1920s >> 1920 >> no-193-september-1920

Correspondence: What determines the form of the social system?

To the Editor.

Dear Sir,—In the first chapter of the S.P.G.B. Manifesto Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto is quoted as stating that “the workers, to secure their emancipation, must first secure the control of the political machine.”

This is tantamount to saying that the social organism is determine by Political and not according to the general trend of Marx, “The economic condition of the people.”

Is this so ?

G. C. W.


 Exercising our enormous fund of goodwill to the uttermost in the endeavour to understand you, we conclude that when you speak of the “social organism” you mean the social edifice, structure, system—anything almost but what you say, in fact. To use the words of one who has gone before, is this so ?

If it is, then the answer to your question is, brother, it is not so.

The form of the social system is determined, not, as you say Marx said (poor old Marx, how they do love to dance upon your literary relics !) by “the economic condition of the people,” but by its economic base.

If you read the first clause of our Declaration of Principles you will see it there stated that society is based upon the private ownership of the means of living. How the form which the social system shall take is determined by this basic factor a little thought should reveal. For instance, the private ownership being confined to a section of the people, it is determined that society shall consist of two classes—those who possess and those who do not; it is also determined by the same factor that those who do not own property must work for wages Thus it is seen that the two most pregnant characteristics of present-day society, (1) its division into classes and (2) the wage-labour basis of its productive system, are clearly seen to arise from the private property base.

Now although private property is the basis of present-day society, private property is not an institution which can exist of its own force, like, say, gravitation. Minor infringements on the “rights of private property” are called theft, and our correspondent is presumed by the law to know how such cases are dealt with. Just as such minor cases are dealt with by the minor forces of the State—the police and the beak—so to preserve private property from the major infringements on private property—the revolutionary attack upon its very vitals—there exists the major force, the armed forces of the State.

To say that the wages system, together with the other phenomena peculiar to the present order, rests upon the private property basis of society, is to imply that the emancipation of the workers from wage-slavery can result only from the abolition of private property. This naturally raises the question: How is this to be accomplished in face of the armed forces of the State ?

The answer to this is that the workers must either fight the armed forces or control them.

The first course is obviously not to be thought of until the second is closed to us. Therefore the next question is : Through what medium are the armed forces of the nation controlled ?

The Army and Navy are part of the machinery of government, or the political machinery. As such they are controlled by Parliament.

That is why we tell the workers that in order to obtain their emancipation they must get control of the political machinery.

Now the point that our correspondent will observe here is that, far from our insistence on the need for capturing the political machinery implying that the politcal factor determines the form of the social structure, it simply indicates something the workers must do before they can be in a position to deal with the real determining factor in the shaping of society, the private ownership of property. This is the root of the social tree, from which every twig and leaf draws its life ; the political machinery is the fence around the tree, to keep donkeys and other things off. To deal with the fence is the necessary preliminary to doing things to the root, but that does not imply that the tree is based on the fence instead of on the root.


(Socialist Standard, September 1920)