1960s >> 1969 >> no-784-december-1969

Aspect: Socialists and Christmas

To a greater or a lesser degree, we are all conventional—yes! Even socialists. In many instances we find life in capitalism more tolerable and comfortable if we comply with those customs and traditions, of which Christmas is one, that do not conflict with our case. Anyway, to register protests against patterns of behaviour which are virtually caused or perpetuated by the system of society in which we live, is so much wasted effort.

If we accept—as all socialists do— the historical materialism of Marx, for analysis we divide a society into two parts. The first part is the economic foundation which consists of actual means of production (factories, mines, tools, power) and also the relations people form around these productive forces. These relations are the vital part of the base: they determine what sort of system it is and so they are the part that makes the system ‘tick’. In capitalism, they are the antagonistic relations of the wage-labourers and the capitalists, which form a class division and consequently a class struggle. The second part arises, as it were, from this base and forms a kind of superstructure. Capitalism’s superstructure consists of such things as governments, armed forces, the church, prisons, and in the less tangible field: orthodox ideas and morals, customs, laws, which are compatible with the base because in the main they serve and protect the interests of the ruling class of capitalists.

Now the institution of Christianity is some few thousand years old; the system of capitalism is only as many hundreds. However, because ruling classes in many parts of the world have been able to use Christianity to serve their own ends, to enrich themselves and to pacify and fool the subject classes, it has been carried over from one class society to another.

In spite of the continued existence of the church, its influence declines so that the original meaning of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of (a perhaps mystical) Christ, is becoming lost. In spite of this, the tradition remains because both classes find it serves a purpose. Workers look forward to it as a time for family reunions, feasting, a rest, and social enjoyment and of course as a break from the monotony of their lives. This is where the capitalists ‘cash in’; they do this by promoting and encouraging through advertisements and shop window displays, what is to them the focal point of Christmas: the present giving custom.

Unlike previous customs, capitalism is entirely an exchange economy. It has to be in order that the ruling class can realise the surplus value which is produced by the working class. As goods are produced for the purpose of being exchanged on a market for their equivalent in money, we are taught in our schools and colleges that exchange is the moral order of things. Among adults, therefore, gift giving usually takes the form of exchange. On those occasions when we receive an unexpected gift, we tend to react with acute embarrassment and rush out to buy an equivalent: the result is two embarrassed people!

Even where presents to children from parents are concerned, it is still not a very satisfactory affair as far as the workers are concerned. As they always produce more wealth than they receive in the form of wages, the worry when they ‘overspend’ can be great. This may be the case particularly when they happen to have developed a ‘keeping up with the Jones’ complex. Which is understandable in a competitive system of society.

These are all little points, we know, and capitalism is responsible for far worse results, but they do illustrate the ‘knack’ the system has of spoiling human relationships.

When it comes to the Christmas bonus from the employers, at least things are a little more straightforward and everyone knows where they stand. The wheels of capitalism are being oiled.

In case we should be sounding a bit ‘sour’ we hasten to add that socialists manage to enjoy the season like any others of their class, despite all the petty snags. Nevertheless, we think that in the society we were aiming for Christmas will quietly fade away, simply because nobody will have any use for it. There will be no-one wishing to celebrate it in a religious way and that doesn’t leave very much else except the presents. The gift ritual (a reflection of commodity-exchange) would serve no purpose in a society where commodities do not exist, but only products of labour which are communally owned.

It may occur to you that perhaps in a way it will be a pity to be deprived of the pleasure of giving. But think for a moment: our values will be different in Socialism. We shall be able to give to our children and friends much more of our own time than we can spare now. If this should sound ridiculous to you in capitalism, imagine the absurdity of trying to give presents in a society where everyone contributes to production to the best of his ability and takes from the common pool what he needs!

C & J. MCL.