Sunday, August 21, 2016

The case for socialism (1980)

From the May 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Society is a collection of human beings who are consciously co-operating in the production and distribution of wealth. Survival is a fundamental human desire and the test of any particular society is its ability to provide for the survival and happiness of its members. If men and women are faced with innumerable problems, which are not natural but the consequence of the way in which society is organised, then it is in the material interest of the victims of these social problems to seek a solution.

Two things are necessary for the production of wealth: natural resources — land, minerals, crops, animals — and human labour, which is the attribute of all who possess energy. Without labour natural resources would not become wealth; without natural resources human energy could not be reproduced. In modern society people do not produce wealth without the aid of tools and machines and computers. These are the means of wealth, production and distribution. They are the means of human survival; the means of life.

The relation of members of society to the ownership and control of the means of life determines which class they are in. There have not always been social classes. In primitive societies, when human beings were hunters and gatherers, communities owned and controlled the means of production in common. Because wealth was produced and distributed in common, anthropologists have referred to such societies as primitive communism. Classes emerged with the development of the individual accumulation of property. Some modern sociologists would have us believe that classes came into being because some men evolved from the apes, wearing cloth caps, with cockney accents and spanners in their hands, while others evolved with top hats, Eton ties and fat wallets. Class is an economic category, not an innate differentiation.

In modem society there are two classes. One class owns and controls the means of wealth, production and distribution. Therefore, in order to be allowed to create wealth, the vast majority of people who do not own the means of life must gain permission to do so from the owning class. So wealth production, which is the primary objective of society, can only take place with the consent of a minority of its members.

Does it matter who owns and controls the means of producing wealth? It does not matter who in particular constitutes the owning class, but it does matter that the system of society at present does not produce wealth to fulfill human needs, but to make a profit for the few who own the productive forces. It is not the members of a particular class who are the cause of social problems, but the capitalist system of society. It is this system which we must scrutinise, remembering as we do so that the test of any system of society is its ability to provide for the survival and happiness of humanity.

Capitalism is the social system which has prevailed in Britain for approximately two centuries. It is characterised by the production of wealth in the form of commodities — which are goods not intended solely for use, but for sale on the market with a view to profit. The capitalist class are those who own a sufficient share in the means of life to live without working. The vast majority, the working class, have no alternative but to sell their ability to work, by hand or brain, to the owners of capital. Thus the capitalist class possess the means of production, but are under no compulsion to produce. The working class produce all the wealth, but do not own it.

The object of capitalist production is profit, but profits are not what many people imagine them to be; they are not the result of capitalists selling commodities at a price which is higher than their value. On the contrary, commodities generally sell at around their value, but profits are still made. This is because profits are made during the course of capitalist production, not in the market after commodities have been produced. The above point can be illustrated by means of a simple example: James employs Jack to produce wooden boxes. He offers Jack £50 a week as a wage—which is the price of Jack’s labour power—and pays £20 for the wood and tools needed for Jack to make the boxes. So, his capital costs are £50 (labour power or variable capital) and £20 (wood and tools or constant capital) which equals £70. James intends to sell the wooden boxes for £1 each. Between Monday and Wednesday Jack produces seventy boxes. Calculating that the value of fifty boxes equals the price of his labour power and twenty more cover the price of the wood and tools, Jack concludes that he has done ‘a fair week’s work’. But James, the capitalist, reminds Jack that he has bought one week’s labour power from him and that he must continue to produce boxes on Thursday and Friday. In the remaining two days Jack produces fifty more boxes — £50 worth of surplus value, over and above the wage paid to him. The time in which workers produce wealth over and above the value of their wages (or salaries) is surplus labour time. In short, it is a period in which they are being exploited. What is exploitation for the worker is profit for the capitalist. When James sells his one hundred and twenty boxes for £1 each, he will gain £50 profit over and above his initial capital costs. Had Jack not been exploited James would not get his profit, production would cease and it would not be of benefit for James to employ Jack so the latter would be unemployed. The object of capitalist production is for the capitalist to obtain a profit. The capitalist obtains a profit by exploiting workers. Workers are compelled to seek employment in order to live. The profit system is a system of compulsory exploitation. (The above description of how exploitation takes place is simplistic for the sake of those not acquainted with Marx’s more detailed explanation. In fact, workers are exploited during every moment of their employment and the division between the production of values equivalent to wages and the production of surplus value is not packaged into certain parts of the week.)

