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 previous issue)

Those who talk so glibly of Minimum Wage enactments cannot, surely, have paid due attention to the manifold ramifications of the competitive mainspring of capitalist production. Even if such an act could, in spite of all the powers against it, be carried into effect, still the be all and end all of capitalist production—profit—would not consent to defeat.

Stronger than Parliaments and the laws of Parliaments, than the colossal armed forces of nations in the hands of Parliaments, are the economic laws. So, if political law affects to limit the degradation of wages, the economic law of machinery under capitalism comes into operation and restores the degree of exploitation.

The law may be stated thus: Every increase in the cost of labour-power tends to the increase and development of machinery.

Many who are not ignorant of this law refuse to accept it because they do not thoroughly grasp its meaning. They argue that Necessity is not so much the mother of Invention that every need of the capitalist class is at once productive of the inventive genius to satisfy it. But such an argument shows a wrong interpretation of the law.

Machinery exists and plays its part in every productive field. But it is in no trade or industry of even perfection throughout. Its development at any given date is a matter of innumerable gradations and degrees. To take an example—the newspaper printing trade. Not every newspaper is printed on the latest “Hoe” machine flashing off 40,000 copies folded and counted in an hour. From this the means in use tail away, through numberless shades of backwardness, into comparative antiquity. But everywhere the means are being used which the individual proprietor judges are most profitable to him, in his circumstances. Thus though the latest “Hoe” marvel is of undoubted value, the machine of fifty years ago still clanks on its way to the scrap-heap.

Each improvement in machinery may be likened to the effect of a stone thrown into a lake. Its circle of profitableness gradually enlarges with time while the degree of its profitableness decreases until it has become too obsolete to yield profit to anyone. In one circle the invention of the hour is eagerly seized upon, in another circle the means of yesterday are most profitable, while yet a third circle of exploiters are limited to the machinery of five years ago, and so on. And everywhere there are owners debating with themselves the question, of whether it would pay them to throw out certain machinery and replace it with something more up-to-date.

Now—to revert to our example—what will be the result of an increase in the cost of labour-power in the case of the newspaper printing trade ? Wages having advanced, the arguments in favour of the further adoption of wage-saving machinery are at once increased. The waverers become decided and the fringe of doubt takes a larger circumference. Each stage of perfection in machinery experiences a rapid extension of its sphere of profitable exploitation, and throughout the whole industry, without the aid of a single new invention, machine development takes a step forward. At the same time at the top of the tree the capitalists are more receptive of new inventions, while at the bottom those who have been struggling to hold their own with antiquated means, are plunged into ruin by the fresh handicap of dearer labour-power, their machines find their way to the scrap-heap, and the work which those machines had been doing with extravagant expenditure of labour-power is transferred to more economic machinery, to the enhancement of the army of out-of-works.

Thus together with the introduction of improved machinery we get displacement of workers and an increased army of unemployed to struggle against any artificial restriction of wages, to defy every penalty with which the most sincere advocates can hedge about the Minimum Wage or any other limitation of the starving multitude’s liberty to compete for work at any price.

It is a fruitless argument to say that the advance of wages demanded by such a “palliative” as the Minimum Wage would be too small to have this general effect. Such a claim cuts against its user, for a reform does not become more worthy on account of insignificance. Moreover, the measure of its extent is the measure of its effect.

And in those trades in which such an Act would most apply—the so-called sweated industries (as if there are any industries which are not sweated) ; the industries which lend themselves to being carried on in the homes of the workers—the law of machine development would operate with two-fold force. In such fields machinery and the factory system are only kept at bay because labour-power is so terribly cheap. Yet, awful as it appears to say it, any legislative attempt to raise the wages of these poor creatures can only, as far as it is effective at all, result in handicapping them against their merciless competitor, machinery.

In a later section Mr. Fairchild talks of initiating measures to deal with the consequences of the “initial proposals.” The consequences of the “introduction of a law of minimum wage,” supposing that it could be effectually enforced, will be the extension of machinery and increased unemployment. When our reformer convinces us that he has a measure capable of dealing with this obliterating “consequence” it will be time enough to agree with him that the share of the total wealth production taken by the working class can be caused to rise by wage legislation.

