I was going to use the title of “Smokers Of The World, Unite” for today’s essay, until I discovered that I’d already used it, over four years ago. But this time the essay was anyway going to be less about smokers, and more about the original slogan in the Communist Manifesto from which it is borrowed: “Workers Of The World, Unite. You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains!”
For I was wondering whether the original Communists had the same problem getting workers to identify themselves as workers as we’re currently having getting smokers to identify as smokers. Because most smokers don’t think of themselves as smokers. Ten years ago, if anyone had asked me what I thought of myself as being, I very much doubt that I would have said: “a smoker.” Smoking was just one of many things I did back then, and thought no more about than the fact that I drank tea, or read newspapers, or programmed computers.
And so if you had stopped someone on the streets of Manchester in 1848 (the year in which the Communist Manifesto was published), and asked him what he thought he was, would he have said: “a worker”? Might he not just as easily have said that he was a carpenter, or a Methodist, or a father, or a Mancunian, or maybe even an Englishman?
And if you’d asked the same question on the streets of London or Paris or Rome or Athens in any previous century, would anyone have called himself “a worker”? Why had all these “workers” suddenly appeared in the middle of the 19th century? They don’t seem to have existed as a separate species beforehand.
The answer, most probably, was that during the Industrial Revolution in England, which began in the 18th century, there began to appear factories in which were employed thousands of workers producing numerous iron and cotton and porcelain products in towns like Manchester or Sheffield. And many of these workers were children who worked for 16 hours a day in very dangerous conditions, surrounded by whirring machines, before going home to sleep in squalid, damp, rat-infested hovels. These workers had no particular trades or skills, and they were hired at rock-bottom wages to control machines producing any number of different products. And these were the fabled new species called the workers, who were being exploited by rich and powerful factory owners, who were selling knives and forks and pots and pans and cotton trousers and shirts at rock-bottom prices, and paying their workers rock-bottom wages. The plus side of the Industrial Revolution was that the new industries produced all sorts of consumer goods far more cheaply than before, which were sold all over England and much of the rest of the world. The minus side of this revolution was that, while the standard of living of England and the rest of the world was raised, the condition of the workers in many of these factories was very sharply lowered: they were reduced almost to slavery.
And it was burning moral outrage at what was being done to these workers that animated Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and an army of other assorted socialists and communists, determined to set right this glaring wrong. The worker was born when workers began to be become an oppressed and downtrodden class in ways they never really had been before.
And this moral outrage swept the world, and resulted in a series of revolutions in which Communist or Socialist parties set out to construct new, egalitarian societies in place of hideous, exploitative Capitalism. And very often these revolutions took place in countries – Russia, China – which had yet to industrialise, and in which there were hardly any oppressed, downtrodden workers.
Oddly, there was never any Communist or Socialist revolution in England or any of the other rapidly industrialising countries in the world (USA, Germany). And this was probably because, in England, moral outrage converted itself into reforms of one sort or other that addressed the most egregious abuses. Slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807. Child labour was reduced in the late 19th century. The union movement in Britain also grew gradually stronger throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century. Housing and education and medicine were all improved during the 20th century. The result, in Britain, was that the species known as the downtrodden worker gradually ceased to exist, thanks to a series of reforms over a period of nearly 200 years. There gradually ceased to be anything to be morally outraged about.
But if the moral outrage at the treatment of workers in the 19th century had diminished, the same outrage could be newly employed in the 20th century in an environmentalist movement which focused not on the conditions of labour in industrial Britain, but on the effects of smoke and soot and toxic wastes generated by industry upon the environment – air, rivers, forests, wetlands. For Britain in the mid-20th century was a smoky place with factory chimneys pouring out smoke, steam trains belching smoke and soot and steam, clouds of smog enveloping entire cities, and streams and rivers polluted with a variety of chemical wastes generated as by-products of one industrial process or other. It was on behalf of the Whole Earth itself, and all the animals and plants living upon it, that the new environmentalists loudly campaigned.
But when, as before, these campaigns resulted in a series of environmental reforms that restricted the emissions of factories and vehicles throughout Britain, and the soot of centuries was washed off the buildings, and the streams and rivers restored, and otters and buzzards and foxes protected or re-introduced, the face of Britain began to gradually change throughout the late 20th century, and it gradually became the green country that it had been before the dreadful Industrial Revolution of previous centuries. And as this happened, environmentalist moral outrage abated much like outrage at the conditions of down-trodden workers.
And so moral outrage began to need a new cause behind which it could throw its abundant energies. And in the late 20th century there arose a mutant variant of 20th century environmentalism that focused its attention on the few remaining wisps of smoke in the air: tobacco smoke and carbon dioxide. The latter was declared to underpin the new threat of Global Warming, while the former was declared be a poison as potent as mustard gas, killing not only smokers, but everyone around them, and of course children as well. Smoking bans were enacted all over the world, and smokers excluded from pubs and restaurants and other enclosed public spaces. Smokers were reviled as addicts, fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and refused medical treatment. And this was carried out with the same high moral indignation as any socialist or communist campaign for the liberation of downtrodden workers or the emancipation of slaves, or any environmentalist campaign to Save The Whales.
At this point, it might be said that a social revolution, that had originally been driven by moral outrage at the condition of workers, has gone full circle and begun to eat itself. After all, Karl Marx chain-smoked cigars as he wrote Capital, and Clement Attlee, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, was an avid pipe-smoker (as also were many other key figures on the British left, Tony Benn for example). Such people would now be expelled from the modern antismoking Labour party. What had been a social movement in favour of people – workers – gradually metamorphosed into a social movement in favour of the environment and the planet, and has now become a social movement in favour of an abstraction: health. At each step in its evolution, it maintained its moral outrage. The early socialists were outraged at the treatment of workers, and the environmentalists were outraged at the treatment of the environment, and the antismokers were outraged at the persistence of any smoke whatsoever. If anything, their moral outrage grew inversely with the real threat posed by anything they campaigned against. And they no longer care about people, or planet, or health. All they have is empty outrage at more or less everything.
And they commit outrages against millions and millions of smokers and drinkers and fat people, who are the new targets for their unquenchable moral indignation. But since 21st century smokers are now being treated as badly as any workers in 19th century Britain’s mills and factories and mines, it’s almost a certainty that sooner or later somebody, fired by moral outrage at this manifest abuse, will pen a tract that calls upon “Smokers Of The World, Arise.” And it will trigger a global social revolution as powerful as any launched by Marx or Engels or Lenin.