Gilbert McClatchie

A brief exposition of socialist theory. Class Struggle.

Source: Socialist Standard, July 1920.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
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In previous articles under the above heading we have obtained a glimpse of the Materialist Conception of History. Bound up with this theory is the next one which we propose investigating, namely, the theory of the Class Struggle.

According to this theory history is made up of the struggles of different classes in society for social supremacy ; and the origin of the different clasees is to be sought in the prevailing method of wealth production and distribution at the different periods.

The scientific method of enquiry is in the first place to separate phenomena into different categories, grouping together things that have the same characteristics. For instance, in the animal world all warm-blooded, feathered animals with two limbs in the form of wings are classified as birds ; all cold-blooded, vertebrate, gill-breathing animals living in water and with limbs in the form of fins, are classified as fishes. These are two biological classes. Clearness in distinguishing is a pre-requisite of clear thinking. If things are correctly classified a good deal of the essential work of investigation is already accomplished.

When we apply the method of classification to human society we must separate the members of society into social classes according to their general characteristics.

Now the essential business of society is the material needs of the human beings that compose it—the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and so on. In order to satisfy these human needs the production of wealth must be carried on. Therefore in classifying the members of society they must be put into groups according to the position they occupy in relation to the production of wealth.

Different periods in social evolution are clearly marked off from each other by the different methods of producing the social wealth. Thus ancient Rome was characterised by its chattel slavery, as it was by means of the chattel slave that the bulk of the Roman wealth of that time was produced. The Middle Ages was characterised by its bond slavery, as the bulk of the wealth of the Middle Ages was produced by the bond slave.

Within the society of Roman times and of the Middle Ages there were other classes alongside the chattel slaves and the bond slaves. The relations and interests, created by wealth production based upon the two methods mentioned, split society up into various parts corresponding to the parts played in the production of the wealth of those times.

This is the key to the situation. Once obtain a knowledge of the way the members of a given society at a given period obtain their livelihoods and a clear understanding is gained of that society, its social classes, its development, and its eventual break-up.

Let us now examine present-day society in the manner set forth.

To begin with, we must classify—find out what are the classes that compose society, and in order to do this we must see how the various members of society obtain their livelihood.

If we examine the method of living of all the people we see around us and with whom we come into contact at different times during the course of our lives, we find that they all fall under one or the other of two headings (leaving beggars out of the question)—those who have to work for their living, and those who have their living provided for them by those who work.

Clothes are made, houses are built, railways and ships are constructed, by obtaining from nature the material, then changing its place, its form, its character, and so giving it these qualities and properties necessary to satisfy our requirements. Nature provides the material, but its place and form are changed by the application of human energy—in other words, by the people working. There is no other way of producing wealth than by working. This is too obvious to need labouring further.

Who, then, does the working that produces the wealth of to-day ? Obviously those whom everyone is agreed in calling the working class —the class of people that works. If we go into a factory, mill, mine, or office we see people performing various functions in the work of turning out wealth. Some are tending machines, some hauling ropes, some pushing pens ; some are foremen, some overseers—but all of them are workers. All have to be at their various functions at given times and all have to perform their allotted tasks. None dare cease work without risk of losing his occupation and consequently his means of livelihood, whether he wears a collar or a "kercher" about his neck, sports corduroys or "morning" clothes, smokes woodbines or cigars. In short, they are all employees of that mysterious entity, "the firm."

Now what is "the firm" ? It is not composed of the factory workers as they are employees; nor is it composed of the office staff as they are employees ; likewise the foremen and managers are employees.

The mysterious thing called "the firm" represents people outside the sphere of work altogether, i.e., the people who regularly draw their dividends out of the company, but who are seldom or never seen anywhere near the field of productive operations. The dividend-drawers are scattered all over the earth—here to-day and hundreds of miles away to-morrow.

The mass of the population are those who live by working—who are dependent for their livelihood upon finding employment for their mental or physical energies. In other words they belong to the employed or working class.

