Saturday, December 14, 2019

Wages in War-Time (1939)

Editorial from the December 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

Not only in a military sense has this been a "strange war." It has been strangely disarming on the home front also. The politicians and employers and the trade union officials have all remarked on the “good relationship" existing between masters and men.

The Government gave orders that the Departments of State were to seek co-operation with the unions. No big strikes are threatened, and conciliation and arbitration appear to be the order of the day. Primed with the experience gained in the last war, it must seem to those in authority that no cloud can arise to darken this fair scene. Have not the Government declared against profiteering and against a serious rise of prices? And has not Mr. Arthur Greenwood answered that the “trade union leaders have made no attempt to make class capital out of this war"? (Daily Express, November 17th, 1939).

Can anything go amiss with so happy a union? The answer is that it can and certainly will. Rising prices will break down the seeming harmony. Up to November 1st the cost-of-living, as measured by the Ministry of Labour Index, had risen by 14 points, equivalent to nine per cent., or a loss of purchasing power of 1s. 9½d. in the £. To meet this rise some four million out of 18 million workers have obtained war-time increases of wages; and instantly the Press, the City editors, and the economists—with the politicians waiting discreetly in the background—have struck a stout blow against higher wages and in defence of a lowered standard of living. Mr. Keynes, in his scheme for compulsory saving (i.e., the stoppage of part of wages for payment after the war), stated the case in full detail (The Times, November 14th and 15th), and although his plan has not been accepted, the problem as he stated it remains. With more workers at work there will be “a demand for labour in excess of the supply,” wages will rise, and overtime will be worked—in short, the normal peace-time capitalist check on wage increases will not operate.

The working class, as a whole, will have more money to spend just at a time when it is considered essential that productive capacity should be concentrated on war purposes. If workers have this additional money, and spend it, the result will either be a shortage of the goods workers buy or a big rise of prices—a shortage if the prices are kept down by Government action; a rise of prices if they are not kept down by such action.

Mr. Keynes' remedy is to defer payment of part wages until after the war and thus lower the worker’s standard of living while the war is on; in his own words: “It is a proposal . . . nearly as good as a 10 per cent. fall in real wages, while doing no lasting injury to working-class consumption.”

To minimise the effect of the rise of prices the Ministry of Food (Manchester Guardian, November 17th) has already set about showing how a rise in prices can be almost an advantage to the workers. If, says the Ministry, a worker buys margarine because of the increased price of butter he gets “a much, cheaper article, say one-third of the price of butter. The change-over may mean some sacrifice of personal taste, but it is the result of war conditions, and the consumer gets from his lower expenditure on margarine the same vitamin qualities as from his previous expenditure on butter."

Applied all round, this kind of adaptation will, of course, enable the workers to live more cheaply— on a lower standard of living.

Precisely the same argument was used in the last war against workers who complained that wage increases always lagged far behind the rise of the cost-of-living index figures.

But will workers be satisfied to accept quietly a lowered standard of living, either through higher prices or compulsory saving? Or will they be content to make up their wages by working overtime or working more intensely on piece-rate systems and thus suffering in health and vitality? It can be said with certainty that workers will not. The numerous applications for war-time increases of pay indicate already what will happen—an increasingly tense struggle between workers demanding cost-of-living increases because a still lower standard of living is intolerable, and employers resisting the demands.

As the Economist sadly reflects: —
  So far there is no sign that they [the trade unions] have departed from the attitude that, whatever happens to anybody else, the standard of living of their members must not be touched.—Economist, November 18th.
With the aloofness of the economic expert, to whom workers are just “the labour problem,” this writer cannot see the difference between the rich losing part of their superfluous wealth and the poor losing part of their necessaries of life.

Similarly, The Times' City Editor (November 20th) shows a characteristic propertied-class attitude in the matter. His criticism of Mr. Keynes is not on the ground that the Keynes’ plan means a lowered standard of living for the workers but that it would not go far enough.
  Nor does he demonstrate how the maintenance of something not much worse than the pre-war standard of working-class consumption is compatible with the present rate of Government expenditure—except by a correspondingly greater reduction in that of other classes of the population. Most of these people readiest to approve such a plan as this have hitherto assumed that the standards of living of no class could be generally maintained in war-time.
Of course the stock argument of such people is that the war is for national aims and all should be prepared to make sacrifice. To which Mr. Greenwood, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, though he supports the war, is constrained to reply that: ‘‘There is too ready an assumption on his (Mr. Keynes’) part that the workers of this country were having a fair share of its wealth, anyway, before the war started.” And the Manchester Guardian pertinently reminds its readers that: "Before the war, Sir William Crawford estimated, eight million people lacked wages sufficient for the bare minimum of food regarded as essential to health by the British Medical Association ” (Manchester Guardian, November 3rd).

