Letter to the Editors from the March 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard
REPLY TO R. T. (New Zealand.)
We have received the following letter from a reader in New Zealand :
Dear Comrades, — I do not subscribe to your theory that we shall ever obtain a class conscious proletarian majority sufficient to wrest political power from the hands of the bourgeoisie while the capitalist mode of production prevails. I incline more to the theory that the capitalist system will break down by its own weight long before the other desired event could take place. Marxists are turning their eyes to China, where a capitalist revolution is in full swing which, if successful, must fetch the Socialist Republic within measurable distance. Labour-power is cheap and abundant in the Flowery Land, and that fact, aided by the bountiful natural resources. must attract the international capitalist class to invest its surplus capital there, so soon as restrictions to commerce and industry are removed. When China is in full blast exporting cheap commodities to all parts of the world, a bad spell is in store for white wage slaves, for then a time must come when European and American factories will lie full of goods, which the working class is unable to buy back owing to lack of funds due to unemployment.
Then the capitalist system must come to a stop like a clock when its mainspring breaks, and tens of millions of wage slaves will he out of work.
If the Chinese revolution is successful I hope to sec the state of affairs outlined above reached within the next quarter of a century. 1 believe this idea to which I subscribe is known as the “catastrophic theory," and I would like to hear scientific arguments against it.
To prepare for this long looked-for day when the robber class is no longer able to continue its system of plunder, I hold it essential that we have powerful Socialist organisations, so that the Socialist Republic may be established as speedily and painlessly as possible. Hence the need for propaganda . The reason the proletariat is so backward in class consciousness is due to the faulty teachings of so called Socialist parties, and is not due to economic conditions being unripe for change, for we know the means of production are now sufficiently advanced to provide a cultured existence for all. The proletariat cannot improve its material condition by political action, for all laws are made in the interest of the ruling class, and never in the interest of the working class. If the working class has ever benefited by the passing of an Act, it has been quite a secondary consideration on the part of the law makers. In any case economic laws are more powerful than, and finally control political ones. Industrial organisation is the only method by which the workers can retard, though never prevent, their material conditions sinking from bad to worse this side of the Social Revolution.
I regard it as a small matter whether the slave endorses the S.P.G.B , the S.L.P or the Vincent St. John I.W.W., so long as he is class conscious. I have met class-conscious slaves who endorse each of these organisations. Class-consciousness is the essential thing. Political action is valuable as a means of propaganda only, and had the slaves of England been sufficiently enlightened to return one or more S.P.G.B. or S.L.P. men to Parliament last elections, a splendid opportunity would have arisen for the Class Struggle to have been exposed, when the Government used the military to shoot down workmen in the late strike. To have class-conscious Marxian proletarians in Parliament is the most efficacious of all methods of propaganda. I do not believe the Socialist Republic will be voted in; on the contrary, I believe its establishment will have to be fought for by Socialist organisations versus the capitalist class and their class-unconscious allies. Socialist parties are nothing more or less than potential military organisations. I am not dogmatic on all contained herein, and await with interest the blow of your critical judgment.
R. T. (New Zealand.)
Our correspondent has predicted—what many have predicted before him—the breakdown of the capitalist system “of its own weight.” This prediction is, of course, based upon the fact that the wage slave is producing a progressively larger amount of wealth than he receives, and that this surplus wealth accumulates in the warehouses and chokes production. It is supposed that, since it is (as far as present knowledge goes) undeniable that the cause will go on increasingly that is to say the exploitation of the worker will continue to grow greater the effect will follow suit, and so of necessity eventuate in the strangulation of production and the breakdown of the system.
This excellent piece of reasoning would he all right were it not for the inevitable "if.” If no other factor intervened, then the growing disproportion between the worker's production and his consumption would lead to what R.T.’s logic says it would. If the matter were as simple as our friend represents it to be, he might, after a few hours arithmetic, go to sleep, leaving definite instructions as to the very hour he was to be awakened (well within the quarter of a century) to enjoy the realisation of his hopes.
But alas! there is a worm in the bud: the road to Anarchy is not quite so well defined as our correspondent thinks.
“Labour power is cheap and abundant in the Flowery Lind.” Granted. But it has got to be drilled and disciplined. Does R.T. quite realise what that means? Labour-power is cheap and abundant in Japan, but the labour-power of Lancashire cotton operatives, judged by output, is far cheaper. Chinese labour-power was terribly cheap on the Rand, but the sevenfold higher-priced labour-power that could be trusted with a rock drill was cheaper.
This, however, is not to discourage R.T. in the gentle hope that he may see "tens of millions of slaves . . . out of work.” It could only put off the happy consummation another quarter-century or two, time which R.T. can well spend making bombs.
