Labor Day (An Undelivered Speech)

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(an undelivered speech.)

This is one of the days, fellow laborers, on which politicians and priests—pillars of plutocratic society— think it worth while to flatter, cajole and humbug us; in short, to buncoe us. The politician, especially the labor politician, will assure us that we are the very salt of the earth, and that here, in "Our" free country, our august and irresistible will, expressed at the ballot box (that palladium of our liberties!) and translated into law by our humble and obedient servants, the legislators, and enforced by our other servants, the judges, policemen, hangmen, etc., alone rules this "free land."

The sleek and oily manipulator of men will suggest to us certain reforms (?) that would benefit us and offer, in the fulness of love and devotion, to bear the burden of office in order to get them for us. And we all know that he is a liar and a swindler; that he will sell us out, for cash, for preferment, or even give us away for a little social recognition from the aristocracy. All this we know and won’t hesitate to say so in private conversation, and we also know that, if by some strange chance an honest man is elected to office, he is wholly powerless, and soon retires disgusted and disheartened, or yields to temptation and becomes as bad as the rest. But in spite of our knowledge we will applaud the politician’s speech, and very likely elect him to the office he seeks; and when in due time he sells us out or gives us away, we won’t be disappointed, for we knew he would before we elected him.

And when the twin brother of the politician, the priest, addresses us in the name of God, the All Wise and All Beneficent ruler of the universe, and promises us our eternal heritage of happiness in another world, in return for quiet and resigned suffering here on earth, we know that he, too, is a liar and a swindler, who preaches the doctrine of renunciation to us while he takes mighty good care of himself right here and now. We know that he and his kind are only a sort of police, paid to keep us quiet while our masters are skinning us. We don’t believe in his fables about the Good God any more than we believe in the nursery tales of "Jack the Giant Killer," or "Little Red Riding Hood." And yet we will listen attentively, put on a solemn air of deep conviction, and treat this swindler with profound respect.

And, finally, if some benevolent little capitalist condescends to address us as men and brothers, and repeats a few conventional lies about the "dignity" of labor, or explains once more that the "interests of capital and labor are identical," and raises a warning voice against the "wicked agitators" who seek to disturb the beautiful harmony that naturally exists between employers and employed, we will pretend we don’t know that he is a liar or a fool. We won’t resent his insulting condescension; on the contrary, we will treat him with servile deference and quite confirm him in his belief that he is rendering us a great service by sweating our life’s blood out of us for his own benefit.

Of course you won’t like what I have told you. We never like a disagreeable truth; we prefer an agreeable lie, though we know it to be a lie. But the time has come when we must face the naked truth!

Why do we all continue to applaud and uphold a set of lying swindlers and blood-suckers, knowing them to be such? Perhaps because we don’t realize the true significance of our own knowledge, and still more because we believe that government, religion and private property are necessary evils anyway; and our own institutions are no worse than others. Indeed the belief still prevails that our political machinery is so admirable that it will turn out a pretty fair sort of legislation and administration, even though manipulated by a set of selfish scoundrels in their own interests.

But there is still another reason for our dull and stupid submission to things as they are. We instinctively feel that to act on our knowledge would be to kick down the whole framework of our society; in other words, to inaugurate the Social Revolution.

I said we don’t realize the full significance of our own knowledge. Do we? We know that our politicians are a set of self-seeking parasites, who are in politics for what there is in it. And that all their fine phrases about "consecration to public duties" and so on, are mere buncombs, quite compatible, for instance, with the use of public vessels as [2] private yachts and the accumulation of a private fortune of several millions during a few years of such "consecration." True, we have a spasm of virtue once in a while; a few unlucky plunderers are exposed, a number sent to prison, after which the reformers are elected to take their places, and then we settle back into our normal condition of stupid resignation, while the chains of our slavery are riveted tighter day by day.

Of course, you may say, this is. mere anarchistic exaggeration; so listen to what Justice Brown of the Supreme court of the United States has to say on the subject. In a recent address to the students of Yale College he said: "Bribery and corruption are so universal as to threaten the very structure of society". And Judge Brown knows what he is talking about. He can’t help knowing, for instance, that Stanley Mathews was appointed to the same Supreme court of which he is a member in return for a campaign contribution of $100,000 by Jay Gould. Moreover, Judge Brown knows just what universal suffrage amounts to, and. does not hesitate to say that it "is so skillfully manipulated as to rivet the chains of the poor man, and to secure to the rich man a predominance in politics he has never enjoyed under a restricted system." Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you sovereign citizen of America, on the next occasion when you can’t raise five cents for a paper of tobacco; or rather cut it out and paste it in your hat (if you have one) and read it to the next politician who promises legal reforms that will help you, and curb the power of your plutocratic masters.

