Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The New Voice

Three Articles on the Bribe

The Bribe Theory and the Capitalist Definition of Class

(The article first appeared in The New Voice publication, Vol. III, No. 12 (June 17, 1974))

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Some people in the workers’ movement are pushing the “bribe” theory. According to this idea, U.S. imperialism gives a material ”bribe” to the U.S. working class and thereby converts it into a non-revolutionary force. This theory is based on a capitalist definition of classes, and people who believe it are restricting and immobilizing their contributions to the struggle of the working class. More effective than a club on the head, it is an internal weapon of imperialism (monopoly capitalism) in our movement.

“Bribe” Theory Summarized

The theory of bribery may be summarized in the following points:

1. U.S. Imperialism makes most of Its profits in foreign countries, especially underdeveloped colonies.
2. Part of these profits are given to the U.S. working class.
3. For this reason, U.S. workers have high incomes and good living conditions.
4. Peoples’ opposition to a social order (capitalism) is determined by their level of income.
5. Therefore, the U.S. working class has been bribed into collaboration with the monopoly capitalists (DuPonts. Rockefellers, Morgans, etc.) to perpetuate U.S. imperialism.
6. Consequently, there is little or no hope for U.S. workers to become revolutionary until colonial peoples’ victories against U.S. imperialism deprive it of the ability to bribe U.S. workers.
7. What work we can do among fellow workers today is limited to those with the very lowest incomes.

Here we are concerned with the capitalist definition of classes used and its practical effects (4., 6., and 7.). The other points have been refuted both by theory and by fact (see The New Voice pamphlet, Imperialism Today: An Economic Analysis).

Definitions of Class

One of the most common definitions of class found in a capitalist society is by amount of income. People are arranged in a ladder of income intervals} below $3,000 per year, $3,000-5,000, and so forth. The emphasis is on degree of ability to consume, since in a capitalist society the things and opportunities that people enjoy are mainly those they can buy.

We are all familiar with this definition from graphs and charts in magazines and from courses in economics, sociology, etc. The degree of inequality of income is understated by the capitalist press, but the existence of inequality and its definition by amount of income are not disputed.

However, working class theorists (like Marx and Lenin) reject this definition of class to analyze society. The Marxist definition of class reflects the position in production, not consumption, which a person occupies.

Classes are large groups of people who differ from each other by the place they occupy in an historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in the laws) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the magnitude and mode of acquiring the portion of social wealth of which they dispose. Classes are such groups of people, one of which can appropriate the labor of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social production. (V.I. Lenin, “A Great Beginning,” 1919)

Classes in U.S.

People who must sell their ability to work, with hands and eyes and brain, obtain their income in the form of wages or a salary. These sellers of labor power are the workers.

People who own the means of production (factories, shops, fields) and who obtain their income in the form of profit (and interest, dividends, etc.) derived from the labor of workers are capitalists.

People who own, or rent, the tools and premises needed to employ themselves and sell the product of their own labor are petty producers.

Classes are defined by what they do In the sphere of production. Workers work–and their wage-labor or salaried labor is exploited. Capitalists are not only unnecessary to production in a rationally organized society, they are outright disruptive and deadly.

In the United States, about 90% of the population is in working-class families, 7% are petty producers or nearly so, and 2-3% are capitalists.

Some persons, of course, are paid “salaries” they dearly do not earn by their ability to labor. A corporation executive, for example, is paid $25, 50, or 100,000 per year for safeguarding the interests of capitalists in a sensitive spot, not for his ability to do mental or manual labor (which is often low).

Income and Class

The “price” of labor-power–the level of the wage or salary–is what is needed to support the worker and his family (or less than this). Very few workers are able to accumulate a surplus from their income. No worker can become a big businessman in this way. The capitalist approach is to emphasize small differences in income which do not put people into different classes– to divide the population into many income strata. Only a minority of income levels at the bottom of the scale are acknowledged to represent poverty. The capitalist definition of class divides people into a ladder of income levels, encourages individual competition to rise economically (an illusion for most), and obscures class struggle.

But the Marxist definition of class reveals that nearly all workers have problems meeting their material needs. Based on production not consumption, it also highlights the basic contradiction in a capitalist society–the contradiction between necessary labor (necessary to maintain the working class) and surplus labor (taken in the form of profit, interest, etc. by the capitalists).

