The dignity, rights and priority of labour

Last month, commenting on article by Russell Sparkes, I recalled the influence of English Cardinal Henry Manning on young Cardijn. In his article, Sparkes also highlighted the influence of an important 1874 speech by Manning, The dignity and rights of labour, on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

I was unable to find a copy of that speech online but fortunately I did locate a cheap -£2.50 plus postage – print copy of a compilation of Manning’s writings of the same title published by Burns and Oates in 1934.

Cardinal Manning having died in 1892, his writings are long out of copyright. As a result, I’ve had the freedom to scan his landmark article and post it online at our ACI Gospel of Work, website where it is now available for reading and study:

Here are a few thoughts based on my reading of Manning’s speech.

Workers right to organise

Russell Sparkes is indeed correct to note the similarities between Manning’s article and Rerum Novarum. In particular, the English cardinal offers a powerful defence of the emerging trade union movement, writing:

The protection of labour and of industry has at all times been a recognized right of those who possess the same craft: that they have united together; that those unions have been recognized by the legislature; that whether they be employers or employed, whether they possess the dead capital or the live capital – the dead money or the live money – all have the same rights. And I do not see, I confess, why all men should not organize themselves together, so long as they are truly and honestly submissive to one higher and chief, who is superior over us all – the supreme reign of law which has governed, at all times, the people of England.

Here he draws on the experience and history of the medieval “gilds” in which craft workers organised themselves for the defence and promotion of their own interests.


And as Pope Leo XIII would later do, drawing on a natural law argument, Manning also insists that wages must be sufficient to provide for the needs of a family:

But if the domestic life of the people be vital above all; if the peace, the purity of homes, the education of children, the duties of wives and mothers, the duties of husbands and of fathers, be written in the natural law of mankind, and if these things are sacred, far beyond anything that can be sold in the market – then I say, if the hours of labour resulting from the unregulated sale of a man’s strength and skill shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines, and of fathers and husbands into – what shall I say? – creatures of burden – I will not use any other word – who rise up before the sun, and come back when it is set, wearied and able only to take food and to lie down to rest – the domestic life of men exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path.


In another passage, Cardinal Manning also highlights another problem that has since taken on a planetary dimension, namely the shifting of capital by employers from high wage to low wage countries:

The time will come when manufactures will have been so long established, and the operatives not having any other business to flee to, that it will be in the power of any one man in a town to reduce the wages; and all the other manufacturers must follow. Then, when you are goaded with reductions and willing to flee your country, France and America will receive you with open arms; and then farewell to our commercial state.

As we now know, this has since become a rampant global practice – and problem – known as “offshoring” as monopolised capital continues its relentless search for the lowest-paid economies.

Labour as the foundation of capital

Also interesting is Cardinal Manning’s insistence, citing the author of The Wealth of Nations, that labour is the foundation of capital:

Adam Smith says, ‘The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.’

Labour is thus not only genuine capital but it is also “live capital” as opposed to money, which is “dead capital.” In a sense, labour also gives life to dead capital, Manning explains:

I claim for labour (and the skill which is always acquired by labour) the rights of capital. It is capital in the truest sense. Now our Saxon ancestors used to call what we call cattle ‘live money ‘; and we are told that what we call chattels, and cattle, and the Latin word capita are one and the same thing; that is, ‘heads’ of cattle, or workers or serfs. This was ‘live money.’ And so is the labour, the strength, and the skill in the honest workman ‘live money.’ It is capital laid up in him; and that capital is the condition of production. For capital which is in money, which I will call dead capital, or dead money, receives its life from the living power and skill of the labourer.

Consequently, “these two (i.e. live capital and dead capital) must be united,” Manning argues in what amounts to an attack on the monopolisation of capital by one class:

The accumulation of wealth in the land, the piling up of wealth like mountains, in the possession of classes or of individuals, cannot go on, if these moral conditions of our people are not healed. No Commonwealth can rest on such foundations.

Although he does not mention it, this insistence on the need to unite capital and labour also provides a moral foundation for the development of cooperatives, an argument later taken up by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 and Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra in 1961.

Priority of labour over capital

What particularly struck me in reading Manning’s speech then is how his arguments anticipate Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Laborem Exercens over one hundred years later on the “the priority of human labour over what in the course of time we have grown accustomed to calling capital.”

As the Polish pope wrote:

Since the concept of capital includes not only the natural resources placed at man’s disposal but also the whole collection of means by which man appropriates natural resources and transforms them in accordance with his needs (and thus in a sense humanizes them), it must immediately be noted that all these means are the result of the historical heritage of human labour.

An ethical foundation

Well, there’s no doubt much more that could be said about Manning’s thought but let’s finish with one more quote that also anticipates the virtue ethics foundation of Cardijn’s see-judge-act method of formation:

The science of morals rests on four foundations – on prudence, which guides the intellect; on justice, which guides the will; on temperance, which governs the passions; and on fortitude, which sustains the whole man in the guidance and government of himself. These four cardinal virtues of the natural order perfect the character of man; and to-night I am not speaking in any other sense. They underlie all the dignity of man, and they justify all his rights. The labourer in our common field of toil who is prudent, just, temperate, and brave is indeed a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.’

I’m sure Cardijn would have agreed!

Stefan Gigacz


Cardinal Manning, The dignity and rights of labour and other writings on social questions, Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd, London, 1934.

Stefan Gigacz, Cardinal Manning and the origins of Rerum Novarum (Cardijn Research)

Russell Sparkes, Was Catholic Social Teaching made in Leeds? (The Tablet)