Among Marx’s more powerful phrases is his assertion of the “coining of children’s blood into capital.”

A friend referenced this song recently, an old favorite. That sent me chasing up the lyrics.

We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years

We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers’ dead.

We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.

Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!

We have fed you all a thousand years-
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.

You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we’re told it’s your legal share,
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
Good God! We bought it fair!

(Via.)

The song was initially a poem, printed in the IWW’s Industrial Union Bulletin in 1908. Mark Leier’s article “Kipling Gets a Red Card” shows that the poem is based on pieces of Rudyard Kipling’s 1893 “Song of the Dead,” about the deaths of sailors. Leier rightly points out that Kipling was an apologist for British imperialism and “no friend of the working class,” to use Leier’s phrase, but he still expressed important sentiments. I like that the author of We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years reached back to a poem published 15 years prior to express what s/he wanted to say. The poem’s 1000 year reach speaks to me – I like the same sort sentiment expressed in this beautiful piece by Wu Ming written in 2001. This is part of the sensibility I think Walter Benjamin had in mind when he wrote in “On the Concept of History” that “assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations (…) severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.”

The poem speaks of equivalences. Blood is the price of wealth, the poem suggests. This could be taken as saying that the proletariat as earned its moral right to seize the means of production and wealth they generate, because of the proletariat’s great suffering. The poem offers a litany of bodily destruction which makes all wealth the rightful property of the working class. That’s one reading and I think it’s fair.

On the other hand, the force of the poem is not just in the equivalence from blood to money. It works the other way as well, from money to blood. Money is actually flesh, to paraphrase Duncan.

This is probably obvious, but the poem places the destruction of the body in front and center of the working class’s grievances. The equivalence of the exchange between employer and employee is not really an equivalence. The quid pro quo of one commodity for an other – money for labor power – is really the consumption of workers bodies and lives for and by others. Thus, the equvialence working from money to blood: there’s never a dollar unmarked by death, the ease and leisure of the capitalists is red from the blood shed to produce it. This is not a wealth worth its costs, it is a cursed wealth and the laws which call it legal are themselves cursed. The appropriation of this wealth is not anything to do with equivalences, the dead stay dead, the expropriation of the capitalist class does not (will not) redeem the suffering inflicted by capitalists and their ancestors. Emancipated heirs do not retroactively emancipate enslaved forbears.

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