Chapter 01: General Impressions

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 19, 2016

THE first general impression left on the mind is, that in this country of extremes, those of poverty and wealth, of exploitation in its active and passive form, are more marked than in Europe. In America transition stages and classes are, for the most part, wanting. The extremes of temperature in one place, and the suddenness of the passage from one extreme to another, are quite unparalleled in England. Again, in America there seems to be no social and intellectual middle class. The cultured American is perhaps the most charming person on the face of the earth. The manners and customs of the average American, on the other hand, are, for the most part, indescribably unpleasant. Between these two there appears to be no mean. The middle class set of people that make up the majority of the English folk with whom we come into contact--that large number of quite ordinary but very pleasant, well bred, decently-read English people, with whom you can comfortably spend an evening, if you would not care to spend a life--are apparently almost unrepresented in America. It must he understood that in our strictures on the manners of the average American we are not dealing with the working classes. We were everywhere struck with the excessive kindliness and courtesy of the working men and women of America. In all places we found that there, whether they were officials like the tram conductors or our fellow-travellers in street or by car, set an example of good breeding that the American moneyed man and woman might do well to follow.

So is it also in class relations. There are in America far more trenchant distinctions between the capitalist and labouring class than in the older lands. This distinction is not, as in the latter, bridged over and refined down by many examples of intermediate classes. It stands out clearly and uncompromisingly. At the one end of the scale is the millionaire, openly, remorselessly crushing out all rivals, swallowing up all the feebler folk. At the other end is the helpless, starving proletarian. Towards this last the multitude of the people are gravitating, and they begin to see that they are gravitating thither. The real division of society into two classes, the labourer and capitalist, veiled in England and other European countries by the remains of old systems, by artificial classes of royalty, nobility, and so forth, in America stares one in the face. No such remnants of old systems, no surviving classes that belonged to these, exist in America. The capitalist system came here as a ready-made article, and with all the force of its inherent, uncompromising brutality, it thrusts on the notice of every one the fact that in society to-day there are only two classes, and that these are enemies.

With the more clear demarcation of these two classes, each the necessary complement of the other, there is also the more clear recognition of their antagonism. In England, to a large extent, the attempt to make the workers believe that there is a community of interests between them and their employers still succeeds. Not only do the employers make the men and women they own believe this; they actually persuade themselves to some extent that it is true. But in America this mutual deception is nearly at an end. The working men and the capitalists in the majority of cases quite understand that each, as a class, is the deadly and inexorable foe of the other; that no ultimate modus vivendi is possible between them; that the next years of the nineteenth century will be taken up chiefly by an internecine struggle, that will end, as the capitalists hope, in the subjugation of the working class; as the working men know, in the abolition of all classes.

The second general impression to be noted is this; that the condition of the working class is no better in America than in England. To this very important conclusion we have not so much come as we have been driven. We believe it to be absolutely irrefutable. The conclusion rests on foul main bases; (1) the evidence furnished by the daily press of America; (2) our own observations during fifteen weeks; (3) the evidence given by the hundreds of working men and women--Germans, English, Irish, and Americans--of whom we made careful and detailed inquiries; (4) statistics furnished by the Bureau of Labour Reports.

All four classes of evidence point to the same conclusion. Setting aside, in both countries, exceptional cases of great hardship or of notably high wage, and taking the average condition of the average wage-labourer in the two countries, his condition in the one is, to all intents and purposes, precisely as bad as it is in the other. In the present chapter we do not propose to give any of the evidence on which this generalisation rests. But in its successors we propose to deal at length with two classes only of that evidence. Certain details that came under our own personal observation will be given, and the statistics from the reports furnished by the Bureaus of Labour for the different States will be quoted at length. These last yield infinitely the most valuable results, for two reasons. First, they cover wide areas and numberless cases; secondly, they are official documents, unbased by any sentiment in favour of labour.

And here we are tempted to ask, "Where are the American writers of fiction?" With a subject, and such a subject, lying ready to their very hands, clamouring at their very doors, not one of them touches it. Even in England, where we have no novelist belonging to the schools of Henry James or W. D. Howells, some sort of attempt at dealing with the relative position of rich and poor, and even with their relative antagonism, has here and there been made. Charles Dickens, Walter Besant, Disraeli in "The Two Nations," whether they understood the real nature of the questions at issue or not, at least touched on them. But of the American novelists none of repute has pictured for us the New York or Boston proletariate. From a double point of view this seems strange. The American is nothing if not descriptive, photographic; and the society in the midst of which he lives cries aloud to be pictured by him. We have portraits of "ladies," of Daisy Millers, and so forth. But there are no studies of factory-hands and of dwellers in tenement houses; no pictures of those sunk in the innermost depths of the modern Inferno. Yet these types will be, must be, dealt with; and one of these days the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Capitalism will be written.

The third general impression is the prevalence of what we call unconscious Socialism. This unconscious sentiment is less prevalent in England than in America, simply because in the former country there has been of late years more clear and distinct preaching of the doctrines of Socialism, by voice and book, than in the latter. Within the last few years, in England, a considerable number of sentimental Socialists have been forthcoming. By sentimental Socialists we mean men and women who have felt that things were wrong, and felt that they ought to be righted. These, coming across the teachings of Socialism, which show why things are wrong, and how they are to be righted, have, without understanding these teachings, except imperfectly, yet felt their accuracy, felt that they offer at once the only explanation of the present, and the only solution of the future. Now, in England a large number of people feeling thus have declared themselves Socialists, and their Socialism is, even if it be! a little helpless, no longer unconscious.

But in America the opportunity that these have had and embraced, has not until quite recently been forthcoming. The popular idea of Socialism was everywhere there, as it is still to a large extent in England, one of misconception founded on misrepresentation. The placing of Socialism and its principles before the people has, however, been followed in America, as in England, by the discovery of a vast amount of this unconscious Socialism. Large numbers of persons, finding at last that Socialism does not mean equal division of property, nor the application of dynamite to capitalists, nor anarchy, have in town after town, by hundred upon hundred, declared, "Well, if that is Socialism we are Socialists."

It must not be, for one moment, imagined from this that the doctrines preached by us, as the mouthpieces for the time being of the Socialist party, were not revolutionary. These were, as all Socialist teachings must be, of the most revolutionary character. The mistake into which the Americans had fallen was the common one, that Anarchism is revolutionary. Anarchism is reactionary, and the Socialist labour party of America, like its most recent speakers, are not Anarchists because they are revolutionists.

Still more important than even the adhesion by word of mouth and in many cases by membership of so many unconscious Socialists of the sentimental type, was the significant discovery of the vast body of unconscious working-class Socialists. With these again it was the same story, but with a sequel the full meaning of which can only be grasped by those who know that the Socialist movement can never be a real one in any country until it is a working-class movement. The mass of the American working class had scarcely any more conception of the meaning of Socialism than had "their betters." They also had been grievously misled by capitalist papers and capitalist, economists and preachers. Hence it came to pass that after most of our meetings we were met by Knights of Labour, Central Labour Union men, and members of other working-class organisations, who told us that they, entering the place antagonists to Socialism as they fancied, had discovered that for a long time past they had been holding its ideas. Upon this, by far the most significant aspect of the widely-spread unconscious Socialism, we shall have more to say when we consider the working-class organisations in detail.

With the economic condition of the working class in America, with the chief working-class organisations, with the recent political movement, and with the leaders of that movement, we shall deal in the chapters that follow.