The Forum: From Capitalism to Handicraft


Statements of difficulties, criticisms of our position, contributions upon any question of working-class interest, are invited. Members and non-members of the Party are alike welcome. Correspondents must, however, be as brief as possible, as bright as possible, and as direct as possible to the point.

Dear Sir,
The first of the Kautsky pamphlets published by your Party under the title of “From Handicraft to Capitalism,” treats in a masterly manner with the earlier stages of capitalist development, with the transformation of the sturdy handicraftsman, owning and controlling his own implements of industry, and producing for his own use and enjoyment, into the stunted, anaenic, flat-chested, narrow-gutted wage-slave, tending machinery which, although produced by labour, belongs to the master class, and turning out commodities for the world’s market, being permitted to consume a small fraction of the value of what he produces. Most of us are aware of recent developments in machinery, and can see quite easily the extent to which it is not only rendering it possible for the necessary labour to be performed by women and children instead of by men, but also making it easy to displace human labour, a displacement which is largely responsible for the acuteness of the unemployed question at this moment. Probably the time is not very far distant when such improvements will have been introduced as will make it quite easy for trained monkeys to do very much of the tending, and then—what is to happen to the bulk of the human race may perhaps form the subject of a discussion at a later date.

My object in writing now is to draw attention to a matter upon which I think some of your members as well as others claiming to be Socialists are taking a wrong turning—like the girl in the play. I know that, as a rule, they are wise enough not to be drawn into giving forth schemes or plans as to how this or that will be managed under Socialism, but content themselves with advocating the principle and pointing out that a people intelligent enough to declare the Socialist Republic will also be intelligent enough to settle in their own way any little questions which may seem difficult prolems to some folk to-day. But I have sometimes heard it said that under Socialism we shall utilise the most scientific machinery for producing wealth, thus reducing the necessary human labour to the minimum and giving ample leisure to all. Now it occurs to me that there is here just a danger that under Socialism the people may be even greater victims of machine domination than they are to-day, and that all the joy in labour which William Morris so beautifully describes in your pamphlet “Art, Labour, and Socialism” will be conspicuous by its absence. Obviously, if under Socialism the test of the value of an improvement in machinery is to be its utility as a saver of human labour, many machines not now in use, because they are not savers of wages, will be taken advantage of. As no machinery can be run without organisation and strict discipline on the part of those concerned in its manipulation, it would seem that under Socialism there will not only be perpetuated that fetish of punctuality by which the profit mongers very naturally set such store, but that it will be seated upon even a higher throne than now. (The metaphor may be mixed but I think my meaning will be clear.) Now, is this desirable ? Are we to be “the touch the button” automatons which Edward Bellamy’s ”Looking Backward” depicts, or are we to be free men and free women, securing our livelihood in our own way ? Are we to be called to do our turn of machine minding by the shriek of the Government’s hooter, or are we to be allowed to have a “lay in” if we want it, pleasing ourselves as to how, when and where, if at all, we shall delve and spin?

I know, of course, some will say that in view of the leisure for all, possible only under Socialism, the slight restrictions upon individual liberty involved in punctially responding to the Government’s factory bell will be quite bearable and few will be found to grumble. Well, I think I shall be one of the few. After all, what is leisure and what should be employment ? They should both be synonymous terms for enjoyment. I take pleasure in pushing a plane and handling other implements associated with carpentry and cabinet-making. I may take three or four days to make a door which, witli the aid of the most up-to-date and scientific machinery which is to be employed under Socialism could be produced, no doubt, in less than an hour. Am I to be compelled to forego the pleasure of producing my door by handicraft so that I may have “leisure” to do something I may be less inclined to ?

In my own particular case I know that when in health I require an outlet for my physical and mental powers. If I feel unfit for say, chopping wood (a favourite pastime of mine, but, of course, a waste of time when wood could be much more easily and expeditiously prepared for tho domestic hearth by machinery), if I don’t feel up to arguing with a Tariff Reformer or a Total Abstainer I know I’m not well, and I am certain I should feel damnably unwell if, under Socialism, I should be compelled to enter the Government factory at a particular time and to assist in producing articles by machinery which, if produced by handicraft would probably be superior in every respect, and which would certainly mean real leisure, that is, enjoyment to the producers.

Under Socialism there will be no parasites. There will, of course, be dependents. But as all the able bodied will be producers and as all useless labour will be avoided, the effort required to satisfy human needs will be so small that very little machinery will be needed. The tendency will be toward the “simple life” in production, in other words, as Society passed from Handicraft to Capitalism, so, in my opinion, it will revert to Handicraft after the transition stage from Capitalism to State Socialism. But I should like to hear the views of some member of the S.P.G.B.
Yours, etc.,


As the great Artemus has very forcefully pointed out, it is unwise to prophecy unless you knew. We do not know the precise form of organisation that will control industry in the Socialist Republic, nor the exact details of the working. We do not know whether the worker then, will be summoned to a factory by a State “hooter” or aroused from his slumbers by a direct electrical current established between the workshop and his bedpost. Not knowing, we do not prophecy. We only hold it highly improbable that the elimination of the conditions governing present day production for profit will leave the worker the slave of the machine. The manipulation of machinery in an atmosphere of comparative industrial liberty may well provide the manipulator with as great a joy as our correspondent can derive from the sight of a door growing slowly to recognisability under his hand—in four days. The machine is often a marvel of engenuity, a veritable fairy story told in mechanics. Its control may easily be a dear delight. At the same time it is probable that the people of the Commonwealth may prefer a form of production, in special cases, that will allow the character of the worker to express itself more or less adequately in the work of his hand. Generally, however, we do not suppose that the worker then, will be prepared to relinquish the advantages of greater leisure that the machine offers—although he may occupy that leisure in some form of handicraftsmanship. Doubtless the present revolt against machine work is due to the crushing sense of the domination of the machine over the man—an inevitable result of the capitalist mode of production. Given the subserviency of the machine to the requirements of the man, and the whole aspect changes.

However this may be the subject is one we may well leave to the society of the future. A broader, saner view of productive processes and their relation to the life of the community will inevitably result from the removal of the restrictions that at present cramp the soul of the worker, and will reflect itself in the character of the product. It is a pleasing subject for speculation, anyhow, although the question of far greater and more immediate importance to us has to do with the education and organisation of the workers for the control of the means of their own livelihood. As to what they will do after then we do not pretend to have any particular knowledge. Nor is it a matter to worry about. They will doubtless make mistakes, but if they do they will have to bear the result of the error. Out of their experience they may be relied upon to, sooner or later, devise a means of satisfying their own desires within the means of their development. Then, at any rate, they will have the opportunity of profiting to the full from the lessons of their mistakes.

And that is all there is to it.—Ed. S.S.

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