Reforms? Yes, reforms—on paper. You can have as many as you want of them; the plutocracy are smart enough to know how cheap they really are — much cheaper than machine guns and smokeless powder. Take the factory laws of Illinois for instance; they were warranted to protect women and children from the greed of sordid employers, to abolish sweating and improve the condition of the laboring class generally. And when Mrs. Kelley (an excellent lady, no doubt, and a sort of a milk-and- water socialist), was appointed chief inspector in Chicago a howl of joy went up in the labor papers. Now we were to have genuine reform; the law was to be strictly enforced, and the lords of capitalism compelled to exploit their employees decently, and with some regard for their health and well being. It was a charming picture.

But, alas! Read Mrs. Kelley’s recent report, and you will see that her honest effort to enforce the law has not helped the workers or incommoded the capitalists in the least. We shudder at recent stories of the barbarous massacres of Armenian Christians by the infidel Turks. But such atrocious tortures, such frightful suffering as Mrs. Kelley describes, as a part of the daily course of business at the Chicago stock yards make the cruelty of the Turk seem merciful by comparison. In spite of the "reformed law" and the zealous semi-socialistic inspector, the molloch of capitalism continues to devour his victims with relentless disregard of aught but his own appetite.

What are we to do about it? Open your eyes; see for yourselves, judge for yourselves, act for yourselves, and cease to be the dupes of the scoundrels who deliberately swindle and rob you, and still more of those well meaning fools who honestly lead you from disaster to disaster.

This is Labor Day and we are celebrating — what? If it is the present condition of the laboring class in the United States our bands should play funeral marches, our attire be of somber hue, our banners be draped in deepest mourning, our speakers deliver funeral orations, and the chorus chant dirges and lamentations, for there is no joy in the present, and no hope for the future in the ways and methods of the present. But there is hope for the future, despite the grotesque absurdity of our situation. Here we are starving in the midst of plenty, and we call ourselves freemen, and boast of our inalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." People say of very absurd things, "‘t’would make a horse laugh." As a matter of fact, a horse in our situation would jump the fence or kick down the bars that shut him out from food and shelter. Surely we may hope to become as wise as a horse—in time.

For semi-civilized men, whose command over nature is slight, periodical famines may be unavoidable. But for us, who have such command of natural forces, such powers of production, that a bare third of us working at useful work can, and do, literally deluge the earth with food and drink, we live in a chronic and perpetual famine. We who can, and do, cover the earth’s inhabitants with raiment, go in rags. We of the nineteenth century, with our steam and electricity, our labor-saving machinery and our vast and ever growing knowledge of ways and means to satisfy all the natural wants of man, we are the slaves of our own knowledge, and tamely endure such misery and want and insecurity of life as no people in the past ever submitted to before. In former times it was possible to say that, since there was not enough to keep all mankind in comfort, some must suffer from the shortage. To-day we know that one third of us can, and naturally do, produce enough to keep us all in comfort, and that all the enormous and detestable suffering of our time is due to an outworn social system, that must be thrown aside like the other outworn systems of the past, before we can enjoy the benefits of our knowledge and the fruits of our toil.

Take hope then, fellow—workingmen and women. Freedom, prosperity, and the joy of life are in your grasp. You have only to desire them, and the courage to take them. Though the powers of darkness will oppose you to the uttermost, they will oppose you in vain, if you once really desire to live as free men and women if you really believe that you have a right to live in comfort and security, like brethren enjoying a rich heritage in peace and fraternity.

But between us and this earthly paradise lies grim and brutal civil war. Our exploiters and parasites will never give up their privileges peacefully. And, forthwith, I hear sonic alleged sympathizer, who wishes to proceed peacefully—that is, to submit and beg—set up the familiar strain about the horrors of the French revolution.

Be not dismayed, brethren; there were more people starved to death in France in a single year of the "ancient regime" than perished by the guillotine of the Revolution. And don’t forget that the king might have prevented the storming of the Bastille by throwing open its doors, and might have saved his own head by quitting the king business and earning an honest living as a locksmith. And the noble lords and ladies who perished in the storm of their own raising, the perfumed and gilded vermin, that their own records show them to have been, shall we regret them? No! A thousand times, no!

We who labor wish to live off the fruits of labor; let those who now roll in luxurious idleness, and all who help maintain the present system of spoliation, take warning, and let them profit, if they can, by the lessons of history.

  • John H. Edelmann, “Labor Day (An Undelivered Speech),” The Rebel 1, no. 1 (September 20, 1895): 1-2.