17th Jul, 2021

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The Working Class and Capital: The Dialectic of Struggle, Accumulation and Breakdown [1980]

Rohini Hensman


 

Preface

The discussions within and between groups in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore which resulted in the formation of the Communist Platform Tendency in 1977 included a critique of the idea that a vanguard party was necessary for carrying out a socialist revolution, instead seeing the revolution as being carried out by the working class as a whole. Another object of criticism was what we called ‘doctrinalism’: the Marxist equivalent of religious fundamentalism, which we saw not just as endemic in the dogmas of the Stalinist parties but even to be found in the writings of much more sophisticated theorists. We felt it was necessary not only to reclaim Marxism but to develop it actively, regarding no one as infallible, not even Marx himself.

          From 1977 onwards, there were numerous study circles discussing Capital, philosophy and fascism; women in these groups also held discussions of feminist theory. We partly had to rely on books and journals sent by comrades abroad since not much was available locally, apart from what was brought out by Progress Publishers, Moscow, and Penguin Books. After the second Bulletin of the Communist Platform in 1978, we started bringing out the Platform Reproduction Series to feed into these discussions, including translations from German by a group member proficient in the language. This essay on ‘The Working Class and Capital’ emerged out of the study circles on Capital and philosophy. It was written in 1980, but never published; in fact, the endnotes were not even typed out, and since the original hand-written text has disappeared, the notes have had to be reconstructed rather incompletely. In the debate between ‘underconsumptionism’ and ‘breakdown due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall,’ it takes a critical look at the latter position, and suggests an alternative framework.

          The essay suffers from a naïvely optimistic belief that, although working-class struggles may suffer setbacks, those setbacks would never be as deep and widespread as they in fact became in the decades that followed. Yet the conclusion remains as relevant today as it was then: that the struggles of working people for better living standards, shorter working hours, improved working conditions and control over work, social security and welfare benefits, trade union rights and democracy, are actually struggles against capital. Given that some sections of the Left still write off the trade union movement as ‘reformist,’ and some ignore or vilify democracy movements in countries that are not US allies in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’, it is worth reiterating that Marxists should instead be working to make these movements more powerful by drawing out lessons from their successes and failures, and eliminating relations of competition and domination among working people. In the forty years since this essay was written, it has become abundantly clear that if the working-class struggle does not move forward sufficiently among the weakest sections of the global working class, it can be pushed back among the strongest sections, with even basic gains like higher real wages and shorter working hours at risk. Never before has it been more imperative for workers of the world to express solidarity in any way they can with the struggles of working people in every other part of the world. 

Rohini Hensman, 2020.

***

In the materialist conception of history the social process as a whole is determined by the economic process. It is not the consciousness of mankind that produces social revolutions, but the contradictions of material life, the collisions between the productive forces of society and its social relations… Under capitalism the entire mechanism of the productive process is ruled by the law of value, and just as its dynamic and tendencies are only comprehensible in terms of this law, its final end, the breakdown, is likewise only explicable in terms of it.’

Henryk Grossmann

(The Laws of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System)

 

‘The prospects for socialism depend not on the possibility or necessity of a coming collapse or decline of capitalism, but on the hopes we must have that the proletariat attains sufficient strength, that the productive forces grow sufficiently to provide abundant means for the welfare of the masses… finally, that the economic knowledge and consciousness develop in the working class to ensure a fruitful application of these productive forces by the class – these are the preconditions of socialist production.’

Karl Kautsky

(The Materialist Conception of History)

 

The working class and the workers’ movement have remained generally on the defensive up to now. Nowhere have they been able to use the extremely serious crisis of capitalism to challenge the system fundamentally (except in Portugal in 1975)… The reason is clear: even though the objective strength and degree of organisation of the working class are higher than ever, and even though a new workers’vanguard contesting the hegemony of the old bureaucratic apparatuses has indeed emerged in many factories and unions throughout capitalist Europe… the curbing and disorienting role of the traditional bureaucratic apparatuses remains enormous, in the absence of a political force in the workers’ movement strong enough to counter them credibly.’

Ernest Mandel

(The Second Slump)

 

‘But as to profits, there exists no law which determines their minimum. We cannot say what is the ultimate limit of their decrease. And why cannot we fix that limit? Because, although we can fix the minimum of wages, we cannot fix their maximum. We can only say that, the limit of the working day being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to the physical minimum of wages; and that wages being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to such a prolongation of the working day as is compatible with the physical forces of the labourer. The maximum of profits is, therefore, limited by the physical minimum of wages and the physical maximum of the working day… The fixation of its actual degree is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labour, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the worker constantly presses in the opposite direction. The matter resolves itself into a question of the respective power of the combatants.’

Karl Marx

(Wages, Price and Profit)

 

All communists agree on the inevitability of the communist revolution; yet there could not be more divergent views of how this will happen than those represented above. It seems that even those who claim to hold by a materialist conception of history can have totally different and even opposing conceptions of the ultimate end of capitalism. For Grossmann, capitalism breaks down as a result of the operation of the law of value, which rules production independently of human will and consciousness and thus independently also of the working-class struggle which, on the contrary, is ruled by it. For Kautsky, no such collapse is to be expected; the death of capitalism depends solely on the conscious action of the proletariat in the absence of any breakdown in the process of capitalist accumulation.

          The present-day left tendencies borrow from both Grossmann and Kautsky when they attempt to explain why the communist world revolution has so far not occurred. Like Grossmann, they believe that the decline of capitalism is governed solely by the capitalist law of value, and argue that world capitalism has been in such a state of decline for decades past. However – and this is where Kautsky comes in – the revolution could not occur because of the unpreparedness of the proletariat (its reformism, its subordination to bourgeois ideology, etc.) and its betrayal by a bankrupt leadership. Thus, capitalism has been compelled to stagger on from crisis to crisis, but can at any moment be swept off its tottering feet if only the proletariat will abandon its bourgeois ideas and bankrupt leaderships and follow the correct leadership.

          The weakness of this argument is embarrassingly obvious. Scientifically, the notion that capitalism has been in decline for decades is more than a little doubtful, and has never been convincingly argued. Practically, the consequence of such a view is to become chained to the task of building the correct leadership and trying to win the proletariat over to it by moral exhortations and by demonstrating the incorrectness of all other self-proclaimed leaderships. It requires considerable imagination to see the former as a materialist understanding of history, or the latter as anything more than a caricature of revolutionary practice.

          The view put forward by Marx offers a possible point of departure for a different understanding and a different practice. He does imply that there will be a breakdown in the process of accumulation (since this would be the inevitable result of an unlimited decrease in profits), yet this breakdown is seen as being produced precisely by the working-class struggle. It is true this argument is not developed by Marx, neither here nor in his later work, where he seems on the contrary to abandon it. Yet it offers the only possibility of integrating into a single conception of the rise and fall of capitalist society both the autonomous development of the working class, its struggle and consciousness, and the process of capitalist accumulation, ‘governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence’.1

I The Problem of the Beginning, the Middle and the End

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.’

          So begins Marx’s famous work on Capital. The opening is not accidental or thoughtless. It is the result of careful consideration and frequent reworking of material initially organised somewhat differently. Why was the present structure of Capital finally chosen? Is it adequate to its purpose? These are important questions to answer if we are trying to understand the relationship of the working-class struggle to capitalist accumulation.

          Marx’s early plan for his work, as he outlined it in a letter to Engels, was quite different. ‘The whole business,’ he wrote, ‘is to be divided into six books: 1) Capital. 2) Landed property. 3) Wage labour. 4) State 5) International Trade. 6) World Market.’2 He took especial care to explain the order of the first three books. Capital and landed property, to begin with: ‘The transition of capital to landed property is at the same time historical, as the modern form of property in land is a product of the effect of capital upon feudal and other landed property.’3 And again,‘By its nature as well as historically, capital is the creator of modern landed property, of ground rent; just as its action therefore appears also as the dissolution of the old form of property in land. The new arises through the action of capital on the old. Capital is this – in one regard – as creator of modern agriculture.’4

          Historically, capital precedes and in fact creates modern landed property. But capital precedes landed property in the succession of categories not because it is historically prior, but because it is dialectically prior; because modern landed property cannot be understood except as a category of capital. So far, the argument is easy to understand.

          There follows the transition from landed property to wage-labour. ‘Similarly the transition of landed property to wage-labour is not only dialectical but historical, since the final product of modern land-ownership is the general institution of wage labour, which in turn appears as the basis of the whole thing.’5 Thus, historically, landed property precedes wage-labour because only when capital has seized hold of property in land does wage-labour become the basis of all social production. However, it is not very clear from this passage why the transition is not merely historical but also dialectical, so let us turn to another.

