Party News from the September 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard
Friday, October 4, 2019
Editorial from the September 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the July number we criticised the Co-operative Movement, pointing out that this. movement would not assist the workers to break the chains of slavery.
We have recently received striking confirmation of our contention that the Co-operative Movement must either carry on business in accordance with capitalist methods or stagnate.
From the Co-operative News (18/8/23) we learn that the Committee of the Rochdale Provident Society have decided to discharge thirty-seven adult employees and replace them with fifteen juveniles. They were taking this action on grounds of economy.
In their comment upon this action the Co-operative News quotes from the Daily Mail the views of Mr. H. Gladwell, the president of the Rochdale society, as follows:—
“To keep our Society in its present sound financial position we have to attract trade. This will only come if our goods are cheap and dividends are big; for the co-operator to-day does not care a rap about co-operative ideals. He or she is simply concerned about cheap commodities. To sell cheaply we have to adjust our wage costs. For the past two years we have been paying men big wages to do boys’ work, and we cannot continue on those lines.”
Here is an open admission of failure from a Co-operative official, and it is not minimised by the fact that the Co-operative News adds a note stating, “The Society has been, but is not now, a member of the Co-operative Union."
A member of the Co-operative Union— in fact, the President of the 1912 Congress—made the following statement in his inaugural address to the Congress:—
“We find a growing disposition on the part of the rank and file to take advantage of methods of trading which, but a few years ago, were regarded as distinctly anti-co-operative. The sale of bonus tea and overweight margarine, when first introduced by the competitive trade, was heartily condemned, alike on our platforms and in our stores, but both are now common enough features of co-operative trading, especially in the North of England, and the practice is carried on by many who condemn it on principle, for the sake of the commercial success it brings. The coupon system of trading, with its so-called 'present' at the end, is coming along, and one wonders how long it may be before, instead of adhering to our own ideals, we shall be not only copying the doubtful methods of others, but introducing new ones ourselves, and sacrificing every principle on the altar of commercial success.” (Page 29, 44th Annual Congress Report.)
Unfortunately for the idealistic Co-operator, it is a world of realities and not ideals that has to be dealt with. Capitalism has possession of this world at present, and hallmarks productions with the capitalist stamp as products of slave labour. Though such products may be produced by a Co-operative Society and sold in a Co-operative shop, still they are none the less articles produced by people who own no property but their power to labour, and who have used up this power to labour in the production of Co-operative products. In return for this expenditure of energy they have received no more than in any other capitalist concern—the average cost of production of such labour power. In other words, whether the work is done for a Co-operative Society or a joint stock company, the worker is still a wage slave, whatever be the fanciful title applied to his wage.
As we are organised to abolish wage- slavery, we are opposed to the Co-operative Movement.
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[Since the above was written we find that a writer in the Co-operative News has fallen out with some of the views put forward in our July article. We will have pleasure in drying our critics tears, correcting his inaccuracies, pointing out his shufflings, and demolishing his case in a future issue. We are a very obliging party.]
May 18th, 1923.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain,
17, Mount Pleasant, London, W.C.l.
J. F., in his further reply to me, says that I appear to have muddled myself by dragging in the question of circulation. But appearances are deceptive, and if we are to understand whether a sovereign is a commodity or not, we must analyse it in its relation with other things. It is quite obvious to anyone who has read Marx that every special commodity when once exchanged, and put into use, is no longer a commodity, but a simple use-value, which loses all its necromancy at that stage. But the general commodity is different from the special, inasmuch as it stays within the sphere of circulation to perform one of its principal functions, namely, alienating other commodities. So we can truly say that when the machine begins to function it is no longer a commodity; but that the sovereign is a commodity as long as it functions : a very important difference.
The next point is, we agree with J. F. that in our analysis of the sovereign we must not attempt to alter it one iota, but must try and find out if it is a commodity after it comes from the mint, and is functioning as the general equivalent (commodity) in Great Britain. J. F. says :—
“But the sovereign is not produced for sale or profit, but as an article of utility in certain social transactions. It is being consumed in use while acting thus, and is not a commodity.”
