Lecture 1 - The worker problem



In this first lecture, " The Hour of the Working Class," we shall try to understand the importance of the workers' problem today. Will the international working class rise and return to Christ, or will it further estrange itself from Christ and fall into slavery? 

The Hour of the Working Class! To understand properly the importance of this problem, we must first ask ourselves - What is this international working class? What is the international workers' problem? What is the international workers' movement? Has it always existed? Has the working class always existed? Has the problem always existed? Has the movement always existed? 

After studying this question, we must not expect to know all about it. What we do learn must only spur us on to further study of the problem and of the history of the working class. 

When we remind ourselves that man has existed for 10,000 years, the modern working class seems something comparatively new, for it has been in existence only for 150 years. It is in its infancy. The invention of the steam engine produced it, just as it gave to the world an industrial, and an economic, revolution, and a revolution in the whole method of work. 

This revolution is so important from the social, religious and human point of view and has had such consequences, that we cannot yet entirely foresee its scope and all its effects. 

Mechanical work was introduced into the world by the invention of the steam-engine, of a piston which is moved by steam which turns a motor, which then works hundreds of thousands of machines capable of doing the work of thousands and millions of men. 

And then, owing to the progress of this same engine, there followed petrol engines, engines run by heavy oil, engines run by electric motors, and tomorrow, probably, an engine run by atomic power. 

The invention of the steam-engine brought into being the modem working class ; thereby it created the problem of the workers, and so the workers' movement. 

We must understand that the workers' problem and the workers' movement do exist in the world. 

Never let anybody mislead you. This is not Communism. Communism has nothing to do with this. Nor has Socialism. They came much later. 

The working class, the workers' problem, and the workers' movement exist independently of Communism and Socialism. 

And it is to these three questions-the working class, the workers' problem, and the workers' movement-that Christian, positive answer would have had to be given, even if Socialism and Communism did not exist. 

A Scottish mechanic, James Watt, invented the steam engine in 1769. 

It was applied first to textile work and then to the iron industry. To make machines, iron was necessary in enormous quantities and without delay. It had to be smelted. Then the mobile steam engine was invented; whence railways appeared, and they required rails and great quantities of metal. Thus machinery, having been introduced into the iron industry, introduced that industry into all countries. In the third place, machinery was introduced into the coal industry. Formerly, there had not been much need for coal: people burnt wood or charcoal; but now fuel was required for the steam engine. 

Hitherto, from the time of Adam until the time of James Watt, man worked with his hands and with hand-tools: work meant manual work. And further, the manual work was done in the family. There were very few factories. A few privileged people, as in the case of porcelain manufacture, were given great subsidies by the State, but the work was still done by hand. 

There were three forces of nature which man had come to conquer. Fire, that great force of nature which man had discovered; there were small foundries for the forging of metal, gold and copper, but in them only hand-tools were used. There was also wind used in windmills. The wind turned the mills and ground the corn. The third force, which had been conquered, was water-water-mills. 

In the beginning men gathered fruit, hunted, fished, and, as time went on, raised herds. They were nomads, moving from one pasture to another. Eventually they settled down to till the earth and sow and reap.' Besides working on the land, they worked to produce the tools, clothing and houses they needed; and there were artisans who made whatever was necessary. These artisans gathered together at the places where people came to market their produce and they formed communities to sell the product of their artisan work-hand-work always and produced within the family. 

It was very different from our modem system; and we have to ponder over it if we are to understand the modern working class. A worker began by being apprenticed to learn a trade. Then he became a journeyman. When he became efficient in his trade, he could become a master. Anyone could become an apprentice and a master (note the big difference), because no one needed capital to buy machines. The work was done for customers in the little workshop where the master himself worked with some apprentices or one or two journeymen. It was a family workshop; and, note this well, from the time when the Church had influence in Europe, craftwork was regulated to the least detail. A master could not take on an apprentice without swearing on the Bible that he would treat this apprentice as his son, that he would see that the apprentice learnt the trade that he would take care of his moral and religious life. If he did not keep his oath, he was called before the Guild Tribunal and told that, as he had failed in his duty, he could have no more apprentices. 