          ‘The inner construction of modern society, or, capital in the totality of its relations, is therefore posited in the economic relations of modern landed property, which appears as a process: ground rent – capital – wage labour (the form of the circle can also be put another way: as wage labour – capital – ground rent; but capital must always appear as the active middle).’6 There seems to be a slight problem here. Whichever way we put the circle, if capital is to be the active middle the sequence cannot possibly be capital – ground rent – wage-labour. Marx is aware of this, for he continues: ‘The question is now, how does the transition from landed property to wage labour come about? (The transition from wage labour to capital arises by itself, since the latter is here brought back into its active foundation.)’7 But, surely, this implies that the correct dialectical sequence would be wage-labour – capital – landed property? Somehow the circle refuses to come out right, so he quickly retreats onto safer ground: 

Historically, this transition is beyond dispute. It is already given in the fact that landed property is the product of capital. We therefore always find that, wherever landed property is transformed into money rent through the reaction of capital on the older forms of landed property (the same thing takes place in another way where the modern farmer is created) and where, therefore, at the same time agriculture, driven by capital, transforms itself into industrial agronomy, there the cottiers, serfs, bondsmen, tenants for life, cottagers, etc., become day labourers, wage labourers, i.e. that wage labour in its totality is initially created by the action of capital on landed property, and then, as soon as the latter has been produced as a form, by the proprietor of the land himself… There can therefore be no doubt that wage labour in its classic form, as something permeating the entire expanse of society, which has replaced the very earth as the ground on which society stands, is initially created by capital itself. This is why landed property leads back to wage labour.8 

And again, ‘Capital, when it creates landed property, therefore goes back to the production of wage labour as its general creative basis.’9

          Historically, then, the transition is established without any shadow of doubt. Yet Marx himself points out that it would be ‘unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society.’ It is the latter, clearly, that Marx intends to establish; i.e. he intends the sequence of categories in his work to be determined by their relation to one another in bourgeois society.10 But how far does he succeed? Landed property does not present any formidable problems since firstly, he succeeds in establishing it as a category of capital, and secondly, his later work (Capital) adheres to the sequence earlier worked out, even though the section on ground rent is incorporated into the book on Capital rather than constituting a separate volume. But questions do arise concerning the two categories Capital and Wage-Labour. We could formulate them as follows: 1) Is it justifiable to separate the two categories at all, given that neither one can be defined except in relation to the other? And 2) Even if this separation is justified, which category is dialectically prior, Capital or Wage-Labour?

          1) At first sight, it seems absurd to take up the two categories Capital and Wage-Labour separately. Inasmuch as they express two moments of the same relation, it is obvious that even the barest definition of each must contain the other. Why, then, did Marx decide to structure his work like this?

          In his letter to Engels, he begins his outline of the book on Capital like this:

Capital. First Section: Capital in General. (In the whole of this section it is assumed that wages are throughout at their lowest level. The movement of wages and the rise or fall of the minimum will be considered under wage labour. Further, landed property is taken as = 0; that is, landed property as a particular economic relation does not yet concern us. This is the only possible way to avoid dealing with all relations when discussing each particular relation. 11

Here we have it in a nutshell. Marx wanted to discuss the immanent tendencies of capital in abstraction from any variations in real wages. He asks: What course would capitalist accumulation take if the value of labour-power is kept at its minimum, i.e. only just sufficient for the physical reproduction of labour-power?

          This procedure is frequently adopted in the natural sciences, e.g. a chemical or biological process may be examined in isolation from variations in temperature by keeping constant the temperature of the environment while it is taking place. But, ‘in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both.’12

It is necessary, in attempting to discover the laws of capitalist accumulation, to abstract from the development of working-class struggle and consciousness; to assume that the proletariat remains an atomised mass within which competition reigns; i.e. to regard it as a category of capital pure and simple. This, too, is Roman Rosdolsky’s interpretation, when he writes that ‘the entire analysis of the production and circulation process of capital could have been carried out without going into any of the topics envisaged for the proposed book on wage-labour... All that this analysis presupposed was the existence of the relation of wage-labour – but this coincides, conceptually, with that of capital itself.’13 

The scientific value of this approach is that it allows a determination of the tendencies of capital in its purity. From the standpoint of the working class this is very important, because it isolates the compulsions acting on each individual capital, explains the behaviour of individual capitalists as well as the capitalist class as a whole, and makes it possible to anticipate what the bourgeoisie will be compelled to do in any particular conjuncture. A separation of the categories and examination of the tendencies of each is thus logically necessary. The mistakes arise only when the tendencies discovered in this way are thought to act in their purity in shaping actual capitalist development, as though no other tendency were present. This, presumably, is why Marx initially intended to write a separate book on wage-labour. 

Here we need not take up the question of why this project was finally abandoned (if at all it was). Although Marx’s philosophical and political writings are permeated by a sense of the autonomy of the working class and its struggles, this sense is, on the whole, absent from Capital – except in one chapter, the one which deals with the working day. Even this chapter, in its present form, was not part of his original plan, as he explained in a letter to Engels: ‘I was unable to proceed with the theoretical section proper’ (of Capital Vol. 1. Marx is referring to his illness.) My brain was too weak. Consequently I expanded the section on the “Working Day” in a historical sense, which lay outside the scope of my original plan.’14

Anyway, thanks to Marx’s illness, we get a most striking glimpse of the operation of a logic opposite to the logic of capital, which would drive to the extension of the working day such that only just sufficient time for the reproduction of labour-power was left. From this logic, the logic of capital alone, it is not possible, as Jindrich Zeleny claims, to make the ‘logical deduction that the length of the working day and its changes are a product of the class struggle under capitalism’.15 For the word‘struggle’ implies an opposed moment which is absent so long as wage-labour is simply taken as a category of capital. This opposed moment, the logic of the workers’ struggle, is present in the chapter on the working day, which is why the struggle becomes explicable. Not only that; it shows how the actual development of capitalism is the product of these two opposed tendencies. For, confronted with the resistance of the proletariat to the extension of the working day and the fixing of wages at their minimum value, the capitalist class is forced to concede. But it does not, of course, give up the struggle. Rather, it shifts much more heavily to a strategy of relative surplus-value production, and simultaneously attempts to make up for the reduction in the extensive exploitation of labour-power by progressively increasing the intensive exploitation of labour-power. In other words, the whole nature of capitalism undergoes a change; this is, firstly, directly as a response to the working-class struggle, and secondly, is made possible by that struggle, since the development of more technically advanced forms of production together with the intensification of labour is made possible only by the creation of a healthier and more cultured working class as a result of the shortening of the working day

Most of this chapter, then, does not form an integral part of the book on Capital. It really belongs to the unwritten book on wage-labour, and thus indicates what such a book might be. Whereas, in the book on Capital, the proletariat appears merely as the embodiment of the commodity labour-power, and labour-power in turn merely as an element of capital, in the book on wage-labour the terms are reversed: capital appears merely as a moment in the historical development of the proletariat, and the proletariat itself not simply as the personification of the category of wage-labour, but as the grave-digger of capitalism, the bearer of communism. (It would therefore be more accurate to refer not to wage-labour’, which is a category of capital, but to the ‘working class’ or proletariat’, which is an active subject.)

2. Which, then, is the logical point of departure, wage-labour (i.e. the working class) or capital? Marx, in selecting capital, explains his choice in the following terms: In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others... Capital is the all-dominating power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting point as well as the finishing point...’16 Rosdolsky agrees, commenting that ‘It is clear that what Marx is basically discussing here is the construction of his work, the question of the order in which the categories which express the class structure of bourgeois society, namely capital, landed property and wage-labour, should be presented. The answer which emerges from the analysis of the mutual relation of these categories is as follows: the category of capital, as the decisive, all-prevailing and ruling relation of bourgeois society, must be elaborated before everything else.’17 Yet Marx was able to establish only that capital and landed property are historically prior to wage-labour in its classical form. In the very same passages where he is trying to establish their logical priority, he refers towage-labour’as follows: the basis of the whole thing’; ‘its active foundation’; something permeating the entire expanse of society’; something which has replaced the very earth as the ground on which society stands’;‘its general creative basis’.

          These are striking formulations indeed, and two ideas stand out. One is that of the activity of the working class as the basis, foundation, ground, on which capitalist society as a whole arises, something permeatingthis entire society. The other is that of working-class activity as the living, creative activity whose product is capital and bourgeois society. The first idea corresponds closely to Hegel’s notion of the foundation: 

The beginning of philosophy is the foundation which is present and preserved throughout the entire subsequent development, remaining completely immanent in its further determinations… The said beginning is neither an arbitrary and merely provisional assumption, nor is it something which appears to be arbitrarily and tentatively presupposed, but which is subsequently shown to have been properly made the beginning.18

The second idea comes from Marx’s critique of materialism. He writes, ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism… is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.’19 And ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth… of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.’20

Both ideas lead to the same conclusion: working-class practice, the ‘sensuous human activity’ which is the foundation’of modern society, must constitute the point of departure for observation and theory, remain present throughout the subsequent development, and constitute also the point of arrival. Only so can the truth of this thinking be proved in the revolutionising practice of the proletariat. Here, surely, lies the source of Marx’s uneasiness. Explicitly he argues that capital, value-in-process, which can be studied like a process of ‘natural history’, should be the point of departure and point of arrival. Yet, implicitly, through his language, he recognises that only the activity of the proletariat in all its multifarious dimensions can constitute a dialectically valid point of departure and point of arrival.

