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The Social Problem and Its Solution (Part One)

I - The Problem

The problem that Socialism sets itself to solve is to be found in a fact, of which it can be said as of the sun: he is blind who does not see it. It is the divorce between the means of production and the producers.

Neither are the mines in the hands of the workers underground who give them value at the daily peril of their lives; nor do the railroads belong to those who have been called the slaves of the iron-way; nor do the weavers who work the looms, the spinners who toil at the spinning machine, the smiths of the blast furnaces, etc, possess the smallest title to call their own that which they create and which occupies the greater and best portion of their lives - lives spent in barriers and useless sacrifice; and, the economic development of Society tends to generalise this state of things by destroying naturally and necessarily the small industries, founded on the ownership of the means of production by the producer.

Next to industry, properly so-called, we find commerce and agriculture, on the expropriation of the little tradesman and peasant proprietor, organised on a large scale and monopolised by the non-producers.

Labour is, on the one hand, more and more furnished by a class; Property or Capital, on the other, held and controlled by another class. Here you have workers without property - the proletariat. There you have property without work - or capital.

It is this separation between the two factors of production which produces all the evils, all the disorders which afflict not only wage-workers but Society as a whole.

The workers without property are excluded from their products, from the riches they create - which accumulate in the hands of the property holders, capitalists and large land-owners.

Labour, which is inseparable from the workman, is in effect nothing more than a commodity - like old bags, bicycles, bones or biscuits - submitted to the laws which rule the prices of commodities and drag it down through the ups and downs of supply and demand to the mere expenses of living and reproduction of the species - food and maintenance; and, these expenses tend constantly to further reduction, because, to derive an advantage from the markets, capitalists, whatever their personal sentiment - had they the heart of a Saint Vincent de Paul or a Louise Michel - are obliged to reduce to a minimum their net cost which includes all labour, material and mental.

There is then a universal and forced tendency to reduce to the lowest the workers’ wages, and this law is sufficient to crush all the best intentions of employers, prisoners of the social order, by which, however, they benefit.

Another cause by virtue of which wages cannot rise - whatever may be the productivity of human labour - above the immediate wants of the working class is that the supply of labourers tends ever more and more to outrun the demand.

The increase of supply results from the forcing into the ranks of the proletariat of the expropriated small industries, little tradesmen, shopkeepers, all reduced, in their turn, to selling their power of doing work - their labour-power - in order to eat.

The decrease in the demand for labour results from the introduction of machinery and its extension. The non-human labour power (steam, electricity, etc) replaces and renders more and more useless human labour power. Here is what we call progress in the economic system: the never ceasing reduction of the sum of labour necessary to a given production.

The economists pretend, it is true, that this reduction in the field of human labour-power (the only means of existence of a class) is but temporary. Following a better market, the produce, more in demand, would bring in its train an increasing flow of production and a new demand for labour-power. But the economists might just as well say that the mechanical manufacture of coffins would multiply the need for coffins. Is not the mechanical production of bottles and casks dependent on the production of wine, beer, etc., and is not the output of rails or boilers limited by the number of factories and the development of the means of communication? On the other hand, neither the agricultural machinery (steam ploughs, sowers, mowers, binders and thrashers) nor the cranes on the quays multiply the products; they simply displace manual labour. But even in the industries where the machine has resulted in an extraordinary increase of manufactured articles, the demand for labour has diminished. Example: The cotton industry in England, in which the productivity has increased 1231 per cent from 1819-22 to 1880-82, while for the same period the number of those employed fell from 1/37th of the population (445,000 out of a population of 16,500,000) to 1/50th (686,000 out of a population of 34,000,000). Another example: The boot and shoe trade of the United States carried from 70 million pairs in 1845 to 448 millions in 1875, while the workers employed have fallen from 1/414 (45,900 out of 19 millions population) to 1/1145th (48,000 out of 55 millions).

Under the system of non-possession of the working class of the instruments with which they work, all progress, no matter what its nature, is turned against them, making greater their misery, their slavery; accentuating the insecurity of their existence; in a word: making unavoidable their exploitation - their robbery.

