Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Question of Definition

Words, written and spoken, are the tools we use in our task of trying to spread socialist understanding and we are therefore particularly concerned to clearly define the words we use. Language, like everything else in the world, is constantly changing, as new social experiences demand new words or as old words assume new meanings. Dictionaries only give the meaning of words at the date they are drawn up and even then merely describe how words are used rather than prescribe how they should be used.

This is why when there is an argument over a definition of a word this cannot be settled by a simple reference to a dictionary. To assume that it could is to assume that the definition of words has been settled once and for ail and that arguments over the definition of words are illegitimate. We don’t accept this, not only because we know that words change their meaning but also because we reserve the right to define certain words in ways which we consider more useful, from the point of view of understanding and changing the world, than the currently used definitions This is why we do not accept current dictionary definitions of such words as class, socialism and revolution. As dictionaries merely describe how these words are used they merely reflect what is in our opinion confused and confusing current popular usages.

A book such as Raymond Williams’ 'Key Words' , which seeks to give both the history of a word and controversies over how it should be used, is thus to be welcomed. Williams is the author of a book published in 1956 called Culture and Society, a title which indicates his main concern: literature and art in relation to society. Nevertheless there figure among his “key words” words which are also key words for us such as (to mention only those which occur in our declaration of principles): capitalist, class, common, community, democracy, equality, evolution, interest, labour, mankind, monopoly, socialist, society, wealth. We do not of course always agree with his conclusions, or even his history (he attributes, for instance, the coining of the phrase dialectical materialism to Engels whereas it was first used by Joseph Dietzgen in the 1870s), but we will follow his practice and give our history and definition of the key words in our vocabulary: capitalism, class, reform, revolution and socialism.

1 - Capitalism, Capitalist
Both these are key words in the socialist vocabulary since we describe present-day society as capitalism and one of the two classes into which it is divided as the capitalist class.

Capitalist came into the English language in the early part of the 19th century and meant someone who had “capital”. Capital was a shortening of the phrase “capital stock” and referred to a monetary fund. Thus capitalist was basically somebody with money. Later, as the classical political economists came to distinguish various types of capital employed in production—circulating capital, fixed capital—the word came to apply also to employers of labour and owners of factories, mines and mills.

Capitalism was not originally the name for a system of society but for a system of production, one based on the investment of money-capital. Williams claims that to talk about capitalism as a system of society it to confuse a distinction made by Marx between “bourgeois society” and “capitalist production”.

Certainly Marx did speak of “bourgeois society” or rather its German equivalent “bürgerlich Gesellschaft”. Bourgeois is of course a French word and originally referred to the citizens of towns in Mediaeval France which enjoyed certain privileges, for which the English equivalent might be “freeman”. Later it came to be associated with anyone who, not being an aristocrat, enjoyed a steady income and led a respectable life. As it was precisely this class of people which gained from the French Revolution, taking over from the landed aristocracy as the ruling class, it was quite natural that in French this should have been called a “revolution bourgeoise” and the society over which they ruled a “société bourgeoise”.

The German equivalent “bürgerlich” is a further complicating factor in that it aiso means “civil” (hence “Burgerkrieg” = civil war) and was used by Hegel, who considerably influenced Marx, in the phrase “burgeriich Gesellschaft” (= civil, rather than bourgeois, society) which he contrasted with the State. Civil society was, if you like, all the non-political activities of men, i.e., above all their economic activities. Thus, whether translated “bourgeois society” or “civil society”, the German phrase used by Marx led him to a study of the system of production which, in both English and German, he called “capitalist”.

Bourgeois is not a word we use except in the phrase “bourgeois revolution” (to describe political revolutions in which the rising capitalist class—then only a “middle class” or, even, a “bourgeoisie”—takes political power from the landed aristocracy). It is not and never has been in wide use in English where there have always been adequate alternatives.