Capitalism is based upon private property and therefore people can only have access to goods by buying them from their owner. Those who produce wealth must spend their wages to buy the necessities of existence from those who own but do not produce it. Money exists as the medium of exchange which is necessary only because wealth is privately owned.

Because there are two classes — owners and non-owners, employers and employed, buyers and sellers of labour power there is an irreconcilable antagonism of social interests between them. The capitalist class want more power and privilege, the workers want some too. Employers want lower wages, the employed want higher wages. Buyers want low prices, sellers want high prices. The consequence of all this is a ferocious, unceasing class war. Unlike wars fought with armies on the field of battle, the class war involves us all and is always close to our lives. It is not only a war between classes, but it has, as a by product, conflict within classes. Worker fights worker for jobs, for sexual or racial superiority, for trade union differentials. When capitalist fights capitalist international war is often the result and workers are put in uniform and given guns to kill one another for their masters' spoils.

The class struggle is by no means an equal battle. The capitalist class is maintained in its powerful, exploiting position by the governments, the laws, the police and the armies of the various states of the world. The state administers over the battles within national groups of capitalists, but above all it serves to subordinate the working class. As long as the capitalist system continues, the state will ensure the legality of the exploitative process which is the source of the profit accumulated by the class which it serves. From the point of view of the capitalist class the present system is good and just and satisfying. But what of the overwhelming majority who produce the wealth?

For as long as there has been private property society there has been a struggle between classes. In the past these have been struggles of minorities to become the new ruling class. The powerful capitalist class of today had once to fight their class battles with the feudal aristocracy. Sometimes these battles were violent revolutions as in France in 1789. On other occasions the capitalists increased their power by peaceful political pressure, as in Britain in 1832 when some of them gained a parliamentary voice. Whether bloody or peaceful, the capitalist classes of the various countries owed their political victory to the support which they received from the working class. Workers supported the radical demands of the emergent capitalist ruling class because they believed that liberal capitalism would fulfil its egalitarian promise.

In 1867 many workers in Britain gained the vote. The Liberal Party was looked upon as the friend of the working class against the avowed capitalist cynicism of the Tories. By the 1890s many workers began to see that Liberal governments administered capitalism in the same brutal way as the Tories. This led to the trade union effort to set up their own party. Many workers believed that the Labour Party would be a genuine friend of the working class, but it too has been forced to govern in the same way as the Liberals and the Tories. The reason for this is that political parties which run capitalism are compelled to conform to the economic laws of capitalism. They are forced to ensure that production is for profit before need, that workers are laid off if they cannot be exploited profitably, that property is protected by the force of the law and that the working class is kept in its inferior social position. It is the system, not its administrators, which is inherently anti-social.

When capitalism was in its infancy, workers’ ideas about solving the problems produced by it were unscientific. Some devised Utopias — by no means only a feature of capitalist society — and drew up blueprints for humane societies. Others turned to religion and were informed by the ideologists of the profit system that they must suffer social degradation on earth in return for paradise beyond the grave. One impulsive, violent reaction to the new system was that of the Luddites whose only means of self-protection seemed to be to smash up the machines which were their masters instead of their servants.

As capitalism developed and the working class become more conscious of its position, trade unions were forced to defend and improve the price of labour power and the conditions of employment. Some workers hoped that trade unions could combine to abolish capitalism, but in fact the role of trade unions has concerned the rate of exploitation, not its abolition. The Labour Party’s proposals for nationalisation have been seen by some workers as the ultimate means of socialising the means of wealth production under capitalism. Indeed, nationalisation has often been mistakenly labelled as socialism. But what is nationalisation? It is state ownership of particular industries. The state, as we have already explained, is the representative of the ruling class. That is why nationalised industries have always been run as capitalist concerns.

Just as nationalisation is not socialism, but state capitalism, so are the countries which claim to have introduced socialism, such as China, Russia, Albania, Yugoslavia. The state capitalist countries have distorted the meaning of socialism and dissuaded many workers from accepting the case for a new system of society. Those workers who have sympathy with the bogus Communist Party dictatorships are committed to the elitist belief that although political revolution is necessary, the working class is too stupid to become politically conscious and must be led by an advanced minority.

