The Class Struggle

The Western Socialist
December 1933,
January, February 1934

The Socialist Party of Canada does not minimise the necessity and importance of the worker keeping up the struggle to maintain the wage-scale, resisting cuts, etc. If he always laid down to the demands of his exploiters without resistance he would not be worth his salt as a man, or as material for waging the class struggle to put an end to exploitation.

But there is another necessity, quite as real, and more urgent, if we look beyond the immediate present and consider the possibility of final escape from the condition of poverty and deprivation that is the lot of the majority of people in capitalist countries to-day. The need is one of education – knowledge of how this condition of world-wide poverty came to be possible and co-existent with the most wonderful capacity for the production of wealth that the world has ever known. Without dealing with the economics of the social structure, let us recognize a self-evident fact – that the burden of poverty and all that it entails rests mainly on the shoulders of that section of society to which we belong – the wage-earning productive class, whose life-cycle may be summed up as “working, and eating, and sleeping in order to be able to start the same cycle afresh” – year in and year out, from youth to old age. That is the normal condition of the vast majority of the wealth producers of all capitalist countries, and death finds them as far removed from the enjoyment of the social wealth they have created as any chattel slave of antiquity.

The other side of the picture provides a startling contrast. Here we see a numerically small section of society in legal possession of the world’s wealth and wealth producing equipment. Their contribution to the store of material social wealth is nil, but they enjoy all the benefits in comfort, pleasure, education and leisure that the labors of the producing class have made possible.

There is obviously something wrong with a social organization which perpetuates such a glaring contradiction as this. It is apparent that it is to the interest of the vast majority to remove this contradiction in such a manner as to make it impossible to recur, and to ensure that all the useful members of society enjoy the full benefit of their collective labors, paying tribute to none. How this is to be accomplished is the problem that will have to be faced and solved by the working class itself. The interests of the owning class lie in perpetuating the existing basis of wealth production and distribution. It is fortified in its ownership by its control of all the organized forces of the State – the armed forces and the law-enforcing machinery. It requires but little reflection to see that the control of these State powers is the only guarantee the ruling and owning class possesses that the existing order shall continue. It has the power to prevent the workers from organizing force to contest the force of the State. They are kept unarmed, and ignorant of the technique of utilizing the scientific methods of modern militarism.

It is true that the armed forces are manned by workers and that they lend themselves to the process of crushing any attempt on the part of others of their class to revolt against their miserable conditions. That anomaly is also the result of the control of the State powers by the owning class, which enables it to dictate and enforce the method to be used in the State scheme of education for the producing class. This, supplemented by the influence of the press, organized religion, the manifold political and social institutions that are wedded to the existing order, combine to produce a mental attitude in the producers that the existing order is natural and right, and should be defended against all assaults, and that the ruling class, as the custodians of the social welfare, should be protected from all attacks, both from within and from without.

So long as a sufficient number of the workers are dominated by this mode of thinking the ruling class is secure, for all revolts can be suppressed. Conditions, however, that they are helpless to prevent, but which arise from necessity out of the social relationships their rule has created, give the lie to their calculated scheme of education. More and more of the workers are forced to realize that their interests are opposed to those of the owning and ruling class, in fact that the continuation of this rule spells disaster to society generally. New sources of education are utilized that deal with history and the economics of social progress from a scientific standpoint.

This study develops opposition to the ideas inculcated by the ruling class to the effect that any fundamental change in the existing order is impracticable and visionary, and that the present order of society is static (allowing for necessary modifications to be introduced by the rulers themselves as and when required) and, with all its faults, is the best possible social organization that can be devised. A scientific study of history, on the contrary, shows conclusively that from the earliest recorded times to the present human society exhibits a spectacle of change, now slow and gradual, now violent and spectacular, during which the existence of classes with opposing interests is revealed. These classes struggle for the mastery of society, i.e., for the power to govern society in a manner conducive to their own interests. These warring classes, respectively, can be shown to be the representatives or sponsors of particular methods of wealth production. One class, occupying the ruling position, has gained that position for the purpose of developing the powers of a particular method, and creating the social institutions and laws that are calculated to develop all the powers and capacities of that method of production.

But within that framework of social laws and constitutions the forces of progress continue to operate. New, improved methods of agriculture, new tools, appear, as a result of man’s ceaseless efforts, to bend natural forces and resources to serve his ends. As they come into more general use the owners find themselves cramped and thwarted in their efforts to realize all the benefits inherent in the new methods by the existing legal, traditional and customary restrictions, adapted to the interests of the existing ruling class, sponsors of the now outmoded methods of production. A class struggle develops, is fought out, and the new class that, for the time being, stands for the development of the productive forces, appears as the ruling class, possessed of the governing power of society, and proceeds with more or less speed to adapt the legal, political and social institutions to serve the interests and further the development of the method of production which it sponsors.