In this connexion it is significant that when Marx and Engels wrote in English they chose to avoid the word “bourgeois”. Thus in Value, Price and Profit, a talk delivered in 1865, Marx talks of “the capitalist class” and “the capitalists”. Engels in the series of articles he wrote for the Labour Standard in 1881 followed the same practice and in one place even used the phrase “capitalist system”. Both Marx and Engels were deliberately trying to express themselves here in English idiom, to use phrases already current in the working class movement in England, phrases which have survived and fully justify the use of “capitalist” rather than “bourgeois” to describe present- day society.

Later, when in the early part of this century the ending -ism, in connexion with socialism, came to mean not just the theory but also the putting into practice of that theory and so to a system of society, it was natural that the same transition should take place with regard to capitalist so that capitalism became an alternative word for what had previously had to be called “capitalist society”.

Capitalism, then, is defined by us as a system of society based on the monopoly of the means of production by a minority class and their use to produce wealth to be sold on a market with a view to profit, i.e., as capital, as wealth used to produce other wealth with a view to a profit.

2 Class and reform
Class was originally a general term for a division or a group and was thus equivalent to modern “category”. Thus it had no particular social significance but from the period 1770 to 1840 it came increasingly to be used to describe divisions in society. Williams explains its displacing of previous words for social divisions such as rank, order, estate, degree by the fact that, unlike them, class did not imply a hierarchical arrangement of society—such as feudalism had been but as;, emerging capitalism was not.

Even so, the first uses of class were hierarchical: lower classes, middle classes, upper classes. “Working classes’’ dates from early in the 19th century and seems to have been coined by Robert Owen (who is also responsible for another key word in the socialist vocabulary: socialism itself). At that time the big political struggle in Britain was for the Reform of the House of Commons, i.e., a redistribution of constituencies to give the new industrial areas more representation and an extension of the franchise. In this struggle “the middle classes”, as the capitalist employers called themselves, supported by ‘"the working classes”, saw themselves opposed to “the privileged classes” (i.e., the landed aristocrats, the clergy of the Established Church, those with government sinecures).

The compromise reached between the capitalists and “the privileged classes” in 1832, which left the great bulk of workers without the vote, led groups of workers to perceive the conflict of interest between the working class and "The middle classes” or capitalist or master class (a term used in our declaration of principles in 1904 but which has now dropped out of use) as they came to call them. Pro- working class writers showed how “the middle classes” too should be included among “the privileged classes” since they lived off profits got from the labour of the working class. By the 1860s “capitalist class” and “working class” were in current use. ' . .

Marx in Capital (1867) in fact distinguished a third class: the class of landlords who monopolise natural resources and live off rents, not only without haying to work but also without having to invest' any capital either. Nowadays this class, through long ago investing its rents in industry and banking, has merged with the capitalist class arid so virtually disappeared as a distinct class.. Thus we can say that today society is, to all intents and purposes, divided into two classes: the capitalist class and the working class, defined by their different relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class, as a class, monopolise the means of production; they own and control them. The working class are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and only have access to them on the capitalists’ terms: on condition that the capitalists think they can make a profit by selling what the workers produce. There is thus a fundamental conflict between these two classes which takes the form of a permanent class struggle, ultimately over the ownership and control of the means of production but at the moment only over wages and working conditions.

The phrase working class was, as we saw, originally “working classes”, but this usage is loose and theoretically wrong since there is only a single working class. But there is another confusion arising out of the phrase’s association with “working man” and “workman” which refer to manual labour, so that it is often assumed that the working class is confined to manual workers, in the factories and mines', on the railways and docks, etc. This mistake is made not only by those who do not want to be considered as members of the working class, but also by manual workers who do not consider civil servants, clerks and other “pen-pushers” as real workers. But it is a mistake and arises from an alternative and inadequate definition of class in terms of social status rather than relationship to the means of production. Thus there is supposed to be an upper class of aristocrats and capitalists enjoying high social status, a middle class of professional people and office workers enjoying a middling social status and a lower, working class of manual workers with no social status; various refinements can be introduced according to taste like lower middle class, upper working class, etc.
But it is clear that, as far a relationship to the means of production is concerned, office workers (including managers) are in precisely the same position as shop floor workers: they are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and are forced to obtain a living, by selling their mental and physical energies to an employer. This in fact is our definition of working class: all those who are forced to sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. It would have been convenient to use some phrase such as “wage-earning class” in order to make our point of view clear at first sight, but unfortunately not only does a section of the working class call itself the “middle class" but even denies that it is paid wages as workers are and insists on calling them a salary instead. In fact a salary is equally a price for the sale of a person’s mental and physical energies, but this snobbery means that in order to make ourselves absolutely clear who we mean by working class we have to say “those forced to work for a wage or salary” or, less adequately but more simply, “wage and salary earners”.

