Classic Essays

One Man’s Striving: Part 2

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by William Gayley Simpson

Part 2 of 7

The author of Which Way Western Man? rejected Christian theology before the end of the First World War, but he retained a commitment to Christian ethics for several more years.

(ILLUSTRATION: SPEAKING to groups of young people was an activity to which William Simpson devoted much energy during the years after the First World War. Here he talks with students after addressing a Christian conference attended by 800 of them in Sliver Bay, New York, in June 1925.)

Editor’s Introduction: THE TRAUMA OF THE First World War and the era of rapid social change which followed led many Christians to re-examine their beliefs. What has come to be known as “the social Gospel” gained strength, and new links were forged between Christianity and the political Left.

Indeed, much of the energy — and nearly all of the leaders who were not Jews — of America’s movement toward the Left since the First World War have come from the Christian churches. In the wake of the war churchmen saw a new opportunity and felt a new motivation to restructure society in accord with the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount.

William Simpson had already been feeling his way in this direction during the war, seeking a role for himself which would accord with what he then thought were his own spiritual inclinations. Actually, as he realized later, he was being driven by an impulse which divided his soul and led him down a false path, from which it would take him many years to find his proper way. He writes:

[This impulse] was absorbed with the lot of the unfortunate, the ill-constituted, the poorly endowed — that is, with the masses, with the fate of the inferior, rather than with the discovery of superior men, and the problems of giving such men the richest opportunities, the fullest nurture that they (and through them, society) could benefit by, and of causing the proportion of such men constantly to increase. In short, I was animated by my pity and driven and guided by my sympathy. And through it all I was perfectly certain I was “following Jesus.”

He left the ministry in September 1918, not only having found his own theology incompatible with that of his church, but also having become impatient with the church’s hypocrisy in refusing to practice the social doctrine which Jesus had preached.

He had taken a strong stand against America’s participation in the war (much to the distress of the elders of his church), and he had formed close friendships during the war with other leading pacifists, among them Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. When Baldwin offered him a position in the fall of 1918 as associate director of that organization (then known as the National Civil Liberties Bureau), he accepted it.

While serving in this position he read a copy of Sabatier’s Life of St. Francis of Assissi, and he was greatly moved by it. He felt a strong urge to follow the footsteps of St. Francis and devote his life to serving the poor, but he needed more thought before making such a move.

Other Christians were also searching for a new path, and there were numerous discussion meetings and conferences among them. William Simpson helped organize one of these in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in December 1918, where he also was one of the principal speakers. But his questions about his own role remained unanswered. He tells of his effort to find his way in the months which followed:

Upon my return to New York [from Swarthmore] my thought began to work fast, and to a conclusion. That I was not yet ready to act upon either the challenge that had come to me from St. Francis or the one from Muste, [2] I was sure. But I was not running away from either. On the contrary, I found myself wanting to do something to obtain the experience I needed to make decisions wisely.

Note 2 – A.J. Muste (1885-1967) had been a fellow student of Simpson’s at Union Theological Seminary. He began as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in America but became a Quaker in 1918. He later turned to labor organizing and went on to become one of the leading spokesmen and activists for America’s radical Left. He was one of the speakers at the Swarthmore meeting, and his challenge had been to organize a lay Christian order whose task would be the reconstitution of society along Christian lines.

One thing I had to get cleared up was the part I should take in regard to the whole economic situation. I wanted to find out what people had to do in this country to make a living. I wanted to find out what kind of people they were, just ordinary working people, and how they lived. And I needed to know much more about the organized labor movement .

It had occurred to me sometimes that perhaps I might here find the field of action I was looking for, and become a labor organizer or propagandist. But I did not want to do any more reading about it, at least not just then; nor did I want to get my impressions as a mere visitor to industrial situations, looking on safely and comfortably from the outside. I decided to become a laborer myself, and to do my best to get a thorough taste of the typical experience of an ordinary American workingman.

Thereupon I handed in my resignation to the Civil Liberties Bureau ….

I decided to begin with coal mining. On the morning of March 9th, 1919, with five dollars in my pocket, I set out from my home in Elizabeth to hitchhike to Scranton, Pennsylvania ….