What is involved in choosing one of these as against the other is two different conceptions of truth. Hegel distinguishes them as follows: 

In common life the terms truth and correctness are often treated as synonymous: we speak of the truth of a content, when we are only thinking of its correctness. Correctness, generally speaking, concerns only the formal coincidence between our conception and its content, whatever the constitution of this content may be. Truth, on the contrary, lies in the coincidence of the object with itself, that is, with its notion. That a person is sick, or that someone has committed a theft, may certainly be correct. But the content is untrue. A sick body is not in harmony with the notion of body, and there is a want of congruity between theft and the notion of human conduct. 21

In other words, where the object itself is irrational or untrue, (i.e. does notcoincide with its notion’), forming a correct conception of it does not establish its truth. The latter can only be established practically, by changing the object itself, e.g. by curing the sick body so that it comes into harmony with the notion of ‘body’, or by revolutionising capitalist society, so that

it comes into harmony with the notion of a truly human community. ‘Correctness’, then, involves a purely contemplative conception, whereas ‘truth’ in the strict sense is a practical conception.

          Hegel himself withdrew from the revolutionary implications of his conception of truth, whereas Marx follows the argument through to the end in his Theses on Feuerbach. In Capital, however, he is more ambivalent. For, while he retains the notion of capital as irrational, topsy-turvy, and so on, his whole method is aimed at establishing not the truth of his thinking, but rather its correctness. For, if, as he says, capital ‘must form the starting point as well as the finishing point,’ then clearly what he is trying to establish is a correct conception of capitalism. If he is trying to establish truth, he cannot end up with capital, which is an untrue content’. And, yet, having made capital his starting point, logic drives him to make it the finishing point too. But this result conflicts with his whole outlook and intention, which was, after all, to show the necessary downfall of capitalism. To resolve the conflict dialectically would mean a restructuring of his entire work and the adoption of a point of departure which would enable him to end up not with capital but with a critique of capital. For some reason, Marx did not do this. Instead, he attempted to demonstrate the necessary breakdown of capitalism while retaining his original framework. By so doing, he tied not only himself but also subsequent generations of Marxists into the most grotesque knots.

II The Breakdown of Breakdown Theory

The theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the means by which it is attempted to prove the necessary breakdown of capitalism independently of the agency of the proletariat. Marx sets out The Law as Such’ in all its classic simplicity: the increasing productivity of labour under capitalism, which is expressed directly in a growing technical composition of capital, implies also a growth (although not in the same proportion) of the value of constant capital in relation to the value of variable capital. Assuming that the rate of surplus-value remains constant, this increase in the organic composition of capital expresses itself in a falling rate of profit. This tendency is characteristic not only of individual capitals, but also of social capital as a whole. He illustrates it by the following series:22

c

v

s

p

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

100

100

100

100/200=50%

200

100

100

100/300=33.33%

300

100

100

100/400=25%

400

100

100

100/500=20%

 

(N.B. This table and subsequent ones clearly do not refer to consecutive cycles of accumulation but to a long-term tendency. In the short term, the rate of profit may rise, fall or remain stagnant – that is irrelevant. The question at issue is its long-term epochal tendency.)

         Later, Marx goes on to explain that the fall does not manifest itself in an absolute form but only as a tendency due to the operation of counteracting influences. Among these he lists: The increase in the rate of surplus-value; cheapening of the elements of constant capital; and depreciation of existing capital. These, together with other counteracting influences, stem the decline in the rate of profit, but cannot abolish it altogether.

         Before examining this argument and that of others who have attempted to improve on it, a few points of clarification are necessary.

         The tendency is seen to be the result of the interaction of the law as such’ and the ‘counteracting influences’. It is assumed, then, that the rising organic composition of capital (from which is derived the tendency of the rate of profit to fall) is somehow primary, while thecounteracting influences’are secondary or accidental. But see how Marx himself refers to the counteracting influences’listed above.

1. In relation to the cheapening of the elements of constant capital and the depreciation of existing capital: 

In short, the same development which increases the mass of the constant capital in relation to the variable reduces the value of its elements as a result of the increased productivity of labour, and therefore prevents the value of constant capital, although it continually increases, from increasing at the same rate as its material volume, i.e. the material volume of the means of production set in motion by the same amount of labour power. In isolated cases the mass of the elements of constant capital may even increase, while its value remains the same or falls. The foregoing is bound up with the depreciation of existing capital (that is, of its material elements), which occurs with the development of industry.23

Two points are made here. Firstly, that the increasing technical composition of capital and the cheapening of constant capital (both newly created and already existing) are both expressions of the same process, namely the increasing productivity of labour. There is no question of one being primary and the other being secondary. 

           The second point is even more significant. It is that changes in the value composition of capital are a resultant of the rising technical composition and declining value of means of production, and, depending on their relation to each other, the value composition may rise, decline or remain constant. This can be shown quite simply. Suppose the value composition of capital is initially 1, i.e. c=100 and v=100 (case 1). Assume, then, that productivity doubles, so that the same number of workers handles twice as much means of production. If productivity has also doubled in the production of means of production, the value of each unit would have fallen to half its initial value; the value of the new total mass would be the same as that of the initial mass. Thus if the value of labour-power has remained constant (and this is the assumption when a constant rate of surplus-value is assumed), the value composition will be the same as before (case 2). If, however, the productivity of labour remains constant in the production of means of production, then not only its mass but its value too would have doubled, and the value composition would have risen to 2 (case 3). Conversely, if productivity quadruples in the production of means of production, its mass would be double but its value only half as much as before, and the value composition would fall to ½ (case 4).

 

means of production

 

labour-power

 

value composition

 

mass

value

mass

value

 

case l

100

100

100

100

1

case 2

200

100

100

100

1

case 3

200

200

100

100

2

case 4

200

50

100

100

½

N.B. Throughout we have referred only to the value composition and not to the organic composition. This is in order to avoid quibbling over the definition of organic composition’, which is unnecessary since, however rigorously you try to define organic composition’, it is the value composition that determines the rate of profit. E.g., assuming a uniform 100% rate of surplus-value, the rates of profit in the cases above would be as follows:

Rate of profit 

case 1 100/200 = 50%

case 2 100/200 = 50%

case 3 100/300 = 33.3%

case 4 100/150 = 66.67%

 

2. In relation to the rising rate of surplus-value, i.e. the increase in surplus labour in relation to necessary labour, Marx writes, 

The development of the social productiveness of labour is manifested in two ways: first, in the magnitude of the already produced productive forces…, secondly, in the relatively small quantity of living labour required for the reproduction and self-expansion of a given capital… In relation to employed labour-power the development of productivity again reveals itself in two ways: first, in the increase of surplus-labour, secondly, in the decrease of the quantity of labour-power… The two movements not only go hand in hand, but mutually influence one another and are phenomena in which the same law expresses itself.24

Thus, the increase of means of production in relation to labour-power goes together with an increase of surplus labour in relation to necessary labour; i.e. a rising technical composition of capital and the increasing rate of surplus-value are phenomena in which the same law (the development of the social productiveness of labour) manifests itself. And, again, ‘the increasing productivity of labour is accompanied by a cheapening of the worker, and it is therefore accompanied by a higher rate of surplus value even when real wages are rising. The latter never rise in proportion to the productivity of labour.’25Here, again, there is no suggestion that the rising technical and value composition of capital is primary while the rising rate of surplus value is secondary; both are expressions of the same process. It is easy to see why. Going back to case 1, we would have a value composition of 1 and a rate of surplus-value of 100%, i.e. the working day would be equally divided between necessary and surplus labour. If we then shift to case 2, (i.e. an all-round doubling of productivity), we find that although all the values remain the same, use-values have doubled. In other words, the workers will be living twice as well as before if the rate of surplus-value remains constant. But this is hardly likely, given that ‘the constant tendency of capital is to force the cost of labour back towards … absolute zero.’26On the contrary, we would expect capital to attempt to keep real wages at the same minimum level, and since we are now abstracting from working-class militancy, we will assume that they succeed. But, at the higher productivity of labour, it requires only ¼ of the working day to produce what was previously produced in ½. Thus, ¾ can be converted into surplus labour-time. The new v would be only 50, and the new s 150. The rate of surplus-value would have risen from 100% to 300% without any decline in living standards or lengthening of the working day:

 

C

V

s

c/v

s/v

case 1

100

100

100

1

100%

case 2

100

50

150

2

300%

(N.B. In order to avoid dealing with all relations when discussing each particular relation’it is important, as Marx pointed out, to assume throughout the argument that wages remain at their lowest level’, i.e. at the physiological minimum. This does not mean that the value of labour-power remains constant. On the contrary, a constant value of labour-power would mean that the workers were reaping all the benefits of the increased social productivity of labour, which, in turn, implies fantastic combativity on their part. This is to introduce an extraneous element into the argument, which seeks to demonstrate the necessary breakdown of capitalism independently of the action of the working class. Hence, to be rigorous, we must assume that the conditions of exploitation – the standard of living, the length of the working day and the intensity of labour – do not improve but remain the same. In value terms, as Marx pointed out, this implies a continuous ‘cheapening of the worker’, a continuous decline of the value of labour-power as a consequence of the rising social productivity of labour.)

