Capitalism — private and state

A few months ago a socialist speaker was debating with a conservative exponent of unfettered “free” enterprise the motion Capitalism or Socialism? As the socialist speaker spelled out the catalogue of social evils which are a permanent feature of life today — under capitalism — a member of the audience expressed vociferous agreement — to the extent that the chairperson had to ask him to allow the speakers the opportunity of speaking.

Having dealt with capitalism and its obscenities, the socialist speaker then defined what we in the World Socialist Movement mean by socialism: a world-wide system of common ownership of the resources and productive machinery of the earth; the production of goods and services by the voluntary co-operative efforts of all those able to contribute their skills and energies; free and equal access to all human beings to satisfy their needs from the abundant wealth which could be produced; and the widest possible democratic participation for all in decision making. The socialist summarised his definition of socialism as a world-wide wageless, classless and moneyless society of common ownership and production for use.

Before ending his contribution to the debate the socialist speaker emphasised that it was socialism as defined by the World Socialist Movement that his Conservative opponent would have to address and not the futile reformism of Labour parties or the authoritarian state-capitalism of the so-called communist countries. At this point, the member of the audience who had earlier been noisily supporting the socialist appeared to go berserk. In the manner of those who argue from the standpoint of complete obedience to a religious rite, he launched into a fierce tirade against the socialist, using abuse and invective, shouting cliches and endeavouring to ensure that his democratic right to disagree was protected by his refusal to allow any rebuttal of his hysterical ravings from the platform.

When order was restored and the Conservative had stated the case for capitalism — agreeing that the socialist’s charges against that system were true but (blissfully unmindful of the days of laissez-faire) blaming state interference for the ongoing mess — the meeting was opened to the audience for questions. The unruly member of the audience — a now self-confessed “communist” — began with a statement which he thought was a question: “If I stole £200,000 from a bank in this country I could invest it and live on the interest. If I stole £200,000 from a bank in Russia I wouldn’t be able to live on the interest”. Ironically it was the Conservative, the open opponent of socialism, who was able to tell this “communist” that, if he read his Marx, he would know that if Russia was socialist there would not be any banks to rob in that country!

Apart from the irony of a Conservative demonstrating that he knew more about socialism and the writings of Marx than a loud-mouthed “communist”, the story is of interest in that it shows how successful the advocates of the wage-labour system — the politicians of the Right, the Left and the Centre — have been in confusing workers not only about socialism but about the system of capitalism that they live with and staffer under. An understanding of socialism begins with an understanding of capitalism; of the class interest on which it is based; of the mechanism by which it exploits the working class and of the fact that the terrible social miseries that affect all the subject peoples on this planet today are not “problems” of capitalism but inevitable aspects, or consequences. of that system. Make no mistake about it, anyone who understands capitalism and how it operates could never accept that socialism could exist alongside wage-labour, markets, banks or the anti-working class institutions which these distinct features of capitalism give rise to.

There is no argument about capitalism being founded on private ownership. The Left, the Labour parties, and the “communists” and trotskyites have succeeded in canalising the revolutionary fervour of workers who are genuinely disgusted at the effects of private ownership into the safe stream of capitalist reformism by asserting that state ownership removes these effects. Much ink and many words have been used debating the issue. In the past, the socialist had to rely on his or her understanding of the laws of capitalism to demonstrate that nationalisation or state ownership would make no change in the conditions of the working class. Today, the argument is no longer a matter of theoretical disagreement: nationalisation is a fact in many countries — introduced by governments of the Right, the Left and the Centre. It has not solved any problems for the workers: they still have to strike against their state bosses to defend the level of their existing poverty — and the recent coal strike in Britain and the attempts by Polish workers to form independent trade unions have again demonstrated that the state bosses have the power to deal even more viciously with their wage slaves than had the “private” capitalist slavemasters. Nor does nationalisation or state ownership ensure job security for workers; ultimately it is the market, where the commodities they produce are sold, that determines both the level of their poverty and whether or not they can be “gainfully” (profitably) employed irrespective of whether their employer is the state or a private capitalist enterprise.

Still, those on the Left who are more concerned with theoretical abstractions than with the plight of the workers under state capitalism argue that in countries such as Russia limitations on state bondholding and restrictions on private ownership eliminate the possibility of an economic class that, in the form of classical capitalism, can live on profit, rent or interest. Therefore, the argument goes, even if the normal features of capitalism exist, such as wage labour, money, markets and trade, capitalism cannot exist because there is no capitalist class as such. It is a most interesting discussion to pursue in the pub and it would probably fascinate the workers in Russian state-owned industry to know that the aggregate of surplus value they create every working day does not go to a capitalist minority as such but simply to the political magnates and placemen of the state system.

Socialists readily agree that the form of capitalism in countries where state ownership of the means of wealth production preponderates over private ownership is different from that where the reverse is true. We are not concerned with the form but with the fact that in the former countries there is a privileged minority which derives wealth and influence out of the labour of the working class; a minority that has an economic identity separate from, and in conflict with, those of its wage slaves. The capitalist laws of value obtain and it is these, and not the form of ownership or control, that are of consequence to the working class. It is these laws of value that constitute both the means whereby the workers are exploited and the means by which a privileged class obtain their affluent life styles. Whether the privileged class status of the latter is derived from direct private ownership or by political control is a pious irrelevance as far as the working class is concerned.

Richard Montague