The Position of the Working Class

In the next four sections our author abandons all serious effort to deal with his subject, and indulges in a little quiet fun at the expense of his readers. He tells us, for instance, that “we do not know the things we cannot see.” The blind man, then, doesn’t know when he is hungry. Can it be also, that our reformer knows nothing of economic laws because he cannot see them ? Then an exuberance of spirits leads our opponent to have a fling at those who argue that the enactment of the palliative proposals retards the realisation of Socialism. And this is how he proves his case:

“The outcast may complain in whining minor tones while he stands shivering on the wind-swept Embankment, but a basin of soup, shared with cabinet ministers in court dress, is enough to make him suspend criticism of the social system.”

He gets a good hold and swings his opponent clean off his feet, yet when the fall is consummated our S.D.P. champion is underneath. For the starving wretch at least complained until they shut his mouth with the palliative basin of soup, after which the social system was above criticism and, presumably, Socialism was retarded.

But the greatest joke of all is that Mr. Fairchild deludes his readers with the section heading ,”The Position of the Working Class,” and then, fails to give them any information upon the subject. As a proper understanding of the position of the working class is essential to the intelligent consideration of the “palliative” question, the omission must be rectified.

The working class is the class which works for wages. Wages represent food, clothing and shelter, therefore, it may be said that the working class is the class which works for food, clothing and shelter. To give this definition is to imply that there is a class which does not work for these things. Now as a man may not always be able to work, while he must always have the necessaries of life or he must die, it is obviously of advantage to him that work, and food, clothing and shelter should not hang together, in other words that his living should not depend upon his working.

While it is true that man, as a natural order, cannot live without labour, that very truth tells us that if one class does not work for its living, it must subsist upon the product of the class which does work. So we get the first two conditions of the working-class position—it is the class which works for its own living in the first place ; it is the class which works for the living of the non-working class in the second place. What is the reason of this double disadvantage ?

If it is disadvantageous for a man’s livelihood to depend upon his working it is doubly so for him to have to labour to support others. Why does the worker do it, then ? Why, in the first place, does he not do as the non-worker does—live without labour? Why, in the second place, does he not produce food, clothing and shelter for himself alone ? Why, in the third place, does not the non-worker do the same as the member of the working class—work for his living ?

Those things which we indicate by the term livelihood, all come in the category “economic wealth.” Wealth (we must be understood to use the term in the economic sense) is natural objects which have been changed in form or rendered accessible to man by the expenditure of human labour-power. The fish of the sea is not wealth until it is caught—it is not caught without labour. Therefore the two essentials in wealth production are the natural objects and human labour-power.

No man or class, then, can produce wealth without command of or access to these two factors. Have the workers this access to the means of wealth production ? We know that (save through permission) they have not, for though they have one essential—labour-power—the source of the other essential—the natural object—is the land (or water) and the land belongs to others. We find the answer to our second question first. The working class cannot produce wealth except upon terms, because the land and—what are quite as necessary to the process in these days—the machinery of production and distribution, are held by a class.

We now learn concerning the position of the working class, that it is one of subservience to the class which hold the means of life ; and this further—that as the question of the terms upon which the workers can get access to the means of production must be referred to continuous struggle, their position must necessarily be one of opposite interests to that of the possessing class, and therefore of antagonism. In other words, their position is clearly that of one party to a class struggle, which must continue as long as there are opposing class interests, as long as one class stand between another class and their means of living, as long, finally, as private ownership in the land, factories, machinery, mines, railways, and the like shall exist.

Now what are the terms upon which the workers are permitted to use the machinery of production ? Common experience, that fount of all our knowledge, teaches us that the terms are the surrender of their labour-power in return for wages. With the product of their toil they have nothing to do—that remains with the purchaser of their labour-power. So far the worker has obtained his living, but how has the non-worker materially benefitted ? If the value of the product of labour which is left in his hands is no greater than his expenditure upon it has been, it is very clear that he has had no material gain from the fact of his dominance of the means of life, and upon such result he cannot maintain his position as a non-worker. We must therefore look for increased value in the product of the worker’s toil.

Working-class economics teach us that what really happens is this. The master or capitalist purchases labour-power and raw material (natural objects to which labour-power has been applied), and expends the former upon the latter. The labour-power, once expended, has ceased to exist: it has been transformed into labour, stored up in the material upon which it has been expended. To say that its value has entered into the latter is not the whole truth. It has undergone change, and this fact is of vital importance. When the capitalist purchased raw material he really only paid for the stored up labour within it. The actual substance of it did not count. He therefore purchased on the one hand labour (stored up in the raw material) and labour-power (stored up in the body of the labourer). Now that the labourer has expended his strength or labour-power, neither he nor the capitalist longer possesses it, but the latter possesses an increased volume of human labour accumulated in the material of the natural object.