Immediately upon my arrival I began to hunt for work in some coal mine, arid for labor leaders with whom I could discuss the social situation in which the close of the war had plunged us. Unemployment and consequent suffering were acute. All the shouting about democracy during the world-convulsion had made many workers think that a little democracy in industry wouldn’t be a bad thing. Revolution was in the air.

A man as well-informed as Scott Nearing, [3] once a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was declaring that we should have a revolution within six months. And all the way across the country I found labor leaders who would have agreed with Steve McDonald, the labor leader of Scranton, who told me, “Revolution is sure, and not far off.” It was in this atmosphere of bitter discontent and eager hope of some great change for the better that all my experiences of the next few months were cast.

Note 3 – Scott Nearing (1883- ) taught economics at the University of Pennsylvania from 1906 until 1915, when he was fired for injecting militant Marxism into his lectures at a time when it was not yet fashionable to do so. He became a propagandist and organizer for dozens of Communist organizations and contributed his writings to their publications. In 1928 he was the Communist Party’s candidate for governor of New York. Although he was later expelled from the Communist Party for his excessive individualism, he has remained active on behalf of the Marxist cause to the present. He is now in his 100th year.

Simpson came into contact with Nearing through Norman Thomas (1884-1968), the leader of the Socialist Party from 1926 until his death and the U.S. presidential candidate of that party six times. Thomas had graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1911, the year before Simpson matriculated, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He was the minister of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church and the director of the Friendship Neighborhood House, in an Upper East Side slum, in the summer of 1915 when Simpson graduated from Union Theological Seminary.

Simpson worked for Thomas that summer and met many of the Christian activists who were to play a prominent role in the politics of the Left in coming years.

Interesting talks with labor leaders were far easier to find than jobs. Hunt as I would I found nothing. The mines were running only part time, some of them only one or two days in a fortnight, so that for every job there were many applicants, most of them men with long mining experience. I could have had a job as a carpenter, but the $35 initiation fee put that beyond my reach. I even applied for a job cleaning sewers, only to learn that that work was not to open till the following month.

He persevered in his effort to find employment in the mines, however, working for a few days at a construction project in the nearby mountains to replenish his meager funds, and eventually he was hired as a miner’s helper. His task was to break up the heavy pieces of coal blasted loose by the miner with whom he worked and then shovel the coal into cars:

I found the work grueling. After several hours the heavy lifting, the hard shoveling and pitching, taxed me severely, despite the fact that I was constitutionally strong and had hardened myself by two weeks with a man felling trees just before I set out for Scranton. I sweated as I had never sweated before in all my life. Every stitch on me was as wet as though I had been working in water.

In his first day in the mine he loaded three cars — between 12 and 15 tons of coal — for which he was paid 55 cents per car, so that his total earnings for the day were $1.65. On his best day he loaded five cars. The work was not only dirty and exhausting; it was also extremely dangerous. Before he moved on to Pittsburgh for a stint in a steel mill he had two close calls in the mine.

In Pittsburgh he worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day. The mill was much less strenuous than the mine, however, and the mill workers shirked at every opportunity. Nevertheless, he found that they had much the same attitude toward their work that the miners had — namely, that it was a necessary evil — and the mill owner had the same lack of regard for his employees as the mine owner. After two weeks it was time to move on:

My next objective was the tire factories in Akron, Ohio, the center of the world’s tire industry.

While I was still in Pittsburgh I had seen attractive advertisements claiming that there was plenty of work to be had making tires for Firestone, Goodrich, or Goodyear; and I soon learned that such advertisements were published as far away as Chicago, New York, and even Boston. The result was that the labor market in Akron was kept flooded: there were always more applicants than there were jobs. Thus the factories could always skim the cream and let the rest go. And when they wanted to cut wages they could hold over the heads of their employees, as a whip, the threat that if they did not accept the lower wage rates it would be easy to find men on the streets who would.

