Our chess‐​playing, motion picture‐​inventing, radical individualist author urges gentlemanly peers to share their profits and respect their workers.

Wordsworth Donisthorpe's "The Claims of Labour; or, Serfdom, Wagedom, and Freedom"

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our first selection from Donisthorpe’s The Claims of Labour, our author introduced his project and purposes. The book was intended to follow The Principles of Plutology, in which Donisthorpe presents his personal view of economic science. Having addressed to his satisfaction the creation of wealth, Donisthorpe moves in The Claims of Labour to discuss the distribution of that wealth. He notes at the start that while economists may well explain declining wage rates with reference to supply and demand, “To the working man it is no consolation to be told that this is a law of nature against which it is of no avail to struggle…He is apt to think that the sooner such a law of nature repealed, the better.” Donisthorpe was, no doubt, keenly aware that nature did not provide human beings with motion pictures, either. But, like greater economic equality, motion pictures were in fact possible with the proper application of human creativity and material wealth. “It is no mere question of speculative interest,” he implored his audience, “It is a question of life and death to millions of hard‐​working men and women, not only now living, but for untold generations to come.” “Remnant era” libertarians like he were far from content with the state of the world as given, and they sought anarchistic, often technologically disruptive methods of achieving revolutionary change in individuals’ daily lives. States moved far too slowly for a world driven by combustion engines and a human species connected together by transoceanic telegraph cables.

Donisthorpe proposes to replace–gradually and voluntarily, of course–the industrial‐​corporate‐​capitalist mode of production with a new form of organization in which laborers share profits with the owners of material capital. In his retelling of history, “the great middle class under the industrial regime” rose by the late 1400s to contest the landed aristocracy as the primary ruling power in England. This tension “consummated in the Reform Act of 1832; its subdivision into two distinct parties, employers and employed, masters and men, or superintending labourers and manual labourers, are grand historical facts.” Should one view history “from below,” Donisthorpe no doubt would agree, one quickly learns how little the state actually matters in the daily lives of the modern working person. In real lived experience, economic and social power became far more important expressions of power than mere political pull. Donisthorpe continued, “The battle is now between the employer and the employed; year by year the strife waxes hotter. We are in the midst of it. Louder and louder roar the discontented hosts of wage‐​receivers; inch by inch the baffled capitalists retire before the onward pressure of numbers. The masters (derisive appellation!) tremble; they negotiate; they offer terms; they buy off the enemy–for a while.” And though he spends The Claims of Labour addressing the major demands of and concerns with his system of quasi‐​syndicalism, Donisthorpe saw that politics only postponed bloodier, more direct social combat: “And then again the billows swell and roll forward as before. Whither does all this tend? To Communism, destruction of property–whither?”

Three years after his death, of course, the largest country on the planet fell to communism. Within a few years, “War Communism” virtually melted Russian cities. The people burned their furniture and houses to stay warm; they ate rats, leather clothing, and even dead bodies to survive. Attempting to avoid such horrific modern calamities, radical liberals like Donisthorpe offered a genuinely peaceful and productive path to the future. Unfortunately, the masses and elites alike failed to hear his and others’ advice.

Further Reading: Stephen Herbert & Mo Heard. Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s Kinesigraph. London: The Projection Box. 1998; Sheldon Richman, “War Communism to NEP: The Road from Serfdom,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies V, No. 1 (Winter 1981): 89–97.

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By Wordsworth Donisthorpe. London: Samuel Tinsley & Co. 1880.

