The Passing Show column from the March 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent work-to-rule campaign of the electrical power-station workers led to the usual press campaign. In the newspapers, a number of journalists and letter-writers said that the power workers should not be allowed to take any industrial action, such as striking or working to rule. Almost every prominent strike leads to similar suggestions. Even misguided members of the working class propose that workers (in other industries, of course, not in their own) should be forced to work. The obvious question which then arises—should the workers be forced to work on their own terms or on the employers’ terms?—is seldom answered in so many words, but the implication is usually plain: the workers should be forced to work on whatever terms the employers see fit to offer.
In a time of inflation, when workers have to take or threaten to take industrial action in order to try and keep their earnings abreast of rising prices, this proposal can usually be put in very reasonable-sounding terms: that existing wages and conditions should be maintained. In a time of deflation, such as occasions in the twenties and thirties, when prices are falling, it is the employers who often have to resort to industrial action to force wages down. And at those times the letter-writing brigade seldom suggests that lock-outs should be forbidden by law, and that employers should be compelled to continue employing their workers on the existing terms.
But in the power strike, a number of newspapers went further: they made the astounding discovery that the public has a “moral right” to food, lighting and heating. And such is the lack of understanding of the way the capitalist system operates that this announcement went apparently unchallenged. Yet five minutes’ thought would show anyone the falsity of this belief. What would happen if you went into the baker's and told him you had a “moral right” to food, and that you had decided that sixpence was a reasonable price to pay for his ninepenny loaves? Unless you left the shop in a hurry, you would find yourself at the local police station being charged with a breach of the peace. Under our present system, to all intents and purposes, everything is bought and sold. No one has a “moral right” to be supplied with the necessities of life. If the seller of bread and the buyer of bread can agree on a price which the buyer can pay, then the bread changes hands; otherwise it doesn’t. Everyone understands this in practice; no one would go shopping believing anything else. And yet people can so far delude themselves as to write to the papers claiming they have a “moral right” to be supplied with food.
All the aces
Just as food, clothing, and so on, are bought and sold, so is human labour-power. Under our present system, men and women work for the capitalists because they are paid to do so. If the employer and employee can arrive at a bargain as to the price to be paid for a certain amount of work—a wage or salary—then the work is done. Otherwise it isn’t Admittedly in this process of bargaining all the aces are in the hands of the capitalist. For if the worker refuses to work for what the employer pays him, then he faces unemployment, and severe deprivation for himself and his family. The employer, on the other hand, can at least live on his money if no bargain is arrived at; that is what makes him a capitalist.
Nevertheless, however strong one party to the bargain is, and however weak the other, a bargain—an agreement as to wages and conditions—there must be. And the very people who are now talking about "moral rights” are exactly the people who insist that this must be so. When one argues for Socialism, and suggests that men could operate a very much better system for supplying themselves with food, clothing and shelter if they did away with money altogether and worked on the principle of common ownership of the means of production, what an outcry follows! These “moral rights” people are exactly those who are first to deride the Socialist solution, and to insist that our present commercial system, where money is the god without which nothing can be done, is the best possible system. But as soon as they are put to inconvenience by the very workings of the system which they themselves uphold and vote for at each election—what a squawk they put up! They are like children who gobble down their share of cake and then cry because it’s gone. They want it both ways.
It seems paradoxical, but the only members of the public who could justifiably complain when their lights and fires went off as a result of the power-workers’ campaign were the Socialists. Only those who have done their best to put an end to our present capitalist system, only those who have tried to bring in the Socialist alternative—only they could justifiably grumble at these further inconveniences and discomforts which the operation of the capitalist system makes inevitable. Of course, in practice, it is precisely the Socialists who have always supported the working class when they have taken action to maintain or improve their living conditions. The support of Labourites and Communists is never to be relied on: it depends on a dozen factors, such as whether there is a Labour or a Communist government, whether our capitalist class is making war on any other capitalist class, what the Russian ruling class is doing, and so on. Even when there is a Conservative government in power, many of our “progressive” politicians publicly join the massive attacks which are always mounted against workers who try to keep or even increase their small part of what they produce. Only the Socialist Party—as could be expected, since it is the party of the workers —can be relied on to keep the issue straight
Right to strike
A wage-worker has a number of advantages over a slave (although the slave at least doesn’t fear unemployment), but by far the most important one is that he has some degree of freedom. And of this degree of freedom, the most important element is his ability to refuse to work. The alternative is near-starvation, but still it means that he has some final retort against the capitalist who seeks to push him still further down into poverty. Judiciously used, the right to refuse to work, the right to strike, can serve in certain economic circumstances to defend or to improve wages and conditions. But this right to strike, this most important single factor which distinguishes the wageworker from the mere slave, this right is under constant attack from the capitalist state’s organs of propaganda. After reading and listening to such attacks, one has the impression that the worker has the right to strike only so long as he never uses it. Whenever workers use their right to strike, it always seems that —although, of course, the right to strike in general is quite a good thing—still this particular strike is for various reasons a very bad one, and should be ended immediately. It may be “the country's economic position,” it may be “the need to export"; it may be the particular industry the workers are employed in; there is always some reason why this particular strike is totally unjustified.
All these attacks spring from one source: the realization of the ruling class that the strike is one of the few effective weapons the workers have in the class struggle. Our rulers do not wish to revert, to slavery—the present wage-labour system is better for them in many ways: which is why slavery has been abolished in all capitalist countries. But it has this unfortunate aspect, that the workers are technically free to strike. Hence the continual propaganda against any groups of workers who exercise their right. For if they could delude the workers into never striking, the capitalists would be in the happy position of enjoying all the advantages of the capital and wage-labour system, without one of its very few (from their point of view) drawbacks. No wonder their newspapers, radio, TV, and pulpits never cease to attack strikes!