Are Marx’s teachings sound?
Nararkad, the King of the Cape York blacks, has had his eyes opened. Mr. Jack McLaren, the Australian author, conveyed a message from him to King George recently and received a reply stating how interested King George was in his message. Mr. McLaren, who has lived with the dusky monarch and his naked subjects for some years, states that until a short time ago King Narakad was under the impression he was the only king in the world, and was greatly surprised to learn of the existence of others. Which is quite understandable. So long as the world ended where he thought it did King Nararkad undoubtedly was the only king in the world. A case can be made out for anything by leaving out enough objections. Which brings us quite naturally to Mr. Ellis Barker.
He is a member of what is known as the Foam School. He cannot mention the word Socialist without foaming at the mouth. There are a number of them writing in the stunt Press, and their method is monotonously similar. A few trite statements spat out with venom and vindictiveness, together with some airy sweeping assertions and tiny isolated scraps of alleged evidence. For instance, Mr, Ellis Barker, having selected that organ of light and leading, the Daily Mail, as his vehicle, proposed in their issue of August 6th to show “How Capitalism has Raised the Worker.” First sentence :—
“Socialism is based on mendacity.”
Next sentence :—
“Karl Marx set down as a ‘law’ such rubbish as that under the ‘Iron Law of Wages,’ wages always tend to sink to the lowest level’ of mere animal subsistence, and that, owing to the ‘Law of Increasing Misery,’ the capitalists were bound to become ever richer and the workers ever poorer.”
Notice the style ! Words like “mendacity” and “rubbish” do solitary duty as arguments. “Karl Marx set down,” we are told, but we are not told where he set down. Just by way of contrast—and correction—this is what Karl Marx actually did say on wages (Value, price and profit) :
“The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink, the average standard of wages.”
That carefully-worded statement will be recognised as true. You will notice nothing about “mere animal subsistence” in it.
As a matter of fact, in the same little work Karl Marx gave reasons why the reduction of wages to mere animal subsistence was an improbability. He showed also how wages could be actually raised and yet leave the workers worse off.
Now let us take a cursory glance at Great Britain at the moment when it is being: told how Capitalism has raised the worker. There are a million and a half workers registered as unemployed. A million and a half ! Think of it! Over a million miners are being remorselessly smashed into accepting a wage which may not represent “mere animal subsistence,” but is indistinguishable from it. Some 45,000 railwaymen and 80,000 transport workers are still stranded where their leaders led them, whilst 300,000 of them are only partially employed. The Lancashire cotton mills are closed two weeks in three, affecting goodness knows how many operatives and dependants. Mere animal subsistence perhaps is less than one week’s wages in three, but how much less? About a million agricultural workers endeavour to support life on a wage under two pounds per week. And so we could go on. Generally speaking, with all these millions statistically accounted for as either unemployed, under-employed or poorly paid, one would not exaggerate by describing the condition of the working class as miserable. With the statistical abstract before him, Mr. Barker thinks otherwise. The figures that apparently appeal more to his fertile fancy are those relating to imported pork, beef, bacon and ham. He finds these imports have nearly doubled in the 14 years, 1910-24. Imported cheese, butter, eggs and fish also show millions of hundredweights increases, and he infers this implies increasing opulence of the working-class. We need not insist that no mention is made of any “home-grown” statistics, or of any increase in the population. We would not accuse Mr. Barker of being an economist. He is far too acute for that. His method is the more convincing one of personal observation. He says :—
“Now the British masses are far better fed and better dressed than they were before the war, and they spend vastly more on amusements of every kind.”
And, yet, as he scornfully says :—
“Spouters at street corners still talk about the ever-increasing misery of then wage-slaves, addressing well-dressed crowds of male workers smoking cigarettes, and women workers wearing silk blouses and silk stockings.”
Is not this the right note? What is the use of shouting : “Workers of the world, unite,” to males smoking cigarettes? Or of volleying forth : “You have nothing to lose but your chains,” to women workers in silk blouses? Or, finally, of tempestuously roaring: “You have a world to win,” to girls in silk stockings? Of course, it’s ridiculous. This increasing opulence on the part of the workers is our greatest difficulty. It has even invaded our own ranks. Members of the Socialist Party have been detected furtively drawing at a cigarette, and many of our lady members are suspected of concealing their nether limbs in silk stockings. It has not yet been deemed necessary to definitely charge these—you cannot call them crimes—discrepancies between democratic profession and plutocratic performance, against our members, but doubtless, now it is seen how damaging they can be to the cause of Socialism, voluntary sacrifice will willingly be made.
Mr. Ellis Barker sees in cigarettes and silk stockings evidence of how Capitalism has raised the worker. Assuming he is serious, perhaps he is seeing what he wants to see. You can make almost any case you like by presenting facts in a certain way.
For instance, Mr. Plunkett Greene the other night, in his wireless lecture, said the Jew’s harp was the one instrument he could play better than Kreisler. So if you judge by the increased consumption of imported pork, bacon and cheese, or the prevalence of silk stockings and cigarettes, that Capitalism is the best of all possible systems for the worker, we suggest that the average worker will not feel enthusiastically grateful. He will feel there is more to be said on the matter. He will, perhaps, wonder why, in order that he should enjoy the blessings of cigarettes, foreign pork, and silk stockings (for his wife, say), he should have to spend so much of his life in hunting for a master, and when found, why his master should so persistently press for a wage that will render their purchase an extravagance. He will wonder why his attempts to get a wage that will allow him to smoke two packets of cigarettes instead of one, or of eating English beef, instead of embalmed Argentine, are so strenuously resisted by those who bestow the blessings of Capitalism upon him. Is it enough to tell the miserable that their misery was greater fourteen years ago; to tell the wretched that they are better dressed than they used to be; to tell the slave that his chains are of better metal than formerly? This may be the philosophy of Capitalism, that of comparative misery, but is there much comfort in it? We think that if Mr. Ellis Barker would take the trouble to explain to an audience of miners, or potters, or shipbuilders, or cotton operatives, how much better off we are all getting, he would find the present time most appropriate. Several new brands of cigarettes have recently taken the air, and Woolworths are getting in new supplies of their opulent silk stockings. It is easy to ascribe mendacity to people one does not like, but opacity, or even loquacity, is no better substitute. Try reading, and thinking, in equal proportions.
W. T. H.
(Socialist Standard, November 1926)