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Full Online Book HomeEssaysAn Englishman Looks At The World - Syndicalism Or Citizenship
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An Englishman Looks At The World - Syndicalism Or Citizenship Post by :rlscott Category :Essays Author :H. G. Wells Date :May 2012 Read :1124

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An Englishman Looks At The World - Syndicalism Or Citizenship

"Is a railway porter a railway porter first and a man afterwards, or is he a man first and incidentally a railway porter?"

That is the issue between this tawdrification of trade unionism which is called Syndicalism, and the ideals of that Great State, that great commonweal, towards which the constructive forces in our civilisation tend. Are we to drift on to a disastrous intensification of our present specialisation of labour as labour, or are we to set to work steadfastly upon a vast social reconstruction which will close this widening breach and rescue our community from its present dependence upon the reluctant and presently insurgent toil of a wages-earning proletariat? Regarded as a project of social development, Syndicalism is ridiculous; regarded as an illuminating and unintentionally ironical complement to the implicit theories of our present social order, it is worthy of close attention. The dream of the Syndicalist is an impossible social fragmentation. The transport service is to be a democratic republic, the mines are to be a democratic republic, every great industry is to be a democratic republic within the State; our community is to become a conflict of inter-woven governments of workers, incapable of progressive changes of method or of extension or transmutation of function, the whole being of a man is to lie within his industrial specialisation, and, upon lines of causation not made clear, wages are to go on rising and hours of work are to go on falling.... There the mind halts, blinded by the too dazzling vistas of an unimaginative millennium And the way to this, one gathers, is by striking--persistent, destructive striking--until it comes about.

Such is Syndicalism, the cheap Labour Panacea, to which the more passionate and less intelligent portion of the younger workers, impatient of the large constructive developments of modern Socialism, drifts steadily. It is the direct and logical reaction to our present economic system, which has counted our workers neither as souls nor as heads, but as hands. They are beginning to accept the suggestions of that method. It is the culmination in aggression of that, at first, entirely protective trade unionism which the individual selfishness and collective short-sightedness and State blindness of our owning and directing and ruling classes forced upon the working man. At first trade unionism was essentially defensive; it was the only possible defence of the workers, who were being steadily pressed over the margin of subsistence. It was a nearly involuntary resistance to class debasement. Mr. Vernon Hartshorn has expressed it as that in a recent article. But his paper, if one read it from beginning to end, displayed, compactly and completely, the unavoidable psychological development of the specialised labour case. He began in the mildest tones with those now respectable words, a "guaranteed minimum" of wages, housing, and so forth, and ended with a very clear intimation of an all-labour community.

If anything is certain in this world, it is that the mass of the community will not rest satisfied with these guaranteed minima. All those possible legislative increments in the general standard of living are not going to diminish the labour unrest; they are going to increase it. A starving man may think he wants nothing in the world but bread, but when he has eaten you will find he wants all sorts of things beyond. Mr. Hartshorn assures us that the worker is "not out for a theory." So much the worse for the worker and all of us when, like the mere hand we have made him, he shows himself unable to define or even forecast his ultimate intentions. He will in that case merely clutch. And the obvious immediate next objective of that clutch directly its imagination passes beyond the "guaranteed minima" phase is the industry as a whole.

I do not see how anyone who desires the continuing development of civilisation can regard a trade union as anything but a necessary evil, a pressure-relieving contrivance an arresting and delaying organisation begotten by just that class separation of labour which in the commonweal of the Great State will be altogether destroyed. It leads nowhither; it is a shelter hut on the road. The wider movement of modern civilisation is against class organisation and caste feeling. These are forces antagonistic to progress, continually springing up and endeavouring to stereotype the transitory organisation, and continually being defeated.

Of all the solemn imbecilities one hears, surely the most foolish is this, that we are in "an age of specialisation." The comparative fruitfulness and hopefulness of our social order, in comparison with any other social system, lies in its flat contradiction of that absurdity. Our medical and surgical advances, for example, are almost entirely due to the invasion of medical research by the chemist; our naval development to the supersession of the sailor by the engineer; we sweep away the coachman with the railway, beat the suburban line with the electric tramway, and attack that again with the petrol omnibus, oust brick and stonework in substantial fabrics by steel frames, replace the skilled maker of woodcuts by a photographer, and so on through the whole range of our activities. Change of function, arrest of specialisation by innovations in method and appliance, progress by the infringement of professional boundaries and the defiance of rule: these are the commonplaces of our time. The trained man, the specialised man, is the most unfortunate of men; the world leaves him behind, and he has lost his power of overtaking it. Versatility, alert adaptability, these are our urgent needs. In peace and war alike the unimaginative, uninventive man is a burthen and a retardation, as he never was before in the world's history. The modern community, therefore, that succeeds most rapidly and most completely in converting both its labourers and its leisure class into a population of active, able, unhurried, educated, and physically well-developed people will be inevitably the dominant community in the world. That lies on the face of things about us; a man who cannot see that must be blind to the traffic in our streets.

Syndicalism is not a plan of social development. It is a spirit of conflict. That conflict lies ahead of us, the open war of strikes, or--if the forces of law and order crush that down--then sabotage and that black revolt of the human spirit into crime which we speak of nowadays as anarchism, unless we can discover a broad and promising way from the present condition of things to nothing less than the complete abolition of the labour class.

