Skip to Content

The Basis of Socialism

 The Socialist Party cannot be accused, with fairness, of hiding from the world its Object, principles, and policy. The goal for which we strive, the reasons that direct us thither, and the methods by which we confidently expect to arrive at our goal are no secret. They are embodied in a summary form in the Party’s Declaration of Principles appearing on the last page of every copy of this, its official organ.

 The Party’s Object is defined as the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of production and distribution. This brief statement presents in a nutshell the whole broad, general outlook of the Party, and the key to all aspects of its philosophy. '

 In the first place the definition implies that the basis of society lies in economic conditions. It does not say, as some would have us believe, that society is purely economic, nor that Socialism is merely an arrangement for distributing wealth. The point is important in more ways than one; for while on the one hand it is a common accusation against Socialism that it will reduce us to mere animals, content to satisfy physical wants only, on the other hand we have the pseudo-Socialists who, in order to avoid awkward questions in the hunt for the votes of all and sundry, seek to confine their “Socialism” to a mere economic formula or an ethical generalisation, according to the particular circle of people to whom they appeal.

 The Socialist Party, while failing to see how we can be degraded to a much more animalish condition than capitalism imposes upon us, claims that the exercise of our faculties in other directions than those concerned with food and the like, depends upon the satisfaction of our economic wants in the first place. “Man cannot live by bread alone.’’ True! but without bread man cannot live at all. Until we discover the means for dispensing with the raw material from which we generate our energies, the expression of those energies will, to a large extent, be determined, in quantity and in quality, by the amount of raw material obtained and the conditions under which it is obtained.

 What applies to the individual applies to a society of individuals. Just as buildings must rest upon bases, so the social organisation of mankind springs from the essential economic conditions of its existence. It is the product of the response of the consciousness of society to the influence of its inheritance and environment. Politics, art, philosophy, the relations of the sexes, all expressions of human thought and co-activity, bear the stamp of their economic mould and inheritance.

 If we examine the relations of mankind in the matter of obtaining a living we find them centring around the means by which that living is obtained. From the earliest times to which we can trace human life it would appear that the human race has been distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the acquisition and use of tools and weapons.

 Puny in physical powers in comparison with many of the living beings around him, and insignificant in the physical sense before the blind forces of nature, man’s co-operative thought has resulted in the production of means whereby co-operative action secures the triumph of mankind over these beings and forces. Mark that it is the capacity for “holding together,’’ for mutual protection, that has provided the leisure wherein individuals could discover and develop the instruments of social progress in the first place, and preserve and hand on these instruments to countless generations in the second place.

 There are two main aspects of men’s relations to their means of living which it is as well to distinguish. We might define them respectively as the industrial and the legal sides of the economic basis of society. The industrial side consists of the relations of men as users of the means of production, that is, as producers of wealth. The legal aspect is comprised in the forms of property or ownership of the means of production and, as a result, of the wealth produced.

 The industrial relations develop along paths largely irrespective of the conscious will of mankind according to the nature of the implements used in production. It is characteristic of modern machinery that it links up numbers of hitherto separate simple processes into a huge, complex, single series of processes. The specialised man, therefore, tends to become supplanted by the special part of a machine, and the workers are linked up in huge concerns which often deal with the article produced from the stage of raw material to finished commodity.

 The ownership of the ever developing means of production, however, is determined in strictly conscious and deliberate fashion by the most powerfully organised section of the community in accordance with their material interests. The whole machinery of modern government simply exists to preserve and regulate the existing forms of wealth production.

 We further find that the industrial and legal aspects of society's present basis do not harmonise. The users of the means of production are not the owners, and the wealth produced by huge armies of workers goes into the possession of a comparatively small number of individuals. Society is divided into conflicting classes. This brings us to another implication of our Object, namely, that it is possible to change the form of wealth ownership.

 If we take a glance at history we see that the weapons of man’s war with nature, and the relations centring round them, have been subject to considerable change. Tools have been improved in the direction of time and energy spent in their use. Consequently there has taken place a progressive increase in the product of social labour-power, independently of the normal increase in population. This development may be divided into two main epochs. The first comprises the prolonged change from the simple weapons of hunting and pastoral man, capable of serving a variety of purposes (the knife and the axe, for instance), to the specialised tools of the handicraftsman and agriculturist (as the loom and the shinning wheel, the saw and the plane, the plough and the barrow).

