A Question of Definition (1)

From the Socialist Standard March 1978

Words, written and spoken, are the tools we use in our task of trying to spread socialist understanding and we are therefore particularly concerned to clearly define the words we use. Language, like everything else in the world, is constantly changing, as new social experiences demand new words or as old words assume new meanings. Dictionaries only give the meaning of words at the date they are drawn up and even then merely describe how words are used rather than prescribe how they should be used.

This is why when there is an argument over a definition of a word this cannot be settled by a simple reference to a dictionary. To assume that it could is to assume that the definition of words has been settled once and for all and that arguments over the definition of words are illegitimate. We don’t accept this, not only because we know that words change their meaning but also because we reserve the right to define certain words in ways which we consider more useful, from the point of view of understanding and changing the world, than the currently used definitions.

This is why we do not accept current dictionary definitions of such words as class, socialism and revolution. As dictionaries merely describe how these words are used they merely reflect what is in our opinion confused and confusing current popular usages.

A book such as Raymond Williams’ Key Words (Fontana), which seeks to give both the history of a word and controversies over how it should be used, is thus to be welcomed. Williams is the author of a book published in 1956 called Culture and Society, a title which indicates his main concern: literature and art in relation to society. Nevertheless there figure among his “key words” words which are also key words for us such as (to mention only those which occur in our declaration of principles): capitalist, class, common, community, democracy, equality, evolution, interest, labour, mankind, monopoly, socialist, society, wealth. We do not of course always agree with his conclusions, or even his history (he attributes, for instance, the coining of the phrase dialectical materialism to Engels whereas it was first used by Joseph Dietzgen in the 1870s), but we will follow his practice and give our history and definition of the key words in our vocabulary: capitalism, class, reform, revolution and socialism.

Capitalism, Capitalist

Both these are key words in the socialist vocabulary since we describe present-day society as capitalism and one of the two classes into which it is divided as the capitalist class.

Capitalist came into the English language in the early part of the 19th century and meant someone who had “capital”. Capital was a shortening of the phrase “capital stock” and referred to a monetary fund. Thus capitalist was basically somebody with money. Later, as the classical political economists came to distinguish various types of capital employed in production—circulating capital, fixed capital—the word came to apply also to employers of labour and owners of factories, mines and mills.

Capitalism was not originally the name for a system of society but for a system of production, one based on the investment of money-capital. Williams claims that to talk about capitalism as a system of society it to confuse a distinction made by Marx between “bourgeois society” and “capitalist production”.

Certainly Marx did speak of “bourgeois society” or rather its German equivalent “bürgerlich Gesell-schaft”. Bourgeois is of course a French word and originally referred to the citizens of towns in Mediaeval France which enjoyed certain privileges, for which the English equivalent might be “freeman”. Later it came to be associated with anyone who, not being an aristocrat, enjoyed a steady income and led a respectable life. As it was precisely this class of people which gained from the French Revolution, taking over from the landed aristocracy as the ruling class, it was quite natural that in French this should have been called a “revolution bourgeoise” and the society over which they ruled a “société bourgeoise”.

The German equivalent “bürgerlich” is a further complicating factor in that it also means “civil” (hence “Burgerkrieg” = civil war) and was used by Hegel, who considerably influenced Marx, in the phrase “burgeriich Gesellschaft” (= civil, rather than bourgeois, society) which he contrasted with the State. Civil society was, if you like, all the non-political activities of men, i.e., above all their economic activities. Thus, whether translated “bourgeois society” or “civil society”, the German phrase used by Marx led him to a study of the system of production which, in both English and German, he called “capitalist”.

Bourgeois is not a word we use except in the phrase “bourgeois revolution” (to describe political revolutions in which the rising capitalist class—then only a “middle class” or, even, a “bourgeoisie”—takes political power from the landed aristocracy). It is not and never has been in wide use in English where there have always been adequate alternatives.

In this connexion it is significant that when Marx and Engels wrote in English they chose to avoid the word “bourgeois”. Thus in Value, Price and Profit, a talk delivered in 1865, Marx talks of “the capitalist class” and “the capitalists”. Engels in the series of articles he wrote for the Labour Standard in 1881 followed the same practice and in one place even used the phrase “capitalist system”. Both Marx and Engels were deliberately trying to express themselves here in English idiom, to use phrases already current in the working class movement in England, phrases which have survived and fully justify the use of “capitalist” rather than “bourgeois” to describe present- day society.

Later, when in the early part of this century the ending -ism, in connexion with socialism, came to mean not just the theory but also the putting into practice of that theory and so to a system of society, it was natural that the same transition should take place with regard to capitalist so that capitalism became an alternative word for what had previously had to be called “capitalist society”.

Capitalism, then, is defined by us as a system of society based on the monopoly of the means of production by a minority class and their use to produce wealth to be sold on a market with a view to profit, i.e., as capital, as wealth used to produce other wealth with a view to a profit.

Adam Buick

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