The problem of unequal abilities

Should socialists aim to offer incentives to the ‘gifted and talented’? Marc Mulholland looks at how the question has been dealt with historically

Last summer it was reported that FTSE 100 chief executives earn on average 183 times more than a full-time worker.1 The Confederation of British Industry defended this, with a certain amount of embarrassment, as being justified by the CEOs’ “exceptional performance’. This ideology of meritocracy is all-pervasive, however. It fits in with the contention that class society does not hold back the gifted and talented. Indeed, ‘gifted and talented’ is the name given to an access scheme encouraging state school kids to apply to Oxford University.

There cannot be a socialist in the land who has not been confronted by somebody pointing out that people are not in fact equal in their abilities, and therefore cannot be expected to be rewarded equally. This is an old argument - ‘distributional justice’ - going back to Aristotle. It has, however, particular resonance in considering capitalism.

There are a number of ideological defences for capitalism, some more convincing than others. First, it has been unprecedentedly productive and sustains a global population unimaginable before the 19th century. Secondly, it is only in the capitalist era that liberal democracy has taken root over large territories and without legal slavery or serfdom. A particularly important ideological justification, however, is one of a certain form of justice. While at a basic level the intrinsic humanity of everyone is recognised - equality before the law - it seems intuitively to be only right that unequal attributes result in an equal reward. Individual effort and talent should lead to higher incomes and increased authority. But, when analysed, the argument for inequality from justice is no slam-dunk, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in the mid-19th century:

In a cooperative industrial association [by which he means both capitalism and any alternative], is it just or not that talent or skill should give a title to superior remuneration? On the negative side of the question it is argued that whoever does the best he can deserves equally well, and ought not in justice to be put in a position of inferiority for no fault of his own; that superior abilities have already advantages more than enough … On the contrary side it is contended, that society receives more from the efficient labourer; that, his services being more useful, society owes him a larger return for them …

Who shall decide between these appeals to conflicting principles of justice? Justice has in this case two sides to it, which it is impossible to bring into harmony … Each, from his own point of view, is unanswerable; and any choice between them, on grounds of justice, must be perfectly arbitrary. Social utility alone can decide the preference.2

Bourgeois ideology, nonetheless, has always emphasised the justice of talent and effort being rewarded. In pre-capitalist society, in contrast, a just order was one in which an individual remained in the class to which he or she was born. Talent and ability were considered happenstance characteristics - unpredictable, unreliable over a lifetime and difficult to judge. More reliable were settled experience and expectations. From hereditary monarchy to the artisan guild, in which son follows father, training and habituation were considered to be far more predictable and functional than any innate talent.

Max Weber argued in his famous book on The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1904-05) that puritanism revolutionised this ideology. Each man had a Beruf or ‘calling’, a particular talent, and if he was favoured by god he would succeed at his calling. As god may not be bargained with, there is nothing man can do to earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift bestowed by god - capriciously, it would seem. The only evidence that one might enjoy god’s favour was success in this life and so, Weber argued, the puritan would work frantically hard at his calling, refuse any material satisfaction from it and reinvest all profits. All of this as a kind of psychological crutch - the comfort that one’s success was providential and a sign of salvation.

Weber himself referred to this rather curious puritan psychology as the heroic age of capitalism, and one that was self-destructive. As puritans accumulated wealth, they tended to fall into temptation and the snare of this-worldly comfort and ease. Luckily, mature, ‘unheroic’ capitalism is characterised by an external market dynamic rather than an internal psychology - the iron cage of capitalist rationality. This “tends to protect those willing to work against the class morality of the proletariat and the anti-authoritarian trade union”.3

Whatever the intrinsic merits of Weber’s theory - and this has not been satisfactorily proved or disproved, and perhaps is incapable of such - it is certainly the case that by the French Revolution religious interpretations of ‘calling’ had fallen out of favour. The bourgeois ideology predominant now was one of arrière ouverte aux talents or ‘career open to talents’, the thread running through and holding together the French revolutionary Declaration of the rights of man and citizen.

