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First Steps In Socialism: II. - Are Wages Necessary?

Our first article under the above heading was devoted to the consideration of the question: "Who are the Working Class?" We will now consider the significance of the working-class position.

The working class are wage workers. That is, they depend for their livelihood entirely upon the money they receive by the sale of their labour power.

It must not be supposed that a wage-worker class has existed through all time. People are so accustomed now-a-days to the wages idea that a great many of them have considerable difficulty in realising that any form or degree of civilisation could have existed without wages. They are so used to the idea that without wages they can get nothing; they are so accustomed to the hard experience that when wages cease to come in they starve; they are impressed and saturated with the concrete knowledge that the orbit of their lives are inexorably prescribed by the magnitude of the magic wage: they are so inured to the aspect presented by these circumstances of their environment, that the admission that under Socialism there will be neither paying nor receiving of wages is sufficient to cause them to reject the Socialist proposition with the remark: "Can't be done!"

But the wages system and the wage-worker, as we understand them to-day, are quite modern social characteristics - newer, say, than St. Paul's Cathedral; newer, perhaps, even than such symbols of God's will on earth as the top-hat and the pipe-clay belt.

When we speak of the wages system and the wage-worker, however, we have in mind a very definite social feature, and it will be as well to explain here exactly what is meant by the terms, for the benefit of those who are new to the study of social science.

If the wage-worker is new, wages, of course, are not. "The labourer is worthy of his hire" was written many generations before the hired labourer was a wage-worker in the modern sense of the term, just as the reference to Joseph's "coat of many colours" was penned ages before the world knew a tailor. Wages are older than the wages system, just as coats are older than the tailoring trade.

The wages system is that system whereunder the whole of the wealth of the community is produced by wage-labour. The wage-worker is one whose sole means of subsistence are the proceeds of the sale of his or her labour power—wages.

Now the wages system, as here described, obviously could not exist save in conjunction with a certain form of property ownership. It is not that this ownership must be private ownership. Property was privately owned centuries before the wages system grew up. The social system which immediately preceded the present one was based on private property, yet very little of the community's wealth was produced by wage labour then.

The particular form of private ownership which is essential for the development of the wages system is that form which provides a propertyless class - that form which takes away from a section every shred of the means of living except their labour power. In other words, the whole of the means of production must belong to a section of the people.

This particular form of private property did not exist till comparatively recent times. Prior to its establishment the working class had free access to the land, and consequently had not to depend upon the sale of their labour power for their livelihood. They did occasionally work for wages, just as they did occasionally sell part of the produce of their labour, in order to procure money to pay taxes, or to purchase the few things required that they did not produce for themselves. But they never became wage slaves while they had access to the sod, for the simple reason that they had at hand the means of producing all the essentials of life for themselves, without being driven to hire themselves to others.

Even the artisans and the handicraftsmen in the towns, where they did work for wages, had their portion of land, on which they produced many of their requirements, and had, besides, reasonable certainty that, when they had become proficient in their craft, the ownership of the implements of their trade would be within their easy reach, and present them with the opportunity of gaining freedom.

So it will be seen that the wages system is by no means an indispensable part of human life. Our ancestors got on very well without it. Indeed, they had neither use nor need for it until they had been stripped of everything they possessed except their labour-power.

Only when they had been driven from their homes and their fields and converted into propertyless outcasts did the working class resort to the labour market for their livelihood. Prior to that they had produced wealth for their own consumption, and money had played but small part in their life. Thorold Rogers calculated that about 16s. a year sufficed to cover all the wants of an average working-class family apart from the direct produce of their own labour for one year, and though the sum represented more then than it does to day, it seems to show how small a figure wages cut in mediaeval life. For that 16s. worth of goods purchased by a family in a year (the chief item of which was boots) represented all that they consumed of the products of wage labour.

I am perfectly conscious of the fact that things have changed greatly since those days; I am aware that men no longer produce the goods they require to satisfy their own needs; I know that it is utterly impossible for us to go back to the state of things wherein each family produced all their own requirements; I understand how the furthermost corners of the earth must contribute to the maintenance of the meanest among us, and if it be even it merest highway beggar , who ties his pitiful rags about him with a waste end of string that has already served a dozen worthier purposes, half the world must labour to provide his girdle: and knowing all this, I ask what function is there that wages serve that is not, like wages, the direct outcome of private ownership in the means of living?

To say that we cannot do without wages and the wages system is to say that which is absurd. Though it is true that wages are the means by which the workers live, it is equally true that wages are the means whereby the workers are robbed. The wage serves no other function than to render possible this robbery. It does not even record the fact that its possessor has performed his share of the world's work, for wages have a fleeting identity, and there is nothing to show how the coins they consist of are come by.

With the abolition of private property, wages, and money, it will be very easy to assure that each person shall perform his or her share of the necessary labour of production, and the "problem" of distribution then would be no problem at all — as we shall see in a future contribution.

A. E. Jacomb