(Letter in Justice,12 November 1910)
Justice, 12 November 1910
Transcription\HTML Markup: Scottish Republican Socialist Movement Archive in 2002 and David Walters in 2003
Copyleft: John MacLean Internet Archive (www.marx.org)1999, 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
…Hobart, in refuting G. B. Shaw’s argument that an increase of wages would in the end stop destitution, falls back on the fallacy that wages determine prices—a fallacy long since exposed by Marx in his “Value, Price and Profit”.
So long as surplus value is wrung out of the workers by the operations of the perfectly natural laws of capitalist production, just so long will the equally natural social consequences of unemployment and destitution continue to appear….
But no matter how high wages may be, surplus value—as rent, interest and dividends—must still pour into the coffers of the plundering few, and therefore chronic unemployment, periodically accentuated by crises, must persist. This is a marxist reply to Shaw. On the assumptions of Hobart, the real wages of the workers never for any considerable time vary, because the prices are regulated by wages. If wages rise, prices rise, and vice-versa.
During the last fourteen or fifteen years, prices have almost steadily risen, whereas wages, though fluctuating, have rather on the whole tended downwards. And had we the absence of trade unions, wages would markedly fall without at all affecting the upward movement of prices. The reverse of this we see in the increasing wages of German comrades organised into unions, unaccompanied by price increases greater than obtaining in other fully evolved capitalist countries.
Wages simply being the specific name for the price of labour-power, it must be theoretically apparent that a price cannot regulate prices in general. The above illustrations bear witness. The recent revolt against trust prices in America, and the dramatic strike of the railway workers for increased wages, to balance the increased cost of living, demonstrate that the masses had become conscious that their real wages—the mass of goods that money wages can purchase—had gone down.
I am one of those who believe that we ought to have a law of minimum wages, but ever increasing with every increase in prices, though never decreasing with price diminution, and a law of maximum for hours, ever falling with increased productivity. Tom Mann does right to insist on this as work for the organised workers, after they have organised industrially for fusion of unions already existing, and the absorption of those as yet unorganised. But the supplementary effort of parliamentary representatives I hold to be necessary, and here it is that a real Labour Party could fight the class war effectively in the “temple of time-servers”.
So far as a maximum for prices is concerned. I imagine the proposal is utopian. Prices are under perfect free competition and uniform cornposition of capital, determined by the exchange of gold for other articles in proportion to the time necessary to produce them socially. Thus ten hours of gold will normally exchange for ten hours of any other product. This gold, converted into coin, constitutes the price of all products finished in the same time.
If gold can be found abundantly in rich, easily accessible seams, or if by the application of improved mechanical and chemical agencies, it can be more easily produced, then its value declines, and prices generally rise. This is quite natural, and is operating today; and laws to limit prices would be just as silly as laws to end trusts. An agitation for the limitation of prices would imply that we favour the point of view opposed to marxism, that profits are the result of fleecing the consumer. No doubt profits are increased by the sale of adulterated goods, but normally profits are not made out of the consumer. Such a fight would blur over the class issue entirely, and would thus be tactically as bad as it would be economically.
It might be suggested that if a law of maximum in price is bad, so also is it bad in relation to hours, so also is the law of minimum in relation to wages. But an increase of wages and a shortening of hours all round would in no way violate the operation of the natural laws of capitalism, although it might result in the reduction of surplus value temporarily, and thus give an impetus to better methods of production and trustification. An agitation for this purpose would bring to the surface the fact that the producer creates profit, and would thus enable us to raise to eminence the fight of the workers against the capitalists.
As prices are rising in our country whilst the capitalists are using every cunning agency such as profit-sharing to speed up the workers as well as every form of cruel “sabotage” to cow and quell them, it surely is time our organisation made a concerted and well-planned attempt to get trade unions to fuse and fight with social-democratic arguments and, through the unions, to force the poor Labour Party to do something, just for once, on behalf of the men who pay them, for a reduction of hours and the establishment of a minimum wage. Efforts are being made, I know, but systematic effort is the only road to success.