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The New International, May 1944

Joseph Leonard

Maurice William and Marxism

A Middle-Class Interpretation of History


From The New International, Vol. X No. 5, May 1944, pp. 146–149.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the December 1943 issue of Harper’s Magazine an article by M. Zolotow, entitled The Dentist Who Changed World History describes a book written by an old-time member of the Socialist Party attacking the fundamental principles of Marxism. Maurice William, the author, had his book, The Social Interpretation of History, privately printed in 1920; he sent copies to most of the better known socialist leaders in America, asking for answers to or appraisals of his work. He never got either.

Since the printing of the book, however, several reasons have appeared which, from the Marxian point of view, make an answer worth while. First, as the Harpers article describes, the book was instrumental in turning Sun Yat-sen from Marxism to reformism. Second, John Dewey, whose writings have had a profound influence on contemporary thinking, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, has taken the same line of attack against Marxism. Third, it has become apparent, to me at least, that the theory of William and Dewey is, succinctly stated, one of the fundamental concepts that liberals of less precise turn of mind uphold against the teachings of Marxism.

On page 273 of Human Nature and Conduct (Modern Library edition) John Dewey writes:

And the exaggeration of production, due to its isolation from ignored consumption, so hypnotizes attention that even would-be reformers, like Marxian socialists, assert that the entire social problem focuses at the point of production. Since this separation of means from ends signifies an erection of means into ends, it is no wonder that a “materialistic conception of history” emerges. It is not an invention of Marx; it is a record of fact so far as the separation in question obtains. For practicable idealism is found only in a fulfillment, a consumption which is a replenishing, growth, renewal of mind and body. Harmony of social interests is found in the widespread sharing of activities significant in themselves, that is to say, at the point of consumption.* But the forcing of production apart from consumption leads to the monstrous belief that class-struggle civil war is a means of social progress, instead of a register of the barriers to its attainment.
[The footnote indicated says: “Acknowledgment is due The Social Interpretation of History, by Maurice William.”]

It is not the purpose of this article to examine Dewey’s attacks on Marxism further, nor to analyze The Social Interpretation of History in its entirety (William commits many sectarian atrocities on Marxism, e.g., the “contradiction” between raising immediate demands and the fundamental principles of Marxian economics), but only to analyze the central concept of the book, i.e., the consumers’ interpretation of history.

Socialist principles concern themselves with the welfare of the producer ... with productive capital ... with exploitation at the point of production ... with the means of production of social wealth. [Whereas] Social evolution concerns itself with the welfare of the consumer ... with consumable wealth ... with exploitation at the point of consumption ... with the distribution of social wealth. Socialist principles are based on the conflict of interest between the owners of the means of production and the workers, whereas social evolution operates in response to their common interests. (page 42)

Organized society came into existence as the result of experience that taught the lesson of mankind’s common problem and of the realization that its solution is more likely to be attained through the cooperation of all having a common aim (page 68).

... the propelling motive power behind all social change is the quest for a solution to the problem of existence ... All past history is but a record of trials and experiences man has encountered in his efforts to make secure his earthly existence. The will to live is the universal economic problem (page 68).

Each previous form of society has been called into existence as a gradual outgrowth of the preceding epoch and represented a distinct social advance. The test for any form of society is the ability of its productive forces to supply the wants of society (pages 68-69).

In their economic interests as social beings, as consumers, all groups in society have many more interests in common than those over which they differ; social progress, therefore, is registered mainly in the interest of consumers. Social systems change with a change in the mode of production, but modes of production change because they fail to solve the problem of existence (page 69).

Social evolution in its aim to prove the problem of existence has evolved the social mode of production. The social system adapted to the social mode of production is in the process of evolution, shaping itself in response to the social interests of the majority. Socialism will be realized through a movement of consumers and not a movement of producers (page 70).

... The majority is usually formed through a combination of the powerful and useful as against the remnant of the past and useless of the present. The powerful of our epoch are the owners of the means of production, the useful are alt in society who render a socially necessary service (page 117).

The improved method of production [capitalism – J.L.] made the rate of exploitation of the new master class far greater than that to which it had itself been subjected ... Nevertheless [the place] ... of the exploited ... in the social scale represented a distinct advance over the position of the exploited class in the preceding epoch. Their improved condition as consumers and as social beings were the considerations that united the exploited of the new epoch to their exploiters ... (page 69).

