Editorial from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
The word capitalism is one which is misunderstood almost as often as it is used. Many of these misconceptions are based on a fallacious attitude towards human society—for example Edward Heath’s famous remark about the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, which implied that there is also an acceptable face, in which all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It also implied that the unacceptable face has features which, although unpleasant, are unavoidable.
Similarly there are those people not usually to be found in the Conservative Party—who regard capitalism as some sort of historical disaster, which might have been avoided with a little more forethought or concern on the part of the human race. These people are well aware of the problems of the system—poverty, bad housing, war, refugees, waste, pollution—but they think of these as being somehow unnecessary. Theirs is a moral standpoint, which judges social and historical phenomena in terms of “right” and “wrong” and which condemns capitalism as one of humanity’s massive mistakes.
The difficulty with this theory is that it leaves too many vital questions unanswered. It does not, for example, tell us why capitalism should be “wrong”; why, instead of being disfigured by widespread poverty it does not realise its potential for abundance. Nor why, instead of being plagued by economic anarchy, it cannot harness its considerable knowledge and technical resources to eliminate the cycle of boom and slump.
These questions can be answered, quite simply, by reference to the fact that capitalism is not an accident and that it is not morally “wrong” nor “right”.
In fact, capitalism is a phase—like all previous societies, a necessary phase-in historical development. It was preceded by other social systems, which were no more “right” nor “wrong”, and in its turn it will be brought to an end. This evolution is itself not an accident, for each social system is a collection of relationships which spring from a particular mode of wealth production and each system has been abolished when those social relationships have become fetters on the developing productive forces.
Far from being a disaster or morally “wrong”, capitalism has fulfilled some vital functions in human history. It has developed and expanded our knowledge and our productive and communicative powers to the point at which abundance in a democratically organised society is an immediate possibility.
Capitalism has also refined the class structure of society, so that there are now only two classes in conflict over the division of wealth and, finally, over the ownership of the means of production. On one side is the class in possession—the capitalist class—and on the other the non-owners, or the working class. As the only socially inferior class, it must be the workers who will bring about society’s next revolution. It has been capitalism’s role to prepare the ground for this.
How does capitalism do this? Firstly, its class ownership must condemn the majority of its people—the working class, who live solely by the sale of their labour power—to lives of varying degrees of poverty. Because its wealth is produced for sale, capitalism must be a competitive society, which means a society in which conflict is endemic, from corner shops trying to drive each other out of business at one end of the scale to world war at the other.
Commodity production must also mean that most of the wealth which is turned out is shoddy; made with an eye to lower, competitive costs instead of for its usefulness to human beings. It means a massive waste of resources; for example the wholesale destruction of food while millions are starving or the maintenance of military machines which produce nothing but which destroy much. It means that society is preoccupied with selling its wealth and with a complex financial machinery when in any sane set-up we would be concentrating on making wealth—and making only the best possible, for human beings to consume and to enjoy.
We can sum up the argument by saying that capitalism has now outrun its usefulness to human development. Having fulfilled its purpose, it now hampers the power of the productive forces which could be at our command. Humanity can have a world in which wealth is turned out in a flood, freely available to everyone a world in which human interests come first in everything.
What prevents this is the continuation of the social relationships of capitalism. To change them needs a social revolution.
This revolution will be the first conscious one, by and in the interests of the majority, in human history. To bring about the change to socialism by a democratic political act needs a working class who are informed and aware about capitalism and about how socialism will abolish the problems we suffer under today.
And one of the essential elements in that awareness is a conception of human history not in moral but in material terms, which sees capitalism not as an accident but as a society which has fulfilled its role and must now be abolished.