I had two jobs in Akron. The first was with Firestone as “stock tender,” on the night shift. Never before had I turned my sleeping hours into hours of toil. The first night was misery. By morning I almost fell asleep on my feet. I got used to it, of course, but from my experience here and at other places later, I became convinced that the practice of changing shifts every week is needlessly disturbing to all the rhythms of the workers’ lives, and therefore to their comfort, health, and peace of mind ….

This job I first found myself doing, keeping rolls of rubber sheeting unwound across a table so that the workers could take what they needed readily, was itself enough to put a man to sleep. I felt that a cow would have had brains enough to be trained to do it. Doubtless by now it has all been made automatic.

I tried to keep myself awake by watching the men around me. The thing that struck me was the monotony of it. Each man had some little operation to add to the construction of a tire. Over and over again, the same little operation for eight hours. One man with a pair of dividers went around the “tread room” marking a line parallel to the rim on each side of each of 400 rotating tires, and he did this four times in eight hours. For his whole working day he did nothing but hold a pair of dividers against first one side and then the other of 1,600 tires — one simple motion repeated 3,200 times a day: day after day, week after week, month after month, till he could endure it no longer, and quit.

Presently I noted what subsequent observation amply confirmed, that all the men on the floor were young. There was not one I should have guessed to be over 35, and most of them were between 20 and 30. And no wonder: older men could never have stood the pace. They soon would have been weeded out. Perhaps they were never even taken on. After all, there was no need to hire them. There were plenty of young ones to choose from.

This pace! I After all the loafing I had seen in the steel mill, I could hardly believe my eyes as I watched how the men all about me worked. The tempo over the entire floor was snap, jerk, jump. Never before had I seen men work under such nervous tension. It was uncanny. I could but wonder what made them do it. Presently I found out.

It was the “speed up” system. I was myself caught up in it for the first time when I got my job “finishing” tires in the Goodrich plant. The methods used varied to some extent from factory to factory, but everywhere it was a device for making the workers race with a machine, with one another, or with both. By a stop watch, measuring to the fraction of a second, the employers would take the time required by one of their fastest workers to go through a certain operation, or “piece.” That was made the standard for all the workers, and all the workers were pressed to come up to it.

Or they would increase the amount of work involved in the piece, without raising the piece wage rate. This made it necessary for the men to work with greater intensity in order to earn the same income. One man told me that whereas 32 cents had once been paid for “finishing” alone, 32 cents was then being paid for making the whole tire ….

I could hardly find a single man who liked his job. Almost invariably they spoke of its monotony. Occasionally a man would say, “Aah, I don’t mind so long as I’m kept busy,” though that was hardly the same as saying he liked it. And the men’s reactions were to more than the nervous tension and the inhuman tedium. There were also the fumes of the benzene and the rubber cement used in building up the tires. The air reeked with them. Nearly all the men, I discovered, had been there only two to six months and had not yet had time to feel the effects of these poisons. The one man I found who had been there five years was yellow (“almost looked like a tire,” as an I.W.W. [4] member put it) ….

Note 4 – Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”): a radical, syndicalist labor union which flourished between 1905 and the early 1920’s and was noted for its extreme militance.

“Piece work kills!” That is what a little group of I.W.W.s said about it one night that I spent talking with them in a small tenement room far into the morning. The general belief seemed to be that three years in the rubber business finishes a man. The speed-up system was a diabolically ingenious device for turning the blood of the workers into gold.

The rubber companies picked the best men, sucked the life out of them, and then threw them onto the scrap pile. They did not need to worry about what happened to them after that. The men might starve, or their children might starve or grow up stunted and weakly from malnutrition. But that did not matter. The far-flung advertisement of “work in the tire factories” had not failed of its aim. The streets of Akron were full of young men. From these the companies could continue to pick what they wanted. Somebody else could worry about those whom they had wrecked.

Yes, the words of the young I.W.W.s were full of venom. They hated the tire factories and all their works. They hated the hours hunger compelled them to spend inside their walls, and they looked upon each shift as eight hours in which they were forced every day to relinquish their freedom and go into a penitentiary. They hated the system of spies by which the owners attempted to ferret out every labor organizer, that they might get rid of him — by which, in fact, they had sometimes wormed their way into the very head office of the local union. But, above all, they hated the speed-up system, which forced them, for the sake of a paltry subsistence, to race at an inhuman pace not only with the machine but against their fellow workers.