           Now, to come back to Marx’s schema. He starts off with 50c and 100v. In the next round, we find 100c and 100v. Two things could have happened. It could be that productivity in this production process has doubled whereas in the production of means of production it has stagnated. Or, whatever change of productivity there has been here, there has been only half that increase in the production of means of production. For example, if productivity here has quadrupled (i.e. each worker handles four times as much means of production as before), the value of the increased quantity of means of production has only doubled, because each unit contains only half as much socially-necessary labour-time as before due to a doubling of productivity in that department of production.

          Going down the line, we find the same thing happening all the way. Either productivity in the production of means of production is stagnating, or it is rising at exactly half the rate at which productivity here (presumably the department producing means of subsistence) is rising.

There are two possible ways of explaining this:

  1. In every process of production, the productivity of labour rises faster than in the processes of production producing its means of production. Thus, in each casethe individual commodity is cheapened; the value-portion embodying newly posited labour falls faster than the portion representing constant capital.’27 E.g., productivity in weaving must increase faster than in spinning and the manufacture of looms, and so on going backwards, so that over time each unit of cloth embodies a larger and larger proportion of constant capital. One wonders what happens to commodities which enter into each others’ processes of production, e.g. steel and its machinery. Productivity in steel-making would have to increase faster than in steel-making machinery so that each unit of steel should contain a progressively larger proportion of constant capital; at the same time, productivity in steel-making machinery would have to increase faster than productivity in steel-making so that each unit of machinery should contain a progressively larger proportion of constant capital. It is fairly obvious why this explanation is not often put forward. It is anyway irrelevant, because Marx’s schema deals – has to deal – with social averages, and not with individual commodities.
  2. Alternatively, it could be the case that in society as a whole, the productivity of labour increases faster in department II (producing means of subsistence) than in department I (producing means of production), so that the value of labour-power falls faster than the value of means of production even without any increase in the rate of surplus-value. This appears to be the argument adopted by Marx and most breakdown theorists (‘appears’because the assumption is never made explicit). He writes that 

the tool is not simply replaced by a single machine, but by a whole system, and the tools which perhaps played the major part previously... are now assembled in thousands. Each individual machine confronting the worker is in itself a colossal assembly of instruments which he formerly used singly, e.g., 1,800 spindles instead of one. But, in addition, the machine contains elements which the old instruments did not have. Despite the cheapening of individual elements, the price of the aggregate increases enormously and the productivity consists in the continuous expansion of machinery.28

That increases in productivity involve a continuous expansion of machinery is indisputable. What is less obvious is why this whole complex, even if it contains ‘elements’ which the old instruments did not have, should embody more socially necessary labour-time than the 1,800 spindles when they were made by hand. On the contrary, the enormous increase in the social productivity of labour that has taken place in the meantime suggests that in fact less socially-necessary labour-time could well be embodied in the new machine, extra ‘elements’included. That the increase in productivity does not at all necessarily imply an increase in value of the instrument is further strengthened by Marx’s own comment that one element – the increasing speed of machinery – increases productivity enormously but does not affect the value of the machinery itself in any way.’29(I.e. on one new spindle, cheaper than an old one, a worker could spin as much as could be spun on several old ones in the same time.)

         The argument about raw materials is equally unconvincing. It is obvious that the quantity of raw material must increase proportionally with the productivity of labour’ (this is also indisputable). But ‘one may ask with regard to raw material: If, for example, productivity in spinning increases ten-fold, that is, a single worker spins as much as ten did previously, why should not one Negro produce ten times as much cotton as ten’(presumably Marx means ‘one’, otherwise productivity would have to rise 100-fold, not 10-fold)‘did previously, that is, why should the value ratio not remain the same?’ (Why not indeed, especially if that ‘Negro’ is now operating a cotton-picking machine?)‘To this it would be quite easy to answer that some kinds of raw materials, such as wool, silk, leather, are produced by animal organic processes, while cotton, linen, etc. are produced by vegetable organic processes and capitalist production has not yet succeeded, and never will succeed in mastering these processes in the same way as it has mastered purely mechanical or inorganical chemical processes.’ (As though, in these cases, increasing the productivity of human labour means speeding up organic processes!)‘Raw materials such as skins, etc., and other animal products become dearer partly because the insipid law of rent increases the value of these products as civilisation advances.’ (Did not Ricardo argue in the same way?) As far as coal and metal (wood) are concerned, they become much cheaper with the advance of production; this will however become more difficult as mines are exhausted, etc.’30 Are we to conclude that it is the exhaustion of mines that will bring about a fall in the rate of profit and thus the downfall of capitalism?

          Their empirical dubiousness apart, what kind of arguments are these? When Ricardo tried to explain the fall in the rate of profit by the increasing value of labour-power resulting from the declining productivity of labour in agriculture, Marx had a good laugh at him:‘Ricardo assumes that the productive force of labour decreases in agriculture, although it grows in industry, with the accumulation of capital. He flees from economics to seek refuge in organic chemistry.’31 But now, surely, the laugh is against Marx. For in the foregoing arguments, does he not flee from economics to seek refuge in engineering on the one hand, organic chemistry on the other? What is even more astonishing is that most Marxists simply accept this argument and even some of those who have attempted to improve on Marx’s own argument have swallowed this part of it totally uncritically. A good example is Mario Cogoy, who tries to correct the assumption that the rate of surplus-value remains constant and to show that the rate of profit falls even with a rising rate of surplus-value. His schema is as follows:32

 

c

v

s

Period 0

100

100

100

Period 1

120

90

110

Period 2

144

81

119

Period 3

172.8

72.9

127.1

At first sight, this looks good. The rate of surplus-value rises constantly, presumably due to an increase in the productivity of labour. Assuming that the standard of life and working hours remain constant, as well as the number of workers (i.e. v represents the same quantity of use-values all along), we conclude that from one period to the next, value is falling and therefore productivity is increasing by 10%. In each period, therefore, the workers must be handling 10% more means of production than in the previous period – e.g. in period 1, they are handling 110% as much means of production as in period 0, and so on. The value of those means of production, however, has gone up by more, by 20%. In other words, the value of each unit of means of production has increased, and this goes on happening all the time. It seems that Cogoy turns Ricardo on his head and assumes that the productive force of labour decreases in industry, although it grows in agriculture, with the accumulation of capital. On balance, Ricardo’s argument seems somewhat more convincing.

           As against Ricardo, Marx and their uncritical followers on this particular point, it is necessary to maintain that when dealing with social capital and the social productivity of labour, we must stick to a socially average rate of increase of the productivity of labour.

           When this corrective is made to Marx’s schema, it is found that at each stage although productivity is doubling – i.e. the same number of workers is handling double the quantity of means of production – the value of this double quantity remains the same as the initial value:

c

v

s

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

50

100

100

100/150=66.67%

At the end of the series, workers are handling eight times as much means of production as at the start, yet there has been no change in the value composition. What is wrong?

           Something is very wrong. At the end of the series v and s represent eight times as much use-values as at the start, i.e. the workers’ living standards have improved by 800%. They are reaping all the benefits of increased productivity. Naturally, with such massive real wage increases even the absolute mass of surplus-value does not rise. In fact, we have already slightly improved on Marx’s example. Here, a capital of constant value produces a constant surplus-value. In his example, capital value increases enormously while the absolute quantity of surplus-value remains the same. Such benevolence surely contradicts the inner nature of capital.

           What this shows is that, once you abandon the dogma of declining/stagnating/more slowly rising productivity in department I, you discover that the rising value composition of capital and the rising rate of surplus-value are inextricably linked. (They are, after all, ‘phenomena in which the same law expresses itself’.) Abolish one, as Marx has done, and you abolish the other. It follows that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall can be discovered only from their combined effect on it.

