1920s >> 1922 >> no-216-august-1922

Some I.L.P. Distortions of Marx.

On page 5 of a pamphlet “All about the I.L.P.” we read that the I.L.P. “has never formulated its theory of Socialism.” In the I.L.P. study course “The Principles of Socialism” we have the theory which the I.L.P. says it had never formulated. If, however, you hastily conclude that its left hand is ignorant of what its right hand is doing you may be wrong. When you read further and learn that the basic principle of I.L.P. doctrine is “the belief that there is in the human soul as such, something precious,” you realise that the denial is accurate; the I.L.P. has not formulated a theory of Socialism.

It is true that the I.L.P. has never systematised its propaganda and has been content to allow its members of various shades of political opinion to air their views as the spirit moved; but to suggest that there is some merit in this looseness is to ignore facts. What has actually happened is that the I.L.P. has been used in the main to spread the anti-socialist theories of the Liberal Party. It has, by emphasising those catch-phrases which expressed the earlier revolt of the rising industrial capitalists against the autocracy which hampered them, appealed to the discontent of the working class, without, however, assisting them to understand and solve the problems which faced them in their struggle.

The “Principles of Socialism” contains more positively harmful stuff than one would have thought possible for so slim a booklet, and we will therefore confine our attention to one piece of misrepresentation.

On page 24 we read :—

“. . Karl Marx and his followers developed the theory of economic determination. In accordance with this, capitalist exploitation would proceed progressively with the consequent deterioration of the workers, until, at last, the extremity of their despair and a common consciousness of it would cause them to break their chains, which were all that they possessed, and seize possession of the, by then, completed construction of capitalist concentration. Both sides assumed the class war and the continuance of misery in its extreme form. Neither has proved true. There has been a slow amelioration in the condition of even the poorest; and a recognition that whereas Capitalism is based upon classes, Socialism cuts across them. The I.L.P. has always seen that though misery may make Socialists, social progress makes for Socialism, which represents a fulfilment and emancipation not for the proletarian only, but for workers of all grades, whether by hand or brain.”

That is the considered opinion of Mary Agnes Hamilton, the mouthpiece of the I.L.P., and I propose to deal with it.

First for the condition of the workers : Mrs. Hamilton says there has been “slow amelioration.” She gives no dates, but as concerns the last ten years I think it can be asserted with some confidence that there has been no such amelioration. There is hardly an industry the workers of which do not complain that the increased cost of living has left them poorer than in the years before the war, and with unemployment so widespread and the trade unions so demoralised, it cannot even be said that the future offers hope of their regaining what they have lost. I do know that in America, where statistics have been compiled, the standard of living in 15 chief industries has fallen 25 per cent, in 24 years (“American Economic Review,” September, 1921), and that in this country in 1921, according to the Daily Herald” (7th January, 1922), there were more people (1,519,823) in receipt of poor law relief than at any time during the 72 years for which record is available.

No proof of this amelioration is offered and I see no signs that it is taking place. Furthermore, Mrs. Hamilton has to convince not only me, but also her fellow member, R. C. Wallhead, who, as Chairman of the I.L.P., is reported to have spoken as follows at the Easter, 1922, Conference :—

“The conditions of the workers go from bad to worse.” . . . “There has been a reduction in wages of the working class of Britain of not less than 400 million pounds a year, and still the insatiable demand continues for more. In addition actual working conditions were again being attacked, and the workers would soon have in their program once more a renewed demand for the eight hour day.” (“Daily Herald,” 17th April).

So much for the facts.

Now for the theory. Since Mrs. Hamilton evidently assumes facts which will fit her arguments it is not at all surprising that she also invents theories which, with the assistance of her unreliable facts, she can make a pretence of disproving. One wonders though why Marx was introduced into the affair, unless it is because he is so much disliked in the I.L.P. and other Liberal circles in which Mrs. Hamilton moves.

