II. A Halt to Real and Sustainable Reforms after 1914 – or their Accentuation?
Real wages and working time before and after 1914
For the ICC, the ‘ascendant’ period of capitalism permitted “winning real and lasting improvements in living conditions from a prosperous capitalism (…) But this situation changed radically at the dawn of the 20th Century. (…) henceforward, the struggle for progressive and lasting improvements within this society no longer had any meaning. Not only could a capitalism at the end of its tether not concede anything, but its convulsions began to destroy a number of the gains made by the proletariat in the past. Faced with a dying system, the only real gain the proletariat could make was to destroy the system.” (1)
These are strong assertions that deserve, at the very least, to be seriously objectified, as they are so contrary to everyone’s perceptions. Objectivations that are all the more imperative from the point of view of immediate struggles and militant orientations since the ICC affirms that “the struggle for progressive and lasting improvements within this society no longer had any meaning” and that therefor “the only real gain the proletariat could make was to destroy the system.” However, as the ICC has never put forward any serious validation of its claims in almost half a century of its existence, it will be necessary here to examine the accuracy of these assertions and the two reasons which are supposed to form their basis, namely, on the one hand, that “inflation, a permanent phenomenon since World War I, immediately devours any wage increases” and that “while during the ascendant period of capitalism the length of the working week effectively fell due to the pressure of workers struggles (…) under decadent capitalism the number of hours has remained the same when it has not actually risen.” (2)
These two reasons are all the more surprising since it is well known, even in the absence of statistics, that real wages have risen considerably and working time has fallen since 1914, much more than in the 19th Century. Let us, however, objectify these assertions and impressions by relying on the statistics of the evolution of annual working time and real wages published in the article “250 Years of Modern Capitalism”. (3)
The findings are beyond appeal and prove the exact opposite of all the ICC’s assertions. Indeed, real wages (i.e. inflation deducted) in the ‘ascendant’ phase of capitalism were multiplied by 1.58, i.e. three times less than in the so-called ‘decadent’ phase where they were multiplied by five. As for working time, it fell by 573 hours (-17%) in the ‘ascendant’ phase, half as much as in the ‘decadent’ phase, where it fell by 1,203 hours (-41%):
Graph 2.1.: G.B.: Real Wages and Annual Working Hours (1760 – 2001)
The rate of exploitation of the wage earners before and after 1914
But the ICC not only asserts the exact opposite of reality regarding the two most important aspects of the conditions and struggles of the working class, which are the evolution of working time and real wages; it repeats the same offense with regards to its rate of exploitation. Indeed, it claims, without giving any reference other than its own certainties, that “if the worker of the 19th Century worked 5 hours for himself and 5 for the capitalist (figures frequently reported by Marx) today the worker works 1 hour for himself and 9 for the boss.” Therefore, it concludes: “In reality, the rate of exploitation, in other words the relation between the amount of surplus value that a worker produces and the wages he receives, has never ceased to grow.” (4) However, basing oneself on reliable and duly sourced statistics (cf. ‘250 Years of Modern Capitalism’), the rate of exploitation is multiplied by 1.6 during the ‘ascendant’ phase (the 87 years from 1827 to 1914), then has sharply declined until 1974, in order to subsequently rise again, but remaining below the level reached in World War I. In other words, the rate of exploitation increased sharply in ‘ascendancy’ and decreased in ‘decadence’, which is the exact opposite of what the ICC claims.
Graph 2.2: The Rate of Surplus-Value (1760 – 2001)
Unemployment before and after 1914
The same applies to unemployment, since the ICC claims that “in the ascendant period of capitalism, unemployment, even when it exploded massively in times of acute crisis, was never very long-lasting. As soon as the crisis was resolved with the opening of new markets, there was a new perspective for workers to find work quickly.” (5) By contrast, “(Progress) engendered a permanent tendency towards unemployment, which in the decadence of capitalism has tended to become chronic.” (6) Again, reality does not correspond in any way to this schema, completely invented to correspond with the ICC’s theoretical framework. It is true that unemployment varies more in ‘decadence’ than in ‘ascendancy’, but it is not “chronic” as the ICC asserts: twenty years of mass unemployment between the two wars, followed by a period of full employment during the Glorious Thirties, followed by another period of high unemployment. As for the average unemployment rate during the ‘ascendancy’ of capitalism (5.82% from 1812 to 1914), it is higher than that of ‘decadence’ (5.66% from 1914 to 2006) and it is more permanent (between 3% and 9%), and thereby is at odds with the ICC’s assertions that unemployment during ‘ascendancy’ “was never very long-lasting. As soon as the crisis was resolved with the opening of new markets, there was a new perspective for workers to find work quickly”.
Graph 2.3: The Unemployment Rate (1760 – 2016)
On the nature and function of the Trade Unions since 1914
That the ruling class was able to definitively integrate the trade unions into its system at the outbreak of World War I and make them its most ardent defenders in the face of the revolutionary desires of the proletariat is easily demonstrated by a number of objective facts (trade unionists even became ministers for their services to the bourgeoisie). The now institutionalized nature of the trade unions is beyond doubt as far as we are concerned.
However, in order to effectively and tangibly perform this function of Trojan horse within the proletariat (the maintenance of the demands within capitalist legality and their limitation to it), the bourgeoisie owed them a debt of gratitude and gave them some grain to grind by confiding them with a role as negotiators of the work force. This corresponded to an imperative for the ruling class to prevent the possible development of a new revolutionary wave similar to the end of World War I. Indeed, by the scale of its social movements, through its ability to impose an end to the world conflict and even by its ability to take power in many places between 1917 and 1923, the working class succeeded in making fear change camp. Now sufficiently numerous and concentrated, the working class is in fact exercising a potential or actual pressure on capital. It is this capacity and pressure by the mass of wage-earners in the 20th Century that forced the ruling class to keep it within capitalist legality by diverting its protests towards purely claim-oriented objectives or towards dead end streets, etc.