The only difference, then, in the position of the capitalist at the time of purchasing labour and labour-power and now when the power has been expended, is, then he owned two factors—labour and labour-power—while now he owns but one—congealed labour. Yet if he is any better off, any richer or more able to live without working, the why and ihe wherefore must be sought in this conversion of labour-power into labour.

If a labourer by consuming one loaf of bread could gain therefrom only sufficient labour-power to produce another and equal loaf of bread, there could be no increase of value. It is quite imaginable that given sufficiently primitive means of production, no better result could attend human effort. In that case there could be no non-working class. But if the means of production improve so that the labourer by consuming one loaf generates sufficient power to produce two loaves, then an increase of value becomes possible.

Herein is the whole secret of the source of capitalist wealth. Labour-power is purchased for what it costs to produce. The energy produced by a loaf of bread is bought for wages equalling a loaf of bread (we must take broad averages, of course). It cannot be bought for less, for the labourer must have the cost of production of his labour-power in order to reproduce it and continue in working efficiency. It will not (in the long run) sell for more because machinery provides an unemployed army and the competition of these keeps wages down to this level. But the labour-power created by one loaf produces other loaves in number according to the development of the machinery of production.

If then, the consumption of a loaf by the labourer results in labour-power sufficient to produce two loaves, which the capitalist buys for one loaf, the exploitation of that labour-power leaves the latter with two loaves instead of one. He has succeeded in getting the means of life without working for them—simply by virtue of his power of keeping the worker away from the productive machinery save upon terms. These terms give to the capitalist all the difference between the value of the labour-power and the value of its product—between the one loaf which it cost the labourer to produce his energy and the two or more loaves which that energy in turn produces.

The cost (reckoned in amount of sustenance) of producing labour-power remains pretty constant. A pound of wheat generated very much the same quantity of physical force a century ago as to-day. The value created by labour remains exactly constant, for labour is the measure of value and, notwithstanding the improvement in machinery, the product of an hour’s work a hundred years ago was the same value as the product of an hour’s work to-day—in each case the value is an hour’s labour. The difference, however, between the cost of producing labour-power and the productive capacity of labour-power increases with the development of machinery, and this increase has an important influence upon the position of the working class.

If the wages of the labourer equal one loaf and his product two,, he will be able to buy back one loaf, while his master may presumably consume the other. In such case the services of the former are needed to produce bread the next day. But if by the improvement of machinery the worker is able to add to existing value (raw material) not only the loaf represented by his wages and the loaf consumed by his master, but an additional loaf, then his services can be dispensed with until that loaf is disposed of ; in other words he has produced too much and may become-unemployed. Apply this to the whole field of industry, and it is seen that every advance of the productive machinery heaps up against the workers a greater burden of “surplus” wealth to “slump” the market and throw them out of work ; that the increasing fertility of human labour renders more precarious and more hopeless the position of the working class.

From what has been said it is apparent that the development of the industrial process, ever rendering human labour more productive, ever increasing the difference between the cost of producing the workers’ efficiency and the productive capacity of that efficiency, ever heaping up against the worker a larger share of his own products which wages will not enable him to consume, draws ever clearer and firmer the line between the two classes. The development of productive instruments means-increased wealth for their owners and increased poverty for those who, as a class, operate them. Here is antagonism of interests. Here is war to the knife. ]t shows itself in the banding together in trade unions, in myriad strikes and lock-outs, and in the universal endeavour of the workers to-limit output.

The position, then, of the working class is, on the economic field, fundamently one of opposition to the master class. As material interests must be fought for or surrendered, there must necessarily eventuate from these opposing class interests a class struggle. Such a class struggle, we affirm, exists. It cannot remain a struggle on the economic field for terms, for the laws arising from the productive system prescribe those terms and decrees such a struggle hopeless to the workers. Their only hope, then, is in a new system—the Socialist system. Towards this end the class struggle must be directed.

And the recognition of this class struggle is the first essential to its intelligent and successful prosecution.

(To be Continued.)


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