Harry Young

Are the Workers Better Off ? (Round Two)

Source: Forum, Internal Journal of the S.P.G.B, May 1954.
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".

First the facts. In the December 1952 issue of FORUM was published a letter which had originally been written to the E. C., and had. then been circulated to the Branches.

This letter urged Party speakers to change from "just attacking Capitalism to describing Socialism." In reviewing the efforts of Party speakers the statement was made that

Older speakers unconsciously preclude questions of the future by creating the impression that conditions have grown worse and will continue to do so. This does not fit the facts of experience.

I understood this to mean that Capitalism improves the conditions of the working-class, and that their experience had proved it. I therefore wrote a comment on this letter in the April FORUM in which I stated that "I hold, as a Socialist, that the conditions have grown worse, and will continue to do so."

It would seem, therefore, that there is a real disagreement here. In the one view, Capitalism improves the workers' conditions; in the other, it does not.

After further consideration I wrote an article (October issue) entitled "Are the Workers Better Off?" In this article I categorically stated that "As Capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer must get worse." I also stated explicitly that the contrary opinion was fatal to the Socialist case.

It should be made quite clear that I have in mind the permanent economic laws of the capitalist system; not its temporary fluctuations. This question can only be seriously discussed from the angle of social development.

It would be readily agreed, for example, that the years 1939-45 and after were years in which the workers were "better off" than they were in 1929 and 30, for the reason that they had employment. The most favourable condition for wage-labour is the accumulation of Capital. Such "ups" prove nothing, because they are followed by "downs" which cancel them out. In this case, the workers exchanged the leisure of the dole-queue for the comfort of the Air-Raid Shelter, or the warmth of the Battlefield.


Capitalism is based on wage-labour. It is a competitive system, in which capitalists undersell each other. To maintain profit, the employers must get workers to produce more Surplus Value. To get more Surplus Value they must increase surplus labour—that part of the working day during which workers produce solely for the capitalist. There are three ways of doing this :—

1. By stretching the number of hours worked;
2. By speeding up in the same hours as before; or
3. By cheapening the stuff the workers live on.

No matter which way it is done, the worker is worse off.

As Capitalism grows, more Capital is needed to set a labourer to work. Therefore the composition of Capital changes. Variable Capital (labour) decreases, and Constant Capital (machinery) increases. As Variable Capital decreases the rate of Surplus Value tends to fall, since Surplus Value comes solely from the Variable Capital, though calculated on the entire Capital.

Therefore, it is a law of Capitalism that the Rate of Profit tends to fall.

The capitalist tries to counteract this. He increases Constant Capital to increase productivity, and the workers therefore receive a steadily diminishing proportion of their produce. The Capitalist gets a greater mass of Surplus Value, but its Rate declines. In this sense, the workers are subject to a law of increasing misery, in that the proportion which they receive, of the total value they create, continually declines. It is exclusively a proportional relationship.

The capitalist system developes convulsions called crises of overproduction. The reason for this is the inability of workers to buy back what they make. It is therefore a law of Capitalism that, as it grows, the workers can buy less and less of their produce, making bigger crises.

If the workers' conditions are permanently improving, then Capitalism is not an antagonistic socially-harmful system. It does not deprive workers. It must be exploiting them less, as it improves them more. How can it be said that Capitalism robs the working class, when it is continually giving them more? Capitalism, then, is not an anarchic system producing crises; the troubles will all be ironed out, as the workers solve overproduction by buying back more and more as they improve.

This erroneous idea of the improvement of workers' conditions under Capitalism breeds absurdities in some members' propaganda. Thus it has been said in answer to question:—"I don't care if the workers get double their present wages, £20 a week with no alterations in prices, I'm not interested, I want Socialism." It would be hard to devise a more nonsensical statement. The workers cannot get double wages without alterations in prices, because wages ARE prices. If this speaker had said— "We are opposed to the whole wages system—because wages can never be anything but the cost-of-not-living. We want Socialism"—it might have had a bit of sense.

If the workers' conditions are steadily improving, then it follows that the poor must be getting richer, as the rich get poorer. This means that Capitalism equalizes society, and classes are on the way out. Why anybody should then want Socialism is inexplicable. According to "A. T." & Co., therefore, Capitalism is Capitalism, for the benefit of the working-class.

I hold, as a Socialist, that the Capitalist system is a system of slavery which grows not less but more severe, as the social productive forces of labour develop. While the worker develops as a worker, he deteriorates as a human being.


Can we measure the workers' position at any given time in Capitalist society?

Answer: Yes. The only thing that can be measured to compare the workers' position, at any time, is the proportion of the wealth they retain of what they produce, at that time. This measurement is quite feasible, and has been made repeatedly. Thus we know that, despite very great increases in the wealth produced in the first half of the last century, there was an increase in pauperism.

To try to compare the standard of living of workers of, say, 1850 with 1950, is futile. Some contributors to FORUM seem to have attributed this to me, without reason. It is quite possible to analyse the working day in 1850, and to conclude that the worker then spent 1/3 of his day in necessary labour, 2/3 therefore going to his employer. If the data for 1950 showed that the worker spent ¼ only of his day on himself, then the 20th Century man is, in fact, worse off. This will express itself in greater social discrepancy than before, and show the worker that the capitalist is relatively wealthier than he was, generating more social discontent.

If the modern worker, conversely, works 2/3 of his day for himself, he/would be correspondingly better off; in this case, twice as well off.

Capitalism, being based on sale on the market, drags everybody into the vortex. Every device of human ingenuity is used to convince potential buyers that they must have all sorts of things, once luxuries, now needs.

Capitalism frequently throws masses of workers into violent motion. In employment —out. To War! Back home! Emigrate. Overtime. New Industries, New Towns. Strikes. Lockouts.

The wage slaves of Capitalism are not a stagnating mass like the slaves of Ancient Rome, but an active and volatile social factor, who can and will act. Knowledge of the economics of Capitalism shows that the increasing misery of the working-class is accompanied by a corresponding growth in its numbers, organization and experience.

The worsening position of the workers under Capitalism—its hopelessness—is what makes Socialism their only hope. The increasing misery of the workers is a linchpin of Socialist economics. It is the inescapable outcome of the law of relative Surplus Value and the falling Rate of Profit.

The Socialist Party, therefore, does not seek to improve the workers' conditions—but to abolish the working-class.