Williams detects a third use of class defined not by relationship to the means of production, nor by social status but by political consciousness. It Is true that Marx did sometimes, especially in his earlier writings, use class in this sense, saying that the workers or the peasants did not constitute a class until they perceived themselves to be a class with a common interest and organised themselves consciously to pursue that interest. This has been expressed, in philosophical terms, by distinguishing between a “class-in-itself" (defined by relationship to the means of production) and “class-for-itself" (defined by political consciousness). While not denying that this is a useful distinction it is hardly an adequate definition of class; otherwise the working class would be reduced to the tiny minority who at present want Socialism! The distinction is better made by saying that the working class now exists, but is not yet class conscious (defined politically to mean not simply a trade union consciousness but as wanting and understanding Socialism).

Reform, Reformism, Reformist
Reform, as a noun meaning a specific measure, dates from the end of the 18th century and was particularly associated with moves to make elections to the House of Commons more democratic. Thus the 1832 Act of Parliament which redistributed constituencies and extended the franchise was called the Reform Act. A second "Reform Act”, which further extended the franchise, was passed in 1867. But then, as the focus of popular agitation shifted from trying to change political institutions to trying to change society, reform came to mean also a specific measure aimed at improving society, hence “social reform”. But (at least in the way we have always used the word) reform does not refer to all attempts to improve social conditions but only to measures passed by Parliament or implemented by the State; thus, for instance, trade union activity and the work of private charities, whatever may be said for or against them, are not reforms.

Raymond Williams (Key Words, Fontana) detects an ambiguity, dating from the word’s first appearance in English in the 14th century, between reform in the sense of improve and reform in the sense of re-form, restore, rearrange. Thus someone who wants to reform capitalism may justify this as a supposed step towards Socialism or as a means of strengthening capitalism. There is no doubt that Williams is right here as can be seen from how the meaning of the word reformism has changed over the years.

This word is less than a hundred years old and originates from arguments within the French Social Democratic movement towards the end of the last century. One tendency argued that it was possible to gradually reform capitalism into Socialism by a series of reform measures; this view was known as “réformisme” and its supporters called themselves “réformistes”. In Britain a similar doctrine was propagated by the Fabian Society where it was more commonly known as “gradualism” (from the Fabian slogan “the inevitability of gradualness”). The Social Democratic Federation too had a similar position, labelling the reforms they advocated “stepping stones to Socialism”.

Today, however, we use the word reformist to refer to anyone who seeks to reform capitalism for whatever reason and irrespective of whether or not he claims to be a Socialist. This (quite justified) extension of the word reflects the fact that nowadays the leaders of parties such as Labour have no idea of what Socialism is (unlike some early Fabians who were on record as calling for the abolition of the wages system) and so cannot be said to want to transform society, even gradually, into Socialism and the fact that openly pro-capitalist parties, even the Conservative Party, also claim to stand for the improvement of society by means of reforms. Thus when we call someone a reformist today the suggestion is not there, as it once was, that he wants Socialism but has a mistaken view of how to achieve it. A reformist today is simply someone who (Williams', second sense) wants to re-form capitalism in one way or another or for one reason or another.

