Friday, February 4, 2022

Spooks again (1925)

From the August 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Chairman (name not given) of the recent Annual Conference at Colwyn Bay of the United Postal Workers’ Union, is, we are pleased to observe, not too old to learn. Like ourselves he had noticed the patent emptiness of Mr. Baldwin’s appeal for a truce in industry. Well, one need not he an intellectual giant to see that. How many times is it necessary to repeat, “all great minds think alike.” The Chairman goes one better than that. He is a living exponent of the new truth, “all great men talk alike,” for, by what can only be a coincidence his remarks read like a condensation of our April Article on “Mr. Baldwin’s Utopia.” Whole phrases read exactly the same, and in others, words almost appear to have been transposed or altered. It is remarkable. What a case for the Psychical Research Society. Here is an authentic case of thought-transference extending even to continuous strings of the same words. We are amazed. Of course had the Chairman been actually quoting from the Socialist Standard, he would have had the elementary decency to have said so : that goes without saying. We would not deny elementary decency to any member of the Labour Party. Too often it is their only possession. We would not rob them of their all. No ! It is a clear case of psychic transference. We commend it to Lodge, Doyle, Bradley and Co.

Editorial: The Socialist View of the Situation in China (1925)

Editorial from the August 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

The present disturbances in those of China occupied by foreign settlements may be said to have had their immediate origin in a strike which took place in February last. Chinese workers employed in Japanese textile factories in Shanghai protested against the ill-treatment of a girl who was seriously injured by a Japanese foreman. Her offence was that she was found asleep after a twelve-hour night shift. The strikers demanded that fines and personal violence of this kind be abolished, and a 10 per cent, increase of their wages. The strike appears to have been unsuccessful, but even so the employers failed to keep the terms of settlement.

In May this and many long-standing grievances led to a general strike movement in Shanghai, and feeling was quickly inflamed by the death of a striker at the hands of a Japanese factory official. On May 30th a number of Chinese students paraded in protest after having been forbidden to do so by the police. Some students were arrested and the remainder demanded their release. Shanghai police in the charge of a British inspector were then ordered by him to “shoot to kill” only 10 seconds after he had announced his intention to the few bystanders who were near enough to hear his words. The result was that 6 were killed and 40 wounded. Within 6 days the victims in the ensuing riots numbered 70 dead and 300 wounded —all Chinese.

The movement rapidly spread to Hong Kong, Canton and other industrial and commercial centres, being added to and made more complex by the race hatred of British, French, Japanese and other foreigners who have at different times occupied Chinese territory and maintained their occupation by force, in spite of the opposition of Chinese governments. It has been easy enough to induce the strikers to believe that their enemy is the “foreigner,” because the majority of the factories happen to be foreign owned. There is actually, of course, no question of the Chinese exploiter being any less brutal in his treatment of his employees than are his alien rivals. The abominable conditions which prevail in the foreign mills—as bad as those common in this country in the early days of the factory system—are equalled, if not surpassed, by those in Chinese establishments in and outside the foreign settlements.

The foreign settlers, backed by their respective governments, are thus threatened by two quite different but at present associated movements—by their Chinese employes, who want better conditions, and by the propertied and educated Chinese, who burn with hatred of the foreign invaders and demand independence. They resent their position of political and social inferiority and (most intolerable of all the burdens a would-be ruling class can be made to bear) they have had to suffer the indignity of seeing the proceeds of the exploitation of Chinese workers pocketed by European and Japanese capitalists. The first principle of patriotism in China, as elsewhere, is that robbery, like charity, should begin—and end—at home.

For their part the foreigners are by no means more than superficially united. Great Britain arrived early and obtained the best ports and most extensive spheres of interest, and now in consequence has to face the hardly disguised hostility of the late arrivals who seek to gain commercial and financial advantage by other means than those adopted by Great Britain. Thus Russia and U.S.A. both go out of their way to pose as friends of China. Russia has already relinquished all special privileges in China, and America chooses this moment to announce that it foregoes the last instalments of the Boxer indemnity. American missionaries supported the policy of their Government by giving evidence on behalf of the arrested Chinese students, while British and others were defending and glorifyingf the brutality of the British controlled police.

