Thursday, July 25, 2019

Letters: Are We Normal? (1978)

Letters to the Editors from the January 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Are We Normal?

At speakers’ corner the other Sunday your speaker said ‘‘We have no geniuses in our party, we are ordinary members of the working class”. Who are you trying to kid? Perhaps yourselves?

How can you be ordinary members of the working class when you belong to an extraordinary organization? Perhaps you mean your members represent a cross-section of the working class in intelligence. That in itself is debatable, but it has nothing to do with normality.

Ordinary people on hearing the socialist case do not become socialists, only those made aware by exceptional circumstances. In other words, the Socialist Party acts as a catalyst in developing ideas that are themselves fairly advanced. The group of people you aim at are in this situation of advancement.

How then you will ever communicate the socialist idea to the majority of people who, whilst having the intellectual capacity to understand, have not the learning (through no fault of their own) to understand at the level you persist in speaking at, is beyond me. No matter what you think of yourselves, you appear alien. This is no way to go about working-class emancipation; you are supposed to enlighten, not frighten.

I commented in a previous letter at your ‘‘angry” approach. The left in Britain, the Socialist Standard says, has not had an increase in support in 50 years—but then have you? Reach out to the people. It’s all very well having high-powered debates and discussions, it may be great fun, but who are you going to convince? A few trade unionists and university students, perhaps. But the average man in the street? I think not.

Sell yourselves. You have to (initially) speak and work in language that is not alien to the vast majority. I realize that your resources are low, your membership small, and the media is hostile to your cause. But you squander what little resources you have.

I am a person outside of the Party. I am commenting on how the Party might appear to the average person who has heard of it. By the way, the average person cares very little about the starving millions in Bangladesh. Bring the arguments down from the heavens to the earth, commenting on how Socialism will affect us as individuals in our own special environment.
David Waite
Imperial College

Maybe socialists are extraordinary! Most of them, however, are not geniuses. Moreover, even if one were, for example, highly adept at mathematics, that would not help one to understand Socialism.

You are angry. You suggest that we ‘‘sell ourselves”. Do you have any suggestions as to how we should do this? You say we are unlikely to convince anyone but a “few university students and trade unionists”. Well, a very wide section of the working class belongs to some trade union or other; firemen do and so do civil servants. What differentiates the trade-union member from the rest of the working class?

The average person may feel unable to do much about the starving peoples in Bangladesh, but one of our aims is to get the “man on the Clapham omnibus” to question everything which happens in the world. When someone realizes why butter mountains, wine lakes etc. exist alongside starving millions, he is on the way towards understanding capitalism. Once the “average man” (or woman) understands how capitalism works, he (or she) will want to set about trying to replace it. And in working out what to replace it with, people will see the necessity of Socialism.

Taxes and Labour

Firstly, i refer to your correspondence columns in the Oct. 1976 and Dec. 1976 issues of the Socialist Standard. It was said in one of your replies that wages are what workers actually receive (net pay) and that taxes are paid by the employing class.

Notwithstanding the incontrovertibility of this assertion, I suggest that the rate of the impost on income is, caeteris paribus, of more interest to the worker than to the capitalist in the short term. If, for example, gross wages remain the same, while the rate of tax falls, then the total outlay of the capitalist remains the same (net pay plus taxation equalling the same gross pay as before the alteration of the impost rate) whilst the net pay of the workers increases at the expense of the tax paid; the reverse being the case if the rate of tax rises.

In the long term, however, an accretion to or a deduction from net wages as a result of a variation in the tax levels has repercussions on the employer. For instance, should net wages diminish as a result of an increase in the rate of tax, workers may then press, successfully, for higher gross pay which would entail an additional payment by the capitalist. Conversely, if net wages rise as a result of a fall in the tax on income, workers would be less likely to seek wage increases and so the capitalist avoids having to make additional payments to workers.

Secondly, the Spring-Summer 1977 Western Socialist contained a reply to a letter. The reply stated that the division of labour will be the basis of world Socialism. However, in The German Ideology Marx wrote ". . . while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow.”

Do you agree with the Western Socialist or with Marx?
P. S. Maloney
London N13

Your proposition about tax is fallacious because, while you say that you are accepting that “other things are equal”, in fact ycur proposition is based on the assumption that two other vital factors have also been varied.

Our case is that in reality the burden of taxation (cost of the administrative machine of capitalism) falls on the capitalist class and comes out of surplus-value. Nominally, however, the cost is met partly out of PAYE, deducted from workers’ wages.

Your proposition assumes that the government revenue from PAYE is reduced, but unless you also assume (while giving no reason) that the total cost of administration has been correspondingly reduced, the government has to make an equal increase in the amount of tax collected directly from the capitalists. Your assumption that the total outlay of the capitalist remains the same is therefore untrue.

