Sunday, March 20, 2022

Who benefits from mass production? (1926)

From the December 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prominent employers' ideas examined.

Sir Edward Anson, Director of the Birmingham Guild, writing a Trade Survey in the Daily News (17/9/26), says, among other things, of mass production, that it has two obvious advantages : The owner of the business gains if he can keep up his sales, and the consumer benefits because of the resulting reduction in price.

Mr. Frank G. Wollard, Director and General Manager of Morris Motors, Ltd., challenged Sir Edward’s views in a contribution on October 1st, where he claimed that the employees also benefit. As there are not consumers apart from capitalists and workers, according to these two gentlemen, mass production would seem to be an inestimable boon to mankind. We shall see on examination, however, that although differing, both are right in one respect, i.e., the owner of the business gains.

Sir Edward’s attitude towards mass production is mainly critical. His chief objections are the monotonous character of machine tending and the loss of skilled craftsmanship. He says:
“It is the boast of the majority of mass production owners that there is no machine in their shops that an unskilled man cannot work if he has a day to practise on it. This is very useful when it comes to combating unemployment, such as has been so prevalent since the war, when men have been unable to find work at their legitimate trade, but what will be the outcome in the future. . . .

It has been said that half the misery of life is caused by monotony, and what could be more monotonous than spending day after day pulling the same handle or filling the same hopper? It is incredible to me that the human brain can stand such a test of idleness and not become completely atrophied.”
The reference to unemployment in the above is typical of the capitalist viewpoint; they are combating unemployment when one hundred men find work, no matter if they displace one hundred and fifty. The object of mass production, as with every improvement in machinery and methods, is to reduce the amount of labour time required for the production of a given commodity. If it accomplishes this reduction, unemployment will be increased, instead of diminished. Because, as we shall see later, any increase of sales that might follow as a result of lower prices cannot be permanent.

“What could be more monotonous than spending day after day pulling the same handle or filling the same hopper?” questions Sir Edward. Yet that is the lot of millions of men, women and children under capitalism. Their labour intensified and rendered monotonous, with no respite, except for the congenial atmosphere of the labour exchange and the streets, when the factory owners are unable to keep up their sales.

So far as the loss of craftsmanship is concerned, the people who seem most concerned about such a disaster appear to be those who dodge work of any kind. The average worker, whether engaged in making cabinets or filling hoppers, is always eager to quit at the end of his enforced period of labour. It is not craftsmanship or the opportunity to dally with favourite tools that draws men into the factories. It is sheer necessity, their only means of escape from starvation. Moreover, under modern conditions dallying is not permitted. There is no time for pride in workmanship. The slogan is, “Get on or get out.”

Under capitalism the conditions of labour are dictated by supervisors who are driven to maintain or increase profits by the fear of losing their jobs. Under Socialism, where the whole people owned the land and means of wealth production, they would arrange their own conditions of labour. They would naturally adopt the shortest, easiest and safest methods to achieve their object, because such a course would give them the maximum amount of leisure. In any case, freedom to exercise craft pride would be possible under Socialism, under capitalism it is not. The worker’s business is to work. He must work in such a way as to satisfy the capitalist greed for profits; there is no time for him to find pleasure in it.

Returning to Sir Edward’s original claim that those who gain by mass production are the owner and the consumer, and Mr. Frank Woollard’s objection because the employee has not been included, the latter says:
“In the first place, Sir Edward can see only two benefits from mass production—a financial benefit to the owner of the plant and a lower price to the public. He has forgotten the worker, who has his share in the general prosperity, both as an employee and as a consumer.

Even supposing certain owners are so foolish as to forget the employees’ share of their prosperity, there is at any rate something to be shared; whereas if we put the clock back 200 years there would be little or nothing over bare subsistence to divide.”
The cat is out of the bag ! There is something to be shared. There is prosperity; but it is theirs—the owners, or capitalists who are under no obligation to share and can, if they choose, forget. But what is meant by sharing? and why are some owners foolish in not sharing? Every sharing, bonus, or co-partnership scheme that has been introduced up to the present is based on the principle that the workers must first increase production by greater speed and efficiency before they can share. They then obtain as their share a small percentage of what is produced by their increased efforts. In these circumstances the owners who do not share are, as Mr. Wollard states, indeed foolish.