Gracchus Babeuf, the proto-communist on the extreme left of the French Revolution, rejected this core bourgeois principle. If those who have greater ability and expend more effort claim a greater share of the means of life, they are still stealing from the community. They are anti-social:

Even someone who could prove that he is capable, by the individual exertion of his own natural strength, of doing the work of four men, and so lay claim to the recompense of four, would be no less a conspirator against society, because he would be upsetting the equilibrium of things by this alone, and would thus be destroying the precious principle of equality. Wisdom imperiously demands of all the members of the association that they suppress such a man, that they pursue him as a scourge of society, that they at least reduce him to a state whereby he can do the work of only one man, so that he will be able to demand the recompense of only one man.4

Socialist critique

Babeuf and his ‘conspiracy of equals’ was destroyed by the guillotine, and the socialist critique really began with Robert Owen at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

Owen was responding to a much remarked upon malaise: the demoralisation and brutalisation of the industrial worker, particularly in the factory. When he took over the new Lanark textile plant in Scotland, he was horrified by the degradation of the workers he found there. His vision was paternalistic: how were these wretches to be saved? Human personality, he was convinced, was ultimately plastic and could be improved by a generous-minded managerial elite. One of Owen’s followers who implicitly rejected this elitism was the Irish intellectual, William Thompson. Thompson overtly attacked the “aristocracy of talent”, which he saw as being in contradiction to his utilitarian ideals of the greatest happiness of the greatest number.5 His version of Owenism was much more about the self-determination of the worker.

Early socialists in France were also disconcerted by the degradation of the worker they saw in Britain and incipiently in their own country. Charles Fourier argued that human capacities should not be shaped to the needs of production, but rather that production should be moulded around human capacities. In sufficient numbers, in organisations of production he called phalansteries, natural human attributes could be found that covered all the needs of production. His most famous example was the clearing away of sewerage, which he believed was a task children would enjoy, as they naturally like playing in the dirt. Nonetheless, Fourier did see a role for rewarding talent, at any rate in the first stage of the new society. His phalansteries’ profits would be distributed between labour, capital, and ‘talent” in a proportion of 5:4:3.

Saint Simon urged the organisation of society around those he called les industriels, by which he meant both workers and managers. He was scornful of the aristocracy and the idle share-owners, who contributed nothing to production. Saint Simon certainly believed in natural talent and ability - he wanted an elite to run society, and thought this elite was most likely to be found amongst the bankers. It was after his death that the followers of Saint Simon - particularly Émile Barrault and Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin - more clearly defined his doctrine in socialist terms. They argued that, while the French Revolution had abolished legal hereditary privilege, a new aristocracy of wealth had emerged. Those who owned capital were able to live off it without exercising their abilities. On the other hand, no matter how talented or hard-working a proletarian might be, he was unable to pull himself out of the mire. It was the function of the state to take over inherited wealth, and organise investment so that ability and talent would be rewarded.

Back in Britain in the 1820s, there was developing a socialist economics, which insisted that value derived only from labour. This served as a moral claim. Thomas Hodgskin was perhaps the first to emphasise not the degradation of the worker under industrialisation, but their acquisition of skills and knowledge. This, he thought, would allow the wage-earner to escape from capitalists by setting themselves up as small producers exchanging one with another. Hodgskin saw no role for the state, and indeed in the future he was to be a steady writer for The Economist. John Gray, in contrast, believed that there was no going back to tiny, self-sufficient units of production. However, while he hoped to see the potential for worker self-determination to develop in an integrated commercial society, he believed that this could only apply to the rural and artisanal trades. Wage-labourers in industry, subordinated to the machine and manager, were incapable of developing refinement, individual talent and autonomy.6

Owenism combined with this Ricardian socialism and, most importantly, with the worker movement in the late 1820s and early 1830s. An Irish trade unionist active in the north of England, John Doherty, was a key figure in all of this. It took shape in the great cooperativist movement of the early 1830s, which saw trade unions as the building blocks of a future cooperative society. In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was organised, and within two months it had a membership of about half a million. Trade unionism would train the workers in politics and association. It would make the workers ready for universal suffrage. It is significant that the greatest success of cooperative socialism was amongst the builders, who formed a national guild to undertake building work without capitalists. These were workers who already were undertaking contracts and, unlike factory operatives, they were not detail workers in a complex system of production, about which they knew little. The GNCTU quickly collapsed after it overextended itself, and the government applied repression (most famously by deporting the Tolpuddle martyrs).

