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Get Rid of Wages!

Over a hundred years ago, Karl Marx gave a talk to the general council of the International Working Men’s Association, a talk whose main point was to show that workers’ unions really could get wage rises — for already the silly idea was being put about that wage increases led to higher prices and therefore the workers didn’t gain. After proving his case up to the hilt, with his usual forceful logic, Marx naturally drew the conclusion that workers should fight for higher wages. But he added the following remarks, which deserve close attention:

  At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought therefore not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work'." they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wages system'.

If that doesn’t startle you, then perhaps it should. After all there are dozens of “Marxists” [parties] about, but how many of them advocate the abolition of wages? Take the British “Communist” Party, for example, which is very well-known as a Marxist Party. In vain will you scour its programme, The British Road To Socialism, for the faintest hint of the abolition of the wages system — though it reeks of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” Look through every item of the CPGB's current propaganda material: it is as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard of even the skeleton of Marx’s “revolutionary watchword.”
 
What about the “Socialist” Labour League then? They’re always accusing the CP of “betraying Marxism” aren’t they? Surely their material is full of revolutionary watchwords? No, not a jot. We could ramble through a lengthy list of so-called Marxist groups in this way; but already you're beginning to lose patience. How ridiculous, really, to take a paragraph out of Marx and use it as a touchstone of the correctness of political parties a century later!
 
But Marx was not just affected by the heat on that June day in 1865. The abolition of wages used to be taken for granted as the chief aim of nearly everyone who claimed to be socialist. “On this point all Socialists agree,” ran the Manifesto of English Socialists of 1893. “Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines and the land. Thus we look to put an end for ever to the wages system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.”
 
Frederick Engels in 1881 wrote of the workers’ day-to- day struggle for higher wages: “It is a vicious circle from which there is no issue. The working class remains what our Chartist forefathers were not afraid to call it, a class of wages slaves. Is this to be the final result of all this labour, self-sacrifice and suffering? Is this to remain for ever the highest aim of British workmen? Or is the working class of this country at last to attempt breaking through this vicious circle, and to find an issue out of it in a movement for the ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM ALTOGETHER?” (Engels' capitals.) Notice that neither this passage nor the one from Marx were passing brainwaves related to a misty, distant future. They were both addressed urgently and directly to the workers.
 
Why did Marx and Engels insist on the abolition of wages? They saw that European private property society had gone through phases: chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism or wage-slavery. Marx pointed out that capitalism was the only system in which the vast majority of wealth took the form of commodities — articles and services produced primarily for exchange rather than for use. He saw the abolition of capitalism as the abolition of commodity production, and thus the end of money, which only exists to facilitate commodity exchange. (The other form of commodity exchange is barter: socialism will have neither barter nor buying and selling). Marxists claim that capitalism has developed science, technology and automation to such a degree that everything we need could be provided free of charge. The catch is that capitalism itself causes an artificial and unnecessary scarcity, because it is so wasteful and destructive. Things are made for profit instead of for people’s use and enjoyment.
 
Capitalism is, among other things, a system for rationing out scarcity. But we have reached a stage where the system for rationing scarcity itself keeps the scarcity in existence. Everywhere the forces of production are straining at the leash to flood the world with abundance — but everywhere the wages-profits system restricts, wastes and destroys, prevents this potential from being realised.
 
In Socialism: Utopian And Scientific Engels stated: “The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.”
 
It is true that since Engels wrote there has been a huge increase in world population. It is also true that much of the easily-available mineral wealth has been consumed. It is further regrettably true that capitalism, in its beserk scramble for profits, has damaged our ecology through such abuses as chemical pollution and irresponsible treatment of the soil leading to erosion. Some of the ill effects of this insane society will take decades to cure. Some of them, alas, can never be cured. The annual extinction of scores of species of animals, plants and birds is a tiny enough matter compared with war on poverty, but our heirs, the people living in Socialism, will no doubt find time to regret such permanent scars on their beautiful planet.
 
However, alongside the population explosion and the Frankenstein ecology, we must put the rapid advance of science, the potential of computers and robots, the development of new sources of power and materials, and staggering new productive processes (most of the patents for which are snapped up by the big monopolies so that no one can use them).
 