           So, now we come to Marx’s second line of argument: namely, that although the rising organic composition of capital is always accompanied by a rising rate of surplus-value and they have opposite effects on the rate of profit, it is the organic composition that wins out in the long run, so that the rate of profit falls. This is because the extent to which the rate of surplus-value can be increased is limited by the length of the working day. He clinches the matter by giving the following argument: ‘Two labourers, each working twelve hours daily, cannot produce the same mass of surplus value as 24 who work only 2 hours, even if they could live on air and hence did not have to work for themselves at all. In this respect, then, the compensation for the reduced number of labourers by intensifying the degree of exploitation has certain insurmountable limits.’33 In the first place, it must be pointed out that this is already a capital in deep crisis, i.e. one which is not accumulating, since the workforce has declined drastically whereas ‘accumulation reproduces the capital-relation on an expanded scale, with more capitalists, or bigger capitalists, at one pole, and more wage-labourers at the other pole.’34 It is not difficult to agree that a capital which cut its labour-force by 11/12 would be in bad trouble, but what does this prove? Certainly not that the rate of surplus-value cannot rise indefinitely, nor that this cannot offset the increase in value composition. Let us go back to our correction of Marx’s schema, and this time stick to Marx’s own condition that wages remain at their lowest level, i.e. the standard of life does not rise (or fall). There would then be a constant redivision of the working day (which likewise remains constant) whereby necessary labour-time is reduced and surplus labour-time increases; the value of 200 represented by s + v would be proportionately redivided:

 

C

v

s

s/v

s/c+v

1)

50

100

100

100%

66.7%

2)

50

50

150

300%

150%

3)

50

25

175

700%

233.3%

5)

50

12.5

187.5

1500%

300%

(Marx’s case 4 has been omitted because it does not involve a doubling of productivity.)

         It must be emphasised that no fall in real wages nor extension of the working day has taken place: the huge increase in the rate of surplus-value is purely a result of increased productivity. If we were to add use-value terms alongside value terms, the table would look like this:

 

Means of production

c

no. of workers

v

1)

50

50

100

100

2)

100

50

100

50

3)

200

50

100

25

5)

400

50

100

12.5

One last correction remains to be made. The example, as it stands, involves no accumulation; on the contrary, capitalvalue is declining due to the capital ‘set free’ by the fall in the value of labour-power. Let us assume that this capital which is released as well as 50% of the previously produced surplus-value is used to expand production at the new technical and value composition. Since productivity changes are the same as before, the rates of surplus-value and profit remain the same; the only difference is that the absolute amounts of surplus-value and capital expand. We would then have a schema like this:

 

v

s

s/v

s/c+v

1)

50 

100

100

100%

66.7%

2)

100

100

300

300%

150%

3)

233.3 

116.7

816.9

700%

233.3%

5)

606.9 

151.7

2275.5

1500%

300%

A few points to note:

          1. Despite a steep rise in value composition as well as capital value, there is no fall in the rate of profit. Rather, the rate of profit moves in the same direction as the rate of surplus-value, although it is always lower. This is more consistent with Marx’s whole framework than the notion that the rate of surplus-value and the rate of profit move in opposite directions (the first rising while the second falls). E.g. ‘If the rate of surplus value is known and its magnitude given, the rate of profit expresses nothing but what it actually is, namely a different way of measuring surplus value, its measurement according to the value of the total capital instead of the value of the portion of capital from which surplus value directly originates by way of its exchange for labour.’35 And ‘the rate of profit expresses the rate of surplus value always lower than it actually is.’36 However, the rate at which s/v rises does decrease, so that there would come a point when it would rise scarcely at all even when productivity doubles. At this stage, the rise in the rate of profit would be negligible. But it would not fall.

  1.  Nor is accumulation carried out at the expense of the capitalists’ consumption-fund, so that, as Henryk Grossmann fears, ‘the portion of surplus-value reserved for capitalist consumption (k)… can only expand up to a definite high-point, after which it must necessarily decline, because it is swallowed up by the portion of surplus value required for capitalisation.’37 Rather, this portion grows together with the total surplus value and the portion which is capitalised.

          The basic mistake of all these writers is the identification of v with the number of workers or the use-values they consume, and the assumption that value and use-value quantities rise or fall to the same degree. This is evident in Marx’s example of the 24 workers reduced to 2; the reduction in v leads him to suppose that the actual number of workers is cut. Or, in Grossmann’s assumption that a 5% increase in working population must involve an increase in v, while a devaluation of labour poweris identified with a cut in the conditions of lifeof the working class.38 Likewise in Rudi Schmiede’s example: Suppose, with a given social working day, the mass of surplus-value equals half of this working day, so that the rate of surplus value is 100% – in that case, if the total capital is doubled, then, to maintain the same rate of profit, the mass of surplus value must likewise double; the entire social working day must now be appropriated as surplus labour, the workers will have to live on air – obviously a quite unrealistic assumption.’39 However, in our example, between 1) and 3) the total capital more than doubles (from 150 c+v to 350 c+v), and the rate of surplus-value increases from 100% to 700% without any cut in living standards or extension of the working day. The spectre of workers forced to live on air is quite imaginary.

          This mistake is in fact nothing but a confusion between use-value and exchange-value. Just as the massive increase in technical composition leads these Marxists to overestimate the rise in value composition, the decline in the value of labour-power leads them to conclude there is a fall in living standards, or the number of workers, or both. What is really strange is that some of them explicitly state the importance of taking into account the use-value side of production, and yet do not actually do so. Grossmann for example, criticises Otto Bauer for just this lapse: I shall show that Bauer’s scheme reflects and can reflect only the value side of the reproduction process, and in this sense it cannot describe the real process of accumulation in terms of value and use value.’40But then, for some inexplicable reason, he goes on to base his entire argument on Bauer’s defective schema, only troubling himself to extend it for some years – as though more of a bad thing makes it into a good thing! Schmiede too. In the same work, where he brings up the example of workers forced to live on air he writes (of others): Because they are not at all concerned with the use-value side of production, these writers succumb to a confusion between use-value and value production –  they identify the growing mass of use-values... with a growing mass of values... One can only conclude that they have not grasped the most elementary lessons of the labour theory of value.’41Indeed, we might agree with that conclusion!

It turns out, then, that the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall independently of the action of the working class is riddled with confusions and contradictions, and when these are corrected it seems that capital, if allowed to develop according to its own immanent laws, could very well go on for ever. No wonder that proponents of this theory constantly provide themselves with escape clauses which suggest, without explicitly stating it, that the countervailing influences, including periodic crises, may indefinitely postpone the actualisation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, or alternatively consign it to a realm of pure ideality from where it has no obligation to reveal itself. For example, Ben Fine and Laurence Harris write, A more accurate name for Marx’s theory would be “the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and of the tendency for counteracting influences to operate”… The observable effect of the law cannot, on our interpretation, be a simple tendency for the actual rate of profit (in value or price terms) to fall.’42 This is truly a fitting conclusion to a review of the debate on the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall: a conclusion which clearly reveals its character as ‘a purely scholastic question’, that is, a ‘dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice’.For there is no way in which the tendency, as it has been presented by these writers, can be proved or disproved in practice: one can only ‘wait and see’. And even that may be useless, for, if the law is one which never reveals itself in reality, there is no way of showing whether or not it operates. In such a situation, belief in the law is a matter of blind, dogmatic belief in the sacred text’ – surely an inappropriate tribute to Marx’s work.

          But does it follow that there is no long-term tendency for the rate of profit to fall or for capitalism to break down? Not at all. All that has been argued is that capital, if it develops accordingto its own immanent laws, has no inherent tendency to break down. The problem, for capital, is that there is one element of the capitalist production process – namely the working class – which puts a spanner in the works by refusing to act according to those laws. In opposition to the inherent tendency of capital to increase the rate of surplus-value, every act of this insubordinate element of production drives towards the reduction of the rate of surplus-value. And it is the actualisation of this latter tendency that leads to the downfall of capitalism. For, if the rate of surplus-value falls, the rate of profit falls even lower, and if it disappears, the whole raison d’être of capitalist production vanishes. But, of course, this tendency cannot work itself out in a linear fashion because capital constantly pushes in the opposite direction, even converting gains of the working class into new sources of accumulation for itself by shifting the mode of surplus-value production.43 Thus the question of the breakdown of capitalism is resolved in the arena, in a straight fight between capital and the working class. And this time it is possible to prove the reality of our thinking in practice, by bringing about the breakdown of capitalism.

          Before considering the various aspects of the fight, however, it is interesting to ask: why have so many communists up to now clung to a theory which is so patently weak? Grossmann perhaps gives us a clue when he asks, Once the economic’(by economic’is meant independent of the action of the working class’) basis for the destruction of capitalism is given up, where is the certainty that the proletariat, having become the decisive class, will define its goal as the destruction of capitalism? Will it not perhaps prefer to reconcile itself with the existing order of society? Why should the working class come out against capitalism, when it is not only capable of an unfettered development of the forces of production and actually develops them, but secures for it a constant improvement in its conditions of life and ever increasing protection through social reforms?’44 It seems that Grossmann, having forgotten that constant improvement in livingconditions and ever increasing protection were not exactly secured for the working class by capitalist benevolence, falls prey to the sneaking suspicion that under such conditions the working class cannot possibly be revolutionary. The implication, confirmed elsewhere, is that only the most abject misery can drive the proletariat into revolution.