 The common feature of the tools alike at the beginning and the end of this period is that their motive power is derived direct from man. The second period, hardly 200 years old, embraces the application of scientific discoveries to industry and the control of natural forces on a large scale, for the purpose of driving the complex machinery which turns out the commodities of to-day.

 The industrial relations of mankind reflect this development. Simple co-operation prevailed in the chase and the tending of flocks and herds. With the development of agriculture and handicraft it gave way to an individualisation of productive effort. This specialisation, however, in turn gave rise to interdependence which, breaking down local and national barriers, has led to the socialisation of industry in a more complex and universal form. It is difficult for a modern workman to consider himself detached from his fellows at a worker.

 What of property? Here, too, we find the same evolution. The tribal and family collectivism of the hunting and pastoral epoch, in which all of the same kindred enjoyed economic and social equality, broke down in favour of the private ownership of land and tools which was essential to the progress of new methods of gaining a living.

 The second change, however—to Socialism—demanded by the nature of modern production, has yet to be accomplished. That it will be accomplished is as inevitable as that an embryo chicken, having become complete in the relative development of its parts, should smash its shell.

 The development of private property has had three distinct stages, and it is of importance to notice how each form gave way to its successor. The adoption of agriculture as a mode of production led to the break-up of the old tribal unity and the introduction of the patriarchal family, with its slaves—who were generally captives of war. The city-states (Babylon, Athens, Rome) represent the highest types of this form of society.

 So extensive became the slave population that its supervision led to the development of a special military caste, which, as the progress of agriculture rendered a more intensive cultivation necessary, overthrew the local power of the patricians, and federating with the king at their head, became a feudal aristocracy.

 Under their domination the slave was transformed into a serf. Whereas the former had his product directly confiscated by his owner, who was responsible for his maintenance, the latter was established in permanent conjunction with the land of his lord, to whom he was bound to render certain fixed services in return for the privilege of cultivating for himself certain portions of the manor or village property.

 The development of handicrafts and commerce gave rise to another class —the merchants. Villages grew into towns, and again the struggle for mastery began. It ended in the downfall of the feudal class and their peculiar form of annexing plunder, and a new form took its place.

 Divorced from the soil, the peasant became a wage-slave, forming a labour supply for the merchants turned manufacturers, enabling them to compete the independent handicraftsmen out of existence.

 The power of the plutocracy has steadily increased from that day to this, but now it, too, is threatened. The modern ruling class stand face to face, not with a new prospective ruling class, but with a slave class amongst whom revolt against all class rule is rapidly spreading. Modern industry has massed the workers together, and they grow daily more conscious of their potential might. History shows that as the industrial conditions of society change, so the legal property relations are changed sooner or later by the conscious effort of the class on whom the further progress of industry depends. Thus is vindicated a third implication of the Socialist objective.

 It remains to show what conditions remain to be fulfilled before the modern revolution is an accomplished fact. In the first place the workers must become fully conscious that the proposed change is necessary in their own interest. The facts of their every day life, whether they are perceived directly and independently or as a result of the agitation of their fellows in the Socialist Party, are sufficient to teach them this. Secondly, this consciousness must be followed by universal organisation, for only by this means can the established order be made to give way to a universal system of co operation. Finally, this organisation must at present take a political form.

 We have seen that all the social changes of history, from tribal communism to patriarchalism, from that to feudalism, and from that again to capitalism, have taken place as the result of a struggle between classes developed by industrial progress. Force alone decided the issue. Only when the revolutionary class can impose its will in opposition to its enemy can the new property conditions come into being. The classes of old fought their battles out in actual physical conflict. The modern ruling class is not a military entity, however: the defenders of its wealth are drawn from the ranks of the oppressed class itself. So physically insignificant are our masters that even their system of government dare not take its way without the support of the majority of the rest of society, while the direction of the political machinery is more and more entrusted to traitors from the ranks of the slaves. It needs only conscious organisation to wrest from the trembling grasp of the tyrants the only weapon with which at present they beat any rebel section of us down. Before any attack on their property they are impotent without the aid with which society supplies them. Conceive the great majority of society self-conscious, possessing control of their own political machine, and what stands in the way of the common ownership and use of the means of life in equality by all who accept the task of producing what they need ? Aye! what? That is the challenge to the intelligence of the working class which is embodied in the existence of the Socialist Party.

Eric Boden