The Claims of Labour; or, Serfdom, Wagedom, and Freedom

2. On Providence.–Under the present system of wagedom the workman receives weekly a fixed sum, which he very naturally regards as practically an income to be relied on. True, a depression in trade may bring about a reduction, but not without a long notice and probably a fierce fight: or he may possibly be among those who are dismissed altogether; but this is a remote and highly improbable contingency, to set off against which there is the chance of a rise in wages and the possibility of promotion. On the whole, then, it is only reasonable that he should regard this present wage as a fixed income, up to which he may live, but which must not be exceeded. That this is the view taken by most working‐​men is well known, and the consequences are equally well known. The day of decline comes, the inevitable reduction is at hand; retrenchment must be made. It is true that the labourer ought to have laid up provision against probable or possible mishap, but having jogged along for years at a fixed wage, how, in the name of reason, is providence to be learnt? Bearing in mind that trade cycles are about ten years in length or thereabouts, it follows that a young man starting work at fifteen may never know what it is to have his income set back until he is twenty‐​five, with a wife and children and an accustomed standard of comfort. Is it in the nature of most men, having earned twenty‐​one shillings, to walk down on a Saturday to the penny bank in order to deposit the odd shilling over and above the twenty shillings required at home, in case it may be wanted five or six years hence? Of course it goes after the twenty shillings, just to give an extra fillip to existence–in beer, gin, tobacco, or any other article that serves to justify a little chat at the public‐​house. Hence it follows that a reduction of wages is sometimes tantamount to the ruin, or at least disgrace, or the workman.

Now what will be the effect of paying for labour by a share of profits? The employer ceases to insure his work‐​people; they will have to insure themselves. One week they will receive their thirty shillings, and the next their twenty, instead of a uniform twenty‐​five. That is to say, they will each week (or it may be each quarter) receive the real value of their work, instead of the average value reckoned over a very long period. Thus they will learn providence by experience, daily experience, as their masters have done, for they will be compelled to put by the surplus on good weeks to make up for inevitable deficiencies on bad weeks. No preaching will inculcate providence. Experience alone can teach it, and yet this very experience is denied to our working classes. Whether they like it or no, their average earnings are insured for them, and they are in the position of a manufacturer who should accept a fixed annuity for the profits of his business.

But further, the new system will conduce to mitigate the notorious improvidence of our laboring population in yet another way. Any recipient of a fluctuating income knows very well that he considers himself justified in living up to the minimum, and not the average annual receipt. That is his standard, and all above that is regarded as so much “to the good.” So that an artisan whose earnings fluctuate between twenty and thirty shillings, will spend not the average twenty‐​five, but the minimum twenty shillings, and the balance will be put by.

3. On the Natural Thrift.–When a man in receipt of a guinea a week spends a pound on his household expenses, a flings away the odd shilling upon any little luxuries that come in his way, he is by no means an unnatural specimen of his kind. It would take a couple of years’ saving to cover a month’s extra wage, and two years is a long time. Besides, there is very little inducement to put it by at all. But now suppose his income to fluctuate; he will then find it very easy, when he must put by four shillings, to put by the odd fifth shilling along with it: the shilling which now, through its very insignificance, is virtually thrown away, or worse. A distinct effort of volition will be required in order to hold it back. A deliberate intention of spending so much a week in luxuries will have to take the place of a careless habit. Has anyone ever attempted to estimate the enormous gain to the country which this aggregate thrift would bring about? Out of the twenty‐​five millions a year and more which the revenue derives from the taxes on beer, wine, and spirits, how much is due to the odd shillings and six‐​pences that are spent at the public by the respectable and steady workman, merely because it is in pocket, it is not particularly needed at home, and he has nothing better to do with it?

Money put by in a bank means a demand for capital as opposed to a demand for articles of direct consumption. It is no exaggeration to estimate the annual increase of capital in the country on the establishment of the proposed system of labour payment at many millions a year. A few years after its introduction, the books of the Post Office and other savings‐​banks will take many by surprise.

4. On Economy of Production.–It is not at present desirable to raise the previous question whether such a method of paying the workman is practicable. That question will receive full consideration later on; just now the feasibility of the plan may be assumed, and the effects alone considered.

Enormous as are the gains to society already specified, they are insignificant in comparison with others to which attention must now be directed. And first of all, the cost of production of all articles manufactured under the new system is seen at once to be diminished in at least four ways, each of immense importance. Inasmuch as the system will constitute all the hands partners in the concern, industry will be rendered coincident with self‐​interest; and each workman, finding himself a member of a great partnership, will be jealous of the rest, and the idler will be tabooed and eventually got rid of. Dick will not work ten hours in order that Tom may work eight, both receiving the same wage; nor will he work hard in order that Tom may loiter. Nor will he make it even by loitering too. Not a bit of it. The tendency will be not as now, to level down, but to level up. The lazy and the unskilled must become industrious and skillful, or go to the wall. Little by little an immense, cumbrous, and costly organization of overlookers, or, as one might call them, slave‐​drivers, will be dispensed with. The men will be jointly and severally their own overlookers. At present the workman very naturally regards his employer as a rival or an enemy–so he is; and unless he be more than ordinarily high‐​principled, he scamps his work, or at least gets as much pay as he can for as little effort as possible. And who shall say that he is not justified in so doing? It is the world‐​wide practice. And yet how much do these few words signify: “As much pay for as little work as possible”! Why, they mean that British industry (and that of other countries) is the result of slave‐​driving, of grudged labour, of exacted work; and this means that the work done is less than a quarter of what it would be under a regime of justice and common sense–and of incalculably inferior quality. Hence the need for efficient overlooking. The salaries of overlookers is an important factor in the cost of production. And yet what can an overlooker do? He may lead your ox to the water, but he cannot make him drink. He may enforce the appearance of work, but not the true article. He cannot infuse into his toiling subjects the spirit of the old builders, whose work was a labour of love, whose soul was in their art, and whose reward was the toil itself. Such is the work of the independent and self‐​interested worker. It is not the work of the slave, who sweats for another. Mercenaries are not the soldiers for a forlorn hope, nor have the grandest works of art been made to order, at so much a day. Overlookers are indeed quite necessary under the present system; but abolish them altogether, make the men their own overlookers, overlookers of greater efficiency and ubiquitous withal, and what a saving in cost of production have we here, to say nothing of the moral effect of the change!

But this elimination is by no means the greatest reduction in cost of production; for when industry is rendered coincident with self‐​interest, every man will naturally and cheerfully work as hard and as well as he can; at least it will be his interest to do so, and not, as now, to shirk and scamp. Wherever anything approaching to this payment‐​in‐​profit system has been tried, as in “butty‐​gangs,” or in piece‐​work, or in other modifications, as in the slate‐​quarries in Wales, so ably described by the late Professor Cairnes, it has always been found to succeed admirably; and even when a share of gross profits has been allotted as a bonus to overlookers, the result has been satisfactory; and this in spite of the blind attempts of the legislature to regulate the joint efforts with a view to gain of more than a very few persons. The object of the men, as of the masters, will be to make as much as possible of that quality of article which pays best in the market, a quality which, though not always necessarily superfine, is what it appears to be, and good of its sort. Cheap goods are as much in demand, or more, than dear ones, though the quality is known to be inferior. One does not expect honeydew when one asks for shag, or velvet when one asks for velveteen. Fifteen‐​carat gold is as honest as eighteen‐​carat, and probably drives a better trade. But the inferior quality which is to be deprecated is the sham. Even masters are not fully awake to the difference between a cheap article and a sham one, between butterine sold as such, and butterine sold as butter. The scamping of workmen has much to answer for, but it is doubtful whether manufacturers are not the more culpable of the two. Be this as it may, the existing tendency to scamp work will, under the new system, diminish, pari passu, with the increased experience of the workman, and the imposing suite of chairs and tables from which the castors drop off, and the veneer begins to peel on an hour’s exposure to the fire, will be a thing of the past. In other words, the manufacturers themselves will cease to be deceived in the quality of the goods they manufacture, and to this extent at least the public will benefit. The perfidy of manufacturers has of late received a considerable and well‐​merited punishment, which may prove valuable lesson for the future; so that an improvement of quality of goods all round may be anticipated when the hands become partners.