As for the disturbances, we are familiar enough with the customary violent and hypocritical attitude of the European ruling classes towards their workers not to be surprised at the use of similar methods in Shanghai. All the blame was as a matter of course laid on the Chinese students and “agitators,” but little by little evidence has accumulated which badly damages the pretensions of the guardians of “law and order.”

In the demonstration the only casualties were Chinese; two out of three doctors stated at the trial that the wounds were nearly all in the back, which would be inexplicable if the crowd had been attacking the police; the third doctor said, “I am not sure whether the bullets were shot from the back or the front.” (Daily Herald, July 21st.) The judges found “that there was no violence or indication of violence, that most of the arrests took place before the shooting. …” The students were all acquitted. The Commission appointed by the diplomatic body blamed the police and recommended the dismissal of those responsible (Daily Herald, 22nd July). This finding has been overlooked or suppressed by most of the Press.

The recent movement is, however, only a symptom of a change which coming over China—the change from a static peasant system to an aggressive and progressive capitalism.
“China is passing through the first phases of the industrial revolution. … In the seven years from 1915 the number of spindles rose from one to two millions.”—” Manchester Guardian,” 19th June, 1925.
A propertyless industrial working class is massing and slowly learning to organise against vile factory conditions and low wages. Whether they will or no they are being brought into dependence on world capitalism, and they will in time take their part in the struggle for the overthrow of that system.

Unfortunately this critical phase finds them overwhelmed with interested parties offering them bad advice, anxious to divert them into various blind alleys.

The Chinese capitalists, the Communists and the Labour Party are all “friends” of the Chinese worker. If the Chinese workers are led to support the Chinese capitalist independence movement, experience will soon teach them that nationality means nothing whatever to the workers ; their lot will be no degree better if and when their exploiters are all Chinese.

The Communists’ willingness to deceive other people is only equalled by the ability to deceive themselves. They disregard the fact that at present only a small fraction of China is industrialised, they slur over the Capitalist aims of the independence movement and urge the workers to support anti-working class political groups to fight issues of no moment except to Chinese capitalists.

What they cannot or do not wish to see is plainly visible to others. The Chinese representative in London of the “Sin Po” (Batavia) writes as follows in “Foreign Affairs” (July, 1925):
“China, a land of conservatism and tradition, of peasant proprietorship, is the worst imaginable ground for the sowing of Marxian ideas. China being so vast, it is not surprising that in certain parts of the country the extreme Left wing of the Kuomintang is Communist ; but the body of the organisation is bourgeois and capitalistic with the mediaeval capitalism (“distributism”) of Mr. G. K. Chesterton. Let not Europeans be deceived by their newspapers: the present trouble in China, in so far as it is political, is a manifestation of nationalism in which merchants and bourgeois join with workers and students to resist foreign exploitation.”
The British Labour Party and Trades Union Congress have passed resolutions of sympathy protesting their solidarity with the Chinese workers. How little their socialist understanding and how little the value of their sympathy is shown by the fact that on 25th May the General Council sent a deputation to the President of the Board of Trade
“To protest against the continued employment of Chinese and cheap Asiatic labour on British steamers. The deputation asked the Government to introduce a Bill to make illegal such employment west of the Suez Canal.”—” Daily Herald,” 26th May.
The industrial workers of China are few at present. They should organise and work to defend their class interests on the economic field against capitalists irrespective of nationality, and prepare for the future when conditions will have been prepared making working class emancipation possible through Socialism.

The coming of socialism (1925)

From the August 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

A critic exposed.
After the Socialist has demolished in argument the case for capitalism his opponent falls back on one stock defence. He asks for a description of Socialistic society, and when he is informed that all that can be said about it with certainty is that it will be a society in which the means of production and distribution will be communally owned, and democratically controlled, in which production will be for use and not for profit, he cries, “There you are. You’ve got nothing constructive to offer. Your policy is wholly destructive, and your remedies vague and nebulous.” And that allegation comforts him and provides him with a justification for supporting capitalism which in argument he has had to admit cannot itself be justified. It is an old cry, but because it is being raised continuously it is worth while dealing with it.

