Wage Labour & Capital
This course was done in New York!
Prof Joe Harris of New York is our John the Baptist. He has gone before. This course was designed last year in South Africa and it was blogged last year through the Communist University. But Professor Harris was the first one to teach a face-to-face course based on this particular (Communist University) scheme.
Having done it, and successfully so, Prof Harris’s advice was to drop all of the precursor texts, which is to say the ones written during the two decades prior to the publication of Capital Volume 1 in 1867, except for the Communist Manifesto, which, Harris says, “shows Marx's outlook and main conclusions, and that is what is most useful before reading Capital”.
We will take Prof Harris’s advice and drop one of the four previously-scheduled precursor texts, namely “The Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy” (1859). This is a brilliant work but it does not fit in here. Let us note that there are other “precursor” texts in existence including the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” of 1844 and the enormous “Grundrisse” (“building plans”) of 1857. It is enough for now that you know that these preliminary works exist, and that “Capital” Volume 1 was not an isolated piece of work in Karl Marx’s life.
We will retain the other three “precursors”: Wage Labour and Capital (1847); The Communist Manifesto (1848); and Value, Price and Profit (1865), while noting what Joseph Harris says: “nothing really prepares students for Chapters 1-3 [of Capital Volume 1]”.
In these openings, and in light of Prof Harris’s feedback, we will include a little more explanation of why we spend time on these texts. It is because they provide a key to unlock the pattern and the trajectory of the main work. Among other things, they show that Karl Marx was consistently, and in due course successfully, on the hunt for Surplus Value. They also show that the great “Capital” was not a work in isolation, but is the culmination and summary of a lot of previous work.
“Wage Labour and Capital” and the hunt for Surplus Value
Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 is a great work of literature and it contains many things. But more than any other thing it is about Surplus Value. This work “Wage Labour and Capital”, and especially Engels’ remarks about it, demonstrate that in 1847, Karl Marx was not able to explain Surplus Value in terms of commodity Labour Power as distinct from Labour itself.
“Wage Labour and Capital” was given as a lecture to the German Workingmen's Club of Brussels (Belgium) in 1847. Karl Marx had clearly not yet begun, at that stage, to make a clear distinction between the act of Labour and its prior potential, called Labour-Power. The latter is the commodity that the worker sells each day to the capitalist in exchange for the privilege of staying alive.
The capitalist makes the worker work and takes all the product of the worker’s Labour, giving back only just enough for the worker to survive as commodity Labour Power and to be up for sale again on the next working day.
This is the reason for Frederick Engels’ apologetic 5-page 1891 Introduction to the present (linked below) edition of “Wage Labour and Capital”. This is the reason why Karl Marx had to press on for another 20 years until Capital Volume 1 was published in 1867, and beyond.
Hence the main thing to read here, for the purposes of our series, is Engels’ Introduction. It is the reason for including this text in the series. It provides our starting point and it defines the theme which will serve us throughout all the parts of this series.
It is not strictly necessary for you to go on and read the text of “Wage Labour and Capital”, but if you do so, then please remember that this is not Marx’s original version. It is the one doctored by Engels, as he confesses in his Introduction.
The distinction between Labour and Labour-Power is the necessary basis upon which an understanding of Surplus Value can be built, and Surplus Value is the key to the whole project that Marx worked on for about forty years from at latest 1844 until his death in 1883.
Said Engels: “Classical political economy had run itself into a blind alley. The man who discovered the way out of this blind alley was Karl Marx.” In hindsight, this is true, but in 1847 it was not yet fully true. Engels’ Introduction to “Wage Labour and Capital” reveals Karl Marx’s quest. From this point on in this series, side-by-side with Marx, we are going in search of the mysterious beast called “Surplus Value” and all of its implications.
To sum up: Labour-Power is what you bring to your employer’s front gate in the morning. The employer normally pays you for it, in full (as Marx points out in “Value, Price and Profit”). After that, the entire product of any Labour you may do during the working day belongs to the employer.
“The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people's unpaid labour” wrote Marx, later, in Capital, Volume 1 (Chapter 18).