1920s >> 1925 >> no-252-august-1925

Economics and ideas. Their influence on political institutions

(Continued from last month).


We have now seen how the bourgeoisie established a form of government peculiarly suited to their needs, based upon the “rights of property” and in which the propertied class ruled directly through chosen representatives under their control. The further developments of the bourgeois state, however, in which it tends more and more towards universal suffrage cannot be understood without considering a factor of the greatest significance—the mental outlook of the working class under the present system.

The modern proletariat is the counterpart of the chattel-slaves of Ancient Civilisation and the serfs of the Middle Ages. In economic function there is little or no distinction between these forms of exploitation. As economic relations, however, they have distinct differences which among other things determine the respective attitudes in the three systems, of the exploited class towards the social order that enslaves them. The slave’s attitude may be generally summed up as “ineffective opposition,” that of the serf as “passive acquiescence,” whilst that of the modern wage-worker is the apparently extraordinary one of “active support.”

It is often declared that this attitude of the mass of the workers under capitalism is the result of capitalist propaganda. The truth is, of course, that it results from the conditions of society as a whole—propaganda forms a part of these conditions, but its seed cannot take deep root and flourish, except it falls on fertile soil.

Let us contrast the historic modes of exploitation, paying especial attention to the peculiarities of the wages-system. The chattel-slave, the serf and the wage-worker are all compelled to labour and to surrender all the wealth they produce, except on the average that required for their own maintenance at the customary standard of living. Here, however, the resemblance ends for the social machinery whereby the exploitation is effected difters in each case. The kind of pressure used is different—with chattel-slavery it is naked force, the fear of the lash or torture; with serfdom it consists largely of the overwhelming power of custom and tradition, whilst with wage-slavery it is “economic need”—the fear of starvation.

Under chattel-slavery and serfdom the workers were an openly subjected class having a definitely inferior legal “status.” The chattel-slave had no legal rights, the serf had only those of the serf “status.” Moreover, between the subjected and the dominant classes there were usually definite barriers of culture and often of race, language and religion. All these facts combined to make the class separation a fixed one and to prevent any interchange between the classes. The facts of slavery and exploitation were clear and undeniable. No slave or serf could make any mistake about it—if he did give way to the illusion that he was a free-man—he was promptly and painfully reminded of his true position.

The condition of the wage-slave is very different. His is not a personal servitude. He and his fellows are subjected as a class solely by being excluded from the essential instruments and materials of production. Between he and the capitalist there is no difference in legal status, no essential cultural distinction and none of race or religion. There is but one essential mark of distinction between the classes—the ownership of capital.

Now this talisman “capital” that divides exploiter from exploited has two important characteristics that make it unique as a class barrier and produce social and intellectual results that were impossible and inconceivable in previous slave systems. First, capital—the “giver of power”—is not a factor inherent in and inseparable from its possessor, but is something external and accessory to the individual that can be acquired, transmitted from person to person, and can be lost. Secondly, it is a quantitative thing. In practice it implies sufficient money to carry on profit making. Now, two sums of money can differ only in quantity. A quantitative change can, however, produce a qualitative difference, and the exploited wage-worker possessing a small sum of money has only to perform a multiplication sum to “see” himself a capitalist, and has only to make that imaginary increase a fact to become one in reality, and achieve, the distinction of living without working by the exploitation of his erstwhile fellows.

By the very nature of the class-barrier under capitalism it is possible to surmount it—and in both directions. A member of the exploited class may become one of the exploiters and one of the leisured may be “dropped” into the ranks of the toilers. However exceptional in the nature of things such interchanges necessarily must be, they can happen, do happen, and may even occur overnight without the knowledge of the individual and from causes altogether outside his control.

Such economic relations by their very nature deny the ancient traditional belief, inseparable from the older systems, that classes are based upon inalienable class rights and distinctions and that social status is a divinely ordained thing and unalterable, whilst just as obviously they must tend to promote the view that all men have equal “natural rights,” a dogma that to-day is almost universally accepted and is the basis of bourgeois political philosophy.

Furthermore, with the rise of capitalism and the extinction of the village and family as productive groups, the workers became isolated units individually contracting for employment. This and the further facts that under capitalism a person’s welfare depends upon the amount of wealth he can acquire, and that workers as well as capitalist must engage in a competitive struggle to obtain such wealth or increase it, necessarily breeds the attitude of “individualism”—”each for himself.” Now when the idea of equal social rights merges with that of individualism the outcome inevitably is the raising to a moral ideal of “liberty”—liberty to “make the best of circumstances,” to “get what one can,” to do what one wills with one’s own—limited only by the equal rights and liberty of other men. “The law of right social relationships” is “that—Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man,” says Spencer, the supreme theorist of bourgeois individualism, in his “Social Statics.”

These ideas are, of course, precisely those of the revolutionary philosophers of the eighteenth century who attacked feudal rights and absolutism. What was new in the nineteenth century was that ideas of “equal rights” and “freedom” began to infect and take deep root in the heads of the workers and that they used them not to attack the dead-horse of feudalism, but igainst the legal and political inferiorities under which they laboured in the youthful capitalist state. Eventually they achieved the removal of these disabilities, and thus of the contradiction between the facts of the political system and the political ideas necessarily flowing from the relations of economic life.


In the early years of the new factory-system—when the hand workers were dying out, when the machines were new and appeared as devilish instruments of death, when the workers, men, women and children, were forced from field and home into the new factories to grind out their lives for the new lords of industry—there was no shadow of pretence at equal rights for rich and poor. To the cultured upper-classes the restless, stirring workers were a dangerous mob, a horde of barbarians in the heart of a civilisation, a “swinish multitude,” as Burke in an outspoken moment called them. The industrial masters candidly regarded and spoke of their labourers as beings inferior to themselves, fit only for a life of labour. In them the idea of “status” lived on in a caricatured form and, transferred now to the economic field, “directive genius” was its alleged basis in place of ancestral prestige and “blue-blood.”

The savage rebellion of the tortured workers again and again broke out in violent rebellion that filled the ruling class with the fear of general insurrection. This fear was intensified to panic by the “Jacobinism” of the French Revolution. Military were taken from the old garrison towns and distributed over the industrial areas. Pitt himself clearly stated, in the Commons, February 22nd, 1793 :

“The circumstances of the country, coupled with the general state of affairs, rendered it advisable to provide barracks in other parts of the kingdom. A spirit had appeared in some of the manufacturing towns which made it necessary that troops should be kept near them ” (Hammond’s “Town Labourer,” p. 84).

Every political and legal device was used to suppress all signs of revolt amongst the “lower orders.”

“The Law, set in force by every kind of trickery, including the use of unscrupulous characters as spies, was administered with a brutality that stamped the working classes as a population amenable to no influence but that of terror ” (p. 75).
“The magistrates and their clerks recognised no limit to their power over the freedom and the movements of working men. The Vagrancy Laws seemed to supersede the entire charter of an Englishman’s liberties. They were used to put into prison any man or woman of the working class who seemed to the magistrates an inconvenient or disturbing character. They offered the easiest and most expeditious way of proceeding against anyone who tried to collect money for the families of locked-out workmen or to disseminate literature that the magistrates thought undesirable.”
“A parson magistrate wrote to the Home Office in 1817 to say that he had seized two men who were distributing Cobbett’s pamphlets and had them well flogged at the whipping-post under the Vagrancy Laws ” (p. 72, “Town Labourer”).

(To be continued.)


(Socialist Standard, August 1925)

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