She makes plain by her attempted refutation, her belief that the Marxian theory which she purported to state, involved acceptance of the idea of increasing poverty for the workers. Let it be noted therefore that Marx did not formulate such a theory, and his explanation of the process of the breakdown of capitalism in no wise depended on a continued worsening of the condition of working class life.

Briefly put, this is the theory:—that there is a tendency to the concentration of the means of wealth production in fewer and fewer hands. That with the increase in powers of production owing to technical improvements, the mass of wealth produced becomes ever larger. That the growing use and higher quality of machinery render the workers ever more redundant, and prevent their obtaining much more than the bare necessaries of life. That the share of wealth enjoyed by the workers stands therefore in ever-decreasing proportion to the amount produced, with the consequent widening of the gulf which separates the working class from the capitalist class. As a result of these developments the workers, compelled to organise as a class in opposition to their exploiters, will ultimately recognise that their only hope lies in capturing political power in order to destroy the capitalist system of society.

Mrs. Hamilton alters this considerably; fakes her evidence and then triumphantly asserts that Marx and Engels were wrong ! What she misunderstands, if, that is, she ever attempted to grasp the theory, is that Marx put the emphasis on the widening of the gulf between the working class and the capitalist class, the worsening of the workers social status relative to that of the employing class, the increasing degree of the workers’ exploitation. He expressly excludes the idea of increasing poverty by assuming the continuance of this process, whether wages are high or low.

“It follows therefore, that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.” (Page 661; Capital, Vol. I., Swarm, Sonnenschein),

and again,

“Just as little as better clothing, food, and treatment, and a larger peculium, do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker ” (page 631).

As for the class struggle, Mrs. Hamilton says that the assumption of its continued existence “has proved untrue.” Now she may (although it is hardly credible) live in such seclusion as to be unaware of familiar evidence of the class struggle; that last year for instance, the miners were locked out and beaten, and that the engineers, who have recently been locked out, were promised all possible support by the I.L.P. ; but she cannot be excused for having overlooked what she herself wrote. “The existing system is based on a competition between classes; of which the essential fact is the private ownership by one class of the means of production” (page 8) and on page 9 “So long as Capitalism lasts, no reconciliation of Labour and Capital is possible.” The two participants in the struggle, the existence of which has “proved untrue,” can never be reconciled !

As a matter of fact is it difficult to find any point on which Mrs. Hamilton is clear. Even her knowledge of the I.L.P. seems to be somewhat shadowy.

She goes on to make a distinction (which she does not attempt to define) between workers and proletarians. A proletarian in the Marxian use is just simply a wage or salary earner; a member of a propertyless class which, in order to live, must sell their energies to the owners of the means of production.

To encourage its members to use a word in any meaning they chose may be a way of giving effect to the I.L.P’s. belief in “Liberty of Conscience,” but, even so, it would really be less confusing if this was explained.

Then again, “the I.L.P. has always seen that though misery may make Socialists, social progress makes for Socialism.” Apparently the second part of the sentence represents the I.L.P’s. notion that social reforms are stepping stones to Socialism, although Mrs. Hamilton herself says “there must be a fundamental change” (page 8) and refers contemptuously to the social legislation of the last half century as “State grants in aid of wages” (page 14). It is implied that Marx also believed that mere wretchedness would make Socialists, which is again untrue. Does any sane person expect Socialists to be recruited from slums, workhouses and prisons, or from the dregs of society generally? If misery, in the sense accepted by Mrs. Hamilton, would make Socialists, how might we thank the capitalists for their share in causing the Volga famine.

The effects of the degradation imposed on the workers by the present system of society are such that there are many whose physical condition of life and whose opportunities of mental development sufficiently explain their failure to take an intelligent interest in their own welfare and that of their class. This explanation cannot be offered for more fortunately placed people like Mrs. Hamilton, and unless, therefore, she has deliberately misrepresented, she is guilty at least of inexcusable negligence.

H.

(Socialist Standard, August 1922)

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