1920s >> 1925 >> no-247-march-1925

The Class Struggle. Its Economic Origin and Mental Results

Ideas don’t fall down from heaven, but are drawn from material at hand. Consequently the idea of the class-struggle must have been drawn from the struggle itself.

In other words, the class struggle must have existed before we could become conscious of it. This is involved in the very expression Class-conscious. A logical conclusion from this is that those who were not conscious of the class struggle must have waged the battle in the first place.

If this is so, why cannot class-unconscious (what one questioner calls “non-revolutionary”) workers still take part in the struggle?

Those who contend that the class struggle only exists where there are class-conscious workers, and even then only between the class-conscious and the ruling class, are driven to the absurd position that the class struggle is imposed on society. That instead of ideas being the product of material conditions, material conditions are produced by ideas.

In spite of views to the contrary, however, no individual with a mighty brain came on the scene possessed with the brilliant idea of imposing the class struggle on society and ordered the combatants to line up and go ahead. The combatants were there, the struggle existed, but whereas formerly it was fought blindly, now some of .the combatants fight with their eyes open. Marx could only lay bare the modern class struggle by tearing aside the surrounding veil of confusion and illustrating its existence.

The statement that the commodity the worker owns is sold and bought upon the market like any other commodity is quite correct yet it is misleading when put forward without full explanation of the nature of the transaction.

The worker comes upon the market with a commodity to. sell—the only commodity he has for sale—his power to work. The commodity the worker sells, however, differs from all other commodities in certain essentials. In the first place, it is the commodity of a particular class, and is sold to another, entirely different, class. The workers combine among themselves to sell their commodity as high as possible—the masters combine among themselves to buy it as low as possible. This is the industrial aspect of the class struggle.

While there is a similarity between the worker coming on the market to sell his commodity and the capitalist coming on the market to sell his wares, yet there is an essential difference—the difference that breeds the class struggle. There are temporary opposing interests between buyers and sellers of ordinary commodities, but there is a permanent class cleavage between buyers and sellers of labour-power.

The commodity the worker sells produces all value, and the amount of surplus value the buyers of it obtain is determined by the difference between the value of the labour-power and the value that the labour-power can produce.

The value of labour-power is determined by its cost of reproduction, and this largely depends upon the standard of living physical surroundings necessitate and social development have handed down. Around the question of the standard of living a constant struggle goes on—on the capitalist side the attempt to reduce it to the absolute minimum, on the workers’ side the resistance to this attempt. The result of the struggle so far has been a steady lowering in the workers’ standard of comfort. This struggle is peculiar only to the labour-power commodity, and this peculiarity bears fruit in the form of the class struggle.

The workers and masters meet upon the market as equals in the sense that they are both either buyers or sellers of commodities—but here the equality ends. The worker is bound to sell his commodity or starve, and it is this fact that binds the worker to a position of slavery—it is this fact that illustrates the sham nature of the “equality” of buyers and sellers so far as the labour-power commodity is concerned. The main objective of the two classes, so far as buying and selling is concerned, is entirely different. The capitalist buys in order to sell—invests capital; the worker, on the other hand, sells in order to buy—sells his energy in order to obtain the wherewithal to live.

The basis of present society is the ownership of the means of living by one class. This compels the other class that makes up society to. sell its only possession—labour-power—in order to live.

Therefore the sale of labour-power is the sale by a class of its only possession, whilst the buying of labour-power is the purchase by a class of the factor that enables it to live without working. It is in his capacity as a member of the master class, as opposed to the working class, that the capitalist buys labour-power. Consequently, the buying and selling of labour-power is a class question.

It is otherwise with the ordinary commodities which are sold without respect to class distinctions and where buyers and sellers meet as equals unaffected by the class question.

As soon as a child of the working class enters employment it takes a part, however insignificant it may appear, in the class struggle. This struggle, in its early stages, is not a struggle for the overthrow of the system ; nevertheless, it is part of the class struggle—the struggle of a class for existence. Ultimately it develops into the struggle for the overthrow of the class that suppresses. In other words, the industrial struggle, the struggle to resist the encroachments of capital (the early form of the modern class struggle), with growing knowledge of necessity demands the political struggle, the struggle for the overthrow of the ruling class.

Capitalism took its departure from the conditions that severed the bonds binding the worker to the soil and threw him upon the market a free labourer—a seller of one commodity. The subjection of the wage-labourer—the class division—was the basis and starting point of capitalism. Therefore, to place the worker, from the point of view of a commodity seller, on a par with all other sellers of commodities is to discard the scientific examination of society and social development, and signifies the throwing overboard of the life-work of Marx.

The capitalist as a seller of commodities is engaging in an ordinary trading transaction—the worker in selling his commodity is engaging in a struggle for life. The failure to sell for a comparatively short period in his case is likely to result in death by starvation—quite a common occurrence.

The fact that there is a broad class distinction between sections of the population has been recognised by most people for generations, as instance thè general acceptance by the workers of the sobriquet “Working Class,” and their deferential attitude towards their “Betters.” Where they were lacking in knowledge of the real position was shown by the common idea that the way was easy for a worker to get out of his class and into the idle class.

As the class struggle becomes fiercer and the line of class cleavage more apparent, the facts impress themselves more and more clearly upon the minds of the workers—even though the process may appear slow to a superficial observer. Ideas that not very many years ago would have been looked upon as the ideas of dreamers are now generally accepted facts. The question, “Is it necessary that the workers must change their mental attitude towards past and present conditions?” is quite unnecessary, because the fact is that the workers are changing their mental attitude quite apart from their wishes in the matter—although very slowly becoming class-conscious. The knowledge of capitalism and how it affects them is becoming clearer and clearer, and consequently the workers are slowly coming nearer to the view that the overthrow of the system is the only solution to the surrounding evils. Class action on the part of the workers is not necessarily class-conscious action, as witness the Chartist and similar movements on the part of the working class.

The working class is destined to be a revolutionary class, whether the members of that class recognise the fact or not. They are the inheritors of the highest achievements of the past and the harbingers of the era when man’s age-long-developed ingenuity will have the opportunity to give of its finest flower. The experiences of the struggle develops knowledge on this point and breeds sound ideas. This knowledge is not acquired in a day, a month, or a year, but is the result of the accumulated experi¬ences of years of struggle—class struggle.

The matter is summed up, then, as follows :

The labour-power commodity is like all other commodities in that it is bought and sold upon the market, its value determined by the cost of production around which the higgling of the market allows its price to fluctuate.

It is unlike all other commodities in that it is the commodity of a particular slave class sold to a particular dominant class; and further in that the standard of living, an historical element, enters into the ques¬tion of its cost of production.

It is these two distinctions that make of the matter a class conflict as apart from the ordinary matter of the competitive buying and selling of commodities.

The modern class struggle, therefore, presents two aspects. On the one side the struggle on the part of the workers to sell labour-power under the best conditions—the industrial struggle for wages and hours of labour; on the other side the struggle for the overthrow of the wages system—the political struggle for Socialism. The class-unconscious worker takes part in the former, but only the class-conscious in the latter. The class struggle is, consequently, both industriai and political—the latter is its ultimate, its revolutionary form.


(Socialist Standard, March 1925)

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