The latest person to give prominence to it is Mr. Ramsay Muir. As Editor of the “Weekly Westminster” he has published a supplement entitled “The Socialist Case Examined,” in which he finishes up by flattening out the Socialist with ten questions, of which the first is, “How will the Socialist State be organised?” The other nine questions are equally terrifying, and show Mr. Muir’s journalistic skill in dodging the point at issue. Really Mr. Muir is not our pigeon; he does not attack responsible Socialism but the pink Liberalism of the MacDonalds, the Guild Socialism of G. D. H. Cole and the I.L.P. We will, however, remove those ten feathers from his tail (ten feathers of which he must be very proud, for he flourishes them twice, although that may be merely a trick of the journalist) because we can thereby deal with two birds with one stone. In passing it might be mentioned that Mr. Muir shows a greater knowledge of Socialism than the I.L.P’ers, etc., whom he attacks, and than he cares to admit. He points out, as we have never ceased to point out, that Socialism “does not mean a belief in using the power of the community for the purpose of protecting the weak, improving the condition of the poor and laying public burdens upon those who can best bear them,” and that it is foolish to think that legislation such as the Insurance Acts are Socialistic. He lays his finger on another weak point in the I.L.P. creed, when he points out that equal distribution of wealth, which the I.L.P., etc., seeks to bring about by inheritance taxes and capital levies, etc., would be useless at the present time, and is of only secondary importance. The main charge made by Socialists against Capitalism is that it fails to deliver the goods. The contradictions inherent in the system which is based on individual ownership and social productions prevent goods being produced in the quantities they might be. The system acts as a “fetter on production,” and it is because of that that we condemn it.

The question of distribution is only of secondary importance as compared with that of removing those fetters on production. Capitalism maintains an army of unemployed at both ends of society, under it many workers are employed unproductively, it presents the spectacle of equipment standing idle while those who could use it starve, it reveals man putting checks on the bounty of nature and restricting the production of rubber, tea, etc. It should be apparent then, even to a Radical Liberal, that anything that removes these evils will increase the wealth of the community. As they are inherent in capitalism they can only be ended by abolishing the system. To tinker about with the spanner of Manchester will do nothing, some of the “knocking” may be silenced but the car will still refuse to go. It is a new car that is wanted, and it won’t be found in the green Liberalism of the Wee Frees, or the delicate shell pink “Socialism” of the I.L.P. It can only be the product of the class conscious desire of the workers themselves.

It is not worth while dealing with the few weak defences Mr. Muir puts up for Capitalism, they are old and outworn, and should have been pensioned off long ago. But before proceeding to spoil his lovely tail we would like to pause to tender him our sympathy. He obviously found it very difficult to discover what the I.L.P. really stood for, to find some meaning in the contradictory statements of their various spokesmen. We appreciate his difficulty. We also have sought to discover what the I.L.P. stands for and have failed to do so. Of course we have always known what it did not stand for—Socialism. And now to reveal the Parson’s Nose.

