Letter: Initiative & Incentive

Dear Sir,

The August edition of the SOCIALIST STANDARD fell into my hands, and, being more than slightly interested in Socialism I read it closely. Naturally the article “To a New Reader” caught my eye. In this article you make certain claims and statements on which I would like to pose some questions.

“It (the owning class) takes no part in social production and is unnecessary to it.” From the context it would appear that by owning class, you mean anyone who owns property. If you must pigeonhole everyone into a “class,” I am, 1 suppose, of this class, as my father, by saving, has bought the house in which we live. But the income of the household (I am a chartered accountant’s articled clerk) is far, far less than that of many what is laughingly termed “working class” households which exist in rent subsidised houses. Why then are we evil to the Socialist? As to being socially unproductive, my friends of this drone class include one chemical engineer (B.Sc.), one electrical engineer (B.Sc.), one agriculturist (B.Sc.) and two capitalists, one of whom arrived in this town four years ago with 30s. and a kitbag of dirty washing. By way of working an eighty-hour week he now has a thriving timber business employing seven men. Very much the same applies to my other capitalist friend except that he has a plastics factory. Yet you also say “Initiative and inventiveness will have a chance to thrive.” Has initiative no chance now?

“Production will expand to correspond to the people’s needs.” Surely production is vastly in excess of the people’s needs as it is. I think “wishes” should be substituted for “needs.” But then this would be nonsense because production cannot expand to give everyone what he wants.

“Cut-throat competition for jobs will no longer exist.” But does it exist now? Surely the best man gets the job? Does Socialism mean that any incompetent can get any job? Besides which the above statement would appear to contradict “Initiative and inventiveness will have chance to thrive, etc.”

Finally, on page 121 you are appealing for funds. On page 116, under “Wages by Cheque,” you say “Snatching the payroll could, by present ethical standards, be considered more a transfer of property than theft.” Your problem solved?

Yours faithfully,
A. L. A., Horsham, Sussex.


The “class who own the means of production” does not include everyone who owns property; buying a house does not change the class of the buyer. The working class consists of men and women who own nothing—or so little—in the means of wealth production that they must sell their abilities to an employer in order to live. This includes people like chartered accountants, engineers and agriculturalists and people who own a house, whose economic interests are the same as other workers. The capitalist class are people who—although many of them do work—own enough of the means of wealth production to live without working for a wage or a salary. Because one of these classes buys labour power from the other, their interests are in conflict. Neither the capitalist nor the working class is evil, for they are both inevitable products of the historically necessary capitalist social system.

Of course, initiative and inventiveness have some sort of a chance under capitalism. So has dishonesty. But not everyone can be an employer—the majority must remain in the working class, where a person’s initiative and inventiveness only find expression if he can sell his energies to an employer.

Modern society is capable of satisfying human needs, which include lots of things which our correspondent would call “wishes.” But capitalist production is regulated to exploit the market, which need have no relation to people’s needs. That is why the National Coal Board is reducing output, whilst pensioners are in need of coal. Socialist society will have no market to take into account, “production will expand to correspond to the people’s needs,”—the only sane productive motive.

Because the size of a person’s wage limits his access to wealth, workers compete among themselves for the better paid jobs. Sometimes they indulge in the “cut throat competition” of toadying to the boss and so on. In 1938. when To a New Reader was first published, this competition was often for employment regardless of the wage. It is naive to think that, in these conditions, the best person always gets the job. Indeed, a lot of people are doing work which is quite unsuited to human abilities. Our correspondent must be familiar with the monotonous employment which healthy young men are doomed to in chartered accountants’ offices. And what about servicemen? Are they actually suited to killing and being killed?

Socialists think that we are capable of better than this. We want a world where only socially useful work is done, producing the very best to enrich the world’s common pool of wealth for the benefit of humanity and not for some ephemeral personal advantage.


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