Sven to understand how the product of social labor is divided and consumed, the Marxist definition of class based on our role in production reveals infinitely more than the income definition. For example, how do workers defend their standard of living? By collectively forcing the employer to pay better wages. Non-unionized workers also benefit from the prevailing wage levels won by unionized workers. The struggle between classes over the division between necessary and surplus labor decides our standard of living– not climbing up the income ladder. This is the Marxist definition of classes in action. Yet some people, using the income definition of class, write off workers for applying the Marxist definition and winning some gains in living standards! They attribute workers’ gains to a monopoly capitalist “bribe” instead of to the two causes of relatively better wages: 1) workers’ class struggle; and 2) the higher productivity of a developed economy.

Potential for Struggle

Believers in the capitalist amount-of-income definition assert that people with low Incomes are more revolutionary. But this is not true. The capitalist definition of class is not a good guide for working-class militants. It is not the absolute level of a worker’s income which determines his militancy. Nor is it determined by the level of his income compared to people in other countries.

There are many factors that influence the militancy and struggle of particular groups of workers in the short run.

One is the degree of concentration of workers. In revolutionary crises workers in large factories (and today, we should add, large offices such as downtown post offices) tend to be the most determined, disciplined, and ruthless against the class enemy.

Another factor is change in income. Workers who suffer sharp reversals In the trend of their income or conditions of life (because of unemployment or war) become more militant.

A third factor is the industry. In industries like railroads, auto, and communications, a stop in production cuts off profits immediately, and the class battles are more bitter. When battles between workers and employers occur here, they are likely to be very sharp.

Other particular factors and combinations of them could be listed. But the basic cause of class struggle in this society is the contradiction between necessary and surplus labor, between production for the workers’ own needs and production for the capitalists (their consumption, military expenditures, advertising and other forms of competitive waste, etc.). Only the Marxist definition of class, based on the social relationships of production, reflects this contradiction and cause of class struggle.

Bribe Theory Misleads Us

Believers in the bribe theory are led to self-restricting, damaging things In their false belief that income determines class-consciousness.

They prefer workers in small garment shops in San Francisco to auto workers in Fremont because the auto workers make too much money(!).

They regard people on welfare as the core of the revolution because of their low incomes. Actually, the ability of these people to cripple production is small. Also, the lack of a collective daily place of meeting and of discipline in worn leads, among some, to individualist, capitalist-imitating habits and customs. People on welfare are unemployed workers (or their families) whose struggle to survive should be organized– but they are not more revolutionary due to their lower incomes.

“No Struggle”!

Believers in the “bribe” theory tend to write off more and more workers as they drive toward the very lowest income levels. (This is really a mirror-image parody of the typical capitalist outlook of rising up.) They needlessly restrict their arenas of operation. Our approach should be the opposite! Occasions to organize workers in a society that is 90% working class are extremely rich and varied. We should take advantage of this (in a planned way, not drifting with circumstances) rather than restrict ourselves. Otherwise, we will restrict ourselves right out of the class struggle.

Finally, believers in the “bribe” theory and the income definition of classes compare Incomes in the U.S. with incomes in underdeveloped colonies. Seeing that the colonial peoples’ incomes are lower, these theorists write off the entire U.S. working class–“for the duration”! As a result, consistent believers in this capitalist theory objectively aid the capitalists by disengaging from class struggles.

Boundless Possibilities

In fact, the basic contradiction between the wage and salary earners and the monopoly capitalist businessmen in the United States is becoming sharper. Within the U.S., the split between these classes is growing. The percentage of people who are workers is increasing; the middle class refuge (petty producers and small businessmen) is nearly gone. Stagnation under monopoly capitalism is increasing, as shown by such phenomena as low growth rates, swelling permanent unemployment, and commodity “shortages” (extortion by monopoly producers).

Therefore, there are boundless possibilities for working-class struggle. The workers are fully capable of waging this struggle. The history of militancy of U.S. workers is a proud red banner held as high as that of any working class in the world. Formerly, it was a victim of the anti-theory mentality which has been typical of our country; but circumstances are changing this.

In both objective forces and subjective outlook, the U.S. working class is basically on the revolutionary path. Only those who aim to trail off into the byways of passive, gloomy inaction need the capitalist definition of classes and the “bribe” theory.