From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
The Wage System
Did you ever stop to ask yourself this question: why were you born from your parents and not from some others?
You understand, of course, what I am driving at. I mean that your consent was not asked. You were simply born; you did not have a chance to select the place of your birth or to choose your parents. It was just chance.
So it happened that you were not born rich. Maybe your people are of the middle class; more likely, though, they belong to the workers, and so you are one of those millions, the masses, who have to work for a living.
The man who has money can put it into some business or industry. He invests it and lives on the profits. But you have no money. You have only your ability to work, your labor power.
There was a time when every workingman worked for himself. There were no factories then and no big industries. The laborer had his own tools and his own little workshop, and he even bought himself the raw materials he needed. He worked for himself, and he was called an artisan or craftsman.
Then came the factory and the large workshop. Little by little they crowded out the independent workman, the artisan, because he could not make things as cheaply as the factory - he could not compete with the big manufacturer. So the artisan had to give up his little workshop and go to the factory to work.
In the factories and large plants things are produced on a big scale. Such big-scale production is called industrialism. It has made the employers and manufacturers very rich, so that the lords of industry and commerce have accumulated much money, much capital. Therefore that system is called capitalism. We all live to-day in the capitalist system.
In the capitalist system the workingman cannot work for himself, as in the old days. He cannot compete with the big manufacturers. So, if you are a workman, you must find an employer. You work for him; that is, you give him your labor for so and so many hours a day or week, and he pays you for it. You sell him your labor power and he pays you wages.
In the capitalist system the whole working class sells its labor power to the employing class. The workers build factories, make machinery and tools, and produce goods. The employers keep the factories, the machinery, tools and goods for themselves as their profit. The workers get only wages.
This arrangement is called the wage system.
Learned men have figured out that the worker receives as his wage only about one-tenthof what he produces. The other nine-tenths are divided among the landlord, the manufacturer, the railroad company, the wholesaler, the jobber, and other middlemen.
It means this:
Though the workers, as a class, have built the factories, a slice of their daily labor is taken from them for the privilege of using those factories.That's the landlord's profit.
Though the workers have made the tools and the machinery, another slice of their daily labor is taken from them for the privilege of using those tools and machinery. That's the manufacturer's profit.
Though the workers built the railroads and are running them, another slice of their daily labor is taken from them for the transportation of the goods they make. That's the railroad's profit.
And so on, including the banker who lends the manufacturer other people's money, the wholesaler, the jobber, and other middlemen, all of whom get their slice of the worker's toil.
What is left then - one-tenth of the real worth of the worker's labor-is his share, his wage.
Can you guess now why the wise Proudhon said that the possessions of the rich are stolen property? Stolen from the producer, the worker.
It seems strange, doesn't it, that such a thing should be permitted?
Yes, indeed, it is very strange; and the strangest thing of all is that the whole world looks on and doesn't do a thing about it. Worse yet, the workers themselves don't do anything about it. Why, most of them think that everything is all right, and that the capitalist system is good.
It is because the workers don't see what is happening to them. They don't understand that they are being robbed. The rest of the world also understands very little about it, and when some honest man tries to tell them, they shout 'anarchist!' at him, and they shut him up or put him in prison.
Of course, the capitalists are very much satisfied with the capitalist system. Why shouldn't they be? They get rich by it. So you can't expect them to say it's no good.
The middle classes are the helpers of the capitalists and they also live off the labor of the working class, so why should they object? Of course, here and there you will find some man or woman of the middle class stand up and speak the truth about the whole matter. But such persons are quickly silenced and cried down as "enemies of the people', as crazy disturbers and anarchists.
But you would think that the workers should be the first to object to the capitalist system, for it is they who are robbed and who suffer most from it.
Yes, so it should be. But it isn't so, which is very sad.
The workers know that the shoe pinches somewhere. They know that they toil hard all their lives and that they get just enough to exist on, and sometimes not even enough. They see that their employers can ride about in fine automobiles and live in the greatest luxury, with their wives decked out in expensive clothes and diamonds, while the worker's wife can hardly afford a new calico dress. So the workers seek to improve their condition by trying to get better wages. It is the same as if I woke up at night in my house and found that a burglar had collected all my things and is about to get away with them. Suppose that instead of stopping him, I should say to him: 'Please, Mr. Burglar, leave me at least one suit of clothes so I can have something to put on', and then thank him if he gives me back a tenth part of the things he has stolen from me.
But I am getting ahead of my story. We shall return to the worker and see how he tries to improve his condition and how little he succeeds. Just now I want to tell you why the worker does not take the burglar by the neck and kick him out; that is, why he begs the capitalist for a little more bread or wages, and why he does not throw him off his back, altogether.
It is because the worker, like the rest of the world, has been made to believe that everything is all right and must remain as it is; and that if a few things are not quite as they should be, then it is because 'people are bad', and everything will right itself in the end, anyhow.
Just see if that is not true of yourself. At home, when you were a child, and when you asked so many questions, you were told that 'it is right so,' that 'it must be so,' that 'God made it so,' and that everything was all right.
And you believed your father and mother, as they had believed their fathers and mothers, and that is why you now think just as your grandfather did.
Later, in school, you were told the same things. You were taught that God had made the world and that all is well; that there must be rich and poor, and that you should respect the rich and be content with your lot. You were told that your country stands for justice, and that you must obey the law. The teacher, the priest, and the preacher all impressed it upon you that your life is ordained by God and that 'His will be done.' And when you saw a poor man dragged off to prison, they told you that he was bad because he had stolen something, and that it was a great crime.
But neither at home, nor in school, nor anywhere else were you ever told that it is a crime for the rich man to steal the product of the worker's labor, or that the capitalists are rich because they have possessed themselves of the wealth which labor created.
No, you were never told that, nor did any one else ever hear it in school or church. How can you then expect the workers to know it?
On the contrary, your mind - when you were a child and later on, too - has been stuffed so full of false ideas that when you hear the plain truth you wonder if it is really possible.
Perhaps you can see now why the workers do not understand that the wealth they have created has been stolen from them and is being stolen every day.
'But the law,' you ask, 'the government -- does it permit such robbery? Is not theft forbidden by law?'
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