Should the Workers Buy up Capitalism
That a system of society may change its outward form without changing its nature is a fact which the working class are very slow to appreciate. The reforms of the existing system which to a superficial view may seem revolutionary in reality make no change in the basis of society, no change in the relation between the workers and the class which rules them.
The comparatively few workers who are conscious of their position in society know that though reforms may often be described as revolutionary, and though they may bring some temporary benefit for the workers, the subjection of the working class to the interests of the Capitalist class continues. The Capitalist class remains as before in possession of the means to meet human requirements, and the working class, possessing as a class nothing but their labour power, must continue to sell this to those who hold in their grasp the means of life.
The majority of workers and their leaders, however, do not appear to be able to conceive of any change other than within the framework of the existing economic system. They appear to be able to talk and think only in terms of existing institutions. Buying and selling, money-lending, masters and wage-labourers, leaders and led—these and all the other appendages of a class-divided society are regarded as sacrosanct, as being constituent elements of the life of society for all time. The permanence of the class division of society is rarely, and then only vaguely, questioned.
This attitude is characteristic of the Labour Party. Evidence of this contention is to be found in almost every utterance of Labour Party spokesmen. Their obsession with the institutions of Capitalism, leads and directs their political strength to one object only, the reform and perpetuation of Capitalism.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that a member of the Labour Party who criticises his leaders for endeavouring to conserve the existing order of society, should display the very obsession on which is based the endeavour he deplores.
Fred Longden in “Co-operation and the New Orientation” (published by Ripley Printing Society, Ltd., 2s.) after declaring that he implies no disloyalty to his Party, states (p. 11) that the logical sequence of the Labour Party’s legislation is the rehabilitation of what he calls “Newer Capitalism,” and the further subjection of tin-worker. This, he stales, represents the “new orientation” of Capitalism, a development to which he is opposed.
“Labour leadership is now composed of men and women who believe that Socialist method consists simply in producing order out of disorder within the orbit of Capitalism itself on a stage, when conceived as such, on the way to a higher structure as a step towards Socialism” (p. 71). Says Longden, “the constructive side of Labour is fundamentally conservative,” and “might be defined as the preservation of the principle of the status of Classism as the only sound and lasting basis of society.” And he supports this contention with examples of Labour Party practice and legislation.
The author finds it “hard to believe that the thinking elements in Capitalist political ranks do not see the importance of Labour’s rehabilitation legislation. No better means could be found for (1) preserving society from violent revolution; (2) whilst at the same time, preserving the over-lordship of the plutocratic few for a century or so” (p. 72).
Yet how far does Longden escape from regarding “Classism” as a “lasting basis” of society? On page 48 he says that “to reverse that position of keeping the toilers subordinated to the non-toilers has been the aim of all true, reformers, let alone Socialists.” And on page 39 we read: “Socialism means a Republic in which the working classes own all communally essential land and capital, order their own economic and political life, fix duties and privileges for all individuals in the community and determine the kind and manner by which necessaries, cultural opportunities and luxuries shall be distributed.” (Italics ours.) The working class alone are therefore to own the means of production and fix privileges for all individuals, or, in other words, the working class have only to change places with the Capitalist class and we have Socialism ! (Perhaps this changing-place idea is the philosophical expression of the careerism of the Labour Leaders.) Longden provides his own definition of Socialism in order to end the abuse; of the word “Socialism,” and because (p. 39) “True Socialism has not been defined” ; apparently he has never read any Marxian literature, his notion of which is further demonstrated by his use of such confusing terms as “the co-op. Socialism of Owen-to-Marx.”
In order to “reverse” the present relation between the Capitalist class and the working class, Longden, like all good co-operators, believes it possible and necessary to compete Capitalism out of existence (p. 67.) There is, however, one departure from the orthodox co-operative policy. Not only are the co-operative societies to play their part in this competition, but also an attempt is to be made to gain a vaguely defined public control of sections of industry, and to use this control to out-rival private enterprise. Why not, says Mr. Longden, let “public authorities” buy up the services 1h;it are “going to the dogs” and make them “first-class and paying concerns.” This, he thinks, is “a definite Socialist method which will guarantee a real place for the Co-operative movement” (p. 146). This he regards as the alternative to the “new orientation.”