All recorded history shows this process at work, a more or less rapid development of productive forces demanding changes in a social structure. Vested interests in the old methods raise barriers to stem the progress of the new forces, but they represent a dying order. The new class, the sponsors of the new methods of production, is forced to adopt the role of a revolutionary class, and representing as it does youth and progress as opposed to old age and conservatism, finally sweeps all before it – and prepares the ground for its Nemesis – a new revolutionary class that in time will sweep it and its outworn methods and institutions from the path of further progress.

Thus is history made. Statesmen, monarchs and warriors are but the component of a shadow-show, the products and creatures of the forces of social evolution, in the scheme of which they are of as little moment as leaves blown by the wind. Their influence for good upon social progress has been generally negligible, often harmful and reactionary.

Those whose labors form the foundation from which human society moves on in its unceasing conquest over the forces of nature have ever been the useful workers of hand or brain, whether it be the man in the ditch, or the scientist in his laboratory calculating the density and orbit of a star a million light years away. The sum total of human achievement is the sum total of their labor. They and they alone are the makers of history.

The question now naturally arises – “When is this process of social evolution, working itself out through class struggles, going to cease? Is society doomed to internal conflict to the end of time, with the labors of those who make progress possible bringing them no adequate reward?

The present class struggle differs from those which have preceded it inasmuch as it is obviously one between property owners and the propertyless – using the word “property” in the sense of a recognized right to appropriate the results of the productive labor of others.

If we rule out the ancient slave revolts, all previous class struggles are, in the main, obviously struggles between owners of different kinds of property. The fact that both contending classes were able to use the propertyless element to assist them in the struggle did not make the struggle one to further the interests of the propertyless class. They took sides in the class struggles of others. “They fought the enemies of their enemies”, instead of their own enemies. This was quite understandable, even inevitable, in the days of small production by hand tools or very primitive machinery. The apprentice of mediaeval times, for instance, could entertain reasonable hope of becoming a master-craftsman, employing a few hands and apprentices in his own shop. Owning no property of his own, but expecting to, he would naturally support any revolutionary move on the part of the owners of the small productive plants to enlarge their power and privileges in opposition to the demands and restrictions imposed by the feudal nobility. Under those conditions a definite class interest among the propertyless elements could not be expected to develop. The forces of social evolution were served by their support going to the class immediately above them to its struggles for greater power and privilege – a struggle that actually mobilized the progressive forces of the time.

The discoveries of the Americas and the East Indies opened up an immensely profitable market for the barter of European products for the precious metals and products of the newly discovered peoples, which the small productive plants of the time could not take full advantage of. Colonization followed, thus increasing the market. Concentration of production into larger plants, employing many workers, arose (still with hand-operated tools, but working on the principle of a division of labor) and spelt the doom of the small individual plant employing a few men. The application of steam to industry, calling for a still larger expense for machinery, buildings, raw material, fuel and wages, definitely closed the avenues of social advancement to the vast majority of small producers, and transformed them into a wage-earning proletariat, a class owning no property rights in the means of production. They were, accordingly, compelled to sell their physical and mental energies to the owners of the new industrial plants. The new rising class, owners of the large-scale productive industries, assisted, as were their forbears, by the propertyless element, fought a victorious class struggle with the feudal landlords, owners of the now outmoded means of production based on land ownership, and assumed political control of social affairs by seizing the governing power of society, and adapting the whole social structure to the necessities and demands of the new mode of wealth production.

Every class in the past that secured the ruling power had an important economic function – to develop, improve and extend the power of man over nature, and thus make its contribution to the progress of the race. Every revolution in the past has marked a step forward to the solution of the problem of wealth production. The modern capitalist system of production, by its marvellous achievements in the fields of science, understanding of natural laws, and the scientific application of that knowledge to industry, has finally solved the problem of wresting from nature the secret of a full and abundant life for all at the expenditure of a minimum of effort. Working through a competitive system of production for profit, based on the private ownership of industry, it has swept the field clear of all rivals, for no section of society is now able to sponsor a more efficient system of production. The problem now demanding solution is – “How shall the products of modern industry be distributed?

Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto of 1847, have pointed out that of all the classes that stand face to face with the dominant capitalist class, only the propertyless working class is really progressive and revolutionary. All other sections, such as the small shopkeepers, tradesmen and small manufacturers, seek to re-establish themselves in their former condition of security as in the days of small industry. Trying thus to turn back the hands of the clock of progress, they are reactionary. The working class viewpoint is taken from a totally different angle. The workers have no property interest to conserve. In a society such as this, where everything is produced for sale, the only avenue by which they can get access to the means to live, to the machinery of wealth production, is by selling the only thing they possess – their power to labor – to the owners of industry. The price, called wages, they receive for that labor power, is, on the average, just enough to purchase the provisions, clothing, shelter, etc., which, being consumed, replace the energy spent in the form of used-up nervous and muscular tissue expended in the activities of productive work. All the values they produce above the values of the things they must receive in order to continue to function in industry belong to the owners of industry.

It is important to note at this point that throughout all history the principle has been operating with all the force of a natural law – that to the owner of the tools of production belongs all the wealth created through their use. It operated unchallenged throughout the age-long period of handicraft, from its beginnings in the early period of barbarism, and is operating today under machine production. The modern development of machine power production, however, introduced a change of the greatest possible revolutionary significance. It has finally separated the user from the owner. Previously, under the handicraft stage, the two functions were united in the same individual. The industrial revolution, beginning in the 18th century with John Wyalt’s spinning machine, speedily took the hand tools away from the craftsman and combined them into machines too expensive for the small producer to own and operate. The modern development, as seen today, has even placed ownership beyond the reach of the individual capitalist. The capitalists have to combine and pool their resources in order to achieve ownership. On the stock exchange, by means of deals in stocks and bonds, the personnel of the ownership may be continually changing, but it remains in the hands of the capitalist class as a whole. This ownership is international and interlocking. Therefore, the wealth produced by the workers of the world belongs to an international capitalist class by virtue of its ownership of the means by which it is produced.

The remedy is obvious. It is to transfer the ownership back to those who alone can and do use and operate it. Being of such a gigantic nature, and being built up on a system of world-wide co-operation in production, modern industry itself indicates the type of ownership which will supply the answer as to how mankind as a whole may enjoy the fruit of its collective labor. That type of ownership must be wholly social. Society as a whole must own and operate the means whereby society exists.

The only section of society whose interests and training fit it for the accomplishment of this revolutionary task is the modern working class. Collectively, from the highest ranks to the lowest, it is familiar with every detail of every industrial process. It has nothing to lose in the struggle. It has no property interests to conserve. To quote the famous words of Marx and Engels – they have nothing to lose but their chains and they have a world to win.

It is fitting here to interpolate a quotation from The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Questions of the Day. For clarity and conciseness it cannot be bettered:

“But in order to fit themselves for this task the workers must acquire the consciousness which alone can enable them to do so. This consciousness must comprise, first of all, a knowledge of their class position. They must realize that, while they produce all wealth, their share of it will not, under the present system, be more than sufficient to enable them to reproduce their efficiency as wealth producers. They must realize that also, under the system they will remain subject to all the misery of unemployment, the anxiety of the threat of unemployment, and the cares of poverty. They must understand next the implications of their position – that the only hope of any real betterment lies in abolishing the social system which reduces them to mere sellers of their labor power, exploited by the capitalists.

“They will see then, since this involves dispossessing the master class of the means through which alone the exploitation of labor power can be achieved, there must necessarily be a struggle between the two classes – the one to maintain the present system of private (or class) ownership of the means of living and the other to wrest such ownership from them and make these things the property of society as a whole. This is the struggle of a dominant class to maintain its position of exploitation, on the one hand, and of an enslaved and exploited class to obtain its emancipation, on the other. It is a class struggle.

“A class which understands all this is class-conscious. It has only to find the means and the method by which to proceed, in order to become the fit instrument of the revolution.”

The question we postulated, as to the possible duration of social evolution working itself out through a series of class struggles, has been answered. By seizing the governing power of society, and using it to enforce their new system of social ownership of all the socially necessary means of production, the economic foundation of class society is removed.

The co-operative and social character of wealth production being recognized by society as a whole assuming ownership, no class will be able to exploit another class by means of ownership. Classes, and all the social relationships out of which they arise, will have no economic soil to grow in. They will disappear. With their final disappearance will go the necessity of an armed, governing state, the organ of class domination and class repression. The last class struggle will have been fought to a victorious conclusion by the forces that stand for social progress, and the tremendous, unplumbed depths of the reservoirs of human energy and talent will be free to carry human achievement to heights undreamed of today. And all humanity will be the gainer, not the few members of a privileged class.

How this result can be achieved other than by the abolition of class ownership and the institution of Socialism, is for the opponents of Socialism to define.