There could easily be more than enough to go round. There is no need for scarcity. There is thus no need for a money system of allocation. Some folk, forgetting about the threat of nuclear war and imagining that we have all the time in the world, say: “True, we have the potential for abundance, but let’s delay establishing Socialism until we have actual abundance.” But capitalism, which long ago created the potential, will never actually deliver the goods.
 
What happened to Marxism ?
You miss the whole point of Marx's great work Capital, if you don’t see why he defined “a commodity” on the first page. Capital does not simply describe a certain system of society; it proves that all the main features of that society (things like slumps and unemployment) are necessary consequences of mass commodity production. It is therefore impossible to get rid of them without getting rid of commodity production, in other words getting rid of wages, profits and money.
 
So we return to the question: where did it all disappear to, this talk about abolishing wages? Did somebody come along and prove Marx wrong, so that socialists started aiming for something different? No, nobody has refuted Marx. And neither did the “Communists” and left-wingers come out and say: “We have broken with Marx. We are now anti-Marxist.” It all happened in a much more subtle, slow and underhand way. Nonetheless, though these people did not say “We have broken with Marx” in words, they have certainly said it in deeds. With every drop of workers’ blood they have shed by their support for the monstrous state capitalist tyrannies in Russia, China and Cuba, every compromise they have engineered with backward forces like patriotism and religion, with every oily-tongued betrayal, they have shouted: “We are anti-Marxist.”
 
The substitution of means for ends
But how did it happen? Even given careerism, compromise and deceit, how could so many people — some of them dedicated and sincere, let’s face it — make such a momentous about-turn within a few years, and in such a way that many of them hardly realised they had done it? The main outlines of the process are amazingly similar in most cases.
 
Consider the man who wants the abolition of the wages system, the man who sees that there is no other solution to the problems of the working class. What is he to do? He is in an awkward position, because he soon discovers that the great majority of the working class do not want, and never have wanted, the abolition of the wages system. So there are two alternatives: either a minority can bring about this social revolution, or the majority must be convinced. Of course it is manifestly the case that the majority must be convinced, but that does not end the matter.
 
The task of trying to convince so many people, even though social evolution is on his side, is a daunting one. Easily scared by this prospect, and maybe wanting a quick career in politics, our man eagerly snatches at another scheme. Why not, he reasons, put forward a less frightening demand than the abolition of the wages system altogether? And why not, having got a big following behind that other demand, then lead this following in the direction of a real socialist revolution, the abolition of wages? This plan has every advantage on the personal level. He can think of himself as a real pioneering socialist, but never actually talk about Socialism, and therefore never suffer the scorn of unimaginative nitwits. He can even make a virtue out of expediency and erects a whole glorious mythology of “vanguardism,” “boring from within,” “transitional demands” and so on. There is just one snag. It is quite impossible to get Socialism this way.
 
If you advocate some measure, it does not matter what obscure and ingenious implications you may privately see in it: the followers you attract will not see them. You are forced to argue that this measure can solve the basic problem—which is an argument against Socialism. As your movement gets bigger, you find it becomes a straightforward reformist movement for the defence of capitalism. Nothing else could have happened. Your movement may actually capture political power, and at this juncture you turn to the minority who are still advocating Socialism, and you say to them: “Look where we’re heading! Why are you wasting your time in the wilderness?” And when your government, as it inevitably must, attacks the workers you may even have the impudence to say to that minority: “This would never have happened if we’d had more people like you on our side!” In your very success you have failed utterly. At this point you start looking around for a scapegoat, and who knows what trouble you will cause now? You may, for instance, come to the farcical conclusion that the way you took power was the culprit, that there is something intensely corroding and demoralising about parliament, that armed insurrection is the answer.
 
In this way, by irresponsibly pretending that the vote doesn’t count, you help to pave the way for a new Hitler. Thus the self-styled followers of the ultra-democrat Marx are seen disparaging even the measure of democracy the workers have won within capitalism. Although (and perhaps., more fortunately), you may just get tired, and forget even the word “Socialism”.
 
Some of the people who took the above road used nationalisation (state capitalism) as their “immediate demand.” (Some of them thought that nationalisation was an actual, material stage on the way to Socialism, but that is simply incompetent economics). It is rather comical, tragicomical of course, to look back on their history and see how even the original “immediate demands” were thought so wild that even milder “immediate demands” had to be put in their place. Thus, it was argued that total nationalisation would lead to Socialism, then that partial nationalisation would lead to total nationalisation, eventually that the mere existence of the government with the right tag (even though this party ruled no differently to its rivals) would do the trick. A further ironic twist is that as this retreat took place, each stage along the road was itself christened “socialism.” And then along came a host of modifiers and tinkerers with all sorts of prescriptions for running the same reformist romance along slightly different lines. Thus we get, for example, laugh-lines like “Socialism Is Nationalisation Plus Workers’ Control” (title of an article by S. Newens in Socialist Review, February 1957).
 