Chartism, which emerged in the late 1830s, was clearly a class-conscious movement, but it did not directly assault the capitalist system. Feargus O’Connor, its most popular leader, argued for workers to set up as small farmers, which would restore their morale, and decrease pressure on the wage-labour market. Marx and Engels associated themselves with the left wing of the Chartist movement.

In France, Louis Blanc was influentially arguing for the “organisation of labour”, by which he meant national workshops financed in the first instance by the state, but thereafter becoming self-running. This was necessary to save wage-labourers from their own degradation. As he said, “We want a government that intervenes in industry, because, in the regime of inequality within which we are still vegetating, there are weak persons who need a social force to protect them.”7 Eventually, however, the workers would become capable of independence. Victor Considérant, a follower of Fourier, explicitly warned that society was turning into a neo-feudalism, in which the elites dominated through hereditary wealth. The ability of the rich bourgeoisie to develop their skills and contacts gave the illusion that talent determined a person’s life chances. “Now a person’s status in the economic, social and political orders is based only on money, education or connections. Education and connections presuppose leisure or wealth.”8 It was necessary to allow the proletarian equal capacity to develop his talents. Under collective production, both capital and talent would be rewarded proportionate to their contribution. The national workshops and the right to work were the driving inspirations behind social republicanism in the 1848 revolution.

German socialism was a rather more esoteric and intellectual affair. A rare contrast to this was Wilhelm Weitling in the late 1830s and 1840s. He was most famous, perhaps, for arguing that revolution could only come from below, and that the criminal classes in particular were a revolutionary resource. The technical inventions of the British industrial revolution, he insisted, derived not from abstract philosophers, but ordinary working men. But knowledge and creative genius can only ever be the possession of a minority, and this ruled out government by universal suffrage: “The majority is not enlightened enough to judge understanding and talent.”9

Marx and Engels

Weitling had considerable influence on German artisan circles, towards which Marx and Engels gravitated. Engels published his Condition of the working class in England in 1845, the most sophisticated survey of the material conditions of the working class yet undertaken by a socialist. He agreed with others that industrialisation had created a drunken, rather degenerate industrial workforce. However, it was one that realised its condition could only be improved through solidarity and the elimination of competition, first within the working class itself and ultimately, Engels believed, with the elimination of competition from the economy.

For Engels, the only counterweight to proletarian demoralisation was class anger. Workers largely rejected bourgeois morality and, being “treated as brutes”, they “actually become such”. They only “maintain the consciousness of manhood … by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie in power”:

They are men so long only as they burn with wrath against the reigning class. They become brutes the moment they bend in patience under the yoke, and merely strive to make life endurable while abandoning the effort to break the yoke.10

Engels anticipated a cataclysmic class war, and at any rate in 1845 saw the role of conscious communists as interceding to limit the bloodiness of the cataclysm.

Marx believed something similar. Only political organisation could bring morality to an otherwise degenerate proletariat. It was, for him, however, the only truly social revolutionary class. He opposed his ideas to those of Proudhon, who was rather scornful of the wage-earner as lacking that capacity for independence characteristic of the peasant farmer or the craftsman in his workshop. As large-scale production could not be avoided entirely, Proudhon saw “workers’ companies” as an unhappy necessity. In these, payment would “be in proportion to the nature of the function, the importance of a person’s talent and the extent of his responsibility”.11

For Marx, such large-scale production was increasingly basic to the economy, and could not be considered an unhappy exception. He went out of his way to dismiss the importance of capitalist talent or exertion. He denied that marketing, for example, played any role in the determination of value, though he could not entirely deny that it helped to realise value - a distinction, it seems to me, without a real difference. By the time Marx came to write Capital in the 1860s he was rather less conflicted about the question of talent. Increasingly, capitalist enterprises were joint stock, and the ownership of capital meant the ownership of shares rather than any very direct management of the enterprise.

