The Historical and Transitory Character of Wage Labour

Translated from the BC original from the Italian section of the site

Why are we dedicating an article solely to "wage-labour"? We do so because the capitalist system in its entirety relies upon it, because its existence is a presupposed and necessary condition for capitalism’s operational functioning and its continuous reproduction. Just how important is this operation and reproduction, in the light of the facts, for the real development of society as a whole (and not just for itself) we leave it to for you to judge, in the light of the ample evidence that - crisis or no crisis - we are witnessing the constant degradation of the world’s environment and the physical and psychological health of human beings, the waste and methodical destruction of resources, lives, health and environment. It is more than obvious that capitalism has to be recognised as a historically progressive form when compared to any previous system of production and social organisation. The question is, however, of a very different nature, one which we will try to answer painstakingly: does capitalism still retain this progressive capability or did it exhausted its progressive dynamism some time ago, thereby denying humanity a single step forward in its concrete, real and overall development? And therefore, is it possible - as we believe – that a different social organisation can overcome this impasse through further development? And in any case, what is meant by development? What are its new criteria? And what are the current features to be totally abolished? We believe that paid work is the first of these.

For those content to remain submerged in the blissful and fascinating world of commodities - the most sophisticated, trendy and cutting-edge technology that capitalism is certainly capable of churning out - but who remain absolutely indifferent to the social cost that we have to pay to use it, let’s bear in mind that the progress achieved depends on the capacity and technology we have today. However it does not belong to us collectively as a society, while the social cost depends on their capitalist management and the only objective that this management pursues: to valorise capital, to make profits they would say. They don't aim to satisfy needs except in a fictional or partial manner subsidairy to their primary objective; via the only means through which capitalism know to make a profit; by selling commodities.

So let’s remind them that a more rational and planned social collective management of production and distribution of this enormous production potential is not only possible but can only raise that level of well-being, which, we repeat, is not the same as consumerism as an end of in itself, as it is understood today; extending it, generalising it, rationalising it, changing certain essential features, starting at eliminating abnormal, unnecessary waste and harm to the environment and health that capitalism, rather than eradicating, has increased and aggravated since its inception. Over two centuries of capitalist reality have amply demonstrated that.

Also light years away from our perspective is the dumbed-down idea which is so fashionable today, of a dream of a return to an idyllic and unrealistic “small is beautiful” society, the little old village, as well as a speculation about some nostalgic national self-sufficiency. But we shall say more about this later.

The "fair wage"?!

  • Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work! " , Workers should inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."

(Marx , Wages, Price and Profit , 1865)*

Who determines in fact, if not the boss, what constitutes a "fair wage" and a "fair day's work"?!

Both Marx and Engels, in their works of popular character, simply explained very clearly that:

Capitalism maintains and will always maintain its domination over the workers as long as it is able to convince them that the organisation of labour based on the wage-labour system cannot be changed .

Or, in other words, it would be the only possible practically feasible, natural, organisation. The slogans of "fair wages", "better organisation of work", "the fight against monopolies", "planning of production under capitalism" and so on are an expression of this deception and Marx and Engels always fought and denounced them as acceptable only for very short periods (i.e. as in the immediate demands of economic struggle), but that they should never tarnish the basic slogan of the modern proletariat(1): "Down with wage-labour"! A particular organisation of production and reproduction of society is a historical phenomenon, and therefore not at all "natural" or "inevitable" or "immutable". In fact every ruling class has a vested interest to have it believed to maintain the own status quo of their dominion: so it was for the ancient Roman nobility vis a vis slave labour, so it was for the feudal aristocracy with respect to the work of the serf, so it is for the bourgeoisie with respect to wage labour.

The historic nature of modes of social production is shown by the whole of historical development, since the appearance of the division of society into classes and their changing forms. This development can be said (schematising and referring in particular to the West, relative to the first three periods ) to be characterised by four key historical periods :

• slavery

• feudalism

• capitalism

• communism (never yet attained )

In the first period (slavery), the employee's remuneration (which is not a wage) is administered directly by the owner of slaves through the cost of accommodation, food and service. There is no money relationship and both the worker - slave as well as everything produced belong to the class of owners.

In the second period (feudalism), the serf partially appropriated the product of his work, while a substantial part went to the Lords (lay or clergy) in the form of forced labour (free work days), tributes of a various nature and, to the Church, the tithe (i.e. one tenth of the harvest).

In the third period (capitalism) the workers - once dispossessed of the means of production previously at their disposal (land use, possession of tools, etc.) - are therefore forced to sell their working time (working day) for monetary compensation ( salary), all the product of social labour ends up in the warehouses and shops of the propertied class (capitalists ) from which the employee takes precisely the quantities represented by the above-mentioned salaries, i.e. corresponding to their so-called purchasing power.

In the fourth period (Communism) - After a much-needed transition (socialism) - the manufacturing process, the stores and shops are administered by the producers themselves (the workers), which determine the mode of production (what it is necessary to produce and in what quantity) and distribution (to each according to his needs). This phase, in which the abolition of wage labour, of commodities in general, is associated with a very high level of productive forces (i.e. science, technology etc.) which are no longer subservient to the rule of capital, and therefore qualitatively different from those of the previous era. The products, designed to meet human needs while respecting environmental compatibility (not capitalist compatibility!) will then be abundant for all, although their use will have nothing to do with the dull and obsessive consumerism that capital imposes (if we have the money to consume...). In addition, work changes its character from forced to voluntary. According to Marx, it is the "free manifestation of one’s own individuality".

Already today, in capitalist society, some "socialist forms" have penetrated and become the current way of life. Here are some examples. Today, two employees with equal pay for pay equal contributions , but the one with poor health will receive much more medical care and medicines than the other (who is healthy), just as someone who has more dependent children receives more, or someone who - sadly - broke a leg. The same applies to the Post Office, when you pay the same rate for a distance of 100 metres as one of 1,000 km. And we all recognise that this "unequal" distribution is "the correct one " . Marx and Engels always said - and history has served to prove - that the effort that the working class has to make to get a wage increase (and, having lost it again, to regain it) is the same as it would take to eliminate the system of wage labour. Only this elimination would, in fact, allow the generalisation and thus the full affirmation of the socialist forms of production and distribution of socially produced wealth, and a more rational social organisation, free from all forms of exploitation, waste, destruction of human and environmental resources which are caused by capitalist profiteering.


(1) But who are the "working class"? All those who own only their labour-power, and who therefore, in order to live, are forced to sell it, if and when they are able.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Relevant, 1] Karl Marx, Workers Questionnaire, drawn up in the first half of April 1880, and 2] Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers Partty, printed L'Egalite, June 30, 1880.

Possibly but would you like to explain how?

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