The first and most important question is the first, “How will the Socialist State (!) be organised?” Strange as it may appear at first sight, no fuller answer can be given to this question than that indicated at the beginning of this article. Incidentally no fuller answer is necessary. If a defender of Capitalism were asked to say how the Capitalist system is organised all he could say if he were honest would be that the means of production and distribution are privately owned and that production is carried on by a propertyless class in exchange for wages under permission from the owning class who control production and draw profits from industry. That is the base on which the present superstructure is raised, but the buildings are many and various. Municipal tramways, monopolies like Coats, private family concerns like Hugo Stinnes & Co., vertical combinations like Harland and Wolff, horizontal combinations as in the German and French potash industries, public undertakings like the Post Office all differ from one another in detail, and yet are all capitalistic in that they are based on one thing—the existence of a propertyless wage earning class. If, therefore, it is impossible to say how industry is organised under Capitalism without writing a book, it is not surprising that more details cannot be given of industrial and social organisation under Socialism. Any attempt at prophesying is foolish, for the co-operative commonwealth would obviously be a very different thing if it came in 1925 from what it would be if it came in 2025. Its form will depend upon the stage reached in industrial development and technique whea the revolution takes place. Moreover Socialism is not a matter of crystal gazing, Socialists are not prophets of the future but interpreters of past history. Socialism is a theory which claims to explain past history as a series of class struggles, and more than that it does not seek to do. And as Socialism will be brought about by the united efforts of the workers, it is impossible for any one Socialist, or any body of Socialists now existing, to interpret what exactly all the workers of the future will want, and it is not only the Socialist who admits his inability to foretell the details of the future. Mr. Stanley Baldwin recently dealt in the House of Commons with the evolution of industry within the present system, and even in those much narrower limits he confessed that he could not prophesy.
“I have just tried to put . . . my conviction that we are moving forward rapidly from an old state of industry into a newer, and the question is : What is that newer going to be ? No man, of course, can say what form evolution is taking.” (“Hansard,” 6th March.)
Socialism will be prepared by the development of Capitalism and the form of its society will therefore be evolved in the womb of Capitalism. It is only “middle class” thinkers like the Webbs who are so impressed with their own intellects that they think that they can super-impose some organisation from without, and that the child of their imagination will be cheerfully adopted by the whole working class.

The third question raised is, “Can Socialism increase our national income?” and to that an answer has already been given. Then comes the gem of the collection. Mr. Muir wants to know if Socialism would cure unemployment. If he had considered what unemployment is, and if he had not found it advisable to change his ground in the course of the argument (so that although he starts off by accepting expropriation as an essential of Socialism, he finishes up by assuming that compensation would be paid to property owners) he would have refrained from this foolishness. Unemployment is inability to sell one’s labour power, and therefore only exists as a concomitant of wage slavery. Socialism, by ending wage slavery, will therefore cure unemployment, and what is more important it is only Socialism that will cure it. In this is also contained a reply to the seventh question, “How would Socialism deal with Labour disputes?”

The question “How would Socialism affect our Foreign Trade?” is a queer one in the mouth of a Liberal. Mr. Muir fears for our safety if we have a revolution, as we depend for our foodstuffs on importation from abroad. Tariff Reformers have been pointing out this danger which exists under Capitalism, and clamouring for Imperial Preferences, etc , for two decades, and Mr. Muir has scoffed at them and waxed eloquent in and out of Parliament about “sinister self interest.” Has Manchester’s armoury so few weapons in it that it has to borrow Birmingham’s blunderbuss?

The last four questions can be left, they do not touch the case for Socialism, but are directed against the policies of the Labour Party and the I.L.P. The second question is equally beside the point. “How would Socialism raise the necessary capital?” asks Mr. Muir. If cards like these are the trumps in the Liberal hand then one is almost sorry for those who have to play the hand out. Capital—an instrument of exploitation, will cease with Capitalism. Under Socialism provision will only have to be made for the supplying of the necessary equipment to carry on production, the providing of that equipment will be a charge on industry.

But all these are old cries, and it is amusing to find them in the mouth of a leader of “rejuvenated Liberalism.” The surprising thing is that they continue to deceive the workers.
W. J. R.

Economics and ideas. Their influence on political institutions (part 5) (1925)

From the August 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

(Continued from last month).

Ideas and the Wages System.

We have now seen how the bourgeoisie established a form of government peculiarly suited to their needs, based upon the “rights of property” and in which the propertied class ruled directly through chosen representatives under their control. The further developments of the bourgeois state, however, in which it tends more and more towards universal suffrage cannot be understood without considering a factor of the greatest significance—the mental outlook of the working class under the present system.

The modern proletariat is the counterpart of the chattel-slaves of Ancient Civilisation and the serfs of the Middle Ages. In economic function there is little or no distinction between these forms of exploitation. As economic relations, however, they have distinct differences which among other things determine the respective attitudes in the three systems, of the exploited class towards the social order that enslaves them. The slave’s attitude may be generally summed up as “ineffective opposition,” that of the serf as “passive acquiescence,” whilst that of the modern wage-worker is the apparently extraordinary one of “active support.”

