Chapter III The Realisation of Socialism through Social Reforms

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Image: Social Democratics in Canada. [Source:]

Bernstein rejects the “theory of collapse” as an historic road toward socialism. Now what is the way to a socialist society that is proposed by his “theory of adaptation to capitalism”? Bernstein answers this question only by allusion. Konrad Schmidt, however, attempts to deal with this detail in the manner of Bernstein. According to him, “the trade union struggle for hours and wages and the political struggle for reforms will lead to a progressively more extensive control over the conditions of production,” and “as the rights of the capitalist proprietor will be diminished through legislation, he will be reduced in time to the role of a simple administrator.” “The capitalist will see his property lose more and more value to himself” till finally “the direction and administration of exploitation will be taken from him entirely” and “collective exploitation” instituted.

Therefore trade unions, social reforms and, adds Bernstein, the political democratisation of the State are the means of the progressive realisation of socialism.

But the fact is that the principal function of trade unions (and this was best explained by Bernstein himself in Neue Zeit in 1891) consists in providing the workers with a means of realising the capitalist law of wages, that is to say, the sale of their labour power at current market prices. Trade unions enable the proletariat to utilise at each instant, the conjuncture of the market. But these conjunctures – (1) the labour demand determined by the state of production, (2) the labour supply created by the proletarianisation of the middle strata of society and the natural reproduction of the working classes, and (3) the momentary degree of productivity of labour – these remain outside of the sphere of influence of the trade unions. Trade unions cannot suppress the law of wages. Under the most favourable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the “normal” limit of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually.

Schmidt, it is true, sees the present trade union movement in a “feeble initial stage.” He hopes that “in the future” the “trade union movement will exercise a progressively increased influence over the regulation of production.” But by the regulation of production we can only understand two things: intervention in the technical domain of the process of production and fixing the scale of production itself. What is the nature of the influence exercised by trade unions in these two departments? It is clear that in the technique of production, the interest of the capitalist agrees, up to a certain point, with the progress and development of capitalist economy. It is his own interest that pushes him to make technical improvements. But the isolated worker finds himself in a decidedly different position. Each technical transformation contradicts his interests. It aggravates his helpless situation by depreciating the value of his labour power and rendering his work more intense, more monotonous and more difficult.

Insofar as trade unions can intervene in the technical department of production, they can only oppose technical innovation. But here they do not act in the interest of the entire working class and its emancipation, which accords rather with technical progress and, therefore, with the interest of the isolated capitalist. They act here in a reactionary direction. And in fact, we find efforts on the part of workers to intervene in the technical part of production not in the future, where Schmidt looks for it, but in the past of the trade union movement. Such efforts characterised the old phase of English trade unionism (up to 1860), when the British organisations were still tied to medieval “corporative” vestiges and found inspiration in the outworn principle of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour,” as expressed by Webb in his History of Trade Unionism.

On the other hand, the effort of the labour unions to fix the scale of production and the prices of commodities is a recent phenomenon. Only recently have we witnessed such attempts – and again in England. In their nature and tendencies, these efforts resemble those dealt with above. What does the active participation of trade unions in fixing the scale and cost of production amount to? It amounts to a cartel of the workers and entrepreneurs in a common stand against the consumer and especially rival entrepreneurs. In no way is the effect of this any different from that of ordinary employers’ associations. Basically we no longer have here a struggle between Labour and Capital, but the solidarity of Capital and Labour against the total consumers. Considered for its social worth, it is seen to be a reactionary move that cannot be a stage in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat, because it connotes the very opposite of the class struggle. Considered from the angle of practical application, it is found to be a utopia which, as shown by a rapid examination, cannot be extended to the large branches of industry producing for the world market.

So that the scope of trade unions is limited essentially to a struggle for an increase of wages and the reduction of labour time, that is to say, to efforts at regulating capitalist exploitation as they are made necessary by the momentary situation of the old world market. But labour unions can in no way influence the process of production itself. Moreover, trade union development moves – contrary to what is asserted by Konrad Schmidt – in the direction of a complete detachment of the labour market from any immediate relation to the rest of the market.

That is shown by the fact that even attempts to relate labour contracts to the general situation of production by means of a system of sliding wage scales have been outmoded with historic development. The British labour unions are moving farther and farther away from such efforts.

Even within the effective boundaries of its activity the trade union movement cannot spread in the unlimited way claimed for it by the theory of adaptation. On the contrary, if we examine the large factors of social development, we see that we are not moving toward an epoch marked by a victorious development of trade unions, but rather toward a time when the hardships of labour unions will increase. Once industrial development has attained its highest possible pint and capitalism has entered its descending phase on the world market, the trade union struggle will become doubly difficult. In the first place, the objective conjuncture of the market will be less favourable to the sellers of labour power, because the demand for labour power will increase at a slower rate and labour supply more rapidly than at present. In the second place, the capitalists themselves, in order to make up for losses suffered on the world market, will make even greater efforts than at present to reduce the part of the total product going to the workers (in the form of wages). The reduction of wages is, as pointed out by Marx, one of the principal means of retarding the fall of profit. The situation in England already offers us a picture of the beginning of the second stage of trade union development. Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult. Such is the general trend of things in our society. The counterpart of this tendency should be the development of the political side of the class struggle.

