Max Shachtman


The Fight For Socialism


What Are You?

YOU do not live by yourself on a desert island. You are a member of an organized social community.

In this society, you cannot simply do anything you please and as you please to do it. You cannot simply get anything you wish and do with it as you wish. What you want and do affects and limits what others want and do. In turn, your wishes and actions are affected and limited by the wishes and actions of others. The effects and limits may be direct or indirect, may be felt immediately or only after a while. But they exist, and they determine our lives. We are all subject to the social laws governing the relations between individuals and groups.

What are these relations? What are the laws governing them? What are you – what kind of individual are you and to what group do you belong? Once you understand the answers to these questions, you will not only have a clear idea of your place in society but also of what you can do to make it a better place to live in.

The first instinct of man is to preserve himself. He cannot do it without food, clothing and shelter. Only if he satisfies these elementary needs can he develop intellectually, spiritually and culturally. The basis of every organized social community is production – the production of the means of life and of the instruments and materials to produce the means of life. Society cannot exist unless it is based upon production. If there is no production, then you may have a cemetery or a jungle or anything else you please, but you will not have an organized social community of living human beings.

How does production take place? A man alone on an island might build his own shelter, raise his own food and make his own clothing out of materials which he himself procured. To produce in modern society, men must, willy-nilly, enter into certain relations with each other. In doing so, it is immediately clear that not everyone stands on the same plane, does the same thing, or enjoys the same powers, rights and benefits. In entering these relations, we find that some fall into one group, others fall into a second group, still others into a third, and so on.

If, then, you see society as a community based upon production, it is not divided into so many single individuals, but rather into so many groups of individuals. The group you fall into in the process of production determines what you are in society.

Social Divisions in Past Societies

Just what are the groups that society is divided into?

In the first place, history shows that societies have changed and changed fundamentally. Along with these changes have naturally come changes in the groups that compose society.

The first basic division we know is the one between men and women. A division between them still exists and it always will. But it is no longer the basic division today. It was basic in the earliest period of man. The men did the hunting, fishing and fighting; the women made the clothing, prepared the food and took care of the home. What society there was, was based on the clan or tribe. Everything was pretty much owned and shared in common. There was no privately-owned property, no government, no rulers and ruled, no laws in the sense in which we know them today.

Private property came into existence when it proved more profitable to enslave captured enemies than to kill them. Agriculture had developed to the point where a slave could produce enough to keep himself alive and, in addition, a surplus which the master of the slave appropriated. Slaves were the first form of private property, owned outright like cattle. They were a distinct and separate class. So were the owners of slaves.

Who wants to be a slave, lorded over, doing all the hard work and enjoying none or very few of the benefits of his labors? To keep the slaves in the condition of slavery, to prevent them from fleeing or rebelling, the slave-owners had to develop a governing power, with rules and regulations that had the force of law. They aimed at keeping themselves in the position of slave-masters and the slaves in the position of slavery. Special groups of armed men were set up to enforce these laws. This is the origin of the state, or, as it is often called (somewhat loosely, we shall see) the government.

Government, then, came into existence in order to maintain the division of society into the two main classes of slaves and slave-owners. It was not a machine functioning impartially for the good of all, but a class instrument. It protected the interests of the slave-owners as a class, and not those of the slaves. Emperors, kings and princes, legislatures (where they exited), the body of laws and decrees, the courts, the armies and the police – all these operated to keep the large mass of slaves subjected to the small minority of slave-owners.

At a certain stage of historical development, chattel slavery gave way to feudalism. Production could not develop beyond certain limits under slavery. Society began to stagnate and go to pieces.

Under feudalism, the feudal lord (the lord of the “feud,” or estate, domain, manor) owned the large tracts of land, but the toiler was no longer a slave owned by his master as a thing is owned. The toiler was now a serf, with certain limited rights. But he was under strict obligations to the feudal lord. Either he performed personal labor for the lord or paid him certain fees and taxes. His small farm was his own, but he worked the estates of the lord without payment. He was bound to the soil, and could not leave it.

The way in which the means of life are produced had changed. As with every such change, it brought with it a change in the main classes of society. Now it was no longer slave and slave-owner, but serf and landlord. The way in which they entered into relations with each other for the purpose of production decided the social relations between them. That is, it decided the class to which each belonged, and the class relations.

Just as under slavery, the government corresponded to this relationship and existed for the purpose of maintaining it. The feudal lord had armed force at his disposal. It was brought to bear against the serfs whenever they attempted to free themselves or to lighten the burdens imposed upon them by the ruling lords. It maintained the property rights of the feudalists, and the extraordinary social rights and privileges which belonged to them alone. Everyone in feudal society was kept aware of the fact that there was a strict class division among the people. The serf and the landlord were not mere individuals; each was a part of a distinct social class, determined by his position in the economic structure.

The Division in Society Today

What is the fundamental division in society today? In all the advanced countries, at least, the slave or serf of old no longer exists. The classes that once ruled over them do not rule today. The primary division is certainly no longer the one that existed between men and women so many centuries ago.

Is the division in society based upon nationality, between those born in this country and those born abroad? Between those whose skin is one color and those of another color? Between those who are of one religion and those of another, or those who are of no religion? Between old and young?

There are such divisions, some of them natural, others artificial or artificially maintained. But they are not the lines along which the main social groups are divided today. Foreign-born and native, old and young, white and Negro, Catholic, Protestant, Jew and atheist are found on all sides, in all the social groups of the country.

The main division in society is based upon the difference in the relationship of persons to the process of production. In present-day society, this division gives us a class composed of those who own the means of production and exchange – factories, mines, mills, railroads, banks – and a class composed of those who own only their mental and physical ability to work. Between these two lies a variety of middle classes – small farmers, merchants, professional people and others – but the main, basic, decisive classes in our society are the two mentioned: the owners of capital or the capitalists, and the workers.

How is this to be proved? Very easily.

In order to live and propagate the race, man must first satisfy his bodily needs. He must feed, clothe and shelter himself. Food, clothing and shelter do not drop into his lap from the skies. They must be produced.

To produce them today, an employer makes an oral or written agreement with an employee. By it, the one provides the other with a stipulated income in return for a stipulated amount of work. When they come together for this agreement, how do they know who is employer and who is employee? By the difference in age between them? By the difference in sex, or color, or creed or nationality? Obviously not! The difference has nothing to do with these qualities. It is simply this:
The employer owns the plant, the machinery and the raw materials; the employee possesses only his ability to work, his labor power. It is not the employer who goes to the employee for a job but the employee who goes to the employer. Whenever the employee applies for a job, or seeks to keep his job, or asks for better working conditions, he recognizes implicitly that there is a fundamental division between the owner of capital and the worker.

There are, to be sure, more brutal capitalist employers and less brutal ones. Some employers, the worker never even sees; with others he may even play a ball game on the week-end or belong to the same fraternal order. Some employers pay extremely low wages and maintain the most primitive working conditions; others pay better wages and even maintain special services for their workers. Some are irreconcilably hostile to labor organizations; others tolerate and negotiate with labor organizations. Some are looked upon by workers as “good” and others as “bad.”

None of these things, however, changes the basis of our capitalist society. All the employers, “good” and “bad,” have one all-important thing in common: they are owners of the means of production or exchange, and derive their income from this ownership. By virtue of this ownership, they are in a position to dictate to the employee the conditions of his existence. They therefore have in common a basic class interest. It is to maintain capitalist private property, and the social system built upon it by which the relationship between capitalists and workers is preserved. “Good” and “bad” capitalist, “friendly” and “unfriendly” capitalist – all are united in the effort to maintain the private ownership of the means of production and exchange and the power that is derived from it.

This ownership keeps the workers at the mercy of the capitalist class. It makes them dependent upon the capitalist class for their livelihood and therefore for life itself. Without this ownership, the capitalists would not have the power, the wealth, the privileges and the ruling position they now enjoy. Without it, there would still be personal distinctions among people, but there would no longer be a basis for social or class differences, for class rule and class conflict.

This fundamental division of capitalist society into economic classes is often obscured by other divisions which cut across it, or seem to do so. The worker sees members of his class antagonistic to each other and sometimes even tom by violent conflict. He sees the same thing in the ranks of the capitalist class. He sees employers who favor workers of the same religion, or nationality, or sex, or color, or age, and who discriminate against all other workers. He even sees workers of the same color joining hands with their employers against workers of another color, or another religion, or another nationality.

These are all facts. Far from being denied, their importance should be emphasized. But, above all, they should be correctly understood.

Naturally, the capitalists, who are a small minority ruling over the big majority, do not want the workers to grasp the truth about the real class division in society. That would not be in their interest. If the workers understood that they are part of one class, with common basic social interests, then the days of the rule of the capitalist minority would be numbered.

The capitalists therefore create, stimulate and exploit every possible difference, every prejudice, in the ranks of the working class. If the native-born worker can be led to believe that the basic antagonism in society is between those born in this country and those born abroad, that will make it easier for the capitalist to rule undisturbed by a united working class. The same is true if the capitalist can make the worker believe that the basic antagonism in society is between white and Negro, or Catholic and Protestant, or Gentile and Jew. If the working class is fighting among itself along such lines, capital, whose only real religion is capital itself, and which has neither color, nationality, age or sex, can continue to rule society and to keep labor at its mercy.

The worker who understands his class position in society has already freed himself from the most oppressive and misleading idea that capitalists seek to pump into his head from childhood on. With this understanding comes the first big step toward freedom. Only if you know what society is based on, what position you occupy in it, what your relations are to other classes, can you begin to transform society into what it can and should be.

Above you, ruling society and ruling you, is the capitalist class. You are a member of the working class. It is to you that these pages are addressed.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23.4.2005