That, I know, sounds a vast proposal, but this is a gigantic business altogether, and we can do nothing with it unless we are prepared to deal with large ideas. If St. Paul's begins to totter it is no good propping it up with half a dozen walking-sticks, and small palliatives have no legitimate place at all in this discussion. Our generation has to take up this tremendous necessity of a social reconstruction in a great way; its broad lines have to be thought out by thousands of minds, and it is for that reason that I have put the stress upon our need of discussion, of a wide intellectual and moral stimulation of a stirring up in our schools and pulpits, and upon the modernisation and clarification of what should be the deliberative assembly of the nation.

It would be presumptuous to anticipate the National Plan that must emerge from so vast a debate, but certain conclusions I feel in my bones will stand the test of an exhaustive criticism. The first is that a distinction will be drawn between what I would call "interesting work" and what I would call "mere labour." The two things, I admit, pass by insensible gradations into one another, but while on the one hand such work as being a master gardener and growing roses, or a master cabinet maker and making fine pieces, or an artist of almost any sort, or a story writer, or a consulting physician, or a scientific investigator, or a keeper of wild animals, or a forester, or a librarian, or a good printer, or many sorts of engineer, is work that will always find men of a certain temperament enthusiastically glad to do it, if they can only do it for comfortable pay--for such work is in itself _living_--there is, on the other hand, work so irksome and toilsome, such as coal mining, or being a private soldier during a peace, or attending upon lunatics, or stoking, or doing over and over again, almost mechanically, little bits of a modern industrial process, or being a cash desk clerk in a busy shop, that few people would undertake if they could avoid it.

And the whole strength of our collective intelligence will be directed first to reducing the amount of such irksome work by labour-saving machinery, by ingenuity of management, and by the systematic avoidance of giving trouble as a duty, and then to so distributing the residuum of it that it will become the whole life of no class whatever in our population. I have already quoted the idea of Professor William James of a universal conscription for such irksome labour, and while he would have instituted that mainly for its immense moral effect upon the community, I would point out that, combined with a nationalisation of transport, mining, and so forth, it is also a way to a partial solution of this difficulty of "mere toil."

And the mention of a compulsory period of labour service for everyone--a year or so with the pickaxe as well as with the rifle--leads me to another idea that I believe will stand the test of unlimited criticism, and that is a total condemnation of all these eight-hour-a-day, early-closing, guaranteed-weekly-half-holiday notions that are now so prevalent in Liberal circles. Under existing conditions, in our system of private enterprise and competition, these restrictions are no doubt necessary to save a large portion of our population from lives of continuous toil, but, like trade unionism, they are a necessity of our present conditions, and not a way to a better social state. If we rescue ourselves as a community from poverty and discomfort, we must take care not to fling ourselves into something far more infuriating to a normal human being--and that is boredom. The prospect of a carefully inspected sanitary life, tethered to some light, little, uninteresting daily job, six or eight hours of it, seems to me--and I am sure I write here for most normal, healthy, active people--more awful than hunger and death. It is far more in the quality of the human spirit, and still more what we all in our hearts want the human spirit to be, to fling itself with its utmost power at a job and do it with passion.

For my own part, if I was sentenced to hew a thousand tons of coal, I should want to get at it at once and work furiously at it, with the shortest intervals for rest and refreshment and an occasional night holiday, until I hewed my way out, and if some interfering person with a benevolent air wanted to restrict me to hewing five hundredweight, and no more and no less, each day and every day, I should be strongly disposed to go for that benevolent person with my pick. That is surely what every natural man would want to do, and it is only the clumsy imperfection of our social organisation that will not enable a man to do his stint of labour in a few vigorous years and then come up into the sunlight for good and all.

It is along that line that I feel a large part of our labour reorganisation, over and beyond that conscription, must ultimately go. The community as a whole would, I believe, get far more out of a man if he had such a comparatively brief passion of toil than if he worked, with occasional lapses into unemployment, drearily all his life. But at present, with our existing system of employment, one cannot arrange so comprehensive a treatment of a man's life. There is needed some State or quasi-public organisation which shall stand between the man and the employer, act as his banker and guarantor, and exact his proper price. Then, with his toil over, he would have an adequate pension and be free to do nothing or anything else as he chose. In a Socialistic order of society, where the State would also be largely the employer, such a method would be, of course, far more easily contrived.

The more modern statements of Socialism do not contemplate making the State the sole employer; it is chiefly in transport, mining, fisheries, forestry, the cultivation of the food staples, and the manufacture of a few such articles as bricks and steel, and possibly in housing in what one might call the standardisable industries, that the State is imagined as the direct owner and employer and it is just in these departments that the bulk of the irksome toil is to be found. There remain large regions of more specialised and individualised production that many Socialists nowadays are quite prepared to leave to the freer initiatives of private enterprise. Most of these are occupations involving a greater element of interest, less direction and more co-operation, and it is just here that the success of co-partnery and a sustained life participation becomes possible....

This complete civilised system without a specialised, property-less labour class is not simply a possibility, it is necessary; the whole social movement of the time, the stars in their courses, war against the permanence of the present state of affairs. The alternative to this gigantic effort to rearrange our world is not a continuation of muddling along, but social war. The Syndicalist and his folly will be the avenger of lost opportunities. Not a Labour State do we want, nor a Servile State, but a powerful Leisure State of free men.

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