The full report of last September’s Trade Union Congress has just been published. We select two items of interest. First, consider this confession of the failure of parliamentary gradualism, Labour’s theory, made by Sir Harry Douglass
in his Presidential address:
All sophisticated countries have used taxation to achieve a more equal sharing of the wealth produced. In a democracy they have to, or the government would be quickly changed, or even democracy as we understand it would be destroyed. Yet, with all that has been achieved, 5 per cent of the population of Britain still own 75 per cent of the property.
What else does he expect? As long as a few monopolise the means for producing wealth, what is produced is bound to be shared unequally between the few who get a property income as rent, interest or profit and the many who get a work income as wage or salary. That is how capitalism works, and must work. But Socialism is nothing to do with “equal sharing of the wealth produced” ; it is about the common ownership of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth.
When in August last year the Socialist Standard discussed the Means Test we pointed out that some of those in favour were invoking the old socialist phrase: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. They tried to argue that the Means Test ensured that people got what they “needed” (as decided by bureaucratic rules concerned with spending as little as possible). We denounced this as an insolent and cynical distortion of the phrase. One delegate, E. Patterson, of the Constructional Engineering Union, made the same point in a debate on social security, so-called. Though he gives the impression that Marx expected social conditions to improve as a result of people becoming more civilised and rational rather than as a result of a social revolution converting the means of life from private to common property, Patterson puts the position well enough:
Finally, in support of selectivity, certain people have had the audacity to use the slogan ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ That was real prostitution of a Socialist slogan because that slogan was characterised by Karl Marx in his critique of the Gotha programme as being a possibility in the highest stages of civilisation when the last vestiges of imperialism had gone, when man had become a real rational human being, when man worked for the benefit of the community and for the benefit of his fellow man. When such a thing as a means test was absolutely impossible, then and only then, said Marx, would there be the possibility ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. The use of it by people in favour of selectivity is a prostitution of that statement
Quite. In the complete Socialist society that Marx envisaged there would be no rationing since in a world of plenty all could have free access to what they needed to live and enjoy life. In 1875 Marx thought that a lengthy transition period between capitalism and complete Socialism would be necessary. He may have been right at the time but now, after nearly a hundred years further development of the forces of production, we say that Socialism, with abundance and free access, could be brought into being in a very short time once the decision to do so was made.
Today, of course, men and women of the working class are rationed and restricted by the size of their wage packet or salary cheque. So the TUC might take note of another Socialist phrase used by Marx. In 1865, three years before the TUC was set up, Marx advised the trade unions to replace the conservative slogan of a ‘fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ by the revolutionary one of ‘abolition of the wages system’.