Letters: The Socialist Forum: Are the Workers Robbed?
A correspondent (“Jason,” Balham) questions the accuracy of the statement that the workers are ” robbed.” He refers particularly to three phrases used by us. The first was used in the War Manifesto reprinted in the August issue, and is as follows:
. . . the workers’ interests are not bound up in the struggle for markets wherein their masters may dispose of the wealth they have stolen from them (the workers) . . .
Our correspondent objects that this statement is not derived from Marx and is not correct. He writes :—
When Marx refers to the capitalists as the robber class he has in mind the original source of their capital—the primary accumulation obtained from robbing the Spaniards and Portuguese of their loot from Mexico, Peru and the Malay Archipelago, plundering Africa and the Indies, and expropriating the peasants, etc.
It is palpably absurd to talk of the workers as propertyless proletarians and then to dilate upon the magnitude of the robbery of non-existent wealth from them. At the most the workers can be robbed only within the compass of their wages, insurance money, or loans, but such robbery enriches only a section of the Capitalist Class, operating in the sphere of circulation, and may be termed cheating rather than robbery.
The process by which the capitalists augment their wealth is a process far more deadly than any mere robbery could be. It is a draining, pumping, sucking, squeezing, of labour-power, not stealing the worker’s wealth, but rather his health and vitality, by the purchase at its value of the energy derived through the expenditure of brain, muscle, nerve and bone tissue. Workers are poor not because they are robbed, but because they are enslaved.
Our correspondent considers that the phrase in our Declaration of Principles which reads, “the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers,” “tends to foster the . . . erroneous viewpoint.” He expresses the opinion that a third phrase used in the article, “ The Socialist Party and War ” (see August issue), viz., “robbing them of the fruits of their labour,” is “more correct.”
The capitalist buys labour power at its value, yet robs the worker. The value of labour power depends upon the cost of production of the labourer, and the cost of production of the labourer depends upon his cost of living. Inside this, however, is the fact that standards of living for different types of workers vary, and standards also vary between one country and another. The capitalist aims at lowering the general standard of living to the lowest possible level.
The labourer, when working, produces a greater value than the value of his means of living, and the capitalist takes the extra value produced. Our correspondent argues that this is exploitation, but not robbery, because the capitalist pays the labourer the value of his labour-power. In his eyes, only that which is illegal to-day is robbery. But although the capitalist pays the labourer the value of his labour-power, he does not pay him the value of his product.
We will leave aside the question of depressing the standard of living, wherein the capitalist obviously robs the worker of former advantages. It is to be assumed that the critic does not suggest the worker willingly agrees to wage reductions, etc. As the worker is deprived of wealth that he does not willingly give, he is plundered by force.
The workers fight for a larger amount of the total wealth produced, but are defeated in the long run by the power of the capitalists. The capitalist shows his power by the giving and withholding of jobs, which signifies inviting the workers to produce on certain terms or starve. Dick Turpin used a pistol to force wealth from his victims; the capitalist uses the threat of starvation for the same purpose. The one method is illegal robbery; the other is legal robbery. In the present discussion the main difference between the two is the question of legality. There is another difference. Dick Turpin did the job himself; the capitalist pays others to do it. When Dick Turpin met with opposition he had only his own arms to call upon. When the worker resists the capitalist, the latter can call upon the State power to bring the worker to subjection and force him to produce.
The difficulty is that the mass of the workers, like the victims of Hatry, do not realise that they are being robbed.
The original accumulation of the capitalists, by means of which they were able to obtain control of the means of production and subject the worker to exploitation, was also robbery. The plundering of the Eastern and Western countries, the plundering of the monasteries and the enclosing of lands by driving the original owners off, form the principal part of the capitalists’ early accumulation of wealth.
Dr; Annandale gives the following definitions in his dictionary ;—
Rob: To plunder or strip by force or violence; to deprive of something by stealing. Robbery: A taking away by violence or wrong. Steal: To take clandestinely without right or leave; to gain or win by address or gradual and imperceptible means; to perform secretly; to try to accomplish clandestinely.
The capitalist deprives, plunders and strips the worker of energy, leisure, pleasure, the product of his labour, and a host of other things, and it is done by force, and secretly or clandestinely by gradual and imperceptible means. Therefore the capitalist robs the worker. The customs of savage society do not permit this form of robbery, but the laws of capitalist society do. Therefore it is now legal robbery.
It is true the capitalists rob each other, but the robbery of the worker is the basis of the system.
As to our critic’s references to robbery in the past, we would point out that from the strictly legal point of view it would in many instances be as incorrect to apply the word to the past as to the present. The enclosures of common lands, for example, were perfectly legal forms of robbery, according to the laws of the time.