The Position of the Workers
For many generations men’s minds have turned to the problem of human happiness. Human misery has been so obvious that it was bound to re-act on the more sensitive and sympathetic, and the result has been many fantastic and impracticable utopias, from Plato’s to Robert Owen’s.
That these visionary projections have been fantastic and impracticable has been due, not to wilful misleading or lack of intelligence, but to the absence of economic and historical knowledge of the social system.
It is only in quite recent times that social development and scientific research have given us the knowledge which was requisite to enable mankind to proceed with understanding to the establishment of a social system in which the, furtherance of human happiness and well-being will be the common object of all effort.
Armed with this knowledge, the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain set themselves to form an organisation which would serve the revolutionary purpose. The works of scientists like Marx and Engels, and Lewis Morgan, have shown them
1. That society evolves;
2. That society evolves by revolution (at all events, in historical times);
3. That these revolutions are always the conscious work of a revoluntionary class.
History shows that every class which has acquired ruling power has been revolutionary in its time, but no class has been revolutionary twice. The rising revolutionary class strives to wrest control from the ruling class, succeeds, and, in the nature of things, consolidates its position and strains every nerve to maintain the new social base which has given it power. Immediately it becomes reactionary.
In the course of time the means of production outgrow the conditions imposed by the existing social structure, a new revolutionary class arises whose interest is to set up a new social order. There is a class struggle terminating in another social revolution.
Capitalism was enabled to displace Feudalism because the latter was based on the control of the land, which was only part of the means of production—the most important part at one time, it is true. But there was another form of wealth outside the control of the feudal nobility—merchants’ wealth, and later manufacturers’ wealth. Those who possessed this wealth, the capitalists, achieved their revolution, and are now a reactionary class.
Up to the present, each class that has conquered power has brought with it the seeds of its own destruction, because each has depended for its existence upon the exploitation of another group within itself, that only became a separate and distinct class after the successful outcome of the revolution.
But under capitalism productive property is controlled by the capitalist class. There is no other class of property owners to kick against their rule. It is impossible for the rulers to become the conscious agents of their own overthrow—and only conscious agents can establish the revolution, because, though a system can be destroyed without its destruction being consciously aimed at, the setting up of a new one—the other half of the revolutionary process—presupposes conscious effort. Who then are to be the agents of the revolution that will achieve Socialism? The only class that is left to carry out the revolution is the working class.
But in order to fit themselves for this task the workers must acquire the consciousness which can alone enable them to do so. This consciousness must comprise, first of all, a knowledge of their class position. They must realise that, while they produce all wealth, their share of it can never, under the present system, be more than sufficient to enable them to reproduce their efficiency as wealth producers; in other words, it can never exceed their cost of subsistence. They must realise also that, under the system, they will remain subject to all the misery of unemployment, the anxiety of the threat of unemployment, and the cares of poverty. They must understand next, the implications of their position —that the only hope of any real betterment of their condition lies in abolishing the social system which reduces them to being mere sellers of their labour-power, to be exploited by the capitalists.
They will see then that, since this involves dispossessing the master class of the means through which alone the exploitation of labour-power can be achieved, there must necessarily be a struggle between the two classes—the one to maintain the present system of private ownership of the means of living, and the other to wrest such ownership from them, and make these things the property of society as a whole. This is the struggle of a dominant class to maintain its position of exploitation on the one hand, and of an enslaved and exploited class to obtain its emancipation on the other. It is a class struggle.
A class which understands all this is class-conscious. It has only to find the means and the methods by which to proceed, in order to become the fit instrument of the revolution.
In every social system the people who produce the wealth by which society lives have a very definite position in that society. Thus the chattel slave was a commodity—a mere piece of property, bought and sold. It was himself, and not his labour-power, which was sold. His position was that of, say, a horse.
The modern worker, on the other hand, is not property. It is not himself, but his labour-power, which is the commodity. He is the machine which produces the labour-power. Like all machines, he is subject to wear and tear; and like all machines nothing can be got out of him that is not put in.
On the other hand, just as every mechanism must justify its existence by being more economical than the next lower grade of appliance, so the human machine has to produce the greatest return for what is put into it, because it also has its competitors.
These competitors are machinery and methods. The dearer labour-power is, the more rapidly machinery and improved methods advance; and the more rapidly these advance, the greater is the number of unemployed serving to depress wages. The result of the operation of these conflicting forces is that labour-power sells for the cost of its production, or, as it is sometimes put, wages gravitate around the level of subsistence.
We now come to the point which presents the difficulty. To say that wages equal subsistence level by no means explains what determines that subsistence level, and we are well aware that the standard of living varies considerably in different capitalist countries, to say nothing of those which are not completely capitalistic. Why is not the level of subsistence lower or higher? Why is it just where it is?
All other commodities sell, on the average, after variations have cancelled one another, at prices which depend upon their value. The value of a commodity is the labour time necessary to its production. Hence commodities exchange in a ratio according to the labour time necessary to produce them.
This result is assured by the fluidity of capital. Capital is invested in the most profitable directions. Where prices are below a certain point, other things being equal, profits are lower. Capital is then transferred to the production of those classes of commodities whose prices are higher and which therefore show a larger profit. On this account the increased production of the high priced goods brings such an extra quantity of them on the market that their prices tend to fall. This corrects the production of both the high-priced and the low-priced goods, and through that corrects the prices.
But the wage worker cannot convert his means of production (food, etc.) into the production of some other commodity than labour-power. True, he will endeavour to scramble into those trades which pay best, but this does not get him far.
The truth is that capitalism itself sets the standard of living of its workers to meet its own requirements. Capitalists have been compelled to educate the workers because they need an educated working class. Education, in its turn, gives the workers other needs, and though it does not give the means of satisfying those needs, the needs themselves form an additional inducement to struggle for the means to satisfy them. To create needs is to add them to the standard of living, and therefore to increase the wage which must be struggled for.
On the other side, if wages rise above the normal standard (as they do in times of “trade boom”) there is a tendency to resort more to machinery and improved methods, which mean greater intensity of exploitation and more unemployed. Actually, many employers are discovering that a higher standard of living is necessary to enable the workers to stand the greater exhaustion of more intense exploitation.
It may be affirmed that every level of subsistence of the working class has its own intensity of exploitation, its own ratio of unemployment, and that, therefore, whether the standard of living is a little higher or a little lower, in the long run the quality of labour-power required by capital is produced at its lowest cost, and is sold for that cost. Hence the position of the workers is the hopeless one that they must always struggle to maintain their wages at subsistence level, but that they cannot do more. All the vast and wonderful improvements in the productive processes which mean such stupendous wealth for the owners, mean only more intensive conditions for the workers. They can have no share in it. All the reforms and all the philanthropy cannot touch this position. Remove the unemployed to-day, to-morrow machinery will have produced them again. Give the workers free houses or free bread—they must struggle just as hard for the remainder of their necessities.
Attempts at reform, therefore, are useless. They are defeated by the very operation of the economic laws of our competitive system.
As a matter of fact, capitalism is always being reformed. Reforms are the red-herring by which the capitalists keep the workers on the wrong scent. Reforms and palliatives keep the wage-slaves running from Tweedledum to Tweedledee and from Tweedledee to Tweedledum. And when, after much fighting, each reform or palliative is gained, it is only such as is necessary to keep capitalism safe for capitalists.
A. E. Jacomb