Sir Edward agrees that the owner gains, but adds a proviso, if he can keep up his sales. But every concern is subject to that obligation. That is the capitalist method of converting surplus value into profits. As a capitalist he is supposed to understand that side of the business. That is where the much-boasted directive ability of the owner is supposed to come in. He controls his own factory and directs the workers he employs. If he misjudges the market, or produces goods that do not sell, according to capitalist standards he is a failure. But his disappearance from the arena makes no difference. There is still an abundance of capital functioning on the industrial field. The world’s markets are not starved, though thousands of concerns fail every year. The failures are like water that overflows the banks of a river in flood. The main stream flows on.

So much for the owner, or capitalist, the fact is established that he gains. What of the consumer? Who is he to start with? Mr. Woollard answers the second question :
“And all the time, and every time, it must be remembered that the makers, i.e., the workmen, are the same folk as the purchasers. In the bulk the buyers are not different people living on inherited wealth—that is only for the few.”
This simplifies matters enormously. Mr. Woollard is evidently not deceived by the confusing use of these terms by politicians and would-be economists, who divide society into capitalists, workers and consumers. For him, as for us, there are, in the main, two classes, capitalists and workers. We have already seen that the workers, as workers, do not gain by mass production. We shall see that they do not gain as consumers.

It is no coincidence that, in the years that have elapsed since the war, mass production and improved means and methods generally, have made enormous strides. While the same period has been characterised by a continuous and steady reduction of wages all round, the masters are organised for this purpose more strongly than they have ever been before. Their chief reason when forcing a reduction is that the cost of living has fallen. With one and a half million workers unemployed and trade unions with little or no fighting funds, resistance is almost useless.

Mass production may reduce prices for the consumer, but the consumer who belongs to the working-class lives by the sale of his energy. The cost of reproducing that energy from day to day having fallen, its price on the labour market falls. He is forced to realise that the commodity character of his labour power cheats him of any share in the rich rewards of mass production.
F. Foan

SPGB Meetings and Lectures. (1926)

Party News from the December 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard




The ‘Revolutionary’ (!) Communists. (1926)

Editorial from the December 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

The capitalist character of the Communist Party programme is again shown by the policy drawn up by the C.P. for the Labour Party Conference at Margate.

In their pamphlet, “The Reds and the Labour Party,” the following is a list of “constitutional demands” of the Communist Party.
1. The abolition of the Monarchy and the establishment of a Democratic Republic.

2. The abolition of the House of Lords.

3. The establishment of a single franchise for all purposes, whether Parliamentary or local government, applicable equally to all men and women from 21 years of age.

4. The adoption of a national system of proportional representation.

5. The abolition of all restrictions whatsoever on qualifications for membership of public bodies, and the adoption of the adult franchise as the sole basis.

6. Full political rights for soldiers, sailors and airmen.

7. To secure that all vehicles used for conveyance of voters to the poll shall be registered with the Returning Officer not later than 12 hours before the opening of the polling, and to enact that it shall be the duty of Returning Officers to apportion such registered vehicles equally amongst the candidates, irrespective of Party.

8. The provision of greater facilities for polling places in the outlying and rural areas, and the imposition of penalties for irregularities by Returning Officers in the conduct of elections.
One minute the C.P. ridicules the value of Parliament, and the next minute they demand the usual Liberal reforms of the orthodox Parliamentarian.

Vote-catching and job-hunting are evidently the stock in trade of the C.P.

The Monistic Conception of History by G. V. Plechanoff (part I) (1926)

From the December 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

[Plechanoff’s Famous Work now translated.]

Materialism is the direct opposite of idealism. Idealism strives to explain all phenomena of nature, all the properties of matter, through one or the other of the properties of the spirit. Materialism does just the opposite. It tries to explain all psychical phenomena through some properties of matter, through the organisation of the human, or living, organism. All those philosophers for whom matter is the prime factor belong to the materialist group, all those that hold spirit as the prime factor are idealists. This is all that can be said about materialism in general, for on its foundations various structures have been erected, materialism of one epoch has an entirely different aspect from that of another epoch. 

Materialism and idealism are the two most important tendencies in philosophy. It is true, together with these two, there have always been some kind of dualistic systems that recognised spirit and matter as separate and independent substances. But dualism could never satisfactorily reply to the inevitable question,—how could two substances, separate and independent as they are, influence each other? This is why all the foremost and the deepest thinkers have been inclined to monism, i.e., to explain all phenomena through the help of some one fundamental principle. Every profound idealist as well as every profound materialist is a monist. In this there is no difference, for instance, between Berkeley and Holbach. The first was a confirmed idealist, the second was a no less confirmed materialist, but both were monists; both understood the impossibility of dualism.