           Such a view is consistent with Grossmann’s theory of breakdown. But it is more surprising to find others who reject the breakdown theory in its catastrophic form voicing similar sentiments. For example, Anton Pannekoek:

The workers’movement has not to expect a final catastrophe, but many catastrophes, political – like wars – and economic, like the crises which repeatedly break out, sometimes irregularly, but which, on the whole, with the growing size of capitalism, become more and more devastating. So the illusions and tendencies to tranquillity of the proletariat will repeatedly collapse, and sharp and deep class struggles will break out.45

Or, Paul Mattick: 

The functions of depression are taken over by war and consequently by preparation for war, and, as in ordinary depression, the profitability of capital declines as a precondition for its later rise. It is still the mechanism underlying Marx’s theory of accumulation. But whether it will once more succeed in creating favourable conditions for purposes of capital accumulation is not an “economic” question but a question of social occurrences on a national and international scale. But, then, that was true for any period of crisis and depression, which always contained the possibility of social action aimed at ending all capitalist difficulties by ending the capitalist system.46

Despite their superficial optimism, underlying these statementsis a deep-going pessimism concerning the revolutionary character of the working class. Perhaps this pessimism inevitably develops in the revolutionary intelligentsia at times when the working-class struggle suffers a defeat or takes a less explicit form, and this is why some of them cling so desperately to the belief that capitalism must break down independently of the action of the proletariat. For what other guarantee of the revolution do they have? One is reminded of the image of the proletariat as a placid donkey. The revolutionary intelligentsia walks beside it, trying alternately to lure it with the carrot of socialism and beat it with the stick of immiseration, but always feeling that only a good kick from behind (the crisis or breakdown) will suffice to propel the wretched beast towards communism.

          But they need not fear. Communism is inherent in the day-to-day struggles of the working class, even when it least appears to be so. Whether these struggles are called political’or economic’ or even if they are not commonly recognised as struggles at all, they in one way or another, directly or indirectly, contribute to the breakdown of capitalism. The proletariat never stops digging that grave, even if it takes a long time to dig.

III The Working-Class Struggle as the Driving Force of Capitalist Breakdown

Working-class activity is human activity, the active foundation of capitalist society. But why do human beings act at all? The driving force of all activity is desire; without desire, there would be no action. For to act is to negate what exists and create a new situation which is desired.

           Already at this stage, an opposition necessarily follows between capital and the proletariat. For capital, workers are nothing but a means of producing surplus-value, and thus capital drives towards the elimination of all independence, all autonomy, from them. They must have no desires of their own, but must become instruments of the capitalists’ desire for surplus-value.

           But this cannot be realised because workers have, and must have, desires of their own. At the most obvious level, there is the desire for self-preservation, that is, for the material necessities of life. This is a desire directed towards something outside oneself, and the desire is satisfied when that object is obtained and consumed. This, however, is hardly different from animal desire, which is also directed towards an object. An object may create an awareness of need, of something lacking in oneself, and lead to action which satisfies that need. But, by itself, it cannot lead to consciousness of oneself as a specifically human individual. That self-consciousness, which constitutes one as a human individual, can come only through desire directed towards other consciousnesses, other individuals, other desires. Only others like oneself, who can desire one in return, can recognise that human value and thus confirm one’s own human individuality. No object can do this. And so, the desire for recognition is a universal human desire.

          This is where the writers quoted in the previous section make their biggest mistake. It is true that they recognise the existence in workers of desire which is independent of the capitalists. But there is an implicit assumption that this is an animal desire for self-preservation, for objects of consumption. Thus, the only way they can conceive of the revolution occurring is that a crisis (or the breakdown), by drastically cutting down the living standards of workers, will stir them to overthrow the capitalist system. The idea is that in the ultimate overthrow of capitalism, as in their day-to-day struggles, workers act from only one motive – preservation of their animal life.

          Yet workers are not animals any more than they are machines. To struggle against capital means for a worker the very opposite of this: it means the risk of life. It is true that success in the struggle can mean a better life (and that, too, not purely in terms of a higher level of consumption). But failure often means severe hardship, and sometimes even death. And yet workers struggle, knowing this. Why? The simple philosophy of most revolutionary intellectuals cannot answer this question, and so to them the actual course of the class struggle must remain an enigma, against which they have to pose an ideal revolutionary struggle. Only by recognising workers as human beings with specifically human desires is it possible to unravel the logic of the class struggle and then show how it shapes the accumulation of capital and brings about its ultimate downfall.

          According to Hegel, the struggle for recognition takes the form of the Master/Slave dialectic. The protagonists engage in a fight to the death for recognition. The victor, who does not flinch in the face of death, becomes the Master (or Boss) while the loser, who surrenders in order to save his animal life, becomes the Slave, who is compelled to work for the Master. The Master has thus won the recognition of the slave, has acted on him and forced him to take account of him. The slave, on the other hand, through his work, through acting on nature, shaping or forming an object which he does not himself consume, ‘becomes thereby aware of himself as factually and objectively self-existent’.47 

          What is immediately striking is how defective this dialectic is. If you win and become master, you compel the other to recognise you by working for you. But, by this very act, by denying the autonomy of the other’s desire, his or her freedom not to recognise you, you reduce the other to an object, a thing. So you have still failed to gain the recognition of someone whose human value you recognise in return; a form of recognition has arisen that is one sided and unequal... just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness.’48 On the other hand, if you lose the fight and become the slave, you have the consolation of objectifying yourself in the products of your labour which you do not yourself consume. But, firstly, this is forced labour, and therefore not work in which you can freely exercise and develop your capacities; and secondly, the products of your labour are regarded as objectifications of yourself only by yourself. The boss consumes them, sells them, or does whatever he wants with them, but does not recognise in them you in all your individuality. So, you have not achieved recognition after all. This is a point which Hegel does not seem to make. While he could accurately pinpoint the frustration of the master, he perhaps identified himself too much with the master race, the master class and the master sex to be able to describe or even imagine the frustration of the slave.

          In the end, no one is satisfied. What is wrong? Surely it is the starting point that is wrong. For if there is a fight, a race or a competition of any sort, the outcome cannot possibly be the equality which Hegel himself specifies as the condition for true recognition. Let us start from the beginning to see if any other outcome is possible. The fight and its consequences occur only because each seeks recognition without being prepared to concede recognition in return. If both not only desire recognition but are prepared to concede it too, then they do not need to fight in order to make the other work: they can, quite simply, work for each other. In other words, it seems that the condition for true social recognition is the abolition of all bosses so that work becomes the free activity of all.

          This appears to be what Marx was meaning when he wrote, 

Let us suppose that we had produced as human beings. In that event each of us would have doubly affirmed himself and his neighbour in his production. (1) In my production I would have objectified the specific character of my individuality and for that reason I would both have enjoyed the expression of my own individual life during my activity and also, in contemplating the object, I would experience an individual pleasure, I would experience my personality as an objective sensuously perceptible power beyond all shadow of doubt. (2) In your use or enjoyment of my product I would have the immediate satisfaction and knowledge that in my labour I had gratified a human need, i.e. that I had objectified human nature and hence had procured an object corresponding to the needs of another human being. (3) I would have acted for you as the mediator between you and the species, thus I would be acknowledged by you as the complement of your own being, as an essential part of yourself. I would thus know myself to be confirmed both in your thoughts and your love. (4) In the individual expression of my own life I would have brought about the immediate expression of your life; and so in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my authentic nature, my human, communal nature. Our productions would be as many mirrors from which our natures would shine forth. This relation would be mutual: what applies to me would also apply to you.49

It seems, then, that in the Master/Slave dialectic Hegel describes a process of social recognition which is defective in every way. And yet this is the way in which social recognition has been conceded and won throughout human history; in terms of this dialectic it is possible to understand why the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’50For, while the desire for recognition is basic to the human individual, the capacity to risk that individuality by recognising others can perhaps become universal only through a long process of historical development. It may be that the pseudo-dialectic has to be developed to its highest point in capitalist society, whose principle is the war of each against all, before it can be transcended by a communist dialectic of mutual recognition.

           The complexity and special significance of the working-class struggle can be explained within this framework. It is true that the history of capitalism has been one of the progressively growing strength and social weight of the proletariat. At the same time, capitalism has shown an immense capacity to incorporate and co-opt the gains of the working class and develop further on the new basis provided by them. This it could not do unless there existed within the working class itself some principle compatible with capitalist accumulation. The competitive fight resulting in relations of domination and subordination is not something which takes place only between capitalists and workers, or among capitalists; workers themselves seek recognition in this form, and to the extent that they do this, capitalist society can accommodate them. The wage-labour/capital relation in fact subsists on competition amongworkers, which enables capitalists to assert their arbitrary despotism unhindered and thus to increase surplus-value production to a maximum and reduce the value of labour-power correspondingly.

