? For the issue to-day is between the wage-earner and the receiver of dividends. And what is to be done when the limited liability company in which good Christian men and women—many of them doubtless good Catholics—have invested their money cannot pay a living wage to its work-people if it is to pay a dividend to its shareholders? Who is to go without—the workman (and his wife and family) or the shareholder? And what if the labourer refuses to work for less than a living wage, and decides to go on strike rather than submit to an injustice—since it is plain justice which awards to the labourer a living from his labour—an injustice that will fall not only on himself, but also on his family?

To realise this ever recurring difficulty of the managing director of any industrial concern, the difficulty of securing the highest possible dividend for his shareholders, perhaps in bad times any dividend at all, without at the same time paying less than a living wage to the labourer employed by the company, is to understand the reality of the class war, the struggle between capital represented by the investor, and labour represented by the wage earner. It is a struggle for existence, and though the contending parties are entirely unknown to one another and never meet, it is rare when hatred is not expressed, and in especial against the workman on strike.

Yet, normally, neither side is conscious of the struggle nor entertains feelings of hostility. The amalgamations of capital into big combines and trusts make for industrial peace. Small capitalists in competition one with another frequently find it impossible to pay a living wage, and in the effort are apt to collapse into bankruptcy. The saving in the cost of production when everything is done on a vast scale is enormous, and wages are relatively high; as they are in the United States of America—that land of the trust and combine. (The advantage, or disadvantage, politically of the trust in industry is another matter. There are some who think it would be well if the nation owned the trusts rather than the trusts ruled the nation.)

But even in the years of peace, when trade is good and high wages accompany high dividends, the struggle silently goes on. Ever is the capitalist seeking fresh outlets for his capital, ever seeking to cheapen labour. Since white labour is organised strongly enough to exclude from its shores coloured labour, with its lower standard of comfort, the capitalist must needs employ coloured labour in its native lands. Hence the opening up of tropical countries to the capital of the investor, and the bitter complaints of the laziness of the native, and the necessity urged for inculcating habits of obedience and industry amongst the inhabitants of tropical lands. Cheap labour and a market for cheap manufactures are here, in these tropical countries, and the only drawback to the capitalist plan of campaign is the presence of Catholic—and, to their credit be it said, also of Protestant—missionaries, who occasionally interpose very serious obstacles in the path of the enterprising trader and prospector.

In the years of industrial peace and prosperity, then, the class war goes on; the struggle between capital and labour is not diminished, though neither strike nor lock-out occur.

On the capitalist side we have but to take for evidence of the contest the new issues which the public are invited to subscribe to, the presents made to the shareholder of enhanced value to his shares. Consider what happens when a company is prosperous and its business flourishes, Instead of labour enjoying a definite share of the prosperity it has at least helped to create, the directors invite anybody with money to invest to come in and share the harvest; or else it may happen that the existing body of shareholders are told that henceforth their £1 shares will be reckoned at £5. Labour simply does not enter into the calcuation when high profits rule. Let the trades union see to it that its members get a living wage, or submit to a reduction of wages; the business of the managing director is to do the best he can for the shareholders whose interests he is paid to look after.

On the other side an increasing number of work-people, and in especial the younger work-people, are frankly indifferent to the welfare of the firm which employs them, are entirely unconcerned as to the work done or left undone, and are chiefly anxious to get away from the factory or office where they are employed as soon as possible, in order to pursue their lively interest in tennis or the dance. (Of course it is only fair to say that, as far as appearances go, the heads of the firm are equally on the alert to escape from business for the more congenial sport of golf!)

The fact is no longer remarkable; the general lack of interest, on the part of employees, with the consequent carelessness, in factory and office, and the absorbing preoccupation in the things that belong to the world outside that begin when the day’s work is finished. This indifference to the success or failure of the employing firm is partly due to the character of the goods manufactured—for who can pretend enthusiasm in the cause of shams and shoddy?—but much more is it due to the knowledge that no common bond unites the directors, the employees and the share-holders, and that when business falls off and the next depression comes round anyone may be dismissed. Taken on when trade was brisk, the ‘hands’ will be ‘stood off’ when trade languishes. Knowing this, hardly can casual ‘hands’ be persuaded to identify themselves with their employment. Since not for their own good were they taken on, but for the advantage of the firm, so the argument runs, why should they be zealous in a cause that will bring them no profit?

This class struggle between capital and labour is an economic fact in modern industry, it is of the very essence of production of goods for profit instead of for use, it is a permanent feature of capitalism. (But that is not to say it is a permanent feature in all methods of industry.)

The class war, then, is not caused by preachers of social discontent, but by the conflicting interests of the wage-earner and the shareholder, a living wage being at times incompatible with the payment of a reasonable dividend. And the class war is not ended, however many persons of goodwill proclaim its non-existence. No more is sin ended, nor disease ended when amiable persons proclaim that these things do not exist.

Were the world, the industrial world, to-day ruled by men and women who acknowledged the authority of the Catholic Church in faith and morals, a living wage would, of course, be the first charge on the industrial product; with the result that modern industry in many quarters would at once go to pieces. But the industrial world is governed by men and women who are not Christians, who make no claim to be Christians and refuse to be bound by Christian sanctions. And the Christians who live by dividends are for the most part only too happy to receive their modest incomes without making any unpleasant enquiry into the conditions which produced their money.

The class war is felt by many to be a drawback to an otherwise highly pleasant and satisfactory civilization. But, at the same time, if we cannot live on our dividends without this conflict of interests, then it must be put up with—this class war—since life without dividends is unthinkable, or is pictured as sheer barbarism.

Nevertheless it is hard to believe that mankind will not find a way of life that will eventually be free of this perpetual strain of class war; and hard is it to be persuaded that mankind will not ultimately prefer to co-operate in the production of wealth and to share the wealth produced in some fashion not irreconcilable with justice and charity.