So, war or no war, we are back again at the basis of capitalism, the ceaseless struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Not all the academic theorisings of Mr. Keynes and all the honeyed words of the politicians will prevent the struggle from proceeding, with its customary periodic outbursts of industrial strife.

Mr. Churchill may persuade himself that ours is one of the peaceful parliamentary countries “which aim at freedom for the individual and abundance for the mass” (broadcast reproduced in News Chronicle, November 13th), but he cannot dispute the unchallengeable facts of working-class poverty. Nor can Lord Halifax’s assertion that the Allies aim at a new world which "will enlist the co-operation of all peoples on a basis of human equality . . ." hide the fact that within this democracy, or elsewhere under capitalism, vast inequality is the permanent rule.

All of these people may think they are filled with goodwill towards the workers at the moment, but those who are determined to retain capitalism are maintaining a social system which breeds poverty, strife and class hatred, as surely as it breeds war.

Capitalism for the workers will be no different after the war. Mr. Keynes may promise that the deferred wages (if his plan is eventually adopted) will be paid after the war, but vast numbers of workers will then be suffering from the closing down of war production. Already the City Editor of The Times is considering what will happen “if the usual slump supervenes upon this war as it did upon the last . . .” (The Times, November 16th, 1939).

So this is the prospect for the workers. A struggle to resist a lowered standard of living during the war, and after it a post-war slump in which to celebrate victory.

Here and There: New Words for the Old (1939)

The Here and There column from the December 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

New Words for the Old
It is a cynical world, a brutal world, particularly for idealists. A few years ago millions placed their hopes for peace in the League of Nations and all that it was supposed to stand for: the “rule of law” in disputes between the national capitalist groups and the "independence” of small nations. The great hopes which were centred in the League have foundered on the rocks of reality. The test of experience showed that the "rule of law” was applied in a quite arbitrary fashion; that it was interpreted quite differently in different cases. Abyssinian "independence” was apparently a small matter compared to the ‘‘independence” of Poland. The latter, to the British capitalists, is worth incalculable risks in money and working-class lives. The truth is, of course, that the suppression of Polish “independence” expressed a growing dominance of German capitalism and a threat to the dominance of France and Great Britain. Hence the importance of Polish “independence” to the latter powers. Circumstances alter cases. And the circumstances which influence the greater powers of the world are those which affect their own interests. The fact that Germany swallowed certain small powers which were set up by her enemies under the Versailles Treaty is in itself evidence that the independence of those small powers was part of the defence policy of the powers who imposed the Versailles Treaty. It suited the interests of Franco-British capitalism to support "independence” for these small powers. The constitution of the League of Nations gave the appearance of support for the equality and independence of all nations as a general principle. The strain which the rivalries of the various capitalist groups imposed upon the League in recent years exposed that myth. Consequently, the “idealists” who pinned their faith in the League suffered bitter disillusionment.

Some show signs of having learned from the events of the past twenty years: others are chasing new panaceas. One such is the proposal for Federal Unionism. Several prominent people are toying with it. The basic proposals are world government on a federal basis. One writer (W. B. Curry) instances the Federal Government of the U.S.A. as an example of the form the proposal might take. If the governments of the world could enter a federal union and accept the authority of the Federal Government much in the same way as the states which comprise the U.S.A. accept the authority of their Federal Government, then world peace would be secured. The limitations to the application of the idea are enormous. And to do them justice many of the authors of it are not unaware of some of them. The baffling task, for example, of persuading nations with different traditions and in varying stages of development to be. bound by Federal decisions is met with the suggestion that the Federal Union should at first include Great Britain and its self-governing dominions, France, the U.S.A., and the smaller “democracies.”

What the supporters of Federal Unionism do not realise is that the proposals contain no principle which has not already broken down very pathetically in the League of Nations. It would not be difficult for all capitalist governments to accept “the rule of the law” as a form of words. It would be in the interpretation and application out of which the conflicts would arise. There could be no guarantee that those nations which refused to accept the “Federal Government’s” decisions would not break away and form alliances opposed to it, as happened in the League of Nations.