... The masses have progressed and progressed rapidly, but ... Practically the entire list of industrial and social reforms ... serve the masses in their capacity as consumers and social beings (page 42).

Marx was a social pathologist. He studied social pathology and mistook the phenomena he observed for the laws of social biology. The manifestations of the class struggle are symptoms of social pathology analogous to such symptoms as pain, heat, redness and swelling in human pathology. The former are no more the laws of sociology than the latter are the laws of biology (page 71).

The class struggle is an effect, not a cause. It is due to insecurity in the means of existence. It is to the interest of society as a whole to eliminate the cause (page 68).

Historical Forces and Events

We shall find many pairs of ideas confused in The Social Interpretation of History. Probably the most important is the confusion of that which drives with that which is driven.

Dewey says the class struggle doctrine reflects a forced separation of means from ends. William expresses the same idea when he calls the class struggle an effect and not a cause. All ends are also means, and all effects are also causes. The class struggle is an effect of the unequal distribution of commodities, and the historical changes of society are an effect of the class struggle. More accurately, the class struggle arises out of all the conflicting interests of economic classes; the disproportionate distribution of the products of labor is a major bone of contention, but there are others, e.g., leisure time, education, political power, prestige and privileges, freedom from exhausting drudgery, etc. Similarly, the class struggle causes changes in the distribution of commodities, of political power, property forms and property relations, the accepted codes of behavior, religious beliefs, etc.

What Dewey and William mean, of course, is that the class struggle is an unimportant means or cause, a by-product of history, so to speak, and that because Marxists consider it the main vehicle of progress they have converted it to an unjustified extent into an end in itself. This assertion involves not only denying the historical evidence that Marxists put forward, which is not under discussion in this article, but also the obligation to furnish an alternative to the class struggle as a motive force in the evolution of society. Marxists use their theory of the class struggle to explain historical facts, to guide their practical political activities, and to predict. If William wishes to do any of these things, and he indicates that he wants to do all three, he must give us something to replace that which he has “refuted.” Data does not explain itself; it takes a statistician to make the figures lie.

William cannot, and he does not, furnish an alternative; he hides the deficiency by metaphysically imputing to the inherent nature of society the motive force he wishes to establish. “The quest for a solution to the problem of existence” and a “gradual outgrowth of the preceding epoch” are empty phrases. [1] Which group is most concerned with the “quest,” or are rich and poor equally concerned? What is the origin of the things that make for a “gradual outgrowth?” These questions can be answered in terms of inventors, explorers, scientists and production experts, but this still leaves unfurnished the vehicle of change, viz., that advances are made today by hired agents of the ruling class.

Who will incorporate advances and discoveries into the economic structure? Marxists explain that the capitalist class . today is finding it less and less to its own interests to use many of the brain-products of its own technicians. Only the dictatorship of the proletariat will be able to unleash the forces of production now held in check by the profit-market. (In 1933, the technocrats publicized some interesting data which substantiates the economic argument of the Marxists.) Marxists point to the “shelving” of inventions which would topple (or revolutionize) whole industries. They point to patent “freezing.” They point to monopoly restrictions, trust agreements in restraint of trade, cartel commitments to refrain from manufacturing or marketing certain commodities, trade secrets, withholding commodities from the market, even the destruction of desperately needed (”social”) commodities (e.g., under the cotton, destroying oranges, etc.). Marxists point to periodically idle factories, to the vast numbers who are either unemployed or in the army (depending on whether there is truce or war), to factories that could be built, to tractors that could be sent to farmers and peasants. What can William point to?

William’s theory doesn’t explain. “Social evolution” is a metaphysical concept, which is simply a capitalized name for, and abstraction of, the very things William seeks to explain. “Social evolution” (or “the will to live”) is no more a scientific explanation that the statement, “Sedative properties is the reason opium puts people to sleep.” William has given his ignorance a name, but this does not hide the fact that he has no interpretation of history. What passes for historical science in public school, whose teachings William reflects, is only a dry assortment of described events and facts arranged in chronological order, and lacking for the most part any understanding of the cause-effect development of what is described.

