Aphorisms of Socialism I



Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (i.e., land, factories, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

To declare that any one fact, and especially such a seemingly superficial fact as the the matter of the possession of property, can be the basis of the social system, will doubtless fill many people with astonishment. It seems to be reversing the order of things. It appears, to the ordinary untutored eye, that the ownership of property must arise out of and depend upon the social system, and not that the system arises out of and depends on the form of property ownership. Yet very few words will suffice to make it clear that the truth is revealed in our first aphorism.

Society is a number of people living together in community, having dealings or relations with each other in the every-day affairs of life.

The sum total of all these relations forms the system under which the people live – the social system or the system of society.

It is quite clear, therefore, that the form of these dealings or relations will determine the form of the social system, and that whatever fact or facts shape the relations between the human beings who are the units of society shape also the whole system of society – which is nothing but the sum total of those relations.

Now if you go into a baker’s shop and take possession of a loaf of bread, you enter into certain definite relations with the baker.

Those relations will vary, according to whether you have bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen the loaf. In the first case the relations between the baker and you are those of seller and buyer, in the second .case those of giver and receiver, in the third case those of lender and borrower, in the last case those of robbed and robber.

But the significant fact is that, though each of these relations is different, owing to the different circumstances of your acquiring the loaf, they all arise from the one constant and unchanging factor that the loaf is the property of the baker to start with. Had the loaf not been the property of someone it could not have been bought or sold, begged or given, lent, borrowed or the object of a theft.

In St. Paul’s churchyard many pigeons may be seen. They belong to nobody. You cannot beg, borrow, or buy one of them, for there is no owner to give, lend, or sell them. If you take possession of one you have stolen nothing. You cannot, enter, on account of these pigeons, enter into any of the relations that characterised your taking possession of the baker’s loaf. Even the law cannot oblige you in this respect, for the only charge that can be preferred against you – and that only by an obvious straining of the law to meet an awkward situation – is that of unlawful possession: the charge, not that you have something belonging to someone else, but that you have something that does not belong to you.

Now it is beyond dispute that what makes the difference in the relations between you and your fellows in the given instances is the fact that the loaf is the property of some person or persons while the pigeon is not.

If we look around to try to discover what are the social relations that occupy the largest and most important place in the social scheme, we find that they are the relations which arise out of the production and distribution of wealth.

The reason for this is plain to see. It is because every living person must be a wealth consumer as the first essential condition of his or her existence.

These relations pervade the whole of society. They cannot be escaped. What form, then, do these social relations take?

Wealth is produced by the application of human energy to the material provided by nature. All wealth, as the term is understood in political economy, is produced thus, and only thus. Even the working-power of the horse is not an exception, for the horse itself is wealth, being the product of human energy applied in horse-breeding and rearing. Its energy, therefore, takes no higher rank in the production of wealth than that developed by a steam engine.

The two things, then, which are fundamentally necessary to the production of wealth are human labour-power and nature-given material.

But to-day, in addition to these, highly developed machinery and other means of production and distribution are necessary before wealth can be produced and placed at the disposal of the consumer, for, under the system, and in the broad sense, human energy can only be applied to material through these means of production.

All normal people within certain limits of age possess one of these essentials of wealth production – labour-power. But before it is possible for them to produce they must have access to the natural material and to the means of production.

Here, then, is the primary need of every person that draws breath, if that person is to be self-supporting – access to the nature given material and the productive machinery.

Now let us place these things, desired of all people, in the circumstances of the baker’s loaf and the Churchyard pigeon respectively, and see what happens – what effect it has upon the great mass of relations between man and man which go to make up the social system.

In the first case, with the means of production owned by individuals, two sets of relationships may arise, according to whether these things are owned by those who use them or by those who do not.

In the Middle Ages the means of production largely belonged to those who used them, and access to agricultural land was the common right. As a consequence the relations between the social units were entirely different to those obtaining to-day. Men had the means of gaining their livelihood in their own hands, and so the wage-worker, the man who had no source of subsistence other than the sale of his labour-power, was practically unknown.

But we are not concerned at the moment with that property condition that was the basis of the feudal social system. We know that to-day the things necessary for wealth production are not, broadly speaking, owned by those who use them. That fact, at least, requires no demonstration.

