Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


The Rights of Labor*


As far as I am concerned I suppose I am not qualified to speak on the subject of labor (so called) at all. For by "labor" one is popularly supposed to mean only physical work-work with the hands-while other kinds of work, however arduous, rejoice in the genteel title of professions. And one who is a journalist by trade is apt not to designate himself a laborer.

The truth is, however, that every man is a natural born laborer, and idleness is an unhappy disease. It is as natural and inevitable for man to work as it is for him to eat or sleep. In fact, the one is only the reflex action of the other; we receive constant nourishment and daily recuperation, and we live under an iron necessity to set free the accumulated energy which rest and food produce. It is inevitable that we should hate many kinds of work-work for which we are unfitted; but it is more inevitable that we should enjoy work of some kind.

If it were permitted to the professional mind to have opinions on practical matters, I believe I should think of the strike (or of all strikes) somewhat as follows:

In the first place, the present strike, for all its wastefulness, is productive of one priceless good; it has shown people the absurdity and moral wrong in private ownership of natural monopolies. Is it not the limit of perversity? Here is the delightful spectacle of a great nation, with boundless resources in so necessary an article as coal, hampered and annoyed by the obstinate wrangling between an obstinate clique of powerful capitalists on one side and a band of discontented hirelings on the other. And while these two factions, each absolutely selfish, are holding their squabble week after week, the people must go in want of coal! The position is intolerable, and a poetic justice would send the delinquents quickly packing about their business, and hand over the coal fields to state ownership.

Poetic justice, however, is slow, and is only wrought out through the tardy and difficult acts of men as they gradually come to apprehend the finest demands of ethics and to shape their conduct accordingly.

The mine owners and operators are not particularly blameworthy. They are human, like the rest of us. They are men of absolute business integrity. At least, one may assume that much of any prominent American, without knowing him personally at all. They want all they can get lawfully, according to the rules of commercial honor and usage. They are acting quite within their rights, and are no more to be held in obloquy than the rest of us. The trouble is that the great industrial game of modern civilization is run on principles that are morally rotten.

Why? Because it does not recognize right and wrong as absolute standards of conduct. Because it has superceded one false conception of life- the conception which said, "Might makes right," and has set up in its place another equally false, the ideal which says, "Shrewdness makes right." But right and wrong are not matters that can be governed by shrewd and clever self-interest, any more than they can be regulated by brute strength. They are matters of the heart; they always have been so, and always will be as long as the world lasts. And any form of civilization which is built on a moral judgement is bound to fail, as all its predecessors have failed before it. In our systems of ethics we have had the wit to perceive the significance of moral ideals and to declare them necessary and inviolable. In "practical life," however, as we fatuously call it, we have been content to maintain the old cut-throat system of ethics which we inherit from the beasts below us.

And yet one must always be careful not to rail against things as they are. Let us acknowledge they are bad and manfully attempt to right them. It seems to me that the wealthy people are really as quite as great sufferers from the social evils as the poor are, only their woes are not so apparent. The poor suffer from atrophy of the body; the rich suffer from atrophy of the soul.

Now, I think we all acknowledge that every man has a right to work. But he also has a right to which custom does not recognize at all; that is, the right to the fruit of his work. Under present conditions no matter how hard a workman may toil, no matter how eminently skilful he may be, he is only permitted to retain as much of the wealth he produces as will enable him to live and go on working. The landlord and the usurer get the rest.

This is true of all men who earn a living. The landlord and the capitalist are very often perhaps, usually workmen, too, and earn a good living, as they should. But they make more then they earn; and this is wrong because it is made out of the earnings of other men-workmen-without the workmen's consent.

Now, the interests of labor and capital are not diverse, they are one. Both classes are bent on the production of wealth. Neither can do a thing without the assistance of the other. They must work by a compact. And yet the proceeds of their joint efforts are not divided according to any mutual agreement. For one party to the compact takes everything and allows the other party a starvation wage. To the simple-hearted intelligence this seems a monstrous iniquity. I believe that it is so. Surely every man is entitled to his shall of the wealth of the community in proportion to the value and difficulty of the service he renders to that community. Certainly the unintelligent workman cannot expect an equal share with his skilful fellow. But their shares should differ in proportion to their skill, not in proportion to their chicanery. Capital has to employ labor; it also employs the laborers. But labor, quite as truly, has to employ capital. Why doesn't it employ the capitalists?

No, we shall not have any better state of affairs until we have more honest capitalists and more intelligent workmen-men who will refuse to live on the earnings of others, and men who will refuse to work slavishly for the benefit of others. Until we reach such a grade of intelligence and honesty the more strikes we have the better.

"The Rights of Labour," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]