They saw things through inflamed eyes, I allow. I realized that before I had left Akron. Things were not so bad as they pictured them — not quite. But nearly. Their attitude, on the whole, represented only the natural and healthy reaction of any human being with intelligence and a sense of his worth against being used, treated as a commodity — against being harnessed to a machine in a way that violated every instinct in him. They hated, and they did well to hate, having their very life coined into another’s gold ….

In Cleveland I found 30,000 to 50,000 men out of work. As there seemed little chance of a job, I pressed on to Toledo.

But Toledo was even worse. In this smaller city 20,000 men and women were out on strike. To look for a job was declared futile. What depressed me more than this was the conversation I had with some Socialists at their Toledo headquarters. I.had been talking with labor leaders and going to labor meetings ever since I first reached Scranton, to see what they revealed as to the workers’ aims and methods, their view of the situation that confronted them, and of life in general, for I was wondering if I should cast in my lot with them.

One of the questions I unvaryingly asked was, ”What do you think of violence?” For upon their answer to this I believed my ability to work with them must largely depend. Almost without exception the reply had been, in effect, “We don’t like it. We’ll never be the ones to start it. But if it is used against us, we’ll use it in return.” There was little evidence of principle in the attitude; it was primarily a matter of expediency. But even the militant I.W.W.s in Akron, while they declared themselves ready to use violence, were only girding themselves for what they believed the capitalists’ inevitable use of it against them.

Those Socialists in Toledo, however, seemed positively gleeful over the prospect of violence. They had scores of 20 years’ standing to settle, and they looked forward eagerly for the chance to get the capitalists down and kick them in the face. My arguments. against violence and revenge they only thought “would spoil a good revolution.” They spoke disparagingly of Scott Nearing’s pamphlet, then just published, in opposition to violence on the part of labor, and they sneered at his “dear love of comrades.” They seemed lacking in any fine sense of anything.

I arrived in Detroit late the same day feeling depressed and desolate. My pocketbook was getting pretty flat, and I had hardly eaten since breakfast. To save money I even thought of sleeping somewhere on the ground. But I finally settled on a cot in the hallway of a cheap hotel, and I was comfortable enough. But with the words of those Toledo Socialists running through my head it was a long time before I got to sleep ….

My special interest in Detroit was in the Ford plant, and in a few days I was at work operating a six-point. multiple drill press, which bored holes into the edge of the yoke of the Ford generator. In 15 minutes I had learned how to do what was expected of me, and after an hour’s practice could work the press at least as fast as the old hand by my side. I had to drill perhaps 800 yokes a day. The work was not heavy, but the speed, if kept up for a long time, as it often was when the yokes came fast and steadily, was a bit tiring.

I soon learned that I was in one of the easier departments. In many of them the work was heavy, and the machines timed so exactly that a man had to work at full speed all day to keep up. Even in my own department there were jobs more objectionable than mine. The fellow next to me had to thread each of the holes I drilled, a total of several thousand a day ….

It was while working at my drill press that I came really to understand why the Akron I.W.W.s had referred to the hours they spent in the tire factories as so much penitentiary life. As soon as the novelty of the job wore off — and that did not take long — I found that each morning my heart sank as I went to work. My eight hours I drearily endured, until, when at last it was time to quit, my spirit leaped like a bird that suddenly finds the door of its cage thrown open. All day long I felt chained, walled in, dead, myself like a machine going through motions.

I could not get free from that machine. I might leave it for a minute, but I must be back at once. There was no opportunity for thought. The work itself required none, and yet it required just enough attention to prevent thought about anything else: if I let my mind wander to fields of interest, I broke my drills. Nor could I talk. The din of the machines was such that I could make myself heard by my nearest buddy only by leaning toward him as far as I could stretch and yelling to him at the top of my voice. For the most part a man’s eight hours a day were spent walled up inside himself, without any real self-expression, obeying not some impulse from within, as is natural to every living creature and the need for the unfolding of its life, but instead the prod and imperious command of an external and utterly alien taskmaster. For eight hours a day his natural human instincts were blocked, and living impulse compressed into the hard, rigid, mechanical effort to be part of a speeding machine.

