To the World Socialist Movement’s indictment of present-day society there comes back the trite answer of the apologist: “It works”. Capitalism works. Yes, but so did chattel slavery and feudalism. They went, nevertheless. Even the complex machinery of the present-day, which not only works but works with a high degree of efficiency, is often ruthlessly scrapped by the very exigencies of capitalism itself.
The most telling point against the “it works” theorem of the apologist is that it was the founders of scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, who supplied the most convincing justification ever made for the coming of capitalism on the very grounds of its vastly superior wealth-producing efficiency over the older methods of production which it superseded. It was they who revealed that capitalism, far from being a moral wrong, was a great and necessary historical epoch; whose mission was to unlock the energies hidden in nature and realise the social resources and human capacities latent in society, and thus open up and multiply the productive forces to the point where they now possess the capabilities of supplying abundant means for all. This contribution from men who never ceased to indict capitalism for the horrors and suffering that its advent entailed for the vast masses, gives the scientific character of their sociological findings an added force.
Why, then, is capitalism’s inability to adequately distribute in line with social needs the wealth it so lavishly produces? To understand that it is necessary to understand what are the chief social factors that have brought about the development of present society and what significance this development has for the future. The answer can be sought in the Marxist’s dictum that since the passing of the communal relations of ancient society the history of man has been the history of class struggles. What have men struggled over? Briefly, for the control of the means of producing wealth by which society lives. At different periods one class or another, taking advantage of economic conditions favourable to its advancement has sought to possess these means of production and operate them along the lines of its own class interests. In this way, they secure for themselves the privilege of appropriating the surplus products over and above the working needs of those who produce the wealth but do not control its sources.
Thus men and women are born into a set of social relations, independent of their own volition, in which they occupy either a privileged or dependent position—master and slave, overlord and serf, capitalist and wage-earner. A few individuals of the dependent section may succeed in getting into the ranks of the privileged, but the non-privileged class as a whole cannot change their economic status without changing the social relationships which have produced it.
It follows that the way men and women in any period obtain their livelihood constitutes the greatest factor in regulating their lives, and for that reason, it is the greatest influence in shaping not only the institutions of the period but the prevailing ideas. “In any epoch,” wrote Marx, “the ruling ideas are the ideas of its ruling class.”
But this clash of class interests has a vital effect on the course of society’s further economic development. The dependent class will, in seeking its own interests, attempt to either ease or throw off the economic yoke, imposed on it by the dominant class. It can only be completely successful if the continued growth of society—for society can never stand completely still—creates a new set of productive forces capable of expansion beyond the limits imposed by the productive methods of the old society. It is thus that the old social relationship became a fetter on these new productive forces. But new social relationships necessary to operate new productive forces can only be realised if this class obtains control over the main instrument of social power, the State, since it is this political institution that, because of its control over the armed forces of the community, provides the physical means upon which all social authority finally rests.
The forerunners of the present ruling class were once merchants. In quest of profit, they strove to extend markets and merchant trade. The old feudal “interests” sought to hamper and impede them through feudal taxes and monopolies. However, with the increase in knowledge, greater technical skill and improved means of communication, the hitherto isolated agricultural communities of feudalism were brought into closer relationships. Trade grew. With the discoveries in navigation, the boundless ocean was tracked and a new path forged its way to a new world. Trade received a mighty impetus, and the merchant class, powerfully supplemented by plunder, robbery, and the profitable enslavement of millions of native peoples, grew to the “great moneyed interests.” In the national sphere, the extension of markets reached a stage in which the old production methods were inadequate to cope with the “market requirements.”
