Letters: The Forum: The Bogey of the Palliative

We have received the following request for information from a reader. As our reply is likely to prove of general interest we afford it the publicity of these columns.

Gentlemen, — I should feel much obliged if you would answer the following questions for me:
  1. If a Bill was brought forward in Parliament to establish a 30s. minimum wage all round, would the Socialist delegate support it by word or deed ?
  2. Supposing the above object were accomplished, would not that be palliating the condition of the workers to some extent, therefore constituting in itself a palliating measure, and consequently conflicting with your idea of hostility to palliatives? Should a Socialist delegate support a capitalist legislative measure to this effect? Also, would it not render the minds of the workers more passive for a time, thus putting back the clock of emancipation ?
  3. Again supposing the above were an established fact, the cost of production would be increased to the extent of the increase in wages. Would not that determine a higher price on the market for commodities which are essential to human life, to which increase the working class must submit or starve, as they would be faced with an economic barrier of an all-round increase of cost of food, clothing and boots?
Result: condition no better for the working class; a more rapid growth of combines and the pushing out of the smaller distributors to extinction as such.
W. H.
The three questions are based on a misunderstanding of the Socialist position. This is shown clearly in question 2, which may therefore be dealt with first.
The ruling idea of the Socialist Party is the attainment of Socialism. “Hostility to all palliatives” is not, and never has been, the “idea” of the S.P. (taking the word ‘‘palliative” to mean simply any ameliorative proposition that leaves capitalist control intact).
The Socialist Party, however, shows that the road to Socialism does not lie through “palliatives,” and that even where each measures may effect a slight improvement in the lot of any workers, they are by their nature simply patches on a rotten fabric, and consequently in no way instalments of the new society. In short, nearly all so-called palliatives do not palliate; and even where they may do so, the economic development of capitalism progressively produces ill effects that ever outstrip every palliative effort, and make the need for Socialism more imperative.
Further, even were the work of the S P. simply an attempt to cause the enactment of reform measures that would appreciably benefit the whole working class, it would first be necessary for the Party to conquer the power of the State. Thus even for reform worth the name, a revolution would be necessary, whereas Socialism could be had at the same price. Moreover, the workers could be more easily united as a whole for Socialism than for a programme of sectional, mutually conflicting, pettifogging reforms.
These are some of the reasons, together with the important fact that the economic trend makes Socialism the only practical proposition, that make it impossible for The Socialist Party to put forward a reform programme.
The task of the working-class party is the conquest of the governmental machinery and forces, for Socialist ends. Consequently support is only useful to the party on that understanding. To pander to the reform mania would attract non Socialists and weaken the party, while the absence of positive or useful result would spread disgust and apathy.
A reform programme is, in fact, fraudulent, particularly from the Socialist standpoint. Therefore, while willing to secure any amelioration or help possible for the workers in their fight against capital the Socialist Party realises that Socialism transcends all else, and stands distinct from all other parties on a programme of Socialism and nothing but Socialism. No palliation could be effective enough, in view of the necessary conditions of the development of capitalism, to put back the hour of emancipation to any appreciable extent. It could only demonstrate once more the helplessness of anything short of Socialism. What does put back the hour of emancipation is the false hope in reform assiduously fostered by astute capitalists and ignorant or corrupt Labour politicians.
It is scarcely necessary to state (in view of the utter barrenness of the parties who would barter the workers’ future for a present crumb) that such a revolutionary policy will be far more fruitful in possible ameliorations than the policy of the Labour Party or the B.S.P. Moreover, any slight benefits gained by the revolutionary party’s activity would intensify the revolutionary policy for Socialism, even were it not a fact that economic conditions worsen the workers’ lot far more rapidly than benefits could be obtained. The workers’ party, however, having raised no false hope in such benefits, would have all to gain and nothing to lose.
Since it is, as has already been shown, incorrect that the S.P.G.B. “idea is hostility to all palliatives,” it is clear that the attitude of a representative of the workers’ party on any measure will depend on the measure itself and the conditions at the time. It is necessary to know the clauses of the Bill first of all, and then the party, in possession of the vital facts, must express, democratically, its will in the matter. These conditions cannot be fulfilled in the discussion of such an imaginary absurdity as “a 30s. minimum wage all round.”
As a live party, using present-day facts as a basis for its Socialism, the Socialist Party must face all the facts, and decide in view of the actual facts. It cannot sterilise itself in an ignorant formula, or blind itself to future development.
Unfortunately, such a measure as is suggested by the phrase “a minimum wage of 30s. all round” is quite utopian and useless for the purpose of example. For political and economic reasons of the strongest kind “30s. minimum all round ” is impossible. Only where, by successive modifications, exemptions, exceptions, permissions, and restrictions, the actual measure obliterates the “30s.,” the minimum,” and the “all round,” does it approach the realms of probability. So long as capitalists rule and capitalism lasts, so long will competition in the labour market and in the world market be with us, and unemployment dog our steps. These facts alone completely nullify any such utopian measure even if, by a miracle, a capitalist Parliament were to enact it. Why, then, make a bother about reform when only Socialism can help?
Regarding question 3, this is based on an economic fallacy. Wages do not determine prices. It is, moreover, a historical fact that an increase in wages is scarcely ever obtained until after the rise in prices. But even if the economic assumption in the question were not wrong the argument would still fail.
If a rise in wages did mean a proportionate ; rise in prices, the workers would still gain. They produce all commodities, but buy back less than one third of them in value. The capitalist class buy the rest, and pay two thirds or more of the increase thereby. Consequently the workers would gain over two-thirds of the nominal increase in wages.
Prices, however, are determined in the ultimate by the amount of useful necessary labour involved, and not at all by the amount of wages paid. On this matter compare “Value, Price, and Profit.” by a famous but little studied Socialist economist. It touches the spot.
For the rest, the questions raise important and interesting points, some of which have been dealt with at length in an attempt to make things clear. Other points have, perforce, been left for private study. The fact that the attitude suggested by the questions is based on a misunderstanding has made it difficult to be brief. Yet the knowledge of economics, and of Socialism in its wider aspects, that is required to rectify the point of view from which the questions arise could not possible be given in a single letter. It is consequently urged that a study of the literature of the party be made and the result will be an increase in the membership of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Executive Committee. S.P.G.B.

Leave a Reply