To expect the capitalists of the world to accept the judgments of a Federal Government regarding their rivalries is romanticism. What decisions would a Federal Government make different from those the League of Nations made on the Manchuko, Abyssinian and Spanish disputes? None whatever. What law would compel a nation in the Federal Union to go to the assistance of a “victim of aggression” when that nation sympathises with the aggressor and not the victim? Advocates of Federal Unionism would argue, of course, that these difficulties would not arise. That the markets of the world and raw materials would be open and available for all capitalists, that the resources of colonies would be pooled. In short, those capitalist powers who have the dominance and the power to use it would share their advantages with the weaker powers.

We can imagine the great capitalist powers accepting a form of words which gives the appearance of that rosy picture. But giving reality to the fiction is as conceivable as Unilever sharing its advantages with a village soap-boiler.

The authors of the Federal Union proposals suggest that Great Britain should take the initiative in starting the new Federal era. Unconscious humour? Perhaps. Anyhow, Mr. W. B. Curry, in particular, might try his arts of persuasion on the gentleman who recently broadcast for the British Government and boasted that Great Britain had been at peace for only a few weeks in the past three hundred years!

An easier task for him would be to get to grips with the implications of the Socialist case: that the rivalries and wars between the various groups of capitalists in the modern world are conflicts which arise out of the competitive private property basis of capitalist society and can only finally disappear with the abolition of capitalism and the introduction of common ownership in the means and instruments of production and distribution.

Mr. Brockway Learns
 “The Labour Party are defending capitalist interests in this war, not working-class rights. They are failing completely in their duty to the nation now and to the memory of the men who, in the past, fought, were imprisoned and banished, and who died to secure us the right of democratic representation.
 “This Bill (Government Bill, suspending local elections) is thoroughly reactionary. rockwTwenty years ago I would not have believed that I would live to see a Labour Party agreeing to a measure for the defence of the ruling class in war.
  “The right of the electors is a safeguard that ought to be retained, unless the Government wants to drive the people and their discontent into channels of insurrection.”
Life must be full of painful surprises for Mr. Brockway. We should hate to add to them deliberately. But we must remind him that the Labour Party did agree to measures for the defence of the ruling class little more than twenty years ago. And little less than twenty weeks ago the I.L.P. were negotiating with the Party that does not defend “working-class rights” the conditions for the re-affiliation of the I.L.P. and Labour Party.

Nasty? Well, Mr. Brockway, it somehow does not seem to square.

The “Real” War
Mr. Alexander, City Editor of the Evening Standard, has no illusions about the cause of war: —
   How goes the war behind the war? Most of us know that real wars, with their gunfire and bombs and bloodshed, are due largely to the breakdown in our commercial arrangements to secure a proper exchange of goods and services between nations. Normal trade itself is not war.
   It is only when the failure to exchange persists for a considerable time that trade takes on the nature of war. . . .
    More than that. We must carry the trade offensive into the enemy’s former territory . . .    Where shall we strike with this weapon, deadlier than any secret one that Hitler holds? Let us go through those German trade returns! Let us find out where they sent their chemicals and their machinery, their iron and steel goods, and then go into those markets in such a way that every ship that leaves these shores will be packed with British goods—and if needs be under a merchant captain who also knows how to sell. (Italics are Mr. Alexander’s.).—Evening Standard, November 2nd, 1939.
Enthusiasts in the fight for democracy and against aggression might do worse than letting the implications of the above really sink well in.

Squaring the Circle
The following, reproduced in the New Leader (October 27th), is a copy of a memo, issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party dealing with that Party’s recent support of the war policy of the Government: —
   Actual practice proved that the “struggle on two fronts” was a contradiction in terms. The only way of carrying on the struggle on the front against Hitler was by supporting the military measures of the Chamberlain-Churchill Government. How could we support those military measures and at the same time fight Chamberlain?
  Those contradictions quickly landed us in difficulties which resulted in the weakening of the fight against Chamberlain, shown markedly in the fact that (a) the Party lagged behind in the struggle of the workers against the capitalist offensive in Britain which quickly assumed enormous proportions; (b) no fight was waged against the Imperialist aims of the Chamberlain Government and the Party propaganda even tended to support the Churchill group, the exponents of the war to the knife policy.
We like that “ . . . even tended to support the Churchill group, the exponents of the war to the knife policy.”

