Monday, March 24, 2014

Capitalism is the wages system (1977)

From the December 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

The term "wages system" originated at the time of the Chartist agitation in the 1830s and 1840s. It had been coined by former "domestic workers", who had previously worked at home on their own spinning or weaving machines, to describe the system which was then increasingly coming into being under which they worked instead in a capitalist's factory for a wage. This was felt and resented as a loss of independence, as indeed it was, and calls to abolish the wages system and replace it by some form of co-operative production were common among the more radical sections of the working class.

After the decline of Chartism this idea was kept up by isolated ex-Chartists and particularly followers of Robert Owen, some of whom, along with London trade unions, were to form the English section of the International Working Men's Association in whose foundation in 1864 Marx played a prominent role.

Thus when, in 1865, Marx addressed the General Council of the IWMA in English, to deal with an erroneous view on trade-union activity that had been put forward by the Owenite John Weston (an address published after his death as Value, Price and Profit), it was normal that he should have used the term "wages system" to describe the existing economic system since this would have been the term in use amongst the English-speakers in his audience.

In fact in this address Marx used the term "wages system" much more frequently than the term "capitalist production" which figures in the subtitle of the English version of Capital published in 1887 after his death. And he also made it quite clear that these two terms meant the same for him, speaking at one point of "capitalistic production, or the wages system . . . " (Chapter VIII).

Ten years later in a criticism (written in German) of the new programme that was to be adopted at Gotha by the German Social Democrats. Marx was to comment that it was more correct to speak of the "system of wage labour" (in German: system der Lohnarbeit) rather than of the "wage system" (Lohnsystem), a fairly minor change which was in fact incorporated in the programme as finally adopted. It still remains true however that "wages system", "system of wage labour" and "capitalist production" were for Marx all synonyms for what we today call "capitalism" or the "capitalist system".

Engels in a series of articles he wrote in English in 1881 for the trade union paper The Labour Standard, followed the same practice as Marx of using the term "wages system" to refer to capitalism.

Thus when Marx in 1865 and Engels in 1881 wished to convey to English trade-unionists that they ought to devote their energies rather to getting rid of capitalism they expressed this by urging them to adopt as their objective "the abolition of the wages system".

Since their time the term "wages system" has dropped out of common usage as a means of describing the existing economic system (despite the fact that it is just as logical a description as "capitalist system" since capitalism is based on both capital and wage-labour; indeed in some ways it is more descriptive). This has allowed some people, even some imagining themselves to be Marxists, to talk about abolishing capitalism without abolishing the wages system.

This would have been an absurdity for Marx and Engels since, as we have just seem, for them capitalism and the wages system were one and the same thing; "capitalistic production" and "wages system" were two alternative ways of describing the same economic system based on the exploitation of wage-labour by capital. Hence to abolish capitalism is to abolish the wages system—and vice versa.
Adam Buick

Coventry Socialist Group (1962)

From the March 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

ISVESTIA SUB-EDITOR VISITS COVENTRY. Thus ran the first line of a personal column ad. in the 22nd January issue of the Coventry Evening Telegraph. MEET MR. MATVEYEF the ad. went on. Well, the Coventry Socialist Group thought that it would be a better idea if Mr. Matveyef met us. So a few of us  went along to the meeting which, we learned later, was organised by the British-Soviet Friendship Society.

The Soviet sub-editor's speech was slow, halting and rather rambling—but this did nothing to diminish the applause which came at the end of it from the hundred or so Russophiles who were present. As soon as the applause had died down, one of our members was on his feet with some uncomfortable facts for Mr. Matveyef to digest about the Russian dictatorship and to remind him that, although the Communists claimed that the Soviet Union was different from Great Britain because it was a Socialist country, he had taken half an hour before he had even mentioned the word "Socialist."

Of course, the chairman had to intervene but this did not stop another member getting into the discussion later. He provoked considerable clamour by using the Soviet Weekly and the Russian Year Book to demonstrate that in the U.S.S.R. there interest-bearing bonds, capital accumulation, profit and exploitation of wage-labour—all hallmarks of the capitalist social system.