 3 - revolution
Revolution originally meant a revolving movement and is still used in this sense when we talk about engines doing so many revolutions per minute. It later came to be extended to describe a change in the political set-up (a change of ruler or constitution). Thus, when in 1688 Parliament and the Bishops expelled the Catholic King James II and replaced him by the Protestant William of Orange, appointed by Act of Parliament, they described this as the Glorious Revolution. Then, in the following century, there was the American Revolution and of course the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a great deal more radical than the so-called “glorious revolution” of 1688 in England, but it gave rise to a body of thought which demanded an even more radical change which by 1848 was called “la révolution sociale”. The exact significance of this phrase will not be grasped if the French word social is understood to mean simply “something to do with society” so that “social revolution” would merely mean revolution in society. Of course “la révolution sociale” was to be a revolution in society, but then so had been the French “bourgeois revolution” as it was now being called. It meant a particular kind of revolution in society, one which would benefit the mass of ordinary, working people. Thus it might even be said that “social” in this phrase had some of the meaning of “socialist”. A contrast was also drawn between “la révolution sociale” and political revolutions, which, like the French bourgeois revolution, involved as far as the mass of people were concerned a change of rulers

Social Revolution
We would be more precise today and use political revolution to describe a change in the class which controls the State, social revolution to mean a change in the basis of society and socialist revolution to describe the particular change of society from capitalism to Socialism following the winning of political power from the capitalist class by the working class. Proletarian revolution is not a phrase we use though it was used by early Socialist writers and thinkers but, if we did use it, it would mean the winning of political power by the working class, i.e., the political revolution (change in control of political power) preceding the social revolution from capitalism to Socialism.

Now, whether we like it or not (and we don’t), we cannot deny that the word revolution has often been used to mean “violent overthrow” and in fact most of the political and social revolutions of the past have been violent. We deny, however, that there is any necessary connexion between revolution and violence. Here we endorse Williams’ comment on the revolution versus reform controversy (which he calls, confusedly, “the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism”):
From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (socialism as opposed to capitalism) and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order . . . The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends.

Peaceful change
This is an important point, and one we have always made ourselves. In our view the distinction between revolution and reform is not between violent overthrow (insurrection) and peaceful change (using elections and Parliament), but between those who want to replace capitalism by Socialism and those who seek merely to re-form capitalism in one way or another. We claim to be revolutionaries because we stand for a fundamental and rapid change in the basis of society following the capture of political power by the working class, even though we hold that the working class can capture political power peacefully through elections and Parliament. On the other hand, there are many who believe in the violent capture of political power but who would use it merely to re-form capitalism (generally into State capitalism). We deny they are revolutionaries, irrespective of their commitment to violent tactics.

In other words, there is no necessary link between revolution and violence: there can be revolution without violence and violence without revolution. The criterion for revolution is the end envisaged (a change in control of political power, a change in the basis of society) not the means advocated (peaceful or violent).

4 - socialism/communism
Socialism is the name we give to the new society we wish to see the working class establish, defined in our Object as “a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community”.

Actually, at the time our Party was founded in 1904, socialism was not the generally used name for the society Socialists wanted to see established. Even the early issues of the Socialist Standard referred to future society as "the co-operative commonwealth” (an Owenite phrase which is expressive enough), the "social republic” (from the French revolutionary tradition) and "socialist society”. The word socialism referred rather to the body of theory which criticised capitalism and argued for a new society based on common ownership and democratic control. This is the sense in the title Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (given by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue to the extracts from Engels’ Anti-Dühring which he translated into French and published as a separate pamphlet in 1880) and in the old sub-title of our companion journal the Western Socialist: "journal of scientific socialism in the Western hemisphere’’. It is of course a natural transition from socialism as the name of the doctrine to socialism as the name of the application of the doctrine, viz. the new society to be established. Nowadays the original situation is reversed: we use socialism almost exclusively to refer to the system of society and virtually only in the phrase “scientific socialism” to refer to the doctrine.