It also seemed to him obvious now - and, to be fair, Engels had already intimated this in the mid-1840s - that individual talent was not really important at the macroeconomic level. The market mechanism, by which profits equalised across sectors, meant that any innovation born of individual genius was quickly distributed as a free gift to numerous indifferently talented capitalists. Even management was increasingly a profession hired by the capitalist for wages. Productive technique and technology - what Marx called science - was effectively socialised, no longer coming from individual capitalists, but from savants outside production as such, and generalised by impersonal market mechanisms. Capitalist production constantly innovated under pressure of these impersonal mechanisms. While the work process was complex, the individual contributions of workers were rendered increasingly simple and malleable, able to be changed at short notice.

This produced what Marx called the “collective worker”, meaning social production capable of much more than its individual parts. It also produced, at the individual level, the “polytechnic worker” - no longer with a set of specific skills, but with a general aptitude for turning her hand to whatever permutation came along in the work process. This was clearly a rather idealised view of capitalist production, which is far more reliant upon skill and craftsmanship than Marx implied. However, the development of the polytechnic worker was an accurate enough description of a long-term tendency. Today, for example, general desktop computing skills enable one to undertake a bewildering amount of specific jobs.

Also in the 1860s, Ferdinand Lassalle was promoting a union of the worker movement and science, as he called it, in Germany. In this context, science represented the superior theoretical knowledge of leaders such as himself: “Only when science and the workers, these opposite poles of society, become one, will they crush in their arms of steel all obstacles to culture.” Lassalle argued that the minimalist idea of the state entertained by the bourgeoisie would be acceptable if

we were all equally strong, equally clever, equally educated and equally rich … But, since we neither are nor can be thus equal, this … leads in its consequences to deep immorality, for it leads to this: that the stronger, the cleverer and the richer fleece the weaker and pick their pockets. The moral idea of the state, according to the working class on the contrary, is this: that the unhindered and free activity of individual powers exercised by the individual is not sufficient, but that something must be added to this in a morally ordered community - namely, solidarity of interests, community and reciprocity in development.12

Rather similar to Louis Blanc, this was a view of the state as protecting the weak from the strong.

Marx was rather suspicious of such elitism in Lassalle, though he was also unwilling to break from the Lassallean workers’ movement entirely. Marx had close allies in Germany in Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, but he was not entirely happy with them either, believing them to be too close to bourgeois liberal politicians seeking to educate the workers, and lacking the proletarian base developed by Lassalle.

Both factions, however, came together under an agreed programme at Gotha in 1875. Marx wrote a critique of the Gotha programme - which combined nit-picking, which missed the wood for the trees, with important theoretical insight. Notably, he argued that proletarian class-consciousness was marked by the impress of bourgeois society. The proletariat, he suggested, instinctively agreed with what Marx called “bourgeois right”. By this he meant the idea that greater effort should be rewarded with greater income. This would be the organising principle of a society in which the proletariat had been victorious. Only the fading away of class society as such would give rise to a society in which productive effort would be divorced from the distribution of resources, allowing each individual to realise themselves in a multifaceted manner.

Marx to a considerable extent still held to an immiseration thesis, in which wages were held down to their minimum. His theoretical rejection of the ‘iron law of wages’ and admission that subsistence is historically and socially conditioned, even when combined, did not entirely dispose of the notion. However, there is a certain tension in Capital, where a good deal of the book is in more substantial contradiction to the immiseration thesis. A major theme was its story of how the 10-hour working day was won in England:

… the principle had triumphed with its victory in those great branches of industry which form the most characteristic creation of the modern mode of production. Their wonderful development from 1850 to 1860, hand in hand with the physical and moral regeneration of the factory workers, was visible to the weakest eyes … after the factory magnates had resigned themselves and become reconciled to the inevitable, the power of resistance of capital gradually weakened, whilst at the same time the power of attack of the working class grew …13

In this sense, reforms were important, in so far as they contradicted the political economy of capitalist society and, perhaps even more importantly, restored the morale and capabilities of the proletariat.

