The Socialist Party and Trade Unions
July 5th, 1923.
Your contention that the workers do not pay rates and taxes on the basis that what he hasn’t got he cannot part with has always seemed to me quite sound. But in this month’s SOCIALIST STANDARD Comrade Reynolds declares, “For, bad as the condition of the working class is, only a fool would deny that it could be far worse.” This seems to me to contradict the above, for if his condition can be made worse, to say nothing of far worse, it surely can be made so by the capitalists collectively (taxation) as by the capitalists individually (wages).
The point I would wish to make is that, according to our friend Reynolds, the worker has a surplus or margin above the bare subsistence level, thus rendering him susceptible to taxation in his degree even as the man with £10,000 a year.
Our contention that taxation does not affect the working class is in no way contradicted by the statement quoted from the July SOCIALIST STANDARD. The statement is made to indicate the fact that the struggle of the workers on the economic field over the question of wages, hours, and the general conditions of employment does to some extent act as a brake upon the tendency of capitalism to worsen the condition of the working class. The writer does not imply that the workers have “a surplus or margin above the bare subsistence level, thus rendering them susceptible to taxation”; on the contrary, he implies that it is necessary for the workers to carry on the struggle in order that they should realise the value of their labour-power.
Of course, the workers have no surplus above the subsistence level, out of which to pay taxes. But it does not follow that because of that fact their condition could not be worse than it is at present. The social condition of the workers not only could be worse, but is actually becoming so as capitalism develops. For instance, as more efficient methods of wealth production are introduced, unemployment increases, and, with the consequent increase of competition for jobs, the workers are subject to a more intensive exploitation, their position is more insecure, and their poverty becomes greater than ever.
Now “Inquirer” seems to be of the opinion that the level of subsistence is a fixed point. But that is not the case. The workers sell their energy to the capitalist at the cost of their subsistence, but the cost of subsistence depends upon, among other things, the standard of living which varies, in different trades and in different countries. The standard qf living is a product of historical and social forces, and may be raised or lowered. As Marx puts it :
“The value of labour is in every country determined by a traditional standard of life. It is not a mere physical life, but it is the satisfaction’ of certain wants springing from the social conditions in which people are placed and reared up. The English standard of life may be reduced to the Irish standard ; the standard of life of a German peasant to that of a Livonian peasant.”— (“Value, Price and Profit.”)
And, as the whole history of capitalism shows, the tendency is in the direction of lowering the standard of living of the workers, to the extent, to use the words of Marx, of reducing the whole working class to the “utmost state of degradation.” Around this question of the standard of living a constant struggle goes on between the workers and the capitalists. The former endeavouring to maintain it at a certain level, and the latter endeavouring to reduce it to its lowest point. It is precisely here where the organisation of the workers on the economic field functions. By means of withholding their labour-power, or threatening to do so, the workers do, to a certain extent, put a brake upon the encroachments of capital. In other words, whilst the workers by trade union action cannot altogether prevent the worsening of the social condition, they can slow down the worsening process.
To state such an obvious truth, namely, that the condition of the workers could be far worse, is something totally different from saying that the workers have a surplus above the subsistence level out of which to pay taxes. For the workers to be susceptible to taxation would necessitate their getting a surplus above the amount necessary for their subsistence as wealth producers for the capitalists, and this they do not get. Consequently, the capitalists cannot make the condition of the workers worse by means of taxation. They can and do, however, by means of reducing wages and intensifying exploitation, a fact with which we as workers are painfully acquainted.
(Socialist Standard, October 1923)