From Yours, In Struggle
(A worker’s meeting hall. London, England, 1895.)
You hear it too, don’t you? I hear it even when there is silence. I hear it even in this small little meeting hall when all I should hear is the sound of your breathing, maybe a cough or two, the scrape of a chair. I hear it in my sleep, during my dreams. I hear it in the pub when all I should hear is your voices, laughter. Shouts, glasses clinking… It never goes away. The grind and clank and screech of machines. Our master. The machine.
The machine not only has a sound; it has a smell. The grease of the machine lies buried beneath my finger nails and in the cracks and creases of my skin. My hands are never clean – have not been clean since I was a little boy. I smell the grease and I hear the machines – and I will smell it and I will hear it until the day that you – my brothers and sisters – lay me in the quiet of the earth.
I know that some of you are here tonight because you have already decided to join me. Some of you are here tonight because you’re thinking about it. Some of you are here because you need to stand beside your brother for an hour or so when – although you can still hear the machine – you do not need to feed it. Not right now. Not tonight. When you stand beside your fellow worker in this room, you can turn and look him in the eyes, you can talk to her. Or listen. The machine is not going to grab you and tear your arm off. Not tonight. Not here. No one is going to dock your weekly pay because you stopped for a moment to take care of yourself – to take care of your fellow workers. How did it happen?How can it be that a machine – a thing with no heart, no soul, not even a mind – could have become our master? Well you know why. Because the machine has a
The machine is owned by someone, just as you and I are owned. And so the machine with no heart and you and I with our broken hearts – we are all owned by the same person. But we are not slaves, are we? We agree to be owned. For six days of every week, 12 hours of every day, we hand over ourselves – willingly – sometimes not so willingly, but freely – to a man who becomes wealthy merely because he owns. He has the money and so he owns. Well, so what? We get to stay alive – most of us. If the machine does not devour us. We buy our bread and potatoes and – maybe once a week – an old blackened cabbage or two. We sleep with our wives or our husbands – or whoever – and we share a few laughs over a pint or so on Saturday eve. And what more is there, really? We’re alive, ain’t we? We’re alive, Goddamnit!!!
If some glutton wants to pay me so many shillings a week just so he can amass millions and have as many headaches as he has servants, then so be it. More power to him, I say. Who needs it? Bloody mansions, clubs, charities, luncheons, hiring, firing, investing, planning, predicting, voting…who cares, right?! I’d rather work seven days a week, 18 hours a day for a bowl of porridge each sunrise than trade my aching muscles for the stinking flab of acapitalists belly!
I am a worker. I am proud to be a worker, happy to work. Then why am I so angry, you ask. Why so angry? What do I want?
Anger. The fiercest of all emotions, I think. Worthy of respect, I’d say. Anger is two emotions, really. Pain forged with fear.
When I see a ten year old child flogged because he has fallen asleep at his post, I feel pain. When I see a woman who is clearly in the throes of childbirth clinging to her machine until the last possible moment – only to be fired a week later anyway – I feel pain. I feel pain when I see a man bent, broken and blind by forty – and it scares
me that I too will be broken very soon.
It scares me that no matter how hard I work, how faithfully I devote myself to my machine, how diligently I perform – I might not have a job tomorrow. If something or someone I do not know and cannot see says I shall not work, then I shall not. That is why I am angry. I do not like monotony and tedium and boredom and fatigue. But I am a worker and I will work.
But – and this is why we are here tonight, brothers and sisters: I will no longer submit to my machine – nor to my master – like a helpless, stupid, snorting mule. I will have a say in the conditions of my work and the terms of my employment. I will have a say about what happens to me if I am broken and deformed by the very machine that has become a part of me.
I will be a partner in this relationship – an equal partner. I will never again agree to be owned. No more. Never again. A man might own all the wealth of England for all I care. He can take the ground that I stand on, the air that I breathe. But he can’t have me.
So remember. If nothing else, remember this: A man who needs others to create his wealth for him is not really rich at all. We, we brothers and sisters, we are the richest people in the world. We are the workers. We own nothing but our selves.
[This speech is from an early version of Yours, In Struggle. The character, Freddy – who in real life was the illegitimate son of Karl Marx and his servant, Helene Demuth – was eventually cut from the play, but he remains my favorite, and so I give him his voice here.]
© Elizabeth Anne French 2017