No Social System Lasts Forever
Class and Class Struggle
To many people class is always present; a hierarchical system in which everyone seemingly knows their place. Different classes, we are informed by the media and politicians, coalesce around a national interest, evident during war when all classes appear to pull in the same direction. A classless society is written off as utopian; the stuff of science fiction. There is no escaping class which is natural and unchanging. “The rich man in his castle. The poor man at his gate; God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate”. So we are told by the theologians.
What we are told by defenders of capitalism and what actually transpires in history and within social systems are often two completely different things. The same applies to class. The political concept of class can be treated scientifically. Class and class relations can be placed in a historical context and shown to have changed over time. You will not find academics scientifically inquiring into the concept of class but you will find Karl Marx making this inquiry to explain society and show how it can be politically changed through revolutionary action.
Unlike the Classical school of economics (e.g. Adam Smith and David Ricardo) who believed in the harmony of classes, Marx emphasized the importance of the reality of class, class conflict and class struggle. Marx did not invent class but explained class. In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO the class struggle was, for Marx and Engels, “the motor force of history”. Class and class struggle were defined in an objective way with respect to the ownership or otherwise of the means of production and distribution.
Classes, Marx showed, came and went. A classless society was feasible. Capitalism has now created the potential for all human needs to be met but the profit motive prevents the productive forces, including social and co-operative labour, from being used and extended for the benefit of everyone. It is necessary for the working class to get control of land, factories and technology to produce just to meet human need and to get rid of classes and class exploitation. Class society can be abolished.
Marx considered and explained the social and historical existence of two major classes he first confronted in the 1840s. First there was the class of capitalists who privately owned the means of life like factories, offices, land, tools, machinery transport and communication systems, distribution points, and raw resources and, second, the working class majority, who were excluded from ownership. Workers could only sell their ability to work as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. On the world stage, a ruling class of power and privilege daily confronts a class of impoverished wage slaves.
The capitalists have a class monopoly of the means of production and distribution; the workers are consequently forced to work for someone else. Workers are employed, unable to make decisions and to determine what is produced and for whom. The sole aim of the capitalist class is accumulation and the expansion of wealth. The capitalist is not interested in the use of what he wells only that he can sell it and make a profit. As Marx noted:
“The restless never-ending process of profit making alone is what he aims at…” (CAPITAL VOLUME 1, Ch. IV. pp. 152-3).
As in every other class system in human history there was class exploitation. Marx explained the technicalities of class exploitation in his three volumes CAPITAL. Workers produced more value than they received in wages and salaries. Workers produced what Marx called “surplus value”. It was from surplus value that the capitalist class received its unearned income in the form of rent, interest and profit as well as the financial support for the day-to-day running of the capitalist state; an institution of class coercion and control.
The class struggle goes on all the time. The class struggle takes place over the intensity and extent of exploitation. Politically it is a struggle between a world capitalist class and a world working class over the control and use of the means of production and distribution. That is either production for profit or production directly and solely for social use. Politically the class struggle is over the retention of capitalism or the establishment of socialism. As Marx and Engels defiantly asserted in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:
“…the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.
The contradiction at the heart of capitalism, the socialized nature of production and the individual nature of property ownership, expresses itself in an;
“…antagonism of the proletariat and bourgeoisie” (Engels, SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC’, (Selected works, Vol. II, p. 141).
Socialism as a distinct social system in its own right has never existed. It is defined as the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society. It is where the class struggle and the working class should be heading. Socialism can be defined as “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” and as “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Socialism would be a global social system of free men and women; free from capitalism, the labour market, the buying and selling of labour power and the tyranny of capital.
Yet the apologists for capitalism and the capitalist class deny that there is a social system beyond capitalism and the profit motive, They tell workers that capitalism is all they have got and, as a consequence, the class struggle will go on and on into the future without end. Socialists, in advocating socialism face an unremitting and bleak conservatism held by all the capitalist parties and media. It is a relentless propaganda of ideas and beliefs drenching the working class in accepting the ruling class view of history as something static and politically unchanging.
Is There an Alternative to Capitalism?
The former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once claimed that there was no alternative to the market; to buying and selling, and to employment. Capitalism, as far as Thatcher and her supporters believed, was the only social system that worked. Capitalism worked all right, but only for a small minority; the privileged capitalist class.
This absurd dogma regarding no alternative to capitalism was also taken on board by Tony Blair and latterly by Keith Starmer in that they believed the profit system was the only ‘viable and rational’ social system in town. Starmer’s mantra is “growth, growth, growth” which is merely accumulation of capital and increasing the rate and intensity of exploitation. Starmer can only ever think within the capitalist social system never outside it.
In his conference speech in 2005 Blair said what works is “an open liberal economy”. Blair went on to say that Global capitalism was “a fact not a choice”. And, “Globalization was like the air we breathe”. Not even Jeremy Corbyn volunteered the replacement of capitalism with socialism. The Labour Party does not think in terms of social systems and social revolutions. Social reforms within the context of the profit system are as far as their political ideas and beliefs travel. The consequence has been one failed Labour administration after the other.