What is the tremendous change which machinery has brought about? 

There have been three great transformations in relation to the working class: - 

(1) The small workshop has become a large factory. Instead of small workshops, great factories were introduced employing anything up to 100,000 workers. 

The reason for this transformation is that machinery can produce only in quantity. It costs money and demands mass production, which can itself be an advantage, as we shall see. If each day only one or two suits are made, it is not worth using machinery. But there are some workshops of 300 workers in which individual workers every day do nothing more than sew one detail of the suit. This has to be done an enormous number of times and the whole process is carried out on a moving belt. So today, even in dressmaking and tailoring, you see workshops Of 200 to 300 workers. As regards steel production, I have seen in America factories with 30,000 to 40,000 workers. Ford's in Detroit has twice that number. 

(2) The introduction of capital. Formerly the craftsman had no need of capital, for he worked with his hands; but from the introduction of machinery, capital was essential to purchase it, to pay for the premises in which it was installed, and, above all, to pay out wages. In some cases there were 10,000 workers to be paid every week, even before any of their production was sold. Therefore, capital became essential, that is, a sum of money allowing for greater production, allowing for the purchase of machinery and property, allowing for general costs and wages. 

(3) The invention of machinery created immediately throughout the world an ever-growing number of workers dependent on wages for their livelihood. 

Wage earners all their life long, millions and millions of them today throughout the world are obliged, whatever their work, to leave their families and travel, sometimes great distances, to work. At the beginning of the machine age, people went on foot. There were no trains, trams, cars, and bicycles. Everyone had to go on foot from home to factory, and often it was a 10 or 15 miles' walk. They walked for hours before even starting work. 

Machinery multiplied their number. With their wages they had to pay for lodgings, food, and the upkeep of their families. 

More and more workers, to avoid long travel, came to live round the factory. In this way were created those masses of hundreds of thousands of wage earners in industrial towns, who, today, are numbered in millions. New York and Chicago have several millions of wage earners massed around the great centres of industry. 

They used to live, and in many places still live, in conditions quite destructive of family life, overcrowded and without ownership of their homes. There was often but one toilet for 100 families, and in those days no running water, often no lighting; a frightful promiscuity. 

In this way, gradually from 1769 to 1848, the working class was born in the different countries of Europe. From England it passed into Belgium, Holland, France and Germany, and developed throughout all the different countries of Europe. Thousands and millions of workers were obliged to work all their lives for a wage. Thus the working class was born, and with it the problem of the workers. 

Wage-labour gave rise to a whole complexity of problems, not because there were Socialists or Communists, but because there was machinery and wages; because there were, and are, millions and millions of workers working away from their families, in conditions determined by their work. At the beginning there was nothing they could say. They would come down to the gates of the factories. "Is there work for me?" "Yes, over there!" "How much?" " So much" "How many hours?" "So many hours." "You don't like it?" "Then move on." 

This was a problem, not for a small number, but for an immense part of the population, obliged to work for a wage to support the whole family. What is the value of my wage and of my work? Am I a machine? When does work begin and when does it finish? How can I see that work does not break up the family, separate man from wife, parents from children? 

Then there came into being what is called the " Workers' Movement". The workers felt that as individuals they were powerless to solve these problems. They had to unite, to organise a workers' movement, which was as necessary as the existence of the working class. The workers' problem was as inevitable as the existence of the working class. 

To save the working class, the workers' movement was as indispensable as the church. Those who began it were neither Socialists nor Communists. It was the invention of the steam engine, with the industrial revolution, which created these three things; the working class, the workers' problems, the workers' movement. 

The invention of machinery is a good thing for the working class and a great step forward. At the same time, like all great steps of progress, like the invention of atomic energy, it is good only on condition that it is not abused that it is not used to kill millions of men. 

It was a step forward because it enables many more goods to be produced and put at the disposal of everybody. Today everyone has shoes; at one time nobody had any except the rich. Today, everyone has shirt and handkerchiefs; once these too, were rare. Once the furnishing and fittings of houses were primitive; it was difficult to have everything necessary for cooking. Because of machinery every member of the working class can have all the goods necessary for a comfortable life. Without machinery this was impossible. 

