Remarks on John Rogers Commons's "Is Class Conflict in America Growing and is it Inevitable?", December 31, 1907

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My opinion in regard to this question, I am sorry to say, varies from time to time, like that of the woman who was asked whether her husband was a Christian. She said that sometimes when she heard him speak at prayer meetings she thought he was, and sometimes when she heard him speak at home she thought he was not, so that, although she was sorry to seem so stupid, she really could not tell. Sometimes when I hear the talk in labor meetings, especially when the speaker is a good, straight socialist, I am quite sure that we are going through the same economic development in America that other countries have experienced and that we can only reach the inevitable salvation through a class conflict; then there are other periods when I see people of [diverse] economic standing going about their daily work with very similar hopes and ambitions and I conclude that after all there is not much class conflict in America. I should like to take up three points in Mr. Commons' paper, one for and two against the contention that the class-conscious struggle is increasing in America.

The first point in the paper which occurs to me to be open to discussion is the statement that as but one-third of the workers are engaged in industrial processes, they alone are subjected to the acute operations of class-consciousness. To my mind it does not follow that the other two-thirds are not also subjected to the same social results of industry. The "industrial conflict" is very absorbing and has many characteristics of a game. Modern life does not offer many episodes which are as exciting as a strike. The "industrial psychology" -- I am very grateful to Mr. Commons for that phrase -- divides people into two camps, through their sympathies quite as [page 2] definitely as it does through their experiences. In moments of real excitement "the fair-minded public," who ought to be depended upon as a referee, practically disappears. At least that has been our experience in Chicago during the teamsters' strike and other similar moments. This increasing sense of sympathetic participation is therefore, to my mind, a point in favor of the contention that class-consciousness is growing.

The next points which I should like to discuss present arguments against a class-conscious struggle. First, the point which Mr. Commons made in regard to immigration: That the first experiences of the immigrants in America doubtless break into their former European class-consciousness, but that later the immigrants are incorporated into the working-class consciousness which is rapidly being formed in America, and that thus an orderly development goes on. I quite agree with Mr. Commons' description of the immigrants' first experience but not with his second. My observation leads me to conclude that the result upon the immigrants of having had their class-consciousness broken into, and the necessity of making new and unprecedented connections with the community about them, is in itself such an educating process that when they reach the second stage in which class-consciousness begins to form again on other lines, the process itself has been so educating that they can't get back to the original position in order to start afresh; the very basis has evaporated so to speak. If you are an Italian and are forced to make friends through the very exigencies of the situation with a Polish Jew representing another nationality, another religion which cuts into all your most cherished prejudices, it isn't so hard after that to make a larger synthesis and include everybody with whom you come in contact. All succeeding efforts will be less fundamental and easier to make. People are after all more or less alike, and it is much harder to utilize your prejudices after they have once failed you than it was to break into them the first time. It requires less effort to be friends with your employer than it required in the first place to be friends with your alien fellow-employee if one effort follows after the other. Immigration by its very variety is bringing in its own education. An old enemy working by your side has turned into a comrade. It is quite possible that your employer formerly regarded as an enemy, mitigated by feudal survivals, is also not so bad.

Mr. Commons made a most suggestive analysis of the effect of the "trust" upon the situation. The trust is of course the great educator of us all, and I suppose in the end, as a brilliant Englishman has said, "The trust, when it is finished, will bring forth socialism," for its unimpeded growth must at last include all of us. The fact that the trust breaks up temporary trade-unionism brings the workers into a state of mind -- may I use the phrase industrial psychology again -- which makes it difficult to get back to the class-conscious position. I have heard many discussions in regard to the evils of the speeding-up process which we have just heard described by Mr. Commons, [page 3] but the man whom I heard speak most bitterly in regard to it was himself a manager in a huge manufacturing plant. The managers in the various departments of such a plant compete with each other and the one who drives his men the hardest, whose department makes the best showing in the reduction of cost, is the one in line for promotion. The manager feels the wretchedness of such a situation very keenly and the workmen under him know how he feels about it. There grows up a certain common experience between them and the men say, "The manager is in the same box with us." The blame for the actual condition of things is thus transferred from the actual manager of a department to the one next in authority on and on until it reaches the stockholders or that which in the popular mind is a horrible thing, the trust itself. When the blame reaches the trust it must become impersonal, for the stockholders of a given concern change every day with the operations of the stock exchange. When an enemy is impersonal, it is difficult to be bitter, although one may yet be very bellicose and determined. When the trust is the enemy it comes to be a matter for governmental action. I suppose one reason for the popularity of the recent federal attempts to regulate the trusts has been the impression that the President is a general leading the nation against a common enemy; that the cause of economic difficulty has at last been located. But to advance toward a common enemy is to unite all those who march into a sense of comradeship and mutual undertaking which for the moment at least makes class feeling between them extremely difficult. One may almost assert that so long as the nation is in this mood, class-consciousness is not increasing.

From my own experience I should say perhaps that the one symptom among working-men which most definitely indicates a class feeling is a growing distrust of the integrity of the courts, the belief that the present judge has been a corporation attorney, that his sympathies and experience and his whole view of life is on the corporation side. Either this distrust is growing rapidly or the statement of it is being more distinctly made every day. It may be that with the advance in social legislation which has been discerned by the reader of the paper and has been reasserted by Mr. Taylor this distrust will be allayed. Certainly it has been apparent throughout all the discussions today that the scholar and the working-man are uniting in a demand for social legislation, and it may well be possible that the amelioration which we all hope is thus being inaugurated will result in a further lessening of the class conflict. I know of course, that such a statement must sound like "rose water for the plague," but in an effort to give quite honestly and plainly one's own experience, one can only after all reaffirm the careful analysis of the situation as made by Mr. Commons which shows that the conflict is disappearing from the very exigencies of industry: that the newer organization of industry brings the employer himself into a position subordinate to the trust: the trust is composed of the constantly changing stockholders [page 4]; the trust can be controlled only by the government which after all in a democracy is composed of all the citizens, a universal class. In making this rose-colored deduction, I realize that I am speaking vaguely, but I hope not foolishly.

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