Bernard Shaw - 1884

Who is the Thief?

Written: 1884
First Published: 1884
Source: Justice, March 15, 1884, No. 9, Vol. I
Transcription: Steve Palmer
Markup:Steve Palmer
Copyleft: Internet Archive( 2009. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

A letter to the editor of Justice


I have read with much pain the opening numbers of the journal which you have put forth under the sacred name of Justice. Do you ever reflect, when you speak harshly of our "competitive," or Bourgeois civilisation, that we ourselves are products of that civilisation; that many of us are its triumphs; that our mothers and fathers are its honoured source, our wives and sisters its ornaments, and our sons and daughters its hope and its future? Civilisation is not the engine, the loom, or the pyramid; it is Man, the master of these things.

Let me put this matter to you more closely, and with economic precision. You have adopted the theory of "surplus value" put forward by the late Dr. Karl Marx, a man of great talent, but one who, with unexampled ingratitude, devoted his life to casting odium upon the civilisation whose culture he inherited, whose society he enjoyed, whose literature instructed him, whose labour supported him, whose inventions enabled him to survey the globe and to traverse its continents, in whose cradle his children slept, and in whose midst his own life was passed. His theory, as I understand it, is that the capitalist, having a monopoly of raw material and means of production, refuses to the labourers access to these materials and means until they agree to surrender to him the produce of their labour, minus only the smallest sum upon which they can maintain themselves and their families. I need hardly point out the preposterous absurdity of a theory which assumes that the labourer is helplessly dependent on the capitalist in the face of the axiom that labour is the source of all wealth, an axiom which no political economist has ever denied, and which Marx himself insisted on as the foundation of Socialism. How can the labourer be at the mercy of the upper and middle classes when these are admittedly dependent on the labourer for their very subsistence? But let us pass by this contradiction, which underlies all the teaching of Marx, and proceed to consider the consequences of accepting his theory. Let us suppose that the labourer, by working for a day, produces a table worth a pound, ten shillings of which represents the value of the wood, wear and tear of tools, rent of workshop, lighting, &c., &c., and the remaining ten shillings the wear and tear of the man, or his labour. According to Marx, the capitalist who supplies the wood, tools, workshop, &c., does so on the condition that he shall, besides being reimbursed for them by receiving ten shillings out of the price of the table, receive also, out of the other ten shillings due solely to the labourer, as large a share as he can possibly screw out of him by the threat of putting the job up to auction among his starving competitors. Let us suppose that in this way he induces the labourer to content himself with three shillings out of the ten which he has earned, and pockets seven shillings as profit. (I may observe here that Marx, with all his ingenuity, could never explain why a labourer should make a present of more than half his earnings to an employer who was absolutely dependent on him for all his wealth.) Our imaginary capitalist then, selling the table for its value - one pound, makes a profit of seven shillings. But mark what must ensue. Some rival capitalist, trading in tables on the same principle, will content himself with six shillings profit for the sake of attracting custom. He will sell the table for nineteen shillings; that is, he will allow the purchaser one shilling out of his profit as a bribe to secure his custom. The first capitalist will thus be compelled to lower his price to nineteen shillings also, and presently the competition of brisk young traders, believing in small profits and quick returns, will bring the price of tables down to thirteen and sixpence, or even lower if the reduction in price can be used as a pretext for securing another sixpence out of the labourer's three shillings. Take the price at thirteen and sixpence. if the seven shillings be indeed robbed from the labourer, then the purchaser, getting a table worth a pound for thirteen and sixpence, gets six and sixpence of the plunder, and the capitalist only sixpence; that is, the buyer is thirteen times as great a thief as the seller. But who are the buyers? Editors of Justice, we are the buyers, we and our parents, our sisters and brothers, our wives and children. Do these dear ones commit theft whenever they enter a shop? Do you dare to assert that the many men of whose probity England is justly proud are systematic thieves? For this is what your theory of surplus value comes to.

I have only to add that one result, admitted by you, of the competitive system is cheapness. I think you will hardly deny that cheapness is an inestimable blessing. For a. few shillings the workman can obtain, at the American Novelty Shop, domestic appliances which Louis XIV would have sought for in vain when furnishing Versailles or Marly. For a few pence he can taste the delights of Shakespeare's page, and unlock the treasures of our noble literature. When you tell us that such beneficent cheapness is but the cheapness of stolen goods, and that we, being the receivers, are worse than the thieves, you poison our prosperity at its source, and embitter those reflections on our national greatness which were once the pride and the solace of Englishmen. I dare avouch that you shall never persuade us that we are either slaves or thieves. Something within us gives you the lie. We have said that "Britons never will be slaves;" we have said that "An honest man's the noblest work of God," and we mean both.

Trusting to your sense of fairness for such portion of your space (which for truth's sake I shall not call valuable, and for courtesy's sake will not call pernicious) as this letter may occupy,

I am, Sir,

Yours Faithfully,


390, Portland Place, Regents Park, W.