Labour politicians, at least some, refer to themselves as “socialists” and their reforms as “socialist”. Yet, they do not discuss socialism as a distinct social system from capitalism. No Labour policy exists to replace the profit system with another social system, one which is classless, moneyless, without national borders and has no wages system. The Labour Party has no socialist objective and no conception of socialism.
Nor have the capitalist left. All they propose is nationalisation which is not the same as socialism. Nationalisation or state capitalism retains the wages system, the need for workers to seek refuge in trade unions, the class struggle and class exploitation. Nationalisation does not change the social system but retains it.
Socialists, resting our case on Marx’s theory of history or the materialist conception of history, assert that no social system lasts forever and capitalism is no exception. Each social system only survives until it has reached maturity and allowed the productive forces to be fully developed, including social and co-operative labour. When the social/institutional framework no longer allows the productive forces to develop to their fullest extent, there is fundamental and revolutionary change. However, we are not technological determinists. History is made by the actions of men and women. And this applies to the working class “storming heaven” as Marx put it in relation to the short lived Paris Commune. Even in defeat lessons can be learnt.
Capitalism can never solve the Problems Facing the Working Class
Socialists reject the conservative dogma that there is no alternative to capitalism and that the working class is not cut-out for socialism. Capitalism is a social system with a beginning in class struggle and a potential end in class struggle through a socialist revolution. And socialists have the confidence in the working class to take democratic and political action to end capitalism and establish socialism.
Capitalism can never solve the problems it causes for the working class; poverty, war and unemployment. The weight of history is on our side. A socialist politics is a revolutionary politics using a revolutionary vocabulary or it is nothing. If servility is a vice then so is political cowardice; capitalism is a social system not a natural state of affairs. And social systems come and go. If the human species did not experiment, try something new and hide in the darkness we would never have left the caves. To be human is to change our circumstances and thereby change ourselves.
Workers have the capability to establish socialism. Everything made by human labour acting on nature; everything we see, feel, touch, smell and taste, made by cooperative and social labour, shows our potential to establish a new social system and a new set of social relationships free from class, exploitation and poverty.
Nevertheless, socialism will not happen by itself. Socialism can only be established by the democratic and political action of the working class. Without a socialist majority there can be no socialism. All workers have a role to play in establishing socialism. All workers need to understand, accept and become active into bring socialism into fruition.
Resistance by workers to accept the soundness and validity of the socialist case is for many the fear of making ‘a leap into the dark’. There is, it seems, a false consolation in the feel of the chains that bind workers to capital; a senseless ‘security’ in the pain of wage slavery. Freedom from capitalism manifests itself into a morbid conservatism, reaction and irrational fear of change. This morbid conservatism leaves workers uncritically following political leaders rather than thinking and acting for themselves. Instead of making history workers just let history pass them by.
However socialism is set within a real material reality with historical roots. Socialism will bring with it human technological development, science and mathematics, a global system of communication and transport and more importantly the skill, imagination and inventiveness of our class, the ability to make useful things together, to produce socially and cooperatively as free human beings. We have all we need to form a society based directly on meeting human need.
A Consolation for Socialists in History and Historical Change
What can human history teach us about social systems? Do they last forever? There is some consolation in the fact that they do not last forever. Social systems come and go. As Marx noted:
“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution”
(CONTRIBUTION TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, Selected works Volume 1, pp. 362-4).
At the end of the crushing defeat of the rebellion in 71 BC, with Spartacus dead on the battlefield, 6000 slaves were crucified along a 2000 metre stretch of the Apia Way to Rome. Crucifixion was a cruel and painful death recently brought back into barbaric fashion by Isis in its short-lived feudal Islamic State.
Rome’s symbolic exercise of crucifying the slaves was to demonstrate to this class the imperial power of Roman society; the power of its ruling class and the perennial glory of ancient Rome. But within a few centuries that Empire had been swept away. No Empire lasts forever and this is a fact equally applicable to countries today like the United States as it once was to Imperial Rome.
Shelley put it this way in his poem Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Marx and Engels even contemplated the “destruction of the contending classes” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). Climate change poses an existential problem for capitalism it is unable to resolve within the confines of international rivalry between competing capitalist countries. Potential nuclear war as an outcome of the war in Ukraine is a possibility. The US could be ravaged by civil war and in the film, the PLANET OF THE APES, there is the powerful image, equal to Shelley’s Ozymandias, of the ruined head of the Statue of Liberty with astronaut Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) slamming his fists into the sand shouting, “You maniacs! You blew it up! …Damn you all to Hell!”
Here is another example from history. At the end of the failed Peasants Revolt in 1381, Richard II reportedly told the serfs that “…Villeins you are, and villeins you will remain; in permanent bondage, not as it was before, but incomparably harsher” (SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE PEASANTS' REVOLT OF 1381’, Dan Jones 2014). John Ball, one of the leading thinkers of the Peasants Revolt was tried in front of the King at St Albans and then hung drawn and quartered with the King’s retort to the failed uprising ringing in his ears.
