From the February 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard
Many Labour Party leaders and Tory counterparts would agree with “The Economist” that, “today, the class war description of trade union activity is out of date; its spirit is kept alive by the Communists because it is part of the Soviet war on social democracy, by others only because their thought ossified years ago.” (September 6th, 1952.)
“The Economist” could mean that society itself had changed and the class war description no longer applied or else it could mean that the analysis of capitalism as a society based on class conflict had been proved wrong; that today, the working class, through their trade unions, must work hand in hand with their employers to increase production if they want to further their interests.
Whichever meaning is taken the result remains the same. Either view will find many adherents among the apologists for the present system in the avowedly capitalist and allegedly labour parties.
Class war is usually associated with the name of Karl Marx, and the Communist parties pay lip-service to some of his theories; it is true that they preach class war, at times, but they also preach class collaboration, whichever suits the needs of Soviet policy.
Long before Marx, historians and economists recognised the existence of classes and the conflict between them. These facts proved useful in the struggles of the rising capitalist class against the relics of the feudal aristocracy. But in the Munzer uprising in Germany, the Levellers in the English Revolution and Babeuf in the French Revolution, Marx saw the beginnings of class struggle between the working class and capitalist class and put forward the view that the outcome of this conflict would be the establishment of a classless society. To the classical economists the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class was an obstacle to the development of capitalist production and they claimed that a harmonious relationship between capital and labour would develop the productive forces and provide plenty for all. But the wishful thinking of the economists couldn't alter the facts. As Frederick Engels, Marx’s friend and collaborator, pointed out, the struggles of the working class movement in England and France in the early 19th century showed that harmony between the two classes was impossible.
Marx completed the analysis of capitalist society started by earlier economists. He showed that the tendency of capitalist development was for the means and instruments of production to become concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller section of society and that the bulk of the population having no other access to the means of living must sell their ability to work to this small group in order to live. They received in the form of wages barely sufficient to keep them and what they produced more than this was pocketed by the capitalist class; this surplus being the purpose behind the productive process. Goods were not produced because people needed them, but because they could be sold at a profit. If the workers demanded higher wages it meant less profits for the capitalist class, if the capitalist class reaped bigger profits it meant greater exploitation of the working class. This gave rise to an antagonism of interest between the capitalist class and working class that would remain as long as capitalism lasts.
Today, the vast majority of the people still have to sell their labour power for a wage often hardly enough to live on. The small section of society, the capitalist class, still own the means and instruments of production—nationalisation doesn’t alter the capitalist class ownership, it only changes the name above the door. At present there is a general demand for wage increases, by the working class through their trade unions; institutions which have arisen for the sole purpose of fighting to improve wages and conditions and are the only means whereby the workers can express their demands. There is also the demand for greater production and wage restraint made by press and parliament, and all the other powerful means of expression at the disposal of the capitalist class.
Yet many claim that there is no fundamental class conflict in society. They are like the ostrich which buries its head in the ground. When the one party is pushing through measures the opposition party criticizes it for carrying on class-warfare and yet they maintain a class war doesn’t exist Why then the resistance? It takes at least two forces to give rise to a conflict And incidentally, most of these measures have nothing whatever to do with the clash of interest between the capitalist class and the working class but where is their logic? They would say that opposition was imbued with the idea of the class struggle. Are the engineering and shipbuilding unions along with the many others demanding higher wages because they are imbued with the theory of class struggle? It is obvious that they are struggling to maintain their standard of living in the face of rising prices.
The more capitalism has changed the more it remains the same; the existence of classes and the conflict between them are essential to it.
There was some justification for the classical economists holding the view that if only capital and labour worked in harmony plenty could be produced for everyone. Capitalism was in the early stages of development; the class ownership of the means and instruments of production hadn't really shown itself to be a fetter on the further development of the productive forces.
But today, Capitalism has forged those gigantic productive forces which if the working class willed it, could lay the foundation for a society that would provide plenty for all.
The experience of the working class movement throughout the world since Engels’ day has endorsed his argument that any concord between capital and labour is impossible. The scientific analysis of capitalist society has proved that no agreement can be possible. The highest expression of this working class experience is the struggle for the abolition of Capitalism, and the establishment of Socialism—a classless society.