It is often declared that this attitude of the mass of the workers under capitalism is the result of capitalist propaganda. The truth is, of course, that it results from the conditions of society as a whole—propaganda forms a part of these conditions, but its seed cannot take deep root and flourish, except it falls on fertile soil.

Let us contrast the historic modes of exploitation, paying especial attention to the peculiarities of the wages-system. The chattel-slave, the serf and the wage-worker are all compelled to labour and to surrender all the wealth they produce, except on the average that required for their own maintenance at the customary standard of living. Here, however, the resemblance ends for the social machinery whereby the exploitation is effected differs in each case. The kind of pressure used is different—with chattel-slavery it is naked force, the fear of the lash or torture; with serfdom it consists largely of the overwhelming power of custom and tradition, whilst with wage-slavery it is “economic need”—the fear of starvation.

Under chattel-slavery and serfdom the workers were an openly subjected class having a definitely inferior legal “status.” The chattel-slave had no legal rights, the serf had only those of the serf “status.” Moreover, between the subjected and the dominant classes there were usually definite barriers of culture and often of race, language and religion. All these facts combined to make the class separation a fixed one and to prevent any interchange between the classes. The facts of slavery and exploitation were clear and undeniable. No slave or serf could make any mistake about it—if he did give way to the illusion that he was a free-man—he was promptly and painfully reminded of his true position.

The condition of the wage-slave is very different. His is not a personal servitude. He and his fellows are subjected as a class solely by being excluded from the essential instruments and materials of production. Between he and the capitalist there is no difference in legal status, no essential cultural distinction and none of race or religion. There is but one essential mark of distinction between the classes—the ownership of capital.

Now this talisman “capital” that divides exploiter from exploited has two important characteristics that make it unique as a class barrier and produce social and intellectual results that were impossible and inconceivable in previous slave systems. First, capital—the “giver of power”—is not a factor inherent in and inseparable from its possessor, but is something external and accessory to the individual that can be acquired, transmitted from person to person, and can be lost. Secondly, it is a quantitative thing. In practice it implies sufficient money to carry on profit making. Now, two sums of money can differ only in quantity. A quantitative change can, however, produce a qualitative difference, and the exploited wage-worker possessing a small sum of money has only to perform a multiplication sum to “see” himself a capitalist, and has only to make that imaginary increase a fact to become one in reality, and achieve, the distinction of living without working by the exploitation of his erstwhile fellows.

By the very nature of the class-barrier under capitalism it is possible to surmount it—and in both directions. A member of the exploited class may become one of the exploiters and one of the leisured may be “dropped” into the ranks of the toilers. However exceptional in the nature of things such interchanges necessarily must be, they can happen, do happen, and may even occur overnight without the knowledge of the individual and from causes altogether outside his control.

Such economic relations by their very nature deny the ancient traditional belief, inseparable from the older systems, that classes are based upon inalienable class rights and distinctions and that social status is a divinely ordained thing and unalterable, whilst just as obviously they must tend to promote the view that all men have equal “natural rights,” a dogma that to-day is almost universally accepted and is the basis of bourgeois political philosophy.

Furthermore, with the rise of capitalism and the extinction of the village and family as productive groups, the workers became isolated units individually contracting for employment. This and the further facts that under capitalism a person’s welfare depends upon the amount of wealth he can acquire, and that workers as well as capitalist must engage in a competitive struggle to obtain such wealth or increase it, necessarily breeds the attitude of “individualism”—”each for himself.” Now when the idea of equal social rights merges with that of individualism the outcome inevitably is the raising to a moral ideal of “liberty”—liberty to “make the best of circumstances,” to “get what one can,” to do what one wills with one’s own—limited only by the equal rights and liberty of other men. “The law of right social relationships” is “that—Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man,” says Spencer, the supreme theorist of bourgeois individualism, in his “Social Statics.”

