1920s >> 1920 >> no-190-june-1920

A Brief Exposition of Socialist Theory


In the last contribution we noticed the opposite outlook on life of the feudal worker, producing wealth for himself (working to live), and the modern worker, producing wealth for others (living to work). A superficial examination of the position has a tendency to lead some people (particularly of the small shopkeeping type) to pine for a return to these earlier conditions. But bad though the slave position of the modern wage worker is, it yet contains the kernel of future economic salvation.

The means and methods of producing wealth cannot stand still. They must go on developing and continually taking on new forms, and with them society must also develop and take on new forms.

To return to our former illustration : The flail, after a tortuous development, culminated in the threshing machine. The threshing machine organised squads of workers to attend to its needs. Not only did it do this, but it also reacted on the operations that precede and follow its use. The methods of gathering corn and of handling it after passing the thresher had to be speeded up to meet the standard of speed and efficiency set up by the thresher. In America to-day an eight foot cut and self-binder is in use that can cut twenty acres of wheat in a day, and in some areas one vast machine ploughs across the fields, taking the grain from the stalks and depositing it in bags ready for the grist mill.

The land-loving, home-loving serf, producing to live and owning his own simple means of production, was tied to the idea of private property and viewed with alarm (even as his out-of-date successor does) any projects that interfered with his petty private property rights. The modern worker, on the other hand, living to work and owning no property but his power to work, is being forced by his economic situation to the opposite idea of property directly social in its nature.

The means of production of the peasant were small, simple, and independently operated. The means of production to-day, on the contrary, are immense, complicated, and socially operated. Inhabitants and material at the most distant parts of the earth have a connection, directly or indirectly, in the production of the simplest articles around us. The thresher incorporates the products and the skill of different countries; it represents in itself social production.

The consequence of this is that the ideas and ideals that float around to-day, and are gradually taking a definite form, are social ideas and ideals. The fact of social production is steadily giving birth to the idea of social ownership.
The tremendous chasm that, exists between the serf and the wage worker in the method of producing the means to sustain life has bred a similar chasm between the ideas that flow from the different sets of economic circumstances. Even the “unchangeable East” has been drawn, by virtue of its economic development, into the web of international affairs, and the ideas of the West are fast becoming the ideas of the East. The same method of examination that we have applied to the case of the feudal serf and the modern worker, if applied throughout the whole course of social development from primitive times to the present day, will give a clear understanding of the course of history, and make history an intelligible science instead of the confused jumble it presents in the hands of its professional interpreters. A knowledge of the development of landed property in ancient Rome lays bare to us the mainspring of the of the events of that period ; a knowledge of the development from the local to the international market (and what it involved) lays bare the mainspring the events of the English and French revolutions. Finally, a knowledge of the basis of modern capitalistic production lays bare the hidden cause of the events that are taking place around us. It was the understanding of this that led Karl Marx to undertake his painstaking examination of commodity production.

The Materialist Concept not only furnishes us with the key to the past development of society, but also to its future direction. It shows us wither society is tending and enables to adjust our actions accordingly. It shows us the “earthly core of misty creations” and keeps us out of the tortuous ways of the metaphysician. In other words, it compels us to be practical scientists instead of abstract dreamers.


(To be Continued.)

(Socialist Standard, June 1920)