Our case in brief

In the last instalment under this heading we considered in part how the conditions of our social life arise from the basis of our social structure—that is, from the private ownership by a portion of society, of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth. We saw that this property condition made society a class society—a society divided into two classes, a propertied class and a propertyless class. We saw, further, that the only means the propertyless have of living is by selling their power to work to those who owned the property. Next we saw that since the people were thus divided into buyers and sellers of labour-power, there necessarily exists between them an antagonism. And finally we learned how, because the workers had not the means to produce the goods they needed for their own use (as they could when they had access to the land and owned the tools they used), and had to produce what their masters wanted, and because these masters do not want the products of their factories for their own use, but simply as a means of turning the money they invest in their production into more money, the goods produced to-day are produced for sale.

Thus we see how several features of society arise from the fact that the instruments of labour are owned and controlled by a class.

Now let us go back to the worker at the place where we left him selling his labour-power.

It was stated that the position of the worker and that of the master are quite different, and this is true. It does not mean, however, that there was no difference of position between the people of the community before society was established upon its present basis. As a matter of fact society has been established upon other private-property bases prior to the present one, and each of these have divided society into different classes, with different class relationships, class positions, and class conditions. And it so happens that the class positions and relationships of the present time are easiest understood by comparing them with those of past systems.

Under the feudal system the serfs, and after they had emancipated themselves from serfdom the peasant proprietors, had access to the land, under certain restrictions. The land did not belong to the serf, yet he had certain well-defined rights in it. It is often said that the serf belonged to the land he was born on, and in a sense this is correct. Though he had to pay to his feudal lord certain tribute in the way of service, and was bound to the estate whereon he was born, he was not the property of his feudal superior. The key to his position was rather to be found in his relation to those of his own class than those of the class above him. He was a unit of the village community, with rights in the land of that community, and duties toward it. But naturally, he hud not rights in the land of other communities, nor, where land was held in common in the community, could the opportunity to acquire such rights present itself at all frequently. Hence the serf would find himself restricted in his movements, and custom would tend to become law.

The serf, then, was in a very different position from that of the modern wage-worker. Having access to the land, he was able to produce nearly all his requirements, and therefore he was not compelled to become a wage-labourer—one, that is, dependent upon wages for his living. He did, however, occasionally work for wages, in order to provide himself with the few things which he could not himself produce. The modern wage-worker finds the position exactly reversed. He depends for his living upon wages, though he may grow himself a cabbage on an allotment, or keep a chicken in his backyard.

On the other hand, because the serf was a member of a community based upon common ownership of the land, he had his place in that community, and, with exceptions, could neither leave it nor be turned out of it. The modern wage-worker, on the contrary, living in a community wherein he owns nothing but his power to labour, which he must sell in order to live, is forced to go where he can sell it, be that even, as it often is, the farthest ends of the earth.

Again, the serf, not having to sell his energy to another, did not stand in the same relation to other men that the worker of to-day does. He did so many days work for his feudal superior ; the rest of his time was his own. The, wealth he produced in his own time did not pass out of his possession—it belonged to him. If he worked harder and produced more the gain was his. His increased production did not mean increased wealth for his feudal dominator, nor was the greater return of the serf from his toil obtained at the expense of his lord, hence there could not be the same struggle on the part of the exploiter to speed up the worker that we see today, nor the struggle for the products of labour which is revealed in these times in multitude of strikes and lock-outs. On the ether hand, since the wealth which the serf produced was consumed almost entirely in his own household, instead of being taken away frcm him and used to glut the market and throw the producer and his fellows out of work, the serf could not feel that the harder he worked the sooner he would he deprived of his living, or that when his neighbour sweated at his work he was “taking tie bread out of his mouth.”

It is seen from this how different was the outlook of the serf upon life from that of the wage-worker of the present time. The former looked out upon a world that the latter can hardly understand. The place where he was born was his home—the present-day working-man has no home in that sense. When you speak of the latters’ home you mean his few sticks. Beyond those he has only an abode, belonging to somebody else, who will turn him adrift as soon as he cannot meet his rent. And the serf’s whole life, and his relations with his fellow-men, were different. And just as he could not see in his neighbour a competitor snatching the bread from his mouth, so his whole ideas regarding his neighbour were different from those obtaining among the workers to-day.

Enough has been said to how how social conditions arise from social bases, and that suffice us for this month.


Leave a Reply