Your argument further requires (though without saying so) that simultaneously with the reduction of PAYE, the bargaining position of the workers against the capitalists has improved. (What Marx called "the respective powers of the combatants”.) If, before the reduction of PAYE, the bargaining power of the workers enables them to maintain net pay of £x, it cannot be assumed that when PAYE is reduced by £y the workers’ bargaining power is so increased that they can now achieve net pay of £x + £y.

In view of these errors in your proposition, it is not necessary to go into any difference there may be between short- and long-term.

The statement in the Western Socialist is in reply to a critic who argues that "division of labour and private property are equally” the cause of the evils of capitalism. The reply says that in Socialism there will be free access, and "without division of labour this would hardly be possible”.

Marx distinguished between social division of labour, i.e. the existence of separate industries, and the workshop division of labour, i.e. workers being forced to get their living by doing detailed processes. (See Capital Vol. 1, “Division of Labour and Manufacture”, particularly the last paragraph in Section 4.) The latter, but not the former, is peculiar to capitalism.

The Western Socialist’s critic does not make clear whether he is referring to the latter, or both. We do not imagine that the reply meant anything other than the social division of labour. Various industries under capitalism (particularly the motor industry) have already abandoned detail work and gone over to teams producing a whole car, because it gives greater output and better quality.

Anyway, how, in Socialist society, could any worker be compelled to do deadly repetitive work against his will? Marx made that point in The German Ideology. He said it is only under capitalism that a worker has to do it "if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood”. In the well-known passage where Marx spoke of man being “a hunter in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening”, etc., he was talking about "whole” jobs not detailed division of labour (though his examples are not much related to modern conditions). Marx also recognized that to do this the individual has to take advantage of the facilities “to become accomplished in any branch he wishes”, i.e. he has to get knowledge and training—no self-appointed surgeons or airline pilots, as anarchists have sometimes claimed there will be.

The State

Replying to my letter, on liberty under Socialism—November issue—you state "there would not, and could not, be coercion against any individual or minority who did not agree with majority decisions”. I am in complete agreement. An unequivocal statement which could not be bettered. Yet Clause 6 urges the working class to organise for the “conquest of the powers of government” with the object of converting these powers "from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation”. But, if we are to use the "powers of government”, this surely will necessitate coercion? Further, if we are to rely on State action, the State will have functions to perform and organisms which have functions to perform do not "wither away”. Assuming the people have accepted Socialism, would not advisory councils be best fitted for any necessary organisation? The State can make changes in one way only—by means of force. We may be sure that people sufficiently intelligent to accept Socialism will be able to arrange affairs without compulsion when called on to do so.

I agree that anarchism is a negative philosophy and that only within the framework of a positive society, based on common ownership of the means of wealth production, will a free society ever be possible. With the end of profits and wages system and consequent conflict of interest which now operates between every individual, class, group and nation, the basic interest of all will be the same.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain (alone) constantly puts over this message. But can we ever accomplish it by political means? Parliament and rulers are synonymous terms to the mass of the people. How can we persuade them that rulers are unnecessary in a civilised world if we identify ourselves with that capitalist institution, Parliament. I greatly fear the corrupting influence of the "struggle to gain the Powers of Government” and, oh!, how I wish the SPGB did not indulge in political activity— a vain hope indeed.
F. Ball 

If it is agreed that the ownership basis of society must be changed, there is no alternative to political action to bring about the change. The capitalist class are a minority incapable of safeguarding their ownership on their own account: the function of the state is to legalize class ownership, and back up the legality with force. Attempts to use "industrial action" or "direct action” to bring about a change are quashed by the powers of government. The only way is for delegates of a socialist working class to take control of the state, so that its machinery can no longer be used to maintain and enforce class ownership. This is what Clause 6 of our Principles means.

Beyond this single major act, the state has no other function to perform. Certainly there will be organization in Socialism, but its concern will be “administration of things” and not administration of people. As you yourself say, people who have a clear understanding of Socialism are able to manage the affairs of society without compulsion.

Your last point is that political activity produces an authoritarian mentality. It does—in those who lack the understanding we have been talking about. All kinds of everyday experiences can likewise produce a belief in leadership and acceptance of corruption. Socialist consciousness is the only effective resistance to them; and the political organization for Socialism must be a democratic one, in which all functionaries carry out neither more nor less than the instructions of those who vote for them.


What is the extent of working class investment in the UK economy and what proportion is it of total investment at a rough estimate?

