1910s >> 1916 >> no-147-november-1916

Who Pays for the War?


The Workers’ Error.

“Who pays for the European War is a question that needs a definite answer, in accordance with facts. The workers everywhere blindly hold the belief that it is they who are paying to-day, and for generations to come will continue to pay. They ignore facts. They do not reason. They reach their conclusion by leaping from a condition of mind to an inference that has no logical connection with. it. Because the working class suffers, self-pity is generated and suffering is somehow translated into terms of cash.

But suffering will not receipt bills or meet liabilities. The war machines have to be paid for in cash.—which the working class do not possess. It is a physical impossibility for them to pay : they are too poor. The deep and evergrowing poverty of the working class, in peace or war time, is admitted on every hand ; but only the Socialist can explain its cause. In that explanation is to be found the answer to the question : “Who pays ?”

The means of wealth production are owned by the capitalist or master class, to whom the members of the working class have to sell their labour-power, which they have to expend in the factories and mills, producing wealth that is owned by the masters. The price of labour-power is determined, as is that of other commodities, by its cost of production. Like other commodities, too, labour-power has its market, where the prices are raised or depressed in accordance with supply and demand. The supply being always greater than the demand, and the aim of the masters being to secure cheap labour-power, the price of labour-power is easily kept down to the level which insures for its owner just sufficient to feed, clothe, and house himself and his family—that is the minimum price at which labour-power can be produced and maintained in efficiency. Even this minimum is only arrived at as an average. The vast majority of the workers are forced to sell their energy at a price which does not replace it, their physical powers wearing and wasting away in the labour process long before the period of their fullest development is reached.

The Workers’ Share is Wages.

The workers’ share in the total wealth produced is wages, and wages so low that they barely satisfy his material wants. Wages are spent as soon as they are paid—often before— the necessaries of life being obtained on trust. Every occupation has its army of unemployed, always on the increase. Competition for jobs intensifies, and with the return of the “piping times of peace,” will intensify a hundredfold. The labour market has been flooded with female and child labour, and the wealth-production of pre-war times has been exceeded. With this added competitive element how is it possible for the workers to sell their labour-power above its cost of production ?

As wages must always be spent on necessaries, and wages always tend to fall to the level of a mere subsistence, the working class will never be in a position to pay for anything beyond the necessaries of life. If the cost of living falls, their wages fall. If it rises, they are compelled to struggle hard for an increase, failing which their toil and semi-starvation means for them a more rapid physical decay.

The wages that constitute the worker’s share are only a fraction of the total wealth of society. By their labour the working class produce, not only the wealth they themselves consume in the shape of necessaries, but also the vast wealth owned by the ruling class. The worker sells his labour-power for a mess of pottage—adulterated and served in a cracked basin—but his labour-power, expended under normal conditions, brings into existence fabulous wealth, which he neither owns nor controls. His claim on that vast wealth was relinquished when he placed himself at the disposal of a master at the current price for labour-power. He is between the devil and the deep sea. He must either accept the current price and become a wage-slave or starve.

The One Long Stocking.

The robbery of the working class takes place in the factories and other places where they are forced to sell their labour-power. They continue the labour process long after they have produced the equivalent of their wages. The surplus thus created constitutes revenue of the master class. From this the sum the cost of every collective action undertaken by their executive must be paid. They know better than to expect anything more from the workers after the process of exploitation is completed.

When a war loan is floated it is the capitalists who take it up. The silver bullets subscribed by a minority of the workers, out of their overtime, is a mere drop in the ocean. The dollars would not be worth the time expended in printing and collecting were it not for the opportunity it offers for the cult of patriotism.

The capitalist class finds the money to carry on war. A portion is paid in taxation ; the rest is loaned by individual capitalists at a stipulated rate of interest, which is to be paid from future taxation. It is an arrangement confined to the master class and its executive, the workers, of course, being outside the scope of taxation because the machinery of capitalist society is adjusted to give a living wage, and no more, to the vast majority.

The government of each belligerent country, looking forward to military success, hope to impose an indemnity to cover their expenditure, in which case the successful country, pays off its debt while the losing country tax itself heavily to pay the indemnity.

Plans for Plunder.

The governing class of the conquered territory, however much it begrudges the wages necessary for the maintenance of its wage-slaves, can hope for little from that source. By squeezing the skilled and better paid workers an insignificant sum might be obtained; but the inducement to acquire skill would suffer as a consequence. Efficiency has become a fetish with the capitalist, who, in general, realises that he must pay for it if he wants it.

There is an old proverb, applicable to others than poultry farmers, which says, do not count your chickens before they are hatched. But that does not deter patriotic writers from assuming the supremacy of the allies, and constructing a plan for collecting the indemnity. Thus, Francis Gribble (“Daily Chronicle,” 15.9.16) outlines a scheme wherein

“Germany will have to assume a liability, and put up security for the interest and the gradual amortisation of the debt. That security must take the form of a transfer of the mortgages. The Allies, in a proportion to be agreed among themselves, must become, instead of the German State, the universal mortgagee, with a lien on all German property, public and private, real and personal.”

