Peter Kropotkin on Writer’s Accusations of Workers’ Laziness

One of the perennial complaints by the Right is that anyone who goes on strike for more pay, better working conditions or shorter hours is, by definition, either lazy, greedy or both. It was the accusation that the Republicans in America flung at striking teachers a year or so ago, and it was pretty well parroted by the Daily Heil over here, when it decided to have a go at public sector workers and their pensions. Now I noticed from reading Mike’s blog that the Scum has decided to wade in against the junior doctors.

I found this passage in Kropotkin’s essay, Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles, where he attacks the notion that the workers are lazy. In particular, he takes great issue with this claim when it comes from writers, whom he states don’t work nearly as hard as the working people they criticise. Here it is:

As to the so-often repeated objection that nobody would labour if he were not compelled to do so by sheer necessity, we heard enough of it before the emancipation of slaves in America, as well as before the emancipation of serfs in Russia: and we have had the opportunity of appreciating it at its just value. So we shall not try to convince those who can be convinced only by accomplished facts. As to those who reason, they ought to know that, if it really was so with some parts of humanity at its lowest stages – and yet, what do we know about it? – or if it is so with some small communities, or separate individuals, brought to sheer despair by ill success in their struggle against unfavourable conditions, it is not so with the bulk of the civilised nations. With us, work is a habit, and idleness an artificial growth. Of course, when to be a manual worker means to be compelled to work all one’s life long for ten hours a day, and often more, at producing some part of something – a pin’s head, for instance; when it means to be paid wages on which a family can live only on the condition of the strictest limitation of all its needs; when it means to be always under the menace of being thrown tomorrow out of employment – and we know how frequent are the industrial crises, and what misery they imply; when it means, in a very great number of cases, premature death in a paupers’ infirmary, if not in the workhouse; when to be a manual worker signifies to wear a lifelong stamp of inferiority in the eyes of those very people who live on the work of their ‘hands’; when it always means the renunciation of all those higher enjoyments that science and art give to man – oh, then there is no wonder that everybody – the manual worker as well – has but one dream: that of rising to a condition where others would work for him. When I see writers who boast that they are the workers, and write that the manual workers are an inferior race of lazy and improvident fellows, I must ask them: Who, then, has made all you see about you: the houses you live in, the chairs, the carpets, the streets you enjoy, the clothes you wear? Who built the universities where you were taught, and who provided you with food during your school years? And what would become of your readiness to ‘work’, if you were compelled to work in the above conditions all your life at a pin’s head? No doubt you would be reported as a lazy fellow! And I affirm that no intelligent man can be closely acquainted with the life of the European working classes without wondering, on the contrary at their readiness to work, even under such abominable conditions.

(Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Communism: It Basis and Principles, in Peter Kropotkin, ed. Nicolas Walter, Anarchism and Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles (London: Freedom Press 1987) 53-4).

The editor of the Scum is an old Etonian. The proprietor of the Daily Heil, Lord Rothermere, is a multi-millionaire tax avoider. And I doubt very much that the Heil’s editor, Paul Dacre, comes from a working class background either. They have no right to despise the working classes as lazy. As for the junior doctors, Mike has posted up extensive pieces from them showing that this is most certainly not about extra pay. They are very much concerned about patient safety, and their ability to give potentially life-saving service after working long hours. And if some medical professionals are better than most of us, it’s because they should be rewarded for the immense skill required of them, and the heavy responsibility they bear. No-one will die tomorrow – at least, I hope not – if the sports writer in the Scum is in no fit state to write his column. Someone might very well die, however, or suffer terrible ill-health, if a responsible doctor makes a poor decision due to lack of sleep, or is forced to do one job too many because of the need to find ‘savings’ through staff cutbacks. And no-one would suffer tomorrow either if Jeremy Hunt and the rest of his wretched crew were booted out of office. Rather the opposite!

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