I was perplexed when I came across the following extract from Marx’s work Theorien Über den Mehrwert II/2 pg. 368. in Bottomore and Rubel’s book Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy p. 198:
  What [Ricardo] forgets to mention is the continual increase in numbers of the middle classes, . . . situated midway between the workers on one side and the capitalists and landowners on the other. These middle classes rest with all their weight upon the working class and at the same time increase the social security and power of the upper class.
I’m afraid I don’t know what context this was written in (perhaps you can tell me?) but it does appear to me to contradict for example what Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto about the "lower strata of the middle class” sinking into the proletariat and also in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right where he talks of the “disintegration of the middle class” (Bottomore and Rubel, p. 190). I had always imagined that by "middle class” Marx meant basically the small businessman. From his analysis of the economics of capitalism Marx predicted the growing concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands —in the sense in which “middle class” is understood as alluding to the small businessmen Marx’s prediction is undoubtedly spot-on. Could it be that in the above quotation from Theorien Über den Mehrwert Marx used the term "middle class” to mean a social grouping embodying a petty-bourgeois mentality? If so when this appears to utterly refute the sort of smug assertions one finds in sociology textbooks that “Marx failed to foresee the growth of a middle class” (even leaving aside the point that to marxists, because someone works in an office or speaks in a posh accent, this does not make him any the less a member of the working class).
Robin Cox 

1. There is no conceivable way of identifying what shares are owned by workers. Company shares are owned by individuals and joint owners, and by trustees, investment and unit trusts, banks, pension funds, insurance companies, etc. No owner explains when buying shares that he is or is not a worker.

For an individual company it is possible to find out what amount each shareholder owns, but this tells you little. X may own 1,000 shares in 10 companies, as also each of those named in the previous paragraph. However, nobody could combine this information for all companies, or identify the ultimate owners via a trust or a pension fund.

The First Report of the Royal Commission on Incomes and Wealth (pages 81-82) gives some information on the percentage of shareholding in groups classified according to the estimated total personal wealth of the persons in each group.

2. The 1969 Moscow edition of Theories of Surplus Value has an addition to the second sentence of the passage you quote and reads: "The middle classes maintain themselves to an ever increasing extent directly out of revenue, they are a burden weighing heavily on the working base and increase the social security and power of the upper ten thousand.”

In this section Marx is discussing the transformation of capital into revenue and vice versa, with references to Ricardo and another writer, John Barton. In another part of it he speaks of "the landlords and capitalists, their retainers and hangers-on”, and later: "A larger section of the workers employed in the production of articles of consumption that are consumed by—are exchanged against the revenue of—capitalists, landlords and their retainers (state, church etc.).” This makes clear that he was not talking about small businessmen.

Theories of Surplus Value was Marx’s manuscript for a projected Fourth Volume of Capital. The manuscript was never worked up by Marx for publication, and some passages are little more than notes for further elaboration; we do not know if he would have used the same phrases in a finished work. The view which Marx stated consistently is found in Capital Volume 3 (page 1025, Kerr edn.): “In view of the foregoing analysis it is not necessary to demonstrate again, that the relation between wage labour and capital determines the entire character of the mode of production. The principal agents of this mode of production itself, the capitalist and the wage worker, are to that extent merely personifications of capital and wage labour. They are definite social characters, assigned to individuals by the process of production. They are products of these definite social conditions of production.”

Voting Shut-Down?

I am studying the Principles (I am in 100 per cent agreement with the Object) and contacting my nearest branch of the Party, and do believe from what I’ve heard so far that the SPGB is closer to what I believe than any party or group I’ve yet come in contact with. Reformism is indeed a dead end!

One question: The achievement of Socialism by gaining a democratic majority of socialists is one I agree with and I reject violence, terrorism and guerrilla-type tactics. But what if the capitalist parties refuse to call an election? We have no written Constitution in the UK and the fact we have General Elections every three years at least is a convention—also the monarch "upon advice” can summon anyone to form a government—a minority one in theory.

If it looks as if socialists are becoming a majority of the working class I cannot envisage the capitalists maintaining democracy for the convenience of those who are about to bring in Socialism! Related to this point is the fact that many lands do not have a system of democratic elections. I would be grateful for your comments on this. I’m not trying to split hairs but this seems a very obvious objection to the Party’s Principle.
Robert J. Taylor

Capitalism rests upon the support of the working class, and elections are a way of renewing and measuring that support. Though, as you say, many countries "do not have democratic elections”, they do have parliamentary systems; what is missing is a choice of opposition candidates with facilities to put their points of view.

There was no general election in Britain from 1936 to 1945, the three major parties agreeing on a wartime "truce”. This was achieved solely because there was no doubt that the great majority of the working class supported the government’s main policy, i.e. the war against Germany. At other times the capitalist class of a country has had to withdraw from a war because of lack of support from the workers.

If elections were suspended because it was likely that a socialist majority would be elected, the existing pro-capitalist government would be unable to carry out its policies for any length of time. It would not have the cooperation of the trade unions, nor would it be able to prepare for war; and in all departments it would be without the necessary assent of "public opinion”.

As regards other countries, at that stage of development they too would have strong socialist movements. At present the call for “democratic elections” in those countries comes from factions who themselves want the opportunity to run capitalism and would seek working-class support on that basis. Socialists need democracy for the establishment of common ownership, and at the stage when the majority of workers have that conscious objective it will be impossible for the capitalist class to withhold it by political manoeuvres or any other means.