A very small proportion of the population (becoming relatively smaller every day) belong to the dividend-drawing, employing, or capitalist class. In spite of the fact that they idle their lives away, wealth pours regularly into their coffers in ever-increasing quantities.

The question now arises: How is one section of the community enabled to occupy the position of employing class whilst the other section has to occupy the position of employed ?

The answer is not far to seek. The members of the employed class are bound to find employment because they do not own either the means of production or the wealth produced. The only possession they have is the capability to perform mental or physical work (the two are, of course, not distinct, although it, is customary to distinguish them in this way).

Consequently, in order to obtain the means to sustain life, they must work for the owners of the means of production, in spite of the fact that they themselves have produced those tame means of production, with the exception of what nature provides.

The employing or capitalist class own the means of producing and distributing the wealth of our times (the extent of the mighty amalgamations that have been portrayed in the papers recently should drive this point home to the most apathetic worker). They can at will (and do during lockouts) deny the workers access to the instruments of production, so that production may be at times suspended (as during so-called over-production) even though myriads of people may be perishing from lack of food clothing, and shelter.

In order that the machinery of present-day production can be set in motion it is necessary that capital shall be invested in certain ways. The employing class supply the capital with which to commence a process of producing wealth. This fact leads many astray, and has given birth to the idea that "we cannot do without the capitalist." This method of setting the productive machinery in motion, however, is peculiar to the capitalist method of production. In pre-capitalist days other methods operated, and in post-capitalist days different methods will also obtain. In the last analysis, however, the workers produce the very capital that oils the machinery of production. We shall return to this point later.

The capitalists, then, have possession of the wealth of capitalist society (we leave aside for the moment the question of how they obtained or retain possession), and the workers are therefore compelled to sell their power to work under the conditions laid down by the class that own the means whereby the workers live. In return for the duties the workers discharge they are paid at certain rates of wages. The workers do not work because they are fond of work; they work to obtain wages (or salaries) because wages represent to them the means of obtaining to some extent the necessaries to sustain life.

It will therefore be seen that the modern worker is a slave, a wage-slave, and his slavery is every bit as acute as the slavery of the chattel slave or the bondsman of the past, though the leather thong is replaced by the lash of starvation. The sight of dependent loved ones starving has proved a more potent lash than any instrument invented by man.

From the foregoing it will be seen that modern society is composed of two distinct social classes—the capitalist class and the working class. A very cursory examination will show that the interests of the two classes, i.e., their class interests, are, and must be, quite distinct and in direct opposition. A line of action that harmonises with the interests of the one class is directly antagonistic to the interests of the other.

To the capitalist the employment of workers signifies the giving up, in the form of wages, of a certain portion of the wealth he possesses. His aim, therefore, is to reduce this portion to the absolute minimum—to pay as little wages as possible. This object he endeavours to accomplish by the introduction of improved machinery—labour-saving devices—improved methods, and speeding up the employed. The ideal he aims at is the time foreshadowed by Aristotle, when the tool could by itself execute its function—the capitalist could then enjoy all the wealth produced and would have no need to relinquish a part of it to pay troublesome wage-earners !

The worker, on the other hand, who is compelled to sell his energies in one way or another in order to buy the necessaries of life, aims at getting as high a wage as possible and resisting the introduction of new methods, etc., as the latter tends to take away from him his means of obtaining a livelihood. He aims at the ideal of the ceaseless multiplication of jobs.

Herein, then, is apparent the antagonism of interests within present society. This antagonism of interests has bred the modern class struggle—the struggle of the working class against the master class—that has been fought out for years in a vague and half unconscious manner by combinations of workers during the industrial conflicts that yearly attain greater proportions. Ultimately this struggle, like all preceding class struggles, must be fought out on the political field as it is at the bottom a struggle for supremacy; the only solution to the conflict and to the contradictions that exist to-day is the overthrow of the present ruling class, the capitalists.