These ideas are, of course, precisely those of the revolutionary philosophers of the eighteenth century who attacked feudal rights and absolutism. What was new in the nineteenth century was that ideas of “equal rights” and “freedom” began to infect and take deep root in the heads of the workers and that they used them not to attack the dead-horse of feudalism, but against the legal and political inferiorities under which they laboured in the youthful capitalist state. Eventually they achieved the removal of these disabilities, and thus of the contradiction between the facts of the political system and the political ideas necessarily flowing from the relations of economic life.

The workers demand the franchise.
In the early years of the new factory-system—when the hand workers were dying out, when the machines were new and appeared as devilish instruments of death, when the workers, men, women and children, were forced from field and home into the new factories to grind out their lives for the new lords of industry—there was no shadow of pretence at equal rights for rich and poor. To the cultured upper-classes the restless, stirring workers were a dangerous mob, a horde of barbarians in the heart of a civilisation, a “swinish multitude,” as Burke in an outspoken moment called them. The industrial masters candidly regarded and spoke of their labourers as beings inferior to themselves, fit only for a life of labour. In them the idea of “status” lived on in a caricatured form and, transferred now to the economic field, “directive genius” was its alleged basis in place of ancestral prestige and “blue-blood.”

The savage rebellion of the tortured workers again and again broke out in violent rebellion that filled the ruling class with the fear of general insurrection. This fear was intensified to panic by the “Jacobinism” of the French Revolution. Military were taken from the old garrison towns and distributed over the industrial areas. Pitt himself clearly stated, in the Commons, February 22nd, 1793 :
 “The circumstances of the country, coupled with the general state of affairs, rendered it advisable to provide barracks in other parts of the kingdom. A spirit had appeared in some of the manufacturing towns which made it necessary that troops should be kept near them ” (Hammond’s “Town Labourer,” p. 84).
Every political and legal device was used to suppress all signs of revolt amongst the “lower orders.”
  “The Law, set in force by every kind of trickery, including the use of unscrupulous characters as spies, was administered with a brutality that stamped the working classes as a population amenable to no influence but that of terror ” (p. 75).
   “The magistrates and their clerks recognised no limit to their power over the freedom and the movements of working men. The Vagrancy Laws seemed to supersede the entire charter of an Englishman’s liberties. They were used to put into prison any man or woman of the working class who seemed to the magistrates an inconvenient or disturbing character. They offered the easiest and most expeditious way of proceeding against anyone who tried to collect money for the families of locked-out workmen or to disseminate literature that the magistrates thought undesirable.”
    “A parson magistrate wrote to the Home Office in 1817 to say that he had seized two men who were distributing Cobbett’s pamphlets and had them well flogged at the whipping-post under the Vagrancy Laws ” (p. 72, “Town Labourer”).

R.W Housley

Work as it is, as it could be (2008)

From the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Work is a “four-letter word” today under capitalism, but our view of it might change in a society where it is solely a means of improving the quality of our lives. 
“That would never work!”

A typical response, I imagine, to the description of a socialist society, where people work because they want to, on a voluntary basis. Such a society would not work, we are told, because no one in it would do any work.

However, that view of work as, well, work—rather than something enjoyable—tells us more about today’s society, where our motivation to work is primarily the need to pay rent and put food on the table. Immersed as we are in this reality, it is not surprising that it shapes our view of labour in general (past, present and future), so the idea of a society based on labour performed willingly, without any form of coercion, seems ludicrous to most people.

Given that typical outlook, it is not easy to convince someone of the necessity and feasibility of a fundamentally new mode of labour by simply elaborating the description of work in the future (which can never be an exact blueprint). No matter how appealing that future society might appear, compared to present-day reality, it will probably still seem to be a figment of the imagination.

A better approach, I think, is to start with the present, looking at the work-related problems we face and considering their root cause. On that basis it should become clearer that socialism is not an idle dream but the real solution to undeniably real problems, and that the workplace problems we experience today can also be solved by, or will cease to exist in, that new form of society.