The beauty of this plan is, according to Mr. Gribble, that those responsible for the war will have to pay. He divides Germany—the German people—into two classes, wage-workers and property owners. He does not assume for one moment that the former have the power to contribute anything whatever. They are propertyless; they have no property to mortgage. But the real property owners, those who ows the means of wealth production, can be bled. It is a case of the robber being robbed.

“The proper plan will be for the Allies to become mortgagees in possession. In the case of the land and houses, they can either draw the rents or institute some system of purchase, enabling the occupants to buy back the holding by instalments. In the case or industries, they can put in receivers to carry on the business for their benefit, just as debenture holders do in the case of insolvent joint stock companies.”

No Delusions Here.

This, then, is the contemplated plan to make German capitalists pay for the war. The results of their exploitation of the German working class are to be appropriated by the allied capitalists,

“and no German shall be allowed to own any property, or to handle any money that he does not earn, from day to day, by the sweat of his brow.”

Mr. Gribble, faithful servant that he is of the allied capitalist groups, throws the whole blame of the war on the German capitalist group. According to his plan they are able to pay and should be made to pay, and suffer as well. He freely exonerates the working class from any complicity in the crime. They had no voice in the councils that declared war. They had no promise in a share in territory that might be won, or markets that might be gained. Neither will they be permitted to aspire to the honour of paying. “The common people,” says Mr. Gribble, “will have in the future, to work, and to work hard.” Of course the workers in the countries that are going to win are being told they will have to work, and work hard to beat their rivals in the world’s market; but that is only a detail.

“But that work will not be punitive. It will be done under normal conditions, and for reasonable remuneration. The men engaged in it will be earning their living, in accordance with their capacities, as of old. They will no more be slaves than are other workmen in other countries.”

From these quotations we are justified in drawing the conclusion that the working class of the conquering and conquered territories will not have changed their status. They will have to work, and work hard, as they did before August 1914, for what the capitalist is pleased to term a “reasonable remuneration.” Mr. Gribble makes the position quite clear. He says:

“The first charge on the businesses will naturally, and, indeed, necessarily, be the wages of the employees. They—the working classes of Germany— will suffer no detriment from the change. Whether they work for foreign or German capitalists, their position will be the same.”

“Naturally and indeed necessarily” wages must be paid. Thus Mr. Gribble recognises the inability of the workers to pay. It is natural and necessary they should have a living wage. Neither does it matter to them who pays the wage, German or foreign capitalists. By the same token it matters nothing to the workers of Belgium, France or any of the allied countries, of what nationality the capitalist who pays their wages. Further, and this is the logical deduction from Mr. Gribble’s reasoning, as the workers of all the belligerent countries continue to produce fabulous wealth for a parasitic capitalist class in return for a bare living wage, they stand neither to gain nor to lose from the struggle; they have no possible interest in the result.

The capitalist class in each of the belligerent countries own all the means of wealth production, and all the wealth produced by the working class over and above the workers’ necessaries. To realize in hard cash the value of that wealth they need markets. When the different groups of capitalists, with this object in view, come into collision, they drag in the working class to fight it out. The victorious group or groups of capitalists impose an indemnity which reimburses them for their outlay ; and if some cunning neutral does not step in while the quarrel is on and get the market, they get that too. The indemnity is taken by the executive or government, on behalf of the capitalist class, and the latter deliver their goods in the markets they have won, realizing in cash the results of their exploitation. And the working class, where do they come in ?

They play the same role they have played ever since feudalism gave way before a triumphant capitalist class. They drag their weary bones through the factories and slums allotted to them by their masters. They beg for work when it is rest they need. They build the spacious palace for their idle masters and crowd themselves into hovels, without regard to health or decency. They ransack the earth for rich delicacies to tickle their masters’ palates, and plead for a cheap loaf for themselves. They weave rich fabrics for the playthings of their exploiters and in rags and tatters they slouch, in thousands, to the workhouse.

War only adds to their suffering while they stand to gain nothing by it. They have no share in the plunder, for which war is made. They have no more interest in the settlement of the quarrel than has the ground they tear up by artillery barrage.

“For whichever side wins they will suffer no detriment from the change Whether they work for foreign or “native” capitalists their position will be the same.”

While capitalism lasts, they, the working class, will be wage-slaves. The wage being the cost of necessaries for the slave, when there are obtained the wage has vanished. How is the working class to pay for a war waged with all the extravagance and profligacy of the irresponsible ruling class? Millions of the workers cannot afford the few coppers required weekly, to fight their own battles against the masters. Yet every strike that takes place is of greater import to them, from an economic standpoint, than, a dozen European wars. By their trade-union activities, they resist the depression of their standard of living. But capitalist wars and capitalist victories leave the workers’ position untouched in any essential.

But though the capitalist class can and will pay for the war waged in their interest, their paying will not mitigate their crime against the workers of the world, who, if they would prevent its repetition, must understand Socialism, and organize to strip the master class of its power, in peace and war, as a preliminary to the establishment of a sane and healthy system of society, wherein property will no longer be owned by a class, but by society.

F. F.

(Socialist Standard, November 1916)

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