Aphorisms of Socialism IV and V



As in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex.

This Aphorism speaks of “the order of social evolution.” The phrase shall be the starting-point of our explanation.

Society has not always been divided into the same classes that it comprises to-day. The present class division, as was shown in dealing with our first aphorism, is based entirely on the private ownership of the means of life. On this is erected the class distinction, and from it flow the class characteristics. Only this private ownership by a section could, for instance, have developed a wage-slave class (not a class who occasionally work for wages, but a class who have no other means of living than by working for wages).

But previous to the present social system other social systems have existed, upon other bases, and with other classes ruling and ruled.

Under the feudal system, for example, the feudal nobility ruled, basing their power upon a certain qualified control of the land. Under the classic States based upon chattel-slavery, a class of slave-owners ruled.

But the constant feature of society ever since it has had the class formation – that is, ever since classes have existed – has been that the ruling classes have controlled the dominating factor in production.

Under chattel-slavery it was slaves, against whose labour the free men could not, partly from pride and partly from their liability to military service, compete. The feudal nobility of the middle ages had but partial control of the land, hence their dominance was never very complete. Indeed, in England the serfs managed to throw off the shackles of serfdom and gain a position which, though still subservient, was similar to that of the free Roman citizen of the poorer class, but without the incubus of slave labour to drag them down to ruin.

But against this persistent feature of class society is the constant characteristic of the democratic societies which preceded them – the means of living belonged to no one : they were open to all.

This gives us the key to the aphorism. Without private property, without privilege in the means of living, there can be no class distinction or class domination.

The emancipation of the working class, therefore, since it can only be accomplished by the conversion into the common property of society of the means of production and distribution, leaves nothing to form the basis of domination. Thus it follows that the emancipation of the working class must end class domination, and must involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.



This emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

Before the present social system came into existence the feudal nobility were the ruling class. But it was characteristic of the feudal system (as of any system that was capable of any other ending than ruin and chaos), that they could not prevent the rise to power of a new class. The source of this was largely in the towns, where surplus products of a “non-perishable” nature were produced, which fell into the hands of a class who made commerce their business.

The sources of the merchants’ wealth were capable of much greater extension than those of the nobles, partly because the products of the country districts, being more perishable than town products, did not lend themselves so readily to international commerce, and partly because the serf, having rights in the land, was chiefly producing articles for his own consumption, and only working for a strictly limited time for his feudal superior, while the handicraftsman of the town was already producing “commodities” – goods produced for sale.

It was quite in the nature of things that with the increasing productivity of labour the capitalist side of production – the production of commodities by wage-labour – should tend to increase rapidly, and certain geographical discoveries (the way to the East round the Cape of Good Hope and the discovery of America) gave tremendous impetus to this side of industrial development. The laws and restrictions placed upon commerce and production – partly feudal, partly customary to the different trades – pressed heavily upon the rising class, and so it was natural that, as their wealth and power increased, they should direct their attention toward gaining social supremacy.

As the new class rose the serfs gradually rose from servitude also, and long before the merchant forerunners of the modern capitalist class had achieved ruling power, serfdom had ceased to exist in this country. The serfs had shaken themselves free of most of their feudal shackles and stood now as independent peasant-proprietors.

But the rising capitalist class could only elevate themselves on the backs of the class of free peasants. It was from their ranks, chiefly, that these new masters looked to recruit that abundance of cheap labourers they desired for their factories. Already the break-up of the bands of retainers of the feudal nobility had supplied great numbers, and the dissolution of the monasteries had set free a great many more, but still the factories cried for more workers, and only the class of peasant-proprietors could supply the needed increase.

Events, however, proved favourable to the needs of the capitalists. An enormous demand for wool had sprung up, and in consequence the land began to wear a different aspect in the eyes of the landed aristocracy. It presented a means of keeping sheep, and hence of acquiring great wealth. Unfortunately, the peasant proprietors were in the way. The small agriculturists, whom the capitalists so badly wanted in the new manufactories and whose fields the aristocrats coveted, were clearly altogether out of place upon the land. That was a matter which the capitalist class and their landed opponents could agree upon, for all their class antagonism.

So the two combined to drive the peasants from the soil. At first they were dispossessed of their fields without any legal form, but later the classes interested passed, under various pretexts, legislation which made the expropriation of the peasants more swift. They were hunted out by troops, their dwellings were burnt to the ground, and their lands were appropriated by the great landlords and laid down in pasture for sheep.