Anarchists and Fabians

Bakunin rejected the idea that an organised and self-improving proletariat provided the stalwarts of revolution. He wrote:

Marx speaks disdainfully of this lumpenproletariat … but in them, and only in them - and not the bourgeois-minded strata of the working class - is crystallised the whole power and intelligence of the social revolution.14

Bakunin, however, saw the lumpenproletariat as a revolutionary force only in so far as it was destructive. For the positive work of the revolution, and the construction of a new society, it was necessary to rely upon the “intelligent and noble youths, who, though belonging by birth to the privileged classes, by their generous convictions and ardent sympathies embrace the cause of the people”.15 And a new order would not be built on the naturally humane instincts of the masses, but constructed by an ardent minority. If the prior destruction was sufficiently apocalyptic, and included in its sweep the organised labour movement and radical intelligentsia, no new exploiting strata would emerge.

The Bakunin ideology saw increasing success in the First International, particularly in Latin countries. Partly for this reason, Marx effectively closed the international down. Worker and socialist movements developed on a national basis. Small in number, but theoretically significant was the Fabian Society from the early 1880s. It rejected Marxist economics, building its socialism instead on the newly ascendant Marginalism. There was already a widespread opinion that agricultural rent was unearned income. An owner of real estate could see his wealth multiply not through effort, but because the property he owned happened to benefit from, for example, industrial or urban development in the locality.

The Fabians extended the idea of rent as unearned income to profits. Anything beyond the wages of management and superintendents was purely a windfall from the ownership of capital - a windfall which should by rights accrue to society, which was entirely responsible for the productivity of capital. A species of this “economic rent” was the “rent of ability”. Those with particular and rare skills - whether innate or, more likely, acquired through expensive education - could charge a rent for them, even though such skills were only productive within the context of the collective resources of society at large. As one Fabian put it, “no man can pretend to claim the fruits of his own labour; for his whole ability and opportunity for working are plainly a vast inheritance and contribution, of which he is but a transient and accidental beneficiary and steward”.16 In practice, Fabian socialism pressed the elites to recognise their moral responsibility to protect and improve the lot of the labouring masses. George Bernard Shaw, however, when he reflected on the first major Fabian publication 70 years later, claimed that he was, and always had been, in favour of equal pay for any job.

As mass socialist parties emerged - first in Germany, then in the 1890s in other countries - they disassociated themselves both from Bakuninite politics and Fabian scepticism about the capacities of the actually existing labour movement. They adopted a largely Marxist framework.

In most countries, the socialist parties were overwhelmingly proletarian. This created, potentially, its own difficulties, as Engels wrote to August Bebel in 1891:

If we are to take over and operate the means of production, we need people who are technically trained, and plenty of them … I would predict that in the next eight or 10 years we shall recruit enough young technicians, doctors, jurists and schoolmasters for the factories and large estates to be managed for the nation by party members. In which case our accession to power will take place quite naturally and will run a - relatively - smooth course.

If, on the other hand, we come to the helm prematurely and as a result of war, the technicians will be our principal opponents and will deceive and betray us at every turn; we should have to inaugurate a reign of terror against them and would lose out all the same.17

Karl Kautsky in his commentary on the Erfurt programme, The class struggle, argued that intellectual labour was becoming increasingly proletarianised: “The labour market of educated labour is today as overstocked as the market of manual labour.” He did not prophesise, however, as to what this might mean for the socialist movement in the future: “Whether this development will result in a movement of educated people to join the battling proletariat in mass, and not, as hitherto, singly, is still uncertain.”18

Émile Vandervelde argued that at the very least methodologies of the large-scale capitalist trust could be employed - “All that a trust can do to increase by a decentralised organisation, by profit-sharing, by prospects of advancement, the initiative and responsibility of its managers or by its employees, we have seen that the community could do equally well for its own.”19 Vandervelde did hypothesise that under socialism a self-motivating and broadly altruistic labour force might well emerge, but he was not prepared to stake the efficacy of socialism on this possibility. There was, he insisted, space for managerialism.