Doubtless I suffered under this work more intensely than most of the men who have become numbed by it, but then my suffering was relieved by the prospect of becoming free in a few days, whereas they had to face that sort of thing without hope of an end. Then, too, I had a purpose in the work, whereas they were doing it merely to get a pay envelope. In any case, I doubt if there were more than a handful of men in the whole factory, with its huge army of employees, who did not resent every hour they spent in such subjection to a machine.

One day I asked the man beside me how he liked his job. “Oh,” he said, “when I was in the Army I thought I could never come back to it. But here I am.” “Well, how do you like it?” I persisted. “Oh, it’s not so bad — no worse than it used to be.” “But that isn’t what I asked you,” I still persisted, “how do you like it?” “Like it? Of course, nobody likes it, but … ,” with a shrug of the shoulders that said, “You’ve got to earn a living somehow, and there’s nothing for it but to take what you can get.”

Evenings that my shift did not require me to be at work I often spent with Chet Emerson [5] and his friends. Commonly we discussed my venture; and I made much the same criticism of the capitalist system and held up much the same kind of society to take its place as might have been expected from a Socialist or an I.W.W. My social philosophy at the time inclined to be strongly collectivist. Yet I had my doubts and questions. And some of these were strengthened by the answers of Chet’s friends ….

Note 5 – Chet Emerson was a friend of Simpson of several years’ standing, with whom he stayed during his time working for Ford. In 1919 Emerson was the minister of a large Congregational church in Detroit. Later he became dean of the cathedral in Cleveland.

One day Chet and I, and a couple he had taken out to dinner, had a violent argument about the new social order. And afterwards the wife, who at first had almost scoffed at my venture, said to me quietly, “I am beginning to get your point of view. I don’t agree entirely, but I am beginning to understand.” And another day I drove straight at Chet with the question, “How can you fairly condemn the violence of the working class in their efforts to attain their ideals and what they believe to be justice, when for ends certainly no more noble you have sanctioned the violence of war?” When I returned home a couple of hours later, he was still in a brown study over that question.

Nevertheless, my own answers to a great many of the problems were far from certain; and as I at last found myself rolling on toward Chicago, I too was lost in thought about where the truth and the right really lay. Not about the capitalist system. In my rejection of that, thus far, I never wavered. But how to get rid of it without violence? And how to get a really beautiful social order when the overwhelming mass of the people, at the bottom, at the top, and throughout, were so full of greed and fear and hate — in general, so self-centered? …

He remained in Chicago only until he had earned enough money — at three dollars a day in the stockroom of a department store — to be able to travel further. His next stop was the open-pit iron mines of the Mesabi Range. During his work at a mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, he came to know his fellow workers better than he had in his previous stops:

Here as everywhere, all the way across the country, I could not find a single man who liked his job. One day I asked a brakeman about it — and braking is one of the easiest jobs in the “open pit.” “Like my job? No! But yo’ gotta work anywhere you go. Hell! What’s the difference!” Another day I asked Aleck, who talking about quitting and how often he quit his jobs, “Why do you change jobs so often?”

His mind worked slowly, especially at finding reasons and making generalizations, but finally he blurted out, “Why do I quit? Well, I’ll tell you. I just get so gosh darned sick of my job that I can’t stand it another minute! That’s why I quit!”

Thus also Gus, another one of the men, who had just quit. So I felt. So did Tom, a Greek from Athens trying in vain to save enough money to bring his wife and child to America. He had just “blown” a whole year’s savings on “wine, women, and song” and was resigned to his fate as a perpetual victim.

To me it was appalling that so few men should have any joy in their work. My experience seemed to give evidence that for most of the working people of the country life had become one long endurance: work, eat, and sleep was almost all they had time for. Their work, on which they used up the best they had in them, they loathed. It was no wonder the older ones had become numb and leathery.

