1920s >> 1920 >> no-185-january-1920

A Brief Exposition of Socialist Theory

Contrary to what many people suppose, Socialism is based upon a very solid foundation of scientific formulae. These scientific explanations of social phenomena, or in brief, theories, though not numerous, are of immense value to the cause of working class emancipation, for they give a proper direction to those longings and aspirations which must inevitably arise within a slave class not utterly beyond redemption, instead of leaving those worthy and very desirable emotions to the mercy and misdirection of uneducated sentiment. The writer proposes to briefly survey these theories in this series of articles, and to show their significance.

The first of the formulae to come under our notice is that which goes by the name of the Materialist Conception of History, the formulization of which we owe to Marx and Engels, although the principle was independently discovered and expounded by Lewis Morgan, the great American sociologist.

The Materialist Concept is a key to the interpretation of history. As its name implies, it attributes to material things the cause of that ceaseless change which is the subject matter of history, and is directly opposed to other interpretations of history, which ascribe historical change to human and superhuman intelligence.

The Materialist Concept declares that the roots of social change are to be found in the means and methods by which society gets its livelihood. Society gets its living by production. Men “only produce when they work together in a certain way,” says Marx (“Wage-Labour and Capital”). “In order to produce they mutually enter upon certain relations and conditions, and it is only by means of these relations that their relation to nature is defined, and and production becomes possible.”

This being so, it is plain that the nature of those relations must be determined by the stage of development reached by the means and methods by which they get their livelihood. Let us find an example in the old threshing flail and the modern threshing machine.

The flail, being a nonexpensive tool operated by one man, could be and was. at all events in the period which it typifies—the Middle Ages —owned by the man who operated it. It is clear, however, that the modern threshing machine cannot be owned by the operator, since it takes not one, but about a dozen men to operate it. It might be jointly owned by them all, in which case the relations set up between them would be those of partners ; it might be owned by one of them, or by somebody who took no part in the working of it, in which case the relations between the operators and the owner would be those between employees and employer, or it might be owned by the community as a part of the socially-owned means of production, in which case an entirely new set of social relations would arise. The same relations, however, which arose out of men getting their living together with the flail (as one of the instruments of production) can never shape themselves out of the co-operative operation of the threshing machine.

It must not be taken that our example shows that what has converted the peasant, operating his own flail for his own benefit, and standing in a certain group of relations to those about him, into a wage worker operating a threshing machine for a master, is the development of the threshing tool into the threshing machine merely. As a matter of fact, of course, this development was a slow and tortuous process, and various means have been resorted to to knock grain out of the ear—treading out by oxen and threshing by horse-driven machines, for instance. The relation of wage worker and employer, also, developed generations before the modern threshing machine was invented. Indeed, it is quite plain that before the latter could becornr a practical proposition this one thing essential to its operation as a general means of production had to exist—a class of men who were willing to work for wages.

Nevertheless our example shows that the flail (the terms are used as symbols of the prevailing
instruments of labour), as a means of enabling men to work for themselves, and the threshing
machine, as a means of employing men for wages, are the foundation of two separate and utterly distinct sets of relations between men, social relations, in short.

A. E. Jacomb

(To be Continued.)

Link to Part 2.