The independent mediaeval craftsman, owning his own simple tools, and controlling his own product, was engaged in producing merely for given requirements. Such a method became a fetter on the growth of the market system that wanted production in anticipation of sales. Even the petty, domestic industry, later encouraged by the merchants, had severe productive limits placed upon it by its very nature. A new method of production was required. With the vast accumulation of wealth, in the form of money, at their disposal, a factory system began to grow up. The productive function of the merchants was transformed into the ownership of not only the factories but the materials necessary for turning out goods. Finally, the scientific, technical and mechanical knowledge stimulated by the needs of the time, introduced into the new factories a vastly superior instrument of labour—the machine.
Into these factories came a new class which had been slowly evolving through the centuries—the working class. They were once peasants and agricultural workers, cultivating the soil to which they belonged. The old feudal nobility, desirous of sharing in the new “money power” which made possible more luxurious levels of existence, sought to convert the produce of the soil into commodities for sale by dispossessing the peasants from their holdings under varying pretexts. The conversion of arable land into sheep farming, in order to take part in the growing English wool trade, and the continual expropriation of small holdings and common land right down to the end of the eighteenth century, to make way for large-scale capitalist farming, are matters of history. Thus the working class, because they were propertyless, were forced to sell their working capacities or labour power to the factory owners, and labour power became a commodity, sold for a price, called wages.
Allowing for market ups and downs, these wages secure on an average a sufficiency of the things necessary to make good the wear and tear and energy that capitalist production entails. But (and this is the mainspring which motivates the capitalist method of wealth production) these wages are only a fraction of the wealth produced. The capitalist, in realising the full value in the market, pockets the surplus in the shape of profit.
Capitalism works, but in whose interests? The result of class ownership of the means of production is but the appropriation of the unpaid labour of the workers. And because every ruling class seeks to further its own class interests the capitalist will never distribute the profits thus made among the workers. This would mean foregoing class monopoly and privilege. To expect capitalists to change their nature without changing the social environment which produces that nature is futile and Utopian. However considerate the individual capitalist to his employees, the evils springing from ownership remain untouched. Humane slave owners cannot abolish slavery. While one section of the community is at the economic mercy of another anti-social consequences must ensue.
Capitalism Works—But How?
Yesterday it staggered out of the crisis—to-day it is staggering towards war.
Then, in spite of the desperate needs of millions of workers, commodities were being destroyed and the productive operations slowed down. At the moment when the output of wealth had reached a peak the existence of the great mass of wealth producers was placed in economic jeopardy.
These contradictions and anomalies are, then, not mere economic accidents, but the inevitable outcome of a system based upon class monopoly. The ever-growing exploitation of the workers leads to ever-increasing amounts of surplus value in possession of the owner which cannot be personally consumed by him. He is forced to seek profitable investment as “capital” in ever-increasing production and over-production of wealth. The workers’ wages, based, as they are, on their mere needs as commodity sellers, are unable to purchase back any adequate portion of the goods in relation to the amount produced by them. Capitalism’s answer to human needs in face of the ever-multiplying productive powers can only be glutted markets, crises and unemployment of ever-increasing severity. With it grows the wanton and criminal waste of “resources” both natural and human.
For a time, the system was able to mask the worst effects by utilising the unpaid labour of its own workers to exploit the colonies and “conquered areas,” at the same time it was able to expand its markets on a world-wide basis. But this itself has led to a greater expansion of the forces, of production and intensified the contradictions inherent within it. To-day, the markets are diminishing in relation to this productive expansion. Crises, depression and war take on an international character. The ”era” of imperialist expansion is at an end. There are no more new markets, colonies or spheres or influence to win. The capitalist powers, in order to prosper, must fight it out amongst themselves.
The pipe dream of liberal capitalism, with its talk of benevolent and contented workers, is shattered by the brute facts of capitalism. To-day there is a greater concentration in the hands of a few than ever before, while the workers, in relation to what they produce, receive less and less. To talk of the prosperity of the workers, as the apologist does, and point out that they enjoy ”luxuries” unknown even to kings in former times, is sheer mendacity. It is a tantalising mockery to suggest that the “cooker” with which the wife of an unemployed man or low-paid worker prepares the meagre meal is vastly superior to the contrivance on which Alfred burnt the cakes. Or that when the exploited “wreck” of the industrial scrap heap listens in, he is enjoying a privilege unknown to Croesus. The fact remains that, in spite of the ”dazzling” opportunities made possible by our modern wealth-producing system, those divorced from the means of living remain within the “shadow” of poverty, lacking the primary things necessary for a healthy existence.