When I thought of Tom and the fate that seemed ahead of him, my heart ached. In a little while I should be getting out of it. But he would go on — had to go on — in utter hopelessness. “Tom,” I said to him once, in rather a weak move to give him some heart, “it may be only 20 years till we have a revolution.” “Jesus Christ,” he exclaimed, “20 years? Too long! I dead by that time!”

It was that “had to go on,” I discovered, that utter inability to get out of it, that constituted the essence of “wage slavery.” When I first set out on my venture, though I had used the phrase, I had not really known what it meant. The slavery was not in the fact that the work was hard: it was in the fact that in order to exist men like those about me had to sell themselves into the will and hand of another, for his profit.

The machine was fast destroying the last remnants of the old craftsmanship, which in an earlier period had meant not only livelihood, but dignity, responsibility, self-expression, a free space for the development of personality. But now all that was gone. The machines, generally too costly to be owned by individuals, were owned by corporations or by a few rich men. Most men had become mere “hands,” with nothing to sell but their labor, and no means of living without selling it.

Their “freedom” was no more than a freedom to choose which master they would slave for. They might work for A or they might work for Z, but they could work for neither A nor Z except on the condition that they let him exploit them. There was no way to escape. There was no way to exist without a job; and the jobs were in the hands of men who owned; and their ownership was maintained by all the organized violence of society: laws, courts, prisons, police, and if necessary even the militia, with its bayonets, poison gas, and bombing planes.

In one way this new slavery, wage slavery, was even worse than chattel slavery. When a man owned a slave outright, it paid him to take care of that slave, even as he took care of any other piece of property, even as he took care of his horse and cow. But the wage slave the modern employer could work under conditions that ruined him, and when there was no longer any more to be got out of him he could fire him and let him live or die on the labor scrap pile. It was easy to find another man to take his place, even though the newcomer knew that the same fate probably awaited him.

The employer did not need to have, and commonly did not have, any sense of responsibility for the men who worked for him, not the sense of responsibility he had for the mules on his property, or for his inanimate machines. To replace them cost money; but after you had wrecked a man you could get another one to wreck simply by putting up a sign, “Man Wanted.”

And yet, when it came to making any constructive effort to remedy matters, the men at Eveleth were a supine lot. Possibly this was because Eveleth, from the point of view of industrial despotism, was the worst on the Iron Range. The Oliver Iron Mining Company owned the whole town and kept an iron heel on its neck. Anybody who opposed it was run out. I was told that in 1916, when the men were pretty well organized, the strike they attempted was broken by the company’s importing scabs all the way from Chicago and by the deputy sheriffs’ picking off the leaders. At one time, when the movement threatened to get out of hand, the deputies raided the houses where the leaders lived, shot and killed two of them and wounded a third. And nothing was ever done about it.

There were I.W.W.s in town, but I had difficulty in finding them, and their position seemed to me completely futile. A strike they attempted to pull off on the Fourth of July proved a sheer fiasco. They had some automatics and ammunition and were ready to fight, but that sort of resistance at that stage in the game would have been suicide.

I never joined the Wobblies. Of all the labor organizations I came across I liked them best: they were the most intelligent, fearless, and dedicated. And yet I had to confess that I was not enthusiastic over the idea of a social order to be built by the rank and file of the I.W.W.s I had met.

Meanwhile, through all the weeks I was on the Iron Range I went on wrestling with my own problem of what was to be my part and my place in the unfolding drama of my age ….

Shortly after I arrived I was leaning against the steam shovel during one of our breathing spells, thinking. I felt very certain that an intensification of the class war was not the way to go after the new social order I wanted to see. It was one thing to accept the fact of the class war as an actual and inevitable result of our existing economic system. It was quite another thing to preach it as the means to accomplish our purpose.

A striking sentence or two in Bertrand Russell’s Proposed Roads to Freedom was running through my mind and had reinforced my determination not to join the I.W.W. He declared that the “habit of hatred” among the working class, engendered by the class war, would remain and would attach itself to something else, and so perhaps make impossible the very fraternity on which the full success of Labor’s cause depended. “There is no alchemy,” he said, “by which a universal harmony can be produced out of hatred. Those who have been inspired to action by the doctrine of the class war will have acquired the habit of hatred, and will instinctively seek new enemies when the old ones have been vanquished.”

