January 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard
At the beginning of the century a young American writer came to the slums of London in search of experience. In the guise of a tramp he spent many months amidst the filth and squalor that thousands of people knew as home. The writer was Jack London, and his researches led to the publication of the “People of the Abyss.” If anybody doubts, or seeks more evidence of the vile foundations upon which present-day society is based he need go no farther than this small volume. It is not pleasant reading.
Many people would read it merely as history. The bad old days. They would tell you that poverty is a thing of the past. The “philanthropic” Tories, the “bluff generous Liberals, and the newly powerful Labour Party, with Beadle Bevan well to the fore, would all agree with them, and argue among themselves as to who was responsible for removing this evil. Maybe we would take sides in this squabble, but first of all we must be sure that the evil has actually been removed.
In spite of all its anomalies and contradictions the capitalist system does comply with certain economic laws. As the mass of wealth produced by the working-class increases, due to revisions and improvements in the means and methods of production, greater skill is required from the working-class. This means a rise in the cost of production of a worker. In order for him to reproduce his mental and physical energies he must consume increasing amounts of food, clothing, shelter, entertainment and education. Many examples of this can be gleaned from contemporary history. Hundreds of natives of Africa who a few years ago were eking a bare living from the soil are to-day employed in Strachey’s ground nut scheme, with the result that they now require those social conditions befitting a labourer, lorry driver or mechanic. Where to-day is the Indian factory worker who can exist upon a daily handful of rice? In other words, as the mountain of commodities increases, the molehill returned to the workers in the form of wages and salaries does grow also. Consequently the poverty of an electric, near atomic era is very different from an era of gas power wherein the internal combustion engine was no more than a daring experiment.
Yet such social derelicts as Jack London describes still doze upon the walls of Spitalfields Churchyard and they are not all old. Some carry young babies and openly feed them. You see them scrounging around the fruit and vegetable market in search of discarded “specks” and fag ends. Occasionally they come to blows over the division of their spoils and are carted off for 28 days in the comparative comfort of Wormwood Scrubs. The well-meaning self-satisfied social busybody points out that they could enter institutions and be well cared-for. It is easy to say but these people are suffering from more than material poverty. Years spent in such conditions have made their mark upon their minds. All self-respect has gone. Beer, cheap port or even methylated spirits are the peaks of their ambitions.
The streets are narrow and between the houses are tailoring sweat shops. The clatter of the machines, the hissing of the steam presses, the discordant singing of the girls pour from the windows. Now is the “season” and many of these places exhibit notices offering attractive conditions of work. After Christmas they will disappear and work will be scarce. At 12 or 1 o'clock the girls come out. They are young and dressed not in gay but gawdy clothes, their pallid faces over-decorated with paint and powder, their nails highly varnished (but notice the work-worn hands). The greyness of their surroundings gives them an uncontrolled desire for colour. Their one topic of conversation is men.
For marriage seems their only form of escape. And what an escape! See the places wherein they live and breed—the vast prison blocks of the Peabody Estate and other such organisations. See the women on their balconies with sagging breasts and distended stomachs, old before their time. See the market places—Wentworth Street, Brick Lane or Mile End Waste—where they haggle with the vendors. See the schools wherein their kids are trained to replace them in the factories and mills. Many of these places were destroyed by bombs. In their place rise the slums of 10 years time.
To-day employment conditions are fairly good and the majority of capable men and women are in work. The many public houses are doing well. “Why aren’t they saving for a rainy day?” screeches the social nosey-parker. Why? If these people had a little less self-righteousness and a little more commonsense the answer would be clear. The people of the abyss have forever lived in poverty, spending literally years plodding from factory to factory and then back to the labour exchanges for a few bob to tide them over. As children, youths and then as parents they have always had to scrimp and save to keep body and soul together. Is it then not natural that when a few extra shillings come their way they are going to enjoy those things which to their limited horizons appear as luxuries.
Such conditions must obviously affect the ideas of those who suffer them. As the previous paragraph demonstrates, their general attitude is one of “ here today and gone to-morrow.” Always must they live from hand to mouth. Their kids are not ill-treated, but left from an early age to fight the battle of life for themselves. They become precocious and unwilling to respect the “sanctity” of private property. They learn to steal, fiddle and avoid the law. Many find their way into the juvenile courts, to approved schools, Borstal institutions and thence to prisons as habitual offenders.
Politically they are easy meat for the opportunists. Many of them, especially among the Jewish community are attracted by the subtle propaganda and glib promises of the Communist Party. Since the war the familiar “flash and circle” has reappeared upon the walls as the Fascist Movement with its vicious anti-Semitic nonsense, has crept back on to the scene. To support such organisations as these is an outlet for their emotions, a means of hitting out at something. Consequently we have seen the battles at Ridley Road.
Yet in spite of all these obstacles there are oases in this desert where man’s natural love of beauty can rise to the surface. On the windowsills of the tenements’ window boxes filled to capacity bloom and are tended with loving care. Queues of work-worn men and women wait outside the Whitechapel Gallery or the People’s Palace to experience works of art. See them in the evenings, still in their working clothes, hurrying to and from the public libraries.
A contradiction? Not at all. Here again capitalism shows itself as its own gravedigger. As the system becomes more involved we have seen how necessary it is for the workers to receive more “education." In itself this is nothing, but in widening the worker's horizon its effect is colossal. He becomes ever more aware of the world in which he lives and how it operates. The fallacies become more apparent, and slowly, the solution more clear.
For these are the producers. I have spoken of London because it is within my own experience, but with very little modification these conditions prevail in every industrial area throughout the capitalist world. Those who are the most useful suffer the worst conditions. But it is a temporary state. All over the world a wind is rising, a wind that will eventually destroy capitalism and its festering sores forever. Hasten the day!