In general, the political reaction of the working class to the problems of capitalism can be summed up in two beliefs: that leaders are necessary and that reforms can eradicate the evils of capitalism. Both of these beliefs are fundamentally wrong and must be countered before we can consider the political method of establishing the new social system. The idea that leaders are necessary to tell us what to do is based upon the belief that human beings are naturally incapable of co-operation and that legal coercion is therefore required. But the existence of unalterable behavioural patterns (known as human nature) is a myth; human behaviour is determined by the social environment. In the jungle system of capitalism harmony and human co-operation are impossible dreams. Given a system in which there is social equality — in which there is one common objective — there is no reason why co-operation should not be the accepted way of life. Class society is undemocratic and power is bound to be concentrated in the hands of the monopolisers of the means of wealth production. In the future socialist society there can be no leaders or classes. Such a society can only be created by politically conscious people, not by sheep-like followers. The belief that capitalism can be reformed in the interest of the wealth-producing class demonstrates an ignorance of the nature of the system. Capitalism is inevitably exploitative and undemocratic. The crises, housing problems, pollution, starvation, unemployment and wars are symptoms of the system and cannot be eradicated independently of the cause. Reformism presents an absurd programme to tackle thousands of social problems while leaving the creator of these problems intact. The socialist reaction to capitalism does not embrace utopias or gods or states or leaders or reforms.

The socialist case proposes uncompromising political revolution. Having recognised that capitalism is a system of class exploitation, that the working class constitutes a majority of society, and that the capitalist class owe their hegemony to the consent of the working class, socialists advocate the withdrawal of working class consent to capitalism. Once workers understand and desire the abolition of the present system they must organise themselves for the political, democratic conquest of the state machine, including the government and the armed forces. It is solely to this end that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is organised.

When a majority of workers have decided that they want socialism they will use their powerful political weapon, the vote, to send socialist delegates to the Parliaments of the world with a mandate to dispossess the capitalist class of the means of wealth production and distribution. Thus, instead of private ownership, there will be common ownership of the means of life. The world will at last belong to its inhabitants as a whole.

After the socialist revolution there will be no classes, for all will stand in equal relation to the means of life. The state will cease to exist as there will be no privileged group for governments to maintain and no private property for the police and armies to defend. There will be conscious human co-operation to meet the needs of the world community.

There cannot be socialism in one country, just as there is not capitalism in one country. The present fragmented world system must be replaced by a united world system. The evils of racial and national division, which now split the working class, will give way to a common social bond linking every man, woman and child on the face of the earth.

In the socialist society the means of producing wealth will be democratically owned and controlled by the community, without distinction of race or sex. The wages system, which we have demonstrated to be a system of exploitation, will be replaced by an economy in which each will give according to his or her abilities and each will take according to his or her needs. There will be free access to all wealth, without the need to buy what already belongs to you as a member of society. With the abolition of property money and barter will no longer have any use.

Socialism will be the first ever social democracy in the sense that there will be no governments, authoritarianism or imposed morality. The community will make decisions, using the advanced machinery of communication which is now available. In a social democracy the needs of minorities will be accommodated, including the needs of those who are opposed to socialism. Opponents of the new system will be given every opportunity to state the case for exploitation, poverty and war to those who care to listen.

For the first time in the history of human society men and women will live in a humane society designed to meet their needs. But is not such a projection an idealistic notion, a childlike dream? Cynics will mock, when they are first confronted with such a revolutionary proposition. We are not the painters of a pretty portrait of an unobtainable future, but scientific critics of the real world. Our idea of a future society arises from the potentiality of producing abundant wealth which has been created by capitalism but cannot be realised within the limitations of a profit system. Our readers are urged to seriously consider the case we have put and, if convinced by it, to participate in the realisation of the socialist goal. For so long as a single child starves for lack of food, and a single person is unemployed because it is unprofitable to exploit him or her, or a single drop of working class blood is shed in a war over property, the struggle for socialism remains the most urgent challenge of our time.
Steve Coleman

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