The more immediate effect of the change would, however, be on the quantity of work done. This has already been observed under parallel circumstances, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that, were all the labourers vitally interested in getting through as much work as possible, instead of as little as possible, the same number of hours would produce at least four times the present quantity. Anyone who has watched bricklayers at work on ordinary occasions, may have been struck with the remarkable, almost studied, sluggishness of their movements; and if he has also observed the same men at work under the stimulus of a prize on condition of completing a promised wall within a given time, he will have been amazed at the contrast. It is confidently reiterated that the new system would quadruple the amount of goods produced in this country.

Another important source of economy would be the proper appointment of time to the quality of effort. For the labourers will admittedly be the best judges of their own hours of labour. They will wish to work as much as possible, but not as many hours as possible. Dr. Whewell, speaking of the value of time for the purposes of study, used to say: ‘Four and two make six: six and two make four;’ meaning that the man who read eight hours a day did no better than the man who read four. Six hours, he thought, is the largest amount of time which can economically be spent in intellectual study. So is it with other branches of work. Some kinds of labour may be economically continued for ten or even twelve hours a day, whilst others cannot be wisely prolonged beyond four or five.

Such differences in the nature of work do exist, as all men well know, except the six hundred and odd gentlemen constituting the House of Commons, who persistently legislate on the assumption that no such variations exist. When, therefore, the aim of any body of working‐​men is to get through as much work as possible, they will find out be experience what is the best length of time to work per day, taking the nature of the work into the calculation, and being guided in their decision by a proper regard to the economy of their forces. That is to say, if, by working hard seven hours a day, they find they can accomplish as much as by working at a necessarily reduced expenditure of force, for eight hours, they will prefer seven to eight hours.

Nor is it only the hands, as an organized body, that will thus be enabled to economise force by apportioning time to strength; the individual member of each body of workpeople will be similarly in a position to find out how long he can economically work at a stretch, or per day, and he will work so long accordingly; but before this can be admitted by the reader, certain other effects of the new system must first be pointed out and examined.

Thus it appears that cost of production will be diminished in several ways; first of all a great reduction in labour will be effected by dispensing with the services of certain middlemen or overlookers, whose work is virtually of the nonproductive order; second, a great improvement in the quality of workmanship will accompany the workman’s sense of property in the article he fabricates; third, an immense increase in the quantity of work done will follow the adoption of the new system for the same reason; fourth, a due adjustment of time to energy, of hours of labour to character of work, will effect a great economy in the expenditure of human force, to which may be added the application of the same rule to the physical, mental, and social inequalities of individual workers. The due appreciation of these purely industrial advantages may now be left to the understanding and imagination of the reader, whilst other effects of the system are passed in review–effects rather of a moral and social character than purely economical, though none the less important politically. Possibly some will already have admitted that the gradual abolition of wagedom is the key to the solution of the labour question.

5. On the Liberty of the Workman.–It has already been remarked that some men can, as a matter of mere strength, work longer than others, and that, with a true regard to economy, such inequalities should be taken into consideration. There are other limits besides that of simple endurance which may well deserve attention. Under the present system of fixed hours a labourer is unable to choose his own holidays, to shorten his time in case of indisposition, to attend to other passing duties, or, in short, to dispose of his own time. Beyond giving notice, or running the risk of getting the sack, his liberty is of the scantiest. It is undeniable that at certain times, such as the gardening or haymaking season, it would suit some artisans to quit their daily toil and to change their employment. It would pay them better, and it would do them good in body and mind. So again, those whose wives keep lodging‐​houses sometimes might well dispose of their time in helping at home; but such a thing is out of the question under the present rigorous system. Now, when the hands are the guardians of the work‐​time, when each sees that his fellows are paid according to the work they do, not according to the time they spend, nor even according to the efforts they put forth, it will be easy and practicable to allow of a freer and more independent arrangement as to hours of work than is possible at present. Each man would mark down on the board, in the presence of his comrades, the time of his entrance and the time of his departure, and his aptitude being well known and recognized, his due pay would be reckoned at once.

