From the August 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party does not oppose reformism because it is against improvements in workers' lives lest they dampen their revolutionary ardour; nor, because it thinks that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as propertyless wage slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms. Any fortune – whether in the form of money payments or subsidised services – that falls into our laps becomes an opportunity for those that live off our labour to lower their costs, and increase their profits. So long as there is a class divided society, it becomes impossible for us to enact measures to benefit the whole community.
A clear illustration of this consequence of class-divided society is the current proposal from the ultra-reformists in the (so-called) Scottish Socialist Party to introduce universal free school dinners. A more noble aspiration could scarcely be imagined – an attempt to eradicate poor diets and consequent poor health of children, in a cheap (they say £175 million) and efficient way, without the stench of means testing or qualification. By providing food, for all, through schools, they say, they could avoid the costs associated with administering most types of welfare, and it is fraud-proof and there is no way of transferring the benefit received to third parties.
It has the added advantage of being an age-old demand, one that "Old" Labour types have long held in high regard. With all this going for it, Socialists should have no complaints, surely? Socialists, however, point to the continuing condition of our class as wage-slaves, and affirm that whatever the gains from free school dinners, the wages system will take away in another form with another hand.
The reason why lies in the very form of wage slavery. We are, collectively, compelled to sell our capacity to work – our labour power – in order to get access to those things which we need in order to live as members of our community – our food, clothes, housing, transportation and the like. The value of this labour power is the cost of maintaining and reproducing our capacity to work – and this entails the cost of keeping and rearing the next generation of workers, our children.
This value is not found by some chemical process of deciding what we need to have to keep ourselves and our families, but is instead found through the struggle between ourselves and our employers, as they try to drive our wages as low as possible, and we try to prevent this or push up the price they pay us. It is not driven by the living costs of any one individual, but by the general costs of living in society.
These general costs of living form a pressure on wages, which can force them upwards, as can the level of class consciousness and understanding of the workers; whereas counter-acting forces, such as the availability of a particular type of labour, general unemployment and the use of state power, combine to create downwards pressures on wages. All of which is to say that our wages are set by class struggle. This is a continuous struggle in which every gain has to be defended, and in which there is no relenting.
If the price of one of our necessities of life falls, this will be reflected by a decrease in the upwards pressure on wages. Without a corresponding relenting in the downward forces on wages, our real wages would begin to dwindle towards a new level (either through direct wage cuts, or by allowing inflation – that is a decrease in the value of money – to eat away at our spending power). Free school dinners would be an example of this process in action.
Those workers with children would be relieved of the cost of providing those meals to their children. This would result in a decline in the monetary cost of maintaining themselves and their family, and thus a decrease in the upwards pressure on wages. The typical wage would then tend to fall towards something nearer to living costs of those of a childless worker. This would thus benefit the employing class, both through cutting the overall direct cost of wages, but also through ending the situation in which childless workers were paid unnecessarily from the point of view of the employers.
The employer could be prevented from gaining from this process by an increase in taxation – whether nominally on the workers' wages or directly on employers' profits; this would serve to cream off the difference between the old and the new prices of labour power. In this way, the free school dinners scheme could be made to pay for itself. This would, though, merely represent a redistribution of poverty for the working class, the intervention by the state into the labour market to ensure a more efficient allocation of the workers' ration, so that children get a protected share.
Indeed, there could be a strong capitalist motive for having free school dinners. Efficiency savings through only paying the wages that are actually needed by their workers could increase their profits (especially as the majority of workers do not have children of school age). As could ensuring a healthier future generation of workers, able to work harder and cost less in terms of medical care. All of which, of course, would be subject to the ongoing profitability of the capitalist system and its current need for labour. The costs of the dinners would have to be watched closely, managers constantly pressured to keep the costs of food provided to a bare minimum.
The SSP proponents of this scheme observe that their draft bill will include provisions on nutritional content. This does not mean that the ongoing pressure will disappear. King Canute passed the well drafted Tides' Direction (Reversal) Act over a thousand years ago, to little noticeable effect. The statute books are littered with Health and Safety legislation that goes ignored and unenforced because the political will and resources are not there to counteract the profit needs of the capitalists to encroach on their provisions.
That is, assuming such a Bill would pass unamended. The SSP only have six members of the Scottish parliament, and their current strategy is to apply moral pressure to Labour and Liberal MSPs to vote for their bill; in the course of which, small amendments here and there from the more openly capitalist parties, on whose support it will depend, could well rob it even of its nominal stringency. Such amendments would be simple capitulations to the reality that the ultimate determinant of policy is the ongoing profitability of capital.
If the free school meals were deemed to be too expensive relative to the benefits and profits accruing to the capitalist class, then heavy political pressure would be added to the situation to reform the scheme. Were a Scottish Parliament to make a fight of it, then capitalists would use their capacity to disinvest in Scotland, as they would anywhere else, to go in search of better profits. That is, the limit of any reforms we could win for ourselves on the basis of the capitalist system will always be circumscribed by the need to keep the capitalist system functioning.
Of course, the SSP could fight to form an executive outright and use control of the political machinery to resist the encroachment of capital trying to claw back any costs of running the school dinners scheme. The net result of that, though, is that after going to all that time and effort, they would simply have succeeded in resuming the class struggle as before, only in the domain of the state, rather than in the workplace. Further, they would have gone to all that effort to fight for the crumbs, when by the very same means they could have put an end to the capitalist system itself.
Our objection to reformism is, then, that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the workings of the wages system. All that effort, skill, energy, all those tools could be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing struggle.
Socialists understand well the urge to do something now, to make a change. That makes us all the more determined, however, to get the message across, to gather our fellows to clear away the barrier of the wages system, so that we can begin to build a truly human society, in which children aren't given a share in a wage-slave's ration – whether at home or at school – but instead receive all the food they need without having to pay. In the face of such potential, why waste time fighting for half measures?