1940s >> 1941 >> no-449-december-1941

Is Capitalism a “Conspiracy”?

On Thursday, November 27th, there was a debate in the House of Commons about the cause of war, and in it the I.L.P. group stated their view on war’s capitalist origin. Commenting on this, the Daily Herald (November 29th) said that the I.L.P. members “tried to interpret the war as a ‘capitalist plot’—and were denounced with patient tolerance but overwhelming emphasis by their colleagues.” Whether the Herald’s description of the I.L.P. case is an accurate one is something the I.L.P. will look after. It need not concern us here, though it may be remarked that in the past the I.L.P. have often fallen into the error of explaining capitalism and its wars on those lines. But they were not alone, they were only following—or perhaps leading—the Labour Party and its organ, the Daily Herald.

It is easy to demolish the conspiratorial conception of capitalism, a conception that is mostly wrong and never adequate. Though some industries may thrive in war, and though on occasion a ruling class group may be tempted to look to war as a means of averting social upheaval, the capitalist class as a whole would be acting very foolishly from the standpoint of their own interests if they sought war for its own sake. It is their wealth that is swallowed up in armaments and the upkeep of armed forces, their property destroyed in air-raids and the bombardment of cities, their ships by the hundred that go to the bottom of the sea, and it is on their backs that falls the great burden of taxation to pay for wars. True, the workers produced the existing wealth for the capitalist class, and will produce more when the war is over, but that will not bring back what is irretrievably destroyed.

Has capitalism, then, nothing to do with the cause of war? Indeed, it has; and sometimes the Daily Herald has been well enough aware of it. Will the Herald assert that the struggle for overseas markets, in which to dispose of the surplus products of capitalist industry and thus realise profit, has no bearing on international rivalries? Or that the acquisition of sources of raw material and control of trade routes can be left out of the picture? Will the Herald maintain that the wars of the modern world can be explained by some theory which leaves out of account the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production and distribution? If the Herald has such a theory, let us hear what it is.

Actually the Herald—along with some occasional appreciations of the real nature of capitalism —has a particularly rich record of error through following the “plot” line of explanation. It was the Herald that invented the “Hard-faced Men,” the theory of capitalism as a secret conspiracy of callous business men and their politician tools driven, not by the necessities of capitalism, but by pure devilry to create poverty and unemployment. This fitted in perfectly with the Labour Party’s belief that new men and a new spirit could make capitalism function satisfactorily. When Labour Governments tried to do this and naturally failed, the Herald discovered a new and slightly different conspiracy to explain away the failure. This time it was not capitalism that had produced one of its normal industrial crises, but, in the eyes of the Herald, a banker’s plot which had manipulated the monetary system with the evil design of spreading unemployment and driving down wages. Again, it was the Herald a few years ago that attached excessive importance to the machinations of the armament makers as an explanation of world unrest.

Two final questions to the Herald. Now that the Labour Party is associated closely with those it used to denounce as “hard-faced men” and conspirators, and affirms that they are not so bad after all, what explanation would the Herald offer for the unemployment and industrial crises and so on of the past? Secondly, what remedy can the Herald offer other than that advocated by the S.P.G.B., the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution?