Harry Young

Are the Workers Better Off?

Source: Forum, Internal Journal of the S.P.G.B, October 1953.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Copyleft: Creative Commons (Attribute & No Derivatives) 2007 conference "Be it resolved that all material created and published by the Party shall be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs copyright licence".

A simple question, you think ? Most people would at once answer "Yes" and pass on to the next business. Then there are those who say this question does not matter, because it is "irrelevant."

This will not do. This question must be answered, not evaded. Evasion or acceptance of the popular view ("Yes") is fatal to the socialist case. Socialism is based on Marx's analysis of Capitalism, from which the following conclusions were drawn:

First, that Capitalism paves the way for Socialism, objectively, by the centralisation of capital—"one capitalist always kills many" and the
(1) introduction of the co-operative form of labour-process.
(2) conscious application of science to production.
(3) transformation of the instruments of production into instruments only usable in common.
(4) entanglement of the peoples of the world in the market.
C.f. of Capital, Vol. 1. Kerr edition, p. 836 (summarised).

Subjectively, Socialism is pioneered by "the growth of the revolt of the working class; always increasing in numbers disciplined, united and organised. . . by capitalist production itself, (ibid. p. 837).

Why did Mark expect the revolt of the working class to grow ? His answer is plain and straight, quite clear, and the only one that makes sense:

As capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. (ibid p. 709).

As we know (from a glance through Capital or even Value, Price and Profit) that Marx regarded the accumulation of capital as the chief law of Capitalism, it follows that he held that "the lot of the labourer must grow worse." He also evidently held that the labourer could get high pay and still be worse off. The motive for the growing revolt is, therefore, bitter discontent with things as they are, NOT the attainment of what might be. It is when workers learn that their lives must get worse under Capitalism that they turn to Socialism, because there is nowhere else to turn to. To make himself perfectly clear, Marx explicitly enumerated those factors making the working class revolt:

Along with the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital . . . grows the mass of misery, oppresssion, slavery, degradation and exploitation. — (ibid. p. 836).

This statement has been referred to as "The theory of Increasing Misery". According to Professor G. D. H. Cole, Laski, Bernard Shaw, & Co., Marx has been proved wrong because the workers are better, not worse off to-day.

Marx gave the following evidence for his contentions. Under Capitalism

(a) "All methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are bought at the cost of the individual labourer."
(b) "All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over and exploitation of the producers,"
1. They mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrading him to the level of an appendage of a machine.
2. They estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process.
3. They distort the conditions under which he works.
4. They subject him to despotism.
5. They transform his life-time into working time.
6. They drag his wife and children beneath the juggernaut of capital
(ibid. p. 708)

Having these points clearly in mind, we can now proceed to put Marx to the test, and answer the question "Have workers' conditions improved?" Facing up to the fact that if the answer is "Yes" he and Socialsm are OUT.


What are the data usually advanced in favour of the Labour-Fabian view? The following are typical, collected mainly from public meetings:

1. Shorter hours.
2. Greater mobility (transportation).
3. Consultation (joint committees and factory welfare)
4. Paid holidays.
5. Education.
6. Medical attention, and milk and meals in schools.
7. Unemployment insurance.
8. Retirement pensions.
9. Better housing.

In addition it is claimed that working class people live longer and that working class children are taller and heavier than previous generations of corresponding age.

Every one of these so-called "improvements" of the workers is an investment by capitalists to increase workers' efficiency. So far from making their lives easier they make them work harder than before—for less.

The paid holidays, the medical attention and pensions are brought in at the very heavy price of decimation and suffering. So intense is the speed of work today that three-quarters of a million physically fit workers were receiving mental treatment in 1952 (British Medical Association).

According to Dr. Bicknell, vice-chairman of the Food Education Society, the people of this country take 10 million aspirins daily, making a picture (in his words) of a nation tired and sick. The patent medicine advertisements show that occupational diseases like indigestion, constipation, "tiredness,V influenza and cancer are universal and increasing. In the USA 100 million dollars worth of laxatives are swallowed yearly. The British Cancer Research Association claims that one person in every six is a victim.

One fairly reliable index of the social position of the workers is the official returns of the Inland Revenue office. Using those returns the S.S. {Socialist Standard] was able to show that the position of the workers after the Second World War was the same as after the first, "so that thirty years of change has produced no result whatever. 90 per cent of the wealth was owned by 1 per cent of the population in 1918, and still is."

A further index of the British workers' present economic position is the number of old-age pensioners. Four and a quarter million retired workers now draw 32/6d weekly. So inadequate is this pittance that two million have successfully passed a stringent Means Test for "supplementary benefit" to keep them alive. Two and a quarter million are subsisting on "public assistance" while Great Britain is enjoying the greatest industrial boom of this century.

The shorter hours are nullified by the more intense pace. The workers' greater mobility gets them to the factory more quickly. The joint committee helps the employer to produce and export more profitably. The holidays are paid for, to recreate the exhausted worker for more work for the employer. The so-called education, for the great majority, is training for paid work.

The State distribution of milk to the children of the workers is the clearest evidence that their parents have neither the means nor the opportunity of supplying their own offspring with the greatest need regularly themselves. Workers' children to-day are larger and heavier than their grandfathers were. So are cattle and sheep, pigs, eggs and tomatoes; and for the same reason—they are more valuable that way.

The workers DO live longer lives to-day of—more grinding poverty. On 32/6d weekly they enjoy more misery longer.

Foetid, verminous slums have been knocked down (where they have not fallen first)and replaced by blocks of flats or "buildings" because those living in the old property could not work efficiently in such "housing" conditions, which also expose other workers to disease.

On June 2nd the Economist published a "Coronation Supplement" on the economic position of Great Britain for the last 50 years. These tables and graphs showed that, during this period, the productivity of the British working class doubled and the profits of the employers rose.

Where are the improvements? In 1900 the consumption of meat per head was 133 lbs.; in 1951, 75 Ibs. In 1900 no margarine was produced*#8212;it was one of the "improvements" yet to be invented. In 1900 14 Ibs. of butter per head were consumed; in 1934, 25 Ibs. in 1951, 15 Ibs. of butter and 18 Ibs. of margarine.

In May this year the Minister of Food informed the House that one and three quarter millions were refusing to take their butter ration. When it is realised that this ration is less than ½oz. daily, then it simply means that nearly two million "improved" workers cannot afford the amount the Economist says their fathers at in 1900 (14 Ibs. per annum).

Research was undertaken recently into the standard loaf. Evidence was adduced that agene gas being pumped into flour to increase oxidisation in the digestive process to give workers "increased energy." The Canine Defence League warned members that dogs fed on this bread would develop hysteria. Rats fed on this workers' diet in the zoo in 1952 died before others given nothing at all.

Some economists (hypnotists would be nearer) claim that because the amounts spent on cosmetics and tobacco have increased enormously, the workers' conditions have improved correspondingly, Since when has consumption of cigarettes and lipsticks been evidence of prosperity? Tobacco is mainly an unsatisfactory substitute for nourishing food—digestion requires leisure and comfort. Cosmetics are make-believe for real health.

Today the workers eat more adulterated food and substitutes than ever. "Plastics" are worn instead of wool and leather. Rayons from corn-husks have ousted flannel and linen. Unhealthy rubber and jute, shoddy but gaudy rubbish., has replaced the sturdy, lasting workmen's clothes of fifty years ago. The workers are not better dressed—they are showily dressed in pathetically cheap finery.

How is a working man, buried in twenty miles of filthy bricks and mortar like London or Manchester, "better off", if his only chance of a sight of the sea or country is to pledge his entire credit on a television set or small car ?

A further case quoted is the millions gambled on football pools. No clearer evidence of the poverty of the workers today is needed. Popular bets are PENNY points, against odds of millions to one.

If the American worker is prosperous because millions are spent on cosmetics there, then the people of Australia, where 9,000,000 buy 7,000,000 sets of false teeth a year (National Dental Congress) must be the most fortunate on earth.

Another favourite is house purchase. So far from indicating modern workers' prosperity, it shows the reverse. So desperate is the housing position of many workers to-day that they are ready to gamble their lives on endowment policies to get a place for their children to sleep and play in. The worker mortgages his life, gives up his pleasures and spends his paid holiday bricklaying or painting "his" mortgaged house.

In 1863 there existed a somewhat similar sintuatioh to that of to-day. As a period of staggering expansion of trade and industry it has never been equalled. The railways were being completed, and the world was opening up then. Gladstone, the Chancellor, referred in his budget speech to "the intoxicating augmentation of wealth, confined almost entirely to classes of property." Fabulous fortunes had been made in double-quick time. "The rich have been growing richer, and the poor have been growing less poor," he said, adding "whether the extremes of poverty are less I do not presume to say."

What was the standpoint of Marx? What did he reply at a time when almost every speech and publication confidently predicted "increasing, boundless prosperity"? In Volume 1 of Capital (p. 716), and subsequently in the Inaugural Address of the International, he wrote:

If the working class has remained 'poor', only 'less poor' in proportion as it produces for the wealthy class an 'intoxicating augmentation of wealth', then it has remained relatively just as poor ... If the extremes of poverty have not lessened they have increased, because the extremes of wealth have.

The working class cannot be "better off". They can either be slaves or free.