There is no blue plaque to John Ball in the old market square of St Albans where he was executed. However, his protest: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” lived on in the Peasants’ Song (anon.) and later in William Morris’s romance THE DREAM OF JOHN BALL (Lawrence and Wishart, 1977). But the class to which he preached his sermons of liberation has long since disappeared – the peasants have left little or no written history of their class struggles with the feudal order.
In 1539, during the Reformation, the Abbey of St Albans in which John Ball was imprisoned some two centuries earlier was dissolved. Henry VIII appropriated its income, disposed of its assets and expelled the successors to the monks who had once thought their future secure.
The chronicles against John Ball were written by Jean Froissart’s in THE ANONIMALLE CHRONICLE - a detailed account mainly of Wat Tyler and his end, which is now considered mere propaganda for Richard II [See SPOKESMAN FOR LIBERTY ed. Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword p xiv 1941.] The Treasury and cloisters of the Abbey are now ruined fragments - symbolic references to a feudal order no more permanent than capitalism. And the burning of the documents kept by the Abbey was no act of iconoclasm or hatred of learning, but ban attempt to destroy the written evidence which recorded the terms of servitude binding the peasants to the lords of the manor.
Four centuries later no serfs were to be found in Britain at all. Instead, there was to be found a propertyless working class whose children were sent to the mills and where women were forced down the mines. Peasants had been thrown off the land by enclosures, journeymen in towns had become mere wage slaves and a new working class was forged in the new cities of the industrial revolution. A different exploited class existed in place of the old feudal one; a class of workers imprisoned within the exploitive wages system and forced to sell their ability to work for a wage and a salary.
Richard II was wrong. The ruling class he represented had also been swept away, first, in the 17th century, through a Civil War which disposed of the doctrine of the divine right of kings with the swing of an axe along with feudal tithes, and the feudal power base of the monarchy. Then in the 17th century the Glorious Revolution which took political power from the monarchy and gave it to a cabal of landed aristocracy, City bankers, merchants, and the early industrial capitalists. With the imposition of the Reform Act of 1832 and the consolidation of capitalist power in the reforms of the Liberal government at the beginning of the 20th century the capitalist class became the last exploiting class in human history.
From Capitalism to Socialism
The capitalist class came into being through class struggle establishing “new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of old ones” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO) calling into existence the working-class with a revolutionary potential to make history by becoming a class “for itself”. From the perspective of history the working class movement is relatively young. Its movement is not smooth and linear. Mistakes have been made and there are periods when this movement is stronger than others. At what point the working class as a revolutionary force is situated within capitalism’s history we do not know. We do not know how quickly a socialist movement will develop. All we do know that capitalism creates socialists and socialists do exist but in very small numbers throughout the world.
The working class movement in Britain has passed through three political stages in its development. First, an incoherent stage around the actions of groups like the Diggers and Levellers (1649), the Swing riots and rick burning in the 18th century and the Luddites in the early 19th century. Second, a more coherent phase which saw workers identifying themselves as a class with their own distinct political interests such as the Chartist movement and then another phase with the formation of The First International (1864 – 1876), informed by the scientific writings of Marx and Engels among which was stated “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (GENERAL RULES, October 1864). And third, through bitter political experience in the Social Democratic Federation, the development of a political movement of workers who became transparently aware of their class position recognizing that it could only be furthered by their own effort, democratically within a principled political Party and with only one object; socialism.
This mature political development was reached at the turn of the last century in 1904 with the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles, drawn up by working class men and women, presented a sound Marxian critical analysis of capitalism. It also set out a practical political programme through the revolutionary use of the vote and the capture of the machinery of government by a socialist majority to achieve the socialist object; the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
As the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote in 1948, three years after a world war had left 55 million workers dead:
In 1904 a new era in working class politics commenced with the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles that were laid down by the founders of this party…have remained to this day a clear and concise statement of the basis of the organisation, admitting of neither equivocation nor political compromise with the enemy for any purpose however alluring. Here is no flirting with reforms nor false and soothing catchwords to enlist the sympathies and support of those who lack political knowledge but, instead, a straightforward statement of the essentials of the working-class position under Capitalism and the only road to its solution – the capture of political power by a working-class the majority whose members understand what Socialism means and want it
(THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND THE LAST 100 YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1949 pp 28-29).
At the beginning of the First World War, a war the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed on grounds of class interest, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish/German social democrat, stated that the choice that faces the working class is “socialism or barbarism”. Barbarism won out. For over a century after Rosa Luxemburg stated this proposition, there has been devastating wars costing millions of workers’ lives. This is what capitalism offers for future generation of workers. There is no capitalist utopia just relentless exploitation, poverty and war. If this is all capitalism and it’s politicians can offer us, surely a socialist alternative to all this human destruction, suffering and pain demands urgent attention. There is an alternative to the profit system: socialism. There is still a world to win.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.