          Conversely, to the extent that workers combine and eliminate competition among themselves, to that extent they are able to erode the absolute domination of the capitalist class, reduce the rate of surplus-value, and thus surmount the laws of capitalist production.

           So, it is not a simple, straightforward fight with workers on this side, capitalists on that. Even more basic is the struggle within the working class itself between the two forms of recognition: recognition as competition and domination as against recognition as mutuality, as communism. Only to the extent that this fight is won is it possible to win the other fight against capital. This explains why the working class, unlike any other oppressed class in history, cannot simply overthrow one set of masters and substitute another. So long as workers try to do this, they inevitably lose; a few individuals may succeed in escaping from wage-slavery, but the rest will remain condemned to it. In other words, for workers, the struggle for social recognition can only succeed as a struggle for communism. Thus, central to the class struggle is a learning process whereby relations of competition and domination are overcome within the class and forms of combined opposition to the domination of capital are discovered.

           The struggle for communism, then, cannot be understood if it is seen as a struggle consciously aimed at the immediate and complete overthrow of the capitalist system. Such consciousness would, no doubt, have to be introduced into the class from the outside, and, even then, would not do much good because the question of how this overthrow is to be achieved remains unresolved. Rather, the workers’ struggle for recognition of their human worth and dignity is necessarily a struggle for values denied by capitalism. The success of this struggle thus erodes capitalist domination bit by bit; this is the way in which capitalism is overthrown in practice, in the course of a struggle which poses with progressively greater clarity aims which are in opposition to the basis of capitalist rule.

           This is the principle which governs the autonomous development of the working-class struggle. But the forms taken by that struggle, the phases it passes through, these are dependent also on capitalist production and its laws of development. A more concrete understanding of how the working-class struggle develops must therefore include its determination by capital and the capitalist process of production.

           The life of workers is structured by capital into what we might call the circuit of wage-labour: the sale of labour-power, its consumption in the production process, its reproduction, its sale once more and so on. In each phase of the circuit, and in the circuit as a whole, the human desires of the workers come into conflict with capitalist authority through which the production of surplus-value is ensured. This constitutes a framework within which the historical cycles of working-class struggle can be understood.

           1. Sale. Capital defines the wage-labourer as an individual commodity-owner dealing in the capacity to labour. The buyers of this commodity are the capitalists, so their interest lies in preserving a buyers’ market by maintaining competition between workers – especially since in this case not only the price but even the value of the commodity depends on this. It is only under conditions of unlimited competition amongst workers that the capitalists can, for the least payment, obtain the use of their labour-power for the longest time. Wage-labour is, for them, just like any other element of productive capital, despite its peculiar properties.

           For workers, the meaning of the wage is different. Their capacity to work, and ultimately their work itself, is exchanged for money: the universal equivalent, and, in capitalist society, the perverted but only accepted symbol of social recognition. Thus, the struggle to concede less work for more money is at bottom not simply a fight for subsistence, but rather for social recognition of the human value of the worker. And the gains of the struggle – living conditions and leisure time which enable workers to lead a more human existence – confirms the social value of the workers themselves as well as their work. If it were purely a matter of subsistence, the fight need not last for long; the capitalist class itself could be trusted to look after the animal needs of those who produce surplus-value for them.

           However, this struggle can be fought individually, and so long as this is done, it is possible for the bourgeoisie to push down wages and extend working hours to the maximum possible degree. It is only by combining that workers can hit at these two modes of surplus-value production. Thus, this fight is, at bottom, a fight over the right to combine, for once the right to combine is won, the fate of wages and the working day is already settled. This is why, until workers have proved beyond all doubt their determination and capacity to combine, the bourgeoisie employs all the repressive means at its disposal to prevent it. And even once this right is won and trade unions are formed, competition among workers in the selling of their labour-power persists in many forms: piece rates, wage differentials, rival unions, organised and unorganised, employed and unemployed, etc. Trade unions limit but do not abolish the competitive struggle for recognition, and so the fight which is internal to the working class as well as the struggle with the bourgeoisie continues. Success in this struggle means not only a weakening of capitalist authority, which thrives on the atomisation of the workers, but a drastic reduction in the rate of surplus-value due to a higher average level of wages and shorter working hours.

           2. Consumption. Having been bought by capital, labour-power becomes an element of productive capital, and as such enters into the capitalist production process where it is consumed, i.e. set to work. Having bought this commodity, the capitalist is entitled to do what he likes with it for a specified period of time – in other words, this is the sphere in which the arbitrary despotism of capital is most nakedly revealed. Surplus-value production and direct capitalist domination are here inseparably intertwined. Capitalist demands include the maximum speed of work, no opportunity for communication or meaningful social contact between workers, no breaks in production, and extreme simplification of tasks so that they can be performed with a mechanical efficiency. And all this implies the direct domination of capital to ensure that these conditions are met, for they clash sharply with the workers’ desire to work at a comfortable speed, avoid accidents and take occasional breaks, enjoy the expression of their individuality as well as a sense of collectivity during the work itself, and to be able to feel themselves objectified in the product.

           So, struggle is inherent in this phase of the circuit too; sometimes taking the form of open challenges to the shop-floor authority of capital, but often also taking more subterranean forms which may not easily be recognised as forms of struggle at all; sometimes involving a struggle to take control over work and working conditions, at others a withdrawal of effort. Success in the struggle strikes at capitalist authority in the workplace while at the same time cutting into the production of surplus-value. But here, too, success depends on the capacity to overcome competitive efforts to maintain hierarchies of skill and status amongst workers.

           3. Reproduction. Finally, having been sold and consumed, labour-power has to be reproduced before it can begin the circuit again, and replaced when it can no longer return. Unlike the previous phase of the circuit, this is a phase where the direct despotism of capital is least in evidence, and its very existence as a distinct phase is a result of the struggle for the abolition of child labour, shorter working hours and higher wages. It would seem, then, that in the family and the community workers have the maximum freedom to discover and develop communist relationships of mutual recognition, to find ways of expressing themselves in activities that truly exercise their capacities and in which they can feel they have objectified themselves. And this is true. Yet, paradoxically, the struggle for recognition in the form of competition and domination is apparent here too. In the working-class family the male worker gets a chance to be the boss, and one result is the compulsion on working-class women to perform domestic drudgery whose role in the reproduction of labour-power is not even socially recognised through monetary payment, thus contributing indirectly to the production of surplus-value. Another result is the habituation of working-class children to a hierarchical structure of authority which prepares them to fit into school and later the workplace. Within the wider working-class community, too, relationships of mutual recognition are interspersed with the alternative type.

           So, this phase is not, as it at first sight seems, a haven of refuge from the class struggle, but, on the contrary, a part of the arena where the battle rages as fiercely as ever. It is not surprising, therefore, that the capitalist class attempts in whatever ways it can to strengthen relationships within the working-class family and community which pose no threat to surplus-value production and put obstacles in the way of those which do. Successful working-class struggle in this phase of the circuit not only weakens the most deep-going foundation of capitalist authority, but also indirectly cuts into surplus-value production to the extent that it succeeds in reducing unpaid household labour.

           4. The Circuit as a Whole. These are the three phases of the circuit, and, regardless of which is taken as the point of departure, each is seen to be ridden with conflict. Likewise, the circuit as a whole, which not only subsumes the three phases but has characteristics of its own. The fight over the circuit as such is what is often called the political struggle’, but it is more accurate to see it as the struggle of the working class to combat the despotism of capital on a social scale and to determine social production as a whole. As in the workplace, so in society as a whole, workers are, for capital, nothing but an embodiment of labour-power which is either currently in use or is being kept in reserve. Therefore, the desire of workers to control their own lives and thus, by implication, also to shape the society of which they are the creative foundation, can be realised only through a continuous struggle. And this struggle, by its nature, is not a fight against this or that capital, this or that aspect of capitalism, but against capitalism as a whole. Hence even partial success, which merely curbs but does not destroy the despotic power of capital – e.g. the winning of the ‘battle for democracy’as the Communist Manifesto puts it – can have tremendous repercussions in terms of improving the position of the working class in all phases of the circuit. Over and above this, the capacity to determine social production even partially (e.g. by ensuring that various goods and services continue to be produced even if they are unprofitable) can by itself affect the rate of surplus-value. For, if this is taken as a socially average quantity, its magnitude is affected not only by individual rates of surplus-value but also by the way in which labour-power is socially allocated between different branches of production. The tendency of capital, undisturbed by external forces, is to distribute itself in such a manner as to ensure the highest possible average rate of surplus-value. Inasmuch as this distribution is disturbed, either through direct pressure from the workers, or through capitalist measures against the workers, the result will be a decline in the socially average rate of surplus-value.

