T. A. Jackson

What Communism Means

Part I

Source: The Communist, April 08, 1922.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

[This article is the first of a series intended to explain the basic principles and aims of Communism to beginners. The series as a whole is based upon a work which the Communist Party will shortly publish—“The A.B.C. of Communism,” by Buharin and Preobrashensky. This work forms an admirable compendium, for students and it is hoped that this introductory series will enable beginners to go on to that work when it appears and read it with ease and advantage.

In this first article the author deals with some general preliminary considerations.]

YOU wonder what it is that “these Communists” are after?

If you are willing to listen I will tell you—as plainly and clearly as words will allow. But you for your part must be willing to listen. And listen honestly—paying attention to what is said and forgetting for the time all those things which you have believed because of what you have heard or read.

It is necessary that I should make this demand at the beginning because it is almost certain that you have already a vague distorted notion (derived from newspaper reading) that Communists are either fools with murderous inclinations or brutes bribed by rogues to make mischief.

To all that I make this answer at the outset—there were Communists in Britain before Lenin or Trotsky were born. In every country in the world there are not only individual Communists but Communist Parties. Where the conditions at all resemble those we are familiar with these Parties number tens and hundreds of thousands—all or nearly all drawn from the ranks of the working class.

Now it stands to reason that an idea which is held by so many men in so many different places cannot be entirely absurd. When we find that it endures in spite of all that can be done to check it—in spite of ridicule, or repression, hardship, black-listing, boycott, bludgeoning, or bloody assault—when we find, I say, that the thing lives and grows in spite of all these attempts to wreck and destroy it we must see that there is “something in it.”

True the devotion of its followers does not of itself prove Communism to be right. It does prove that Communism has something to recommend it to large masses of workers.

The present condition of the British Worker, too, is such that any remedy suggested is worth considering. The very anxiety of the employers as a class to discredit Communism (at a time when they are straining every nerve to get the workers to work harder and longer and for less than ever) makes it more than likely that Communism is just the thing you want (because it is just the thing they want to prevent you wishing for).

Communism, then, is a proposal for the reconstruction of social arrangements. If the relations between the workers and the employers, and the State, and each others are altered in a particular way we shall be living in a state of Communism. I am going to describe the nature of that alteration and the means we shall rely upon to bring it about, but before I can begin the job I must explain just what those relations are and just why they must be changed in a Communist way and no other.

* * *

A “society” is a body of people who act together for certain purposes. “Social” arrangements in the sense indicated above mean all those rules, regulations, habits, beliefs, institutions, and things which, taken together, make it possible for people to live just how they do live.

Some people, for instance, are people of “birth” and title; some are people of wealth; some are people of important position—most people are people like ourselves; common, ordinary working people.

Newspaper writers have a trick of referring to the first class only under the title of “Society.” This is slang which must not mislead you. They mean only the “aristocratic” or official class, but we, when we refer to Society, mean the whole of these various classes taken together—employers and employed, officials and private citizens, men of property and men of no property, people of distinction and people of none, men who live at ease and men who work for their living.

We take them together for the reason that each class exists as a class because the other classes also exist as separate and distinct classes.

The “working” class for instance, is distinguished from the other classes by the fact that its members habitually work. If everybody worked there would be no special working class.

Similarly the “shopkeeping” and “professional,” classes are distinguished from each other, and from both the working and the titled classes. The difference between these classes of people is not only in the matter of their occupation and the size of their income. It extends to their homes, their costume, their amusements, their speech, and their treatment of their children. They are, in practice, distinct nations within, the nation—a fact which has been somewhat obscured of recent years by the ease with which “lords” have been manufactured from successful shopkeepers and employers and by the tales of the ease with which poor workers can pass into the ranks of shopkeepers, employers, and so onward.

The chief thing to notice, however, is not the difference between these classes, great and important though they are. The inter-dependence of these classes must be grasped if any understanding of them is to be gained.

The worker can only work for wages if somebody is able and willing to pay him. The shopkeeper can only live by shop-keeping if there are goods for him to sell and people able and willing to buy.

The professional architect can only design factories, shops, mansions and dwellings if there are people with sufficient money to buy his services in addition to the other costs of the building—which include wages for the craftsmen. These in turn must be skilled at the various sub-divisions of the building industry.

The person of title, finally, can only be distinguished by his title on condition that most people have no title at all; and are at the same time so trained that they reverence titled people as their superiors.

All classes are inter-dependent. Morally because their class position is made by contrast, materially because their way of living presupposes another way of living for the rest of the community.

* * *

Coming particularly to the working class in this connection we have first to note the striking fact revealed in their very name—“working” class.

