What is the Class Struggle?
Probably no phrase used by Socialists is the subject of more misunderstanding and misrepresentation than “the class struggle.” The professional “anti-Socialists,” who trade upon the fears of the “small investors,” do not tire of horrifying their patrons with the imaginary spectacle of a horde of strikers and unemployed raiding their peaceful homes; and the language frequently used by equally professional Communists lends a certain amount of colour to the conception of the class struggle as a physical conflict in the streets between roving bands of pugnacious individuals drawn from the two classes which form modern society. Yet nothing could be a greater travesty of the facts.
The class struggle is, at bottom, a conflict between the class of possessors who own the means of living and the class of producers who are exploited by them in the fields, mines, factories, and on the railroads, etc. The struggle at first takes the form of a series of strikes and lock-outs, by means of which the masters try to increase, and the workers try to limit, the extent of the exploitation. These skirmishes, which periodically interrupt the process of production under capitalism, centre round the terms upon which the workers part with their energy to their masters, i.e., the amount of the wage, the length of the working day, and a host of minor conditions related thereto. Few workers are exempt from the necessity of thus debating with their employers the price of their commodity, i.e., the power to labour, their only possession and source of maintenance. It forms a normal condition of their existence under the existing social order.
In spite of this, many workers still harbour the delusion that there is a harmony of interests between them and their masters, that it is up to them to produce more cheaply in order to help their masters to recover lost markets at home and abroad; and this delusion is fostered by many Trade Union leaders.
The other absurd extreme is represented by the professional Communists, who try to persuade us that strikes are the result simply of their agitation. When the discontent of the Trade Union rank and file reaches a certain height over a given question and the leaders “regretfully” call a strike, we witness the spectacle of the Communists telling the world that this is because of the fear with which they have inspired these leaders. They invariably forget, however, to let us know how it is that these leaders recover their courage. They are too busy denouncing them as traitors, to admit their own inability to prevent the strikers returning to work.
The class conflict is due neither to the weakness of the leaders nor to the schemes of the agitators. The decisive economic factor in a strike is the state of the labour market, which the constant progress of machinery and improved methods of production tend to turn more definitely against the workers. Treachery and stupidity aggravate the defeats which the workers repeatedly encounter, but even if their leaders (actual and would-be) were as loyal and intelligent as they are frequently the reverse, the main trend of economic development and its results would remain, broadly, the same as now.
This does not mean that the workers should abandon the struggle as hopeless; indeed, they cannot do so without being crushed beyond chance of recovery. It does, however, impose upon them the need for studying the cause of the struggle and discovering new methods of dealing with it.
The struggle is contested at first upon the industrial field, but it does not end there. In fact, so long as the workers see no further than the need for sectional defensive tactics, there is nothing to prevent the struggle going on indefinitely to j their disadvantage.
The possession of the means of living places an overwhelming advantage in the hands of the master class; but it is essential to realise that this possession depends upon conditions which it is possible for the workers to alter.
Possession, to-day, is no longer a physical relationship. It is a legal one. The shareholders of a joint stock company which owns a mine, a group of mills, or a railway system, may live at the ends of the earth, may never see their property, may know next to nothing about it, and yet go on receiving dividends upon which they can exist in comfort and luxury without labour. Superficial “revolutionaries,” who advocate that the workers should “occupy” the factories, forget that the workers are continually doing this—they have to—and that the last thing in the world that the capitalists want to do is to occupy the factories themselves. Physical contact with the means of production is a pleasure which they are quite prepared to surrender entirely to the workers—on terms. They merely insist upon controlling, through salaried agents, the ownership and disposal of the products. When and where such sale ceases to be sufficiently profitable, they use their legal powers to lock the workers out; and, in either case, their ownership and control, whether exercised negatively or positively, depends upon the State.
It is the State, with its machinery of coercion, including the armed forces, which upholds the conditions condemning the workers to sell themselves piecemeal into lifelong slavery. It is the State that repels every attack upon the property rights of the master class by starving strikers or unemployed, and which, by doing so, makes the workers’ struggle a political one.
For the masters’ grip upon the State machine is the weakest link in the chain which binds the workers to the present system. It is a link which can be snapped whenever the workers as a class say the word. For generations in this country their masters have flattered and wheedled and bribed them, and kissed their babies, in the endeavour to secure their political support. Encouraged by this, numerous leaders of the workers have adopted politics as a career, and have, to a considerable extent, relieved the masters of the need, for administering governmental affairs directly, just as in the realm of industry the capitalists have long ago surrendered the task of supervising production to paid managers, foremen, etc. Just as the masters rely on a section of the workers to exploit the others on their behalf, so now, also, they entrust to Trade Union and political leaders the job of maintaining the system which makes that exploitation possible; but whereas the managers and foremen have little need to curry favour with their subordinates, the. “Labour” politicians have reduced demagogy to a fine art.
They know just where the shoe pinches, and can estimate to a nicety just how much to relieve the pressure in order to preserve in the minds of the workers the necessary degree of docility; but there are limits to their powers. While they may lull the unemployed by judicious adjustments here and there, they cannot prevent the increase in their numbers. They can do nothing to stop the process whereby the little security of livelihood which the mass of the workers enjoy is being constantly undermined. They can do nothing to prevent the speeding up of the workers in the factories, with the consequent increase in the accident rate. They admit that they cannot stop the attacks on wage standards already miserable enough.
They are of no real assistance to the workers in the struggle, nor can they remove the cause of the struggle. They can only assist the master class by administering to the workers periodical doses of dope, and holding in readiness the forces necessary to quell restiveness when dope proves ineffectual. In a word, they have proved themselves fit to govern.
The more effective a government is, as a government, the more certainly it becomes unpopular. Periodical changes are, therefore, inevitable, and the rapid rise of the Labour Party to the favour of the masters and the support of the workers may speedily change into an equally rapid descent; but the class struggle will go on. No mere change of government, whether constitutional or dictatorial, can stop it. It can only introduce an alternative method of attempting to suppress the symptoms.
Nothing short of the conversion of the means of living into common property can remove the antagonism of interests between masters and slaves. That is the object of the Socialist Party, which it alone has consistently adhered to. It alone, therefore, expresses the interests of the working class, and all workers of both sexes, plain or coloured, employed or unemployed, are invited to join.