Very delicately put. But it was the Communist Party which, only six months ago, wanted Churchill in the proposed Popular Front Government.

Anyway, most observers would say that it was the Communist Party who set the pace, not Churchill. In Communist Party propagandist jargon it is always they who formulate the correct line; others merely follow.

Mr. John S. Clarke on Revolution
Mr. Clarke, in Forward (October 14th), brings Marx into a controversy in support of the British capitalist class. The Labour Party, he says, "has followed the dictum of Karl Marx—to fight side by side with the bourgeoisie when it acts in a revolutionary way” (Mr. Clarke’s italics).

With Marxism and Christianity to inspire them, the British ruling class certainly appear to have a wide moral support.

However, Mr. Clarke amplifies his argument: —
   When the late Herbert Spencer wrote his memorable attack upon Socialism, "The Servile State,” even he did not foresee the full horror of a Nazi regime. He did not foretell the utter malignancy of the “Socialist” bureaucrats—the padlocked tongue, the family divided against itself, the imprisoned conscience, the tortured body, the concentration camps with their electrified barbed-wire entanglements, and the hangings, shootings and beheadings for political peccadilloes.
One can understand the point of view, though it is difficult to understand Mr. Clarke sharing it.

Mr. J. S. Clarke might ponder the question: Will the sacrifice he and others call upon millions of young workers to make achieve its purpose ?

At least he ought to be sure!
Harry Waite

Answers to Correspondents (1939)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

A correspondent (Miss H. S., Cheltenham) asks the following questions: —

(1) “It has been explained to me that it is theoretically impossible to institute Socialism until the country involved has passed through a period of capitalism. I realise the immense practical difficulties involved, but fail to see why this should not be theoretically possible on the basis of Marxism.

(2) "It has been said also, that, on the basis of Marxism, the Russian October Revolution could not have been a proletarian revolution, and was bound to degenerate into state capitalism, because of the comparatively small size of the Russian proletariat and the immense number of peasants.

“Would you kindly explain this, and say if you think it is wrong to consider that, with the innovation of collectivisation in agriculture, the peasant stands in the same relation to the proletarian state as the industrial or factory worker ?” 

Regarding Marx’s own view of this impossibility, see his preface to the First German Edition of ”Capital,” Vol. I. Towards the end of the preface he points out that a country cannot leap over the normal phases of development.

It is not theoretically (or practically) possible for Socialism to be instituted without Socialists, and the widespread acceptance of Socialism by the workers presupposes a highly industrialised society, which alone makes Socialism economically possible. In short, the idea of Socialism, to be widely accepted, must rest upon a solid foundation of industrial development. Some workers can, it is true, dream of equalitarianism, and so on, although they live in a society which is only at the beginning of capitalist development, but they have not the economic and human material with which to make Socialism a practical possibility.

In October, 1917, the overwhelming mass of the Russian population did not understand Socialism or want Socialism. A minority of town workers did so, but the great mass of peasants wanted their problems solved, e.g., reduction of taxation, dividing up the estates of the landowners among the poor peasants, etc. Therefore the Bolshevik Government had no Socialist mass behind them.

Subsequent events have proved this. If the Russian town workers and collectivised peasants understood and wanted Socialism, the various developments of Russia now noticeable would be impossible, e.g., the pact with Hitler, the big and growing inequality, and the creation of privileged sections of the population, the piece-work systems, etc., the alleged or real conspiracies and purges.

Of course, in time Russian town and rural workers will turn more and more to Socialism, but that development will be slow, as in other countries.
Editorial Committee

The Russian Invasion of Finland (1939)

From the December 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx Condemns Stalin's Policy of Conquest

The Russian excuse for invading Finland is that military considerations necessitate frontier revision. Marx, writing in 1870, had something to say about such claims when put forward by Germany towards France.

The passage below is quoted in “Karl Marx,” by I. Berlin (Home University Library, 1939. P.223).
  “If limits are to be fixed by military interests there will be no end of claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory: they can never be fixed fairly or finally because they always must be improved by the conqueror or the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seeds of fresh wars. History will measure its retribution, not by the extent of square miles conquered from France, but by the intensity of the crime of reviving, in the second half of the 19th century, the policy of conquest ” (italics Marx’s)