It is therefore a consequence of this iron and cruel law that you – and that is why I have called you the class of the disinherited in my workers' brochure,* to which you refer in your letter – are necessarily excluded even from the increase in productivity resulting from the progress of civilization, i.e., from the increased output of labor, from the increased output capacity of your own labor! For you, it is always [just] the meagerest necessities of life, for the employer, [it is] always everything produced by labor above and beyond this.
But when there is major progress in productivity (in the profitability of labor) and when, at the same time, many industrial products drop down to the lowest price level, it can happen that, on account of these cheap prices, you initially derive an indirect advantage from the increased profitability of labor, not as producers but certainly as consumers. This advantage does not affect you at all in your capacity as producers; it also does not affect or change your falling share of the quotient of labor’s output. It only affects your situation as consumers, just as it also improves the employers' situation as consumers and also – and, indeed, to a far greater extent than yours – the situation of all of those who are consumers, but do not even participate in work.
And this advantage that affects you merely as human beings, not as workers, also disappears once again on account of that iron and cruel law that, over the long run, repeatedly depresses the working wage to a subsistence level.
Now, when this kind of increased productivity of labor (and the extreme cheapness of certain products that results) occurs quite suddenly, and when this also coincides with a longer period in which there is a growing demand for working hands, then these newly reduced products might get absorbed into that which is customarily deemed necessary for a subsistence level existence.
But the fact that workers and the working wage always hover on the edge of that which, according to the requirements of every era, is necessary for basic subsistence, now a little above, now a little below – this never changes!
[ . . . ]
* The “Workers’ Program” – original footnote.
Source: Ferdinand Lassalle, “Offenes Antwortschreiben,” in Gesammelte Reden und Schriften [“Open Letter” in Collected Speeches and Writings], ed. Eduard Bernstein. Berlin: P. Cassirer, 1919-20, vol. 3, pp. 58-62.
Translation: Jeremiah Riemer