It is clear that gold as the “specific commodity" takes up the form of sovereigns in the United Kingdom, and it is in that form that gold reflects value, and is a standard of price. One of its functions is to purchase other commodities, but alas in doing so it sells itself, and keeps on doing so as long as it functions, and at the same time wears away on the counters of a hard world. So soon as it loses one-third of a grain of its weight it is no longer legal tender; which is equal to saying that it is no longer a sovereign, but only a symbol of itself. But we are not here dealing with symbols, but with real sovereigns. We will keep tenaciously to the position laid down by J. F., but we will see to it that he also observes it. So long, then, as a sovereign functions it not only circulates other commodities, but exchanges itself for them, and is itself a commodity as long as it does so, and that is as far as we are interested in it in this discussion. So J. F. is wrong in his first proposition, and we have reconciled, his last one by explaining it.
Regarding profit. It is quite true to say that commodities to-day contain surplus-value, but the fact must be clearly understood that we can have commodity production without producing surplus-value, but that we cannot have surplus-value without commodity production. For example, the slave and the serf could produce commodities and values, but they could not produce surplus-value. The automatic machine can produce commodities, but it cannot, beget value, nor surplus-value. The small tradesman who owns his own means of production and is his own labour-power, can produce commodities and values, but he cannot produce surplus-value. Indeed, surplus-value is not necessarily a corollary of commodity production at all; although it is in capitalistic production, for it is the nature of capital to beget surplus-value; and this only occurs with the advent of the free labourer. Money and commodities are no new things, and surplus-value is modern and new compared with them. In other words, the nature of commodities never changes, although their forms are continually changing. I contend that I have shown that J. F.’s propositions are unsound.
Finally, I ask again J. F. to give us the law whereby we can distinguish commodity wealth from wealth in general; for it is true to say that no one can tell who is right in this discussion unless he understands the law. Further, it is the teacher’s duty to explain the law. But if J. F. does so, he will at the same moment show how untenable his position is; and he would be forced, as an honest man, to come to the same conclusion as Marx, viz., that gold is the commodity par excellence, and the form that it takes up in Britain is the sovereign.
Answer to W. W.
W. W.'s letter adds further evidence that he is confused on the question under discussion. This is most clearly shown in his concluding paragraph, where he quotes Marx as saying “that gold is the commodity par excellence"; and then W. W. continues, “And the form it takes up in Britain is the sovereign.” The implication, whether wilful or accidental, is that the latter statement belongs also to Marx. This, of course, is false. Nowhere does Marx state that the sovereign (or the ducat, or napoleon, or any other national coin) is the general equivalent or universal commodity. Marx always shows that it is gold as a metal, as a particular substance, that performs that function.
As we have explained before, the sovereign is a piece of gold—but a piece of gold, shaped, weighed and stamped for specific social uses and restricted in ways quite unknown to commodities. One may purchase gold and melt it down for any purpose, but one must not—legally—melt down sovereigns. One may shape gold into ornaments, but one must not interfere with the sovereign for any such purpose. In other words, the law does, not—in general—interfere with anyone buying and using gold for any purpose, but it sternly forbids any such action with sovereigns. Moreover, the sovereign performs functions—such as legal tender in payment of debt—that no commodity can fulfil.
Outside of Britain the sovereign loses these various characteristics and becomes a mere piece of gold, which exchanges by weight, and is therefore no longer a sovereign. It is this simple fact that W. W. has failed to understand. His confusion is further shown by his misuse of words in fairly common use, as when he asks for the "law" whereby we distinguish commodity wealth from wealth in general.’ The use of the word “law" in this connection is nonsense. Twice previously we have defined a “commodity" for him, and as he neither questions nor shows our definition as being in error, one can only wonder why the question is repeated, even though it is done in a nonsensical form.
W. W.’s remarks on surplus value are absurdly incorrect. If the slave and serf could not produce surplus value how were their masters able to revel in huge luxury? Not only did this occur under chattel slavery and feudalism, but in certain transition periods later both slave and serf were used to produce surplus values for capitalists, as in cotton growing in South America and gold production on the Rand.
A Conservative M.P., writing to the Daily Herald a few weeks ago, remarked that while his Party had always been friendly to France, the Liberals and the Socialists have always been pro-German. Both statements are inaccurate. The Conservatives, if they have been consistently anything, have been friendly to the French capitalist class. They have certainly never helped the French workers to throw off capitalist rule. On the other hand, the Liberals and the present wearers of the mantle of dead Liberalism—the Labour Party—in line with the interests they represented, have tended rather to favour other sections of the ruling class.
We Socialists, however, have always and everywhere been pro-working class and nothing else.
We are internationalists, and our slogan is “The World for the Workers”; not for the British or for the white races, but simply for the workers.