The legislation passed against the dispossessed peasants makes terrible reading. They were expropriated at a rate far too rapid even for the rapidly growing capitalist industry to absorb them, hence their presence on the earth was inconvenient and unwelcome. Laws were passed, therefore, aiming at wiping out the surplus. Under Henry VIII (see Karl Marx’s “Capital.” Chap. XXVIII) sturdy vagabonds were to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood ran in streams from their bodies. For the second offence of vagabondage the whipping was to be repeated and half the ear sliced off. For the third relapse the offender was to be executed as a hardened criminal. Under Edward VI it was ordained that if anyone refused to work he was to be condemned in slavery to the person who denounced him as an idler. If he was absent for a fortnight he was to be branded on the forehead or back with a letter S and became a slave for life. If he ran away three times he was to be executed as a felon. Under Elizabeth similar’ laws were made. For the first offence a whipping and branding, unless someone would take him into service for two years; for the second offence execution unless someone would take him into service for two years; for the third offence execution without mercy. In the reign of James I the expropriated peasantry were subjected to like enactments.

Hollingshed says that 7,200 were executed in the reign of Henry VIII, while Strype records that in Elizabeth’s time “rogues [those, for the most part, who had been robbed of their land] were trussed up apace, and that there was not one year commonly wherein three or four hundred were not devoured and eaten up by the gallowes.” The same individual states that in Somersetshire alone in one year forty persons were executed.

These laws, and many others which cannot be mentioned here, remained in force even as late as the beginning of the 18th century, while in France, for three-quarters of a century later, laws as severe were active against the workers.

Other periods of history show the same bloody repression of subject classes by ruling classes, even from the dawn of written history. And the savage repression and avenging of the Paris Commune of 1871, together with numerous examples at Barcelona, Moscow, and elsewhere on the Continent, at Pittsburg and Lawrence in America, and at Featherstone and Tonypandy in England, of recent years, show that the same factor which we see running through all written history still persists. That factor is the life and death struggle between the classes.

This teaches us that with classes, however it may be in exceptional individual cases, economic interests govern actions. Convinced of this, and holding to it as a guiding principle, and knowing moreover that the interests of the master class is diametrically opposed to those of the working class, we assert that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

This, of course, does not preclude the possibility of some few members of the master class rising superior to their environment and their class interests, and rendering good service to the workers’ cause. Capitalists, like workers, are human, which is why, as a class, they are actuated by their class interests. But for the same reason individual capitalists may be moved by any other human emotions, even to the extent of taking up the battle of the oppressed class.

The difficulties in the way of their doing so, however, are stupendous. Their outlook upon life is entirely different from that of the workers. No other system of society ever lent itself more to illusion than the present one, No other system ever so effectually concealed the chains of bondsmen and so artfully surrounded slaves with the atmosphere of freedom. The position of the chattel-slave was always very clear, indeed it appeared that he got nothing for his labour. Yet he, at all events, never starved, and was robbed of a comparatively small proportion of his product. The modern wage-slave, on the other hand, appears to be free; nobody owns him and he even has his foot on the social ladder – he may own property; perhaps he does own a bit, or has some money in the teapot. He actually has a vote. It seems that he is robbed of nothing, that he is paid for all he produces. Even the forces of the State seem to be necessary to hold markets abroad for the disposal of his products and of his the rich cargo of teapot at home.

All this presents difficulty enough even in the case of the worker, assisted as he is by his class interest in seeing through the sham. But it is an almost insurmountable barrier to those born and bred in the atmosphere of capitalist circles, so much so that the few who do get some glimmering of the position are in most cases shut off from true democracy by class arrogance and class prejudice. They are generally the superior ones, and must lead.

It is just here that our clause applies with greatest force. Without shutting the door against any who subscribe to our principles and act in accord with them, it is upon the working class that the working class must rely for their emancipation. Valuable work may be done by individuals, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to .individuals, either of the working class or of the capitalist class, that the toilers must look. The movement for freedom must be a working class movement. It must be founded upon the understanding of their class position by the working class. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation for them. Hence they must control all individuals in their camp, no matter which class they may belong to, and they must be guided in the conflict by the principle of the class struggle, which is based on the irrefutable fact that all written history is a history of class struggles, and the knowledge that the emancipation of the working class can only be the fruits of a class struggle, and therefore must be the work of the working class itself.


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