1920s >> 1920 >> no-192-august-1920

The Return of the Prodigal

Before the world went mad—when it was only stupid, the Socialist was wont to be met by certain stock phrases and arguments with such regularity and persistence that they became as familiar to him as old friends.

The man in the street used to be perturbed by the problem : “If you eliminate the capitalist who will pay my wages ?” The capitalist defenders of their system in their turn argued that since they paid the wages of the working class (or as they would have it, working classes) the capitalists are as indispensible to humanity as the sun is to the universe.

But then the International capitalist gang quarrelled over the spoils of the exploitation of the working class, and the man in the street ceased to worry about wages under Socialism and went forth to do battle or to dodge it. Consequently the old familiar phrases went amissing too.

It was, therefore like meeting again an old acquaintance whom we have missed from amongst us to come across the following which appeared in a report of the speech of the Chairman of Crosses and Winkworths Consolidated Mills at a shareholders’ meeting:

Money — capital is the very vein matter of industry. Without it the commercial life of this or any other country must cease. Labour is dependent on employment, and employment is furnished by the people who are able to put up the money to pay wages. The excess profit duty of 60 per cent, at one fell swoop snatches away £300,000,000 a year that would otherwise be invested in production. Instead of being paid out in dividends and reinvested in some producing concern, this gigantic sum of money will be withdrawn from its proper use in order to meet the bills on armaments, or shipping control, or the Civil Service. What can this mean but so much the less development and growth of industry, so much the less production, and, in consequence, so much the less employment ? Secondly, Labour must depend to a very large extent on the establishment of new enterprise. But this duty makes it impossible for any new business to be set up in competition with old-established firms. A certain number, a growing number, among the leaders of industry are raising their voices against this tax. But, as a matter of fact, they are doing so only because they are long-sighted enough to see what it means to themselves as well as to every one else in the end. There are many manufacturers who appear to be incapable of realising so much, and who almost welcome these proposals as being the finest protective wall that they could have wished to have erected. The concessions promised to the new man must be very great indeed to give him a chance against the old-established concern. Unless I am completely wrong, this tax must surely stifle enterprise and the creation of new business. Once more, so much the less production and so much the less unemployment.

It would be but reiteration to prove that Sir Edward Mackay, the chairman in question, has in common with all the apologists of the present tern, got the cart before the horse. We have shown in these columns time and time again it is wage-labour that creates capital and not vice-versa. Furthermore, capital cannot increase unless it beget a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. All that mankind needs to maintain its existence is the application of human labour-power to the nature-given material. The function that the capitalist performs in the present system is that, having regard to the fact that capital is his personal property, he is in a position to expropriate the products of labour, returning only a portion, barely enough to keep it in existence, to the working class. That portion is called wages.

Edgar, however, is quite an altruist. He tries to make it clear that he is not solely concerned about himself. Despite the fact that, as he says :

We are in a first-rate position, earning good money, and have an order book filled for seven months ahead at profitable prices. Our cotton position is excellent.

He is anxious to prevent Labour from doing itself an injury,

We have lately had a readjustment of wages in the trade, and certain operatives are now earning sums that were undreamt of prior to the war. I would be the last to oppose any legitimate demands based on the rise in living cost, and none of us will deny that the workers should benefit by the prosperity of the trade in which they are engaged. Before the war in many cases labour was underpaid. It was inevitable that when they were presented with an opportunity of getting on terms with their employers they should seize it with both hands. But now one can see signs that the great body of intelligent workers are beginning to realise that the policy of grab, of squeezing the employer to the limit, is more than likely to react on Labour itself if carried any further. Appetite comes by eating, and demands in many trades have reached such a point that to-day many of the responsible trades union leaders and the great army of sensible — hard, common-sensible workers are beginning to realise the danger, and are not a little frightened at the greedy monster they have raised. It is a truism that Capital and Labour are interdependent. We are all in the same boat — a boat labouring against a head wind and a heavy sea.

Such kind-hearted consideration must surely make us Socialists feel a little ashamed of ourselves for wanting to deprive the capitalist class of its sole means of existence. But I am afraid we are a flint-hearted crowd and Edgar’s appeal to “the great army of sensible workers” leaves us cold.

We have met our Edgars before and know them for what they are worth. But the man in the street, what is he thinking about ? Will he still worry about wages under Socialism, or who it is that is to do the dirty work ? In any case, however, the Socialist has an answer to every question, new or old, and if the returned prodigal questions are only accompanied by a real desire for enlightenment the man in the street will soon discover that Socialism is the only system of society that will secure him as the fruits of his labour far more than anything his wages under capitalism can bring him. And our cotton magnates will soon receive their congé together with the rest of the parasite class who draw dividends from the blood and sweat of the working class and insult them with their hypocritical “consideration.”

S. H. S.

(Socialist Standard, August 1920)