           However, an effective counter-strategy which the bourgeoisie can undertake by means of the state is the maintenance of racial and national differences within the working class which results in the preservation of some sections of the international proletariat as a reserve of cheap, unorganised labour. Hence the final abolition of surplus-value altogether and control over social production as a whole can occur only when the working class has totally eliminated competition among its members on an international scale. Only then can the situation arise where, as Marx put it, everyone produces as a human being. But this requires complete mutual recognition of every individual’s human value within the working class, the overcoming of all social divisions within it, and this can only be a result of a long, historical learning process.

           Any concrete inquiry into the working-class struggle will thus have to take into account not only the desires, aspirations, which are the moving force of that struggle, but also the way in which the circuit of wage-labour, i.e. the determination of the working class by capital, shapes that struggle. And such an inquiry into the struggle over all phases of the circuit as well as the circuit in its totality will in turn reveal how the working-class struggle has shaped and is shaping capitalism, and how it will ultimately drive it out of existence altogether.

           But a question remains. It is quite evident that in all phases of the circuit as well as in the circuit as a whole, the working class has made tremendous gains in comparison with the total denial of its humanity which the bourgeoisie initially tried to establish. And yet capitalist accumulation has by no means come to a final halt as yet, nor dwindled to insignificant proportions. Why not?

           Firstly, throughout this period, the proletariat on a world scale has been in formation. Strata freshly drawn into the working class have often, although in a telescoped fashion, had to wage all over again the most elementary battles to limit the rate of exploitation. In the meantime, capital has been able to exploit their labour-power so as to obtain extremely high rates of surplus-value which have contributed to maintaining the average rate of profit. This source of surplus-value remains accessible to world capital so long asthe world proletariat is still in formation.

           Secondly, capital’s capacity to increase the rate of surplus-value depends as we have seen on the rate at which it can increase the social productivity of labour. And the social productivity of labour depends not only on technological advance but on the capacities of workers themselves. Thus, as the gains of the class struggle release, set free, develop, the capacities of the proletariat, so the social productivity of labour increases by leaps and bounds. Its advance is so rapid that even with a continuous improvement in living standards, shortening of the working day, reduction of unpaid household labour and redistribution of social labour-time in favour of the working class, it is still possible for sufficient surplus-value to be produced to keep up the rate of surplus-value and thus also the rate of profit.

           The consequence is that, even if initially a working-class struggle which is successful contributes to a capitalist crisis, so long as the wage-labour relation itself is not abolished, capital can adjust. And it does. Further, it can even take that gain as the presupposition for a further period of expansion on a completely restructured basis, using a different mode of surplus-value production, as happened when the working day was first shortened. It cannot then seek to abolish that gain without threatening itself, and so that particular victory of the working class becomes relatively securely established. But this also means that it no longer directly threatens capitalism, but has been adapted by capitalism for its own purposes.

           It would be wrong to conclude from this that the success was in fact of no advantage to the workers but only strengthened capital. To the extent that it extends the autonomy of the working class, undermines the authority of capital and limits the options open to it, it is a permanent gain. Yet unless the working class moves on to make new gains, it would be allowing capital to accumulate undisturbed on the new basis. For the proletariat, therefore, there is no chance to rest back on one’s laurels. Just as capital is repeatedly forced to revolutionise itself in response to the class struggle, so the proletariat, whether defeated or victorious, must repeatedly revolutionise its own struggles in order to fight a restructured capital.

           The class struggle, like capitalist accumulation, proceeds in cycles; but there is a long-term tendency underlying the cycles. And this tendency is the growing capacity of workers to determine their own lives, and hence also the society of which they are the creative basis. Capital, conversely, becomes increasingly marginal to the process of social reproduction as its grave is dug under its very feet. And this process of its decline and downfall, like the process of its birth and development, cannot be understood in isolation from the working-class struggle, the struggle for communism.

           Capital, therefore, can be adequately understood only from the standpoint of the proletariat and its struggle. Such an understanding of the past would be a working-class history of its own formation and the development of capitalism. As it relates to the present, it would be the results of a workers’ inquiry into the class struggle and capitalism today. As it relates to the future, it would be a clarification of the ultimate goals of the class struggle, of the nature of communism. All three moments are necessary. For the revolutionary programme, which anticipates the way in which the working-class struggle will bring about the breakdown and the realisation of communism, comes into being only when the present is ordered in terms of the future’ in such a way that the future makes its way into the present not in an immediate manner (the case of a utopia) but having been mediated by the past i.e. by an already accomplished action.’51 In the accomplishment of this task, capital and Marx’s study of it certainly have a crucial place; but they cannot constitute the point of departure and point of arrival without converting the study into a contemplative and scholastic one. That place can properly be taken only by capital’s active foundation, its general creative basis, the ground on which it stands: the working class.

Image: "Panel from Diego Rivera's mural at Unity House, depicting class struggle and labor conflict in industry. Included are representations of the Homestead and Pullman strikes. Important figures include Daniel De Leon, Eugene Victor Debs, and William Haywood" by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  • 1. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, tr. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books) 1976, p. 101. He is quoting a reviewer approvingly in the Postface to the second edition.
  • 2. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels, 2 April 1858.
  • 3. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels, 2 April 1858.
  • 4. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, tr. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books) 1973, p. 276.
  • 5. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels, 2 April 1858.
  • 6. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p. 276.
  • 7. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p. 276.
  • 8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, pp. 276–277.
  • 9. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p. 278.
  • 10. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p. 107.
  • 11. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels, 2 April 1858.
  • 12. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1976, p. 90.
  • 13. Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital, tr. Peter Burgess, (London: Pluto Press), 1977, pp. 53–54
  • 14. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels, 10 February 1866.
  • 15. Jindrich Zeleny, The Logic of Marx, tr. Terrell Carver (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield) 1980, p. 44.
  • 16. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p. 107.
  • 17. Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital, 1977, p. 39.
  • 18. G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, tr. A.V. Miller, (London: George Allen & Unwin) 1969, pp. 71, 72.
  • 19. Karl Marx, ‘Concerning Feuerbach,’ pp.421–423 of Early Writings (London: Penguin Books) 1975, No. I, p. 421.
  • 20. Karl Marx, ‘Concerning Feuerbach,’ pp. 421–423 of Early Writings, 1975, No. II, p. 422.
  • 21. G.W.F. Hegel, Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, tr. William Wallace, (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1975, p. 237.
  • 22. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 13, ‘The Law Itself’. (I was working with the Moscow edition, but in the Penguin edition (1981, tr. David Fernbach), this comes on p. 317.)
  • 23. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 14, ‘Counteracting Factors’. (In the Penguin edition, this comes on p. 343.)
  • 24. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15, ‘Development of the Law’s Internal Contradictions’. (In the Penguin edition, this comes on p. 355.)
  • 25. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1976, p. 753.
  • 26. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1976, p. 748.
  • 27. ???
  • 28. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 23, 1863, (Moscow edition).
  • 29. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, 1863, Chapter 23.
  • 30. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, 1863, Chapter 23.
  • 31. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, pp. 753–754.
  • 32. Mario Cogoy, ‘The fall of the rate of profit and the theory of accumulation: A reply to Paul Sweezy,’ Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists, Winter 1973, pp. 52–67. p.58.
  • 33. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15, ‘Development of the Law’s Internal Contradictions’. (In the Penguin edition, this comes on p. 356).
  • 34. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1976, p. 763.
  • 35. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 2, ‘The Rate of Profit’. (In the Penguin edition, this comes on p. 138.)
  • 36. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15, ‘Development of the Law’s Internal Contradictions’. (In the Penguin edition, this comes on p. 349.)
  • 37. Henryk Grossmann, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises (abridged and translated by Jairus Banaji for the Platform Reproduction Series in 1979; in the version later published by Pluto Press in 1992, this comes on p. 74.)
  • 38. Henryk Grossmann, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises 1979; in the Pluto Press version, this comes on p. 101.
  • 39. Rudi Schmiede, 1973??
  • 40. Henryk Grossmann, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises 1979; in the Pluto Press version, this comes on p. 69.
  • 41. Rudi Schmiede, 1973??
  • 42. Ben Fine and Laurence Harris, ‘Controversial Issues in Marxist Economic Theory,’ The Socialist Register, 1976, pp. 141–178. pp. 162–163.
  • 43. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1976, pp. 533–534.
  • 44. Henryk Grossmann, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises 1979; in the Pluto Press version, this comes on pp. 56–57.
  • 45. Anton Pannekoek, ‘The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism,’ tr. Adam Buick, Capital and Class, Spring 1977. (Originally published 1934.)
  • 46. Paul Mattick, ‘Value Theory and Capital Accumulation,’ Science and Society, Vol. 23, No.1, Winter 1959, pp. 27–51.
  • 47. G.W.F Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, tr. J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row) 1966, p. 239.
  • 48. G.W.F Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, 1966, p. 236.
  • 49. Karl Marx, ‘Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy, tr. Rodney Livingstone, pp.259–278 of Early Writings (London: Penguin Books) 1975, pp. 277–278.
  • 50. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.
  • 51. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. James H. Nichols Jr. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press) 1969, p. 137, n.25.