From the February 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard
The example of the difference of the relations between men getting their livelihood by means of simple instruments of labour (typified by the threshing flail) and those producing their sustenance by means of more advanced means of production (typified by the threshing machine) which we have given by no means exhausts the field. Just as the social structure consists of much more than these primary and personal relations, so much more in the social life takes shape from the character of the instruments of labour and the methods in which they are used. Man stands not only in relations with his fellow men, but also with the world about him, and as far as these relations are within society they have their base in the conditions of wealth production.
In the classic age of the flail, for instance, the general means of producing wealth were about on a par with that implement. It was the day of the windmill, the spinning wheel and distaff, and the primitive loom. In the towns the smith's hammer rang out, without a rival in the production of ferrous ware. Everywhere was handwork, everywhere tools. Machinery, if not unknown, was of so little importance as to have practically no influence upon the method of production.
In such conditions as this what was the relation of men toward the world ? We have already seen that the instruments of labour in general belonged to those who operated them. Among the artizans of the towns, possibly, were many exceptions, but the lower we descend in the scale of the development of the instruments of labour, the more do we find the energies of the workers occupied in the production of the primary necessaries, food, shelter, and clothing. Therefore, in the period of which we are speaking, the production of these things were the predominating industries, and it was the general conditions prevailing in these industries which determined the general social relations.
It was not, therefore, the handicraft of the towns which determined the social form, but the economic conditions of rural industries.
Ignoring, then, the seeming contradictions of the towns, where goods were certainly produced for sale, let us turn to the countryside.
The worker of the Middle Ages, owning the simple means by which he produced his living, had an outlook upon the world entirely different from that of the modern worker. This difference commenced with his relation to the product of his toil. His very object was different when he took his instruments of labour in hand. The modern worker starts out to produced wealth which shall be the property of the owner of the implements he operates, but the feudal worker, owning the tools with which he worked, laboured to produce wealth for himself. Hence while the modern worker realises that his function in life, and therefore the reason he is permitted to live, is to work, the mediaeval worker could not take this view of himself and his relation to the world.
He worked to live. The product of his labour was a different thing at the moment of its production, from the product of the toil of his present-day prototype. The latter, producing wealth which, on production, belongs to someone else, necessarily produces what that other requires, and he cannot escape the conviction that he is only permitted to work (and therefore to live) in order to produce it. The feudal worker, on the other band, producing wealth for himself, produced those things which he required to satisfy his own needs, hence he saw himself only working to live, and took an opposite view of his place in the world to that of the wage worker of our present system.
A. E. Jacomb