The Point of Production and the Point of Consumption

The class struggle that exists precisely at the point of production is an abstract one. The workers’ interest is to produce enough for all; the employers’ interest is to produce only what can be sold today at a satisfactory profit. But it is not over the question of producing more or less that the struggle in real life develops, although that is its fundamental basis. The struggle to regulate production in the interests of society, or of a class, is a political struggle for state power. Before the proletariat can “dictate” the means of production, that is, expand and control production (which is to the interest of all consumers) it must establish its ownership of the factories and the land; the only way a class can own and control is through the control of the state.

There is, however, a form of struggle at the point of production which is not abstract. The employer wants the worker to work faster, and for less money, and the worker wants to be treated like a human being. The second of these conflicts, wages, involves not labor power, but the laborer as a consumer. The speed-up and bad working conditions, though, are exploitations at the point of production. In its elementary forms the struggle tends to center around the factory, where the means of production are (e.g., collective bargaining, strikes, lockouts, slowdowns, blacklists, pickets, thugs). But this class struggle, which arises from conflicts at the point of production, becomes in its ultimate expression a struggle, not between the union and the company, but between classes for control of the state, the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

There is another point at the point of production that needs clarification. This regards the introduction of improved machines, and of more efficient techniques of production that do not involve speed-up. Generally speaking, there is a very considerable lag between the increased productivity of the worker (and, often, the lowered quality of the product) and a corresponding productivity in his pay envelope. This, plus the fact of technological unemployment, has led some workers to oppose new machinery or shorter processes. This was more true in the early days of capitalism, particularly in England, where there were machine-smashing groups (about 1811–17) called Luddites, after Ned Ludd.

William argues that the workers’ class interests are adversely affected by technological progress, but that as consumers they gain from such improvements. (Whose theory makes a forced separation between production and consumption?) If the workers fought only for then- class interests, Wil-lion reasons, they would oppose technological progress (i.e., William would say that the Luddites were consistent advocates of the class struggle doctrine). Therefore, it is not the class struggle that brings social progress, but the “social struggle” of consumers.

Capitalism in Ascent and in Decline

Marxists believe (a) that technology advances the consumer interests of the workers (and of all other classes), and (b) that technology can (if the machines are owned socially by, or in the interests of, all consumers) advance the interests of the workers as producers also. Therefore, Marxists tell the workers, the only intelligent way to protect their interests, as workers and consumers, is to destroy, not the machines, but the capitalist class, which uses the machines against them. The Luddites were not Marxists; it is William who must explain how it is that he and they agree that smashing machinery will advance the class interests of the workers.

William’s understanding of the historical development of capitalism is frozen in the Luddite period. He is innocent of the evolutionary, historical idea that a system of economic organization develops and changes: that in its early period it raises the efficiency and productivity and enables all to benefit (although not equally), but in its later period it becomes increasingly torn by conflicts between those who control and fetter production and those who produce and want to increase production.

The bourgeoisie has sprung from the oppressed classes in feudal society ... The basis of existence for the new master class was proletarian exploitation. (page 65)

William quotes the Communist Manifesto to bring out his point: “At this stage, therefore, the proletariat do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty bourgeoisie ... Every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.” William reasons: “The proletariat fought the battles for the bourgeoisie” (page 66); the bourgeoisie was thereby enabled to increase its rate of exploitation, therefore the class-struggle theory is disproved.

William thinks that because the early proletariat aided the bourgeoisie, objectively, in consolidating its (the bourgeoisie’s) power, the struggle could not have been a class struggle, but was a “social struggle” of the “powerful and useful” against the “remnants of the past.” [2] A class struggle, thinks William, can only be waged by a class in behalf of its own interests, which at all points (points of production, that is, because a class is defined in terms of its relation to the means of production) are contrary to the interests of the class that exploits it. He thinks, too, that what was true “at this stage” is still true today, i.e., that the proletariat and bourgeoisie can still fight side by side in a common social cause that will benefit both the proletarian consumer and the bourgeois consumer.

The working class had, in the beginning, to fight alongside the bourgeoisie against the feudal barons in order to create the conditions (modern techonology, for one) for its own coming to power in a later epoch. As capitalism developed to maturity, and past maturity, the struggle for social reforms came more and more under the leadership of the proletariat; reforms were supported less and less by the significant portions of the capitalist class, although this class had formerly led many of the struggles to achieve progressive reforms.

