Conflict between Labor and Capital (Notice)

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Dyer D. Lum

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2. — The Conflict between Labor and Capital. By Albert S. Bolles, author of "Chapters in Political Economy," and editor of the " Norwich Morning Bulletin." Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. i8?6. pp. 211.

The greater portion of this little book was written, as we are informed in the preface, while the author was traveling in Europe, where the wealth of facts bearing on the present relations of labor and capital with which his pages are crowded was gathered by personal inquiry or collated from official reports. The work is a suggestive one in the present feverish state of the public pulse, and many of the facts stated will give rise to a train of thought more searching than our author has ventured to open. We are told that in the Netherlands, prior to 1872, there had been a continual rise of prices in the necessaries of life, but not in labor, and that the Dutch laborer only succeeds in fighting off starvation by an exclusively vegetable diet. "To the industrial classes of Holland, animal food, cheese, eggs, beer, currants, raisins, sugar, etc., are luxuries of which they partake only on Sundays, and then sparingly ; ofttimes not at all." In Belgium we find that " the names of nine hundred thousand persons, or one-fifth of the population, are inscribed upon the list of poor-relief." " In Saxony, women chiefly live upon weak coffee, often made from roasted barley or from grounds bought in hotels and taverns." In France, statistical documents under .the Empire bear testimony that "the examination of the increase of wages, proved by documents of charitable institutions running over thirty-two years, may be summed up in the remark that, while the price of living has increased forty-five per cent., wages have increased only seventeen per cent." In England, "the tendency of the hour is to reduce wages and increase the cost of living." The information compiled on the subject of Trade-Unions is very fair and instructive, as well as the chapters on industrial partnerships and cooperative undertakings in England, France, and Germany, though not as complete as could be desired.

But if the reader seeks for a deeper glance into the relations of labor and capital, he will look in vain. The book is readily seen to be the work of the journalist rather than the thinker; in fact, the chief object of the book is avowed to be the desire " of toning down the antagonism existing between the two classes." In furtherance of this undertaking we find on page 74 the labor problem disposed of by the following short and easy method: —

" The contest between capitalist and laborer is a contest between present and accumulated labor. Capital is labor saved, nothing more The contest is between those who have saved their labor or inherited it, and those having less. It is a contest of the laborer with the laborer, after all. . . . Respecting the true relations between capitalist and laborer, there is no division of opinion. They are partners in the same enterprise ; they are united by a common purpose; hence there is no reason whatever for jealousy on the part of workmen toward their employers. Such is the belief of all who have investigated the subject"

Nowhere is confusion of thought more apparent than in these words, wherein our author signally fails to discriminate between wealth and capital. Only what bears interest can be called capital; it is that portion of wealth which grows by absorbing a part of the fruit of labor. Labor saved is wealth, but the fruit of the partially rewarded labor of others diverted from its equitable distribution constitutes rent or interest, which distinguishes capital from wealth. Amasa Walker terms the distinction an important one, epigram matically remarking, "wealth is as it is had; capital as it is used."

The question of the meaning of " property " is a fundamental one that requires at least statement in any work assuming to discuss the relations of labor to capital; yet our author dismisses the subject in a sentence. But the questions remain, and press for settlement. Must conditions originating in violence, robbery, and oppression remain unquestioned ? In equity can Nature, like the products of human exertions, become an inherited commodity, from a share in which humanity is to be excluded? Shall raw materials remain the sport of speculators whose action entirely suspends the law of supply and demand ? The anti-slavery idea was that men had an inalienable right to the fruit of their own labor, but this question received no settlement when President Lincoln affixed his signature to the emancipation proclamation. The contest was merely changed from the question of the ownership of labor to that of the ownership of the means of labor, and man's "inalienable right" remains curtailed so long as he is denied economic freedom. A work on the conflict between labor and capital should have entered, however briefly, into the history of the growth of private ownership of the means of labor, and showed that it is an outgrowth of modern civilization, and entirely unknown in the world's history until within recent centuries. A chapter on the rise of capitalistic production would seem to have been imperatively demanded, but the horizon of established custom seems to have limited any excursion into broader fields, and they are only hinted at as "fanciful speculations."

J. S. Mill clearly discerned the rocks upon which modern society is rapidly drifting, and by way of contrast we refresh ourselves with his estimate of the dangers involved in the conflict: —

" If the choice were to be made between Communism with all its chances, and the present state of society with all its sufferings and injustices; if the institution of private property necessarily carried with it, as a consequence, that the produce of labor should be apportioned as we now see it, — almost in an inverse ratio to the labor, — the largest portions to those who have never worked at all, the next largest to those whose work is almost nominal, and so in a descending scale as the work grows harder and more disagreeable, — if this or Communism were the alternative, all the difficulties, great or small, of Communism would be but as dust in the balance."

But, fortunately for the interests of society, neither of these types represent the normal conditions of the social organization. Society is an organism, not the creature of statute law; its interests are one, not many. Social health is the harmonious action of all the functions of the body politic. Whenever the interests of one class are served at the expense of others, and success in life depends upon diverting the unrewarded labor of others to self-aggrandizement; when the egoistic, rather than the altruistic, impulses prevail, — then disease characterizes the social organism. Into such a state we have passed ; social aims are ignored, and individual interests prevail. " Every man for himself " is the guiding rule of modern civilization, and " profits " the sole incentive to action; consequently we witness the disruption of social bonds, and the resulting anarchical condition into which we have fallen. Our author informs us that " every man seeks to get the most he can for what he sells, and pay as little as possible for what he buys. This is the law of the world." Just because this is the law of the world, we predicate the failure of the civilization based upon it.

Under such a system, or no-system, the conflict between labor and capital must increase; it becomes an irrepressible conflict between capitalistic production, on the one hand, and cooperative production and distribution, on the other; in a word, it is virtually war between the interests of society as a whole and the class interest of a few, and we might as well attempt to whistle down the wind as to tone down the antagonism inevitably arising from such relationships, or to mouth the well-meaning, but reactionary, phrases of our ignorant economists, who see not the impending revolution toward which we are swiftly drifting. Fortunately, humanity is immortal; its sickness is never unto death; and however convulsive may be the throes with which the organism is seized, of the ultimate result we need cherish no doubt.

The time is ripe for a work on this subject laying bare the positive principles upon which healthful social action is based, and which will rise above the limited horizon that restricts the view of our economists. But, while deficient in that enlarged view of social relations for which the world waits, we would still commend the work under notice as unusually fair and sympathetic, and deserving the careful consideration of our capitalist friends, whom a more thorough treatment would repulse.

D. D. L.


  • Dyer D. Lum, “Current Literature—The Conflict between Labor and Capital,” The Radical Review 1, no. 4 (February 1878): 786-789.