24 June 2011

Wage Labour and Capital

Marx’s Capital Volume 1, Part 1

Wage Labour and Capital

“Wage Labour and Capital” and the hunt for Surplus Value

Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 is a great work of literature and it contains many things. But more than any other thing it is about Surplus Value. This week’s main work, “Wage Labour and Capital”, and especially Engels’ remarks about it, demonstrate that in 1847 Karl Marx was not able to explain Surplus Value in terms of commodity Labour Power as distinct from Labour itself.

“Wage Labour and Capital” was given as a lecture to the German Workingmen's Club of Brussels (Belgium) in 1847. Karl Marx had clearly not yet begun, at that stage, to make a clear distinction between the act of Labour and its prior potential, called Labour-Power. The latter is the commodity that the worker sells each day to the capitalist in exchange for the privilege of staying alive.

The capitalist makes the worker work and takes all the product of the worker’s Labour, giving back only just enough for the worker to survive as commodity Labour Power, and so to be up for sale again on the next working day.

This is the reason for Frederick Engels’ apologetic 5-page 1891 Introduction to the present (download linked below) edition of “Wage Labour and Capital”. This is the reason why Karl Marx had to press on for another 20 years until Capital Volume 1 was published in 1867 (and beyond). Only in 1867 was the true theory of Surplus Value fully published and in the public realm.

Hence the main thing to read here, for the purposes of our series, is Engels’ Introduction. The Introduction is the reason for including this text in the series. It provides our starting point and it defines the theme which will serve us throughout all the remaining parts of the series on Capital, Volume 1.

If you do go on from the Introduction to read the full text of “Wage Labour and Capital”, then please remember that this is not Marx’s original version. It is the one doctored by Engels, as he confesses in his Introduction.

The distinction between Labour and Labour-Power is the necessary basis upon which an understanding of Surplus Value can be built, and Surplus Value is the key to the whole project that Marx worked on for about forty years from at latest 1844 until his death in 1883.

Said Engels: “Classical political economy had run itself into a blind alley. The man who discovered the way out of this blind alley was Karl Marx.”

In hindsight, this is true, but in 1847 it was not yet fully true. Engels’ Introduction to “Wage Labour and Capital” reveals Karl Marx’s quest. From this point on in this series, side-by-side with Marx, we are going in search of the mysterious beast called “Surplus Value” and all of its implications.

To sum up: Labour-Power is what you bring to your employer’s front gate in the morning. The employer normally pays you for it, in full (as Marx points out in “Value, Price and Profit”). After that, the entire product of any Labour you may do during the working day belongs to the employer.

“The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people's unpaid labour” wrote Marx, later, in Capital, Volume 1 (Chapter 18).

Please download and read the text via the following link:

Further reading:


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