The broadest reaction to this managerialism in the first decade and a half of the 20th century came from syndicalism, which conceived of trade unions as the building blocks of socialist society. Georges Sorel, was certainly aware that meritocracy was one of the strongest arguments against socialism: “With the energy of desperation, bourgeois democracy clings to the theory of ability and strives to utilise the people’s superstitious respect for learning.”20 Himself both an engineer and a classicist by training (his first book was on the trial of Socrates), Sorel argued like Weitling that abstract knowledge was more or less useful and that practical knowledge in industry inhered with the manual and the skilled worker. He conceived of future production as a kind of interchange between machine worker and engineering manager. Drawing upon Aristotle, he envisaged the good society as one in which the individual’s potential could be realised as they in turn managed and submitted to management.

Sorel was rather too eccentric to have much of a direct impact on mainstream socialist thinking, and anarcho-syndicalism as a movement was too atheoretical. However, the analogous ideas of ‘guild socialism’ in Britain did have a notable impact on socialist thinking. This was, as GDH Cole put it, a proposal in which the community would own the means of production, but unions would normally control them. The guilds would turn wage-workers into professionals:

In fact, they are to resemble in their main characteristics the self-governing professions, the doctors and the lawyers, of the present. As the guilds will include everyone concerned in the industry, from general managers to labourers, they will be in essence guilds: ie, associations not of dependent, but of independent, producers.21

Cole admitted that unions were not yet ready to take charge, but he believed that they were capable of becoming so.

Karl Kautsky, in his 1923 study of the socialised economy, The labour revolution, wrote of guild socialism that “it is not too much to believe that this type of organisation has a great future, and will play a notable part in the organisation of socialist production”.22 But it was only really applicable to handicraft trades, such as building, and could not play a predominant role.


A famous discussion of the problem of talent in the socialist commonwealth was undertaken by Lenin in 1917 in his The state and revolution. Lenin had already argued in his 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, that the capitalist class had become entirely irrelevant to the organisation of production. They simply clip coupons and act as rentiers on their stocks and shares. He was further influenced by the organisation of both the Russian war economy, which was largely orchestrated by voluntary associations of the bourgeoisie, and by the German war economy, which was substantially statised.

In The state and revolution he argued that production and administration had become extraordinarily simplified: “exceedingly simple operations of registration, filing, and checking”, which “can be easily performed by every literate person”.23 Nonetheless, in the first instance Lenin and the Bolsheviks anticipated a form of state capitalism after the October revolution. Managers and bureaucrats would be required to stay at their desks, no longer receiving much by way of material reward, but under the pressure of workers’ committees. For a couple of months, workers’ committees did attempt to monitor factory production, but the result was managerial demoralisation and chaos. Before very long, the Bolsheviks introduced one-man rule within factories, analogous to the mass employment of officers and NCOs taken from the old tsarist army in the new Red Army.

In the 1930s, the Stalinist regime formalised socialism as a stage in which - as Marx had implied in Critique of the Gotha programme - payment would be by result. This mandated material privileges for the managerial elites, though rarely on anything like the same scale as in the capitalist west. When minded to deploy Marxist justifications, the Chinese Communist Party also cites Critique of the Gotha programme in defence of the inequalities of wealth evident in the country today.

Social democracy, meanwhile, more or less abandoned the idea of worker self-management. The rightwing Austro-Marxist, Karl Renner, in defending his solidarity with the state in time of war, said in 1917:

The worker demands that the state shall stipulate the eight-hour day, protect the producer in the workshop in every regard, insure him against illness, accident and old age … ‘The state shall!’ - that is the solitary, ever recurring proletarian imperative.24

This soon became the theme of social democracy across the board. It was an abandonment of the older socialist idea that the aim was security less as an end in itself than as a means to destroying the dependence and alienation of the individual.

