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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

How the Factory Worker Was Born

(13 April 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 15, 13 April 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Was your father a worker in the shop like you? Maybe. Was your grandfather? Not very likely. How about your great-great-grandfather? Why, no. Definitely no. He was a farmer, or a farm laborer, or maybe a skilled craftsman on his own. Hardly anybody’s great-great grandfather was a factory worker.

If you question typical American steelworkers you will see that they come from Poland, Ireland, Hungary, Serbia (Yugoslavia), southern U.S. – and if they didn’t that’s where their fathers came from. If you question the auto workers you will find that many came from the mid-west, from Kentucky and Tennessee. And their fathers and grandfathers from Ireland, Italy, Germany, England, Poland, etc. All of them farmers or farm hands before they came in the shop.

Everybody says we live in a changing world. Well that’s part of the changing of it. People changed from farmers and craftsmen into factory workers – from working for themselves to working for a boss whom they never even see. This has happened on a tremendous scale. The number of American workers has jumped from a few hundred thousand in 1846 to forty million today.

A person can’t help thinking. Where did the forty rnillion come from? Suppose they did come from the farms and tiny shops of Europe and America? There were farms for thousands of years, weren’t there? What did the forty million do then, when no charitable Henry Ford gave them jobs to sweat in the nerve-racking din of the production line?

It used to take a lot of people to run a little farm. When they cut wheat and oats with a hand scythe, it took more than the hired man to do the work. The farmers used to run to big families. Their sons and daughters found it a full-time job to do the chores and keep the beans hoed, to plant and harvest the grain and weed the corn. When McCormick invented the reaper in the 1840’s he gave Henry Ford many thousands of his labor force. Only Ford did not get them at that time.

Instead of throwing people off the farms, this invention led to more farms being started up – and the great mid-west being opened up to wheat production. The country was still expanding. The farmers’ surplus sons started new farms.

But when all the land had been taken up, and the reaper had been surpassed by the harvester and combine, more and more farm boys had to go to the cities to “seek their fortunes.” And now with the tractor methods and still more advanced farming equipment, whole communities of farms and buildings are wiped off the earth (as in Oklahoma and Arkansas) to make way for the big capitalist farms. And thus new recruits join the industrial army.

The farmers of Europe starve (and want to leave there) for a different reason. America’s wheat is produced so cheaply that it can undersell the rest of the world. The ox-drawn plow and the man with the hoe or scythe cannot stay in business and prosper. American capitalism makes the European children come and work for it, or wait for work at the plant gate.

When capitalism first started in England, it got its labor force even more brutally. Besides running the handworkers out of business, and hiring their children at literally starvation wages, the capitalists passed special laws forcing people off the land. They made begging a crime and paupers were put in a workhouse so horrible that they were glad to work in the mills for a few pennies a day.

The modern wage worker was whipped, driven and forced into his present servitude. The factory system, which produces so much and has the power to emancipate the worker from his chains, is now his master. To get his freedom the worker must master the factory system. And to accomplish this, he must understand the secret of capitalist exploitation. He must understand the product he makes, and how the boss makes his profit out of the worker’s labor on it.

Next Week: The Things We Produce

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