The Middle Classes and the Capitalist Class

William is for socialism. While he does not point to the economic fetters mentioned above in the section, Historical Forces and Historical Events, he is against those forces in society which hinder production, which prevent a more abundant solution to the problem of (economic) existence.

The capitalist mode of distribution or exchange based upon the profit principle is inefficient and therefore detrimental both to the interests of the owners of the means of production and the vast majority in society as consumers.

The group of capitalists functioning in the sphere of circulation who obtain their profits through the purchase and sale of commodities have proved inefficient and thus a fetter to social progress. Social evolution, in response to the harmony of interests of the powerful and useful, is operating to eliminate the useless middleman, speculator, merchant, trader, etc. Social evolution has nothing in store for this group of parasites except oblivion. They hamper the full development of the capitalist mode of production and therefore are inimical to social progress (page 106).

Thus it is the middle class, the store keepers, who are the “useless of the present”; it is they who are holding up progress by their inefficient methods. Marxists agree (a) that small enterprise is inefficient and (b) that the middlemen are being converted into “useful” proletarians and trained technicians as capitalism becomes more and more “fully developed.”

Why is there a struggle among consumers? Aren’t the middlemen also consumers? Why are they “remnants of the past” or “useless”? What distinguishes them from the rest of society? The only answer that one who believes in William’s theory can give is: “The ‘remnants’ represent an outmoded (inefficient) means of production; and the ‘useless’ are those who either do not produce at all or else produce at a much lower than average efficiency. Thus, the ‘remnants’ and the ‘useless’ are distinguished by their relationship to the means of production.” This answer is nothing but the Marxian distinction of economic classes, clumsily put. William and Marx are thus agreed that progress is achieved by the struggle between the efficient classes and those classes which have been shown historically to be incapable of further significantly improving the efficiency, and extent, of production. This is the class struggle.

What about the bankers? Certainly bankers are “parasites”; it is not socially necessary, or efficient, or a likely aid to “social” production, to erect huge buildings to usury. Yet in these buildings most of the important decisions, not only of banks, but of industries and governments, are made.

A consistent believer in William’s theory would explain bankers something like this: “It is only through the centralized control of huge amounts of capital that modern industry can develop. The curses of the small business man are that he is tied to his original small machines; he can afford only small-time advertising; he cannot produce for the future market because he cannot afford to have huge assets stocked in warehouses; he must pay monopoly prices for his raw materials and his shipping because he cannot afford his own mines (or whatever) or his own railroad, etc. The bankers, with their private control and extraction of private profit, are not as efficient as social control of the banking function. Therefore, (according to ‘the laws of social evolution’) the bankers are on their way out, and the banks are becoming socialized.”

And then he would have to add either (a) “The government, which acts in the interests of the powerful capitalists and the useful workers (who together form the majority) will ‘socialize’ banking” or (b) “the bankers, who are part and parcel of the powerful capitalist class because they are among those who extract surplus value, must be forced to give up their parasitic privileges.” Both these necessarily implied conclusions are asserted by William, not together or in connection with banks specifically, but in other places.

The Marxian interpretation of history shows that preceding and accompanying the gradual disappearance of the inefficient middle class, the banks and big business generally concentrate into their few hands more and more of the wealth and power of the nation. Merchant capitalism becomes finance capitalism, agrarian capitalism becomes imperialist capitalism, “rugged individualism” and “free competition” become monopoly capitalism. The main reason for the disappearance of the middle class is its inability to compete with the ever-growing power of the finance capitalists, who become the dominant section of the bourgeoisie in the highest stages a capitalism.

History records that the road to the highest stage of capitalism is not the road to socialism; it is the road to fascism.

(We shall see farther on that this is not the only place that William’s “socialism” resembles Hitler’s national socialism.) William still does not recognize the fetters indicated (in the section Historical Forces and Historical Events). Capitalism in its more efficient stages tends to eliminate the middleman’s inefficient enterprises, but at the same time it becomes more and more monopoly capitalism, imperialist capitalism, fascist capitalism.

(To be concluded)


1. See Paul Temple, Technocracy: Totalitarian Fantasy, The New International, March 1944.

2. If by “social struggle” William clearly meant only the alliance at that bygone historical period only, of the capitalist class and the working class, this formulation would be acceptable. However, neither “social struggle,” “alliance” nor “historical stage” are consistently interpreted by William.

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