Matter is God

Aircraft assembly worker. Burbank, 1939.

The machine, the synonym for production at large, has refined and subtilized—even spiritualized itself to a degree almost inconceivable, nor is there any doubt but that the future has far greater surprises in store. But if metal has come to well-nigh its utmost power of service, the worker’s capacity has had no equality of development, and the story of labor today for the whole working world is one of degradation.

That men are becoming alive to this; that students of political economy solemnly warn the producer what responsibility is his; and that the certainty of some instant step as vital and inevitable is plain,—are gleams of light in this murky and sombre sky, from which it would seem at times only the thunderbolt could be certain.

Organization and its result in industrial co-operation is one goal, but even this must count in the end only as corrective and palliative unless with it are associated other reforms which this generation is hardly likely to see, yet which more and more outline themselves as a part of those better days for which we work and hope.

As to America thus far, our great spaces, our sense of unlimited opportunity, of the chance for all which we still count as the portion of everyone on American soil, and a hundred other standard and little-questioned beliefs, have all seemed testimony to the reality and certainty of our faith.

But as one faces the same or worse industrial conditions in London or any great city, English or Continental, with its congestion of labor and its mass of resultant misery, the same solution suggests itself and the cry comes from philanthropist and Philistine alike, “Send them into the country! Give them homes and work there!”

Building a B-17. Long Beach, 1939.

Naturally, this would seem the answer; but where? For when search is made for any bit of land on which a home may rise and food be given back from the soil, all England is found to be in the hands of a few thousand landowners, while London itself practically belongs to less than a dozen, with rents at such rates that when paid no living wage remains.

When once this land question is touched, it is found made up of immemorial injustices, absurdities, outrages, and for America no less than for the whole world of workers. It cannot be that man has right to air and sunshine, but never right to the earth under his feet. Standing-place there must be for this long battle for existence, and in yielding this standing-place comes instant solution of a myriad problems.

This is no place for extended argument as to the necessity of land nationalization, or the advantages or disadvantages of a scheme of a single tax on land values, with the consequent dropping of our whole complicated tariff. But believing that the experiment is at least worth trying, and trying patiently and thoroughly, the belief, slowly made plain and protested against till further protest became senseless and impossible, stands here, as one more phase of work to be done. In it are bound up many of the reforms, without which the mere fact of granted standing-room would be valueless.

Electrician at work. Douglas Aircraft, 1942.

The day must come when no one can question that the natural opportunities of life can never rightfully be monopolized by individuals, and when the education that fits for earning, and the means of earning are under wise control, monopolies, combinations, “trusts” — all the facts which represent organized injustice sink once for all to their own place.

Differ as we may, then, regarding methods and possibilities, one question rises always for every soul alike,—What part have I in this awakening, and what work with hands or head can I do to speed this time to which all men are born, and of which to-day they know only the promise? From lowest to highest, the material side has so dominated that other needs have slipped out of sight; and to-day, often, the hands that follow the machine in its almost human operations, are less human than it.

Matter is God, and for scientist and speculative philosopher, and too often for social reformer also, the place and need of another God ceases, and there is no hope for the toiler but to lie down at last in the dust and find it sweet to him. Yet for him, and for each child of man, is something as certain. Not the God of theology; not the God blindly worshipped; but the Power whose essence is love and inward constraint to righteousness, and to whom all men must one day come, no matter through what dark ways or with what stumbling feet.

The vision is plain and clear of what the state must one day mean and what the work of the world must be, when once more the devil of self-seeking and greed flees to his own place, and each man knows that his life is his own only as he gives it to high service, and to loving thought for every weaker soul.

The co-operative commonwealth must come; and when it has come, all men will know that it is but the vision of every age in which high souls have seen what future is for every child of man, and have known that when the spirit of brotherhood rules once for all, the city of God has in very truth descended from the heavens, and men, at last, have found their own inheritance.

This is the future, remote even when most ardently desired; impossible, unless with the dream is bound up the act that brings realization.

Adapted from Prisoners of Poverty Abroad (1889), by Helen Campbell. Photographs courtesy of Library of Congress. Published under a Creative Commons license.