The Wage Question

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Joshua King Ingalls

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New York, Sept. 10, 1877.

Editor American Socialist:—I am tempted by the leading article of your paper for Aug. 30th to say a word upon a subject of deep interest. Hall truths are a most prolific source of error. This is the trouble with our political economists, when they attempt to treat of the labor question. An important factor is invariably omitted, namely, the relation of the worker to the thing produced.

I find no fault with the Shakers or others who employ hireling labor, put out money to usury, or profit by any other method of advantage-taking. As a means of protection to themselves against the destructive competition of the business world, or as a means to hasten the adoption of Communism, it is perhaps excusable; but as a principle, it has no shadow of defense; and if “Labor Reform agitators” regard it as a violation of the principles professed by Communists, they compliment the principles, though they may not do entire justice to the practices.

Whether it is an “injury or a benefit to the laborer to be hired and paid liberal wages,” is very wide of the real question. If a benefit is the immediate result, it would to that extent be an encouragement to remain in that false and immoral relation, and put off, rather than promote, a salutary change. Plainly, it is a question of principle, about which there need be no more obfuscation, by special pleading, than as to whether any other form of wrong-taking was right.

Communists certainly can not contend that the control of wealth may be properly taken from the producer. So far as I am informed, every successful Community has guarded it with scrupulous care: on the ground unquestionably, that it belongs to the Community producing it. That they generously share with poorer Communities (of their order) is true, and even to some extent with the world’s poor. But as to the fact of en active and vigilant control, there can be no question. Have they then settled the labor question, or only ignored it? Would an able-bodied member be justly entitled to share in the results of the combined labor, who persisted in idleness? Are not all the comforts, enjoyments and refinements of life the result of faithful work and earnest endeavor? If so, ho has no claim in or out of Community, who will not when capable reciprocate the service he requires. Doing unto others as we would have others do to us is the ground-work of the Christian principle. “He that will not work, neither shall he eat,” is good Scripture.

Since all wealth is derived from work, ho who would seek wealth or the enjoyment of it without work is consciously or unconsciously plotting to rob the worker of what he has produced. Our present system of trade being but a modification of the brigandage and piracy of earlier times, still sanctions practices of the vilest rapacity. It is therefore difficult for the individual, and even for a small Community, to follow principle in dealing with the world. On this ground and no other can 3. even arouse myself in acquiring profit from hireling labor, whether directly or by indirect methods, as of rents, usance or other devices. And now I can not see any different principle, whether these things are done by an individual or a Community. I acknowledge and deplore these false conditions, end will do all in my power to promote a public sentiment which will make Christian honesty possible.

The statement in regard to the Oneida Community and its employees is exceedingly interesting, but is far from conclusive. In the partnership with which I am familiar it happens that the three partners (Communists in business matters) with their families number nearly the same as the men and boys they employ in their factory. Yet if the families of the employees were also counted they would number at least three times as many. It further appears that for three or four years peat the amounts divided between these partners as profits has in each year been nearly the same as the amount paid in wages.

Now businesses are not all alike profitable, and the proportion of employers to employees varies widely in different branches and instances. But I am satisfied from a long examination of the subject, and from such statistics as are available, that from a general average of all successful industrial operations a very similar result would be shown. In the case of the O. C., it is not stated whether the one-half shared by the Community represents net profits after compensation to such work as has been done by members of the Community has been made. If so, the statement might mislead: since the employees have the whole cost of their own support and of those dependent on them, to be deducted from their share.

That the practice of a Community is excusable in this respect as that of an individual, or of an ordinary partnership would be, is not questioned. But it would be difficult, I think, to show that it involves a different principle, or is more just or liberal. During the last four years of depression, the firm to which I have alluded has constantly paid wages far in advance of what labor could have obtained if the rule of competing rates had been strictly applied, and the same could be said of thousands of employers all over the country. But all this does not prove the wage system any the less cruel or unjust, only that most men in or out of Community are too humane to take full advantage of it.

I wish to say a word with regard to the quotation from Mr. Nordhoff. I have never supposed there was any “necessary and natural antagonism between labor and capital;” hut when asked to infer thence that capital can not be used to distress the industrious poor, the “ignorance,” if any, is betrayed on the other side. We are compelled to conclude that he is ignorant that capital has been employed to furnish manacles for slaves, and ships to transport them to bondage in a strange land; that it is employed to-day in corrupting legislators, forming credit mobiliers, in plundering the impoverished workers of their right to land and home, and in every system of stock-gambling and corporate monopoly which greed can devise. In order that capital may be serviceable “to the whole mass of those who have no capital,” it is not only necessary that it should be employed, but honestly employed. When used to promote “wicked, wasteful war,” or to “corner” faith-fail industry, monopolize the land (industry’s only resource), or organize raids upon the earnings of labor, It is made a fearful instrument of wrong. “Hiding in en old stocking or in the ground,” can do labor little harm, theoretically. To be of service, it must be used in no such way as to exploit from work a moiety of its productions. Such use is not honest, but dishonest in the last degree. That the adoption of honesty in our useful industries, end a reciprocal system of exchange, would unfold a grand and universal cooperative movement, seems so clear to me, that if permitted I may sometime try and make it clear to your readers.

J. K. Ingalls.

  • Joshua King Ingalls, “The Wage Question,” The American Socialist 2, no. 38 (September 20, 1877): 298.