In my eyes the whole struggle between Labor and Capital was full of evil: hate, vengeance, greed, a ruthless determination to have and to hold, to get and to keep. Sometimes I was impressed with the evil on one side, sometimes with the evil on the other. But on both sides it was largely a matter of Force organizing to impose its will on a broken antagonist. It seemed to me I did not belong on either side. I wondered whether my true place might not be between the lines. I wanted to do something that would make for increased understanding and sympathy on both sides ….

After he left the Iron Range he laid track for the Northern Pacific Railroad, worked in a copper mine in Montana, and cut trees in Washington. And as 1919 drew to a close he began drawing a few conclusions:

How far my thinking had taken me by this time is revealed in the letter which, following the practice I had begun at the time of my first serious departures from the beaten track, I sent out to friends and relatives under date of December 31st, 1919. [6] It was essentially an analysis of the industrial situation and an announcement of my earliest conclusions as to the part I should take in relation to it.

I reminded my friends that when I set out to work my way across the country I had thought I might find my place in the organized labor movement; and I declared that the I.W.W.s especially had called forth my admiration, not only for the economic soundness that lay behind their attempt, in an industrial society, to organize the workers by industries rather than by crafts, but also for their devotion to their cause; their openness to toilers of any class, color, or creed; and for the reliance they placed on education and organization rather than on naked violence.

Note 6 – A slightly revised version of the letter was published anonymously in the March 18, 1920, issue of the Quaker journal The Friend, under the title “View of the New World.”

But I could not close my eyes to the fact that, nevertheless, between workers and employers, it was an issue of power, in which each side was trying to impose its will on its foe by one or another kind of force. This was the very essence of the class war, and I believed it had arisen out of and was an inextricable part of the capitalist system. Unequivocally I declared “that the class war exists whether I like it or not, that class consciousness arises out of the motives and antagonism engendered by the capitalist system, and that there can be no brotherhood on this earth with any change that stops short of. a complete abolition of this soulless institution.”

But to recognize class war as a fact was one thing, to sanction it as a means was quite another. I could not accept the deliberate spread and intensification of class consciousness, by which a man’s human sympathies were calloused and his understanding narrowed into a hard, self-righteous set against all those, whether capitalist or fellow worker, who did not stand with him.

And I saw that the strike, and especially the general strike, for all it was obviously the revolutionary worker’s most effective weapon, was nevertheless a weapon, a means of coercion, a kind of holdup of all society, by which a determined and united minority could force its will upon the real majority. It wasn’t even democracy, let alone the teaching of Jesus. There was no effort toward reconciliation; and its brotherhood, for all it was more inclusive than that of the Church, still stopped short at the capitalist. Its spirit was one of judgment, reprisal, and autocratic self-will.

All this raised again the very same question I had had to face in relation to the war. Suddenly I saw that the capitalists were the German Junkers; and the labor movement was the Allies fighting (or claiming to fight) for democracy, the rights of small nations, and an end of the war. The form the issue took was new and different, but the issue itself was the same. It was the old question of means. Be the ends never so good, was it possible to attain such ends by means that were incompatible with them?

I could not believe it. I saw that the force a man released upon the world was not so much his ideal, the thing he aimed at, which remained hidden in his head, but the means he chose by which to move toward his ideal, the things he actually did in pursuit of his objective. I had been certain that when the “idealistic American soldier went “over the top” and tried to plunge his bayonet into the Kaiser-supporting German, what the German reacted to was not the ideal but the bayonet.

The forces let loose on the world by an immoral means hardened human hearts against the very ideals for which the immoral means was resorted to. As a result the world’s idealism had failed to get any real hearing at the Peace Conference. And similarly in the class war, I was convinced that out of all the coercion, the lust for material possessions, the fear and hate and disregard for others that such a struggle involves, there could come no good.

The danger was that the change of system, already upon us, would bring only a change of masters, that in some new form the old tyrannies and wrongs that distressed us then would last on to distress us in the future. In short, though I was tremendously concerned that the change should come, I was even more concerned as to how it came. Once more it was that terribly searching question of method, over which, from the beginning, the mounting life of man has fallen.

