The propertied capitalists have control over all means of subsistence. The workers, always threatened by hunger the moment they lack work and always in danger of being replaced by other unemployed workers and compelled by poverty to any act of vileness, must of necessity endure the conditions it pleases the masters to impose. If, by some extraordinary effort, workers managed to obtain some improvement, it would only be temporary and would soon turn into a vanished illusion. If it is a reduction in work hours, the master hits back by introducing new technology and making work more intense and wearisome; moreover, after the introduction of the new machines, he might still seize upon the first favourable circumstance to reintroduce the old hours and fire part of his workforce, thereby making any future resistance harder because of the swelling numbers of the unemployed. In short, in a society where a few have it all and the rest have nothing, those who have nothing are allowed to live only because it suits the former, and in return for their labour, they receive the minimum required to allow them to render the services demanded of them.
While it is true that the capitalists control all means of subsistence and can call upon the entire machinery of the state to guarantee their possession and unimpeded use of those means—without which the workers can neither work nor survive—it is also true that the workers have greater numbers and that they alone have the effective capacity to produce. Ultimately, therefore, there is no doubt that, if the workers wanted, they could demand the radical transformation the existing social order. the facts are these: the masters are out to exploit the workers as much as possible, and the workers strive to secure as much as they can of their products for their own consumption; the masters are out to reduce the workers to slave status, and the workers to achieve the dignity of free men and women. And at a given point the real life conditions of the workers, all else being equal, hinges upon the degree of resistance they are capable of putting up against the pretensions of the masters.
These days such resistance mainly takes the form of the strike or the threat of strike. We need to bear in mind what the workers’ conditions would be if strikes never took place. In reality the strike is forced on the worker, on pain of seeing his bread gradually whittled away, until he lives in desperate straits. Likewise, the fact that the masters know that they cannot exploit the worker beyond a given limit without triggering a backlash damaging to their own interests is what sets a limit upon exploitation. The strike is a good way for the worker to cling to a given measure (however small) of well-being if he or she does not want to sink into an ever lower and more beastly standard of living.
The strike and, even more, the strike’s preparations unite workers as brothers and sisters, get them used to reflecting upon their conditions, open their eyes to the causes of social wretchedness, and, while uniting them in the pursuit of immediate gains, prepare them for the future emancipation.
However, we in the Socialist Party not believe that strikes suffice to solve the social question, or even improve the conditions of all workers in a serious and enduring way. No matter how determined the workers might be to rebel against living conditions that fall below a certain standard, with production organised as it presently is, there are even stronger circumstances at work crushing all possible resistance. The swelling numbers of the unemployed, crises, and relocation of industries will persist as long as private property and production for profit endure, and poverty will merely swing between a highest and a lowest point without ever going away, forcing workers to travel the same painful road over and over again. So, while they wage the daily struggle of labour resistance, they must also aim at a the transformation of the system of ownership and production. They must prepare the workers for that greater fight. Labour organising, strikes, resistance of all kinds can at a certain point in capitalist evolution improve the conditions of workers or prevent them from worsening; they can serve very well to train workers for the struggle; they are always, in capable hands, a means of propaganda — but they are hopelessly powerless to resolve the social question. And thus they must be used in such a way as to help prepare minds and muscle for the revolution— expropriation.