Everybody in order to live must be fed, clothed and sheltered. As food, clothing and shelter only come into existence as a result of the work of somebody, those who eat food, wear clothes, and occupy houses in order to live, are kept alive by work.

Now why are the workers called workers unless there exists another class (or other classes) whose special characteristic is that they do not work?

And if they live and do not work what are they but parasites upon the labour of those who do?

Again, the workers themselves are a class divided into a number of various occupations—miners, engineers, railway men, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, builders, and so forth. Each of these again is made up of a number of distinct crafts so that the manufacture of anything requires, the combined work of a large number of men. To get coal, for instance, from the earth to the grate or furnace requires a whole succession of crafts. One man hews it from its place and loads it into the “tub” or “truck.” Another sees that it is hauled to the pit bottom from which it is hoisted by an engine superintended by an engineer, and so on and so on. But also before the hewing can begin not only must the pit be sunk—it must be inspected to see that it is safe and constantly, as the coal is taken out, the roof must be propped and supported by a number of men whose work is necessary to keep the pit in being.

Before the miner or the engineer can begin his day’s work some other worker must have produced his food, his clothing, his house, his tools, and the raw materials of his craft. After his work is done his finished product is raw material for some other worker—or means of existence for somebody, worker or idler.

The actual process of work is thus so divided and sub-divided between the workers that they constitute one great productive whole, and their work as a whole makes possible alike the existence and the wealth of the nation or State.

* * *

These things are so natural and usual to us that it may surprise you to learn that not any one of them came into existence ready made just as we know it. Neither the crafts at which men work nor the classes into which we are divided, nor the form of State to which we are subject, nor the peculiar machinery we employ for deciding to whom shall go any particular thing produced by work—not any of these things can be traced back in history very far before we find it changing out of all recognition if not disappearing entirely.

To make this plain let us take up this last mentioned thing—the existing machinery for deciding who shall have what and how much of it.

You, fellow worker, have in food, clothing, shelter and amusement what you can buy within limits set by the money at your command. So it would seem does everybody else—the difference being in the extent of your command. At first sight it would seem that everybody is treated on an equal footing since everybody can buy what he is able to pay for. It is this appearance of equality which deceives people. They think we have freedom and equality because anybody can walk into any shop and order what he likes if only he has the means of paying. They have read that in the past certain classes were forbidden by law to eat certain things, to wear certain colours and stuffs and to go into certain places specially reserved for the superior classes. They fail to see or they are ignorant of the social facts and arrangements which make it impossible for some (however legally free) to do or enjoy certain things which are always at the disposal of some others.

The worker can buy what he likes with his money. Does anything set limits to the money at his disposal? His money he gets as wages—the price paid by a boss for the use of his body and craft-skill. That price, like every other price, depends upon the state of the market.

If there are many potatoes for sale in the potato market and only few people wanting to buy the price of the potatoes must be low: if there are many workers for sale in the labour market and only a few bosses wanting to buy the price of the worker must be low.

As this is with only rare exceptions the usual state of the labour market it stands as a consequence that only a minimum of money—barely sufficient for its indispensable needs—is ever at the workers’ disposal.

The boss, on the other hand, starts with the advantage that whereas he may at times be caught napping with a batch of goods—produced by “his” workers—which he cannot sell except at ruinous prices, yet he can guard against such a happening by controlling production and anyway he is just as often (and more generally often) in a position to extract the maximum of advantage from a favourable state of the market.

The boss can shut his factory and wait; living upon past gains until the market improves. The worker seldom has any reserve—even when the market turns slightly in his favour the fact that he must sell the use of himself in order to live prevents him from taking full advantage of these rare cases.

Above and over all other facts is that one—the worker must sell the use of himself. He works for wages because he must—he has no other means of living. He owns no land, no flocks, nor herds of cattle—nothing at all whereby to maintain himself—he lives “so long as he finds work and finds work only so long as his labour increases the boss’s capital.”

* * *

Now there was a time—many years ago—when it was impossible for anybody to live as the boss does by buying raw materials and labour power and selling the product of their coming together.

Impossible first because buying and selling was not established as a habit, second because from lack of buying and selling money had not been invented, third because nobody was so placed that he could not get to the land and (by hunting and fishing if by no other way) produce his own keep. That which was impossible has become so much the rule that men have forgotten that it was ever otherwise.

Remember that when they tell you that Communism is impossible.

* * *

I call these things—the fact that goods are distributed solely through the mechanism of buying and selling and that the worker himself must go into the market and be sold before he can return and take something out by buying it with his own purchase price, with the laws, institutions and conditions which make it possible for the “superior” class to keep the workers in an unfair position—all these things I call “social arrangements.” And these are the things that Communism is designed and intended to alter completely.

How and in what way, I will tell you next week.