1920s >> 1920 >> no-188-april-1920

Masterman’s Muddle

The Globe” on February 6th, 18th, and 23rd published a series of articles by Mr. C. F. G. Masterman entitled ”The Failure of Class War,” a premature verdict delivered while the manifestations of class antagonism become more apparent daily.


“Marx,” says Mr. Masterman, “prophesied that all the means of production would pass into the hands of a small company of rich men. They would squeeze down the wages of the poor to the limits of subsistence. The poor, fighting against each other for the bare means of living, would possess nothing and become the mere wage-slaves of the rich. After a time of unspeakable misery these many poor would rise against the few rich in a ‘class war,’ destroy them, take over their property, and establish a communist state.”


Much that Mr. Masterman afterwards writes goes far to prove that this “prophesy” of Marx is well on its way toward fulfillment. When he says later on “The power of capital concentrated in the hands of a few is far too tremendous,” and when we find throughout his articles that he does not attempt to deny that the bulk of society—the working class—are wage-slaves, and that the majority of them live in “unspeakable misery,” we can only conclude that he accepts these things as part and parcel of the system—necessary evils that may vary in magnitude but must always be.


Our author does not deny that the workers—as in the time of Marx—compete with each other on the labour market for the sale of their labour-power, the result being that their wages are “squeezed down” to the level that just enables them to go on producing for their masters. What he really does is to assert that to-day there are more people living in comfort than ever before. Professor Marshall in his “Economics of Industry,” tries, through long, dreary pages of platitudes and repetitions, to defend the capitalist system on the same grounds. But what consolation is it to the dispossessed working-class to know that the number of parasites living by their exploitation has increased? Does the fact that 340,000 men made over four thousand million pounds during the war, bring any satisfaction to the thirty-odd millions of the population who belong to the working class and have to keep up a constant struggle against the masters in order to obtain a “minimum wage.”


Mr. Masterman says that “Marx was utterly wrong in his prophesy. He did not foresee the coming power of the trade unions. . . or the interference of the government to raise wages to a minimum.” Marx understood the power of trade unions—and the limits of their power—only too well. And Mr. Masterman pays him a well-deserved tribute when he points out the fact that trade unions have failed to raise wages to “a minimum “—-whatever that mean—without assistance from the government.


It is perfectly true that Parliament—although merely an executive of the capitalist class— spends much of its time framing laws to protect the workers from the ever-increasing rapacity of capitalists. This policy has been followed, more or less consistently, ever since the first Factory Act was passed, not from any goodwill toward the workers, but solely because the preservation of some sort of order is an imperative of any social order. Without restraint, exercised by the executive government, capitalism would quickly become a wild orgy of ruthless exploitation.


In pursuance of the same idea Mr. Masterman says that “In America most of the very rich men started from the bottom.” But even if this is true it does not palliate the conditions of the bulk of American society, who still remain at the bottom.


In Britain, we are told, “The small farmers classes are disappearing through the losses and taxes of the war. The small farmers and small holders are buying their farms and holdings. They are becoming well off. They are becoming capitalists. They cannot understand the ‘class war’ theory. It does not apply to them.” But Mr. Masterman has told them now: they are becoming capitalists ; that is why it does not apply to them. It is between the working class and the capitalist class that the class war must be waged, not between capitalists and capitalists. This should be obvious to the dullest of Mr. Masterman’s readers.


Moreover, what if America’s richest men did start from the bottom ? Their rise has been effected by the robbery of the working class, who are still at the bottom. It matters nothing to the working class how the personnel of the ruling class changes. Our author’s point is pointless, because the Socialist declares that there exists antagonism of interests between exploiters and exploited, while he replies that there is no antagonism, therefore no class war, between capitalists and capitalists. We already knew that: the capitalists are fully occupied fighting the working class.