That the revolution in China marks an epoch none can deny. What International Capital expects of the event is shown by the fact that so much of the siuews of war of the revolutionaries has been contributed by International Capital. The significant feature of the movement is that it has been to a large extent International Capital’s revolution. For many years International Capital, fettered by national bonds and jealousies, has been trying to bring about the revolution from outside, but in the end it has had to resort to the internal method.
That the Chinese revolution means that the white wage slave is in for a bad time is very probable. That International Capital will proceed to the exploitation of Chinese labour-power more promptly than it has to the exploitation of that vast store of equally cheap labour-power in India which it has forgotten seriously to tap may also he true. But even then, with the warehouses full and the system threatened, it may be possible for the capitalists to find some solution for the moment, at all events.
What would Lloyd George say? What he already says—dole out to the starving multitude the wealth that threatens your very existence, and so keep them quiet and save your bacon. What would the American cotton grower say? Just what he says to-day when he has too abundant a crop—burn the surplus and wax fatter. What would the Kaiser and the rulers of New Zealand and Australia say? Just what they are saying to-day: We are threatened by a red peril at home and a yellow peril abroad let us double and treble and quadruple our armies and navies, so that we may preserve the world’s peace. And what would the economic laws say? They would say that labour-power had become so beastly cheap that there was not much inducement to develop machinery.
And finally, what would R.T. say? Would he shout “bombs” where the New Zealand capitalists were drilling their, what does be call them ? “class unconscious allies”? Would he rub his hands gleefully and murmur: “Shades of Marx and Engels, here’s a Limehouse joke. The whole muddy thing’s stopped 'like a clock when its mainspring breaks’”? No, he wouldn’t. He would apostrophise the great dead and say sadly: ‘‘This one little mistake—your optimism as to how soon the system would ‘break of its own weight’—only shows you to be human it cannot dim the lustre of your achievements; but—how long is this going to last ? ”
For the capitalists would not have an insurmountable problem set them. It would simply be to find some way of continuing to exploit the workers. Powerful as the economic laws are, they could set them all at defiance to just the extent to which they could alter the conditions out of which they arise. The cotton growers do this when they burn part of their crops. The whole capitalist class might do this if they destroyed the surplus that was choking them.
Now as to R.T.'s idea that we shall never have a majority of class conscious proletarians sufficient to wrest political and military power from the bourgeoisie while the capitalist mode of production prevails, this belief may have been grounded on the circumstance that our friend was ready to take his dying solemn that the system was timed to break of its own weight in a quarter of a century. [If] he can come to see, however, how evident it is that the system could be made to support its own weight for a good many quarter-centuries, he may snatch a morsel of comfort from the reflection that it will give class-consciousness time to catch up.
But is R.T.’s pessimism well grounded? As regards the populous centres of advanced capitalist countries of the world it certainly is not. But R.T. must not make the mistake of having an eye for the thoroughly educated Marxist only. In the view of the Socialist, who looks to his class for the future, and not to individuals, it is the condition of the mentality of the mass that matters. As the skipper, waiting for the rising tide to float him off the mud bank, depends on the great mass of the water, and not upon the waves, so the Marxist watches the evolution of the class mentality. That this evolution is very rapidly taking place is demonstrated daily, at our propaganda meetings, and in the workshops and factories.
Our correspondent says that the proletariat cannot improve its material condition by political action because all laws are made in the the interest of the ruling class. But if the last were true, it could surely only be because they are made by the ruling class, and would not apply if the working class had power to make laws. The statement that the proletariat cannot, improve their material condition by political action is not very wide of the truth, but the reason given is a bad one. The true reason he states when he says that economic laws control political ones. But then action on the industrial field is just as much controlled by economic laws. Nevertheless, working-class resistance is one of the conditions presupposed by those laws, without which they would break down. The truth is that the workers have means of resistance on the industrial field, but in order to be able to make laws in their own interest they need to obtain command of that which will enable them to abolish the system.
R T. does not believe that Socialism will be voted in, but that it will have to be fought for by the Socialist organisations against the capitalist class and their class-unconscious allies— presumably when the system has broken down of its own weight. Everyone but the Anarchist, however, realises that while the Socialists are unable to find sufficient class-conscious voters to vote abolition of private property, the capitalist class will have no difficulty in finding ample "class unconscious allies” to render ridiculous any attempt to impose Socialism on a majority who do not want it.
If fighting is to be done, it must be after the working class have obtained control of the armed forces through the capture of the political machinery. The capture of the political machinery implies such a development of class consciousness as would permeate even the armed forces themselves, and make them not unwilling servants of their class interests. The capitalists would then not find many "class-unconscious allies” to assist them in their counter-revolution. In any circumstance this class consciousness must be waited for. It is indispensable if we work through political means. It is to an even greater degree indispensable if we lost the political weapon, for we should then have to wait until it had so permeated and undermined the armed forces as to make them an agent of revolution. And finally it is indispensable if the system breaks down of its own weight, for then, Socialism could only be established by a people who understood it. The moral is obvious.
A. E. Jacomb