Revolution’s Reply to Reform

The answer to “Arms for the Workers: A Defence of the Programme of the Social-Democratic Party.” (E. C. Fairchild, Lon. Organiser, S.D.P.)

(Continued from the previous issue.)

Something Less than Socialism

The first objection, says Mr. Fairchild, “to the adoption of a programme of proposals to palliate or diminish the evils of capitalism, is the doctrine that anything less than the realisation of complete Socialism would be valueless to the working-class.” He goes on to declare that

“The argument that Socialism only can remove the artificial inequalities of to¬day, restore the social produce to the social workers, and abolish all forms of actual poverty is perverted. That argument is held to mean that the condition of the workers is a fixture, and that poverty cannot be diminished under the capitalist state.”

This statement is untrue. The so-called impossibilists do not pervert the argument to any such meaning. On the contrary, so far are they from regarding the condition of the workers as a fixture, that they continually point out that it is ever becoming worse-a verity the reform champion himself subscribes to when he says (p. 4) “In all capitalist countries the share of the total wealth production taken by the working class is falling.”

The “Social-Democracy,” ill-grounded in social science, and, therefore, groping like blind Samson for that which they cannot see, imagine that they have their arms about the pillars of capitalist society when they grasp their “palliative programme.” But they cry “palliation” without knowing what palliation is, and think they have palliated the system when they have helped to do that which the system forces the capitalists to undertake in their own interests.

Out of such ignorance as this comes the puerile statement that “the system has been palliated to provide magnificence and great wealth for the few.” Magnificence and great wealth for the few, however, were inherent in the system, and not provided by any imaginable “palliation” Mr. Fairchild can instance. And when the term “palliation” can be applied to such opposites as the depression of the multitude in order to “provide magnificence and great wealth for the few,” and, the wrenching from these few, of the means of lessening the misery of the toiling many, then it behoves us to look to our anchors, lest we drag and drift on to the rocks of lunatic chaos.

What, after all, is a palliative ? In sociology, surely, some betterment of the social conditions, given or obtained apart from the decree of economic law and the necessities of the social system.

Thus, trade union effort to advance wages is not palliative effort, but simply the exercise of that power of resistance necessary to arrive at and assert the value of labour power. The law of exchange in accordance with which wages are determined by the cost of production of labour-power, presupposes resistance on both sides of the market. The same resistance between buyer and seller exists in all commodity exchange. It takes the place of that theoretically presumed exact knowledge of values, which no buyer or seller ever yet possessed. The man has not been born who could trace the cost of production (in units of socially necessary labour time) of two commodities through all its intricities and say of them “in such and such quantities these goods are equivalent values.” The question of values must be referred to the competitive market, where the appeal is to force and the only gauge the mean of prices over extended periods.

Similarly, as the struggle for higher wages is not a palliative straggle, since it is a necessary and presupposed part and parcel of the wages system, so there are many measures of a seemingly ameliorative nature, which, since they are necessary to the continued working of the capitalist system itself, are not in any sane sense palliatives.

What possibility, for instance, would there be of the existence in a state of profit-producing efficiency, of several millions of persons within the London area, under the sanitary conditions of the middle ages ? In these days when gardens are on the roofs, and tube underlies tube in the bowels of the earth, surface area is far too valuable for open sewers and cesspools. The night-soil man has become an impossible person, and the earth closet an insupportable expense. In addition, black plagues (and consequent scarcity of labour-power) and high profits do not go well together. Capitalism, and not the sentimental tear of the palliator, demanded cheaper and more efficient sanitary arrangements, and that demand was met by, among other things, that “liberal water supply” and “modern drainage” which the S.D.P. champion (pp. 4-5) declares have “modified the original structure of the capitalist system in the interest of the workers,” (!) and are, therefore, palliatives.

The poultry farmer who runs ten to twelve hens to the acre need not worry greatly about sanitary arrangements for his stock, but when he multiplies the number of birds by four or five, he immediately has to face and deal with the problem of sanitation. To say, however, that he does so for the hens’ sake is ridiculous. Yet it is a parallel case with the claim that modern drainage and the liberal water supply are palliatives of the capitalist system.

They are nothing of the sort. They are necessities of the capitalist system, without which the process of profit production would be hampered at every turn. They are perpetuators, not palliators, of capitalism. Is it imaginable, highly developed capitalist transport, expressed in the latest phrase—motor haulage—on the old feudal bridal paths, or even the roads and bridges that were good enough for our grandfathers’ stage-coaches ? Is it thinkable, the modern industrial and business world with the illiterate working class of the “hungry forties ?”

We all know that the constant wail of representative British manufacturrets is that German education has been allowed to get so far in advance of English, and one of their number who recently said “I do not fear Germany’s competition, but I fear her technical schools,” spoke volumes as to the motive underlying the educational palliative.

