Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

The Social Revolution

But the New Engines Were Very Expensive and Only People of Wealth Could Afford Them. The Old Carpenter or Shoemaker Who Had Been His Own Master in His Little Workshop Was Obliged to Hire Himself Out to the Owners of the Big Mechanical Tools, and While He Made More Money Than Before, He Lost His Former Independence and He Did Not Like That

I N the olden days the work of the world had been done by independent workmen who sat in their own little workshops in the front of their houses, who owned their tools, who boxed the ears of their own apprentices and who, within the limits prescribed by their guilds, conducted their business as it pleased them. They lived simple lives, and were obliged to work very long hours, but they were their own masters. If they got up and saw that it was a fine day to go fishing, they went fishing and there was no one to say "no."

But the introduction of machinery changed this. A machine is really nothing but a greatly enlarged tool. A railroad train which carries you at the speed of a mile a minute is in reality a pair of very fast legs, and a steam hammer which flattens heavy plates of iron is just a terrible big fist, made of steel.

But whereas we can all afford a pair of good legs and a good strong fist, a railroad train and a steam hammer and a cotton factory are very expensive pieces of machinery and they are not owned by a single man, but usually by a company of people who all contribute a certain sum and then divide the profits of their railroad or cotton mill according to the amount of money which they have invested.


Man Power and Machine Power

Therefore, when machines had been improved until they were really practicable and profitable, the builders of those large tools, the machine manufacturers, began to look for customers who could afford to pay for them in cash.

During the early middle ages, when land had been almost the only form of wealth, the nobility were the only people who were considered wealthy. But as I have told you in a previous chapter, the gold and silver which they possessed was quite insignificant and they used the old system of barter, exchanging cows for horses and eggs for honey. During the crusades, the burghers of the cities had been able to gather riches from the reviving trade between the east and the west, and they had been serious rivals of the lords and the knights.

The French revolution had entirely destroyed the wealth of the nobility and had enormously increased that of the middle class or "bourgeoisie." The years of unrest which followed the Great Revolution had offered many middle-class people a chance to get more than their share of this world's goods. The estates of the church had been confiscated by the French Convention and had been sold at auction. There had been a terrific amount of graft. Land speculators had stolen thousands of square miles of valuable land, and during the Napoleonic wars, they had used their capital to "profiteer" in grain and gun-powder, and now they possessed more wealth than they needed for the actual expenses of their households, and they could afford to build themselves factories and to hire men and women to work the machines.

This caused a very abrupt change in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Within a few years, many cities doubled the number of their inhabitants and the old civic centre which had been the real "home" of the citizens was surrounded with ugly and cheaply built suburbs where the workmen slept after their eleven or twelve hours, or thirteen hours, spent in the factories and from where they returned to the factory as soon as the whistle blew.

Far and wide through the countryside there was talk of the fabulous sums of money that could be made in the towns. The peasant boy, accustomed to a life in the open, went to the city. He rapidly lost his old health amidst the smoke and dust and dirt of those early and badly ventilated workshops, and the end, very often, was death in the poor-house or in the hospital.

Of course the change from the farm to the factory on the part of so many people was not accomplished without a certain amount of opposition. Since one engine could do as much work as a hundred men, the ninety-nine others who were thrown out of employment did not like it. Frequently they attacked the factory-buildings and set fire to the machines, but Insurance Companies had been organised as early as the 17th century and as a rule the owners were well protected against loss.


The Factory

Soon, newer and better machines were installed, the factory was surrounded with a high wall and then there was an end to the rioting. The ancient guilds could not possibly survive in this new world of steam and iron. They went out of existence and then the workmen tried to organise regular labour unions. But the factory-owners, who through their wealth could exercise great influence upon the politicians of the different countries, went to the Legislature and had laws passed which forbade the forming of such trade unions because they interfered with the "liberty of action" of the working man.

Please do not think that the good members of Parliament who passed these laws were wicked tyrants. They were the true sons of the revolutionary period when everybody talked of "liberty" and when people often killed their neighbours because they were not quite as liberty-loving as they ought to have been. Since "liberty" was the foremost virtue of man, it was not right that labour-unions should dictate to their members the hours during which they could work and the wages which they must demand. The workman must at all times, be "free to sell his services in the open market," and the employer must be equally "free" to conduct his business as he saw fit. The days of the Mercantile System, when the state had regulated the industrial life of the entire community, were coming to an end. The new idea of "freedom" insisted that the state stand entirely aside and let commerce take its course.

The last half of the 18th century had not merely been a time of intellectual and political doubt, but the old economic ideas, too, had been replaced by new ones which better suited the need of the hour. Several years before the French revolution, Turgot, who had been one of the unsuccessful ministers of finance of Louis XVI, had preached the novel doctrine of "economic liberty." Turgot lived in a country which had suffered from too much red-tape, too many regulations, too many officials trying to enforce too many laws. "Remove this official supervision," he wrote, "let the people do as they please, and everything will be all right." Soon his famous advice of "laissez faire" became the battle-cry around which the economists of that period rallied.

At the same time in England, Adam Smith was working on his mighty volumes on the "Wealth of Nations," which made another plea for "liberty" and the "natural rights of trade." Thirty years later, after the fall of Napoleon, when the reactionary powers of Europe had gained their victory at Vienna, that same freedom which was denied to the people in their political relations was forced upon them in their industrial life.

The general use of machinery, as I have said at the beginning of this chapter, proved to be of great advantage to the state. Wealth increased rapidly. The machine made it possible for a single country, like England, to carry all the burdens of the great Napoleonic wars. The capitalists (the people who provided the money with which machines were bought) reaped enormous profits. They became ambitious and began to take an interest in politics. They tried to compete with the landed aristocracy which still exercised great influence upon the government of most European countries.

In England, where the members of Parliament were still elected according to a Royal Decree of the year 1265, and where a large number of recently created industrial centres were without representation, they brought about the passing of the Reform Bill of the year 1832, which changed the electoral system and gave the class of the factory-owners more influence upon the legislative body. This however caused great discontent among the millions of factory workers, who were left without any voice in the government. They too began an agitation for the right to vote. They put their demands down in a document which came to be known as the "People's Charter." The debates about this charter grew more and more violent. They had not yet come to an end when the revolutions of the year 1848 broke out. Frightened by the threat of a new outbreak of Jacobinism and violence, the English government placed the Duke of Wellington, who was now in his eightieth year, at the head of the army, and called for Volunteers. London was placed in a state of siege and preparations were made to suppress the coming revolution.

But the Chartist movement killed itself through bad leadership and no acts of violence took place. The new class of wealthy factory owners, (I dislike the word "bourgeoisie" which has been used to death by the apostles of a new social order,) slowly increased its hold upon the government, and the conditions of industrial life in the large cities continued to transform vast acres of pasture and wheat-land into dreary slums, which guard the approach of every modern European town.

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