From the February 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard
When doing propaganda, we frequently meet people who claim to be Socialists, but who cannot understand that when Socialism is established there will be no wages system. They argue that, without wages, chaos would ensue.
First, let us make it clear that the wages system has not always existed. As will be seen, it is of a relatively recent growth. Broadly speaking, there have been four different systems of society: Primitive Communism, Chattel Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism.
Primitive communism lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. In this system private property was a thing unknown, and the words “mine” and “thine” were consequently never thought of nor used by the members of that society. When travellers first went to North America primitive communism was still in existence there. It is thus that the Jesuit Charlevoix wrote about what he saw: —
The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words “mine’’ and “thine’’ are all unknown as yet to the savages. The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all men. (Quoted by Lafargue, pp. 32-3, “The Evolution of Property.")
When primitive communism existed, the means of life were obtained chiefly by hunting and fishing, and when a member of the clan killed an animal he would share it with the other members. Some would have us believe that the present savage is a brute, living for himself without any thought for others. Lafargue has shown us that this is far from being the case. One quotation will suffice: —
In times of famine, the young Fuegians explore the coast, and if they chance to light upon any Cetaceous animal (a favourite dainty) they hasten, before touching it, to inform their comrades of their find. These at once hurry to the spot; whereupon the oldest member of the party proceeds to portion out equal shares to all. (pp. 19-20, “The Evolution of Property.")
It will be noticed that in early communist society man did not have need of wages to enable him procure the means of life.
Primitive communism was followed by a system of society based upon chattel-slavery. The change was due to developments in the methods of production. As time elapsed man learned the rudiments of agriculture. Animals were domesticated, food plants (e.g., corn, pumpkins and melons) were cultivated. Naturally these developments necessitated more work and patience. It is not surprising, therefore, that when one tribe conquered another, it did not kill its enemies but brought them back home to till the fields for the victors. As Engels puts it in "The Origin of the Family” (p. 195, Kerr’s Edition): —
The increase of production in all branches—stock raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts—enabled human labour power to produce more than was necessary for its maintenance. It increased at the same time the amount of daily work that fell to the lot of every member of the gens, a household or a single family. The addition of more labour power became desirable. It was furnished by war; the captured enemies were transformed into slaves.
Here, again, there was no necessity for a wages system, and so none existed. The slaves received their food, clothing and shelter, direct from their masters. It was upon the basis of chattel-slavery that the empires of the ancient world were built.
In its turn this system of society decayed and was replaced by another—feudalism. Here, as in the previous system of society, we have two classes —the exploiters and the exploited. We get, on the one hand, the lord; on the other, the serf. The serf worked for his lord but did not receive wages. The serf held lands of his own which he cultivated for his own use. However, he was compelled to work on the lands of his lord a certain number of days each year. One must not imagine that the feudal lord did nothing in return. He had obligations to fulfil, and his privileges were limited. It was his duty, for example, to see to the defence of his dependents. On p. 94 of "The Evolution of Property,” Lafargue tells us that: —
During the feudal period every lord was bound to possess a castle or fortified house having a courtyard, protected by moats and drawbridges, a large square tower and a grist mill to enable the peasants to shelter their crops and cattle, grind their corn and organise their defence. The chieftain’s dwelling-house was considered as a sort of common house, and actually became such in times of danger.
That the feudal lord’s privileges and powers were limited can be seen from the following: —
The feudal lord and the vassal became co-equals once again in the communal assemblies, which discussed the agricultural interests alike of the villager and the lord: the assemblies met without his sanction, and despite his unwillingness to convoke them. His communal rights were as limited as those of the rest of the inhabitants; the heads of cattle he was entitled to send to pasture on the commons were strictly prescribed. (Ibid. p. 102.)
It was not until feudalism was in its decline that the lord was able to shake off his duties and increase his privileges.
The wages system then was not a characteristic of any of the systems of society prior to capitalism. The reason is that the wages system is part of capitalism, or rather, another name for the capitalist system.
Capital and wage-labour are the two sides of one and the same relation. The one conditions the other, just in the same way that the usurer and the borrower condition each other mutually, (p. 34, “Wage-Labour and Capital," Marx, Kerr’s Edition.)
Capital presupposes wage-labour and wage-labour presupposes capital, one is a necessary condition to the existence of the other, they mutually call each other into existence. (Ibid. p. 33.)
The wages system was able to develop only when the common lands had been seized by the landlords and when the lands of the peasants had been torn away from them (i.e., during the 16th and 17th centuries). Then the peasants, finding themselves propertyless, without any means of life, were compelled to sell their energies in return for wages to a new kind of master, the capitalist, who was to be found in the towns. As time went on, whereas previously wages were an unusual feature, there gradually developed a wages SYSTEM.
We have shown that the wages system has not always existed. For the benefit of those who still think it will be a feature of Socialism, we add the following: —
Wages are a badge of slavery. If to-day workers receive wages, it simply means that they are slaves. It is true that the capitalist cannot sell the body of his employees to another capitalist; it is true also that a worker may refuse to work for his present master and leave him. But, if he does, what happens? Like the plundered peasant mentioned above, he is compelled to seek someone else to employ him, for he is propertyless and cannot live on air. Therefore, have it as you will, the wage earner is dependent on the capitalist class and the slave of that class.
As pointed out above, the wage earner is dependent on the capitalist class because he has no property, and because that class own the means of production. If then, the working class wishes to end its slavery, it will have to take those means of production from the present owners and convert them into the property of all society, i.e., establish Socialism.
But in doing this the workers will abolish the wages system, for then there will be no employer to say: “Sell your labour power to me and I'll give you enough money to buy the necessaries of life."
“How will the members of the Socialist commonwealth get food, etc., if they have no wages?" someone may ask. Here is the answer: Since private ownership will be done away with, no one will be able to say, "These goods are mine, I'll sell them.” On the contrary, the wealth produced (like the means of production) will belong to all society and every member will have free access to that wealth.
One last objection is possible. Will there not be a scramble? Production, having advanced to its present level, has made it possible to produce goods in abundance and in quantities enough to satisfy everybody. Furthermore, since profits will not be the aim of production under Socialism (there being no profits), goods could be turned out in still greater quantities without fear of a crisis.
To sum up, then, wages have not always existed, nor can they possibly be a characteristic of Socialist society. With Karl Marx, we say: —
Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!" the working-class ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system."