Again, during the last 35 years the birth rate has steadily fallen from 36 to 26, to the horror of the patriotic pulpit and the uneasiness of the exploiting class—who can see only less honey from fewer bees. But with fewer births has come the desire to keep more of the children alive, and so we find “the amenities of the worker’s lives” (as our author puts it) by the provision of municipal sterilised milk supplies, maternal training, free meals for school children, and such “palliatives.”

The truth is that the gradual development of the productive system demands and necessitates an unceasing adaptation of social conditions, but these are not palliatives of the system, but the mere adjustment to the needs of an industrial machinery whose one motive force is the production of the greatest possible profit. They leave the workers’ position untouched. These “amenities of the workers’ lives” have not kept pace with their steady degradation. The “liberal water supply” of the water company may not altogether compensate for the loss of the sweet air that moved about the well, nor could the site of the Thames Embankment have been, as a low-lying muddy waste, a picture of more utter and hopeless despair, than now when it offers its proud, granite bosom to be the dreary, comfortless bed of scores upon scores of poor wretches that once were men, and women—and children.

No, Mr. Palliator, the position of the worker is not a fixture. Their exploitation increases, their unemployment increases, their insecurity and anxious misery increases, in spite of those “amenities of the workers’ lives,” “a liberal water supply, modern drainage, and the extension of public open spaces.”

The position of the Socialist Party is, not that the condition of the workers is a fixture, but that it is constantly being adjusted to the requirements of the capitalist system, and that this adjustment is not palliation of working-class conditions. For the working class, they hold, there is no palliation—there is only emancipation. This is why “something less than Socialism” would be valueless to the proletariat.

The Distribution of Wealth

In the brief confines of this chapter we are treated to several curious statements. We are are told, for instance, that “the productive capacity of labour is subject to continuous change. It will rise or fall with every application of knowledge to industrial functions.” This piece of owlish wisdom, of course, flies in the face of all experience, and it would be interesting to learn when the application of knowledge causes the productive capacity of human energy to fall.

In one breath our author declares that the “proportion or amount of the requirements of life which fall to the share of the respective classes” is not “fixed by economic or political laws,” and prescribes a political law for the fixing of a minimum wage !

The Socialist Party holds, not that “the proportion or amount of the requirements of life which fall to the share of the respective classes” is fixed by economic or political laws, but that, in capitalist society, the “return to labour” is determined by the cost of producing labour-power.

This is an economic law. It operates through competition. Therefore, if the statement of the law is true, the only way to increase the “return to labour” is either by raising the cost of producing labour-power or by restricting competition.

If the reformer started out to induce the people to “waste their substance in riotous living,” to become more drunken and to burn a loaf for every one they ate, he would be derided for his pains, but he would be logical. He would be trying to raise the “return to labour” by increasing the cost of producing labour-power which governs it. But to propose to raise the cost of producing labour by increasing that which it determines (wages in the long run) is madness.

If, on the other hand, the reformer aspired to so completely organise the workers for resistance in the economic field that competition was effectually strangled, again, in spite of the hopeless magnitude of his task, he would be logical. He would be trying to defeat the economic law of exchange by eliminating the mainspring of its operation—competition.

Now the law as stated above is a law of capitalism—not of other social systems. Capitalism presupposes and hangs upon competition. To eliminate competition in the labour market (of all markets) is to eliminate capitalism. Hence every force of the existing system is arrayed against any attempt to tamper with the freedom of competition. But our would-be palliators, who say that labour’s share of the wealth produced is not fixed by economic or political laws, are going to tilt against the windmill. They are going to match a political law against an economic law. They are going to set up their Minimum Wage Act against the whole world of masters interested in paying the least possible wages they can, and the whole seething mass of hunger-driven workers, striving for employment at any wage.

Later Mr. Fairchild gives us “a little history.” Let us have little history now.

The Black Plague in the 14th century made labour-power very scarce. The Statute of Labourers was enacted to prevent the payment or reception of higher wages than had ruled prior to the outbreak. What was the result ? Many on both sides were imprisoned, but labour was not made one whit more redundant. Hence the labourers continued to get the best of the competitive straggle, and wages rose 50 or even 100%. So we have it on record that complaint was continually made in Parliament that the Statute of Labourers was utterly inoperative (see “Six Centuries of Work and Wages,” Thorold Rogers, p. 226 on).

If wages could not be kept down by law then, when labourers were not free, as they are now, to seek other masters, and when the masters, who controlled the political power, were interested in supporting the law and keeping them down, how much less can the law enforce a minimum wage now, when the masters, controlling the political power, are interested in evading such a law, and the workers themselves are forced by the awful competition for work, to cast every artificial barrier to their degradation into oblivion ?

(To be Continued.)


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