In the United States, thanks to machinery, more than a thousand cars can be produced in one day. At Detroit nearly all the workers have their cars. Are they any the less workers for that? Perhaps they are more so than our own, with the mentality of workers. But man does not live by a car; a car is no substitute for life, for children, for a family. Many of them prefer to buy a car and have no children. 

In the same way, capital is a good thing. It must no more be destroyed than machinery. Machinery is necessary; but without capital you can have no machinery and no means of meeting the indispensable charge of paying the workers. 

We are neither against capital nor against machinery; but we are against the abuse of either. Capital alone cannot direct an undertaking for its own profit and advantage. 

What is the position now? 

The invention of machinery in itself is a good thing. How did it become a means of exploiting the working class? How did it produce the proletariat, the exploited working class that feels as if it were being dragged in chains like the cursed of the earth and the slaves of famine? 

The working class was despised because of a doctrine then flourishing. Economic liberalism ignored the dignity of the human person and of the family. It claimed that, for the sake of production, there must be complete liberty for the employer and for industry. There is only one law, which can govern production and industry-competition between industries and between employers. 

As for the law of supply and demand, the worker offered his labour and the employer named his price for it. All the worker could do was to say that it was not enough and then die of hunger. Under this law, work became a commodity to be bought and sold, and it was treated as such. 

The law of economic liberty led to the suppression of all craft organisations under the pretexts of science, progress, or complete freedom. Not only were they suppressed, they were also prohibited. The workers were forbidden to write or to form groups to take part in fixing their wages or their hours of work. Those who did were thrown into prison and punished. When they dared to strike, the soldiers were called out; they were shot at and killed. They were victims to the idea that economic liberalism must be safeguarded. 

Economic and political liberalism gave birth to a religious liberalism, whose cry was that these things had nothing to do with the Church. Its sphere was exclusively religious. It would be usurpation for it to interfere in questions of wages and conditions of work. And there were some Catholic employers and intellectuals, caught up by the liberalism of the day, who closed their eyes to all this. They allowed themselves to be deceived by economic, political, philosophic and religious liberalism; and they abandoned the working class. The result was exploitation, destitution and suffering. 

Since 1848, Socialist and Communist leaders have striven to use the working class movement against the Church. Then because the working class had been deceived, exploited, left destitute, it gradually turned away and rejected the Church. Economic liberalism had laid upon the working class what Leo XIII called " a new slavery." 

By the introduction of machinery, work could go on without stopping. The machine can work twenty-four hours a day without getting tired. It was more profitable for it to run twenty-four hours rather than eight hours a day-it was more quickly paid for. The result was the beginning of night work, Sunday work, and twelve-hour and fifteen-hour shifts. For the sake of a machine, which could run continuously, in the service of a tireless machine, the workers were forced to work hours that were a disgrace to humanity. 

Not only the length of work, but also Sunday work and night work, broke up the family. The worker was never at home. When I was young, I saw that. I could tell you facts of workers who were unable to see their children, of children and parents who barely knew each other. " My child didn't want to sit on my lap because he didn't know me. He cried all the time; he wouldn't come near me; I was a stranger to him. " In the working class there were thousands of cases like that. 

But the long hours of work were not for men alone; they were for women too. The sex of the worker was no concern of the machine. Men and women were alike. Women were employed in steel works and heavy industry, and not women only; even seven-year-old children, unable to read or write, who had not made the irst Communion, were forced down the mines to push small trucks. Children of 7, 8, 9, 10, at work! A shame to humanity! It was all due to economic liberalism, which paid no respect to the human person and the family, but whose sole aim was profit and production. 

Nevertheless, in the earliest days of machinery, the working-class movement immediately arose to solve these problems. 

The workers organised. 

This started first in England, with trade unions, locally, regionally and nationally. 

Forty years ago, soon after being ordained priest, I went to England to study these movements. It was the best retreat of my life to see these working-class leaders preoccupied with the workers, and it strengthened in me the desire I had to consecrate myself to the working class. At that time, this movement was Christian in most countries. The greatest of the leaders in England were Christians. I visited them in their homes. They led Christian lives. 