There is nothing new about Mr: Masterman’s criticisms ; he has merely adopted the freak  arguments that were exploded by Marx himself, and which are easily dealt with by Socialists today. For instance, he contends that the ownership of capital is the result of work and saving; but it is the working class that do all the work, and by virtue of the fact that they only consume such wealth as is necessary to maintain their continued efficiency, are the only class that save. From the total wealth produced by the workers wages are paid. The remainder constitutes the fund from which new capital is saved. The whole of this fund is owned by capitalists, who use it either to satisfy their needs and fancies, or as fresh capital—in other words, for the further exploitation of the workers. Thus the working class only get what slave classes have always had—all the work and just sufficient of the necessaries of life to enable them to go on working.


Again, Mr. Masterman tries to show that the workers themselves are capitalists because of their funds in savings banks, trade unions, etc. He does not compare the few millions owned in this way with the thousands of millions owned by capitalists, nor does he acknowledge that these funds are practically the total savings of thirty-eight millions of the population to provide against unemployment and capitalist oppression generally. Instead, he quotes the railwaymen at investing their funds in railway stock, thus handing over to their enemies the funds they had built up to fight them with.


But Mr. Masterman has no delusions about co-operative stores. He says: “Co-operatives cannot attack capitalism. ‘Divi’ is the interest of capital.” The strange thing is that our author cannot see, or pretends not to see, that “divi” is the capitalist’s only object, and, therefore, that wealth can only be called capital when it obtains “divi,” or profits, for its owner. He sees it quickly enough, however, in the worker who takes up a few shares in a co-operative store for the sake of a few paltry shillings a quarter.


“Capital,” says Mr. Masterman, “is the houses we live in, the factories in which we make clothes, and ship, and machines ; the food we store up from one harvest to another; the ploughs and harrows and spades that enable us to produce a harvest at all.” Some of these things, it is true, are capital; but not because of any quality they possess in themselves as means for producing further wealth, but because they are owned by the master class exclusively, and can only be used by the working class on the condition that all the wealth they produce belongs to the capitalist class.


Mr. Masterman’s remedy is, in his own words, “to make all men capitalists” : a remedy that is just about as idiotic as that which used to be imputed to the Socialist—dividing up all the wealth. It would not then be a question of “who would do the dirty work,” but who would do any work at all, because capitalists do not work, they live on “divi”—the surplus-value produced by the workers divided amongst them in the form of rent, interest, and profit.


Mr. Masterman’s attack on Socialism is largely made up of apologies for the most pronounced evils of capitalism. He says : “The money spent or wasted on luxury by the rich, if saved, would make very little difference to the total income to be divided.” Of course not: it is “spent or wasted ” after it has been divided, after the workers have received their share— wages—which can never rise much above the cost of living. The irony of the worker’s position is that the more wealth that is wasted by the capitalists the more work there is for him, the less competition there is for jobs, and the greater is the possibility of higher wages. But our author, failing to perceive the merchandise character of human labour-power, fails to see the natural results of that status. But that is not the only instance of his blindness. He says: “most of the money going now to men of great fortune is not spent but saved.” Seeing that they already have great fortunes very little credit is due to them for their abstention. Oh, but, interjects our friend, “at death the State gets a big slice of it, and the rest is generally distributed among many others.” The point Mr. Masterman does not (want to) see is that it never goes back to the working class, who produce it.


Mr. Masterman introduces his subject with the declaration: “it is no good going out fighting against empty abstractions ; battle with words. You can’t destroy giant evils with words.” From the capitalist standpoint Socialism is a “giant evil,” that is why he sets out to destroy it—with words. Like so many others who have tried, he fails because he represents neither capitalism nor Socialism faithfully. He never examines the basis of capitalism because, for him, it is the best possible system. It divides society into a privileged and a slave class, and his lot is cast among the privileged. Socialism is repugnant to him because it would abolish slavery and privilege and establish society on a basis where the means of wealth-production, instead of being owned by a small capitalist class, would be the common property of society, to be used for the needs of a community making arrangements for production and distribution according to a settled plan agreed upon by all, a system based upon common ownership and democratic control of all the means of life.


F. Foan