What is a Capitalist?

Nature in the raw — in fact, on Sunday mornings in Hyde Park. Real-life questions asked at actual meetings by genuine people; nothing added or taken away; nothing invented or simulated.Question: Am I a capitalist? I run a hairdressing saloon. I am a taxi-driver with my own cab. I run a greengrocer’s shop. I am a jobbing builder. I have an accountant’s office. I am a free-lance photographer, journalist, general practitioner . . . and so on. Short, clear, firm, definite answer: No, you are not!

The long answer is the explanation. Why not?


It is a popular fallacy that, since capitalists are obviously rich, all Socialists (who oppose the capitalist system) must be poor. Many people have a hazy notion that all poor people are Socialists and all rich ones anti-Socialists. In other words, they do not know the difference between actual objective conditions and ideas about them.

Nothing is, unfortunately, farther from the truth. The poorer people are, frequently, the more devoted to capitalism. Who has not met the destitute wretch, subsisting by cadging hand-outs, who runs round shrieking nationalistic or religious rubbish (often a psychiatric case through sheer physical deprivation)?

Conversely, nothing is more fallacious than the notion that all rich people are (or were) anti-Socialists. Many rich men and women have been most creditable Socialist thinkers and writers — some outstandingly so. Frederick Engels immediately springs to mind: a successful manager of his father’s cotton mill. In fact, his financial aid made the production of Marx’s Capital possible.

But he was only one of many who contributed, or thought they were contributing, to bringing down capitalism. H. M. Hyndman spent much of his large fortune in publishing Justice and financing the Social Democratic Federation from which the SPGB emerged. Sergei Morosov, the Russian sugar millionaire, financed the Bolsheviks. Ferdinand Lassalle, a founder of the German trades unions, was supported by the fabulously wealthy Countess Hatzfeld. This writer was informed by Max Eastman that Charles Chaplin, when he was running a profitable film venture, regularly supported Eastman’s American radical magazine The Liberator.

It is true that capitalists do not need to work, untrue that no capitalist ever works. They are not all nitwits dedicated to gambling, boozing, etc. The late Lord Rothschild was a biologist of world repute, an acknowledged authority on fleas (though as in other subjects, especially science, this sort of research is not as altruistic as it may seem: nobody wants lousy workers — not only capitalists, but other workers). Other wealthy men and women have spent fortunes on the arts and actually participated in archaeology, exploration and science.

What makes a person a capitalist is not what he thinks, but what he has: his bank balance, not his mental balance. This is the crux of the question. A capitalist is a possessor of capital.

And what is capital? It is wealth invested to produce profit. That is why the Great Train Robbers immediately after their successful “job” were not capitalists. Their problem was to “get rid of it”, i.e. invest it, integrate it with social production. The trinkets and diamonds in the safe-deposits of the French banks robbed recently are wealth, but not capital; they play no part in production, make no profit. They are “hoards”.

This brings us to the mathematics. “Mr. Speaker, am I a capitalist?” Yes — if you have at least £250,000 in readily realizable assets (so-called “liquid funds”) in a bank, company, property or bonds. £250,000 at 10 per cent. (you’ll be lucky!) would perhaps realize £25,000 annually. £25,000 should net a little under £500 a week. Tax deduction (assuming no Capital Gains) at least £200 weekly. Net balance: £300 weekly (approx.).

Not too much, really — because, unless you choose to become a hermit living on raw onions in a shed (as one or two capitalists have done) you’ve got to be like the other capitalists. Not much for the wife’s mink. You could hardly park the Rolls or Merc outside the high-rise blocks in Brixton or Paddington : the neighbours would be ringing the police, and the kids smashing it up. Even the gardener or chauffeur would want about £50 a week.

For a real 1980 capitalist, a quarter of a million is peanuts. As Paul Getty remarked acidly, “How can you call yourself rich if you know how much you’ve got?” Another tycoon, asked by an ingenuous young admirer how much his fabulous yacht cost, said: “Listen, son — when you start counting the cost, you don’t buy one of these boats.”

Howard Hughes paid £500 a night (without Security, which was extra) for his modest pad at “The Inn on the Park”. Statisticians have calculated that if a common soldier landing with William the Conqueror had worked incessantly and frugally from then to now he would still not own as much as Sir John Ellerman in 1976.

No, you are not a capitalist, and you are even less likely to become one. But once you realize what the capitalist system is and how it works — you can become a Socialist.

Next question!