Never believe that the working-class movement is simply a Socialist or a Communist movement. In origin and spirit it is a Christian movement to solve the problems with which Christians are faced, and which cannot be solved by the State and by employers alone. A movement of the working class was necessary. 

And it was only about 1840 - a hundred years ago-when the workers' movement already existed, that Marx and Engels tried to dominate it. For the false doctrine of liberalism, they tried to substitute another false doctrine -- materialism, class warfare, the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

In most countries the workers' movement remained completely free from Communism. Previous to the war, it barely existed in England, still less in the United States. Had the revolution of Lenin and Stalin not taken place, Communism would not be in the workers' movement. In the beginning, three-quarters of the peoples of the world were anti- Communist. Socialism sought reform, was anti-Communist, and deep down had a Christian spirit. But then, under the influence of Communists and of the intellectuals, the workers' movement turned against the Church and formed in the working class an anti-religious movement caused by Liberalism itself. When the children were forced to go into industry, they could neither read nor write. Liberalism favoured the illiteracy of the working class. Promiscuity of the worst kind reigned in the factories. When we realise how rich the working class was in grace, self-sacrifice and generosity, we must believe that God has especially blessed it. Perhaps one of the greatest miracles of history was the depth of Christianity in the working class and the working-class family before the coming of Liberalism. 

Today the working class has become powerful. We must reflect deeply on this, because the future of the Church and of the world depends on it. 

For a hundred years the working class had to content itself with seeking material, social and political progress; social security, insurance against sickness, accidents and old age; universal suffrage; a share in public life. Today that is not enough: the working class of the world must share in the administration of production. By its delegates and representatives throughout the world, it must accept its responsibility for world production, otherwise the world cannot go on. There is no other way of directing the world and world production. Whenever there is a strike or a workers' revolution in any country, the whole world suffers. 

The working class has become an important part of the population. Without it the Church cannot fulfil her mission; without it she is not the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church needs the working class; so does the world. 

Within the working class there is a double problem upon the solution of which its future depends: 

Again and again we shall see the need of a working class elite, workers, that is, who can lead and organise. But the great danger is that these working class leaders should rise above their station, cut themselves off from their fellows, and turn against the working class. 

Another danger threatens. In certain countries, the working class, content with its material gains refuses to shoulder its responsibilities. It scorns cooperation and the direction of undertakings. Thus, being without education and formation, it is easily roused by irresponsible, anti-Christian leaders. If it becomes all-powerful, there is only one issue: dictatorship of the right or of the left and that means government by force. 

Hence right from the start, we must understand the importance of the problem of working youth. Unfortunately, many people, including priests, are unaware of this terrifying problem. 

Every year some 20,000,000 youngsters leave school to start work. Left to themselves, they are lost. There are about 200,000,000 young workers between the ages of 14 and 24, between school and marriage; this is the time they must be formed and prepared for life, taught to accept responsibility, trained to become working-class leaders. 

Working class youth - girls more than boys - have been the great victim of Liberalism. The girl was not regarded as the future wife and mother but as an instrument of work. So she was forced to go down the mines, to enter industry, textile factories, warehouses. Her feminine vocation has been destroyed. She has been prevented from preparing for it. 

At this decisive hour, the problem of working-class youth is critical. They must be given a doctrine and a pride in their work; they must be taught to organise and group themselves. For this a workers' movement is essential, a movement which will form them, while they are young, to become the future leaders of the trade unions, of the international associations, of the world workers' movement. Then there will be no more talk of Communism. 

Then the hour of the working class will be the hour of purpose, of true emancipation, of the return of the working class to Christ. 

The hour of the working class is the hour of the workers' responsibilities, of working class leaders, of working-class apostles, men and women, boys and girls, who feel, like nuns and priests, that they have a vocation to an apostolate among the working-class, an apostolic mission. 


The Young Christian Workers of the world must give Christ the Worker to the working class. With Christ the Worker they will help the international working-class youth to know their mission, the mission of working class families. Then we shall see the working class rise from the tomb in which Liberalism is buried. just as Christ rose from the tomb, so with Christ must the working class rise from the tomb of error to a fuller and nobler life. 

- Joseph Cardijn 1948


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