And what is now the wretched substitute for liberty for which our labourers agitate and struggle? Are they not crying out for restrictions on their own freedom, for Factory Acts, for eight hour bills, for an endless series of Government interference? And then from bad to worse! If Parliament will not interfere, trades‐​unions will; and we have cut and dried rules levelling the strong, the industrious, and the skillful with the weak, the idle, and the idiotic. Alas! Equality in slavery is not liberty. Of this we may be sure, that whatever may be the true solution of the labour question on thing is certain, it will not be found in the curtailment of that freedom of contract and that liberty of action which has made England what she is. Whilst our artisans are wasting their time in dodging non‐​unionists, in hiding their tools, and worse, in threatening their employers, and in supporting fellow‐​workers on strike in all parts of the country, they little dream that they are being robbed annually of hundreds of millions sterling. Robbed is a strong term; they are robbed unconsciously, unintentionally, but they are none the less deprived of that which morally and plutologically is as much their own property as the land is the property of the landlord. Let them learn that Liberty and not Equality is the weapon with which their rights are to be wrested from those who ignorantly withhold them: and a change of tactics may be looked forward to which, whether successful or otherwise, will at least benefit the community, and put an end to the pernicious interference of trades‐​unions in the private concerns of individual workmen.

6. On the Self‐​government of Factories, etc..–The more remote effects of the new system now come into view. One change follows on the heels of another. When once it becomes every man’s interest to work as hard as he can, and, what is more, to see that his fellows do the same, it will soon become evident that the best mode of obtaining new hands is by letting the old ones elect them. It will clearly be their interest to elect the best workers, and at the same time to elect those who will come for the least pay. For it is obvious that where the labourers as a body receive such or such a share of the gross returns, each individual’s share must needs vary inversely as the sum of the shares of the others. Hence every workman will be interested in keeping down the pay of his fellows. This mode of election of new hands will bring into existence something like regular meetings of the men and the election of officers and a president; and it will soon appear natural and expedient to the employer to pay over the whole of the labourers’ share in a lump to the workmen’s president, to be distributed amongst them in their own way, and as they, in council assembled, shall from time to time assess and decree. Not only the differences in the values of labour in the several branches and departments in every manufacture, but also the differences in the values of the workmanship of individual members of the body, are difficult to appreciate, and indeed they never are accurately appreciated at all by employers, who indeed ignore the latter inequalities altogether. Quite otherwise will this be when the matter is left in the hands of the men themselves, who will evaluate with the finest distinctions and utmost care the work upon which they will have to adjudicate. It will be each man’s care to see that he himself is not underpaid, nor his fellow‐​workers overpaid, and the conflict of opinion and free discussion will result in a fair valuation.

Thus we have a glimpse of flourishing companies of workpeople, all partners from the highest to the lowest, from the employer who supplies the capital to the smallest boy that sweeps the floors. Each is working for his own direct benefit, and not merely to increase his employer’s profits, and each works as hard as he can and keeps an eye on the industry of his comrades. Paid in a lump, they save the employer the trouble and expense of distributing their wages. What overlookers or managers of departments are needed for organizing purposes they elect from their own number, so that efficiency and popularity will be secured at once, and at a reasonable and fair competition salary.

In time, even the head manager will come to be similarly elected, for the men will not tolerate the frittering away of their profits by an incompetent management.

Even the capitalist‐​employer, unless himself risen from the ranks, or otherwise well qualified to manage, will perceive the expediency of leaving the management of the concern in the hands of his workpeople, who will elect the most competent head in his place. For he may rest assured that his capital is safe in the keeping of those whose whole livelihood depends upon its preservation and increase. Here, with all the advantages–such as they are–of co‐​operative companies of working men, or rather with all the supposed, or anticipated, or theoretical advantages of such companies, we have an ample supply of all kinds of capital: of land, buildings, machinery, fuel, raw material, and hard money. Though not their own property–the scraping together of their own small earnings–as in existing co‐​operative manufactories, yet they exercise the fullest control over it, harassed by no meddlesome or speculating employer.