Mr. Matveyef's replies were evasive and lame. He begged our indulgence: he was not a professional lecturer (!) and was not equipped to take part in an ideological discussion. Socialism in Russia, he said , meant a planned economy and a rising standard of living—although he admitted that their standards were at present a long way below ours in Britain. Freedom of the press, he claimed, did exist in Russia - witness the readers' letters which complain about this and that and which sometimes result in governmental action. He ended with a familiar-sounding tirade against the commercialism, sex-exploiting and sensation-hunting Western press and went down bravely, trying to defend the one-party State-capitalist dictatorship which is the Soviet Union today and trying to justify its imperialist exploits.

Did the Coventry Socialists impress Mr. Matveyef? Alas, we cannot tell. We can only say that he took his impassive face from the hall not looking at all happy. For our part, we were well contented with our evening's work to dispel some of the illusions about Russia. We made one or two hopeful contacts and we sold six shillings worth of literature.
Coventry Socialist Group.


From the December 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

No playwright has been "in the news," in the popular sense, of recent times to the extent of Arthur Miller. His personal contact with two of America's most famous institutions; Miss Marilyn Monroe and the Un-American Activities Committee, has put him before the public gaze in a way that his ability as a writer would not. But for this we might hazard that his name would never have moved beyond the small and inconspicuous criticism. It would be a pity if his achievements as a dramatic writer were obscured by his more publicised activities. This, even at the risk of appearing ungallant to Miss Monroe.

Writers of Mr. Miller's abilities are rare, and those who combine them with a zest for social criticism are even rarer. Arthur Miller therefore is a controversial playwright. He believes in the Theatre as a social force, and deals with certain subjects in a way that might easily incur him the censure of many of those people whom he approaches as an artist.

Such a position for the playwright is far more precarious than for the novelist behind the printed page; the novelist has a public, but no audience, whereas the playwright standing (albeit metaphorically) in full view of them, is on trial for his artistic life and living. For people are less likely to accept what they see and hear as a group, than what they read as individuals.

Among American playwrights of the present day, Arthur Miller occupies a high place. His first successful play All My Sons (1947) was an indictment of war-profiteering and the philosophy of self-interest. Two years later he wrote Death of a Salesman. Here Miller sets out to show the contradiction between what many Americans think and the way they actually live. The "Salesman," Willy Loman, is a failure who, when he is not lamenting his fate, is extolling the virtues of "go-getting," "know-how," and all the other baubles of American jingoism. It is a virulent condemnation of the American way of life with its fetish of personal success at the expense of other values, and well exemplifies the way people can make a religion of social dogma.

When Mr. McCarthy was at his most ebullient (1953) Arthur Miller used the circumstances of a previous witch-hunt in American history, that which occurred at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, to illustrate in The Crucible how a whole community can be disrupted by fear, ignorance and superstition combined with official dogmatism. The analogy with the Senator from Wisconsin and his inquisition is unmistakably obvious. Here is the same tight-lipped philosophy, the same calculated fanaticism depicted in the character of Deputy Governor Danforth that we have come to associate with McCarthy.

Arthur Miller's dramatic essay, A View from the Bridge, has recently been seen in this country. It is doubtful whether those who do not belong to Theatre clubs such as the 'Arts,' will have the opportunity of seeing it, owing to the restrictions imposed by the law.

That Arthur Miller is no Socialist need not be stressed here. Social critic though he is, there is nothing that could even remotely be considered revolutionary in his work. Nevertheless, writers of his stamp do help to ease the dead weight of social complacency. Even if it is only fractional and relatively of little significance, they at least make a visit to the Theatre more exciting for us than most. We experience the cool breeze of dissent as opposed to the stifling humidity of uncompromising acceptance.

Like many famous writers before him, Arthur Miller has at one time gone the "way of the transgressor" and courted the perils of the road to Moscow. Like them, he has suffered the pain of disillusionment, which has left him a wiser, though not we hope, a sadder man. In his own words, "I had to go to hell to meet the devil."

Unlike them, it is to be sincerely hoped that he will continue in, and develop his aim as a social critic, at the same time enriching the world of drama, and not sit at home with despair on the other side of the fire gate; like Arthur Koestler—waiting for the white mushroom-shaped cloud.