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The Class Ceiling: Nearing on Social Mobility

The Appeal to Reason was the most popular radical publication in American history. The socialist newspaper, founded in 1895, reached a paid circulation of more than three-quarters of a million people by 1913. During political campaigns and crises, it often sold more than four million individual copies. J. A. Wayland, the paper’s founder and publisher until his suicide in 1912, had become a socialist through reading. He built his paper on the conviction that plain talk would convert others to the socialist cause. From its Kansas headquarters, the Appeal published an eclectic mix of news (particularly of strikes and political campaigns), essays, poetry, fiction, humor, and cartoons. It ceased publication in November 1922, a victim of editorial instability, the declining fortunes of the Socialist Party, and U.S. government repression of radicalism. In the August 12, 1916 issue, Scott Nearing offered a disheartening prognosis for the social mobility of wage workers.

The maximum amount of income which the workingman may earn is limited. To be sure, there is always a possibility of the workingman rising out of the ranks of the workers and becoming a manager or a capitalist. The existence of the chance to rise has never been questioned though its mathematical boundaries are not always understood. Consider, for example, one of the greatest single industries in the United States, the Railroad Industry, employing nearly a million and three-quarters of men. What are the possibilities for advancement in this industry as shown by the statistics of the Interstate Commerce Commission?

There were, in 1910, 5,476 general officers directing the activities of a million and three-quarters employees. Therefore, in the business life of the general officer and the business life of the employee, each employee should have one chance in three hundred of becoming a general officer at some time during his life, provided that the employees live as long as the general officers, and provided further that all the general officers are drawn from the ranks of the employees. Neither of these assumptions, however, is correct, because, in the first place, insurance tables indicate that the life of the general officer is somewhat longer than the life of the average workingmen. In the second place, the general officers are not always drawn from the ranks. Leaving these two considerations out of account, however, it is apparent that the mathematical probability that the average railroad employee will become a general officer is about one-third of one percent.

Consider another phase of the situation. Suppose that you are a railroad trainman. Mathematically you have one chance in three hundred of becoming a general officer at some time during your life. On the other hand, you have one chance in twenty of being injured, and one chance in one hundred of being killed during each year that you are at work.

Suppose that your total term of service is twenty years, the chances are one to one that during that time you will be injured and one to six that during that time you will be killed; so that the chance of your being injured is three hundred times as great, and of your being killed is fifty times as great, as your chance of becoming a general officer in the company which is employing you.

A similar condition exists in the manufacturing industries.

IN SHORT, THE TENDENCY OF MODERN INDUSTRY IS TOWARD A FORM OF ORGANIZATION WHICH WILL REQUIRE THE WAGE WORKER TO REMAIN A WAGE WORKER. The railroad does not expect a brakeman to become president or general manager, but instead to become a conductor. In the same way, section hands make section foreman, and locomotive firemen make locomotive engineers. The railroad manager is not looking for an engineer who will make a general superintendent, but for an engineer who will be and will remain a good engineer.

Source: Scott Nearing, “What Chance Has the Worker to Become a Capitalist,” Appeal to Reason, 12 August 1916. Reprinted in John Graham, ed. “Yours for the Revolution”: The Appeal to Reason, 1895–1922 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 130–131.

See Also:How Many Socialists Does It Take To Screw in a Light Bulb?: Finding Humor and Pathos in Class Struggle
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Socialist and the Suffragist"