In this case those who do not share in the possession of the productive wealth must get the sanction of the owners before they can apply their labour-power in the production of wealth.

On this fact the whole structure of modern society is based. All the relations between the social units take their shape from it, as we shall presently see.

In the first place, those people who do not share in the ownership of the means of production find others standing between them and the sources of life. To make mere assertion of that which is to well known to need argument, they have to sell their labour-power to the owners of the means of living in order to obtain subsistence. What other means are there ?

Thus is set up that large and important group of social relations and social institutions which we have before noted. First, society is divided into two classes – employers and employees; those who possess and those who do not possess. So the two-class nature of society, with property as the differentiating agent, is shown to be founded on the ownership of the means of living by the master class.

Secondly, the wages system, with the labour market – into which every propertyless person is driven, to seek his livelihood by the sale of his labour-power – together with the whole range of relationships between people on the industrial field – the relations between employer and employed, foreman and underling, and even those arising between master and master competing against one another for labour-power at the lowest price, and between worker and worker competing for jobs – all these relations and institutions are set up by the possession of the means of living by a class.

One other striking characteristic of the present social system arises out of this basic property condition, but one to which we are so accustomed that we are surprised to find that this feature is peculiar to the present system. It is that all the wealth of society is produced as commodities, that is, as articles for sale instead of for the use of the producer.

This is a very important distinction. It takes away from mankind the sane, logical purpose of productive effort, and replaces it with an incentive more mad even than the inmates of Bedlam. Bread is no longer produced to feed people but because profit may be made from its sale. And the remark applies to all other goods.

Where goods are produced for use the incentive produce remains as long as a human need is unsatisfied. But when production is for sale, it ceases when goods cannot be sold, though the children of the nation are crying for bread and perishing for want of clothing and shelter.

And, strange as it may appear, though with the productive instruments belonging to those who use them, there may be famine as the result of scarcity, with the instruments belonging to those who do not use them there must be famine on account of the very plentitude of wealth.

The reason for this is not far to seek. The wealth the wage-worker produces must, in order to satisfy the employer, exceed the amount of his wages, and therefore must exceed the amount he is able to buy back and consume. This surplus of commodities, far in excess of the requirements of the masters themselves, accumulates in the warehouses until the mass is so vast that the markets are glutted. Then production is strangled. Then there is no demand and no prospect of sale for further products. The incentive to create wealth has ceased. There is a falling off in demand and prospects of only small sales for further products. The machines are stopped, the factories partially or wholly shut down, the workers thrown out of work, and all the miseries of famine stalk the land because too much wealth exists

If the means of living were in the case of the pigeons in St. Paul’s Churchyard an entirely different social system would of necessity result.

Were the means and instruments of production the property of no individuals, but of the community as a community, the wages system could not exist. Each one having equal right of access to the means of living, none would be compelled to sell his labour-power to another person in order to live. In addition, none would purchase labour-power because none would have the opportunity to do so, and, secondly, because, even if any could, since no individuals would possess the means of production, none would be able to exploit labour-power.

So society could not be composed of two or more classes – could know no class distinction at all, in fact. It could not contain masters and men, and could not be founded on the labour of a section of the community. No able-bodied member of the community would be exempted from rendering his due quota of useful service to the community, in return for the material wealth which society placed at his disposal, for in the absence of private ownership there would be nothing on which to base such privileges.

And in a social system founded upon common ownership in the means of living, goods could not possibly be produced for sale. As now the wealth created belongs to those who own the machinery and factories – the masters, so then the product of labour would belong to the owners of the means of production – the community. The community could not sell the goods to itself, and there would be no party outside the community to whom to sell. Hence goods could only be produced for use, and production would continue as long as there were social needs to be satisfied.

What has been said shows how the social system of to-day is “based upon the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist or master-class,” and also how this class-ownership results in the enslavement of the working class, who are doomed to a life of drudgery and want, because every avenue of life is closed to them save that of the wage-labour market. But while it has been shown that the basis of society determines the form of social structure, no attempt has been made to explain what determine the basis of society. This point will arise in another connection.


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