Roots of the Class Struggle
We have recently in this journal published a series of articles on economics from the socialist point of view. We think it would now be useful to go a little more carefully into this question of labour power. First of all, what is it? It is the mental and physical energy of the worker which he sells to the capitalist for a wage. Labour power is a commodity like any other commodity and exchanges at its value. It is unlike other commodities in that it can produce more value than it contains itself. For this reason it is the most treasured commodity for the capitalist class. Labour power is the sole creator of value. Other commodities merely transfer their own values into the commodities produced. This is made obvious by the effort of the capitalists in a world of competition to cheapen their commodities by reducing the time taken to produce them. Thus speeding up, labour saving machinery and the like.
We are sometimes asked why if labour power is sold at its value there should be such wide differences in the wages paid to various members of the working-class. The answer is that the value of the labour power differs. The value of the labour power of a skilled engineer is higher than that of a day labourer. Therefore the skilled workers get say £8 per week, and the day labourer say £5 10s. 0d. per week. Now remember that not only has a worker to reproduce his own energy, but also the capitalists hope that he will reproduce his kind, and ensure that the ranks of the working-class will always be filled. And so Henry Dubb gets enough for his labour power to keep alive Harry and Bill, Betty and Freda. Do not think that capitalists pay high wages to some through any generous feelings on their part. Rather it is due to qualitative differences in the labour power they purchase. These qualitative differences lead to quantitative differences in the amount they pay.
And then there are others who ask why, if labour power sells at its value, should it be necessary for the workers to struggle with the capitalists over questions of wages. Surely they will get the value of their labour power automatically. But all of working history shows us that the capitalists will pay as little as they can for labour power. If the workers do not struggle they will be plunged to the depths of destitution. True with the worker in that condition capitalism would run far from smoothly. But the capitalists are not so long sighted. They want profits now, and as much of them as they can get. While capitalism lasts the workers must struggle all the time. If they do not struggle for all they can get out of capitalism, they will certainly never struggle for socialism.
And then of course there are those who say that it is useless for the workers to obtain higher wages, because it merely leads to higher prices. This argument was adequately dealt with by Karl Marx in the pamphlet “Value Price and Profit” which we urged you to read. Marx points out that a rise in wages will increase the demand for a limited range of commodities. That is the commodities the workers consume. On these commodities there might be a temporary increase in prices. But soon capital will come from those industries producing commodities for the capitalists, and the increasing competition will force down the prices of the commodities produced for workers’ use.
The tragedy of the wage struggle recently has of course been the attitude of the working class during the war. Then they were strong. labour power was scarce and badly needed by our masters. But workers obeyed the injunctions of their Trade Union leaders and the Government and soft pedalled on wage demands. At this time they could have obtained big increases in wage rates if they had concerned themselves not with a country which does not belong to them, but with a class of which they are members.
As a consequence many workers are in a worse position than they were before the war. Take for example the London ‘bus men. Before the war ‘bus drivers got £4 10s. 0d. per week, and conductors £4 4s. 0d. To-day drivers get £6 16s. 0d. and conductors £6 13s. 0d. According to “Locals Government Service” the cost of living in March 1951, was 190 as compared with 100 in 1938. This means that drivers and conductors are now getting about £4 0s 0d. per week on the cost of living to-day compared with 1938. This is the result of their failure to struggle.
Lloyd George, the Welsh wizard and arch enemy of the working class, said just after the 1914-18 war,
“The whole state of society is more or less molten and you can stamp upon that molten mass almost anything as long as you do so with firmness and determination . . .
I believe the settlement after the war will succeed in proportion to its audacity . . . If I could have presumed to have been the adviser of the working class, I should say to them: audacity is the thing for you. Don’t be thinking of getting back to where you were before the war: get a really new world.”
(Quoted by Maurice Dobb in “Trade Union experience and Policy 1914-18, An Outline,” p.25 Labour Research pamphlet.)
It would appear from this that Lloyd George had a much clearer conception of the class struggle than Trade Union leaders then and now. Perhaps however Trade Union leaders in the past few years have been mainly concerned with not embarrassing the capitalist Labour Government in which they have such faith. One message to the workers on the industrial field is this. On this field you have only one weapon, and that is the strike. If during the war you had gone on strike, or threatened to strike, it would have paid you handsome dividends.
But a final message. While capitalism lasts struggle with your masters all the time, but more importantly join us in the struggle for socialism. Capitalism can never give you more than poverty and misery. Socialism will give you a full free life and happiness.