This is because we see that the problems which worry us are the problems which worry all of the workers whatever differences of nationality or colour there may be between those in one continent and those in another. Although our rulers may quarrel among themselves and wish to drag us into their wars, there is something which binds them together against us and us against them. They are the owners and controllers of our means of life. Whether we plough wheat-lands in Norfolk or the Argentine, sow rice in India, load ships or stoke them, work in steel mills or cotton factories, drive trains or motors, or work in offices in the new world or the old, we are all subject to one uniform circumstance. We may not use this vast machinery for producing wealth without the permission, and on the terms of the owners. You may not like, the word, but you cannot escape the fact that we are slaves to the people who at present own these things. We have to yield up to them as rent, interest, or profit a large part of the wealth we have produced. We yield it, not because they work, or direct, or do any useful service, but merely because they own.
The working class does not own the natural resources of wealth, yet within its ranks are all those who perform the essential services which turn that natural wealth to good account. Our fight, then, is against the owning, but no longer useful, class; and it is a fight which crosses national boundaries. We are not sentimentalists, and we do not waste ourselves in pious enthusiasm about the brotherhood of the human race; but the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik upheaval teach us, if teaching is needed, that the capitalist class will act as one wherever the need arises to crush any sectional revolt. The emotional warmth of Biblical pacifism may have been a useful inspiration to the Free Traders of the nineteenth century who were looking for markets for the products of English industry, but it is as rotten a basis for international working-class action as is hating blindly the members of the ruling class, which passes for Socialism in certain circles.
Our internationalism rests on a firmer foundation—the sure knowledge that national sections of the working class stand or fall together. The development of capitalist trade has made the world one huge market of which no part can now stand isolated. Purchasers buy in the cheapest market, not only goods, but also labour-power. Producers must produce for one market also. Russian peasants, Canadian prairie farmers, and English corn growers all must produce an article which is offered for sale on the same market. Workers have tried, and may still try, to stand in with their own rulers in raising barriers against the rest of the world. Facts will, however, be too strong for them. The Australian and Canadian Labour Parties may urge the exclusion of coloured workers in order to protect the white standard of living, and they may succeed in keeping them out while the capitalists for political reasons favour this. But the Australian standard of living falls just the same. Cheap labour in China is just as effective in undermining the white standard as it would be in Australia itself. South African white workers who chose to fight their employers and the coloured workers as well, instead of organising the latter, suffered a disastrous defeat. Our own Labour Party may demand that no Chinese sailors shall be employed on British ships west of Suez, but even should this become law, it will not protect English sailors against the cheaper transport of foreign shipowners, and British shipowners might then elect to register under foreign flags.
The American Government has put increasing restrictions year by year on immigration from low-paid European countries, but the American standard of living has fallen, in spite of this, by 25 per cent. in the last 21 years. The powerful owners of the steel industry have fought hard against these restrictions because they had need of thousands of unskilled labourers and they knew that it is easier to keep men disorganised who do not speak each other’s language; but other capitalist forces, backed by misguided English-speaking workers, proved stronger still. Bankers and financial corporations with capital to invest were not tied to American soil. They can, and do, engage in the exploitation of this cheaper labour in its home country. The American worker has succeeded in barring foreign members of his own class, but he has suffered in just the same way as he would have suffered from the direct competition for jobs in U.S.A. itself.
This is sufficient illustration of the necessity for the workers to organise and act on class lines in the task of maintaining their present standards, but there is the further problem presented by war between nations. Let us consider how war arises.
We can first reject as irrelevant the foolish Jingo notion that human nature is essentially warlike, and the equally foolish pacifist notion that it is peacefully inclined. Man’s nature is just what conditions make it, and there are no naturally militarist races. In times when, and places where, geographical, climatic, or historical conditions put a nation in the position of having to fight for its existence, that nation will inevitably attempt to cultivate the required fighting qualities. If it fails it will become a subject race, and may or may not continue the struggle for independence. If it wins so overwhelmingly that all danger is removed and there exists no further incentive to warfare, then the lesson of history is that the military prowess will decline. As succeeding waves of Barbarians swept westwards over the outlying parts of the Roman Empire, and finally over the Empire itself, invariably each body of warrior tribes settled under the influence of the defeated civilisation and became themselves the helpless victims of new onslaughts. What better illustration could be given than that of England’s own history ?
Modern wars have their cause ultimately in economic rivalries, and are the unavoidable accompaniment of decaying capitalist civilisation. It is not suggested that tradition, religious beliefs, and racial hostility do not play their part, but these tend more and more to become mere auxiliaries to the main forces—means to the ends of our politicians, and excuses rather than causes.
While individual competition gives way rapidly to trusts and combines, the competition of national groups grows ever fiercer and more vital to the existence of capitalist States. Sources of raw materials, coal and iron, cotton and oil; means of transport and communication; and markets for finished products—these are the things about which wars are waged to-day. Great Britain did not want a square inch of territory, but she came out of the war with 1,500,000 square miles rich in minerals and of great strategic value. France wanted security and the return of her beloved children in Alsace-Lorraine (whom, by the way, she gave to Germany in 187l in return for assistance in murdering some 20,000 of her other beloved children in rebellious Paris), but she is much more interested in the coal and iron industries of the Saar and Ruhr valleys. Germany and Poland are splitting hairs about the nationality of the Silesians, but everyone knows it is coal, and not people, that they wish to stamp as German or Polish.
We must concede, too, that there is always the possibility of crises in which the solution of these economic problems by the capitalists will be by the appeal to arms. The capitalist world is a world of buying and selling, dedicated to Lord Trade Almighty, and only those who have access to cheap raw materials and security for disposing of their products can hope to survive.
War therefore may come at any time unless the workers abolish capitalism, but if it comes, what should they do?
The Labour Party has given an answer—one which is in keeping with its disgraceful record of persistent treachery to the working class. Before 1914 it helped its Liberal allies to prepare the army and navy for war. In 1914 it lent its aid and the name of Socialism to the task of persuading and dragooning you into the army of the capitalist State to defend their class interests. Since the war it has barely finished advocating "making Germany pay” and "making Russia pay,” when it now takes up the new capitalist cry of making France pay, and gives its endorsement in your name to Baldwin’s foreign policy. It defended its 1914 treachery by denouncing its German pseudo-Socialist counterparts for voting war credits, yet never before, during, or since the war has the Labour Party made the stand of voting directly against naval, military, or air force estimates in the House of Commons. At its Annual Conference, 1923, it turned down by 2,924,000 votes to 808,000 (Daily Herald, June 30th), a motion instructing its members to do so. It would, as Mr. Brownlie said, "embarrass candidates at future elections,” and it would put his members out of work who were engaged in battleship building. (He forgot to mention that the next war, being largely on the civilian population, would be good for undertakers.) Mr. Henderson settled the matter by saying it was "absurd,” and that we must have means of defence against France. The S.D.F., more candid in its willingness to help our masters out of their difficulties, decided at their Conference to revive their old demand for a conscript citizen army for "defence only” (Daily Herald, August 7th, 1923).
That last is at the kernel of the whole matter. Defending what, or defending whom? What have you got that needs defending against France? Will the French capitalists take away the million or so houses that the capitalist system cannot build for you, or the hutches in which most of you live? Will they take away the 25s. a week that Norfolk labourers are starving on, or the dole from the unemployed?
No. As workers you have nothing to defend except you' lives, and war merely means the exchange of the half-life of capitalist industrialism for nearly certain death. The French or the Germans or the Japs can only take away one brand of slavery and give you another in exchange, as like it as makes no odds. Do you think they care a damn about you or your few sticks of furniture? It is your labour-power they are interested in, and they will employ you or leave you unemployed just as your present masters do. If it pays them to do so, they will give you a few illusory plums like old age pensions or nationalisation, and if it does not pay them, they will not do so. Does the British or any other Government ever act on a different plane from this?
If you had anything in the country you call yours, what makes you emigrate by the hundred thousand? You are workers, and you live when and where you can get a job. Whether the employer is a Jew or a Gentile, white or black, French or British, the Postmaster-General or a Labour Government, does not matter one jot. They will employ you as they think fit, and they will, if you kick or lay hands on capitalist property, use their armed forces to shoot you down.
Those armed forces are used in peace or war to protect something which you as workers do not possess—that is, property. To protect it against you! The French capitalist class may, at no distant date, decide to go to war with their dearly beloved late allies, in order to filch some of their possessions. If they do, let them. As workers you have before you one remedy only; sometime, sooner or later, you will be compelled by the pressure of economic forces to set yourselves to this remedy. You will have to decide to seize from the capitalist class the means of producing wealth in the use of which they no longer take part, and use it as common property for the satisfaction of the needs of society. Until you do that, all your struggles will be in vain. If in the meantime one section of the capitalist class, the section which is primarily interested in exploiting you, asks you to defend its wealth against another section, act in accordance with the interests of your class, and let them fight their own battles.
Join us in our struggle for Socialism against them and their apologists and defenders.