1920s >> 1928 >> no-289-september-1928

Socialist Definitions—A Critic corrected

Theydon Bois, Essex.


Many Socialists are probably hoping fervently that the stupid, bourgeois, definitions, which crept into the report of the Maxton v. Fitzgerald debate; definitions alleged to have been proffered by Mr. Fitzgerald, were misprints or lapsus linguoe.
He is reported to have said :—
1. “By the working class is meant those who depend upon the sale of their services for their living.”
2. “By the capitalist class is meant those persons who buy the services of the workers.”
3. “Capital does not mean merely wealth used for the production of further wealth, but wealth invested for the purpose of obtaining a nett surplus, called interest.”
4. ” Wealth is the product of the application of human energies to nature given material.”
These are the kind of “soppy” definitions which Marx hated and with which Maxton could easily agree because three of them were entirely wrong and the fourth was only half-true. Both 1 and 2 are quite suitable defintions to the Capitalist class simply because they hide the true nature of the labour-capital relations. “Services” are things done. The capitalists do not buy our services, they buy our power to do service—quite a different thing. This is no more pedantry or hair-splitting on my part than it was when Marx showed the difference between labour, the thing done, and labour-power, the ability to do things.
If capitalists buy service and we get paid fairly for those services we have nothing to grumble about; moreover the value of our services could only be assessed in terms of the actual things produced.
Service is work or labour done. The capitalist cannot make profit by buying labour done, and then by selling that labour, no ! he makes his profit by buying labour power or power to do service, and, by consuming that power, in the production of commodities containing embodied service or labour which he sells more or less at value. The value of the embodied service, i.e., the amount of socially necessary labour, measured in hours, in much greater than the value of the labour-power consumed, or the power to do service. The difference constitutes surplus value, from which is derived rent, interest and profit.
Definition 3 is obviously absurd because interest is only one part of the net surplus. The other parts are rent and profit. 3 implies that to abolish interest is to abolish capital, since by the definition the net surplus is interest, and capital cannot exist without its function. In volume three of “Das Kapital,” chapters 21, 22, 23 show that interest is that proportion of surplus value which an industrial capitalist pays to a money capitalist for the use of his money. The industrial capitalist borrows money, converts it into means of production and labour power, makes his surplus value and reproduces his original capital. This he converts back into money which he returns to the money lender, plus a proportion of his surplus value in the form of interest. What surplus is left is rent and profit. The rate of profit is determined by the inner laws of capitalist production, while “there is no such thing as a natural rate of interest in the sense in which the economists speak of a natural rate of profit, and a natural rate of wages” (“Das Kapital,” vol. 3), because interest is only a part of profit.
Definition 4 is self-evidently only half-true. Sweat is the “product of the application of human energies to nature given material,” but sweat is not wealth because it has no use. Similarly smoke from a factory chimney fulfils the conditions of deflation 4, but it is waste, not wealth.
Thus the definitions should run : —
(1) By the working class is meant those who depend upon the sale of their labour power for their living.
(2) By the capitalist class is meant those persons who buy the labour power of the workers.
(3) Capital does not mean merely wealth used for the production of further wealth, but wealth invested for the purpose of obtaining a surplus, called rent, interest and profit, according to the distribution of that surplus.
(4) Wealth is the useful product of human activities applied to nature given material.
Just as when the I.L.P. misleads the working class by misusing words, he cannot “get away” with the plea that the workers are not pedants nor interested in the exact knowledge of terms, so the S.P.G.B. cannot defend the first set of definitions on similar grounds.
I, personally, cannot believe that so experienced a war-horse in the class-struggle as J. Fitzgerald is, could have stumbled as these definitions suggest, as badly as any callow I.L.P.er in the throes of debate.
I look forward to the publication of this letter, and a justification or renunciation of the exceedingly anti-Communist definitions imputed to J. Fitzgerald in the SOCIALIST STANDARD.
As for Maxton’s phrase “narrowed to vanishing point” it was particularly unhappy in that it is a mathematical phrase which actually means “narrowed down to as small as we like though not out of existence.” It is the essence of Gradualism, and in consequence quite anti-Socialist.
As I see it, your principles must force you to deny the definitions published in the June SOCIALIST STANDARD, on page 1.
Yours for Socialism,


The condensed report of the Debate between Maxton and Fitzgerald was taken down during the debate for the purpose of appearing in the June SOCIALIST STANDARD, which was already in the printer’s hands.

Under these circumstances it had to be rushed off to the printers that night and there was no time for the reporter to read the proofs before the paper appeared. This explains the appearance of one slip—not four—that Mr. Woltz has found.

To take Mr. Woltz’s four points :—

(1) Mr. Woltz says ” ‘services’ are things done.” Indeed ! By what reasoning does he reach this conclusion? The simple fact is that the word “service,” like many other words, will have a meaning depending upon its context and tense. Mr. Maxton is exceedingly fond of referring to the “manual worker.”

To meet this unscientific statement Fitzgerald pointed out its absurdity in the following words :—

“There is a good deal of cant in describing workers as “mental” and “manual” workers. The definitions are quite unsound from a scientific point of view. No manual work can take place without a mental organisation. And no mental effort can be known until it has expressed itself through some physical channel. Therefore all those who depend for their existence upon the sale of their services are members of the working class.”

Clearly the sale of one’s services means the sale of the power to perform certain operations. This may be illustrated by the common phrase “offered their services” that is their power to do certain things. The phrase as used was quite correct.

(2) The above answer disposes of Mr. Woltz’s objection to the second definition.

(3) This is the one slip made by the reporter that Mr. Woltz has found. In the debate Fitzgerald read out a definition from a celebrated capitalist economist, and then gave the following paraphrase of Marx’s statement :—

“He (Marx) points out that the process is that the capitalist uses money to purchase commodities, including labour-power, and sells the finished product and, as a result, has money at the end. But there would be no sense in simply putting money into business to draw out the same amount at the end of the process. The formula therefore becomes — money — commodities and money plus an increment. And it is this increment that distinguishes capital. Capital therefore is wealth used for the purpose of obtaining this surplus which includes profit.”

(4) Here Mr. Woltz has discovered a “mare’s-nest.” The report in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, even though condensed from the statement given in the debate, is still correct. If wealth is not the product of the application of human energy to Nature-given material, will Mr. Woltz explain what it is? His own definition merely adds a word—that begs the question and itself requires explanation—to our own statement.

In conclusion, we may point out that we are not concerned to give “communist” definitions, but “Socialist” ones, and this is what was done in the debate.

Ed. Com.

(Socialist Standard, September 1928)

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