John Henry, a steel drivin’ man–and a Luddite

[Reprinted from Harry Binswanger’s Forbes Online column of November 20, 2013.]

Symbols matter. Symbols are powerful. Psychologically, they activate “the vision thing,” which George H. W. Bush had trouble with, as do so many on the Right.

Consider the legend of John Henry and his race against the newly invented steam hammer, a competition in driving steel to build a railroad line. For the Left, Henry symbolizes the working-class hero. He evokes the entire Marxist apparatus of downtrodden labor, exploited by the fat-cat capitalist bosses.

The legend of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel appears to have some basis in historical fact. But it has no basis in moral or economic fact. Morally, John Henry exhibits a contemptible small-mindedness; economically, John Henry’s opposition to mechanization is the kind of short-range non-thinking that economists should warn against.

But the Left has tender feelings for this brawny proletarian. In the folknik era of the sixties, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and Odetta sang his mournful ballad. This version of the lyrics of “John Henry” captures it all:

The captain said to John Henry
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down, down, down.
Whop that steel on down.”

John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord.
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.” . . .

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine.
But John Henry made fifteen feet –
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

Now let’s throw the warm light of reason on the story. One website gives this account of the Chesapeake and Ohio’s construction of the Big Bend Tunnel.

The C&O’s new line was moving along quickly, until Big Bend Mountain emerged to block its path. The mile-and-a-quarter-thick mountain was too vast to build around. So the men were told they had to drive their drills through it, through its belly.

It took 1,000 men three years to finish. The work was treacherous. Visibility was negligible and the air inside the developing tunnel was thick with noxious black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men would lose their lives to Big Bend before it was over, their bodies piled into makeshift, sandy graves just steps outside the mountain. John Henry was one of them. As the story goes, John Henry was the strongest, fastest, most powerful man working on the rails. He used a 14-pound hammer to drill, some historians believe, 10 to 20 feet in a 12-hour day–the best of any man on the rails.

One day, a salesman came to camp, boasting that his steam-powered machine could outdrill any man. A race was set: man against machine. John Henry won, the legend says, driving 14 feet to the drill’s nine. He died shortly after, some say from exhaustion, some say from a stroke.

What then is the actual meaning of the story? John Henry died trying to defeat an invention that actually brought deliverance from the inhuman conditions of all steel-driving men, including him. He and hundreds of men died building the Big Bend tunnel. The steam hammer would have saved most of those lives. It would have allowed the laborers to do work, on the railroad or elsewhere, that was immensely easier and less dangerous. Is this something that John Henry and his Leftist admirers should oppose?

Steam power also greatly shortened the time required to lay track, lowering costs and therefore lowering the price of rail travel, raising everyone’s standard of living. The invention meant the substitution of steam power for costly, back-breaking, life-shortening, muscular labor.

“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man”–but what is a man? Is his essence the brute strength of his muscles, or the unlimited power of the intellect? The true meaning of the story is not: “a man ain’t nothing but a man,” but: a man is more than an animal.

Economically, the introduction of the steam hammer raised the productivity of labor and hence real wages. John Henry, an uneducated manual laborer, could not have been expected to understand this. But the contemporary commentators should understand it. Yet the website continues:

“John Henry’s life was about power–the individual, raw strength that no system [capitalism?] could take from a man–and about weakness–the societal position in which he was thrust.”

John Henry was “thrust” into a “societal position”? How? By whom? By the fact that man has to work in order to sustain his life? By the fact that a railroad requires rails? These facts are due to the law of causality, not to some evil human design or to society. John Henry was not a victim–except of his own Luddite opposition to progress.

John Henry’s life was about power? Power, in the real sense of the term, comes from knowledge–the knowledge of how to harness the forces of nature to serve human life. Like the force of steam, made to drive a hammer.

But according to Marxism, it is muscles, not mind, that moves the world. That is why Marxists cannot, or refuse to, see the huge contribution made by the minds of the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the risk-taking investors, the managerial organizers–and by every employee to the extent that he does his job in a way that an animal couldn’t. If muscles were the source of wealth, China would have been for centuries the richest nation on the face of the earth.

Animals survive by muscles; man survives by using his rational faculty to produce material values. (The social condition required for the mind to function is: freedom.)

The website author concludes:

“To the thousands of railroad hands, [John Henry] was an inspiration and an example, a man just like they who worked in a deplorable, unforgiving atmosphere but managed to make his mark.”

His mark was a tombstone.

His epitaph should be: Here lies a man, who, at the dawn of the industrial age, attempted to prove muscles superior to the mind, and paid with life.