I spoke just now of the machine. Can it be possible that it could not have released suffering humanity from over-toil, troubles; could not have given us liberty? On the contrary, it has aggravated man’s hard labour by setting up in competition with him women, transformed into toilers, and children. From the very moment that it permitted the employment of feminine and infantile arms, it was necessary that the woman should enter the factory, leaving behind her health, her dignity; compromising even the very race itself, attacked by the foul virus of capitalism while yet a foetus in its mother’s womb. The effect of this competition let loose between the different members of the worker’s family has been still a further lowering of labour. Thus the legend of the well-being of the family enforced by more bread-winners does not hold good even before a Jules Simon. When the woman and the child were not industrialised, the wages of the husband had to suffice for the maintenance of all. To-day, for the same price which the single labour-power of the man was bought, the employer buys the threefold labour-power of the man, the woman, and the child.

The discovery of gas, this creation of human industry, of a midnight sun to prolong and complete that of day, has not been less fatal than the machine for the working-class. It has given place to night work; the slaughter-house of the night.

And the instruction that is being extended -and which we are the first to applaud as a new element for the destruction of existing Society - what consequences do you think it is going to introduce for the proletariat as long as this Society exists? In perfecting the human tool, which produces more and better, it will create new stoppages, longer slack seasons. One instructed workman will be sufficient where formerly two ignorant workmen were necessary - and occupied.

We hear “profit sharing” much spoken of as a remedy to heal all social sores, to reconcile labour and capital. If the cure were applicable, profit sharing would only remove the field of battle to a conflict over the profits to be shared. But without insisting on this point, in urging the worker to produce the most possible, it would only oblige him to do in two days the work of three, concluding consequently in the multiplication of the already too numerous days of no pay or stoppages. From the hell in which the dispossessed productive class struggles and writhes there is no redemption - “abandon all hope ye who enter here!”

The social consequences of the rupture, ever more complete, between labour and capital are no less terrible. First, we have the struggle of all against all.

It is the fashion amongst the adversaries of Socialism - through ignorance or enmity - to charge us with fomenting the class war. Just though we had invented it! We do nothing but state it and make it serve, which is better, to its own ends. We know that the first condition which imposes itself on a doctor who is called to combat a disease is to examine it in order to understand it. It is not by shutting our eyes to the war which divides and exhausts humanity that we shall arrive at the desired peace.

The war of every moment is threefold:

War between the proletariat and the capitalist for their respective shares in the produce; on one side, wages, on the other, profits; each side exerting itself to carry off a maximum. Man becomes a wolf for his fellow-man. It is a question of eating one’s brother or being eaten by him.

War between workers and workers for the sharing of wages.

War between capitalists and capitalists for the sharing of profits.

On the other hand, all the marvels of human genius, all the conquests over nature, of which I have pointed out already the homicidal results to the working-class, do not strike less mortally at the other classes of Society. The colours of aniline, coal extracts, so extensively used in the dyeing industry, have ruined whole districts which lived on the cultivation of the madder root formerly employed in this industry before the discovery of chemical dyes. Tomorrow, as has been recently foreshadowed, means may be discovered for the direct manufacture by electricity of metal-castings, and then the blast-furnaces, their fires extinguished, will leave to the millionaire of yesterday nothing but eyes to weep. All discoveries are condemned to operate only through revolutions, leaving behind them victims by the million, at the top as well as at the bottom of the social ladder.

It is, according to the admirable expression found in the programme of the German Social-Democracy: General insecurity becomes the normal condition of society.

What shall we say, in conclusion, of the overproduction which goes on increasing and multiplying and which nothing can stop? When industry was yet confined to one or two countries, in order to reduce the frequency of these crises born of the ever growing division between the unbounded productivity of human labour and the limit put to the reward of the workers, outlets were furnished by exportation to those parts of Europe remaining agricultural (Italy, Germany, etc.). To-day, having become in their turn industrial, these same nations are confronted with over-production, and Africa and Asia are “opened up” - civilized - to supply markets for this too great store of commodities. Here you have an explanation also of the crimes of Colonial policy, Colonial wars, etc. which are the order of the day with Capitalist Governments. But after? They will only have stepped back in order to jump the better.

Thus more and more has Capitalist Society proved its horrible failure to produce anything from a superabundance of riches; of means of consumption and happiness, but misery, suffering, ruin and death!

(Part 2 in February 1905)

Translated from the French of JULES GUESDE by P.J.T.