160th Anniversary of Marx's 'Wage-Labor and Capital'

VOL. 116 NO. 5


This year marks the 160th anniversary of Karl Marx's pioneering work on economics, WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL. It is one of several works by Marx that can be read on or downloaded from the SLP's website.

Although this early work of the youthful Marx is frequently described as being less sophisticated in its analysis of capitalism than such later works as VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT and CAPITAL, in a certain sense that is its most important feature. Indeed, WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL has an a-b-c quality about it that makes it the ideal starting point for anyone seriously interested in learning what Marxian economics is all about and, for that matter, what capitalism is all about.

The reader who grasps the lessons Marx offers in WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL will be forever immunized against such economic nonsense as, for example, that capitalism is a "consumerist" or "consumer driven" society and will learn that the secret of capitalist profits is the exploitation of workers as PRODUCERS, not as BUYERS.

Marx wrote WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL as a series of lectures he delivered to working-class audiences who knew little or nothing about the workings of the capitalist system. He later published several of these in a newspaper he edited at the time. Although he did not complete the series before a hostile government shut the newspaper down, those that were published make up the text of this invaluable work.

In WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL, Marx gives scientifically accurate yet easy-to-understand definitions of wages and prices and how both are determined. He explains the nature of capital, shows how it grows and explains the relation of wage-labor and capital. He also explains the basic economic law that determines how wages and profits rise and fall, why the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed and what effect the growth of productive capital has on wages.

An introduction by Frederick Engels adds greatly to the value of WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL. Engels shows the importance of Marx's concept of labor power and why what the classical economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, et al.) had to say about "the cost of production of labor" was essentially meaningless. In this connection, Marx demonstrated that the workers could not sell their LABOR to the capitalist, for "so soon as his labor begins it ceases to belong to him, and therefore can no longer be sold by him." Workers sell their labor power, their ability to work. "Its cost of production, therefore, coincides with his own cost of production." The workers sell their labor power at its value (by and large). HOWEVER, THEY MUST CONTINUE WORKING AFTER THEY HAVE PRODUCED NEW VALUE EQUAL TO THAT OF THEIR LABOR POWER. The capitalist keeps, and shares with bankers, the capitalist state, etc., the new value, or surplus value, created by the workers.

The secret of the capitalist exploitation of the workers revealed in the above statement is shown in detail in Engels' introduction and in the text of WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL. The demonstration is scientifically accurate and presents the only sound explanation of the process of wealth creation and worker exploitation under capitalism. That demonstration leads to the conclusion "that even the MOST FAVORABLE SITUATION for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material lives of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. PROFIT AND WAGES remain as before, IN INVERSE PROPORTION. If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profits of capital rise disproportionately faster." The growth of productive capital results in an intensification of the workers' exploitation, so that "the greater DIVISION OF LABOR enables one laborer to accomplish the work of 5, 10 or 20 laborers." The workers are forced to compete against themselves as members of the working class, and as the capitalists are forced to exploit the workers on an ever-increasing scale, "in the same measure do they increase the industrial earthquakes, in the midst of which the commercial world can preserve itself only by sacrificing a portion of its wealth, its products, and even its forces of production, to the gods of the lower world -- in short, the CRISES increase."

Despite all of capitalism's belittling of Marx, the beneficiaries of capitalism know or sense that his analysis was correct and that the crises -- crashes, depression, etc. -- he forecast are an INEVITABLE consequence of capitalism's operations.

Read WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL online. If you have never read it before you will find it a rewarding experience. If you have read it before, but it has been awhile, read it again. It sheds as much light on the workings of the system in these days of globalized capitalism as it did on the capitalism of 1847 when it was written.