And then I exclaimed:

“Is it not plain to all who have been given the eyes of the spirit that another battle is joined: an overhead battle, which overshadows in its significance even the struggle of the classes — a battle between a Wrong and a Right that have their representatives in the ranks both of Labor and of Capital — another `death-grapple in the darkness between old systems and the Word’: between the way of the world and the way of the Cross? And until this battle is won, until men learn to win their struggles and build their societies by those principles which are the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the triumphs of the Allied armies, the victories of the working class, and the changes of system, are all futile. They are a mirage of delusion.

“In our burning eagerness to reach our goal we are always seeking a shortcut, even if it be by a temporary transgression of the moral order. We think it will pass unnoticed because it is brief, or that we can atone for it by a renewed devotion to the Right in more salubrious days. We would cut the Gordian Knot, and the sword we choose with which to hack it through is the sword of crushing Might. But it will not work. It never has worked. It never can work ….

“Nor can there be any exception for the social structure that Labor would build today. What cannot be accomplished now by Love cannot be accomplished now at all ….

“None of us can be reminded too often as we begin to line up on the momentous issues of our day that in all the universe no truth is more inexorable that this: that there is a moral order from the reach of which no phase of human life can escape, an eternal Right and Wrong of things which none can trifle with or defy without coming at last to disaster. Good intentions will not get us by. Ignorance will not excuse us. It applies as relentlessly to a social order or a nation as to an individual. The judgment may be a long time coming, but it always comes.”

Today I could not talk thus about the “moral order of the universe” or “an eternal Right and Wrong”; nor, I am afraid, could I so sweepingly reject all use of force. But that was my position then, and of course it put me outside the labor movement. I saw that for me the labor movement was another blind alley, like the Church, a way closed to me, a way that could not take me anywhere. But I must be certain that this disability did not become an excuse for evading the issue. If that way was closed to me, I must strive to find some other way that would really cut into life and be an adequate channel for my thought and aspiration and devotion.

If I could not take sides in the war between the classes or find my place in one of the regular and established movements for social endeavor, it but pressed upon me the harder to find some way in which I could throw myself into that “other battle” where the sides were drawn on other than class lines. And for nearly a year this remained my primary problem. What could I do? What could I throw myself into?

Now, one of the conclusions to which my analysis of our economic situation had forced me was this: that even more than we needed any external change, any change in our economic and political arrangements, we needed a new kind of man on the earth. I felt that our institutions were only a reflection of the character and intelligence of the people who composed them. As water would not rise higher than its source, so one could not expect any society to prove more ideal than the human element from which it sprang. Start it as ideal as one might, in the long run the people would drag it down to their own level.

And so I felt that Tolstoy was dead right when, in his “Appeal to Social Reformers:’ he said that most of the world-improvers were like a man trying to make a fire with wet sticks. The man seemed to believe that if only he could find the right arrangement of the sticks, they would burn. The truth was that no matter how he arranged them he would never get a fire, until first he got the sticks dry.

And so with the problem of a better social order: until somehow we had more intelligence, higher character, but above all more true love for one another, all the alterations of external arrangement would prove futile. The new forms would but hide the old evils, which in time would surely crop out to plague us as before, and would continue to plague us till we became different men, a different kind of men.

There is perhaps some risk of misunderstanding in cutting off this selection at a point where the author is still describing his sympathies as they were more than 60 years ago. The reader who needs reassurance that William Simpson’s thinking developed beyond that of some of his illustrious fellow graduates of Union Theological Seminary, such as Norman Thomas and A. J. Muste, should read Which Way Western Man?, in which he brilliantly sets forth the conclusions of a lifetime of observation, analysis, and reflection. Those conclusions are markedly different from many of the ideas which he held as a young man in 1919.

The great value in these autobiographical selections is that they allow one to follow in detail the spiritual and ideological evolution of an extraordinarily sensitive and thoughtful man as he strives toward the light. Then, when he finally reaches the light, it is all the more illuminating for one who was able to climb with him from the darkness.

* * *

Source: National Vanguard, June 1983, pages 13-20

* * *

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