Socialism and socialist originated in both Britain and France in the 1820s and 1830s. In Britain, where it was popularised by Owen and the Owenites, it was used to describe a doctrine which favoured co-operation instead of the competitive individualism of capitalism. In France it had more the sense of a doctrine favouring reforms in the interest of the poor. Communism, on the other hand, originated in French in the 1840s as the name of the doctrine of those descended from Babeuf’s 1796 Conspiracy of the Equals who favoured the seizure of power in an insurrection in order to introduce genuine “equality” through abolishing private property. The German League of the Just also supported this doctrine and in 1847 changed its name to the Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote the famous manifesto of 1848.

Thus, in 1848, as Engels explained in a preface he wrote to the Communist Manifesto in 1888, communism was what Williams calls the “harder” word:
We could not have called it a socialist manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement, Communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.
Clearly since in 1880 Engels was prepared to have his doctrine described by Lafargue as socialism a change must have occurred in between.

Williams suggests that in the 1880s in English socialism was the harder term because it, in whatever form, envisaged some reorganization of society as a whole while communism tended to be associated with small- scale experiments in common property, or “community of goods”, as in a number of agricultural colonies established in America (equivalents of today’s kibbutzim). There is some truth in this, but it is not as simple as that. The “community of goods” and “levelling” associated with the word communism were looked on with more horror by the capitalist class than the social reforms in favour of the poor associated with the word socialism. Thus when Sir William Harcourt, the Liberal politician, who served as Home Secretary and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated in the late 1880s "we are all socialists now” he did not mean that “we are all in favour of a community of goods”! And it is no accident that William Morris in the 1880s, when he wished to contrast his views with the reformism of the Fabians, chose to call himself a communist. Some anarchists such as Kropotkin were also at this time describing their aim as “free communism” in contrast to the State capitalism (which they misleadingly called “State socialism”) favoured by most of those who called themselves socialists.

"State socialism”, again, was a term used to describe measures taken by the State to try to aid the poor. The word socialism unfortunately in widespread usage has never lost its association with reforms and reformism. Hence Labour and similar parties in other parts of the world describe themselves and are described as “socialist”. This does not deter us from insisting that our use, to describe someone who works for a new society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, is not only the more adequate definition but also the more historically justified: those who introduced the word into English, the Owenites, favoured a co-operative commonwealth rather than reform of capitalism.

The word communism (which Marx preferred as the word to describe future society) has suffered a fate just as bad, if not worse. It has come to be associated with the State capitalist police dictatorships in Russia, China and other such countries. This goes back to a decision of the Bolsheviks in 1918 to change the name of their party from Social Democratic to Communist Party. They did this to distinguish themselves from the Social Democratic parties of the rest of Europe which had so shamefully betrayed the working class over the war. From then on communist has been used to describe supporters of Russia, inaccurately since it is not communism in its original sense of common ownership that they stand for but state capitalism.

Williams is quite wrong when he states that in the period 1880-1914 communism was used “as a description of an ultimate form, which would be achieved after passing through socialism”. This dates from after 1917 and was an innovation introduced by Lenin. Before then the only person to make such a distinction was William Morris but this was not taken up by anyone else in the Social Democratic or Socialist movements. It is true that the reformist Ramsay MacDonald in his book The Socialist Movement (1910) distinguishes communism from socialism, but as alternative and not successive societies and, as we have noted, this was a distinction made also by some anarchists. It is interesting that MacDonald distinguishes the two societies, as Lenin was to do, by the method of distribution: under “socialism” consumer goods would be distributed in accordance with work done, under “communism” according to needs.

Lenin’s innovation (to use a neutral term) was to make “socialism” and "communism” thus defined successive societies after the abolition of capitalism and to attribute this view to Marx (a gross distortion since Marx made no such distinction: he only distinguished a “first phase” of “communist society” when there would still have to be some restrictions on individual consumption—a reasonable assumption for 1875 but outdated today— from a “higher phase” when the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” would apply, but these were phases of the same society based on common ownership and democratic control and not successive, separate societies).

As far as we are concerned, socialism and communism are exact synonyms, alternative names to describe the future society we wish to see established and defined in our Object. We don't object to this being described as communism and us as communists but in practice we only use the words socialism and socialist.

Adam Buick
1978 Socialist Standard

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