Selina Todd and her recent celebratory book on the British working class enthuses about the 1945 Labour government as the coming together of the labour movement and the professional, managerial middle classes to build the social security-based new Jerusalem.25 She points out, for example, that Labour-built council estates always included a smattering of superior houses as homes for the managerial middle class, to leaven in the proletarian lump. This, indeed, was the characteristic of 20th-century social democracy. Unsurprisingly, after the devastation wrought by two world wars, which destroyed a massive amount of unearned income accumulated by the elites, the ideal of a labour movement/managerial nexus seemed like the wave of the future. Equally unsurprisingly, workers by the 1970s were rebelling against paternalistic managerialism, and the managers were rebelling against limitations on their capital accumulation. As Thomas Piketty has influentially argued, since the 1970s there has again been a massive expansion of privately owned capital multiplying under its own steam, and a widening divorce between effort and ability, on the one hand, and income, on the other.

Marx had anticipated very large industrial enterprises requiring minimal skill sets for workers. I am not at all sure that this was, in fact, particularly conducive to overcoming the division of labour. Worker self-management and practice was always more likely to emerge in handicraft enterprises, in which capitalist managerialism was particularly otiose - builders working for contractors was perhaps the classic example. Since the 1970s, the typical worker has become, much more in line with Marx’s expectations, genuinely ‘polytechnic’ - although not quite in Marx’s sense of the term. The ability to turn one’s hand to a very wide range of procedures is not so much an absence of skill as a particular skill in itself, very reliant on a general education.

The very large enterprise tended to create a division of labour, which in practice was very hard to overcome. The experiential distance between shop floor and managerial corridor was simply too wide. Post-industrial capitalist enterprises, in which massive organisations are broken down into multiple interacting and quite small workplaces, usually relating one to the other via contract or crypto-contract, are much more amenable to overcoming the division of labour.

In thinking this through, I would suggest the model of the builders’ cooperative is more constructive than the ideal, such as it was, Putilov metal works of 1917 Petrograd l


1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-33952393.

2. JS Mill Utilitarianism (1862), London 1910, pp53-54.

3. M Weber The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1905), London 1992), p112.

4. Babeuf’s defence (from the trial at Vendôme, February-May 1797): www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/conspiracy-equals/1797/defense-speech.htm.

5. W Thompson Labour rewarded London 1827, p53.

6. J Gray The social system: a treatise on the principle of exchange Edinburgh 1831, pp266-67.

7. L Blanc Organisation du travail Paris (1839, 1847), p20.

8. V Considérant Principles of socialism: manifesto of 19th century democracy (1847): www.academia.edu/18808629/Victor_Considerants_Socialist_Manifesto.

9. W Weitling Poor sinner’s gospel (1845), London 1969, p185.

10. F Engels, ‘Condition of the working class in England’ (1845) CW Vol 4, p411.

11. C Landauer European socialism: a history of ideas and movements from the industrial revolution to Hitler’s seizure of power Cambridge 1959, Vol 1, p63.

12. F Lassalle The working man’s programme (Arbeiter-Programm): an address London 1884, pp52-53.

13. K Marx Capital London 1976, pp408-09.

14. M Bakunin, ‘Statism and anarchy’ (1873) in S Dolgoff (ed) Bakunin on anarchy London 1973, p334.

15. Ibid p15.

16. S Olivier, ‘Moral’ Fabian essays in socialism (1889): http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/298.

17. Engels to August Bebel, 1891: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/letters/91_10_24.htm.

18. K Kautsky The class struggle (1888): www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1892/erfurt/ch02.htm.

19. É Vandervelde Collectivism and industrial evolution (1896) London 1901, p181.

20. G Sorel, ‘The socialist future of the syndicates’ (1898) in JL Stanley (ed) From Georges Sorel: essays in socialism and philosophy Oxford 1976, p76.

21. GDH Cole The world of labour London 1915, pp363-64.

22. K Kautsky The labour revolution: www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1924/labour/ch03_h.htm#s1.

23. VI Lenin The state and revolution (1917): www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm.

24. CA Gulick Austria: from Habsburg to Hitler Berkeley 1948, Vol 2, p1373.

25. S Todd The people: the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010 London 2014.