And who would be better situated for ensuring this role than the old organizations in which the labor movement had placed its trust?! They were the ones entrusted with encapsulating the social movements. It is this role as negotiators of the labor force, a role that has henceforth been institutionalized, which has enabled the trade unions to gain the confidence of the wage earners and at the same time ensure the maintenance of social conflict within the framework of capitalism.
It is thanks to the material strength arising from this role that the trade unions have been able to establish their influence and lock the working class into the capitalist system. In other words, because real wage increases, reductions in working hours and social improvements have been devolved to the forces of the left, the trade unions were able to anchor their hold on the working class.
This is the material basis for understanding why the latter has continued to trust them, despite their institutionalized character and their role as guardians of the social order within the framework of capitalism.
By contrast, the theses of the ICC are incapable of explaining it without falling into an idealistic schema, that is to say an explanation by the sole force of ideology and mystification. Indeed, as it would no longer be objectively possible to obtain real and lasting reforms after 1914 and the only role of the trade unions would be to sabotage and/or defeat the workers’ struggles, how can it be explained that the proletariat still gives them its confidence? Three explanations are then possible:
1. Either the working class is deeply stupid and masochistic to the point of putting its trust for a Century in organs that would bring it nothing materially and constantly lead it to defeat in its struggles. This is a deplorable observation, but it is implicit in the ICC’s ‘explanation’.
2. Or, as the ICC asserts, the ‘prosperity’ of capitalism before 1914 would give the power of the bourgeoisie a material basis and a possibility for trade unions to push for real and lasting reforms for the class, whereas all of this would then disappear because ‘decadent’ capitalism would be “in a crisis of permanent overproduction”, that “the only thing that it may today spread throughout the world, is absolute human misery” and “that it ceases to be in a position to grant reforms and improvements in favor of the working class.” In this context of ‘decadence’, the power of the trade unions within the working class is therefore now based solely on the ideological and mystifying forces of the latter, and then one falls into the purest idealism.
3. Or we are looking for a materialist explanation for this paradox, that the working class still globally trusts the forces of the ‘left’ in spite of their anti-worker role. Materially, this is only possible thanks to the concessions granted via these “left wing” apparatuses throughout the short 20th Century (a five-fold increase in real wages and a near cutting by half of the working time). It is thanks to these economic, social and political achievements that the working class could have been duped, conscripted and defeated at key moments in its struggles. In other words, the counter-revolutionary nature and role of the forces of the ‘left’ can be explained by material reasons and not by the sole strength of their ideologies. Certainly, like any institutionalized body, the left-wing parties and the trade unions are developing a mystifying ideological corpus towards the working class, but this alone cannot suffice to explain their influence in its midst, this influence draws its roots in a material reality, namely the reforms granted to the wage earners. Only this material basis can explain the ideological strength of the left and the trade unions, a strength all the greater as these material and political achievements were far more important after 1914 than before, as we just have seen.
Moreover, in addition to its idealistic foundations, the ‘explanations’ for the counter- revolutionary character of the forces of the [bourgeois] left put forward by the ICC lead to enormous nonsense. Indeed, if the condition of the working class had really not known improvements during a century of ‘decadence’ as it claims, then, in view of all the attacks it has suffered since the end of the Glorious Thirties, the wage earners should have returned to a state of destitution in which they found themselves at the beginning of the 19th Century. However, one does not need to be a statistics enthusiast to know that this is completely false because, despite all attacks it has had to endure, the present working class is still in a material situation incomparably superior to that of the beginning of the 20th Century.
In fact, despite its recurrent statements about the need to trust the capabilities of the working class historically, in reality, the ICC spreads enormous mistrust towards it. Indeed, how can one trust a class that has systematically given credit to its worst torturers for nearly a century without any material basis, that is, by the mere ‘virtue’ of their ideological evil spells? Anyone in his right mind will logically conclude that such a social class is incapable of unmasking these mystifications since it has not been able to do so for a century, of which more than half has been spent in economic crisis, incessant attacks and sabotage by the forces of the ‘left’.
Ignoring the most elementary material realities of this world, in particular concerning the situation of the working class, here the ICC is indeed in its role as impostor: it pretends to be what it is not, to be the most consistent defenders of the immediate and historical interests of the proletariat! In fact, it is only a tiny group living in the ethereal world of its idealistic petitions: it represents the idealistic pole within the Communist Left.
C.Mcl., August 14, 2019.
Translation: H.C., October 2020. Reviewed by the author.
Last corrections: November 6, 2020
III. The national question before and after 1914
Click below on page 4
2 Extracts from the ICC’s platform: §6 – The proletarian struggle under decadent capitalism, and from its pamphlet on the trades unions: §3 – The unions in decadent capitalism. The impossibility of reforms.
3 See: 250 years of modern Capitalism: A reconstruction of its dynamics (Table of Contents). The graph 2.1 on real wages and annual working hours in Britain/ the UK has been taken up hereafter.
4 Extracts from No.’s 74 and 105 (2nd quarter of 2001 ) of its International Review.
6 Correspondence on Crisis Theories and Decadence, Part 1: Our reply in International Review No. 105, 2nd quarter 2001.