Nor has a century of bourgeois philanthropy and Christian charity prevented the demoralising and deteriorating effect on workers’ lives caused by the economic insecurity and fear arising from a system whose insatiable quest for profits, ruthlessly speeds-up some workers and callously dismisses others.
The prophecy of Free Trade —” of the growing harmony between classes and nations” has been hopelessly falsified. To-day, the existing antagonisms between man and man, class and class, and nation and nation are greater than ever and are conducted in an atmosphere of increasing and well-nigh unendurable strain and tension.
The fashionable talk of social planning a few years ago has become a bitter jest. Capitalism, because it is without any real social purpose, cannot organise for reconstruction. It can only plan for human destruction. Even then it does not know quite who it plans to kill. It only knows it is going to kill. Ironically enough, preparation for war and supremely war itself achieves far more effective disposal of capitalism’s surplus wealth and, may we add, surplus population, than can ever be accomplished in the “piping times of peace.” Men who are not wanted for producing bread may be absorbed by re-armament activity for making guns.
The working class run capitalism from top to bottom and perform every useful productive function necessary for carrying it on. Yet they are the class which suffers as a result of its operation. While capitalism remains the worker can never enjoy a life worthy of a human being. For capitalism to attempt to produce solely for use would shake it to its very foundations. Even to turn out goods at full plant capacity would be to invite, comparatively speaking, a standstill almost overnight. That is why capitalism cannot plan for prosperity. Its monopolistic system compels it to restrict at one period the wealth it so lavishly produces at another. For the working class it must always remain the system of organised scarcity. The present system is, then, a fetter on further progress. It must go. The working class, because it is in their interest and because they are the wealth-producing class, are alone capable of expanding the productive forces to their highest point, but to do this capitalism must be eliminated and their own emancipation from it achieved. The working class, because it is the last class in historic order to free itself, will, as a result, abolish class society.
Society then becomes a co-operative commonwealth of free producers, where personal values, instead of market values, will be the keynote and where human activity will not be restricted by the sordid profit-making motive, but a selective and voluntary one in which ”the condition for the free development of one is the condition for the free development of all.”
There are ”clever people” who sneer at socialism. We will take them seriously when they have produced a philosophy half so penetrating and practical in analysing present-day evils and proposing a solution for them. It is perhaps a sign of the times that so few of the present-day non-Socialist thinkers and intellectuals have so little of any constructive value to offer on man’s future. Many of the most outstanding frankly regard this future with pessimism and even despair. Others seek refuge in cynicism, treating life as a jest turned tragic. Unconscious “Jeremiahs,” perhaps, of a decaying and doomed social order. Only the socialist can be the convinced optimist of mankind’s future.
Socialism is the only teaching which offers a unified social conception of life and seeks to direct man’s activities toward a common goal. For the working class, it is alone capable of fusing the dim sentiments of class justice and the vague wish to “mould things nearer to the heart’s desire” and crystallise them into a rational undertaking which makes them fitting instruments to inaugurate the future life.
But the stars in their courses do not fight for socialism. People make history, as Marx says, and it is only the devotion, initiative and capacity for sacrifice which men and women bring to the solution of these problems that constitutes the guarantee for their emancipation.
A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. It was again Marx who said that in 1848. It is still haunting world capitalism to-day. The efforts of other people who agree with us are, however, necessary in order to help us convert the majority to socialism. Not until this is achieved will this spectre be turned into a reality. Then will capitalism be forced to yield up its own “ ghost.”
From the August 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard