A study of "Wage-Labor and Capital" of Karl Marx

What is Marxism for working class

I Marx exposed the essence of capitalist society

II  Workers are chained to capital by wage

Japanese Korean

Break up the chain of wage slavery – a study of “Wage-Labor and Capital” of Karl Marx


The struggle of working class attains a decisive power when it theoretically grasps the root of capitalist society. What is then capitalist society? Marxism has given a definite answer to this problem. The task of reviving militant labor movement is, therefore, necessarily linked with the struggle of taking back Marxism in the hand of working class. As Stalinists have since long distorted Marxism into a quite different form from what it really is, it is our urgent task to reclaim Marxism as thought of working class, smashing off all sort of deformation forced upon Marxism for a long period.

As one of the efforts to achieve this task, we are publishing here an English translation of an article titled, Break up the chain of wage slavery – a study of “Wage-Labor and Capital” of Karl Marx (author: HATADA Osamu) appeared on The Communist (quarterly review of Japan Revolutionary Communist League) No. 159, January 2009.

It will be published in four successive parts in a partly abridged form – the editor

Break up the chain of wage slavery

A Study of Wage-Labor and Capital of Karl Marx

Marx exposed the essence of capitalist society

(1) Worldwide economic crisis heralds an age of revolution

Current financial crisis starting from the US has expanded all over the world and now the whole sector of industry is involved in a great economic crisis. World domination of imperialism has been driven into an unprecedented catastrophe. It is the most serious and fatal crisis of capitalism in its 300 years’ history. Workers of the world are responding to this situation by rising up for a struggle with a slogan, “We must live”. Revolutionary situation is ripening.

Greenspan, former chairperson of FBR confessed that it was “a once-in-a-century” crisis. He failed to realize, however, the true character and graveness of the present crisis. The reality is the life of capitalism is finished. There is no way of survival for capitalism any further. Only thing left for us is to give a final blow to capitalism by the hands of proletariat.

The time has come for working class to be invigorated and rise up determined for revolutionary action. Since the historical start of capitalist system, how much blood of workers was shed the world over in the fight against capitalists and their state power? A huge number of working people struggled for emancipation from poverty, starvation and oppression of every kind. Now is the time for them all to achieve a final victory of the struggle. It is absolutely urgent for working class and labor unions to gain a precise perception of our times as revolutionary moment and stand in front of the struggle of all suppressed people and nations with a banner on which we put the words, “Overthrow imperialism, capitalism, the basis of all exploitation and oppression ”.

(2) Stand up in mounting anger!

Practice of neo-liberal policy has revealed the fundamental principle of capitalism in its naked form. Neo-liberalism was a desperate attempt of imperialists to overcome the crisis of capitalist system by means of mounting fierce attacks on working class. In the name of ‘market principle’, deregulation was enforced to get rid of legislative restrictions for limitless pursuit of capitalist profit. As a result, exploitation of workers was excessively strengthened: wage cut, restructuring, expansion of irregular employment, intensified labor etc. occurred one after another in work place. Social security system has been dismantled, higher taxes imposed on workers and high-interest housing loan robbing workers of their money.

What has neo-liberal agenda brought about to working class of the world? Mass unemployment, widespread working poor, poverty and starvation have become universal. Health and life of workers are destroyed, causing collapse of family. Nature is devastated. All sort of community, or human bondage and relationship are torn apart. In a word, as an outcome, terrible degradation of society into unbearable conditions in which no human life is possible. Finally, world financial crisis broke out, causing corporate bankruptcy, mass discharge, higher taxes and war. Bourgeoisie is shamelessly attempting to survive the crisis at the sacrifices of working people.

It’s impermissible for us. Anger of workers are now boiling up everywhere in the world. Struggle of workers is inevitably driving imperialist economy more and more in corner and hastening the death agony of capitalism.

We, workers are no slaves of capitalist class! Why should we let them do what they want and trample over us at their will? Let’s rise up now full of anger against them!

Are we, working people, destined to be out of job or be killed in war only for the pursuit of corporate profit? Are we, working people, allowed to live as long as capitalists want us to? Absolutely no! We are enough with such a life to work as profit-making tool of capitalist class, in which we are completely at their disposal and are eventually thrown out on the street.

“You, capitalist class, don’t know what we really are! We shall dig graves for you!” Manifesto of the Communist Party and Wage-Labor and Capital declared so and this declaration is now being materialized in a large scale across the world.

(3) Let’s revive the principles and fundamentals of labor movement

“Moneymaking is everything” “It’s a competitive society”—these are principles of neo-liberalism. We, working class, stand in a diametrical opposition against it with different principles of our own. Our principles are: “unity” “It is workers that are running society” “alone for all and all for one” “We don’t allow any dismissal or persecution of a single fellow worker” (to put in another way: “An injury to one is an injury to all”). These are the fundamental principles of labor movement and constitute the essential core of socialism.

But corrupt and establishment-friendly labor leaders have abandoned these principles of labor movement and have been cooperating with capitalists as spearhead of their attacks on working class through enforcing restructuring and wage cuts. Full-scale offensive of neo-liberalism for these 20 years could not be carried out without overall concession and surrender of existing labor leadership to the stormy assault of ruling class. If we don’t kick out those labor bosses once for all, we, workers can’t live.

Working class is basically incompatible with neo-liberalism. The antagonism is fundamental. Workers have immense power to fight back against cruel attack of capitalist class and they are conscious and proud of their own power. Labor union as a whole can be a militant organization when its activities are based upon full confidence of its rank and file members and carries out its fight uncompromisingly against capital. Doro-Chiba (National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba) has proved this through its long-years practice. It’s essential to learn lessons from experiences of Doro-Chiba in order to revive militant labor unions all over Japan. With this urgent task before us, we are going to study Wage-Labor and Capital of Karl Marx.

(4) It’s imperative to share the brave soul of Karl Marx

Marx expressed his violent indignation against capitalism and his passionate aspiration for proletarian revolution in his two works: Wage-Labor and Capital, (published in 1949 on the journal, Die Rheinische Zeitung) and Manifesto of Communist Party in the preceding year. We perceive in these writings angry voices of working class and bold declaration of workers’ fight against ruling class. These two documents call on us to share their brave and defiant heart.

Wage-Labor and Capital is based upon the lectures Marx gave in the meetings of the German Workers Association in Brussels in December 1947. Immediately after that he joined the first proletarian uprising in February Revolution in 1848 and fought against police repression after its defeat in the midst of poverty.

Marx summarized the whole experiences of 1848 revolution in the preliminary of Wage-Labor and Capital as follows:

We proved that every revolutionary uprising, however remote from the class struggle its object might appear, must of necessity fail until the revolutionary working class shall have conquered; – that every social reform must remain a Utopia until the proletarian revolution and the feudalistic counter-revolution have been pitted against each other in a world-wide war.

What an aggressive and confident statement! Even though defeated, he drew a conclusion to prove a true nature of class struggle that knows no halfway solution but inevitably leads to final victory of proletarian revolution. Next time we shall win. That was his audacious answer to the severe situation. Let’s be daring and militant with Marx!

Marx goes further:
But now, after our readers have seen the class struggle of the year 1848 develop into colossal political proportions, it is time to examine more closely the economic conditions themselves upon which is founded the existence of the capitalist class and its class rule, as well as the slavery of the workers.

Thus he puts in a very simple way the central theme of his lecture on Wage-Labor and Capital. It’s all for a victory of coming revolutionary world-wide war that he tried to explain the material basis of working-class slavery and of ruling power of bourgeoisie together with the relation between those antagonistic camps. It would surely clarify the strength and weakness of both of the two camps, working class and capitalist class.

(5) Struggle against establishment-friendly reformists

Marx fought, as we do today, against political and social forces that tried to confine workers’ struggle within the established social order. That is why we have a lot of lessons to learn from his struggle against those forces in theoretical field.

Among others, confrontation with Proudhon, a typical petit-bourgeois reformist, was crucial for him. While criticizing private property and inequality of distribution in capitalist society and advocating “people’s bank”, Proudhon took a hostile position to proletarian class struggle. He never recognized self-liberation of working class. He regarded workers to be saved.

After all, what Proudhon insisted was to achieve equality of human beings without touching the social basis of capitalism. Marx, therefore, criticized him, saying, “The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom.” Marx thus called Proudhon “socialistic bourgeois”

Marx’s criticism of Proudhon has a significant implication to today’s problem because every age has its own Proudhon, a symbolic character that pretends to criticize capitalist society without touching its very basis. Japan Communist Party, a Stalinist party, for example, is one of them. SHII Kazuo, president of JCP, argues, “Speculation money is to be blamed. Our task is to establish a capitalist society that observe rules to control arbitrary money flow” “We are not opposed to a sound capitalist society that makes ordinary investment, produce commodities and earn normal profit” “Management should run a company with respect to the rights of workers” and concludes, “We are not so hasty to advance to socialism immediately” How he sounds like Proudhon! Shii doesn’t at all refer to the labor-capital relationship. He looks down working class as powerless force from the standpoint of capitalist class.

We want to ask Shii what signifies his definition of “sound” capitalism whose principle is nevertheless exploitation of workers whether it’s sound or not. It’s quite an anti-labor statement. JCP intends to rescue moribund capitalism in corruption and decay instead of hastening its downfall.

Those reactionary social forces such as Stalinist Party, labor aristocrats of Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), social democrats and petit-bourgeois scholars, all these forces belonging to establishment, don’t dare to think of collapse of capitalism. For them it should not happen by all means. They are all afraid of ruin of capitalism. For us working class collapse of capitalism means an end of a social system based on slavery in a form of wage labor and a begin of a new age in which working class takes full charge of a society and makes a new history of human beings. Those forces, however, know only to cling to dying capitalism. Only proletariat can open up a new age.

(6) Marx exposed the secret of capitalist exploitation

Economists of Marx’s times named profit, rent and wage as “three sources of revenue” and explained that capitalists, landowners and workers shared the gains of production among them according to their contribution to the production. They insisted also that workers were poor because they got too many children and that birth control were to be practiced. Marx rebuked them, arguing that capitalists and landowners were exploiting workers and that there were no real freedom and equality in capitalist society which was in its essence a class society like societies based on open slavery. He proved his argument by mentioning incessant struggles of workers against capitalists through riots and strikes to which he expressed his full support.

Marx further indicated that wage system was the key to reveal the secret of capitalist exploitation. Workers are chained to capitalists by wage (system) that conceals the class character of exploitation.

No one but Marx brought to light the structure of exploitation. Other economists failed to do this. Even today notorious economists, among whom there are many Nobel Prize winners, have long fabricated “economics” to defend the interest of capitalists and to conceal capitalist exploitation. Who among them could have foretold the economic crisis today? Only proletariat armed with Marxist theory can elucidate the movement of capital and its historical limit.

All through the 300 years’ history of capitalism proletariat has been fighting against bourgeoisie. The struggle didn’t ceased even for a single moment. To fight or to die? There was no other alternative. Even slaves took arms against slave masters to refuse to die. As long as wage slavery continues, working class would be fighting until chain of slavery is broken up.

It is crucial to fight mercilessly and uncompromisingly against bourgeois ideology that is infused into workers to disarm them with an aim of defending capitalist interest and concealing exploitation. We have a theoretical weapon to defeat bourgeois ideology. That is Marxism. Marxism is a theory and thought of workers because it is a genuine science to expose the true character of class society.

Brother NAKANO Hiroshi, former president of Doro-Chiba, writes in his book, Revival of Labor Union as follows:

“Marx alone recognized workers as workers. Only Marx declared that workers are running the whole society and that they are the only class who has power to change the society. In my opinion, therefore, there is no reason why workers hesitate to be Marxist. All workers should naturally become Marxist”

We, workers, need to arm ourselves with Marxism because we must grasp revolutionary opportunity and win revolution. Let’s forge up Marxism to be an effective and powerful weapon of all fighting workers.


II  Workers are chained to capital by wage

 (1) What is wage system?

   In capitalist society workers live on wage, which they receive from capitalists in exchange for their work. Without wage, they can’t live. It’s their living condition.
 In his Wage Labor and Capital, Marx begins with a question: what is wage and what is wageworker.
Then he proceeds to the problem closely connected with it: what is capital.
  In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, he wrote on wageworker as below.

“The proletariat, the modern working class--- a class of labourers--- live only so long as they find work, and --- find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”  On the same theme he put it later in Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) as follows:
“The wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence—that is, to live, only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist…”
… consequently, the system of wage labor is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery, which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labor develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.

 Marx’s conclusion is: the system of wage labor is a system of slavery. While in the ancient society based on slavery, salves were bound personally and physically to slave owners by chain and whip, in the modern society proletariat is free person in an equal position with capitalists under the law. But in reality, they are as wageworkers bound to capitalist class by a chain in the form of wage.

“The worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labour-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.” ” (Wage Labor and Capital)

 Marx stresses that wage is playing a more dominant role as chain to bind workers than violent apparatus of state power such as prisons, police, army etc. He continues:

“A worker gets permission to work, that is, to live, only when he performs forced labor for capitalists. All labor one must perform gratis for other person is from their nature forced labor. It indicates that this person is subordinated to another single person or to a certain class to which another person belongs. In fact he is a slave and not a free person.” (Capital and Labor - Introduction of the Capital of Karl Marx, Johan Most) 

(2) Wage is not “value or share of labor” in spite of its appearance

  Wages seem to be paid as share of labor according to the hours of labor: For example, 8 hours’ labor receives corresponding amount of wage for 8 hours. As amount of wage depends upon the hours of labor, wage takes an appearance of being paid as share of the whole labor a worker performs. In reality, capitalists and workers don’t share the products of labor. Wage is value of commodity that is purchased in the market as necessary element for producing merchandise just like materials for production. It is defined as “value of labor-power commodity”

 “With a part of his existing wealth, of his capital, the capitalist buys the labour-power of the weaver in exactly the same manner as, with another part of his wealth, he has bought the raw material – the yarn – and the instrument of labour – the loom. After he has made these purchases, and among them belongs the labour-power necessary to the production of the cloth he produces only with raw materials and instruments of labour belonging to him. For our good weaver, too, is one of the instruments of labour, and being in this respect on a par with the loom, he has no more shares in the product (the cloth), or in the price of the product, than the loom itself has.
Wages, therefore, are not a share of the worker in the commodities produced by himself. Wages are that part of already existing commodities with which the capitalist buys a certain amount of productive labour-power.” (Wage Labor and Capital)

 (3) What is the ‘value of labor- power commodity’?

 Then, what does it mean in concrete term when we define that “wage is the value of labor-power commodity”? Fundamental point is that wage is the minimum cost of living to sustain workers’ bare existence. Capitalists pay workers only an amount of values enough to let workers live. That is the essence of wage. Therefore, wage has nothing to do with the whole amount of the values, produced by workers. Wage is predetermined like cost of materials. In exchange of wage, means of sustaining workers’ subsistence, capitalists make workers work to the full extent within a day and thus exploit from them surplus labor. This hardly differs from the way in which slave owners make profit out of slaves through forcing them to work the whole day, giving them only a minimum amount of foodstuff.

   Manifesto of the Communist Party describes the issue as follows:
“The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.”

 Apparently, profit (capitalists’ gain) and wage (workers’ gain) stand opposed to each other. If workers don’t fight for necessary amount of wage, capitalists don’t pay even the amount corresponding to the value of labor-power commodity. Therefore, wage struggle is crucial for workers to live. Nevertheless even when the wage gets a little higher, nothing changes fundamentally as far as wage remains as minimum living cost to sustain workers’ subsistence. We are now witnessing before our eyes that poverty, starvation and working poor have spread all over the world while corporate profit skyrocketed.

 (4) How exploitation is concealed

  Let us assume that a worker makes a contract to work in a factory for 8 hours a day in exchange for a certain amount of wage. What happens actually is: the wage (the value of labor-power commodity) worker receives correspond only a part of the value his labor produces in 8 hours’ labor and the rest of the value produced by him belongs to capital. Concretely, for example, 4 hours for him and 4 hours for capital. He thus works for 4 hours gratis for the benefit of capital. The wage conceals this relation, pretending to be paying for 8 hours’ labor in a form of reward.      
 Consequently, under wage system, the essence of wage labor as forced labor and subjugation of workers to capitalists vanish completely.
 A comparison with the slavery in the ancient society and the serfdom in the feudal society in the middle age will help make the matter clear. In a slavery society, all of what slaves produced was taken away by their owners and a small portion out of it was given to slaves as feed to sustain their bare existence. Therefore, in slavery, even the part of labor which salves work for their own feed (food) appeared as unpaid labor. In serfdom, there was a clear distinction between the hours serfs work for themselves and the hours they work for landlords. For example, three day in a week, serfs worked in their own field for themselves and other three days worked gratis under compulsion in the field of the landlords.
 In contrast, in capitalist society, unpaid labor is concealed by wage system and all labor seems to be fully paid. But it is only pretence. In reality, workers are forced to work for capitalists and they are exploited. Their surplus labor is taken by capitalists. There is no substantial difference between the labor of a serf who works three days for him and three day for his landlord and the labor of a worker who works four hours for himself and four hours for capital in a factory.

 (5) The essence of capital is concealed in various forms

 As we have clarified, the essence of wage is exploitation of surplus labor. Capitalists, however, pretend that wage is a reward for workers’ labor and that their share will increase according to the amount of their labor. They thus compel workers to work harder in their forced labor. For that purpose, various forms of payment have been developed ingeniously by capitalists: hourly wage, payment by the job, overtime allowance, payment by the results, etc. In spite of the up and down of wage according to the different forms of payment, nothing changes in the essence of wage: an amount of value just enough to produce and reproduce bare subsistence of a worker.

“Does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital.” (Manifesto of the  Communist Party)

 It is evident workers can’t make property. They can’t even own their house unless they borrow heavily. When fired affected by serious economic crisis, they are thrown out of house, unable to pay back loan.

“We have thus seen that even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion.” (Wage Labor and Capital).

  Wage system serves, further, as an effective tool of capitalists to break up workers’ unity. “Crab-canning boat” (1929), a pre-war proletarian novel of KOBAYASHI Takiji, describes the labor and life of workers who are forced to pit against each other in their working groups of canning. In their forced competition, winners were rewarded with prize for and losers were cruelly punishment. This illustrates the essence of differential wage system of today.

(6) Alienated labor

In capitalist society workers have no choice but to work as wageworker. Under wage system workers are not only exploited their surplus labor but their everyday life outside the factory as well as their whole life for years are determined by capital. They suffer from distortion of human way of living.    
  Labor power is treated as commodity, in other words, as an object of selling and buying. It means that workers, whom labor power belongs, are regarded not as human being but as one who performs labor, just like slaves in the ancient society were regarded only as tools of production. Labor-power commodity is “a peculiar commodity, which has no other repository than human flesh and blood” (Wage Labor and Capital) For capitalists, workers’ body means only a ‘repository of labor-power commodity’. Workers are for capitalists no person with individual character with certain names. What capitalists expect from workers is to behave as obedient labor force. A worker is easily replaced by another worker when he can’t work any longer because of workplace accidents or excessive overwork. Thus wageworkers slightly differ form slaves.
Labor essentially occupies a central position of life activity of human being and is an active expression of workers’ own life. Through working together with other people, human being establishes relationship between each other, develops creative powers and shapes promising future. This is the essence of human labor. In capitalist society, however, workers are forced to deliver their own cardinal life activity to capitalists in order to earn a living. In their workplace, workers are put under control and supervision of capitalists and forced to work according to their direction like a robot. They must suffer a lot of nasty experiences and even humiliation in need of earning living. They are often pitted against each other in a competition in workplace. Their labor is completely alienated.  

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him…
Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. …they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

  Thus their labor is a sacrifice of their lives, far from being an active expression of their life activity. They don’t count their working hours as a part of their own life. Their real life begins only after the labor is finished “at the table, at the tavern, seat, in bed” (Wage Labor and Capital)

(7) Even individual life becomes appendage of capital

 As the labor is alienated, the life after the labor is far from being humane. Workers, who are exhausted through their alienated labor in workplace, come home late at night only to sleep. Thus the whole life of workers, not only in workplace but also at home, is nothing but ‘process of reproduction of labor-power commodity.

“Even the consumption of individual worker constitutes a part of production and reproduction of capital as far as it helps maintain labor power active just as machines are maintained by oiling and cleaning etc. Workers must consume personally in order to work and it is all for the benefit of capital, just like pack animals eat for the benefit of their owners. 
 Consequently, from the social viewpoint, even when workers stand outside direct labor process, they remain appendage of capitals just like lifeless working tools. While Roman slaves were bound to the slave owners by chain, wageworkers are bound to their owners by invisible thread.” (idem, Most)

(8) Freedom is suppressed and human life is devastated

 There is no possibility to fully develop human ability or genuine sense of community if competition incessantly drives people to confront each other and fear of being fired prevails in a society. Only when workers kick out capitalists and their subordinates once and for all, they will be able to work actively, creatively and for themselves, unfolding their suppressed potential ability to full extent.
  Capitalist society devastates and destroys human being, nature and resources. It’s quite absurd capitalists pretend that capitalism is a rational system. Did they forget that two world wars had killed 180 million people only in the first half of the last century and now wars are still going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking lives of huge number of working people. How could a society, which causes such a large-scale massacre unprecedented in the human history, be called a rational system? How could capitalist production, which is subject to arbitrary movements of individual capitals seeking its own, profit and in which a large-scale devastation of human being, nature and resources is taking place, be a rational system? Stingy capitalists, who are so eager in reducing cost of production on every occasion, are so extravagant in devouring human lives in heavy works and spending a large sum of money in wars of aggression. 

(9) Wage system should be abolished

  Are we workers destined to be at disposal of capitalist class and be driven to death by backbreaking labor? Can we tolerate ourselves to be treated like plastic bottles that are thrown out on the street when they are out of use? No, absolutely no! A life of human being couldn’t be such a miserable one. We could open up an endless possibility of human development in a creative, original and fertile way. Relations between people could be a rejoicing cooperation for a common purpose and significant opportunity of mutual spiritual exchange. The opposite is the reality of capitalist society based on uncompromising class antagonism, in which the wealth of the whole society is concentrated in a hand of small number of capitalist class who exploit surplus labor of working class. It’s an inverted, upside-down society.
  It is capitalist class that suppresses workers and exploits them. Workers must overthrow capitalist rule in order to liberate themselves.

“All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it”. (Manifesto of the Communist Party)