Work problems
Most of us have first-hand experience of bad jobs, so there is no need to present concrete examples here. But if we consider why a particular job is unpleasant it generally comes down to one or a combination of the following factors: long hours, low pay, high intensity, monotony, and (for lack of a more precise category) the boss. We know all of this—perhaps too well—but here I want to consider the reason why these problems occur.

That answer is not hard to find if we reflect, just for a moment, on the essential nature of capitalism as a society where production is a means of generating profit for a minority ruling class that owns and controls the means of production. It is no exaggeration to say that those two closely intertwined facts (i.e., the profit motive and class ownership) are at the root of most of the problems we face at the workplace.

The hunger for profit is insatiable; no capitalist will settle for a five percent profit if there is a chance to get six. This is not merely a question of individual greed, but the systematic pressures of competition that capitalists ignore at the risk of ceasing to be capitalists. This drives them—not unwillingly—to squeeze as much surplus value out of workers as possible, whether by prolonging the working day, lowering wages, or increasing the intensity of labour. All of this goes without saying, I think, and the direct connection to workplace problems is equally clear.

But even setting aside the impact of profit chasing on the labour process, we are still left with the fundamentally undemocratic workplace. Those who own or control the means of production call the shots (and pocket the profits), whether we are dealing with a small company, a corporation, or a state-owned enterprise. The workers, meanwhile, have no choice but to work in the manner assigned to them. No matter how enjoyable the work itself might be, this lack of control over the labour process (not to mention over hiring and firing decisions) contributes to the dissatisfaction we experience at our jobs.

Idle hands?
Considering the fact that the labour process is a means of generating profit for a minority class that directs that process, it is no wonder that a certain gloom hangs over workers on their morning commute. Those looking down on them from the comfort of the executive boardroom might take it as proof of the inherent laziness of people—or at least of other people. This idea of a slovenly human nature is ironically (or perhaps naturally) most prevalent among the “leisure class,” who look to the pressure of competition to whip the lazy workers into shape.

It should be obvious, though, that people are far from being lazy by nature. Nearly everyone, except the most demoralized or pampered, is eager to find worthwhile work. And if we cannot find enjoyment or self-fulfilment in the jobs we do to earn a living, we will try to find those qualities in the activities we pursue in our “free” time.

One reason we may underestimate the desire to work is that those leisure time activities come under the category of “hobbies,” even though they do not always differ in substance from types of labour performed for wages. What tends to make a hobby enjoyable and fulfilling is precisely the qualities so often lacking in the jobs done to earn a living. Instead of being a way to benefit others, performed under their direction, a hobby is an activity pursued for its own sake that can be a means of self-development and self-fulfilment.

The same thirst for and enjoyment of meaningful labour can also be seen in our attitude towards the jobs we must do to earn a living. Despite all of the drawbacks that stem from the profit motive, as sketched above, our jobs can still be a source of satisfaction and self-development and we can find ourselves engrossed in the work itself without always thinking about the end of the working day or the upcoming paycheck. Indeed, unless we had this capacity to enjoy work—and to seize on those worthwhile aspects of our jobs—the bosses (who complain about “lazy workers”) would be very hard-pressed to obtain any work, and hence profits, from their employees.

A social change
The aversion to work that is not uncommon today is certainly not due to inherent human laziness or the general nature of labour itself; it stems rather from the problems arising from its function as a means of profit making for a minority capitalist class. So as long as the current social system remains in place, we will be stuck with the problem of long working hours, tedium, and high intensity.

The solution to those workplace problems, along with a whole string of other problems, is thus a fundamental social change that establishes a new form of society, where production is no longer subjected to the logic and tyranny of capital. That is an unprecedented change, certainly, which still seems impossible to most people today, but socialists are convinced that it is both possible and urgently necessary.

I should note, though, that the creation of a fundamentally new society will not take us into the realm of science fiction, as human beings will still be obliged to carry out labour in order to produce the material wealth that makes our continued existence possible. Socialism will not free us from the need for productive activity, but rather alter the form and purpose of that activity. Simply put, production in a socialist society will become a means of satisfying the various needs of the members of society as decided democratically by those members themselves

Work transformed
The fundamental reorientation of society following a socialist revolution will obviously have an enormous effect on the labour process and the personal experience of work.