When will they learn?
That muddled assortment of movements and groups which use socialist-sounding phrases but are opposed to Socialism is sometimes loosely named “the Left Wing.” Occasionally, in all this barren confusion, like tiny shooting stars in a black sky, we see a brief mention of the need to abolish wage-slavery. In a recent essay (in The Incompatibles, Penguin) Ken Coates makes such a mention, and in fact builds up a good case against capitalism, even quoting Marx’s revolutionary watchword. But is he on the right track? Not on your life. He is merely issuing a reminder.
 
Coates argues that workers in general respect “fairness,” an attitude which is used to support capitalism. He wrote: “Between the idea of a fair day’s pay and the goal of the abolition of the wages system, it is clearly necessary to place a third demand.” This third demand, he believes, should be acceptable in terms of fairness, but should lead to an understanding of Socialism. (Incidentally, someone entirely ignorant of history might assume from Mr. Coates' essay that he was proposing a totally novel strategy. In fact, of course, it is the same old hat of so-called “revolutionary reforms” which has been tried countless times, has always failed, and always will).
 
Coates seems to realise that the reason workers accept capitalist values is because of the weight of indoctrination to which they are subjected. In other words the problem is NOT that workers are either naturally or by conditioning incapable of understanding Socialism, but rather that they hardly ever hear about it and don’t take it seriously when they do. The reasons for this are plain — the chief one being the comparatively insignificant size of the propaganda for abolishing the wages system. The prognosis is obvious: join the small but growing movement which is uncompromisingly putting the case for Socialism. Coates' strategy, though well-meant, has the effect of reinforcing the capitalist values of fake fair play.
 
Having taken a clear stand for the abolition of the wages system we must of course use the sort of psychological analysis indicated by Coates to inform our educational tactics. But it is a mistake to suppose that “fairness" is a concept of no use to socialists. It is hazy to be sure, but it can be used to criticise the very capitalist society which relies upon it. Any worker can quite clearly understand, when he is told that 90 per cent of the wealth is owned by ten per cent of the population, that this is hardly fair. The knowledge of economics needed to grasp the point that it is impossible for wages ever to be fixed by merit (even though that’s not what we want) is very slight. These elementary criticisms of the capitalist system are not enough. They must be followed up by the theory of surplus-value, which, again, anybody can understand. But the deeply-entrenched concept of fairness does not in itself put a vast gulf between workers' minds and understanding of revolution.
 
People never form their attitudes entirely by logically processing the information they get. They do this to an important extent, but they also look particularly for logical arguments in favour of what they already want to believe. So let us repeat: all the essentials of the case again capitalism, and the case for abolishing the wages system, can be readily grasped by any worker. It is not a problem of people’s mental ability which we socialists face: it is a problem of the tremendous continuous pressure of reformist conditioning.
 
A big obstacle is put in our way by precisely those left-wingers who have prostituted socialist phrases. Go up to any worker and tell him you want Socialism: what is the result? You may spend a couple of hours explaining that Socialism is not slave camps in Siberia, nor the Labour government, nor “workers’ control.” After that, if he has the patience, you can start talking about Socialism.
 
This is not his fault. And it is not our choice. We don't relish spending our time debunking the Labour and “Communist" parties. We have a straight case to put, which no one else is putting: that in a world of plenty there is poverty, that a society which puts ironmongery on the Moon cannot house people decently, that workers are debased and degraded in useless toil, that our species is threatened with extermination because of capitalist economic conflict — and that all this is absolutely unnecessary for a single day longer.
 
A world social democracy without frontiers, in which work will be voluntary and enjoyable, in which every member of our society will have equal access to all goods and services, in which poverty and war will not exist — this free society is technically feasible now, and can be established as soon as the majority of people understand and desire it.
 
The history of the last hundred years has proved time and time again: reformist programmes do not lead the working class to Socialism. They obscure the issue. What is needed is a clear case, uncluttered and uncompromised, for the abolition of wages. Please help us to put it.
Steele.