Equality and the Wages System
The changes in the administration of some of the State industries of Russia, recently announced with the usual pomposity by Stalin, have given the capitalist press another chance to extol the alleged economic superiority of capitalist methods of production over what they mistake for Socialism.
Actually, these changes merely make more clear the essentially capitalist character of the Russian State industries, frequently pointed out in these columns.
Piece-work is to be extended, and many of the “worker-administrators” are to be sent back to the factories. The specialists and managers are to be given greater powers of control, and be more liberally treated. These changes, however, involve no new principle. Ever since the introduction of the New Economic Policy ten years ago things have been moving along this direction, albeit spasmodically and inconsistently.
Nevertheless, we have the “Manchester Guardian” seizing upon the occasion in its weekly issue of July 10th to expound a little capitalist economics. Speaking of the workers in the factory, the editorial scribe asserts that, “He may work slowly or badly but he will draw his wages just the same unless there is some system of fines or piece rates.” It would seem that this brilliant journalistic gem dwells in a world where the “sack” is unheard of.
Wages are paid only in order that employing concerns may squeeze out of the workers that profit which it is the object of their existence to obtain. This applies whether the workers are on piece rates or not. Piece rates have the advantage, however, in those industries where the system can conveniently be utilised, from the capitalist point of view, of reducing the need for supervision to keep up the pace of production; a fact which led Marx to declare, ” that piece-wage is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production,” “Capital,” p. 567 (Sonnerschein).
Stalin and his supporters, however, claim to be ‘Marxists’. They declare that, “it is necessary to organise a system of a sliding scale of wages which would take into account the difference between skilled and unskilled labour …. Marx and Lenin say that this difference will exist also in Socialist society even after the abolition of classes; that only in a Communist society will this difference vanish. Therefore, wages, even under a Socialist regime, must be regulated in accordance with the work accomplished and not the need felt.”
Then they proceed to condemn “those trade unionists and economists who are in favour of equal wages” as being opposed to Marxism and Leninism.
To take the last point first, Marx certainly exposed the absurdity of the demand for “equal wages,” a demand which figured prominently in the propaganda of a section of the Communist Party in this country (in the “Workers’ Dreadnought” particularly) in its early days.
On page 31 of “Value, Price and Profit,” Marx says, “Upon the basis of the wages system the value of labouring-power is settled like that of every other commodity; and as different kinds of labouring-powers have different values, or require different quantities of labour for their production, they must fetch different prices in the labour market. To clamour for equal or even equitable retribution on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system.” (Italics Marx’s.)
It is obvious enough that Marx is referring here to wages under capitalism, but where did he speak of wages under Socialism? Stalin does not tell us. Wages, whether equal or unequal, are part and parcel of capitalism, i.e., a system based upon the ownership by the master-class of the means of living, and the consequent enslavement of the working class by whose labour alone all wealth is produced. Or, as Marx himself put it in his criticism of the Gotha Programme, “The system of wage-labour is therefore a system of slavery and a slavery that becomes more and more arduous as the socially productive forces of labour develop, and independently of the question whether the labourer is better paid or worse.” (Section II, par. 5.)
The wage-labour system in Russian State industries, like the system here and elsewhere, is a system of Slavery. The spread of piece-work will intensify the slavery ; it will enable the “Communist” rulers to squeeze more surplus-produce out of Russian workers, just as it has helped the Conservative and Liberal capitalists of this country. Alleged “quotations” in support of it from Marx merely brand Stalin & Co. as hypocrites and their followers as ignorant dupes. The Russian Government must make a profit in order to pay interest upon its loans if for no other reason, and this fact alone is sufficient to explode the myth that Russian State industry is run on Socialist lines.
The Russian Government has to borrow money to run its industries, like any other capitalist concern, because it has to pay for machinery and raw material, because its employees have to pay for the food, clothes and houses they need; because, in a phrase, all the means by which these requirements are produced are private property. It has not established an oasis of Socialism in a capitalist desert. Had it tried to do so it would have been speedily annihilated.
Does this then prove that capitalism is the only possible economic system, as the “Manchester Guardian” would have us believe? Is the equality, which the Socialist Party fights for, incompatible with productive efficiency? In order to answer these questions it is necessary to be clear as to what we are to compare capitalism with, and also exactly what we mean by equality. If we compare capitalism with the forms of society which preceded it, we find that it has resulted in an enormous and unprecedented increase in the produce of labour; but it has also resulted in the concentration of the bulk of this produce in the hands of the few.
The gulf between the workers of to-day and their capitalist masters is greater than that which separated the peasant-serfs from the robber barons or the chattel-slaves from their patrician masters. Before the increased productive power of modern labour can become an advantage to the whole of society the instruments of production must become common property. They are socially operated; they have yet to become socially owned and controlled.
This of course involves the abolition, through political action, of the “rights” of the capitalists to own and control the land, factories, railways, etc. It implies the conscious assumption by the working-class, organised for the purpose, of complete control of the machinery of government so that they may obtain control of the entire industrial resources of society. This abolition of classes is the equality at which Socialists aim (not a mathematical equality of income which is fantastic and unwanted) ; but an equality of access to the means of living and of obligation to contribute to their production. Such an equality would render the term “wages” a meaningless one, for no one would be in a position to buy the services of others in order to make a profit, just as no one would be in the position of having to sell their energies in order to obtain a bare subsistence.
Under such a system it would be to the interests of all to expand the material resources of society as rapidly as possible in order to increase the common stock of necessities and amenities. For so long as these resources are fettered by capitalist ownership, whether in the form of private capitalism or nationalisation, the workers will be restricted to the consumption of such a quantity of goods as is sufficient to enable them to go on producing a profit. Hence we find everywhere that the capitalists, faced with a quantity of goods which cannot be sold, are compelled to take steps to restrict production.
Socialism will abolish the need for such restriction and while, even with the present resources of production, it would immediately increase the wealth available for the workers’ enjoyment, it would also render possible a considerable expansion of those resources in order that the free development of every individual should be translated from a dream into a reality.