Konrad Schmidt commits the same error of historic perspective when he deals with social reforms. He expects that social reforms, like trade union organisations, will “dictate to the capitalists the only conditions under which they will be able to employ labour power.” Seeing reform in this light, Bernstein calls labour legislation a piece of “social control,” and as such, a piece of socialism. Similarly, Konrad Schmidt always uses the term “social control” when he refers to labour protection laws. Once he has thus happily transformed the State into society, he confidently adds: “That is to say, the rising working class.” As a result of this trick of substitution, the innocent labour laws enacted by the German Federal Council are transformed into transitory socialist measures supposedly enacted by the German proletariat.

The mystification is obvious. We know that the present State is not “society” representing the “rising working class.” It is itself the representative of capitalist society. It is a class state. Therefore its reform measures are not an application of “social control,” that is, the control of society working freely in its own labour process. They are forms of control applied by the class organisation of Capital to the production of Capital. The so-called social reforms are enacted in the interests of Capital. Yes, Bernstein and Konrad Schmidt see at present only “feeble beginnings” of this control. They hope to see a long succession of reforms in the future, all favouring the working class. But here they commit a mistake similar to their belief in the unlimited development of the trade union movement.

A basic condition for the theory of the gradual realisation of socialism through social reforms is a certain objective development of capitalist property and of the State. Konrad Schmidt says that the capitalist proprietor tends to lose his special rights with historic development, and is reduced to the role of a simple administrator. He thinks that the expropriation of the means of production cannot possibly be effected as a single historic act. He therefore resorts to the theory of expropriation by stages. With this in mind, he divides the right to property into (1) the right of “sovereignty” (ownership) – which he attributes to a thing called “society” and which he wants to extend – and (2) its opposite, the simple right of use, held by the capitalist, but which is supposedly being reduced in the hands of the capitalists to the mere administration of their enterprises.

This interpretation is either a simple play on words, and in that case the theory of gradual expropriation has no real basis, or it is a true picture of judicial development, in which case, as we shall see, the theory of gradual expropriation is entirely false.

The division of the right of property into several component rights, an arrangement serving Konrad Schmidt as a shelter wherein he may construct his theory of “expropriation by stages,” characterised feudal society, founded on natural economy. In feudalism, the total product was shared among the social classes of the time on the basis of the personal relations existing between the feudal lord and his serfs or tenants. The decomposition of property into several partial rights reflected the manner of distribution of the social wealth of that period. With the passage to the production of commodities and the dissolution of all personal bonds among the participants in the process of production, the relation between men and things (that is to say, private property) became reciprocally stronger. Since the division is no longer made on the basis of personal relations but through exchange, the different rights to a share in the social wealth are no longer measured as fragments of property rights having a common interest. They are measured according to the values brought by each on the market.

The first change introduced into juridical relations with the advance of commodity production in the medieval city communes, was the development of absolute private property. The latter appeared in the very midst of the feudal juridical relations. This development has progressed at a rapid pace in capitalist production. The more the process of production is socialised, the more the process of distribution (division of wealth) rests on exchange. And the more private property becomes inviolable and closed, the more capitalist property becomes transformed from the right to the product of one’s own labour to the simple right to appropriate somebody else’s labour. As long as the capitalist himself manages his own factory, distribution is still, up to a certain point, tied to his personal participation in the process of production. But as the personal management on the part of the capitalist becomes superfluous – which is the case in the share-holding societies today – the property of capital, so far as its right to share in the distribution (division of wealth) is concerned, becomes separated from any personal relation with production. It now appears in its purest form. The capitalist right to property reaches its most complete development in capital held in the shape of shares and industrial credit.

So that Konrad Schmidt’s historic schema, tracing the transformation of the capitalist “from a proprietor to a simple administrator,” belies the real historic development. In historic reality, on the contrary, the capitalist tends to change from a proprietor and administrator to a simple proprietor. What happens here to Konrad Schmidt, happened to Goethe:

What is, he sees as in a dream.
What no longer is, becomes for him reality.

Just as Schmidt’s historic schema travels, economically, backwards from a modern share-holding society to an artisan’s shop, so, juridically, he wishes to lead back the capitalist world into the old feudal shell of the Middle Ages.

Also from this point of view, “social control” appears in reality under a different aspect than seen by Konrad Schmidt. What functions today as “social control” – labour legislation, the control of industrial organisations through share holding, etc. – has absolutely nothing to do with his “supreme ownership.” Far from being, as Schmidt believes, a reduction of capitalist ownership, his “social control,” is, on the contrary, a protection of such ownership. Or, expressed from the economic viewpoint, it is not a threat to capitalist exploitation, but simply the regulation of exploitation. When Bernstein asks if there is more or less of socialism in a labour protective law, we can assure him that, in the best of labour protective laws, there is no more “socialism” than in a municipal ordinance regulating the cleaning of streets or the lighting of street lamps.


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