In the first half of our century [1] idealistic monism reigned; in the second half—in science, with which materialism has since united—materialistic monism, gained the upper hand, though a materialism not always open and frank.

Here we do not need to give a whole history of materialism. [2] It will be enough for us to observe its development beginning from the second half of the last century (18th) and even in this period, its principal tendencies will suffice for us. We will take up the materialistic views of Holbach, Helvetius and their co-workers.

The materialists of this school conducted a heated polemic against the official thinkers of the time, who, professing to follow Descartes, whom they scarcely understood, argued that man has certain innate ideas,—ideas that are independent of experience. Combating this view, the French materialists, only defended the views of J. Locke, who, as early as the end of the 17th century, taught that there are no innate principles. But in explaining Locke’s philosophy the materialists have given it a more momentous character, touching on problems which the well-bred English liberal ignored. The French materialists were undaunted sensualists ; they looked on all psychic activities of man as transformation of sensations. It would be useless here to inquire how far their arguments are good in the light of contemporary science. It is obvious that the French Materialists of that time did not know what every high schoolboy knows to-day. It is enough to remember only the views of Holbach on physics and chemistry —though he was supreme in the science of his day. The great merit of the French materialists was that they thought deeply, and in correspondence with the science of their time. This is all that we can demand from any thinker. There is, of course, nothing strange in the fact that science has advanced far beyond the views of the French materialist. It is more important to remember that those who fought against the materialists were even then behind the science of the time. It is true the historians, of philosophy usually put the views of Kant as antithetical to the views of the materialists. It would certainly be strange to reproach Kant with ignorance. It would, nevertheless, not be hard to show, that both Kant and the materialists stood on the same fundamental principles, but used them in different ways, and, therefore, came to different conclusions. This was in accordance with the different social environment that influenced their respective lives and thoughts. We know that people who believe the historians on their bare words, will find this opinion paradoxical. We have no opportunity of proving the truth of this statement here; but we do not refuse proof if our opponents demand it. [3]

It is well known, however, that the French materialists viewed all psychic activity of men, as transformation of sensation (sensations transformées). To view psychic activity from this standpoint means to recognise that all conceptions and feelings of man are results of the influence of his environment. This the French materialists recognised. They continually, hotly and categorically, declared that man with his views and feelings is what his environment makes turn, his environment being in the first place, nature, and the second place, society. “L’homme est tout educationé,” declares Helvetius. By education he understands the sum total of social environment. This view of man as a product of his environment was the chief theoretical basis of the new demands of the French materialists. If man is dependent on his environment, if the environment is responsible for every trait in his character, it is also responsible for his defects. If you would fight against his defects, you must change his environment accordingly, and primarily his social environment, because nature creates man as neither good nor bad. Place him in a reasonable social position under such conditions that his self-preservation instincts do not necessarily drive him to fight every other man, among conditions in which the interests of the individual correspond with interests of the whole society—and virtue will triumph. (Vertu) virtue is not something to be made possible through a reasonable reconstruction of social relations. Thanks to the conservatives and reactionaries of the last century (18th), the morality of the French materialists is still thought of as the morality of egoism, while they themselves defined it more correctly when they declared that their morality entirely merges in politics.

The teaching that the spiritual world of man, is the result of his environment often brought the French materialists to results entirely unexpected by them. Thus, for instance, they often declared that the opinions of man have no influence whatever on his conduct, and, therefore, no matter what ideas society holds it cannot change its fate in the least. We shall later show where they were mistaken. At present let us examine the other side of French materialism.

If the ideas of every man are determined by his environment, then the ideas of the human race must be determined by the evolution of the social environment, by the history of social relations. If we desire to paint a picture of the progress of human reason, and if we do not limit ourselves to the question “how,” but also ask “why,” we must begin from the history of the environment; from the history of the evolution of social relations. The main point, at least at the beginning, would then be to discover the laws of social evolution. The French materialists approached this problem, but could not solve it, or even put the question correctly.

Whenever they began to speak about historical development of society, they forgot their sensualistic view on man in general, and together with “Enlighteners” of their time, declared that the world (i.e., social relations of men) was ruled by opinions (c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde). This is the basic contradiction of the 18th century materialism.

1 This was written in 1894. Translator’s Note.
2 A few years later Plechanoff published “A Contribution to the History of Materialism.” Translator’s Note.
3 Plechanoff has proved this in a series of brilliant polemical essays, against Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt, and other neo-Kantians, “Neue Zeit,” 1898-1899.

(To be continued.)

Translated by H. Kantorovitch for "Modern Quarterly".