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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

The Things We Make

(20 April 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 16, 20 April 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Workers puzzle over the question:

“When we can produce so much in the shop, how is it that we ourselves get so little? Certainly, we produce hundreds of times more wealth with the factories than our great-grandfathers did without them. But the things we produce do not belong to us. Somehow we can never buy back what we ourselves make. Sometimes we produce things that then rust in warehouses or rot on the ground. Sometimes all we produce goes up in battlesmoke. Sometimes we are idle and the factories remain idle too! Why?”

These questions can be answered in two sentences: The world’s great productive system is owned by a little handful of people who run it for their own profit and not for people’s use. And it can run at full steam and keep running only when society as a whole owns and operates it.

Yes, that is the answer. But how do we know it is the answer? We know the present system is rotten and useless by our own experience with depressions and wars. But we did not arrive at the above socialist answer through hopelessness and despair. The answer is the product of a reasoning process. It is a reasoning that conscious fighters for socialism should follow. It is a rather long chain of reasoning that Marx begins by analyzing the things we make in the factory.

Look around you in the house, and you will see- the products made by us in the factories. Chairs, tables, sewing machine, ice box, oil stove, cook stove, sink, toilet and bathtub – all factory products. Now look out the window. The lamp post, the cars and trucks on the street, the street itself – asphalt, car tracks, concrete or bricks, are factory products too.

Even the food you eat was canned and preserved in the factory. And before that it was planted, cultivated and harvested by factory-made machinery. Workers, just like ourselves, make all these things – food, clothing, shelter and all. They make them in tremendous quantities In great factories.

So if we are to follow Marx’s reasoning let us begin by looking at these factory products. The things we make – and the ways under which we make them – turn us into what we are.

The first thing we learn about these things is that just looking at them does not tell us very much. Many of them look just like they did ages before the factories made them. Factories, as we have seen, are something new under the sun. And the factory worker is too. But many of the things we make in our new way were made by different methods thousands of years ago. Bread, for instance, used to be baked by slaves before the Bible was written or the pyramids were built.

Nevertheless, bread and other things we make today are very different from the same things made before the factory was born. Why? Precisely because we make them so differently. That is where the difference arises. A given thing could have been made by ancient slaves, by a shepherd girl in the medieval hills, by a semi-craftsman in a cotter’s hut, or in a billion dollar factory with a hundred thousand pairs of hands whisking it along to the salesroom or warehouse. This difference in the method of production does actually stamp its difference on the product. But we discover this only if we probe beneath the surface.

Just by looking at it you might not think bread has changed very much in the last ten thousand years. But it has just the same. Capitalist bread contains something that primitive bread was quite innocent of. Capitalist bread has market value. For example, a loaf of bread contains 12 cents “worth” of value.

What the Difference Is

What’s the difference? you might ask. Slaves’ bread filled the slave’s stomach so he could work for his master, capitalists’ bread fills the worker’s stomach so he can work for his boss. Both loaves are things to eat. Why get so technical? The bread must have been worth 12 cents ten thousand years ago – if there had been 12 cents lying around somewhere.

But the 12 cents is something you exchange the bread for. If you could only make one loaf a day, and nobody else could do any better, you’d be a fool to exchange it for 12 cents or even $12 because you wouldn’t have any bread left to eat. You wouldn’t produce it to sell in the first place. The idea of selling it or trading it would never enter your primitive head.

Besides, what would you do with the 12 cents anyway? Suppose you needed a couple of razor blades. Well, if they were made at that time it would have taken longer to make one than to use one up – so who would have one to sell you? Your 12 cents would be no good, even if it were “lying around.”

The bread, too, would be “no good” from the point of view of the 12 cents. Or take it in its wider aspect: exchange could not exist. We thus see value expressed in exchange. And until there are enough goods exchanged – and made to be exchanged – there can’t be any idea of money or exchange value.

Under primitive conditions the loaf of bread is life itself. It’s produced to feed the producer. It’s as much a part of him as his big toe. And he would no more think of selling it.

Under capitalism, the loaf of bread, unlike a big toe, is quite detachable. It can be sold. In fact all the bread is produced for just that purpose: to be sold. Instead of the baker being thought crazy if he sold his bread, he would be thought crazy if he did not. Under capitalism the goods must be sold – or the producers starve.

These goods – all the billions of units of factory products, all produced for a market – are called commodities. Karl Marx begins his famous book on Capital with the analysis of a commodity.

Next Week: What Is a Commodity?

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