1960s >> 1968 >> no-765-may-1968

Letters: Why Privilege and Inequality?

Dear Sir,

It was with great interest, and amusement, that I studied your leaflet Introducing the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

There have been many, perhaps wise, men through the ages who have tried to solve social troubles with ideals of a euphoric Utopia. Your ideals, some of which appear to be admirable, are rather naive. In what society, capitalist or socialist, are you going to persuade people to agree with “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need”? It is only human that men should look after themselves and the ones they love first: “Charity begins at home”. You will have to change man’s basic instincts before he will love everyone equally (including: himself).

If you are going to take away “profit, rent and interest”, where is the incentive to work? Indeed who decides on one’s capabilities and how hard one should work? Conversely, who decides on one’s needs? Without baying and selling it is extremely difficult to value something against other things; and not everyone agrees on the value of an item. This is proven in sections of the market which are cut off from natural values (whether due to government monopoly or private monopoly).

“It is no use leaving the job of understanding and acting to others”, you say. This is the very reason why the would-be beneficiaries of Socialism are at the bottom of the ladder—because they sit by and watch others. My father is a working man, but due to his own hard work and initiative he has introduced me to a professional life. Why, then, have others not done similarly? It is no use sitting down and grumbling about the salaries and profits of others. If you can do the well-paid job, then do it! If you cannot, then you must be lacking in some way. However, I am not really hard-hearted enough to say that all men are completely capable of supporting themselves. But we are discussing general policies for the whole community.

In any society the men who have what society wants of a man, will naturally gain the greatest respect. It is only natural that these men will be rewarded suitably to encourage them. Why are we all not rich? Because, for the main part, we are not all prepared to risk everything for the hope of profit. Society needs risk-takers. I admit that I am not a risk-taker, nor am 1 brilliant. Therefore I should not receive such a large income as those who are.

Surely, someone is always going to be at the bottom: men just aren’t equal.

R. R. Tee, 
Northolt, Middlesex.

It is quite true that men just aren’t equal. We never said they were. Of course different people have different abilities. Socialists recognise in this in their Principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Which merely means that, in Socialism when the means of life are social property, men and women will play their part in producing society’s wealth as best they can and, no matter what their contribution, take from that wealth what they need. In fact, production, both today under capitalism and tomorrow in Socialism, is social. It is not a question of individuals working on their own, but of people co-operating to produce wealth. So how can one man’s contribution be measured, anyway? Socialists stand for social equality, for all human beings having equal access to wealth and being of equal worth.

Privilege and inequality in the ownership of wealth and exercise of power arise from the way society is organised. Mr. Tee disagrees and argues that they are natural and arise out of differences of ability among mankind: those who are able go to the top and those “who are lacking in some way” go to the bottom. But what is the test of ability? Why, being at the top! This tells us nothing. Surely ability has no meaning outside of society, for ability is ability to do something, and what is to be done depends on the circumstances. Mr. Tee suggests that society now needs risk takers, people who are “prepared to risk everything for the hope of profit”. Unfortunately, most people have nothing (save their lives) to risk. So this too gets us nowhere. It again begs the question, since before you can take risks you must have some wealth to risk. No, the real cause of social privilege and inequality is the ownership of the means of wealth production by a minority. This means the rest of society must work for them. Charity begins at work.

Socialists say that this society can, and should, be changed. The means for producing wealth should belong to the whole community, since this is the only arrangement that will allow them to be used to satisfy human needs. Production solely for use (without buying and selling) is only possible, given modern technology, on the basis of this common ownership and democratic control. Modern technology can provide the plenty for all that will allow mankind to organise the production and distribution of wealth on the principle of: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Mr. Tee has some unoriginal objections to Socialism. But, then, he admits he is not brilliant. First, there is “human nature”. Man’s “basic instincts”, he suggests, will not allow Socialism to work. But he does not tell us what these instincts are. The only clue he gives us is something about “looking after themselves and the ones they love first”. But Socialists are not preaching brotherly love as the solution to social problems (that is the doctrine of Christianity, one of the great props of class society throughout the ages). We advocate a change in the basis of society, a social revolution. One of the distinguishing features of homo sapiens is the ability to think abstractly, to plan his actions without reference to his immediate circumstances. Insofar as man has instincts these are merely biological needs like food, drink and sex. But this tells us nothing about how these needs are met. That is a question of social organisation. But since human biology has hardly changed in millions of years while human society has, it is no good trying, as Mr. Tee does, to explain society and social change by biology. Human nature (whatever it might be) is no barrier to Socialism. Indeed Socialism is, in the present circumstances, the only rational way to run society. For, with common ownership and production for use, man is in charge of his social environment and not, as under capitalism, at the mercy of economic forces.

What’s the incentive to work in Socialism? Mr. Tee’s attitude to work is shaped by capitalist values. He has automatically assumed that work must be unpleasant and that therefore people must have some monetary incentive to work. Work is merely the expenditure of energy. For human beings it is both a biological and a social necessity. Human beings must somehow use up the energy that eating food generates, and if no wealth is produced society will die out. So the real question is: How is work organised? Under what conditions is it done? Under capitalism, most work is employment, done in the service of other human beings. It is done under discipline, rather than as free co-operation. It is often dull, even dangerous and degrading. And, as class society always, as Mr. Tee puts it, “respects” those on top (who don’t have to work), there is a stigma attached to working. It is a sign of social inferiority to have to work. Socialists say that work can, and should, be made pleasant. Indeed, one of our strongest points against capitalism is that it forces most people to do boring work. But men and women can only control their working environment when they also control the means and instruments of work.
Editorial Committee