The first change that seems likely, for a number of reasons, is a major reduction in the length of the working day. This will be possible, first of all, because production will only be intended to satisfy the needs of society’s members, as determined by them, so there would be little incentive to continue working beyond that point, thereby piling up unwanted goods and squandering natural resources. Unlike today, any increase in the productivity of labour, so that more goods can be produced using less labour-time, could immediately shorten the length of work for individuals. And there would not be the terrible waste of labour we see today under a system where goods are produced for a fickle market, rather than to directly satisfy needs, and may thus rot on store shelves or in warehouses if not purchased (particularly at the outset of an economic downturn).

Another reason that the working day may become the working morning or afternoon is that the relative size of the pool of adults willing and able to perform the productive labour, which produces the wealth of society, will increase with the addition of the unemployed and those engaged under the current system in unproductive labour (e.g., bankers, lawyers, salesmen, etc.). The entire financial sector, for instance, will no longer have a reason for existence in a society where products are not bought and sold on the market. Other unproductive individuals include gamblers, prostitutes and criminals, as well as the entire capitalist class. In a socialist society, all of these people can contribute to the production of the material wealth that is the fundamental basis of human life.

The shorter working day is only a quantitative change, of course, but it would bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of our lives, as we can easily imagine. Even if we consider our jobs today, a significant reduction in the working day (provided the intensity of labour remains unchanged) would make most jobs, at the very least, far more bearable, and allow us to engage in other activities we find more agreeable.

More significant, however, is the qualitative change in the labour process and in our attitude towards work once labour has solely become a means of improving our lives and production decisions are made democratically by the members of society themselves, who collectively control the means of production and have free access to the goods that are produced. Marx describes this new society as an “association of free individuals, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single labour force” (Capital, vol. 1). In this socialist society, the production process would become transparent; individuals could easily grasp the connection between the labour they and others perform and improvements in their own and other people’s lives. This is a qualitative change not only from the perspective of the labour process of society as a whole, but also in terms of the attitude that each individual would likely have towards work.

Another important qualitative change in the labour process and our view of it stems from the fact that each individual within the “association” or community will be actively involved in making the important decisions regarding production. Those decisions would be made by them democratically, according to the simple criterion of improving the quality of their own lives. That tangible democracy contrasts sharply with the utter lack of influence workers today have on the decisions regarding production and the labour process, which are nominally made by capitalists and politicians but in fact dictated by the impulses of capital. In socialism, the members of the society will be able to decide on the plans for production (and other aspects of life) and then work together to realize them, without sacrificing their own needs for the sake of profitability.

In the process of collectively making those decisions one can imagine all sorts of issues that might be debated. Certainly there is the question of what to produce and in what quantity. But in addition to such matters, close attention will also be paid to what might be called the qualitative or even aesthetic aspects of the labour process, reflecting the fact that the entire society is now oriented towards improving the level of human life. This means that there would be an effort to make the experience of work itself is as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. All of the decisions would also have to take into consideration the resources available, both in the present and future, so that a short-term gain in the quality of life does not lead to disaster for latter generations. These are some examples of the big questions that might be considered, but there would be countless others, covering every imaginable aspect and consequence of the labour process.

So, to finally return to the initial question about voluntary work, will people actually work on a voluntary basis in a socialist society? Or would they only take advantage of the free access to goods and not participate in the work to produce those goods?

My answer, of course, is that the vast majority of people would be willing, and perhaps eager, to work in a society where the benefits of their own labour, both to themselves and the community at large, are clear and where they themselves make all of the decisions regarding production. There may be a few individuals who choose to do nothing, or at least nothing that adds to the wealth of society, but I imagine they will be looked on with pity, rather than any sort of anger, just as we might view a person today who has no vital interest in life. It seems safe to say that most will voluntarily work as a way to both develop themselves and improve their own lives through the fruits of that labour.
Michael Schauerte