The writer wants what he calls a “real and direct nationalisation,” the nationalised industries being allocated to State, Municipal or Co-operative management in accordance with the kind and purpose of the enterprise. And the buying out ? Simple! “A guarantee of six per cent, for about 90 years is a grand investment for those who cannot see such returns continuing to come from declining private-enterprise proper.” Finally he| says (p. 153): “If a bold and honest step were taken along the lines indicated, then a great lead, a grand inspiration and a magnificent hope would result. It would attract the best from all grades in society. … It would show faith in Marx’s belief that a complete non-violent revolution from Capital-Power to Worker-Power might be possible j through constitutional methods in Britain.”
The futility of the theory of out-competing Capitalism with the meagre resources at the disposal of the working class, may be demonstrated by the following figures. According to the People’s Year Book, 1934, the total share capital of the wholesale and retail co-operative societies is about £150 millions – with reserves perhaps £200 millions. The total wealth of the country at the same date has been estimated at somewhere between £20,000 and £25,000 millions. So that after 70 years the Co-operative movement, in spite of its seven million members, controls only about one-hundredth of the total wealth of the country. Even were the fantastic dream to miraculously come true, there would still be a class of property-owners exploiting a class of wage-labourers. Those who own shares in the Co-operative undertakings are primarily interested in the receipt of their dividends which, like those of any other Capitalist undertaking, are produced only by the exploitation of the workers.
However sincerely Longden may hope that the liberation of the working class will be effected by public authorities and co-operative societies buying-up the productive forces of the world and directing them in the interests of the workers, it remains manifestly true that in a society which is based upon the ownership of the means of living by one class, and the consequent enslavement of the class who are propertyless, such action is prohibited by the conflicting interest of these two classes, the one striving always to protect its property and its power of exploitation, the other striving to release itself from this exploitation.
Those who possess property rights are not going to relinquish them or allow them to be diminished willingly. They may be willing to exchange their capital for the terminable annuities that Mr. Longden proposes to offer, but only if these annuities were of a value at least, if not more than, equivalent to their existing property, and their power to exploit the propertyless class were to remain therefore undiminished. The Capitalists will not yield one small part of their property rights unless compelled. This compulsion can only be effected by the power of the State, the body at present used by the Capitalist class who have a majority in Parliament, to protect and preserve the institution of private property.
It is clear, therefore, that the first condition for the achievement of Mr. Longden’s proposals for the gradual reduction of property rights, is that the majority of the working class shall consciously desire to institute a system of society based upon the common ownership of the means of production, and express that desire by electing to Parliament a majority of members with a clear and definite mandate to realise that object. But as soon as this condition is satisfied, the “buying-up” of Capitalism becomes unnecessary, it will be within the power of the working class to appropriate in the name of the whole of society the whole of the productive machinery, and thus to displace Capitalism by Socialism.
Not only is it impossible to free the working class from wage-slavery by reforming existing Capitalist institutions along the lines suggested by Longden while the majority of the workers desire the perpetuation of private ownership of property, but as soon as this desire ceases to actuate, Capitalism ceases to exist, and all reforms associated with Capitalist institutions become superfluous. Those who work for themselves have no masters and draw no wages. Those who can get all the}’ require without recourse to commerce need no system of exchange, no money. And Parliament, with no property rights to protect, ceases to be an instrument of government, and becomes an instrument of administration; the State, as a coercive machine, once it has been used to achieve Socialism, withers away. In short, all the institutions which seem so important to Mr. Longden, the Labour Party and those of the working class who vote them into Parliament, not only cannot be used to achieve Socialism, but die with the birth of that system of society; just as not so long-ago, Feudalism died with the birth of Capitalism, and serfdom was displaced by wage slavery, a slavery to escape from which we ask our fellow workers to organise in the Socialist Party of Great Britain.