The Passing Show column from the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard
In a letter to The Times Maurice Macmillan, the Conservative M.P. and Chairman of the Wider Share Ownership Committee, wrote as follows (18/12/59):
Your leading article on wider shareholding on December 14th draws attention to the Acton Society Trust’s conclusion that this is a socially desirable goal, and that among employees there is very little opposition on political grounds to the idea of owning shares.
Mr. Macmillan’s Committee is, he says, examining “the problems involved,” including the “means of overcoming the feeling that share buying is for the rich.” Many workers will hope that the Committee will also study another of the “problems involved”: where the money is going to come from. Mr. Macmillan only describes as a “feeling” the belief that share buying is for the rich. His committee—which includes “joint stock and merchant bankers, stockbrokers, unit trust and investment directors, well known industrialists.” and so on, could soon overcome this feeling by distributing enough money to the workers for them to buy shares with. Judging from the description of the committee-members, they could well afford a few thousands for this praiseworthy cause. They would find workers ready enough to keep some of the surplus value for themselves, instead of seeing it taken away for distribution among the non-workers. But supposing, Mr. Macmillan, that the workers got too enthusiastic about keeping surplus value for themselves Supposing they decided that since they produce all this surplus value, they would keep it all for themselves, and not let any of it be stolen from them for the support of idlers. Supposing, in a word, that they introduced Socialism. What then? How soon your committee-members would disband, about face, and form a “Narrower Share Holding Committee”! Perhaps you had better think again before encouraging workers to keep some of the surplus value for themselves.
But let us examine the deeper implications of Mr. Macmillian's proposals. Of course, the stockbrokers and unit trust directors on the committee would like more people to buy shares, since that would mean more business for them. And. of course, all the committee members would like some workers to own a handful of shares, since then they would be tempted to oppose strikes and other forms of workers’ self-defence, to safeguard the extra pound or two they would get as dividends. It would be planting a ruling class fifth column among the workers. One doesn’t have to say who would gain most from this, the worker with his ten shares or the employer with his thousand.
But, however much the committee would like this to happen, on any significant scale it just isn’t practicable. Capitalism can only exist on the backs of a propertyless working class. Wherever capitalism, either private or state, has appeared, one of the essential pre-requisites has been the divorce of the mass of people from any ownership of the means of production—the peasant has been robbed of his land, the handworker forced from his tools. If the individual was left as a small producer, he could not be compelled to take on the stultifying, monotonous, deadening jobs which he must do to keep capitalism going, and the ruling class rich.
The same applies now. If any significant numbers of workers were to own shares sufficient to support them without working, there wouldn’t be enough people left to do the work which must be done to keep capitalism alive. Mr. Macmillan needn’t worry about this happening, however. For all employers are continually trying to keep down their workers’ wages. As soon as numbers of workers began to own shares, this would weaken their will to resist the lowering of wages (either by direct cuts or by inflation); and as wages fell, so even those workers owning shares would have to sell them to make ends meet.
To sum up, one might say that Mr. Macmillan and his committee are pursuing by impracticable means an impossible end, and one which would horrify them if they ever did attain it.
In the public wrangle among Labour Party leaders, which has followed their third successive defeat at the polls, Douglas Jay, Labour M.P. for Battersea North, came out with the following (Daily Herald, 27/11/59):—
The other frankly Marxist cobweb is the belief that Socialism consists in turning the whole of industry and trade into a State monopoly.
This belief is certainly a cobweb. We have had more than enough demonstrations of the fact that state ownership of industry is merely state capitalism: the workers in state industry are still just as much exploited as those in private industry, the only difference being that the interests of the capitalist class as a whole are allowed rather more influence in its running, as against the interests of the private shareholders in that particular industry. It is an alteration made by the capitalist class for their own benefit, and has no more to do with Socialism than the manoeuvrings on the Stock Exchange.
So far we agree with Douglas Jay. But what on earth made Mr. Jay describe this operation as “Marxist”? Marx and Engels believed in a new society, where each would contribute according to his ability, and would receive according to his needs: this involving, of course, the end of our present wage-slavery, which is an integral feature of state as of private capitalism. If Mr. Jay has come across any evidence to the contrary, he should really let the rest of us into the secret.